The Wall Street-Washington Complex Invades Trump's Cabinet
Of all the ways Donald Trump has fallen short of his campaign promise to "drain the swamp" of Washington politics with his Cabinet appointments, none is starker than his choice of Elaine Chao as transportation secretary. Chao is as much of a Washington insider as they come: She served as deputy transportation secretary under George H.W. Bush and as secretary of labor for eight years under George W. Bush. She's also married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and this year he used his perch to undermine a federal agency that was going after the bank where she works.
Since 2011, Chao has sat on the board of Wells Fargo, earning more than $1.2 million in pay over that period. This year, it was revealed that the bank had fraudulently set up millions of fake accounts that customers had never requested. That activity earned Wells Fargo a $185 million fine from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the largest penalty levied so far by the new financial watchdog agency.
The Senate called in Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf in September, and both Democrats and Republicans attacking the company's behavior. "This is about accountability," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who helped create the CFPB, said at the hearing. "You should resign. You should give back the money that you took while this scam was going on, and you should be criminally investigated." Stumpf resigned a few weeks later.
But McConnell didn't quite share that sentiment. Instead, he chose to go after the federal agency that had penalized Wells Fargo. As liberal consumer rights group Public Citizen pointed out, less than a week after the CFPB announced its fine against Wells Fargo, McConnell used his authority to try to fast-track a bill that would defang the CFPB by changing its funding structure.
The bill ultimately failed to advance, although the CFPB could lose significant power under President Trump. And McConnell is far from the only Republican to target the CFPB. But for Trump, who ran a populist campaign decrying the power of Washington insiders and the moneyed interests they support, the selection of Chao for a top administration role seems to show he's not as opposed to the Wall Street-Washington complex as he might have suggested.
Holy Conflict of Interest! The Firm Holding Much of Trump's Debt May Be Up for Sale.
Coming to an auction block near you: Donald Trump's $100 million mortgage on Trump Tower?
As Mother Jones has detailed for months, Trump owes hundreds of millions to a variety of lenders, giving his bankers a huge amount of potential leverage over the man who will soon occupy the most powerful office in the world. Already there are concerns about Trump's biggest lender, the troubled Deutsche Bank, which he owes at least $364 million. On Friday, Reuters reported that his second-biggest lender, a small Wall Street firm called Ladder Capital Strategies, may be putting itself up for sale to the highest bidder. Public records show Trump owes the firm at least $282 million, on four lines of credit. This means that other big money players—Wall Street firms, American banks, overseas banks, financial institutions partly owned by foreign governments—could move to buy up the debts of a US president and create a host of conflicts of interest.
Ladder Capital holds mortgages on Trump Tower and 40 Wall Street, worth $100 million and $160 million respectively, and two smaller Trump properties in New York City. All of the loans Trump has taken out since 2012 have been from either Deutsche Bank and Ladder Capital. That includes his most recent loan, a $7 million mortgage from Ladder Capital that Trump took out on three condo units in the Trump International Hotel Tower on New York City's Columbus Circle. That loan was taken out in July, weeks after Trump's most recent personal financial disclosure was filed.
Reuters reported that Ladder Capital is considering a sale and has hired Citibank to help manage the deal. Reuters cited sources who said the bank was looking at a sale as it "grapples with new regulations making selling on mortgages more difficult." The firm's primary business model is to package the loans it issues and sell them to other investors. Recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings show Ladder Capital has packaged the Trump International Hotel Tower mortgage as part of a large sale of mortgages. Despite this, on Trump's personal financial disclosures, Ladder Capital is still listed as the lender Trump owes the money to.
It's not immediately clear how a potential sale of Ladder Capital might affect Trump's loans. But it raises the specter that some of Trump's biggest loans will be available for anyone to purchase.
Between Deutsche Bank and Ladder Capital, Trump owes at least $646 million, and he has seven other loans listed on his financial disclosure form that could be worth another $125 million. Additionally, a real estate partnership Trump participates in borrowed $950 million from a group of lenders that includes the state-owned Bank of China. Trump's involvement in that loan may violate the Constitution's emoluments clause, which forbids top government officials from accepting financial benefits from a foreign government. The possibility that a foreign government could purchase Ladder Capital and its portfolio of loans, including Trump's, would cause other complications for Trump and the conflicts of interest already saddling his soon-to-be presidency.
Trump Invites World Leader Who Called Obama a "Son of a Whore" to the White House
Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial president of the Philippines who has drawn widespread comparisons to Donald Trump, may soon be headed to the White House.
During a Friday phone call that a Duterte aide described as "animated," Donald Trump extended an invitation to Duterte to visit the White House next year. Reuters reports that the conversation between the two leaders lasted about seven minutes.
News of the invitation comes days after Duterte appointed Jose Antonio, a Trump business partner, to serve as a special envoy to the United States—raising yet another potential conflict of interest for the president-elect. Last month, he called for a "separation" of relations between the two countries, but later retreated from the statement.
The Philippines leader, who once compared himself to Adolf Hitler, has drawn international condemnation for the thousands of extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and users that have taken place since he became president, and for similar killings when he was mayor of a city in the southern Philippines. He has also ranted against the United States and President Barack Obama, whom he once referred to as a "son of a whore."
But Duterte has spoken favorably of Trump. After Trump's presidential victory, Duterte said, "Long live Mr. Trump! We both curse at the slightest reason. We are alike."
There is no word on whether Duterte plans to accept the invitation.
It Just Got Much Easier for the FBI to Hack Your Computer
Just in time for the Trump administration, the FBI has gotten what critics characterize as broad new hacking powers. As of Thursday, government agents can now use warrants obtained from a single judge to hack computers in multiple jurisdictions, rather than having to get warrants from judges in each distinct jurisdiction, as required under the old rule. The rule went into effect despite the last-ditch efforts by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and others to either kill or delay it in order to give Congress time to study its implications.
In a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, Wyden said the change to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure was especially troubling given the imminent presidency of Donald Trump, who has "openly said he wants the power to hack his political opponents the same way Russia does."
The changes were approved by the US Supreme Court in a private vote at the end of April, after several years of discussion within the federal judiciary. They were never debated by Congress. The US Department of Justice says the news rules are necessary, particularly in cases where criminals use anonymizing software to conceal their location while committing crimes such as peddling child pornography. Another concern is the weaponizing of hundreds of thousands of internet-connected devices into "botnets" that are then used to flood websites with traffic to shut them down, or for criminal activities that, in the words of Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell, "siphon wealth and invade privacy on a massive scale."
Wyden isn't convinced that the changes are urgent. Along with Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), he tried on Wednesday to get the Senate to approve legislation that would have either blocked or delayed the implementation of the new powers.
Those efforts failed.
"By sitting here and doing nothing, the Senate has given consent to this expansion of government hacking and surveillance," Wyden said in a statement. "Law-abiding Americans are going to ask, 'What were you guys thinking?' when the FBI starts hacking victims of a botnet hack. Or when a mass hack goes awry and breaks their device or an entire hospital system and puts lives at risk."
Caldwell argued the rules had already been debated and vetted. In a November 28 blog post, she wrote the federal judiciary deliberated on the changes for three years, using the same process used to modify other rules of criminal procedure. The current rule change deals specifically with venue issues—removing traditional jurisdictional constraints—and not what investigators can actually do as part of the search, she wrote. Further, investigators already had the power to search multiple computers at the same time, she noted, and it was already legal for investigators to hack victim computers to understand the scope of the criminal hack.
"It would be strange if the law forbade searching the scene of a crime," she wrote.
Caldwell also wrote that the rule modification doesn't change what is and isn't permissible under the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. "The Constitution already forbids mass, indiscriminate rummaging through victims' computers, and it will continue to do so," she wrote. "By contrast, blocking the [rule change] would make it more difficult for law enforcement to combat mass hacking by actual criminals."
But those reassurances likely will not satisfy privacy advocates. In June, tech writer Mike Masnick noted that the DOJ's justification for the rule change "skirt[ed] the truth, at best." The new rule, Masnick wrote, "effectively wipe[s] out the requirement to give a copy of the warrant to the person whose computers are being hacked," which "pretty much guarantees that some of the people who are hacked following this won't even know about it." He suggested that the DOJ's use of the threat of child exploitation as a way to legitimize the rule change in effect derailed the necessary review of serious modifications to the government's powers that should be debated and approved by Congress. "The FBI has a rather long history of abusing its surveillance powers, and especially seeking to avoid strict oversight," Masnick wrote. "Approving such a change just because the DOJ is insisting it's 'FOR THE CHILDREN, WON'T YOU PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!' isn't a particularly good reason."
That's probably why big tech companies like Google and a host of civil rights organizations have opposed the change for years.
"Google has a significant interest in protecting its users and securing its infrastructure," wrote Richard Salgado, Google's director of law enforcement and information security, in a February 2015 letter submitted to the Judicial Advisory Committee on Criminal Rules. "The proposed amendment substantively expands the government's current authority under Rule 41 and raises a number of monumental and highly complex constitutional, legal, and geopolitical concerns."
Trump Has a Huge Foreign Bank Problem
With all his properties and deals in the United States and around the world, Donald Trump is heading to the White House burdened with multiple conflicts of interest. But the biggest ones may not be about what Trump owns, but rather what he owes.
The United States has had wealthy presidents before. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller held a piece of possibly the greatest American fortune, and the Kennedy family wealth may have been more than $1 billion. The question these leaders faced was whether they would use their powerful offices to bolster their own assets and enrich themselves.
That concern exists with Trump, but he presents a unique problem when it comes to conflicts of interest: He and his companies have borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars. These are loans that potentially afford his lenders leverage over Trump. This creates the possibility that Trump may find himself in the position of choosing between US interests and his lenders' interests. There's no better example of this than the $364 million Trump owes the struggling Deutsche Bank, which is staggering under fierce pressure from US financial regulators who want the bank to pay for its misdeeds during the run-up to the 2008 mortgage crisis. (Trump is in a real estate partnership that borrowed $950 million from a group of banks including a subsidiary of Deutsche Bank and the state-owned Bank of China.)
As it has hit trouble, Deutsche Bank's stock has fallen in the past year to levels so dangerously low that the German government was reported to be considering stepping in to prop up the bank. But on January 20, the newly inaugurated President Trump will have the ability to remove all that pressure on one of his most loyal creditors.
"I know of no case where a president has come in with hundreds of millions of dollars of indebtedness, to an entity that is under investigation for these types of alleged misconduct and in the midst of a negotiating a settlement that could put the president's principal lender out of business," says Norm Eisen, a former special counsel for ethics in the Obama administration. "The conflict is so blatant."
Eisen and Richard Painter, who served as George W. Bush's ethics lawyer, have called on Trump to divest fully his assets—not just withdraw from the operations of his businesses, as Trump has suggested he might do. If he sells off his business interests, these loans would follow the assets and no longer pose a direct conflict of interest.
Eisen says that even if Trump acts with the best of intentions but still retains his assets, there will be political appointees and career employees within the federal government who could feel pressure to please their boss and who may hesitate to threaten the president's personal business interests by getting tough with a bank he owes so much.
The problem started with Deutsche Bank's role in the 2008 financial crisis. Like many big banks, it issued and resold bad residential mortgages that helped lead to the global economic collapse. Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department has pursued various Wall Street banks for their roles in the crisis, but it has allowed these banks to negotiate settlements to pay civil fines and fees to resolve claims that they misled investors. Earlier this year, Goldman Sachs paid $5.1 billion to settle a case, and in 2014 Bank of America paid $17 billion in a similar settlement. In September, the Justice Department announced it was seeking as much as $14 billion from Deutsche Bank, an amount that vastly exceeded the $2 billion to $3 billion that bank officials had assumed it might have to pay.
The prospect that Deutsche Bank would be forced to settle for anything close to $14 billion set off a minor panic, sending the company's stock spiraling down and forcing German Prime Minister Angela Merkel to make a statement denying the German government had a plan to intervene. As various rumors about the bank's ongoing negotiations with the Justice Department leaked out, its stock price swung back and forth, but it shot up after Trump's election. Negotiations are continuing, and there is no sign of when a settlement could be reached. As president, Trump presumably won't be directly involved in the talks between the Justice Department and the bank, but the chief executive of the federal government does generally set the tone regarding how aggressive or conciliatory the Justice Department is toward banks.
Part of the recent optimism on the part of investors may be due to speculation that a Trump administration will be friendlier to banks. But investors also know that Trump's businesses are deeply entwined with Deutsche Bank. Trump has four large mortgages with Deutsche Bank, borrowing against three of his most prized possessions: the Doral golf resort in Florida, his Chicago tower, and his brand new Washington luxury hotel. For the Washington hotel, Trump has a $170 million line of credit from Deutsche Bank that was granted in 2015, just as his presidential campaign was kicking off. According to a bank spokeswoman, all four of the loans were obtained from Deutsche's "private bank"—a division that caters exclusively to high-net-worth individuals and that can lend separately from the corporate side of the bank.
The corporate side of Deutsche Bank previously loaned to Trump, but the relationship fell apart around the time of the financial crisis. In 2005, Trump borrowed $640 million from Deutsche Bank and several other lenders for the construction of his Chicago hotel tower. When he failed to pay back the money on time in 2008, the banks, including Deutsche Bank, demanded he pay the $40 million he had personally guaranteed. In response, Trump sued Deutsche Bank for $3 billion, saying the project's financial troubles were the fault of the economic recession, which he claimed the bank had helped cause. He accused Deutsche Bank of undermining the project and his reputation. The lawsuit was eventually settled.
Deutsche Bank's long-term health is important to Trump's business interests. In recent years, it has been one of the only banks still willing to lend to him (at least as of his presidential run). Most other Wall Street banks, some of which loaned Trump billions of dollars in the 1980s and 1990s, essentially stopped lending to him years ago.
It's not clear if Trump has personally guaranteed any of the loans his businesses have with Deutsche Bank. He did personally guarantee the Deutsche Bank loan involved in the lawsuit over his Chicago project. The New York Times has reported that Trump may be personally liable for up to $26 million on a mortgage he has taken out from another lender on his 40 Wall Street tower in New York City. Trump's attorney, Alan Garten, did not return a request for comment.
Eisen says another possible area of concern with the Deutsche Bank loan is the emoluments clause, the provision of the Constitution that prohibits top federal officials from accepting gifts from foreign governments. Several ethics experts have pointed out that a loan from a state-owned bank may qualify as a gift, and red flags have popped up over the Bank of China loan. Eisen says that if the German government were to take a stake in Deutsche Bank in an effort to shore up the distressed bank, it would raise a similar constitutional problem for Trump.
Trump's massive Deutsche Bank loans are uncharted and dangerous territory. "It's staggering," Eisen says. "And the most staggering thing is that it's only one of a host of similarly complicated conflicts. We've never seen anything like this."
About Face: The Pentagon Could Roll Back Soldiers' Rights Under Trump
At a town hall meeting held by a small veterans' political action committee in October, a retired Army colonel named Don Bartholomew stood up to ask then-Republican nominee Donald Trump what he would do to fix what he called "the social engineering and political correctness that has been imposed upon our military."
"The military has become an institution for social experiments and, as a result, the military has undergone a number of changes to regulations with regard to women in combat, transgender rights and other issues," Bartholomew complained. "None of these PC actions were combat-effective or readiness-driven." Trump strongly agreed with him. "You're right," he said. "We have a politically correct military, and it's getting more and more politically correct every day…Some of the things that they're asking you to do and be politically correct about are ridiculous."
Since winning the presidency, Trump has yet to say much on military policy. He has picked former Marine general and military cult legend James Mattis for secretary of defense, but Mattis' views on many issues are unknown. And comments like Bartholomew's, along with the influence of social conservatives such as Vice President-elect Mike Pence, have those same advocates and service members worried that Trump will try to reverse Obama administration policy changes that had opened new opportunities for female and LGBT troops.
"We are are very concerned about the potential rollback for all the hard work and progress that we've fought for," says Kate Germano, the COO of Service Women's Action Network, or SWAN, an advocacy group for women in the military. The bans on women in combat and troops serving openly were dropped by the Obama administration via Defense Department policy changes. That means a new Pentagon chief can simply reverse them rather than needing to pass a new law. "I think that's what…also has people a lot on edge, is the fact that [Trump] doesn't really need Congress to do anything on this," says Matt Thorn, the executive director of OutServe-SLDN, an advocacy group for LGBT service members.
Here are some of the recent changes that may be on the chopping block:
Women in combat: The Pentagon announced last December that all combat jobs in all the military's branches would be opened to women for the first time. The Army has since trained a handful of female infantry officers and put women in the training pipeline for other combat jobs. But the change came over the objections of some members of Congress and particularly the Marine Corps, which requested an exemption to the policy. The man who did so, Marine General Joe Dunford, is now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and retired Marine General John Kelly, who is a candidate for secretary of state, has suggested that standards for combat troops would inevitably drop if women were allowed on the front line.
Germano points out that James Mattis, who has been chosen as defense secretary, is "a conservative, traditional senior military officer in the service that has at every turn tried to block changes that would allow women more opportunities." While Mattis' views aren't known, she says she's "concerned" he has never publicly backed allowing women in combat. He is also close to Dunford, who was Mattis' deputy commander when Mattis commanded the 1st Marine Division during the invasion of Iraq. That combination could mean that a Marine exemption to gender integration, or a full rollback, would have powerful new support at the Pentagon.
Gay, lesbian, and transgender service: It's been five years since gays and lesbians were first allowed to serve openly in the military, and that change now seems fairly entrenched. For example, a 2014 Military Times survey of active-duty troops showed that support for open service for gays and lesbians had reached 60 percent, up from just 35 percent in 2009. But the Defense Department only dropped the ban on transgender people serving openly in June.
Right now, says OutServe-SLDN's Matt Thorn, there's not enough information to tell if either change might be reversed. "He did the 60 Minutes interview where he said, 'I'm fine with marriage equality,' which is a two-year-old law, but then in the same breath he says, 'I want to overturn Roe v. Wade,' which is a 40-year-old law. So there's just a very big lack of consistency, and I think that just has driven this uncertainty across the LGBT community."
But Thorn also thinks appointing a former general like Mattis might work in favor of LGBT advances. "I think the thing with the generals in particular is that once policies are put in place, no matter Democratic or Republican administrations, the brass typically don't like to roll them back because it creates an unstable environment within the rank and file," Thorn says.
Possible sexual-assault reforms: Trump answered a question specifically about sexual assault during the Commander-in-Chief Forum, saying that he didn't support the idea of trying military sexual-assault cases in civilian courts instead of through the military justice systems. That's one of the key reforms proposed by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who have been pushing for several years for improvements in how the military handles sexual assault. "I don't think it should be outside of the military," Trump said. But he also argued that the military justice system isn't doing enough. "Right now, part of the problem is nobody gets prosecuted…There are no consequence[s]."
Trump infamously suggested in a 2013 tweet that the thousands of unreported sexual assaults in the military and low conviction rates were inevitable in a mixed-gender military.
He said during the forum that the solution was not to remove women from the military, but such comments play into larger fears that many female service members have about Trump. Germano believes "women were starting to finally feel like their service was being recognized and respected," and that that Trump's callous comments and actions toward women may undermine that progress. A Military Times poll published this month agrees with Germano: While the survey found that 51 percent of the troops who voted backed Trump, 55 percent of women said they "worry their jobs will be adversely affected."
"When you have someone in charge of the military who has publicly derided women, who has made comments about their looks, judges their performance based on their physical attributes, who gropes, that is of major concern because that person is ultimately setting the tone for what's going to happen for women and men in the services," Germano argues.
For now, all Germano, Thorn, and other advocates can do is wait for more news. "We're all in the same position," she says. "We're on pins and needles waiting for decisions to be made."
2016 Was Amazing in One Respect
This year has been a rough one, characterized by political catastrophe and the deaths of great musicians: Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Sharon Jones, and more. One way I've coped is by cooking while listening to favorite songs from these fallen geniuses—and a bumper crop of great cookbooks has been a great comfort. I began 2016 in a kitchen rut. For years, I've been focused on getting great seasonal ingredients and doing as little to them as possible—and most of the cookbooks I've leaned on in recent years follow that solid but ultimately limiting strategy. My favorite cookbooks of 2016 are ones that shook me up, pushed me into new flavor palates and kitchen strategies. You can listen to me review my five favorites in this week's episode of Bite podcast and read about them below.
• Taste of Persia: A Cook's Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan, by Naomi Duguid
The intrepid Naomi Duguid has written a fantastic guide to a grand cuisine that is little known to US eaters, mainly because of the tortured history of the the US-Iran relationship. This one is personal for me, because way back in my college years, I lived for a while with Iranian housemates. The only way they could get a taste of home was to cook for themselves. The main thing I remember was their distinctive way with rice, which they intentionally overcooked to the point that it developed a golden-brown crust along the edges. They'd use this crisp outer layer like a flatbread, dipping it into spicy lamb or beef stews. Duguid's book takes me straight back to that time—she delivers a foolproof recipe for that crusty rice, called chelo. And she also opens whole new vistas on a grand but neglected cuisine that sparkles with mint, parsley, pomegranate, rose petals, and spices like cinnamon and cardamom. On Thanksgiving, I cooked a dish—recipe here—that combined many of those elements into a gorgeous and delectable soup.
Great gift for: The committed home cook who has hit a rut; anyone interested in learning more about Iran and its foodways
Killer dish: Pomegranate ash (soup) with lamb meatballs; crusty Persian rice
Dish I'm dying to try: Purlsane soup
• All Under Heaven: Recipes From the 36 Cuisines of China, by Carolyn Phillips
Here is an ambitious take on a country whose cuisine is both ubiquitous and brutalized here in the United States. Carolyn Phillips is a veteran expert on Chinese cooking and creator of the blog Madame Huang's Kitchen, which takes the last name of her husband, a Chinese national. This doorstop of a book divides the country into five regions. Each section obliterates the idea of a monolithic cuisine that draws its flavor from MSG and whose idea of a vegetable is a canned water chestnut. Many of the recipes are dead simple: "fried green onion noodles" could be whipped up on a Tuesday night without any special ingredients. Others, like Hangzou-style noodle soup, require a bit more prep—and bamboo pith fungus. Generally, you'll need access to a decent Chinese grocery, but mostly you'll just have to seek out quality produce, meat, and fish. Despite its reputation here, Chinese cooking does not hide food under a cloak of heavy and cloying condiments. I've never been to China, but for me, All Under Heaven brings home the vibrant, vegetable-forward, umami-laced restaurant cooking I've found in places with large Chinese enclaves, like Manhattan's Chinatown. For a deep dive into that storied area, check out this episode of Bite podcast.
Great gift for: Adventurous cooks looking for a deep deep into the vast universe of Chinese cookery
Killer dish: Fried green onion noodles
Dish I'm dying to try: Oyster/pork belly spring rolls
• A New Way to Dinner: A Playbook of Recipes and Strategies for the Week Ahead, by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs
This is the magnum opus of the kitchen wizards behind the venerable website Food 52. It's really two cookbooks: one chock-full of the kind of straight-ahead, irresistible stuff you find on Food 52, like fish filets coated with herbed mayo, gently roasted, and then broiled to develop a burnished top. Yum, right? But it's also a kind of meta-cookbook offering a strategy that will be appreciated by many food-obsessed people (like me) who are tired of eating dinner at 10 p.m., and then facing a sink-full of dishes as midnight creeps in on a work night. In their scheme, you do all the menu planning, shopping, and most of the prepping over the weekend. You devote about three hours to the complicated, time-consuming stuff then, and whip out marvelous dinners during the week without much fuss or cleanup. No one who's not already obsessed with regularly cooking top-notch home-cooked meals will ever do this—it's hard to compete with takeout and meal kits—but I love it. No more rushing to the grocery on Wednesday night to throw together an ultimately stress-inducing, messy meal.
Great gift for: Overcommitted people who refuse to compromise on great home-cooked meals
Killer dish: Low-maintenance fish tacos
Dish I'm dying to try: Chicken cutlets with chermoula and preserved lemon
• Home Cooked: Essential Recipes for a New Way to Cook, by Anya Fernald
Anya Fernald is a longtime expert on the flavors and culinary techniques of Italy, and runs a California pasture-based meat empire called Bel Campo. I opened the book half-expecting to be put off by Northern California sanctimony, but in the end I got sucked in by the sometimes-complicated and potently flavored dishes on offer. Like the Food 52 authors, Fernald urges readers to take a long view of cooking. Many of her dishes rely on what she calls "long cuts"—"time-consuming base ingredients made when time and ingredients are abundant, then preserved to be used when they are needed." She offers an impossibly rich, glorious, and relatively quick ragu—quick, that is, for those who have bone broth, preserved tomatoes, and sofrito already on hand, all of which Frenald tells you how to do. That sofrito is the base of many dishes—it's just onions, carrots, and celery slow cooked in olive oil and blended into a burnt-orange paste with a flavor as deep as the roots of an old-growth tree. Fernald suggests making a big batch and then freezing it in ice cube trays, ready when you need it. A mere dollop makes her eggs poached in a quick sauce of grated fresh tomatoes into an easy weeknight triumph.
Great gift for: Overcommitted people who refuse to compromise on great home-cooked meals—and dream of Italy
Killer dish: Eggs poached in tomato sauce
Dish I'm dying to try: Torta di verdure (a kind of savory pie stuffed with greens); beef cruda (an enticing, Italian take on tartare)
• Around the Fire: Recipes for Inspired Grilling and Seasonal Feasting From Ox Restaurant, by Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton
I'm normally allergic to cookbooks based on a single method of cooking. I'm also skeptical of chef-authored books, because they tend to presume limitless time and labor. So when I picked up this pretty tome, by the chef-owners of the famed open-fire restaurant Ox in Portland, I didn't expect to be drawn in. I thought it might start with a recipe for constructing a vast restaurant-grade fire pit topped with a cast-iron grate—and then harangue me to spend hours hunting down fancy cuts of firewood. But it turns out to have plenty of great ideas even for a backyard Weber-and-charcoal fellow like me. I never saw the point of grilled fish—sautéing works so well—but their mackerel made a believer out of me. Along with flame-kissed mackerel steaks, you grill poblano chilies till they're charred and then use them to make a smoky version of that great Spanish sauce, Romesco. Their meat preparations—think onion-marinated skirt steak with the delectable Argentine green sauce chimichurri—are also top-notch. And since Ox is inspired by South American cooking, they also deliver great recipes for empanadas, as well as delectable and dead-easy ceviches that never touch a grill.
Great gift for: The grill obsessed, and the kitchen-bound cook who needs reminding of the glories of outdoor cooking
Killer dish: Onion-marinated skirt steak with the chimichurri
Dish I'm dying to try: Grilled artichokes with espelette mayo
Honorable mention: The veteran food writer Ronni Lundy has written a gorgeous ode to the cooking of Appalachia, called Victuals. Pronounced "vittles," as the book's cover makes clear, Victuals is equal parts cookbook and travelogue. It demonstrates that this stunningly beautiful, long-beleaguered region boasts a proud culinary heritage and an even richer food future. A traditional mountain dish called "killed lettuce"—lettuce leaves tossed with chopped green onions and vinegar and then wilted with hot bacon grease—exemplifies the hearty, resourceful cooking of the region.
Here Are the Sanctuary Cities Ready to Resist Trump's Deportation Threats
President-elect Donald Trump still has about two months to go before he is inaugurated, but pockets of resistance to his mass immigrant deportation plan are already emerging across the country. Since his election, local officials in at least 18 major "sanctuary" cities have pledged to limit their cooperation with federal immigration officials. By one estimate, 12 of these cities account for roughly 20 percent of all undocumented immigrants in the United States.
There are at least 364 counties that limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities, including 39 cities. For years, these sanctuary cities have resisted federal deportation efforts in different ways. Some jurisdictions have policies that prevent police officers from inquiring into the immigration status of residents; in other locales, jails have refused to comply with requests from the feds to hold suspected undocumented immigrants past their scheduled release dates. Immigration advocates argue that that these tactics encourage immigrants in their communities to report crimes or cooperate with police investigations.
But critics of sanctuary cities, like Trump, say that these policies run contrary to federal immigration law and risk releasing criminals onto the streets. In fact, the term "sanctuary city" has become so politicized that many jurisdictions have hesitated to accept the label. (It is worth noting that evidence suggests that sanctuary cities are actually safer for local residents).
Trump has vowed to stomp out such local resistance by cutting off federal funding to any sanctuary city. That would mean that in a worst case scenario, these jurisdictions risk losing anywhere between one percent to 25 percent of their total city budgets, depending on how much they rely on federal funds. However, a Trump administration may decide not to withhold all that funding. The Los Angeles Times reported that Trump's advisors are considering specifically targeting law enforcement funding.
Here are some of the metros that have renewed their resistance to federal deportation efforts since the election—in order of what percent of their budgets they stand to lose if Trump stays true to his threats:
District of Columbia
At risk: 25 percent of its city budget
DC risks more of its budget than any other jurisdiction on this list. A week after Trump's election, Mayor Muriel Bowser reaffirmed that DC would remain a sanctuary city by keeping in place its policy of preventing city employees and police officers from asking residents about their immigration status. DC also grants drivers' licenses and other benefits to undocumented immigrants.
At risk: More than 10 percent of the city budget, amounting to about $1 billion total
San Francisco has put in place some of the most expansive sanctuary city laws in the country. In fact, the city has been at the center of the sanctuary city debate ever since 2015, when a young woman was killed by an undocumented Mexican immigrant who had reportedly been deported five times and had just been released from the sheriff department's custody. Trump repeatedly drew attention to the case during his campaign. After Trump's election, Mayor Ed Lee and the school district and sheriff's office, among others, pledged to abide by San Francisco's current policies. "We have been and always will be a city of refuge, a city of sanctuary, a city of love," Mayor Lee said. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the city attorney is looking into the possibility of suing the federal government should it withhold funds.
At risk: At least 10 percent of the city budget, totaling more than $1 billion.
According to the Chicago Tribune, should Trump choose to target law enforcement funding, the city could stand to lose nearly $29 million per year in justice grants. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel vowed that Chicago "always will be a sanctuary city." He added, "To all those who are, after Tuesday's election, very nervous and filled with anxiety as we've spoken to, you are safe in Chicago, you are secure in Chicago, and you are supported in Chicago."
At risk: Approximately 10 percent of the city budget, amounting to $71 million last year.
Providence does not refer undocumented immigrants charged with low-level civil infractions to federal immigration authorities. Mayor Jorge Elorza, the son of Guatemalan immigrants, does not consider Providence a sanctuary city, but did declare in a statement, "We are standing with cities like Los Angeles and New York City who have made it clear that we will not sacrifice a single resident and we will continue to protect our communities," adding "It is important that every resident can live their lives without fear of being persecuted."
At risk: About 9 percent of the city budget in 2015, or more than $175 million.
Justice Department funding, the most vulnerable to attack, amounted to about $5.4 million last year. The Denver Police Department released a statement in the wake of Trump's election saying they do not plan to participate in federal immigration enforcement.
At risk: About 9 percent of the city budget, totaling just over $7 billion.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has called Trump's threats against so-called sanctuary cities "dangerous." He said, "We are not going to sacrifice a half million people who live among us, who are part of our community. We are not going to tear families apart." Should Trump choose to target law enforcement funding, the city's police department budget is less vulnerable than the overall city budget. Just over 3 percent, or $185 million, of the police budget comes from federal aid.
At risk: About 8 percent of the city's budget, or more than $216 million.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake reaffirmed that the city police will continue their policy of not asking about a person's immigration status, stipulating that she considers Baltimore a "welcoming city," but not a "sanctuary city."
At risk: A rough estimate suggests that at least 4 percent of the city's funds, or $52 million. (The Oakland City Administrator's Office did not respond to our request for a specific breakdown of the budget).
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf wrote in an op-ed that Oakland will "proudly stand as a sanctuary city—protecting our residents from what we deem unjust federal immigration laws."
At risk: 2 percent of the city budget—more than $25 million.
The police department stands to lose about 2.1 million federal dollars, or about 1.4 percent of its budget. Responding to Trump budget threats, Mayor Betsy Hodges said, "In his quest to scapegoat immigrants, Donald Trump has threatened cities' federal funding if we do not change this practice. I repeat: I will continue to stand by and fight for immigrants in Minneapolis regardless of President-elect Trump's threats."
At risk: About 2 percent of the city's budget, or $507 million.
This year, Los Angeles is expected to receive $127 million in federal law enforcement grants. LA became one of the country's first sanctuary cities, if not the first, back in 1979. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck declared that his department will not "engage in law enforcement activities solely based on somebody's immigration status."
Santa Fe, NM
At risk: About 2 percent of the city's annual budget, or about $6 million in federal funding.
The city's police department relies on federal funding for just 0.25 percent of its budget, or about $62,000. Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales vocally denounced Trump's proposed policy toward sanctuary cities on Fox and CNN, earning him the title of the latest "public face of 'sanctuary cities.'" He called Trump funding threats "dangerous."
Aurora, CO and Seattle:
At risk: About 1.8 percent of each city's total budget and 2–3 percent of Seattle's police budget.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said that standing by his city's policies is "the most American thing we could possibly do."
At risk: Up to 1.3 percent of its total budget and up to 2 percent of its police budget.
Portland Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler said, "We're saying that we're willing to sacrifice those dollars and we are willing to live with whatever consequences may come our way."
Other cities that have vowed to restrict their participation in Trump's mass deportation plan include Philadelphia, Boston, Newark, and Austin.
Mike Pence's Voucher Program in Indiana Was a Windfall for Religious Schools
One of Vice President-elect Mike Pence's pet projects as governor of Indiana was expanding school choice vouchers, which allow public money to pay for private school tuition. President-elect Donald Trump has said he'd like to expand such vouchers in the rest of the country, but what happened in Indiana should serve as a cautionary tale for Trump and his administration.
Pence's voucher program ballooned into a $135 million annual bonanza almost exclusively benefiting private religious schools—ranging from those teaching the Koran to Christian schools teaching creationism and the Bible as literal truth—at the expense of regular and usually better-performing public schools. Indeed, one of the schools was a madrasa, an Islamic religious school, briefly attended by a young man arrested this summer for trying to join ISIS—just the kind of place Trump's coalition would find abhorrent.
In Indiana, Pence created one of the largest publicly funded voucher programs in the country. Initially launched in 2011 under Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, it was sold as a way to give poor, minority children trapped in bad public schools a way out. "Social justice has come to Indiana education," Daniels declared after the voucher legislation passed. It was supposed to be a small program, initially capped at 7,500 vouchers. Full vouchers, worth 90 percent of the per-pupil spending in a school district, were reserved for families with incomes up to 100 percent of the cutoff for free or reduced-price school lunch, about $45,000 a year for a family of four.
But in 2013, Pence and the state's GOP-controlled Legislature raised the income limits on the program so that a family of four with up to $90,000 in annual income became eligible for vouchers covering half their private school tuition. They also removed most requirements that students come from a public school to access the vouchers, making families already attending private school eligible for tuition subsidies, thus removing any pretense that the vouchers were a tool to help poor children escape failing schools.
By the 2015-16 school year, the number of students using state-funded vouchers had shot up to more than 32,000 in 316 private schools. But Pence's school choice experiment demonstrates that vouchers can create a host of thorny political problems and potential church-and-state issues. Almost every single one of these voucher schools is religious. The state Department of Education can't tell parents which or even whether any of the voucher schools are secular. (A state spokeswoman told me Indiana doesn't collect data on the school's religious affiliation.) Out of the list of more than 300 schools, I could find only four that weren't overtly religious and, of those, one was solely for students with Asperger's syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders, and the other is an alternative school for at-risk students.
Opponents, including public school teachers and local clergy, sued the state to try to block the voucher program in 2011, arguing that it clearly violated the state constitutional provisions that protect taxpayers from having to support religion. They were also concerned that the money going to the religious schools was coming directly from local public school systems, draining them of critical funding in violation of the state constitution. But the Indiana state Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the voucher program was constitutional because public money was going to the students and not to religious institutions directly.
But religious institutions benefited almost immediately from the program. Vouchers effectively served as a public bailout for the state's Catholic schools. As is the case in other parts of the country, many of Indiana's Catholic schools, financially troubled and facing declining enrollment, were on the verge of closing before the voucher program launched in 2011. By the 2013-2014 school year, more than 50 percent of the school choice vouchers were going to shore up Catholic schools.
And despite what the Indiana Supreme Court said about the money not going directly to the churches, an Indiana priest made headlines in 2014 when he urged parishioners at St. Jude in Fort Wayne to apply for vouchers for their kids in the church school to help "ease the financial burden on the parish." Father Jake Runyon noted that with help from the vouchers, the church would finally be able to fix the steeple on the building and get a new sound system. The pitch seemed to have worked: The number of kids at St. Jude receiving vouchers jumped from 86 in 2012 to 304 in 2015.
Indiana's choice law prohibits the state from regulating the curriculum of schools getting vouchers, so millions of dollars of the state education budget are subsidizing schools whose curricula teaches creationism and the stories and parables in the Bible as literal truth. Among the more popular textbooks are some from Bob Jones University that are known for teaching that humans and dinosaurs existed on the Earth at the same time and that dragons were real. BJU textbooks have also promoted a positive view of the KKK, writing in one book, "the Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross to target bootleggers, wife beaters and immoral movies."
Other Indiana Christian voucher schools use the A Beka program, whose history books are known for whitewashing slavery. An A Beka passage on slavery notes, "A few slave holders were undeniably cruel. Examples of slaves beaten to death were not common, neither were they unknown. The majority of slave holders treated their slaves well." (For a comprehensive look at both curricula, see here.)
The Indiana Christian Academy uses curricula from both Bob Jones and A Beka while Kingsway Christian School in Avon, Indiana, spends some of its taxpayer money to take kids on field trips to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where they can learn how dinosaur bones prove the truth of Noah's Ark and the Great Flood. Teaching creationism as fact in public or charter schools is illegal because of First Amendment prohibitions on the government advocating religion, but there's nothing stopping schools funded with public vouchers from doing it.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the kids in these schools aren't performing very well on the state's standardized tests, putting voucher schools among the state's worst-performing schools. The three campuses of Horizon Christian Academy rank near the bottom. Two of its schools were once for-profit charter schools that lost their charters because they were badly underperforming. They reconstituted as private religious schools and now take taxpayer-funded vouchers. In 2015, less than 9 percent of the students at one of the Horizon campuses passed the state standardized tests in math and English, a rate worse than most of the state's public schools from which the vouchers were supposed to provide an escape.
A study by researchers at Notre Dame University published last year shows that in the first three years of the program, Indiana kids who left public schools to attend voucher schools saw their math scores decline in comparison with their peers who remained in regular public schools. The public school students saw improvements in their English skills, but the voucher kids' results stayed flat. The voucher schools can't necessarily blame low test scores on poverty, either. According to data from the state, today more than 60 percent of the voucher students in Indiana are white, and more than half of them have never even attended any public school, much less a failing one. Some of the fastest growth in voucher use has occurred in some of the state's most affluent suburbs. The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a Chicago-based think tank, recently concluded that because white children's participation in the voucher program dwarfed the next largest racial group by 44 points, the vouchers were effectively helping to resegregate public schools.
Yet Pence and Trump himself have made it clear they intend to push Indiana's voucher program on the rest of the country, and the president-elect has said he wants to push states to devote another $110 billion to funding vouchers. Trump's choice of education secretary, Amway billionaire Betsy DeVos, has been a prominent promoter of Pence's voucher program as well. Her family has poured millions of dollars into a political action committee that promoted vouchers in Indiana and other states and also backed pro-voucher politicians in Indiana, including Pence himself and the state school superintendents.
But all these fans of religious vouchers may find one detail in Indiana's history disturbing, especially given their outspoken condemnation of Muslims. Pence has made clear he believes the United States is "in a war against radical Islam." Last year, as governor, he tried to ban Syrian refugees from resettling in Indiana following the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015. And Trump proposed banning all Muslims from entering the United States. Yet Pence's favorite education reform ensured that Indiana tax dollars paid for students to attend schools like the MTI School of Knowledge in Indianapolis.
MTI stands for Madrasa Tul-Ilm. It's an Islamic school, where 90 percent of its 225 students receive state voucher funding for their tuition, according to the school, to the tune of more than $1 million a year, making it one of the largest recipients of state voucher money. Thanks to the vouchers, the number of students attending MTI is now triple what it was in 2011.
In 2013, a young Muslim man named Akram I. Musleh attended the school for about eight weeks, as he bounced around several schools on his way to becoming radicalized. In September, he was indicted for providing material support to terrorists after allegedly trying to join ISIS. The school wouldn't confirm whether Musleh himself was the beneficiary of a state-funded tuition voucher.
Here's How to Save Obamacare
Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law. In fact, he vowed to ask Congress to deliver a full repeal "on day one." Can he do that?
Well, no one can stop him from asking. But can Congress make it happen? Even a Republican Congress? The answer turns out to be sort of complicated. The legislative basics I'm about to spell out apply to everything Trump wants to do, so if you're following along at home, here's what to watch for over the next few months.
Let's take the easiest option first. The only thing stopping Congress from a simple and total repeal of Obamacare is the fact that Democrats can filibuster any repeal bill in the Senate. Republicans need 60 votes to override a filibuster, and they don't have them.
But what if they abolish the filibuster? Democrats got rid of it for lower-court judicial nominees and executive appointees in 2013, and Republicans could do the same for ordinary legislation if they wanted—because, ironically, you can't filibuster a vote to eliminate the filibuster. If Republicans do this, the Obamacare question is simple: It's dead. Congress merely has to pass repeal legislation with a simple majority and send it to President Trump's desk for his signature.
However, this is an unlikely scenario, since plenty of Republicans are wary of abolishing the filibuster. After all, it's a handy excuse to have around should mistrustful tea partiers start wondering why Congress hasn't implemented their entire agenda. Plus, Republicans may need it themselves someday. So let's move on. What can Republicans do with a simple majority?
This is where it gets complicated. Senate rules don't permit a filibuster of budget bills. Anything that significantly affects spending or taxing is subject to a procedure called reconciliation, which allows passage by a simple majority. Thus, the health insurance subsidies and the new taxes in Obamacare could be eliminated via reconciliation because they affect the budget. However, nothing extraneous to taxing and spending is allowed in a reconciliation bill. Another rule—the Byrd rule—defines exactly what "extraneous" means.
But who interprets the Byrd rule? In practice, the Senate parliamentarian—an obscure official who guides lawmakers though the Senate's byzantine rules and precedents—does this. So one possibility for Republicans is to argue that Obamacare should be considered a single entity that affects the federal budget, and that it can therefore be repealed as a single entity. If they put enough pressure on the parliamentarian, they might get a favorable ruling. In fact, back in 2001 Senate Republicans simply fired the parliamentarian when they didn't get the rulings they wanted.
If Republicans take this route and get a favorable ruling, then once again Obamacare is dead. Republicans simply include reconciliation instructions in the budget bill, and when the budget is eventually passed, a full Obamacare repeal is included.
But let's assume Republicans won't do this, either. It would stretch the Byrd rule into a pretzel, and they're probably as loath to do that as they are to eliminate the filibuster. This brings us to the most likely real-world scenario: the filibuster stays and the Byrd rule stays. In that case, what can Republicans repeal—and what can't they? Here's where it gets really complicated.
It turns out they can repeal a lot. In a 2015 dry run, both houses of Congress passed a reconciliation bill that included a repeal of most things people identify with Obamacare: the subsidies, the individual mandate, the expansion of Medicaid, all of Obamacare's new taxes, and several smaller provisions. These were approved by the parliamentarian and would presumably pass muster again. (Obama vetoed the legislation a few days after it was passed.)
Although this sounds like a pretty thorough dismantling of Obamacare, it's not. The original legislation was more than 1,000 pages long and contained hundreds of obscure but important regulations that Republicans can't touch under reconciliation. Of these, one is by far the most important: preexisting conditions. Obamacare bans insurance companies from refusing to cover people with preexisting conditions, which means that if you apply for coverage, they're required to sell it to you at the same price they'd sell it to anyone else. This particular provision of Obamacare clearly doesn't affect the federal budget, so it can't be repealed via reconciliation.
And that's a big problem for the GOP. More than two-thirds of the country approves of this provision of the law, and Trump has said he wants to keep it. Republicans don't have the votes to repeal it anyway. So what happens if you keep this provision but get rid of everything else?
Well, consider me. A little more than two years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer, which is currently being held at bay by about $100,000 worth of treatment per year. If I hadn't been insured before that, I would have immediately bought insurance as soon as I found out. This means that some unlucky insurance company would have been forced to sell me health coverage even though it'd be guaranteed a huge loss on my policy.
Now what happens if lots of other people do the same thing? What if millions of healthy people skip health insurance entirely, buying it only if they get diagnosed with an expensive condition? This would have only a small impact on the employer market, since corporations insure everyone who works for them—which means insurance companies make plenty of money from healthy people to offset their losses from the small number of expensive patients.
But in the individual market, which accounts for about 7 percent of the total, healthy people would stay out while sick people would pile in. Insurance companies could lose tremendous amounts of money, and they'd have only two ways to respond. The first would be to stratospherically raise premiums for everybody. This is what happened in New York after state lawmakers passed a bill in 1992 requiring insurance companies to cover everyone. (Obamacare eventually helped bring down New York premiums.) The second response would be to simply stop selling individual policies. Millions of people would be left with nowhere to get insurance at all.
This is what Republicans have to deal with. It's political suicide, which means they have to find some way to save the individual market even with the preexisting-conditions provision in place. Is it possible?
One place to look is "A Better Way," a set of proposals from House Speaker Paul Ryan. The health care portion is 37 pages long and specifically says, "No American should ever be denied coverage or face a coverage exclusion on the basis of a pre-existing condition." How does he manage that?
First, Ryan's plan wouldn't allow people to stop or start coverage whenever they wanted. Instead, insurance companies would be required to sell policies only to people who have maintained continuous coverage—and Ryan's plan would provide refundable tax credits to help pay for it. In other words, unlike the Obamacare individual mandate, which encourages people to buy insurance by assessing a tax penalty on anyone who remains uncovered, Ryan's plan encourages people to buy insurance by threatening them with the inability to get coverage if they ever get sick.
But what about people who don't maintain continuous coverage despite the incentives? After all, Ryan's plan specifically says it covers everyone. The answer is high-risk pools run by the states. Each state would run an insurance program specifically for people who can't get insurance anywhere else. However, this pool would mainly consist of the very sick, which means insurance premiums would have to be very high. To help out with this cost, Ryan's plan includes $25 billion in federal subsidies—where the money would come from isn't completely clear—to keep the pools solvent even though premiums would be capped at a moderate level. Unlike the Obamacare subsidies, which are usually paid directly to the insurance companies, Ryan's subsidies would be paid to the states, which would then turn them over to the insurance companies.
Finally, for the very poorest people, Ryan's plan relies on Medicaid, which it suggests it could make more efficient via state-level flexibility and better incentives.
If you haven't yet noticed what this all means, let me spell it out. The key parts of Obamacare and Ryan's plan are the same. They both (a) rely on private insurance, (b) require insurance companies to cover people with preexisting conditions, (c) encourage people to buy insurance continuously by penalizing them if they don't, (d) provide billions of dollars in federal subsidies to make insurance affordable for low-income households, and (e) rely on Medicaid for the very poorest.
In other words, Ryancare is basically Obamacare by another name. This is no coincidence. Health insurance, like any other kind of insurance, fundamentally relies on access to a large, random pool of people. In any given year, the few sick ones are paid for by the large number of healthy ones. But once you tinker with that by allowing healthy people to opt out, the whole system collapses. One way or another, you can save it only by forcing healthy people back into the pool and then providing subsidies to the ones who can't afford coverage no matter what the law requires of them.
Ryan's plan does that, but would it pass muster in court? After all, Obamacare's preexisting-conditions provision would still be in place, because Republicans can't repeal it. As long as that's the case, someone with an expensive condition would be certain to sue, arguing that they still have the right to buy a plan from any insurer of their choosing regardless of whether they've maintained continuous coverage—and to buy it at the same price as anyone else. That's a strong argument, which means this part of Ryan's plan is likely to be struck down in court. Unless Republicans figure out a way to repeal the preexisting-conditions provision—perhaps by threatening havoc unless Democrats go along—there's a good chance Ryan's plan would fall apart. This would leave millions of people with serious health problems and no coverage, and Republicans taking the blame for it.
Finally, there's one last scenario to consider. Let's suppose a friendly court allows Ryan's plan to replace Obamacare. Does this mean health coverage will be as good under Ryancare (or Trumpcare) as it is under Obamacare? Not at all. The basics are necessarily similar, but the Republican plan will be difficult to implement and is far less generous. Ryan's plan, for example, budgets $25 billion for high-risk pools, while Obamacare budgets more than twice as much for its subsidies—and experience has shown that even this is barely adequate. Likewise, Ryan's plan eliminates Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, and it would be unlikely to make up for that with its various hand-waving proposals for wiping out fraud and improving efficiency. Almost certainly, millions of people would lose coverage entirely, and millions more would have to pay more for health insurance. Losing Obamacare in this way would cause tremendous hardship for a huge number of people.
Beyond this, there are a number of things President Trump could do to undermine Obamacare without waiting for Congress to act. He could remove resources from the enrollment program, making it harder for people to sign up. He could effectively end the individual mandate by redefining the hardship exemption to include anyone who simply says they can't afford insurance. He could be much more flexible about allowing states to opt out of Obamacare via innovation waivers—and he could do the same for Medicaid waivers. Timothy Jost, a health care law expert, points out that Trump could also encourage insurance companies to drop out of the program, effectively killing it off. The Trump team's words are important, he says, and what insurers do going forward "depends on signals they send over the next couple of months."
So that's the story. If Republicans choose to use extraordinary means—either axing the filibuster or bullying the Senate parliamentarian—they can fully repeal Obamacare and replace it with anything they want. Alternatively, they can leave the preexisting-conditions provision in place—along with all the other regulations they can't touch—and create chaos by repealing everything else. But if they're not willing to do that—and they probably aren't, if only for reasons of political survival—Obamacare's preexisting-conditions provision provides Democrats with some leverage. Republicans need Democratic votes to repeal the provision and pass a workable law, which means that if Democrats hold out they can certainly get a far better deal than Ryan's plan. They might even be able to stop the Obamacare repeal in its tracks. It all depends on how well they play their hand.