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Are blaring headlines a diversion from Trump’s agenda?

Political junkies will be transfixed Monday when FBI Director James Comey talks about wiretaps and Russian interference to the House Intelligence Committee. But is it all a distraction?

President Donald Trump has launched the most activist presidency since Ronald Reagan's first months, almost 40 years ago. With the support of Congress, the president is rewriting the rules around health care; his first budget proposes staggering cuts to spending on domestic programs, while ramping up spending on defence; Congress and the administration will soon set about a wholesale reform of tax code.

But these issues, which should dominate the news every day, often take a back seat to efforts to temporarily ban visitors from certain Muslim countries, or Mr. Trump's claim that Barack Obama tapped his phone during the election campaign. As the headlines roar, work on the Trump agenda continues.

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Read more: Comey faces panel into Russia-Trump ties

Both Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees have said they have found no evidence of government surveillance of the Trump campaign, and Mr. Comey has reportedly declared off the record that the FBI did no such thing. He will probably say as much on the record Monday.

As for whether there are any ties between the Russian government and the Trump election team, or the Trump administration, for that matter, "a sure sign that the Russia Connection is not that big a deal is if Comey talks about it," Benjamin Wittes wrote on the weekend in Lawfare, where he is editor-in-chief.

Mr. Wittes predicts that, if Mr. Comey has concluded there are no real ties between the Kremlin and the West Wing, he will speak freely about what the FBI has found. While some of those findings might embarrass the President or his advisers, the damage should be minor.

If, however, the FBI is actively investigating a possible criminal conspiracy involving the Trump team and the Russian government, then the FBI director will protect the integrity of that investigation by refusing to discuss it.

But the claims and counterclaims around wiretaps and Russian interference, while wonderfully salacious, don't influence the day-to-day lives of citizens. The President's legislative agenda is a different story.

The administration and the Republican-led Congress are making good progress in their efforts to repeal Obamacare. The American Health Care Act, as the Republican substitute is called, would strip 14 million Americans of their health coverage within a year, according to the Congressional Budget Office, with another 10 million losing coverage over the coming decade.

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While moderate conservatives fear the bill goes too far, and extreme right-wingers complain it doesn't go far enough, GOP House Leader Paul Ryan is confident that he has found the "sweet spot," as he put it, that will allow the legislation to pass in both the House and Senate.

"We feel like we're on track," he told Fox News Sunday. "We are right where we want to be." The House could pass the bill as early as Thursday.

Congress is also grappling with a proposed budget that the White House sent to the Hill last week. President Trump's first budget would preserve social security payments, while increasing defence spending by 10 per cent, at the cost of savage cuts elsewhere.

Foreign aid would be slashed by 28 per cent, and the State Department budget would be cut by a similar amount.

The Environmental Protection Agency would lose 31 per cent of its funding, including all funding to fight climate change.

"I think the President was fairly straightforward – we're not spending money on that any more," Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters. "We consider that to be a waste of your money."

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Other departments also face serious cuts, and some programs would be eliminated altogether, including the National Endowment for the Humanities and funding for public broadcasting.

Not all of this will come to pass: Congress is ultimately responsible for the budget, and senators and representatives will protect local interests. But a Republican Congress will have a hard time saying no to increases in defence spending, or letting the deficit balloon, so cuts are coming, one way or another.

The President and his allies in Congress are also committed to sweeping tax reform, which could include a tax on imports – very bad news for Canada. And there are many other commitments: renegotiating trade agreements, the wall on the southern border, demands for increased defence spending from America's allies.

This activist President may horrify with his mendacious tweets or his rude treatment of foreign leaders, but the agenda is what matters. That agenda is being implemented at full speed.

Video: Opinion: John Ibbitson: Conservatives have a values choice to make, Harper versus Trump
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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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