The Slatest
Your News Companion

July 20 2017 2:01 PM

Does Trump Want Assad Gone or No? Today, It Seems Like No.

The thorniest question facing the various international powers involved in the war in Syria is the fate of President Bashar al-Assad. Russia and Iran want him to stay in power. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf states want him gone. The U.S.? It’s complicated.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the Trump administration has suspended the covert CIA program to provide arms and training to Syrian rebels fighting against the Assad regime. Coverage of the decision has understandably emphasized that by doing this, the administration is acceding to a long-held Russian demand. But this move is actually no surprise.


The rebels and regional allies have grumbled for some time that the U.S.—always concerned about weapons falling into the hands of jihadist groups—was stingy with its support. And while it was once conceivable that the rebels could put enough pressure on Assad to force him to step aside, ever since Russia began its air campaign in support of the government in late 2015, it’s been clear that his removal was never going to happen—at least, not without far more support for the rebels than either the Obama or Trump administrations would be willing to give. (In contrast to many of his advisers, Obama was always skeptical about the effectiveness of backing the rebels.)

By the time Obama left office, U.S. efforts had been largely redirected toward the fight against ISIS and support for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces in the country’s north and east. While the SDF is nominally opposed to the Assad regime, it has mostly avoided direct confrontation.

Trump, who during his campaign indicated he was willing to work with the Assad regime and Russia to fight ISIS, was expected to accelerate this trend. But things got more complicated in April when, after a Syrian chemical weapons attack in Idlib, Trump ordered missile strikes on Assad’s air force. That’s when the Trump administration abruptly reversed course, saying that Assad should be forced to give up power. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson even said that “steps are under way” to remove him from power.

But by abandoning the rebels, the U.S. has now given up the one real piece of leverage it had over Assad—and without getting anything in return.

According to the Post, Trump decided to scrap the program a month ago, but the announcement comes after a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at which the two announced a cease-fire plan in Southern Syria. An anonymous U.S. official denied to the Post that ending the CIA program was a condition of the cease-fire deal, but it’s hard to imagine the two are entirely unrelated.

The U.S. still has a long way to go to extract itself from the Syrian quagmire. The formerly U.S.-backed rebels, many of whom reacted in disbelief, having apparently not been warned that their support was being cut off, will look for other patrons, some of whom may be less discriminating than the U.S. about the type of aid provided and whose hands it ends up in. The cutoff of rebel support, which will likely be read in Syria as U.S. capitulation to Assad and Putin, could also increase the appeal of jihadist groups, including those linked to al-Qaida.

That’s not all: As I noted this week, a full-on clash between rebel groups supported by Turkey—who may now get a boost—and the U.S.-supported Kurdish groups that Ankara views as terrorists, seems almost inevitable. Once ISIS is routed, a clash between the Kurds and the Assad regime is also likely. It’s also unclear what’s to become of the somewhat mysterious U.S. Special Forces program training rebels at an outpost in southern Syria. The U.S. launched a strike on pro-Assad forces in May to protect those rebels. That month, it was reported that both CIA and Pentagon-backed fighters would be receiving more U.S. aid in order fend off advances by Iran-backed militias.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of Trump’s most enthusiastic global backers, is opposed to the cease-fire deal with Russia, believing that it will accommodate the Iranian and Hezbollah presence in Syria. The details of the deal are a little murky, so it’s hard to judge to what extent that fear is justified. But there’s no getting around a central contradiction in the Trump administration’s policy: For all that the president has seemingly bought into Saudi Arabia’s worldview and made opposition to Iranian expansionism its defining goal, his willingness to follow Russia’s lead in Syria and enter into a de facto partnership with Assad will only benefit Iran’s agenda. Of course, that’s assuming he’s not still trying to oust Assad. Trump’s intentions here are a little confusing.

July 20 2017 11:02 AM

Trump Asserts in New York Times Interview That Some Health Insurance Costs $1 a Month


Donald Trump conducted an interview with the New York Times on Wednesday in which he said some newsworthy things about Robert Mueller, James Comey, and Russia. Per a transcript of the interview released by the Times, he also made some perplexing comments about health insurance, namely this riff, which is ostensibly about the political difficulty of eliminating protections for individuals with pre-existing conditions:

Pre-existing conditions are a tough deal. Because you are basically saying from the moment the insurance, you’re 21 years old, you start working and you’re paying $12 a year for insurance, and by the time you’re 70, you get a nice plan. Here’s something where you walk up and say, “I want my insurance.” It’s a very tough deal, but it is something that we’re doing a good job of.

Twelve dollars a year! In reality, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that the average U.S. yearly premium for one specific type of middle-of-the-road individual plan offered through Affordable Care Act exchanges in 2016 was $4,583.

Trump made a similar comment in May, though at the time he named the relatively exorbitant price of $15 a month rather than $12 annually.

As others have pointed out, the president seems to be confusing health insurance rates with life insurance rates; life insurance is something you can pay a low rate for when you're young and then reap the benefits from when you're old/dead ("by the time you're 70") without having to pay an insane premium. Of course, 70-year-old Americans in every possible system of American health care—the one that currently exists, the ones that are proposed by Republicans, and the ones that are proposed by Democrats—will be covered by Medicare, not by plans they started to pay into when they were 21. So Trump's explanation of how the system should/could work doesn't make sense even if you give him the benefit of the doubt on the $12 number. Which you shouldn't. Come on!

July 19 2017 10:42 PM

Trump Wouldn’t Have Picked Sessions If He Had Known Sessions Would Recuse Himself on Russia

President Trump took a break from tweeting and not repealing and replacing Obamacare to sit down for an actual interview with the New York Times Wednesday. In the freewheeling exchange the president sounded exasperated at times as he ranted about the treachery of so-called allies and perceived foes alike. Here’s what the president had to say.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions


Trump was particularly critical of one of his earliest supporters, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. It’s a critique and source of frustration the president has articulated before, but Trump went further in his rebuke of Sessions this time:

“Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else,” Mr. Trump said... “Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself, which frankly I think is very unfair to the president,” he added. “How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you.’ It’s extremely unfair — and that’s a mild word — to the president.”

Trump’s timeline, of course, fudges the fact that, on the face of it, there was no reason for Sessions to recuse himself from a Russia investigation that was just warming up before he testified during his confirmation hearings. Sessions’ omission of meetings with the Russian amabassador dragged him into net of the Senate intel investigation, ultimately forcing the former Alabama senator to recuse himself, but none of that took place until the wheels of confirmation were already at full speed.

For the first time, Trump expressed dissatisfaction with his Attorney General for his, at best sloppy, at worst sneaky, answers on his Russian contacts. “Jeff Sessions gave some bad answers,” the president said. “He gave some answers that were simple questions and should have been simple answers, but they weren’t.” For the first time, the White House didn’t paint Sessions’ testimony as Democrats doing semantic somersaults to conjure Russian ghosts—Trump said he should have done better.

Former FBI Director James Comey

Trump seems to have settled on a new line of attack when it comes to Comey and his damning testimony about the former FBI Director's interactions with the president. Here's the gist of the argument: It was Comey who tried to lean on the president—not the other way around—to keep his job by threatening to use the influence of his office to damage the president. Seriously.

Mr. Trump recalled that a little more than two weeks before his inauguration, Mr. Comey and other intelligence officials briefed him at Trump Tower on Russian meddling. Mr. Comey afterward pulled Mr. Trump aside and told him about a dossier that had been assembled by a former British spy filled with salacious allegations against the incoming president, including supposed sexual escapades in Moscow. The F.B.I. has not corroborated the most sensational assertions in the dossier. In the interview, Mr. Trump said he believed Mr. Comey told him about the dossier to implicitly make clear he had something to hold over the president. “In my opinion, he shared it so that I would think he had it out there,” Mr. Trump said. As leverage? “Yeah, I think so,’’ Mr. Trump said. “In retrospect.”

Special Counsel Robert Mueller

Trump did not appear to be disposed to firing Robert Mueller, at the moment, but offered a warning if the investigation delved too deeply into his personal finances.

Mr. Trump said Mr. Mueller was running an office rife with conflicts of interest and warned investigators against delving into matters too far afield from Russia. Mr. Trump never said he would order the Justice Department to fire Mr. Mueller, nor would he outline circumstances under which he might do so. But he left open the possibility as he expressed deep grievance over an investigation that has taken a political toll in the six months since he took office.
Asked if Mr. Mueller’s investigation would cross a red line if it expanded to look at his family’s finances beyond any relationship to Russia, Mr. Trump said, “I would say yes.” He would not say what he would do about it. “I think that’s a violation. Look, this is about Russia.”

Classic Trump: Look, let's stay focused on Russia.

Whether the President, Himself, Is Under Investigation

“I don’t think we’re under investigation,” Trump said. “I’m not under investigation. For what? I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Trump’s Second, Previously Undisclosed Encounter with Putin at the G-20

It was just a dessert, not a meeting, just some cake or something and some idle chatter about the new, great euphemism of this whole Russia escapade—"adoption." Just two world leaders talking about "adoption"; nothing to see here.

“The meal was going toward dessert,” he said. “I went down just to say hello to Melania, and while I was there I said hello to Putin. Really, pleasantries more than anything else. It was not a long conversation, but it was, you know, could be 15 minutes. Just talked about things. Actually, it was very interesting, we talked about adoption.”… Mr. Trump acknowledged that it was “interesting” that adoptions came up since his son, Donald Trump Jr., said that was the topic of a meeting he had with several Russians with ties to the Kremlin during last year’s campaign.

So that’s all the president of the United States had to say on a Wednesday to the paper of record in the country he governs. Good thing he’s not under investigation because if he were, admitting you wanted an Attorney General who could give you cover on the Russia investigation and issuing veiled threats to the special counsel would probably be against the advice of counsel.

July 19 2017 8:39 PM

Sen. John McCain Diagnosed With Aggressive Form of Brain Tumor

Sen. John McCain has been diagnosed with brain cancer, the senator's office confirmed Wednesday. The aggressive form of tumor was discovered after the Republican senator from Arizona underwent surgery at the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix last Friday to remove a blood clot above his left eye. McCain was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a rare form of tumor that is considered the “deadliest type of brain cancer.” The survival rate for the cancer is usually a year or two, with only a small percentage of patients surviving more than five years.

CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta suggested on air Wednesday night, after speaking with McCain’s doctors, that some combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation would likely be required to combat the tumor. “The Senator’s doctors say he is recovering from his surgery ‘amazingly well’ and his underlying health is excellent,” the hospital said in a statement.


Concerns about McCain’s health were raised last month when the 80-year-old appeared confused and somewhat disoriented while questioning former FBI director James Comey at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. Glioblastoma is the same tumor that Joe Biden’s son, Beau Biden, died of two years ago and also took the life of former senator Ted Kennedy in May of 2008.

July 19 2017 7:49 PM

Kushner to Testify Before Senate Panel Next Week, Trump Jr. and Manafort Scheduled to Follow

Top White House adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee Monday, July 24th, in a closed-door hearing, Kushner’s lawyer confirmed Wednesday. The Intel committee, charged with investigating of Russian election meddling that has broadened to include Trump-Russia links, has also scheduled voluntary appearances in a public session next Wednesday for Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort although their appearances are not yet confirmed. Manafort and Trump Jr. have stated previously they would cooperate with the investigation and appear before the committee.

All three Trump advisers were present at the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya arranged explicitly to pass along potentially damaging information about Hillary Clinton gathered by the Russian government as part of its effort to tilt the election towards Trump. The meeting was first publicly known earlier this month when the New York Times reported on the high-level encounter that smacked of collusion. The various investigations began focusing on Trump’s son-in-law months ago, when it was learned that Kushner met with a cast of high-profile Russians during the Trump transition in December, but initially failed to disclose the meetings in his national security clearance form. At the meeting were Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and banker Sergey Gorkov who is the head of the Russian government-owned bank that’s been under U.S.-sanction since July 2014, Vnesheconombank.


This is the closest the now months-long investigation has come to Trump and the first time key members of the campaign and the president’s inner circle will be asked questions under oath. “Earlier this week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate judiciary committee, said that Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller had signed off on the committee's request to interview Manafort and Trump Jr. in public,” according to CNN.

July 19 2017 6:58 PM

Today in Conservative Media: Good News for Charlie Gard


A daily roundup of the biggest stories in right-wing media.

Multiple conservative outlets celebrated the news that the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment allowing Charlie Gard, a British infant with a rare genetic disorder, to live in the United States as a permanent resident. From the Blaze:

Charlie, who suffers from mitochondrial depletion syndrome, a rare genetic disease, has been a patient at the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London since November. The hospital has said that Charlie is terminally ill and is seeking to remove his life support so he can “die with dignity.”
Charlie’s parents — Chris Gard and Connie Yates — have challenged the hospital in court, arguing that their son should be released into their custody so they can bring him to the United States for an experimental treatment. They raised almost $2 million to bring Charlie to the United States.

On Fox & Friends, Wall Street Journal columnist Bill McGurn expanded on a Monday column about the Gard situation.

“Looking at this case, it just seems so monstrous that these parents who have raised the money to have their kid examined by another doctor just told no,” he said. “These parents are up against the whole machinery of the state, of British national healthcare and so forth.”

“There’s been so much done and said surrounding this case, already,” RedState’s Susan Wright wrote, “and it really does give the worst impression of the U.K. court system, as well as the death panels of their government healthcare system. We also can’t know if there’s anything that can be done for little Charlie to prolong his life. We don’t know if this treatment will help. The value, however, is in the trying.”

The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro agreed. “[N]early three weeks ago, I wrote in this space that Congress should move to help Gard by naturalizing him,” he wrote. “It may not help — the British system may be more concerned with forcing Gard’s parents to let the baby ‘die with dignity.’ But good for Congress for at least attempting to change the math here.”

The New York Times’ Ross Douthat tweeted that the Gard case is fundamentally uncomplicated from a conservative perspective.

In other news:

The Federalist and the Blaze resurfaced a June Rolling Stone profile of millionaire and LGBTQ activist Tim Gill in which he stated that gay rights activists should “punish the wicked” in states where conservatives are working to pass religious freedom legislation. “For Gill’s part, however, it seemed clear that the Supreme Court ruling wasn’t enough—he wanted to go hard at those persecuted for their own beliefs, such as those who would refuse to bake cakes for same-sex weddings, or at churches who refused to officiate same-sex ceremonies,” the Blaze’s Sarah Taylor wrote. “During the interview, Gill maintained his position that he will do everything in his power and with his resources to further strike down the personal or religious opposition to same-sex unions until the day he dies.” And Federalist’s Bre Payton:

[A]sking a judge to think twice before demanding that a baker craft a wedding cake for a lesbian couple and stomping all over his freedom of expression is apparently a wicked deed that Gill intends to punish.
Last year, the Gill Foundation set up a group to wrangle corporate support in going after religious freedom proponents in Georgia. Called “Georgia Prospers,” the fake grassroots effort organized protests against a religious freedom restoration act that passed the state legislature. The pressure from the corporate-backed endeavor dissuaded Georgia’s governor from signing the bill—a victory for the wealthy activist.

July 19 2017 5:42 PM

Senate Republicans Don't Even Know What Health Care Bill They'll Be Voting on Anymore

First it was “repeal and replace.” Then it was just “repeal.” Now, the Senate has adopted a clever new strategy: “Vote to proceed on a shell bill and then see what happens.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described the new strategy of voting to proceed on nothing in particular following a GOP senators’ lunch at the White House. After saying that he and the administration were still working the members who were “having some difficulty getting to ‘yes,’” he described “what ‘yes’ is.”


“It’s the motion to proceed,” he said. “So next week will be voting to get on the bill.

“I have every expectation that we’ll be able to get on the bill,” he said.

But… what bill?

Technically, the Senate would be taking up H.R. 1628, or the House-passed American Health Care Act. But that's not either of the plans they've been considering passing. The plan, as of Tuesday, was to amend the House bill with a repeal-only bill, similar to the one Congress passed in 2015 but which President Obama vetoed. But the votes for repeal-only weren't there.

So now President Trump wants everyone to give repeal-and-replace another look. Several senators said that Trump stressed this in today's White House meeting.

“The President was interested in getting a deal,” Sen. Roger Wicker said. To that end, some senators will meet with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma Wednesday night to continue working out their issues, particularly on Medicaid. (Except Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who has plans. Susan Collins is so done with this!)

But it’s unknown if this is what the Senate intends to vote on. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, like McConnell, told reporters that the vote next week would be on the “motion to proceed.” When a reporter asked what they were proceeding on—repeal-and-replace? Repeal only?—Cornyn said that “remains unresolved.”

“We’re kind of going back and forth,” he said. (No kidding!) “But based on the discussions we’ve had today, there’s more optimism that we could vote on a repeal-and-replace bill.”

Crazy as this is, I can see what McConnell is trying to do. He had too many defectors on the motion to proceed for either the Better Care Reconciliation Act or the 2015 repeal-only bill. His only way to "get on the bill," then, is not to commit to either of them, and to persuade his members to vote to proceed to the unknown.

This has its limitations. Senators don’t like to advance mystery bills, or to open debate on something they have no intention of supporting. West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, for instance, reaffirmed after the meeting that she will still vote “no” on proceeding unless there’s a replacement plan that she supports. And a spokesperson for Utah Sen. Mike Lee tells me that they “would want a plan spelled out publicly” before voting to proceed. Keep in mind, too, that senators don’t love the prospect of an open-amendment “vote-a-rama,” which is what this would be if the vote to proceed passes, since Democrats will file all sorts of poison pill amendments to mess with them and manufacture sound bites for attack ads.

Those are some of the reasons why asking senators to get on a mystery bill is an epic Hail Mary. The main one, though, is just that it’s obviously ridiculous to imagine that after all of this, Republicans will finally, in open debate over an unformed blob, come to an agreement.

July 19 2017 5:18 PM

Today's Impeach-O-Meter: The Joke of Calling This a Zombie Health Care Bill Has Been Beaten to Death Like a Zombie

In the tradition of the Clintonometer and the Trump Apocalypse Watch, the Impeach-O-Meter is a wildly subjective and speculative daily estimate of the likelihood that Donald Trump leaves office before his term ends, whether by being impeached (and convicted) or by resigning under threat of same.

Trump invited Republican senators to the White House today and publicly urged them to revive the seemingly dead health care bill.


This doesn't seem like a politically advantageous move; as others have pointed out, it seems likely to have the effect of tying electorally vulnerable GOP legislators and the president himself even closer in the public mind to a bill that will still fail—and that most American voters (correctly) believe would have the effect of making their lives materially worse. This would increase the Republicans' chances of losing their majority and thus increase the chances that a Democratic House would vote to impeach Trump.

But, as the headline to this post indicates, this dang bill has died and come back to life in horrible, terrifying fashion so many times that I am absolutely unwilling to jinx things by making any assumptions about how its possible ultimate failure will or won't impact Trump. The meter stays at fifty-two!


July 19 2017 4:16 PM

Netanyahu Overheard Telling International Buddies What He Really Thinks of the EU

The comments from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that were caught Wednesday by a live microphone in Budapest may not have been phrased exactly as he would have put them for public consumption, but they weren’t totally surprising, either. During a meeting with the leaders of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia that was supposed to be closed to reporters, Netanyahu said that Israel has bombed Iranian arms convoys bound for Hezbollah in Syria “dozens and dozens of times”—something that has been widely reported, though usually not explicitly acknowledged by the Israeli government.

Netanyahu also blasted European governments for requiring progress on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a precondition for closer trade relations. “There is no logic here,” the AP quoted the prime minister as saying. “Europe is undermining its security by undermining Israel. Europe is undermining its progress by undermining the connection with Israeli innovation because of a crazy attempt to create conditions [for peace with the Palestinians].” Netanyahu has decried European countries as being unduly critical of Israel in the past.


Netanyahu also said in his captured remarks that “the European Union is the only association of countries in the world that conditions the relations with Israel,” noting Russia, China, and India’s willingness to do business without bringing up Israel’s domestic politics.

The leaders Netanyahu was meeting with could likely sympathize with his frustrations. The four have bristled at pressure and criticism from Brussels over their reluctance to resettle refugees. Poland has faced criticism from the EU over a series of recent reforms widely seen as consolidating power in the hands of the ruling nationalist Law and Justice Party and undermining the rule of law. The EU has threatened to suspend Poland’s voting rights over a recent move to put courts under government control. The EU has also launched legal action against Hungary’s right-wing government for its attempt to shut down the Budapest-based, George Soros–funded Central European University.

Even before the hot mic incident, Netanyahu’s visit to Hungary was controversial due to the Israeli government’s awkward refusal to denounce an anti-Soros advertising campaign supported by Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Billboards recently posted in Hungary with government support portray the 86-year-old investor and philanthropist as an enemy of the state over his support for immigration and pro-democracy groups and urged Hungarians not “to allow Soros to have the last laugh.” Jewish groups say the campaign is implicitly anti-Semitic, and many of the posters have been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti. (The Jewish, Hungarian-born Soros survived the Holocaust in hiding before immigrating to England after World War II.)

Israel’s ambassador to Hungary initially denounced the campaign, saying it “evokes sad memories” of the suffering of Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust. But the Israeli foreign ministry followed up hours later with a “clarification” that the ambassador’s statement was not “meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments.”

Soros is not a popular figure with Israel’s government due to his Open Society Foundation’s support for a number of groups that have criticized Israeli government policies including Human Rights Watch, the liberal Jewish lobbying group J Street, and the anti-occupation group B’Tselem.

Still, it’s striking that the Israeli government’s first impulse was to defend a campaign with anti-Semitic overtones in a country where a neo-Nazi party won 20 percent of the vote in the latest election. Squelching criticism of Israeli government priorities apparently takes precedence.

July 19 2017 3:06 PM

Travel Ban Dinged Again as SCOTUS Says Trump’s Definition of Family Too Restrictive

The U.S. Supreme Court is making something of an art form of splitting the baby when it comes to President Donald Trump’s endlessly litigated travel ban. On Wednesday afternoon, the court handed down an unsigned, brief order in response to recent efforts by the state of Hawaii to clarify the reach of the White House’s second executive order on immigration. Slicing the salami yet again, the high court gave the Trump administration a qualified win on restrictions on refugees and gave Hawaii a resounding victory on what constitutes “family” for visitors from the six specified majority-Muslim countries.