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A logo sign outside of a facility occupied by Aetna, Inc., in Blue Bell, Penn., on June 28, 2015. (Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar/AP)

Another Republican anti-Obamacare argument runs into trouble

01/24/17 05:04PM

As recently as April 2016, Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini sounded quite positive about the insurer's participation in exchange marketplaces, describing them as a "good investment" in a call with investors. A month later, he again said Aetna planned to participate in the Affordable Care Act's exchanges.

In August, however, everything changed. Aetna, one of the nation's largest private insurers, surprised many by announcing that it was losing money through "Obamacare" plans and would therefore scale back its role considerably.

Republicans, naturally, pounced on the news, pointing to Aetna's announcement as powerful evidence of a failing ACA. As we discussed at the time, there was a lingering question about whether the insurance company was telling the whole story: the Obama administration was standing in the way of Aetna's proposed merger with Humana, which didn't make Aetna at all happy.

Was it possible the insurer was getting some election-year payback? Or was this some kind of leverage play, in which Aetna would participate more broadly if the administration played ball with the company's merger plans, using the exchanges as a bargaining chip?

Plenty of people thought this was conspiratorial thinking. It now appears they were mistaken.
America's second-largest health insurance company stopped offering coverage to hundreds of thousands of people as part of a legal strategy to avoid government scrutiny of a planned merger, a federal judge said in a ruling today. [...]

The health insurance giant said it exited the exchanges purely for business reasons, having lost a total of $420 million due to plans sold through the marketplaces. But in a ruling blocking its merger with Humana today, DC District Court judge John Bates said it was also done as a legal maneuver.
Republicans who used this as a talking point last year should probably take a moment to realize they fell for a bogus claim.
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President-elect Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump arrive to the "Make America Great Again Welcome Concert" at the Lincoln Memorial, Jan. 19, 2017, in Washington. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

Trump's 'National Day of Patriotic Devotion' raises eyebrows

01/24/17 04:32PM

For decades, new presidents have routinely issued proclamations to coincide with their inaugurations. As USA Today noted, George H.W. Bush, for example, proclaimed a "National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving" soon after he took the oath of office in 1989.

In subsequent inaugural years, Bill Clinton declared a "National Day of Fellowship and Hope" in 1993 and a "National Day of Hope and Renewal" in 1997; George W. Bush, echoing his father, declared a "National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving" in 2001; and President Obama declared a "National Day of Reconciliation and Renewal" in 2009 and the "National Day of Hope and Resolve" in 2013.

As the Washington Post noted, Donald Trump went in a slightly different direction.
President Trump has officially declared the day of his inauguration a national day of patriotism.... On Monday, the paperwork was filed with the federal government declaring officially that Jan. 20, 2017 -- the day of Trump's inauguration -- would officially be known as the "National Day of Patriotic Devotion."

"Now, therefore, I, Donald J. Trump, president of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim Jan. 20, 2017, as National Day of Patriotic Devotion, in order to strengthen our bonds to each other and to our country -- and to renew the duties of government to the people," the order says.
The timing of this was a little off: On Jan. 23, the new president issued a proclamation retroactively declaring Jan. 20 a "National Day of Patriotic Devotion."

But even putting that aside, the specific phrase adopted by the Trump White House was a curious phrase. The Atlantic had a good piece on this noting that "patriotic devotion" sounds "vaguely compulsory."
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Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump visits McLanahan Corporation headquarters, Aug. 12, 2016, in Hollidaysburg, Pa. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Reuters)

Trump struggles badly to pass a test of presidential maturity

01/24/17 12:52PM

As Donald Trump settles into his new presidential duties, people close to him are offering insights into how he's making the transition into one of the world's most difficult jobs. Politico, for example, had this unnerving report.
One person who frequently talks to Trump said aides have to push back privately against his worst impulses in the White House, like the news conference idea, and have to control information that may infuriate him. He gets bored and likes to watch TV, this person said, so it is important to minimize that.

This person said that a number of people close to him don't like saying no -- but that it has to be done.

"You can't do it in front of everyone," this person said. "He's never going to admit he's wrong in front of everyone. You have to pull him aside and tell him why he's wrong, and then you can get him to go along with you. These people don't know how to get him to do what they need him to do."
This is, by the way, a Trump ally, describing the new president as if he hasn't quite reached preadolescence. As the story goes, he's surrounded by aides who effectively serve as babysitters, distracting Trump to help him steer clear of trouble.

An Axios report added this morning, "[T]he notion he will surrender the remote, or Twitter, or his grievances with reporters is pure fantasy. Aides talk of giving him 'better choices' or jamming his schedule with meetings to keep him away from reading about or watching himself on TV. "

But like some preadolescents, Trump also has intemperate tendencies and mood swings. The New York Times reported over the weekend that the new president "grew increasingly angry on Inauguration Day after reading a series of Twitter messages pointing out that the size of his inaugural crowd did not rival that of Mr. Obama's in 2009. But he spent his Friday night in a whirlwind of celebration and affirmation. When he awoke on Saturday morning, after his first night in the Executive Mansion, the glow was gone, several people close to him said, and the new president was filled anew with a sense of injury."
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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.24.17

01/24/17 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.

* It's technically not a State of the Union address, but Donald Trump's first presidential address to a joint session of Congress is now scheduled for Feb. 28.

* Kellyanne Conway, a senior member of Trump's White House team, is blaming news organizations for threats she's received. "Because of what the press is doing now to me, I have Secret Service protection," she complained last night.

* Speaking of Conway, the White House counselor said the other day she believes "it's really time for [the new president] to put in his own security and intelligence community." I'm not entirely sure what that means.

* Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez's bid to become the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee got a bit of a boost yesterday when the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus announced its support for his candidacy.

* With increasing frequency, senior members of the president's White House team speak about the future as if Trump's re-election is already assured.

* During a meeting with business leaders yesterday, Trump claimed, "I'm a very big person when it comes to the environment. I have received awards on the environment." Actually, he hasn't.

* In Massachusetts, the latest WBUR poll found Gov. Charlie Baker (R) with even stronger statewide support than Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D).
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Image: Tom Price

Trump's HHS nominee faces fresh controversies ahead of hearing

01/24/17 11:20AM

NYU Professor Paul Light, who has worked on Capitol Hill as an adviser on presidential transitions, told the New York Times the other day that standards for cabinet nominees have clearly changed -- and not necessarily for the better.

"There doesn't seem to be any controversy about things that used to be controversial," Light lamented. "We've lowered the bar in terms of offenses that would have taken out nominees."

With Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), we're finding out just how low that bar can go.

The moment the far-right congressman was nominated to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Price was already controversial. As regular readers know, The Georgia Republican has a radical approach to health policy; he’s associated with fringe elements; and he’s been a staunch critic of evidence-based policymaking.

But complicating matters are a series of new controversies.The Wall Street Journal recently reported, for example, that Price “traded more than $300,000 in shares of health-related companies over the past four years while sponsoring and advocating legislation that potentially could affect those companies’ stocks.” Kaiser Health New added soon after that Price got “a sweetheart deal” on an investment opportunity from a foreign biotech firm. CNN then reported that the congressman bought stock in a medical company, introduced legislation that would benefit that company, and then received a campaign contribution from the company's PAC.

This morning, CNN moved the ball forward a little more:
On the eve of Price's second confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, Senate Finance Committee staff released a bipartisan memo to lawmakers disclosing several red flags that were raised in the course of reviewing the congressman's tax returns and financial disclosure statements.

The accusations include Price's alleged failure to disclose late tax payments on rental properties; undervaluing stocks he owns in a pharmaceutical company both to the committee and in his financial disclosure forms; and failure to disclose to the committee that he was previously investigated by an ethics panel for fundraising activities.
This report coincides with a new Wall Street Journal piece that reported, "Three months after investing in four companies with manufacturing plants in Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump's pick for Health and Human Services secretary introduced legislation that would directly benefit those companies."
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Steve Bannon, appointed chief strategist and senior counselor to President-elect Donald Trump, arrives for the Presidential Inauguration of Trump at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Saul Loeb/Getty Images)

The 'Breitbart-ization' of Trump World continues

01/24/17 10:42AM

When then-candidate Donald Trump brought on Steve Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart News, to help guide his campaign's message, it marked a turning point in the president's political trajectory. Breitbart earned a reputation for publishing highly provocative, right-wing content -- routinely causing headaches for the Republican Party's establishment -- and positioning Bannon to help lead the team spoke volumes about Trump's radicalism and embrace of the fringe.

In the months that followed, the political amateur and his supporting staff never looked back. Bannon helped write Trump's convention speech; he took over the role of campaign chairman; he became the new White House's chief strategist after the election; and it was Bannon's voice that came through in Friday's inaugural address.

Now, what was once described as "the Breitbart-ization of Trump's campaign" has led to the Breitbart-ization of Trump's White House. The Washington Post reported yesterday:
When House Speaker Paul D. Ryan's redbrick Georgian revival house in Janesville, Wis., was surrounded last July by women whose children were murdered by undocumented immigrants, conservative writer Julia Hahn published a scathing report and a blurry snapshot of Ryan's departing SUV.

The headline: "Paul Ryan flees grieving moms trying to show him photos of their children killed by his open borders agenda."

Three months later, Hahn wrote a 2,800-word story alleging that Ryan (R-Wis.) was the ringmaster for a "months-long campaign to elect Hillary Clinton." It was just one of a torrent of posts over the past year that cast Ryan as a "globalist" who is cozy with corporations and an enemy of Donald Trump-style populism.
Now, Hahn is joining the White House's staff as an aide to Bannon -- a move, according to the Post's article, that "alarmed and angered" House Speaker Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) allies.

It's easy to understand why. From her Breitbart perch, Hahn not only excoriated congressional GOP leaders, she also slammed the right-wing House Freedom Caucus for not being tough enough when taking on Ryan and the Republican establishment.
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Announcing a new policy, the White House flubs the key details

01/24/17 10:00AM

On his first full weekday as president, Donald Trump moved forward on a variety of executive orders and actions, including a freeze on federal hiring, which wasn't exactly a surprise. The directive states that "no vacant positions existing at noon on January 22, 2017, may be filled and no new positions may be created, except in limited circumstances."

Jobs related to national security are exempt from the policy.

This wouldn't have been especially notable, except for White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's explanation for why Team Trump embraced this change: the move "counters the dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years."

As the Washington Post reported, that doesn't make any sense.
In both raw-number and percentage terms, this is an inaccurate statement. According to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 2.8 million employees on the federal payroll as of December. The number has risen slightly since May 2014, when there were roughly 2.7 million federal employees (part of the reason may be an accelerated pace of hiring in anticipation of a new presidential administration). That represents an increase of about 3 percent.

By contrast, the total civilian workforce, excluding federal employees, grew by about 4.9 percent over the same period.

In raw-number terms, the number of federal employees is nearly the same today (2.8 million) as it was when Barack Obama took office (2.79 million). It is also similar to the number of federal employees at the end of the Clinton administration (2.75 million) and lower than at any time during the Reagan administration (when it peaked at 3.15 million).
Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I put together the above chart, showing the trajectory of the federal workforce since 1939, when the government started keeping track. That spike on the left side of the image points to World War II, and those intermittent spikes appearing every 10 years reflect temporary federal hiring for the Census.

The image is pretty straightforward: there has been no "dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years."
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The disapproval ratings matter just as much as the approval ratings

01/24/17 09:20AM

Several national polls in recent weeks show Donald Trump is the least popular new president since the dawn of modern American polling. A new report from Gallup, released yesterday, reinforces the larger trend: the newly inaugurated Republican is the first president in the pollster's history to enter the White House with an approval rating below 50%.

And Gallup has been doing this for more than seven decades.

Looking closer, we can also examine new presidents' net approval ratings -- approval minus disapproval -- and find that Trump trails each of his modern predecessors by more than 30 percentage points.

But what I found especially notable were the disapproval numbers. From Gallup's report:
President Donald Trump is the first elected president in Gallup's polling history to receive an initial job approval rating below the majority level. He starts his term in office with 45% of Americans approving of the way he is handling his new job, 45% disapproving and 10% yet to form an opinion. Trump now holds the record for the lowest initial job approval rating as well as the highest initial disapproval rating in Gallup surveys dating back to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
To be sure, Trump's 45% approval rating in this poll is higher than any other recent survey, so to this extent, the Gallup report isn't all bad for the new president. But it's that 45% disapproval that sticks out like a sore thumb.

I put together the above chart to help drive the point home. (Gallup's report didn't include Truman's numbers from 1945, but I included the data by way of a FiveThirtyEight analysis.)
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White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivers his first statement in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017.

What Donald Trump's White House considers 'demoralizing'

01/24/17 08:41AM

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer held a bizarre press briefing on Saturday, lambasting journalists for accurately reporting on Donald Trump's presidential inaugural, and declaring without proof, "This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period."

Yesterday, Spicer moved the goal posts a bit, conceding that the new president's in-person audience didn't set a record -- Trump's stated plans to break that record notwithstanding -- but if we count inaugural attendees, add viewers who watched online and on television, and include an international audience, then the total viewership is the most ever.

By all appearances, that claim is also wrong.

But even putting aside the factual details, it's worth appreciating the fact that this was the fourth straight day Trump and his White House team have talked about his inauguration's crowd size -- in a presidency that's only existed for four days.

And with this in mind, a reporter asked during yesterday's White House press briefing why Trump and his aides remain preoccupied with the subject. Spicer's answer was extraordinary, but not in a good way. After rambling a bit about Trump winning states in November he was expected to lose, the press secretary explained:
"We want to have a healthy dialogue, not just with you but the American people because he's fighting for jobs, he's fighting to make this country safer. But when you're constantly getting told that can't be true, we doubt that you can do this, this won't happen, and that's the narrative when you turn on television every single day, it's a little frustrating. [...]

"It's not about one tweet. It's not about one picture. It's about a constant theme. It's about sitting here every time and being told, 'No. well, we don't think he can do that, he'll never accomplish that, he can't win that, it won't be the biggest, it's not gonna be that good. The crowds aren't that big, he's not that successful.' The narrative -- and the default narrative is always negative and it's demoralizing."
In all, Spicer used the word "demoralizing" three times in his answer, and the word "frustrating" five times.

In other words, roughly 72 hours after Trump's inauguration, the pressure, the criticisms, and the media narratives are taking a toll on those working in the West Wing.
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Image: *** BESTPIX *** President-Elect Donald Trump Holds Press Conference In New York

Trump won't let go of one of his most important lies

01/24/17 08:00AM

Three weeks after winning the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump was struggling badly to accept the fact that he received far fewer votes than his opponent. The Republican's discomfort was so intense, he started making up claims that bordered on delusion.

"In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide," Trump said, referring to a landslide that exists only in his imagination, "I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally." He soon after started referring to "the so-called popular vote."

Two months later, the new president still has a tenuous relationship with reality.
At the top of President Donald Trump's agenda for his discussion with congressional leaders Monday night: relitigating the campaign, including saying "illegals" voting deprived him of a victory in the popular vote.

The claim of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 presidential election, which Trump argued in late November, has been widely debunked.

Two sources confirmed to NBC News that Trump spent about the first 10 minutes of his bipartisan meeting with congressional leaders at the White House talking about the campaign and about how 3 million to 5 million "illegals" voted in the election, causing him to lose the popular vote.
The rationale for the president's brazen lying is easy to understand. Americans were given a choice between two major-party candidates; Trump lost by nearly 3 million votes; and he lacks the tools necessary to deal with the implications of the results.

As a result, the president apparently finds it necessary to keep reality at arm's length, because the truth hurts his feelings. It leads him to embrace a comforting, albeit ridiculous, lie -- or to use the Trump White House's preferred parlance, alternative facts.

That said, this is the sort of lie that should give pause to all Americans, including Trump's most ardent Republican followers.
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Launched in 2008, “The Rachel Maddow Show” follows the machinations of policy making in America, from local political activism to international diplomacy. Rachel Maddow looks past the distractions of political theater and stunts and focuses on the legislative proposals and policies that shape American life - as well as the people making and influencing those policies and their ultimate outcome, intended or otherwise.

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