Taking the Political Pulse

Ever since Donald Trump was elected way back on Nov. 9, the influx of news has been frustratingly constant, and much of it negative. With such an intimidating glut of information, allegations, speculation, and commentary flooding our news feeds, television sets, and minds, how do we: a) keep up with it all, and b) develop some quality perspective?

Sometimes speaking with an individual that has a slightly better handle on Washington can really help. That’s why BTRtoday sat down with Dr. Steve Billet, Chief of Staff of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, about some of the biggest stories in national politics over the past week.

BTRtoday (BTR): A big story that’s emerged this week involves former Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice and her allegedly requesting the unmasking of certain officials within the Trump campaign. What are your thoughts on the situation?

Dr. Steve Billet (SB): One of the things we know about this, from the intelligence community (IC) in particular, is that this was a routine request on her part and that the IC thought it was pretty normal for someone in her position to request unmasking under these circumstances. This isn’t a big deal, but of course the Trump administration wants to make a big deal of it to divert attention from some of their other big issues—in this instance, the possible complicity of the Trump campaign with the Russian government.

BTR: As you mentioned, this seems to be something generally routine or benign being blown out of proportion for partisan purposes. Is this something we can expect to see more of?

SB: It will be endless. We’ve seen this from the very beginning—this is the Donald Trump modus operandi. When he gets uncomfortable in a situation, when it looks as though he’s on the defensive, he tries to turn the tables. He finds some issue to turn on his opposition so that he can divert attention and shift the conversation. And quite frankly, as President of the United States, he has that power. We pay attention to everything he says and does. Could you ever possibly imagine that we would have a person in the office of the presidency who has people sitting around at six o’clock on a Saturday morning waiting for his latest tweet?

That’s where we’re at right now. He’s in a position where he can dominate the media arena, and he does just that. It’s part of the deal; we’re stuck with with him in the White House, and part of this phenomenon is where we’re obsessed with everything he does.

BTR: Speaking of continuing, the whole Russia controversy has permeated American politics and shown no signs of disappearing. Back in the 1970s, the Watergate scandal took well over a year to resolve with various reporting and leaks. Would you say we’re in for another year of investigations and speculation surrounding this potential connection between the Trump campaign and the Russian government?

SB: Probably more than a year of that, in my estimation. Obviously, there is some resistance from the House Intelligence Committee (HIC) in moving forward in an expeditious manner—I think that’s the kindest way of characterizing the attitude of HIC Chair Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA). He certainly isn’t a fan of an open process at this point. Who knows what we’ll see on the Senate side, as Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) is taking a more objective approach to this. But we continue to see people like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) call for an independent commission or some other bipartisan group that would address these issues.

But I think we really haven’t begun to get at some of these deeper issues. The interesting thing that happened last week, and your drawing on the Watergate example is important, was when Michael Flynn started to ask for immunity from prosecution. I said at the time that it represents a threshold when people involved in the administration start asking for immunity, and there’s no doubt that Flynn has a good deal to be concerned about based on his failure to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act and to otherwise reveal his activity with all these foreign powers, including the Russians, at a time when he was operating as an advisor to the Trump administration.

I think we reached that threshold last week, and who knows where it’s going to lead. But every other day something new and different pops up, and seemingly every time a story comes out, the administration looks worse.

BTR: Another big story coming out of Washington this week surrounds Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch, who Republicans have vowed to confirm by next Monday even if it means changing the rules to do so. Given the amount of partisanship in Congress, do you expect this type of contention surrounding federal (and perhaps even lower) court nominees going forward?

SB: I think this is pretty much predictable under the circumstances. With Congress becoming more and more polarized, the odds of this happening on an issue where Republicans and Democrats line up in opposition are extremely high. Especially when it comes to Supreme Court nominations and other court nominations—these have become extremely contentious, highly emotional issues for both sides of the aisle. Now the Republicans are threatening to use the so-called “nuclear” option and do away with the 60-vote threshold to stop the filibuster which the Democrats are now committed too. So we’re in a situation where the Senate is having to come to grips with a more polarized situation.

The next big threshold is whether they’ll threaten to eliminate the use of the filibuster on legislative actions—that’s the one area where we haven’t seen an inclination on the part of the majority party to do away with it, but that’s the next big thing.

The bigger question for the Democrats, if they ever find themselves back in the majority of the Senate, is what they’re going to do in the long run with a judiciary that–over the course of the next four years or so–is more and more likely to be dominated by conservatives who will operate contrary to Democratic Party values. That’s a bigger question.

BTR: And finally, last week President Trump signed legislation that says his administration will no longer disclose troop deployments in Iraq or Syria. This is something Trump mentioned on the campaign trail, albeit in a more unpolished manner, in terms of not letting our enemy know how we’re operating. Still, the news has been met with a bit of shock. What are your thoughts on this piece of legislation and the administration’s position here?

SB: Well, there’s no commitment from this administration to transparency, or at least fundamental transparency, and I think we’ll continue to see this sort of thing. This is the guy that wouldn’t show us his tax returns—do you think he would take other opportunities to engage in transparency? Of course not. So, not a big surprise at all.