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President Trump’s rambling, combative press conference on Thursday was a microcosm of the first month of his administration. It covered an impossibly long list of topics: health care, taxes, the travel ban, the media and (oh, right) the supposed reason he was holding the press conference in the first place — the nomination of a new labor secretary. It was light on policy details and heavy on theatrics and included the occasional outright falsehood — Trump at one point claimed that his victory in the Electoral College was the largest since Ronald Reagan, which isn’t true. And it provided a camera-ready distraction from the biggest news of the week: the resignation of National Security Adviser Mike Flynn amid accusations of improper contacts with Russia.
But the Flynn news was itself a distraction of sorts. Not that it wasn’t important — it clearly was — but it diverted attention from lots of other news that would have, in calmer times, drawn more scrutiny. Last week, for example, the government conducted immigration raids in cities across the country. Over the weekend, North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan, drawing a comparatively muted response from Trump. And on Wednesday Trump appeared to break with the U.S.’s longstanding commitment to a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All those stories drew news coverage, but less than they probably would have gotten if the Flynn news (and ensuing discussion of the White House’s ties to Russia) hadn’t sucked the oxygen out of the room.
This is the challenge that the frenetic opening weeks of the Trump administration had posed for the media, and for citizens more generally: How can we pay attention to the news of the day without losing track of everything else that is happening? How can we distinguish between fact and rumor, especially given the White House’s apparent willingness to mislead? (Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said Flynn had the “full confidence” of the president just hours before Flynn resigned.) And how can we keep the developments in perspective when even comparatively normal developments are labeled “unprecedented” by Trump’s critics?
None of these questions has easy answers. It’s possible that the deluge of news will eventually slow enough to let people catch their breath. In the meantime, we’re trying to keep our focus on major policy developments. Here are some from the past week:
The Cabinet: A safer choice
Andrew Puzder’s nomination for labor secretary finally crumbled this week under pressure from scandal and controversy. Trump seems to want to avoid a repeat performance with Puzder’s replacement: When he announced his nomination of law school dean Alexander Acosta on Thursday, Trump made a point of noting that the former prosecutor has previously been confirmed by the Senate three times.
Trump would have been hard-pressed to pick a candidate who offered a sharper contrast with his initial nominee. Puzder is a fast-food executive with no previous experience in government. Acosta has spent years in the public sector: He was named to the National Labor Relations Board in 2002 and later served as assistant attorney general in the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division and as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida. He is currently dean of the Florida International University law school.
Acosta has a much lower political profile than Puzder, who had made public — and often controversial — statements on the minimum wage, the Affordable Care Act and other issues. (Puzder also once favored a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, an awkward fit for Trump’s “America first” agenda.) As a U.S. attorney, Acosta worked on high-profile cases, including the prosecution of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But he appears to have little record of public positions on the issues that he would handle as labor secretary.
It is hard to know whether Acosta will be as different from Puzder on policy as he is in experience. Acosta has solid Republican credentials: His government experience came in the George W. Bush administration, and he served as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito when Alito was an appellate judge. Still, the labor groups that helped lead the opposition to Puzder had a much milder response to Acosta. In a statement Thursday, a spokeswoman for the “Fight for $15” minimum-wage movement said the group “look[ed] forward to learning more” about Acosta’s record.
The economy: All talk, no action
Steve Mnuchin was finally sworn in as treasury secretary on Monday, Trump’s 25th day in office. That’s by far the longest it has ever taken to confirm a new president’s treasury secretary, going all the way back to 1789, when George Washington nominated the $10 founding father himself, Alexander Hamilton.
With Mnuchin now in office, maybe the Trump administration will move more quickly to enact the president’s economic agenda. The first few weeks of the Trump presidency have featured lots of talk about the economy — meetings with CEOs, Twitter boasts about the stock market, unspecific (and possibly contradictory) proposals for a new border tax — but relatively little action. Trump formally withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the fourth day of his term, and he has issued a couple of vaguely worded executive orders aimed at reducing regulation on the manufacturing and finance industries. But he hasn’t provided any details about the major economic proposals he discussed during the campaign, such as overhauling the tax code, renegotiating trade deals or investing in infrastructure. And he still hasn’t appointed a chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, a position he also demoted from his Cabinet.
Then again, the economy seems to be doing pretty well without Trump’s help. New data on retail spending and manufacturing output this week pointed to a strong start to 2017. The job market is in fundamentally solid shape. And major stock indexes are at or near all-time highs. Some Federal Reserve policymakers even worry that the economy could be at risk of overheating: Outgoing Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart this week became the latest official to suggest that the central bank will need to raise interest rates earlier than expected in order to keep a lid on inflation. Many liberal economists and activists disagree — they would like to see the Fed keep rates low to spur more wage growth — but even the hint that the economy is growing “too fast” is an encouraging sign after years of disappointing progress.
Health care: But what about the insurers?
Trump may be trying to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, but his administration this week took some steps aimed at keeping the law’s insurance marketplaces operating until the replacement is ready. (In his press conference Thursday, Trump said he hopes to have a replacement bill ready by early March, but even if he meets that deadline, the GOP has indicated that it will be some time before a new law is enacted.) The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Wednesday announced a new rule to try to prop up the marketplaces, but the changes are largely symbolic — the main goal seems to be to convince insurers to keep selling health plans through the marketplaces next year.
The ACA marketplaces have had trouble in recent years, with insurers dropping out and premiums increasing dramatically in some areas. Many health policy experts believed that marketplaces had begun to stabilize — until Trump won the presidency, paving a way for the repeal of the law. The mere threat of repeal has already destabilized the law — a drop in expected marketplace enrollment, attributed to actions of the Trump White House, probably means there are fewer young and healthy enrollees, a group important to the health of the marketplace.
The new rule is essentially a list of items the insurance industry says it needs to keep the system functional. Some changes make it harder for people to buy insurance outside of the annual open enrollment period, to prevent people from buying a plan when they need care and dropping it when they are healthy. Other changes will likely increase out-of-pocket costs for many buyers, shifting the costs away from the industry.
It’s unclear whether that will work. The day before the rule change, Humana announced that it won’t sell insurance on the ACA marketplaces in 2018. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the 156 counties where the insurance giant sold coverage in 2017 included 16 in Tennessee where Humana was the only insurer selling on the ACA marketplace. Unless other companies step in to fill the void, around 50,000 people in Tennessee will lose the ability to buy federally subsidized insurance, said Cynthia Cox, who studies health reform and private insurance for Kaiser. Markets in an additional 60 counties in five states could be left with just one insurer.
Humana is one of the country’s biggest insurers, so its decision to withdraw from the marketplaces drew headlines. But it’s a different set of insurers that might make or break marketplaces, Cox said. Companies such as Molina Healthcare and Centene — smaller, less-well-known companies that have long focused on insuring low-income individuals — have done well under the ACA, bolstered by an increase in Medicaid patients, and have been key in states where the markets are most precarious. Molina announced on Wednesday that it lost $110 million in its ACA business in the final quarter of 2016. The company’s CEO said he needed to wait and see what Congress and the White House have planned for the marketplaces before he could commit to 2018.