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Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., heads to the Senate subway following a vote in the Capitol on Jan. 8, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

Senate easily advances criminal justice reform bill, ignores Cotton

12/19/18 08:40AM

A few weeks ago, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) talked to Bloomberg News' Steven Dennis, and as the longtime Capitol Hill reporter put it, the far-right senator was "as certain as almost anyone I've ever seen declaring that the criminal justice overhaul would not pass."

Cotton was wrong. In fact, the fight wasn't even close.

The Senate passed a huge criminal law reform bill on Tuesday night, seizing on bipartisan support for the broadest set of changes to federal crime statutes in a generation.

A rare coalition of conservatives, liberals, activists, prosecutors and defense attorneys — spanning the political spectrum -- pushed senators to pass the "First Step Act" by a final vote of 87-12.

The final roll call is online here. Note, all 12 opponents were Republicans, though most of the Senate GOP leadership, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), voted for it.

The House passed a similar version of the bill earlier in the year, but because of changes made in the Senate, the proposal will head back to the lower chamber for another vote. It's expected to pass before the House wraps up its work for the year, and Donald Trump has promised to sign it.

In an era in which the nation appears bitterly divided, and the search for common ground between the parties seems almost pointless, the progress on the First Step Act offers an unfamiliar sight: bipartisan cooperation on an issue of national significance.

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Trump's school-safety commission, led by DeVos, comes up far short

12/19/18 08:00AM

In February, following the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., there was an expectation that Donald Trump and his administration should do more than just offer "thoughts and prayers." The president announced he was taking action -- by asking Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to oversee a commission to "study and make recommendations" on school safety.

Three months later, following the mass shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Tex., the White House said Trump had "activated" the commission "to start that conversation up again." The implication was that the panel hadn't done much work in the interim.

But as 2018 comes to a close, the DeVos-led commission is apparently wrapping up its work and sharing its suggestions. Prepare to be underwhelmed.

A school safety commission created by President Donald Trump in the wake of the massacre in Parkland, Florida, has recommended that an Obama-era policy to reduce racial disparities in school discipline be rescinded, according to a report released by the panel on Tuesday.

The Federal Commission on School Safety said that it was "deeply troubled" by the Obama administration's 2014 guidance, which warned schools that they could be violating federal law if their discipline policies targeted minority students at higher rates.

Oh. So, in response to deadly massacres in American schools, Trump's commission on school safety turned its focus toward easing restrictions of racial disparities in school discipline.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who'll soon chair the U.S. House committee that deals with education, responded, "The report makes no recommendations to address the common denominator in school tragedies -- easy access to assault-style firearms designed for the battlefield. Rather than confronting the role of guns in gun violence, the Trump administration blames school shootings on civil rights enforcement."

This has the added benefit of being true.

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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 12.18.18

12/18/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* I wonder what else he may have said that's untrue: "As questions swirl about his credibility, former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone settled a defamation suit seeking $100 million in damages on Monday for publishing false and misleading statements on, a far-right website known for promoting conspiracy theories."

* A case to watch: "California and 15 other states asked a federal judge on Monday to protect current health care coverage for millions of Americans while courts sort out the implications of his ruling that the Affordable Care Act was invalid in its entirety."

* The right thing to do: "After months of waiting, a Yemeni mother has been granted permission by the State Department to fly to California to say goodbye to her dying 2-year-old son, according to her attorney."

* I've written about Blum's case a few times, and the facts look awful for him: "The Office of Congressional Ethics released its report on allegations against Iowa Republican Rod Blum Monday, while the House Ethics Committee announced that it is continuing its own inquiry, but likely not for long."

* The word "bailout" apparently sounds bad, so the White House has euphemisms: "President Donald Trump on Monday said he authorized a second round of payments from an aid package of up to $12 billion designed to help farmers stung by the U.S. trade war with China, billing it as a promise kept to a key constituency.... 'I have authorized Secretary Perdue to implement the 2nd round of Market Facilitation Payments,' he said, referring to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue."

* Donald Trump wants the Federal Reserve to "feel the market."

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Image: President Trump and Prime Minister Abe Press Conference at White House

Judge to Michael Flynn: 'Arguably, you sold your country out'

12/18/18 04:27PM

Former White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has already pleaded guilty to a variety of crimes, though he expected the sentencing phase to go relatively smoothly. Both his defense attorneys and prosecutors agreed that Flynn -- a cooperating witness in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation -- should not face a prison sentence.

But the sentencing recommendations are really just advisory, and courts can go their own way. Today, the judge in Flynn's case examined his misdeeds and took the proceedings in an unexpected direction.

A federal judge, in a dramatic hearing on Tuesday, agreed to delay the sentencing hearing for former national security adviser Michael Flynn because he may be able to provide additional cooperation to federal investigators, and get credit for it.

Flynn was due to be sentenced for lying to the FBI last year about his contacts with Russian officials in the aftermath of the 2016 campaign as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference.

But during Tuesday's hearing, Sullivan pulled few punches when it came to Flynn's conduct, saying he couldn't hide his "disgust" with the retired Army lieutenant general and questioned why he hadn't been charged with treason.

Sullivan, about whom conservatives had high hopes, told Flynn at one point, "Arguably, you sold your country out" by working as an unregistered foreign agent. The judge even broached the subject of "treason," though he later downplayed the comments.

Once it became clear that a prison sentence may very well be in Flynn's future, Donald Trump's former national security adviser and his attorneys asked to postpone the sentencing process. At this point, Flynn will try to provide additional information to federal investigators, in the hopes that additional cooperation will lead to a more favorable sentence.

More than a few Republicans have invested quite a bit of time and energy into the idea that Flynn's crimes were minor and inconsequential. The president himself said the retired general merely made "the smallest of misstatements."

The judge in this case took a good look at what Flynn did and came to a very different conclusion.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen during a press conference at Los Pinos on Aug. 31, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/LatinContent/Getty)

As it closes, Trump Foundation accused of 'shocking' illegalities

12/18/18 02:01PM

The Washington Post published a short but memorable sentence the other day: "Two years after Donald Trump won the presidency, nearly every organization he has led in the past decade is under investigation."

This has the added benefit of being true. The president himself is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation, which is a rough starting point, but it looks worse when we note that Trump's campaign, private business, and inaugural committee have also faced investigations. Heck, even Trump University was credibly accused of fraud before the president settled the case (after promising he wouldn't).

But I continue to believe the Trump Foundation's scandal is the underappreciated controversy of the Trump era. The so-called "charity" announced today that it will permanently close its doors.

The Trump Foundation -- the charitable foundation started by President Donald Trump years before he became a presidential candidate, which New York's top prosecutor said exhibited a "shocking pattern of illegality" -- will dissolve according to a court filing.

The foundation will give away its assets to other non-profit organizations in the next 30 days, according to an agreement between state prosecutors and the Trump Foundation, according to an agreement reached between New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood and the Trump Foundation.

It does not stop the lawsuit by AG's office has filed against the foundation, which was formed in 1987 and that action will continue.

For those looking for some kind accountability, the fact that the scrutiny will continue is itself important -- because the scope and scale of the alleged wrongdoing is simply amazing.

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Image: Reported Shooting At Mandalay Bay In Las Vegas

Trump administration advances ban on 'bump stocks'

12/18/18 12:46PM

At a White House press conference in early October, Donald Trump boasted, "We're knocking out bump stocks. I've told the NRA. I've told them. Bump stocks are gone."

The president, added. "And over the next couple of weeks, I'll be able to write it up."

Today, as the Associated Press reported, the new policy is starting to come into focus.

The Trump administration moved Tuesday to officially ban bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic weapons to fire rapidly like automatic firearms, and has made them illegal to possess beginning in late March.

The devices will be banned under a federal law that prohibits machine guns, according to a senior Justice Department official.

It's taken a while to get to this point. Bump stocks came to the fore more than a year ago, when a gunman killed 58 people in Las Vegas, firing approximately 90 rounds in 10 seconds during the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.

The White House announced a proposed ban nine months ago. It'll now go into effect 90 days after the new regulation is formally published, a move that's expected to happen later this week.

But while reform advocates are eager to see any kind of new restrictions that might save lives, today's news comes with some significant caveats.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.18.18

12/18/18 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.

* Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) announced this morning that he's appointing Rep. Martha McSally (R) to fill the Senate seat once held by Sen. John McCain (R). McSally will have to run to keep that seat in two years, and given that fact that the Republican congresswoman just lost a Senate race last month, it's a safe bet Democrats will target this race.

* In the first big retirement announcement of the 2020 election cycle, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) announced he won't seek a fourth term in two years. As the 2018 results in the Volunteer State helped prove, even the most electable Democrats find it awfully tough to compete in Tennessee, but it'll be interesting to see whether Alexander is the first of many retirements.

* On a related note, Donald Trump reportedly reached out to Alexander and urged him not to retire. Evidently, the senator was unmoved.

* Less than a week after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed a new measure limiting early voting in his state, progressive groups have already filed suit in federal court, asking a judge to reject the new policy.

* Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., announced yesterday that he won't seek a third term. The Democratic Hoosier -- who's also a veteran of the war in Iraq and a Rhodes Scholar -- has been rumored to be interested in a possible 2020 presidential campaign, and Buttigieg did little to knock down that chatter yesterday.

* As 2018 draws to a close, Gallup's new report shows Donald Trump's approval rating dropping to 38%, as his disapproval rating inched higher to 57%.

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The Arizona-Mexico border fence near Naco, Arizona, March 29, 2013.

White House eyes defense funds for Trump's border priorities

12/18/18 11:22AM

Donald Trump has argued for quite a while that he expects Congress to approve $5 billion in taxpayer-funded spending for his proposed border wall. If lawmakers balk, the president has said he's prepared to shut down the government.

This morning, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested Trump will not follow through on those threats. The Washington Post  reported:

...Sanders told Fox News Channel: "We have other ways that we can get to that $5 billion."

"At the end of the day we don't want to shut down the government, we want to shut down the border," Sanders said.

Sanders said the White House was exploring other funding sources and believed it could be legally done.

To the extent that people were concerned about a shutdown in three days, Sanders' rhetoric, if it's to be believed, is reassuring. The sooner the White House backs off its demands for $5 billion for a border wall, the sooner Congress can keep the government's lights on and start preparing to leave town for the holidays.

But when Trump's chief spokesperson hints at "other ways" to get the money, it's important to ask for details about the alternate revenue streams.

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