Capitol View Commentary: Friday, August 18, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Seigenthaler Public Relations, a Finn Partners company

August 18, 2017

YOU MIGHT THINK HE’D KNOW BETTER BUT THIS PRESIDENT IS DOING EXACTLY WHAT HE WANTS; THE NEWS CONFERENCE THAT WENT OFF THE RAILS; SENATOR CORKER SPEAKS OUT; CONGRESSMAN COHEN; MEANWHILE BACK AT THE STATE CAPITOL; INSIDE POLITICS LOOKS FOR PERSPECTIVE; ON THE TRAIL;

YOU MIGHT THINK HE’D KNOW BETTER BUT THE PRESIDENT IS DOING EXACTLY WHAT HE WANTS

For someone who is such a frequent and voracious consumer of the news media (he even watches and reads a lot what he calls the” fake news” ones), President Donald Trump should have known better. When the horrible, domestic terrorist incident occurred last Saturday where a Neo-Nazi, white supremacist ran his car into counter protestors in Charlottesville, VA, killing one person and injuring 19 others, Mr. Trump should have known every word he said would be closely observed.

The President, dating back to his campaign has become something of a hero of the al-right, Neo-Nazi, white supremacist crowd and, somewhat like his comments regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Trump has been reluctant to be directly critical of the groups. In turn, what he has said, has been interpreted by some on right wing web sites as dog whistles of support.

So despite indications that he ignored staff advice to specifically denounce, by name, the hate groups involved in the original demonstration, who marched armed through Charlottesville, the President on ythe day of the terror attack (Saturday) adlibbed the words “of many kinds” in his general denunciation of the violence, making it appear other groups present such as the counter protestors played a role in what led to the terrorist act.

This was too much even for some Republicans who criticized Mr. Trump for failing to be more specific in his first Charlottesville statement. But a second statement from the White House on Sunday, including references to the Ku Klux Klan, White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis did little to stop the backlash, especially since the words in the second statement did not come directly from the President, and the statement was not even attributed to a specific Trump staffer. It was just more amateur hour communications stuff.

Finally on Monday, the President, under more urging from his staff, did deliver a teleprompter statement that he read to reporters. It did contain the specific group denunciations that most politicians had articulated on Saturday. But by then, it’ was hard to re-make a first impression on something like this. The third statement possibly did temporarily stop more criticisms.

But not for long. Damage was done.

The President likely didn’t help matters much by his swift criticism Monday of at least one of the business CEOs (the African-American CEO of Merck) who began a cascade of exits from two of the President’s advisory boards. The size of the defections got to the point the President had to disband the groups while they had some members left. He also dismantled a third advisory group on infrastructure even before it was named or met. All together at least 11 top business leaders decided they had had enough of Mr. Trump.

I guess the President’s I-Phone must have been lost or his Twitter feed disconnected last weekend as he posted nothing about the Virginia incident on there. It sure was strange for someone who has rarely been at a loss for words on social media (and posted quickly concerning the tragic Spanish terrorist attacks at the end of the week).

The President did get active on Twitter Wednesday morning, retweeting an article from an alt-right conspiracy theorist and a cartoon showing someone labeled CNN being run over by the Trump Train. By the way, remember it was vehicular homicide that caused of the tragic loss of life and the injuries in Charlottesville. Some of Mr. Trump’s retweet were later removed. There was also a tweet from the President that indicated he is considering a pardon for a controversial sheriff who is a popular figure among the alt-right and anti-immigration activists. The sheriff has been convicted on contempt of court charges.

At first it was unclear what the re-tweets meant in terms of strategy. But then everyone learned including his top staff, that the tweets were the beginning of a complete backtrack by the President of his Monday morning statement.

THE NEWS CONFERENCE THAT WENT OFF THE RAILS

In what became the fourth statement in four days made by Mr. Trump or the White House on this controversy, the President (at a news conference that was supposed to be about infrastructure) forcefully went instead back to his original position about Charlottesville: That there was violence and therefore blame on both sides in what happened. His seeming defense of Neo-Nazis, the KKK and White Nationalist groups touched off an even greater backlash of criticism by his opponents and leaders in the Republican Party.

SENATOR CORKER SPEAKS OUT

The most prominent elected official in Tennessee to speak out was Senator Bob Corker (although it was about 48 hours later and after he declined saying anything at first). When he finally spoke, the Senator offered sharp criticism of the President’s lack of competency and the temperament to be President. The remarks went well beyond any previous negative comments Mr. Corker has made about this President and also went well beyond a reaction to Mr. Trump’s Charlottesville comments. Read more by clicking here.

With Senator Corker’s seat up for election next year, there is some political risk here for him, especially with Tennessee being considered a strong Trump state. Corker has filed the necessary papers to run, but he has not said anything publicly to make his r-election candidacy official. The Senator’s latest comments could again raise questions about whether he will actually run in 2018 (I still think he will) and if a strong pro-Trump conservative might mount a primary challenge against him.

Corker’s critical comments of the President are among the strongest of any other GOP Senator, rivaled only by those of Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Marco Rubio. Will other Republican Senators now echo Mr. Corker, in particular his Tennessee colleague Lamar Alexander? As of this writing on Friday

afternoon, no one has. Senator Corker is still somewhat “first over the wall” on this. Will that make him subject to a Presidential tweet storm in the near future?

Senator Corker’s charge that the nation faces “great peril without radical change in the White House” is particularly interesting. Will the long-rumored firing today (Friday) of top advisor (and alt-right nationalist) Steve Bannon,) be enough? This administration has already seen a record amount of turnover (“radical change”) in the top White House staff in just its first seven months. Is more still to come and what will be the backlash to his dismissal among Bannon supporters and from his former on-line media outline, Breitbart? Click here to read more.

Maybe Mr. Corker in his statement also means the President has to change personally in his temperament, and in displaying more of the competency needed to handle his job. This is not a President who so far admits mistakes or shortcomings. So any change he makes in that area would truly be “radical.” But, I’d also say good luck on that happening.

Other leading Republicans including both President Bushes and the 2008 and 2012 GOP presidential nominees Senator John McCain and Mitt Romney made statements that were at least indirectly critical of the President. . Meanwhile, KKK leader David Duke thanked the President for his comments while another alt-right leader said on line that the President’s remarks were a victory for his groups.

Even among the critical comments aimed at the President, a number by GOP leaders did not do so by mentioning the President by name. All of them did contain strong statements that there is no room in this nation for the KKK, Nazis, and other hate groups.

But perhaps significantly, four of these no-name mentioned criticisms were issued by those heading up the four branches of our Armed Forces. No insubordination for sure, but perhaps a strong indication that on this matter, the President does not speak for these military leaders.

CONGRESSMAN COHEN

Another Tennessee official waded deeper into the Trump controversy this week. Memphis Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen has introduced articles of impeachment against the President based on his Charlottesville comments. Cohen is a ranking member on one of the sub-committees of the House Judiciary Committee. That is where impeachment efforts must begin in the Congress.

Remember it’s a GOP-led House. So I seriously doubt this effort has much chance go anywhere. I am also not sure how the President’s comments, while anathema to many, reach the level of an impeachable offense. However I would add an impeachable offense is really what Congress says it is and not necessarily “high crimes and misdemeanors” as mentioned in the Constitution.

Representative Cohen also supports legislation to censure or vote no confidence in the President. That might garner more overall support on the Hill, but again for anything like that to pass it will have to be Republican-led. They have the majorities in both Houses and control the order of business and legislation to be considered.

So what does it all mean? The President has finally stated what he truly believes on Charlottesville and its related controversies. Despite the ensuing firestorm of controversy, I am sure he is quite happy with where he is politically.

Donald Trump loves to drive his opponents crazy, to the point of distraction. With his multiple statements and reverses on the issue (to the point of verbal whiplash), he has clearly succeeded one more time.

Donald Trump loves his base (which clearly includes the alt-right and other hate groups). After some unhappiness, he has again delighted his supporters. And while those numbers among the electorate overall may be shrinking, if you believe the latest polls, that’s all fake news to the President So I am sure Mr. Trump is quite pleased with where he is politically, especially since the polls also show a majority of the overall Republican Party base are still in his corner.

I am sure you will read and hear more stories about how the past several days have been the President’s worst week yet in office. I’d say there is way too much competition to pick just one, and don’t forget how many times he’s been counted out as finished (the All-Access sex tape for example) but has survived.

But I would say after this past week, especially with Senator Corker’s comments as a reflection of the growing lack of trust in Congress for this President, Mr. Trump should keep looking over his shoulder.

MEANWHILE BACK AT THE STATE CAPITOL

The original Charlottesville demonstration was to oppose the dismantling of a Civil War Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee. Not surprisingly, what happened last weekend has sparked a new round of efforts to remove these symbols across the country, including here in Tennessee.

That includes the bust of controversial Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, which has been on display since the 1970s on the second floor of the State Capitol between the Senate and House Chambers.

There were similar calls to remove the bust just two years ago following the hate crime massacre in Charleston, S.C. at an historic African American church. At the time those supporting a change included Governor Bill Haslam and U.S. Senator Bob Corker. Both of those elected officials plus now Senator Lamar Alexander have stated their opinion that General Forrest should not be among those honored in the Capitol. But they don’t make that decision. And any effort to remove the bust faces an even tougher task than in 2015.

That’s because the Republican Super Majority in the General Assembly changed the law to require either approval of both houses of the Legislature to remove any historic monument on state grounds or a 2/3 vote of the Tennessee Historical Commission. It had required only a majority vote of the Commission before the 2015 legislation.

INSIDE POLITICS LOOKS FOR PERSPECTIVE

In the wake of what happened last weekend with the violence and death in Charlottesville, VA, this country has had another difficult week dealing with race relations as well the role in American history of the Civil War and the new rise of the KKK and the White Supremacy and Neo-Nazi movements in America.

To help us bring some perspective and insight to these issues, we welcome Nashville historian Bill Carey and State Representative Harold Love, Jr. to INSIDE POLITICS.

INSIDE POLITICS airs several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Those times include 7:00 p.m. Friday; 5:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday; along with 1:30 a.m. & 5:00 a.m. on Sunday.

THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 182 and on NEWSCHANNEL5’s over-the-air digital channel 5.2.

One option for those who can’t see the show locally or who are out of town, you can watch it live with streaming video on NEWSCHANNEL5.com. Just use your TiVo or DVR, if those live times don't work for you.

This week’s show and previous INSIDE POLITIICS interviews are also posted on NEWSCHANNEL5’s website for your viewing. The most current show will be added next week

ON THE TRAIL

It’s been another week of interesting developments on the GOP gubernatorial campaign trail, although not surprisingly in a strong Trump state, not one of the five major candidates endorsed the idea of moving the General Forrest bust out of the Capitol . The two Democrats did, saying it ought to go to a museum setting.

Two former GOP political heavyweights did join sides in the primary race. Former Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey and former Congressman Stephen Fincher have been named co-chairs of Congressman Diane Black’s campaign.

It’s always hard to discern just how significant appointments to these honorary posts will be, but both men seemed fired up to help Black.

Quoting Ramsey in an article from the KINGSPORT TIMES FREE PRESS:

“I’ve known Diane for almost 20 years. … I’ve always admired her, her tenacity, her backbone, her conservative philosophy. I knew her in the (state) House. She was one of those in 2002, when the leader wouldn’t do it, who ran against (former state House Speaker) Jimmy Naifeh. She lost of course, but it was symbolic.”

Ramsey also believes Black’s time in the GOP majority in the U.S. House (and the failure of Congress to pass much significant legislation so far) won’t be a determent to her campaign. Quoting again from the KINGSPORT paper:

“Ramsey agreed Black’s opponents may very well attempt to paint her as a member of a dysfunctional Republican majority Congress.

“I would think that is the case. She’s been in Washington now for seven years (Black chairs the House Budget Committee),” Ramsey noted. “I think she will turn that around. She is the first female budget chair, and they’ve actually moved a budget out of their committee for the first time in a long time. She’s got something done there. … I think she will be able to defend against that all day long.”

But THE HILL publication is continuing to raise questions. Their reporters speculate about how Congressman Black’s running for governor is creating uncertainty, not only approval of a new budget but a tax reform plan to go with it (two major GOP objectives for this year). Here’s the link. You can also hear the podcast attached for even more details and speculation.

Coming back to Tennessee, Congressman Fincher, who retired from Congress earlier this year after serving just a couple of terms, seems eager to get back out on the stump. Quoting from a Black campaign news release:

“I can’t wait to get on the road and be a strong voice for Diane’s conservative message,” said Fincher. “From the very moment she told me she was running – I said Yes! Run for Governor. Tennessee needs your ideas, experience and solutions to the challenging issues facing Tennessee.”

“In Diane, we have a conservative Tennessee leader who knows how to fight and win. Time and time again she fights for what’s right. Pro-life, lower taxes, against sanctuary cities. She’s a formidable leader with humble beginnings who doesn’t back down. We need Diane Black as our next Governor. There is too much at stake in the future of Tennessee to do otherwise.”

Geographically, Ramsey and Fincher bring some diversity to the Black campaign whose political base is in Middle Tennessee. Ramsey is from the Tri-Cities area in Upper East Tennessee and Fincher from Frog Jump in rural West Tennessee. Power also abhors a vacuum and it will be interesting to see how well the former Senate Speaker and former U.S. House member can motivate and activate their base votes for Black the way they did for themselves when they were still in office.

Meanwhile another GOP gubernatorial candidate, Franklin businessman Bill Lee spoke out in favor of school choice for parents and students in Tennessee, including vouchers. In an Associated Press story based on a Facebook interview Lee conducted with the Beacon Center think tank and conservative advocacy group, the candidate said:

“Parents need choices and they need options,” said Lee. “So I would be a strong advocate for school choice in every area of the state.”

Lee said his own children were homeschooled and attended both private and public schools.

“Those decisions are best made at home,” said Lee, the chairman of a family-owned construction and home services company.”

Lee then went even further saying it’s time to outlaw lobbyist-paid-for receptions for lawmakers on the Hill. Again quoting from the AP article…

“… Justin Owen, Beacon Center’s president, asked Lee whether he would seek to “rein in” lobbying against school voucher bills by taxpayer-funded entities, which in the past have included city and county governments; public school districts and administrators; and the state department of education.

“Every time we go up to the Legislature to push for this, we hit taxpayer-funded lobbyists,” Owen said.

Lee responded that more people would be opposed to the issue if they were aware of it.

“If taxpayers understood that their dollars were being used to lobby and entertain – we all know about receptions that entertain legislators by lobbyists, and it really should be stopped,” he said.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, another Republican gubernatorial candidate, might have raised some conservative eyebrows in her party this week with a comment she made about marijuana. Based on the experience of her sister in dealing with a recent health issue, the Nashville lawmaker is re-evaluating her opposition to medical marijuana in Tennessee. Quoting from a TENNESSEAN and AP story….

“She (Harwell’s sister) was in a yoga class and came down out of a shoulder stand the wrong way,” Harwell said. “And she was, of course, in a great deal of pain.”

But after the initial doses, she wanted to stop taking the painkillers.

“She called me and said, ‘I want you to know that if I continue this opioid regimen I will become addicted to opioids,'” Harwell said. “She said, ‘There was no doubt in my mind.'”

Harwell’s sister lives in Colorado where marijuana has been legalized, so she decided to send her husband out to buy her some of the drug, which she consumed mixed with coconut oil for four or five days until she felt better.

“So I have some personal interest in this now,” Harwell said.

Harwell has appointed a legislative task force to address the medical marijuana issue along with the opioid and prescription drug problem in the state. Harwell says she remains firmly opposes to legalizing recreational use of weed in the state.

Finally, candidate Randy Boyd continues to announce still more mayors who endorse him for governor. This week it’s 7 city mayors from Upper East Tennessee who are on his side. This is a part of the state where many of the county mayors are for Boyd as well. It’s become one of the dominant strategies the Boyd campaign is following.

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