The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Jeff Sessions Isn’t Going Anywhere


New White House chief of staff John Kelly, in one of his first acts in his new post, called Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reassure him that his position was safe despite the recent onslaught of criticism he has taken from President Donald Trump.

Kelly called Sessions on Saturday to stress that the White House was supportive of his work and wanted him to continue his job, according to two people familiar with the call. The people demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about a private conversation. Kelly, who was appointed to the post the day before, described the president as still miffed at Sessions but did not plan to fire him or hope he would resign.

Trump’s public scapegoating of Sessions was perhaps his lowest point as president, arguably the most self-destructive expression of presidential rage in recent memory. The true accelerant for the Russia investigation was Trump’s sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey, not Sessions’ recusal. The fact that the president was willing to publicly vent his blame-shifting fury at Sessions, a man who had stuck with him through thick and thin, and who had been one of his first and most important supporters, was one of the best pieces of evidence that Trump was increasingly growing too impulsive and erratic to function in the job. He keeps chasing away his own allies and handing his enemies more ammunition.

Maybe Kelly is righting the ship. Maybe.

Two Good Bills for Veterans Head to the President’s Desk

Thank bipartisan support for helping veterans, or lingering anger over the previous scandals at the Department of Veterans Affairs, but whatever the reason, Congress is managing to get legislation passed addressing veterans’ needs.

First, Congress finally worked out a deal on funding for Veterans Choice. If you believe that veterans should be able to seek out and get the best care wherever they prefer, whether it’s within the VA or from a private health care provider, Veterans Choice is a nice half-step, but hardly a sweeping change. (The booming demand for treatment through the program can be interpreted in veterans’ interest in exploring other treatment options.)

Under Veterans Choice, any veteran who lives 40 miles or more from the closest VA medical facility, or who faces a 30-day or more wait time, can seek out treatment from a private facility and the VA will handle the payment. (Veterans in Alaska and Hawaii are automatically enrolled in the program, and for New Hampshire, the distance requirement is only 20 miles.)

The accusation from some on Capitol Hill, particularly Democrats, is that Veterans Choice is some sort of step on the road to “privatizing” the VA. But the government-run health care system, for all of its flaws, is probably irreplaceable, at least for a long while. While there are VA institutions that fall far short of the public’s expectations, there are plenty of ones that offer excellent care, and plenty of veterans who are satisfied with their treatment. VA hospitals specialize in treating the types of injuries and health ailments that veterans are most likely to suffer, particularly limb replacement and PTSD.

VA secretary David Shulkin is probably breathing a little easier, as he had estimated that the Veterans Choice program would run out of money this week. “Congress took an important step in helping the VA to continue to build an integrated system that allows veterans to receive the best healthcare possible, whether from VA or the private sector,” Shulkin said. “The $2.1 billion in Choice funding ensures there will be no disruptions to quality care for our veterans.”

Concerned Veterans for America, one of the groups most enthusiastic about promoting choice for veterans, is slightly dissatisfied that the $2.1 billion in Choice funding had to be attached to $1.8 billion in funding new leases for VA medical centers, which they would have preferred be considered separately.

“The good news is that veterans who are able to successfully use the Choice Program won’t have to worry about lapses in their care,” said CVA’s policy director, Dan Caldwell. “The bad news is that this bill is unnecessarily costly because some veterans groups and elected officials decided to make this moment about political games instead of veterans’ needs. We saw a preview of how opponents of expanding veterans’ access to health care will try to inject their anti-choice agenda into the legislative process in upcoming months.”

The Senate also passed the “Forever GI Bill,” a series of reforms to veterans’ education benefits. The most significant change enacted by the legislation is that future service members will be able to use their GI Bill benefits at any point in their lifetimes, doing away with a previous 15-year limit. Members of the National Guard and Reserve who are training, deployed, or undergoing certain medical treatment related to their service will be able to accrue benefits like active duty service members; veterans who are studying science, technology, engineering, or math receive additional benefits if their field of study requires additional credits; and if a service member dies before being able to use the benefits, they transfer to a dependent.

“This bill will launch a new era for all who have honorably served in uniform, and for the nation as a whole,” said Charles E. Schmidt, national commander of the American Legion, in an issued statement. “In essence, it will help today’s GI Bill live up to the world-changing accomplishments of the original, which transformed America after World War II.”

These may not seem like the biggest pieces of legislation in the world, but to some veterans, they’re going to make a consequential difference in their lives.

Hey, Remember Common Core, Continued . . . 

Following yesterday’s update about Common Core, and the New York Times’ casual mention that there’s been no discernable improvement in students’ writing skills, Frederick Hess at AEI points to his 2014 piece revealing how the idea was sold as all things to all people, and how its advocates have largely ignored or mocked valid criticism. A good sample:

Common Core advocates have been battered with bad press over poorly designed class assignments. Advocates say it’s misguided to blame Common Core for dumb math lessons or worksheets because the Common Core is simply a set of standards and not a curriculum. Reports of ridiculous worksheets or infuriating homework assignments may well be unfortunate instances of teachers getting it wrong, but if an organization adopts an otherwise wonderful mission statement that lots of employees proceed to interpret “incorrectly,” it is not unreasonable to raise questions about the whole exercise. In point of fact, the Common Core is very much a blank canvas, and given the faddish pedagogies endemic to American education, critics are hardly being unreasonable when they worry that the Common Core may invite new-age goofiness into the classroom.

If Common Core is as good as its advocates contended . . .  shouldn’t we see a dramatic improvement in student scores right about now?

ADDENDA: Indulge me a little.

We’re twelve episodes in to the 18-episode run of Twin Peaks, probably the last portrayal of the fictional town and its residents that we’ll ever see. We’ve been told to think of it as an 18-hour movie or an 18-chapter novel instead of 18 separate episodes. The first two “acts” of the story are, presumably, complete.

Back in March, Entertainment Weekly made the show’s return its cover story and offered three covers, sold simultaneously. The covers featured nine members of the original cast who are in the new Showtime series, as well as co-creator and director David Lynch, who plays a hard-of-hearing, goofy FBI deputy director.

The characters featured on the cover were . . . 

1) Nadine Hurley, who has been seen three times briefly, with perhaps one line of dialogue.

2) Big Ed Hurley, unseen so far.

3) James Hurley, who appeared in one scene in the pilot. I can’t even remember if he had a line of dialogue.

4) Laura Palmer, who appeared in one scene in the pilot.

5) Dale Cooper. We’ve seen plenty of Kyle MacLachlan, but he’s mostly been playing the manifestation of his character’s evil side and a mentally impaired man-child. The main character of the original series has been gone since episode three.

6) Audrey Horne, who finally appeared last week, in a really odd, opaque, and seemingly deliberately confusing scene.

7) Shelley Johnson, who has gotten a bit more to do in the past few episodes.

8) Bobby Briggs, perhaps the member of the old cast who’s gotten the most to do so far, although even he’s only been a key figure in four or five episodes.

9) Norma Jennings, who has appeared in probably four episodes and spoken no more than a half-dozen lines of dialogue.

In the promotion before the show aired, David Lynch said, “I love these characters, and I love the actors and actresses. This was like getting together for a family reunion.” Does he really love these characters? Because they seem to be getting little more than cameos. It’s no longer “too early to judge.”

I won’t give Lynch or Mark Frost any grief about not using characters when the actor died or wasn’t interested in coming back. This knocked out Sheriff Harry Truman, Donna, Major Briggs, BOB, and the Little Man from Another Place. And perhaps I should evaluate the show in light of the difficulty of writing around those absences; any of those first three could have been the centerpiece of a new show, and the last two are pretty iconic and central to the narrative.

But they’ve got MacLachlan, and the coaches are benching their best player, so to speak. One of the biggest strengths of the original show, perhaps its defining strength, was the fascinating protagonist Dale Cooper. Quirky, smart, unpredictable, funny, the audience surrogate as a stranger in town . . .  and Lynch and Frost seem to have no interest in bringing that character back.