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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 7.18.18

07/18/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Maria Butina's case: "The Russian woman arrested this week on charges of being a foreign agent had ties to Russian intelligence operatives and was in contact with them while in the United States, federal prosecutors said Wednesday."

* In case you missed this yesterday: "A federal judge has rejected former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's bid to have his looming trial on tax and bank-fraud charges moved from Alexandria, Virginia, to Roanoke, about 200 miles outside the Beltway."

* The OSU controversy: "Five former Ohio State University wrestlers have filed two separate class-action lawsuits in federal court, alleging the university knew about sexual abuse by physician Richard Strauss decades ago but failed to stop his misconduct."

* In related news: "Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio met with investigators on Monday as part of Ohio State University's ongoing investigation into accusations that a wrestling team doctor sexually abused athletes more than 20 years ago."

* More tariffs on the way? "The Commerce Department is opening an investigation into whether imports of uranium -- the chemical element that fuels nuclear power -- pose a risk to national security."

* Even by 2018 standards, this was foolish: "Members of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday pushed executives from Google, Facebook and Twitter about purported political biases on their platforms -- and used conspiracy theories from far-right websites to do so."

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Obama blasts leaders who reject 'facts' and 'make stuff up'

07/18/18 04:23PM

On a handful of occasions, former President Barack Obama has spoken out, carefully and judiciously, when Donald Trump has pursued policies that put "our core values" at stake, at least as far as the Democrat is concerned. In each instance, however, Obama has gone out of his way to avoid mentioning his successor by name.

But as a rule, when the former president shares his thoughts on major political developments, it's not difficult to read between the lines.

Former President Barack Obama on Tuesday laid out a progressive vision for the future in direct rebuke to what he called the "politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment" that have taken hold around the world.

In remarks honoring the 100th anniversary of anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela's birth, delivered in South Africa a day after President Donald Trump was roundly criticized for cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Obama denounced creeping authoritarianism and warned against "strongman politics" practiced by leaders who ignore facts and "seek to undermine every institution ... that gives democracy meaning."

Among other things, the former American president touted the importance of international cooperation, lamented the prevalence of "racial nationalism," denounced the fact that the "free press is under attack," and condemned immigration policies "based on race, or ethnicity, or religion."

Obama went on to say, "Those who traffic in absolutes when it comes to policy, whether it's on the left or the right, they make democracy unworkable. You can't expect to get 100 percent of what you want all the time; sometimes, you have to compromise. That doesn't mean abandoning your principles, but instead it means holding on to those principles and then having the confidence that they're going to stand up to a serious democratic debate. That's how America's founders intended our system to work -- that through the testing of ideas and the application of reason and proof it would be possible to arrive at a basis for common ground.

"And I should add for this to work, we have to actually believe in an objective reality. This is another one of these things that I didn't have to lecture about. You have to believe in facts. Without facts, there is no basis for cooperation..... Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up. They just make stuff up."

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President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Republican members of Congress on immigration in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Wednesday, June 20, 2018, in Washington.

Is Russia targeting the midterms? Trump again contradicts intel agencies

07/18/18 02:10PM

Given recent developments, Donald Trump should probably go out of his way to endorse the U.S. intelligence community's findings, especially when it comes to Russia and election interference.

And yet, the president just can't seem to help himself. [Update: see below]

President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that he does not believe Russia is still targeting the U.S., day after he attempted to quell the backlash over his widely rebuked comments in Helsinki where he contradicted his intelligence community's assessment that Moscow had interfered in the 2016 election.

"No," the president answered when asked if Russia is still trying to influence American elections.

That may seem like an unusually brief quote, so pay careful attention to the context. Trump was wrapping up a White House meeting, and an aide was trying to clear reporters from the room. What often happens, however, is that the president will engage in some brief, impromptu Q&A.

With that in mind, a reporter asked if Russia is still targeting the United States ahead of this year's midterm elections, and Trump offered a one-word response: "No."

The trouble, of course, is that the president is almost certainly wrong. We know this with some certainty because the Trump administration has told us so.

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A man walks across the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency at the lobby of the Original Headquarters Building at the CIA headquarters on Feb. 19, 2009 in McLean, Va. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

Tensions between Trump and US intelligence agencies reach a new level

07/18/18 12:47PM

There was an unexpected development in the White House yesterday, when Donald Trump tried to express support for the American intelligence professionals he insulted on the international stage the day before. "Let me begin by saying that, once again, the full faith and support for America's intelligence agencies -- I have a full faith in our intelligence agencies," the president said.

And as the sentence ended, the lights in the Roosevelt Room went out, briefly leaving everyone there in the dark.

As metaphors go, this was a little over the top, but it was nevertheless important. Because while the Republican president may claim to have "a full faith in our intelligence agencies," Trump's actions have created a dynamic in which our intelligence agencies don't have full faith in him. The New York Times  reported yesterday:

Few other currently serving intelligence officials were willing to speak publicly about Mr. Trump's remarks — intelligence officials are, after all, expected to work for any president no matter their politics and, in any case, most work in offices where they cannot easily speak with reporters or any outsiders. Those that would talk spoke only on the condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing their careers. But all were unanimous in saying that they and their colleagues were aghast at how Mr. Trump had handled himself with Mr. Putin.

One official summed up what appeared to be the consensus view, saying that it was clear whose side Mr. Trump was on, and "it isn't ours."

Axios spoke to one of Trump's own former National Security Council officials who described the situation as "a total [effing] disgrace," adding, "The president has lost his mind."

Well then.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.18.18

07/18/18 12:00PM

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

* As expected, incumbent Rep. Martha Roby (R) easily won her primary runoff in Alabama yesterday, defeating former Rep. Bobby Bright by 35 points. Also as expected, Donald Trump quickly claimed credit for the results.

* As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent noted yesterday, the Democrats' lead in the generic congressional ballot, according to FiveThirtyEight's averages of all polling, is now back above 9 points. The Dems' advantage is currently at its highest level since mid-March.

* We're still two months away from New York's gubernatorial primary, but a new Quinnipiac poll suggests Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is likely to prevail: the results showed the incumbent leading Cynthia Nixon, 59% to 23%.

* In a bit of a surprise, former FBI Director James Comey, a long-time Republican, published a tweet last night urging Americans to vote Democratic this year. "All who believe in this country's values must vote for Democrats this fall," Comey wrote. "Policy differences don't matter right now. History has its eyes on us."

* GOP operative Josh Holmes, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, told McClatchy News this week that Trump's condemnations of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe "is doing more to mobilize base voters than any legislative issue we've seen."

* Less than a month out from Hawaii's primaries, a new Honolulu Star-Advertiser Hawaii Poll shows a tightening Democratic gubernatorial race, with Rep. Colleen Hanabusa leading Gov. David Ige by just four points, 44% to 40%. Earlier this year, Hanabusa led by as many as 20 points.

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Image: U.S. President Trump listens to  Speaker Ryan as he gathers with Republican House members after healthcare bill vote at the White House in Washington

Ryan shows no real interest in trying to constrain Trump

07/18/18 10:45AM

Last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) made clear he disagrees with Donald Trump's trade tariffs, but the Republican lawmaker said the GOP-led Congress wouldn't even try to approve a different policy.

The Atlantic's Ron Brownstein noted that the House Speaker's posture made clear that there's nothing House Republican lawmakers intend to do to constrain the White House. "Ryan is sending an unmistakable message to voters who want any check on Trump: 'Don't look to us.'" Brownstein wrote.

As much of the political world comes to terms with Trump's support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, we're confronted with a nearly identical dynamic this week. Paul Ryan made clear yesterday he disagrees with the American president on Russia, but the congressman again suggested those looking for accountability should look elsewhere.

After endorsing the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies, and saying "there should be no doubt" about Russia's interference in American elections, Ryan had this exchange with a Capitol Hill reporter:

Q: What could you do? I mean, you guys are a co-equal branch of government. What could you do to make sure that [Trump] doesn't do something...

RYAN: Here's what we have already done and here's what we could continue to do, which is to put sanctions on Russia. You just saw the indictments from the special counsel. Those GRU officers -- I've already seen the intelligence -- they were the people that -- that conducted this cyber attack on our elections. We'd already put in place sanctions. If the Foreign Affairs Committee or the Financial Services Committee and the Senate Banking Committee think that there are other sanctions that we have not yet placed upon Russia, I'm more than happy to consider those.

And if the question were about steps Paul Ryan is prepared to take to constrain Russia, that might've been a more satisfactory answer. But the Speaker was asked about Trump.

And that was a question the Republican lawmaker seemed eager to dodge.

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Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-ELECTIONS-TRUMP

Are White House transcripts getting politically motivated touch-ups?

07/18/18 10:00AM

Among the most important moments in the Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki this week was the Russian president's concession that he wasn't neutral in the 2016 American election: Vladimir Putin acknowledged that he wanted Donald Trump to win.

Reuters reporter Jeff Mason asked, "President Putin, did you want President Trump to win the election and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?" There was an audio issue at the time, it's not clear that the Russian leader heard the second part of the question. That said, he replied, "Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal."

In context, Putin seemed to be responding directly to the first part of the question, about his political preference.

But Uri Friedman had an interesting piece  in The Atlantic yesterday, noting that the official White House transcript presented the exchange in a way that paints a misleading picture.

[I]f you watch the White House live-stream of the press conference or look at the transcript published by the White House, the first half of Mason's question is not there. Without it, the meaning of the exchange is substantially different. [...]

The discrepancies in the accounts of what was said also underscore the extent to which the Trump presidency has challenged a common understanding of reality. Even if the omission was accidental, it appears suspicious at a moment marked by the president's repeated claims that legitimate news reports are "fake."

To appreciate the nuances to this, take a look at the full piece in The Atlantic, which goes into detail. The way the White House transcript reads, when Putin said, "Yes, I did," he seemed to be adding thoughts to an answer from moments earlier about Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. But he wasn't -- the Russian president's answer was about him favoring Trump in the 2016 race.

In fairness, there may have been some technical difficulties that affected the transcription. The trouble is, the Trump White House has had some notable troubles in this area before, which makes it more difficult to give the president's team the benefit of the doubt.

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Image: US-POLITICS-JUSTICE-TRUMP

Trump's new Supreme Court nominee fails to garner broad public support

07/18/18 09:20AM

Last week, Donald Trump fielded a few questions from reporters, one of whom asked about NATO. The president's answer meandered a bit and led to some boasts about his pending Supreme Court nominee.

"Brett Kavanaugh has gotten rave reviews -- rave reviews -- actually, from both sides," Trump said. "And I think it's going to be a beautiful thing to watch over the next month. But he has gotten rave reviews."

Not from the public he hasn't. The Pew Research Center released the results yesterday of a new national survey.

A week after Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to fill Justice Anthony Kennedy's seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, the public is split in its early views of the nomination. Overall, 41% think the Senate should confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, while about as many (36%) say they should not; 23% do not offer a view on the question. Public is split on Kavanaugh's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court

In February 2017, views of Neil Gorsuch's nomination were similar, though the balance of opinion was more positive. At that time, 44% said the Senate should confirm Gorsuch to fill the seated vacated by the late Justice Antonin Scalia; fewer (32%) said it should not.

And most previous nominees to the court during the presidencies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush were initially viewed more positively than negatively.

Note, for example, that in 2005, 27% of Americans said Harriet Miers shouldn't be confirmed to the Supreme Court, less than the 36% who now say the same about Kavanaugh, and Miers' nomination was kind of ridiculous.

The results were nearly identical to those released yesterday by Gallup, which found a narrow plurality of 41% of Americans want to see Kavanaugh confirmed, while 37% do not. The report added, "This four-percentage-point margin is slimmer than any Gallup has measured in its initial read on 10 prior nominees since 1987."

As for why Kavanaugh's support is weak, and whether it'll matter, the questions get a little tricky.

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