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Trump Is Now Threatening to Sabotage Millions of Insurance Plans

Mother Jones

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President Donald Trump is now threatening to wipe out health insurance for millions of people in order to make a political statement. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal Wednesday, Trump suggested that unless Democrats agree to his plans to dismantle Obamacare, he might use his executive authority to intentionally trigger a death spiral for the individual insurance markets.

Specifically, Trump threatened to stop making payments to insurance companies to reimburse them for subsidies that help offset the costs of deductibles and copayments for low-income people. Those subsidies are mandated by Obamacare; if the feds stopped reimbursing insurers for this expense, they would likely abandon the individual markets and leave millions without coverage.

The president seemed to acknowledge in the interview that halting the reimbursements would likely result in the healthcare markets collapsing, but he said he might go through with it in order to extract concessions from Democrats. “Obamacare is dead next month if it doesn’t get that money,” Trump told the paper. “I haven’t made my viewpoint clear yet. I don’t want people to get hurt…What I think should happen and will happen is the Democrats will start calling me and negotiating.”

Obamacare includes a host of mechanisms to make buying insurance easier and more affordable for people who don’t receive coverage through their employer and have to buy it on the individual market. The law primarily does this by offering subsidies—varying by income—to offset the costs of premiums for people who earn up to 400 percent of the poverty level. But the law was also designed to provide $7 billion per year in “cost sharing reduction” payments to insurance companies so that people below 250 percent of the poverty line would have lower deductibles and copayments.

These payments were explicitly included in the health care law, but through the convoluted quirks of legislative procedure, Republicans have alleged that Congress technically didn’t “appropriate” money for the program. The Obama administration went ahead and started making the payments anyway, and in 2014 House Republicans sued the White House, saying that the administration shouldn’t be able to spend that money. A federal district judge sided with Republican last year, and the Obama administration appealed.

After Trump’s inauguration, both the White House and Congress sought to stall the lawsuit, asking the courts to give them more time to figure out whether or not Obamacare will be repealed. When the GOP repeal bill failed last month, Trump was faced with a dilemma: He could order the his administration to keep fighting the House’s lawsuit, or he could ditch the appeal and end the reimbursement payments. It sounds like Trump may now be leaning toward the latter. In addition to his Journal interview, Trump reportedly has become active behind-the-scenes, as well. According to Politico, the president called Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and dictated a statement that he wanted the agency to release on the issue.

As Trump himself said, ending the program would be a disaster for Obamacare. It would cause insurance companies to flee the individual markets (which, in some parts of the country, already suffer from a lack of insurance options). And the remaining insurance offerings would jump in price. An analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that premiums for a baseline plan would jump 19 percent if cost sharing disappears.

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Trump Is Now Threatening to Sabotage Millions of Insurance Plans

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Donald Trump Remains Puzzled About West Wing Chaos

Mother Jones

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It’s time for the latest Donald Trump pivot. The Wall Street Journal reports that the crisis in Syria “has sharpened Mr. Trump’s desire to cut some of the drama out of his West Wing.” He’s finally going to get presidential!

President Donald Trump is considering a major shake-up of his senior White House team, a senior administration official said Friday….In recent days, he has talked to confidants about the performance of chief of staff Reince Priebus and has asked for the names of possible replacements….Another top aide who could be removed or reassigned in a shake-up is Steve Bannon, chief strategist, who has been sparring with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and one of his closest advisers.

In fairness, Trump can’t fire himself, but is he really so clueless that he doesn’t realize the infighting springs directly from his own chaotic personality, not from the folks around him? If he provided clear direction on both policy and communications—and stopped tweeting random crap all the time—things would calm down fast.

But he’ll never figure that out.

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Donald Trump Remains Puzzled About West Wing Chaos

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Inflation Finally Starting to Hit Healthy Levels

Mother Jones

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It’s finally happened. The PCE measure of price inflation has breached the 2 percent barrier:

Over at the Wall Street Journal, Eric Morath comments: “That is a healthy signal for the economy, showing excess capacity and high unemployment that long held inflation near historically low levels have finally abated. Firmer inflation could give Fed policy makers leeway to consider additional interest-rate increases this year.”

That’s a refreshing change from the usual reaction of “ZOMG! Inflation is nearing 2 percent!” Nonetheless, like a broken record, I’ll point out that (a) core inflation is still under 2 percent and barely increasing at all, and (b) 2 percent is not a “target.” Not in the sense of something you should never exceed, anyway. It’s a target for average inflation, and the average since the end of the Great Recession has been 1.5 percent. More recently, the average over the past two years has been 0.8 percent. It’s going to be a while before we make up for so many years of too-low inflation.

Of course, it’s also true that the Fed’s target probably should be 3-4 percent, but that’s a post for another day.

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Inflation Finally Starting to Hit Healthy Levels

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The Trump "Dossier" Is Looking More Credible All the Time

Mother Jones

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The BBC’s Paul Wood writes today about the infamous “dossier” that claims a substantial connection between Russian officials and the Trump campaign team:

The BBC has learned that US officials “verified” a key claim in a report about Kremlin involvement in Donald Trump’s election — that a Russian diplomat in Washington was in fact a spy.

….At one point the dossier says: “A leading Russian diplomat, Mikhail KULAGIN, had been withdrawn from Washington at short notice because Moscow feared his heavy involvement in the US presidential election operation… would be exposed in the media there.”…Sources I know and trust have told me the US government identified Kalugin as a spy while he was still at the embassy.

….I understand — from former officials — that from 2013-16, Steele gave the US government extensive information on Russia and Ukraine….One former senior official who saw these reports told me: “It was found to be of value by the people whose job it was to look at Russia every day”….Another who dealt with this material in government said: “Sometimes he would get spun by somebody. But it was always 80% there.”…In light of his earlier work, the US intelligence community saw him as “credible” (their highest praise).

….Members of the Obama administration believe, based on analysis they saw from the intelligence community, that the information exchange claimed by Steele continued into the election.

“This is a three-headed operation,” said one former official, setting out the case, based on the intelligence: Firstly, hackers steal damaging emails from senior Democrats. Secondly, the stories based on this hacked information appear on Twitter and Facebook, posted by thousands of automated “bots”, then on Russia’s English-language outlets, RT and Sputnik, then right-wing US “news” sites such as Infowars and Breitbart, then Fox and the mainstream media. Thirdly, Russia downloads the online voter rolls.

The voter rolls are said to fit into this because of “microtargeting”. Using email, Facebook and Twitter, political advertising can be tailored very precisely: individual messaging for individual voters….This would take co-operation with the Trump campaign, it is claimed.

Hmmm. Thousands of bots? Apparently so:

On Wednesday the Washington Post published a story about “Source D” in the dossier:

In June, a Belarusan American businessman who goes by the name Sergei Millian shared some tantalizing claims about Donald Trump….The allegations by Millian — whose role was first reported by the Wall Street Journal and has been confirmed by The Washington Post — were central to the dossier compiled by the former spy, Christopher Steele. While the dossier has not been verified and its claims have been denied by Trump, Steele’s document said that Millian’s assertions had been corroborated by other sources, including in the Russian government and former intelligence sources.

The most explosive allegation that the dossier says originally came from Millian is the claim that Trump had hired prostitutes at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton and that the Kremlin has kept evidence of the encounter.

Nobody knows for sure if Millian is genuinely plugged in at high levels, or if he’s just a fast-talking huckster. But put all this together and it’s easy to see why the Trump-Russia story won’t go away. The FBI believes Steele to be credible. In the cases where it’s been possible to check out the allegations in the dossier, they’ve turned out to be true. Other intelligence corroborates much of the alleged Russian activity. And Millian’s claims are genuinely explosive.

This isn’t going away anytime soon.

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The Trump "Dossier" Is Looking More Credible All the Time

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In Face of Corn Boycott, Trump Decides NAFTA Not So Bad After All

Mother Jones

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Mexico is threatening to use the power of corn to fight Donald Trump’s tough talk on trade:

As President Trump threatens Mexico with drastic changes on trade, its leaders are wielding corn as a weapon. Mexico’s Senate is considering legislation calling for a boycott of U.S. corn, and the government has begun negotiating with Argentina and Brazil to import corn from those nations tax-free. The threat of a boycott is Mexico’s latest and perhaps cleverest attempt to fight back against Trump, whose threats to pull out of free trade agreements and slap a 20% import tax on Mexican products have shaken confidence in Mexico’s economy.

And apparently it’s working:

The Trump administration is signaling to Congress it would seek mostly modest changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement in upcoming negotiations with Mexico and Canada, a deal President Donald Trump called a “disaster” during the campaign.

….The draft, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, talks of seeking “to improve procedures to resolve disputes,” rather than eliminating the panels. The U.S. also wouldn’t use the Nafta negotiations to deal with disputes over foreign currency policies or to hit numerical targets for bilateral trade deficits, as some trade hawks have been urging.

….Jeffrey Schott, a trade scholar at the Peterson Institute for International Economics…noted that a number of the proposed negotiating objectives echo provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact among Pacific Rim countries. Mr. Trump campaigned heavily against the TPP.

Do not underestimate the power of corn! Alternatively, maybe corn has nothing to do with it. Maybe Trump was just blathering all along and never really had any intention of getting tough with Mexico. In the end, he’ll build a few more miles of fencing, make a few modest changes to NAFTA, and then call it the greatest boon to the working man since the Wagner Act. I’ve also read a few pieces recently about China, and apparently all those Goldman Sachs folks he hired have talked Trump into backing down on a trade war there too. I guess Goldman Sachs has to be good for something.

Anyway, having given up on Mexico and China, now Trump is going after the ultra-conservatives of the House Freedom Caucus:

I’ll bet they’re scared shitless. Trump is demonstrating that his talk may be big, but he can’t make it stick. In his first two months, he’s failed on his immigration order and his health care plan, has no chance of building his wall, and has backed down on Mexico and China. His bark is unquestionably worse than his bite.

The health care bill would have flamed out in the Senate anyway. The HFC did everyone a favor by getting it off the agenda quickly so Congress could move on to important matters like cutting taxes for the rich.

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In Face of Corn Boycott, Trump Decides NAFTA Not So Bad After All

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