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Friday's Mini-Report, 2.22.19

02/22/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* This is especially important in the event of a possible presidential pardon: "The Manhattan district attorney's office is moving forward in preparing a case against Paul Manafort in connection with state tax and bank fraud-related charges, a source familiar with the matter told NBC News."

* I'm very glad I didn't write a single word this week about the recent rumors about the imminent deliver of a Mueller report: "Attorney General William Barr will not receive the final report of special counsel Robert Mueller by the end of next week, says a senior Justice Department official."

* The latest Trump cabinet mess: "Prosecutors have begun presenting evidence to a grand jury in Washington in their probe of whether former interior Secretary Ryan Zinke lied to federal investigators, according to two individuals briefed on the matter."

* Venezuela: "Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on a group of civilians attempting to keep open a segment of the southern border with Brazil for deliveries of humanitarian aid, causing multiple injuries and the first fatalities of a massive opposition operation meant to deliver international relief to this devastated South American country, according to eyewitnesses and community leaders."

* Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) "wore a Confederate uniform in a photo published in his 1980 college yearbook, the Tennessean newspaper reported Thursday, in the latest instance of a state leader coming under scrutiny for past actions that critics have decried as racially insensitive."

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Women hold up signs during a women's pro-choice rally on Capitol Hill, July 11, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Targeting abortion rights, Trump unveils 'domestic gag rule'

02/22/19 04:14PM

Donald Trump, who was pro-choice in the not-too-distant past and never fit the mold of a far-right culture-war crusader, has taken a keen interest in abortion rights lately. The president peddled a few transparent falsehoods about reproductive rights during his State of the Union address, for example, and he reportedly had a heated confrontation with Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) over the issue at the recent National Prayer Breakfast.

Today's news, however, takes Trump's campaign in an even more dramatic direction.

The Trump administration says it will prohibit taxpayer-funded family planning clinics from referring women for abortions, a move certain to be challenged in court by abortion rights supporters.

The policy released Friday by the Health and Human Services Department pleased religious conservatives, a key building block of President Donald Trump's political base.

The administration plan would also prohibit family planning clinics from being housed in the same location as abortion providers.

As I always do when writing about this, I want to emphasize, in the interest of disclosure, that my wife works for Planned Parenthood. And while the White House is making changes to the family-planning program known as Title X, and those changes will affect a variety of health care organizations that provide services to millions of women, it's not exactly a secret that today's policy is intended to target Planned Parenthood.

What's especially notable about today's developments is how Trump is going after the women's health organization. The issue is not about funding for abortion services, since there are already legal prohibitions on using taxpayer money to terminate pregnancies.

Rather, the administration's new gambit is about blocking funds for those who might mention the word "abortion." It's why Trump's policy is often described as the "domestic gag rule."

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A twenty dollar bill. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty)

Trump's emergency plan for the border runs into a budget snag

02/22/19 12:42PM

When Donald Trump decided last week that he would circumvent Congress and build a border barrier through an emergency declaration, it created a tricky budgetary challenge. After all, it's not as if the Treasury can just cut the president a check for $8 billion. The money would have to come from somewhere.

And so, administration officials identified some pots of money from which to divert funds. As of last week, the Washington Post reported that the plan involved taking $600 million from the Treasury Department's forfeiture funds account, $3.6 billion from military construction, and $2.5 billion from a Pentagon program for countering drug activities.

Of course, the list of hurdles between the White House crafting and executing such a plan is significant. Will Congress block the president's gambit? Will the courts tolerate the power-grab?

Before those questions can be answered, Roll Call reports on an expected problem: the money Team Trump thought would be available might not entirely exist.

More than one-third of the money President Donald Trump wants to redirect from other federal programs to build a border barrier is likely to be unavailable from the sources he has identified.

As a result, it may be difficult for the president to circumvent Congress, even if a resolution disapproving of his "emergency" moves is never enacted.

The aforementioned Pentagon program for countering drug activities apparently has $85 million in unspent funds. Trump intended to take $2.5 billion from it.

Oops.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.22.19

02/22/19 12:00PM

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

* In case there were any doubts, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has decided he will seek another term in Congress next year, despite having been stripped of his committee assignments over racist comments. The far-right Republican added yesterday that he believes he has nothing to apologize for.

* After CNN hired a conservative Republican operative to serve as a political editor, the network reportedly assured the Democratic National Committee that Sarah Isgur will not be involved in CNN-sponsored debates for the party's 2020 presidential candidates.

* On the presidential campaign trail yesterday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) seemed to endorse reparations for African Americans, telling Reuters, "We must confront the dark history of slavery and government-sanctioned discrimination in this country that has had many consequences including undermining the ability of Black families to build wealth in America for generations.... Black families have had a much steeper hill to climb -- and we need systemic, structural changes to address that."

* Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said yesterday that he won't challenge Donald Trump in a 2020 primary unless the president's support within the party weakens dramatically.

* On a related note, the Maryland governor did criticize the Republican National Committee, however, for creating a process that makes it nearly impossible for someone to launch an intra-party challenge to the president.

* For reasons that weren't altogether clear, Trump published a tweet yesterday endorsing Sen. John Cornyn's (R-Texas) re-election bid. The Texan's election is still 19 months away.

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File photo taken in November 2017 shows U.S. President Donald Trump (and Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a welcome ceremony in Beijing.

What Trump doesn't know about his own trade policy can hurt him

02/22/19 11:25AM

Less than a week ago, Donald Trump published a tweet updating Americans on the status of trade talks with China. The president sought to assure everyone that there's been progress, adding, "In the meantime, Billions of Dollars are being paid to the United States by China in the form of Trade Tariffs!"

Nope. Those payments from China don't exist. Trump has insisted many times that his tariffs are forcing Beijing to pay the United States billions of dollars, but that's not how his policy works. (A Washington Post analysis explained several months ago, "On trade, Trump either doesn't understand the basic facts or he doesn't care.")

In fact, the president can't seem to help himself. He repeated the bogus claim a month ago in a meeting with congressional Republicans. And then again in an interview with the New York Times. And then again in his State of the Union address. And then again in a cabinet meeting. And then again at a campaign rally in Texas. This is just from the last four weeks.

All of which suggests that Trump actually believes the talking point, even though it's plainly wrong.

Glenn Kessler, however, added a detail that I hadn't seen before.

Trump can claim that through December, his tariffs have raised about $12 billion, of which $8 billion stem from tariffs on Chinese products. But his statements go off the rails when he claims that (a) China is paying these tariffs and (b) this is a gain for the Treasury. Tariffs are paid by importers, so this is a tax paid by Americans, not China.

And given that Trump has authorized payments of up to $12 billion to help farmers harmed by retaliation by China, the tariffs so far have been a net loser for the Treasury.

That second point is of particular interest. Trump is convinced that billions of dollars are flowing into the United States' coffers from China thanks to his tariffs, but when we include the administration's farming bailout -- aiding farmers hurt by Trump's tariffs policy -- the country is clearly losing money.

And while that suggests the White House's gambit is a counter-productive mistake, that's only part of the problem. If the president doesn't accept reality, then he'll continue to pursue the misguided plan, confident in its success.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump participates in a roundtable discussion with African American business and civic leaders, Sept. 2, 2016, in Philadelphia, Pa. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

Trump doesn't recognize the flaw in his message on race

02/22/19 10:56AM

As Black History Month continues, Gallup published a report on race relations yesterday that included some very discouraging results. Over the last couple of decades, Gallup has asked Americans about the state of black-white relations, and this year, the findings were a little different.

The latest poll marks the first time that more than half of black respondents have assessed black-white relations as somewhat or very bad. As late as the summer of 2013, most black Americans continued to give a more positive than negative assessment of the state of black-white relations in the U.S. And, less than a year after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, 68% of black respondents assessed race relations in the country between whites and blacks as very or somewhat good. At that time, essentially the same percentage of whites, 70%, gave the same rating.

Now, the two racial groups' ratings of black-white relations diverge by 14 points; whites' opinions have improved since 2015, while blacks' have gotten worse.

It was against this backdrop that Donald Trump hosted a White House reception late yesterday afternoon in recognition of African-American History Month, where the president emphasized the unemployment rate among black workers. And then he did it again. And again. And again.

The Republican added, "Nearly one million additional African Americans have found new jobs. As a -- really, and I think this -- we can really attribute it to regulatory cuts or as a result of our tax cuts. The largest tax cuts in the history of our country."

They're not the largest tax cuts in American history -- in fact, they don't even crack the top five -- and job growth has actually slowed since this president took office, despite tax breaks for the wealthy.

But under the circumstances, Trump's confusion about economic data isn't what makes this notable.

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White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds the daily briefing at the White House, September 12, 2017.

Defending Trump, Sanders lies about his record on promoting violence

02/22/19 10:11AM

Just four months after a radicalized Donald Trump supporter targeted several perceived White House foes with mail bombs, Americans learned of a suspected terrorist plot this week, planned by a Coast Guard lieutenant, who also planned to kill prominent journalists and Democratic officials.

To date, the president has not yet addressed the plot or the arrest, though he has published tweets condemning journalists as "the enemy of the people." It led to an interesting exchange this morning between a reporter and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

REPORTER: A white nationalist, he was planning a plot against Democrats [and] against journalists. The president has tweeted the journalists and the media are 'the enemy of the people.' Is there any plan for the president to maybe tone down his rhetoric? Do you think this contributes to these kinds of extremists getting these ideas?

SANDERS: I certainly don't think that the president, at any point, has done anything but condemn violence -- against journalists or anyone else. In fact, every single time something like this happens, the president is typically one of the first people to condemn the violence, and the media is the first people to blame the president.

Sometimes, it seems as if Sarah Huckabee Sanders hasn't even met Donald Trump.

If her comments this morning sound at all familiar, it's because this morning wasn't the first time. In June 2017, after Sanders argued that the president has never "promoted or encouraged violence," the Washington Post noted that the claim was "laughable," adding, "Even if you don't believe Trump has technically incited violence (which he has been sued for), he clearly nodded toward violence at his campaign rallies. Sometimes it was veiled; other times it was unmistakable. Sometimes he was talking about self-defense, but it was clear he was advocating for a 'form of violence.'"

For the president's chief spokesperson to repeat the claim adds insult to injury. She's obviously and demonstrably wrong, but just as importantly, Sanders really ought to know better.

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President Donald Trump reviews border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego.

Trump struggles to keep up with his own bogus border wall claims

02/22/19 09:20AM

What exactly is the White House's current position on the state of the "wall" along the U.S./Mexico border? What should be an easy question to answer is clearly not.

To hear Donald Trump tell it, wall construction needs to happen, has already happened, is in the process of happening, and will definitely happen sometime soon. Which of those is true? I don't think he knows for sure; it apparently varies by day.

Similarly, the president has told Americans that the border is secure, is completely unsecure, is partially secure, should be more secure, and is in the process of being secured.

It can get a little confusing. Blizzards of lies are, by design, disorienting.

Certain core truths are inescapable. We know, for example, that the original White House plan -- a 1,000-mile concrete wall, to be paid for by Mexico -- is dead. We know that before Trump took office, there were already 654 miles of barriers along the border, and as things stand, there are still 654 miles of barriers along the border. We know that the administration has replaced some old fencing with new fencing, which the president likes to pretend is proof of wall construction, despite (a) reality; and (b) his previous position that walls and fences are not the same thing.

And we know each of these pesky details is proving to be quite annoying for the man in the Oval Office. The Washington Post published this memorable paragraph earlier in the week:

The president has complained repeatedly about news coverage depicting the wall as not being built and has told his campaign and communications officials they have to convince people that more of the wall is being built.

In other words, news organizations keep pointing out the truth, which has led the president to believe his operation will need to take their lying to a new level.

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An election worker checks a voter's drivers license as North Carolina's controversial "Voter ID" law goes into effect for the state's presidential primary election at a polling place, March 15, 2016,  in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo by Chris Keane/Reuters)

Following election fraud, North Carolina to hold do-over election

02/22/19 08:40AM

The day after the midterm elections last fall, it looked like former far-right pastor Mark Harris (R) had narrowly prevailed over Dan McCready (D) in North Carolina's 9th congressional district. McCready conceded and Harris was named the representative-elect.

It wasn't long, however, before evidence of widespread election fraud tainted those election results. Following a series of dramatic developments, local voters will now have a second chance to elect their member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The North Carolina Board of Elections on Thursday ordered a new election in the 9th Congressional District after allegations of illegal activity in the handling of mail-in ballots.

The five-member board's unanimous action came after several days of hearings into Republican ballot-collecting practices in the 2018 general election.

Their decision was made after the GOP candidate, Mark Harris, surprisingly suggested Thursday that there should be a new election because the public had lost confidence in the results.

Do-over elections in the United States are extraordinarily unusual, but a do-over election stemming from allegations of fraud is practically unheard of. The Washington Post went digging, looking for a comparable set of circumstances, and the best it could do was an obscure congressional special election in Kentucky in 1827.

In other words, when voters in North Carolina's 9th participate in their re-vote, it'll be a modern first.

If you've heard about this story over the last day or so, you've probably come across a familiar set of questions. Will Harris run again, despite the scandal? Will local Republicans see him as too toxic to support? Can McCready flip the seat from "red" to "blue"?

And while these are certainly relevant details, I have a very different kind of question: why hasn't anyone been arrested?

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R. Alexander Acosta

The scandal that could force out another Trump cabinet secretary

02/22/19 08:00AM

Alex Acosta has been Donald Trump's Secretary of Labor for 22 months. In light of yesterday's developments, I'm hard pressed to imagine how he'll remain at his post for a 23rd.

The Miami Herald, which has done amazing work on the Jeffrey Epstein story, reported yesterday:

Federal prosecutors, under former Miami U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta, broke the law when they concealed a plea agreement from more than 30 underage victims who had been sexually abused by wealthy New York hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

While the decision marks a victory for crime victims, the federal judge, Kenneth A. Marra, stopped short of overturning Epstein's plea deal, or issuing an order resolving the case. He instead gave federal prosecutors 15 days to confer with Epstein's victims and their attorneys to come up with a settlement. The victims did not seek money or damages as part of the suit. [...]

Marra, in a 33-page opinion, said prosecutors not only violated the Crime Victims' Rights Act by not informing the victims, they also misled the girls into believing that the FBI's sex trafficking case against Epstein was still ongoing -- when in fact, prosecutors had secretly closed it after sealing the plea bargain from the public record.

For those who might need a refresher, Epstein, a politically connected multi-millionaire, was accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls in the early 2000s. A federal criminal investigation into his alleged activities raised the prospect of Epstein spending the rest of his life behind bars, but his high-profile legal team -- which featured Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr -- were able to strike a plea deal.

And what a deal it was. Epstein ended up pleading guilty to a state charge of soliciting sex from a minor in 2008, which led to an 18-month sentence. He was released after 13 months -- during which time he had been permitted to leave the prison and go to work during much of the day -- and then went back to living the high life.

How in the world did Epstein get such a deal given the number of his alleged underage victims? It's a question many have asked of late, and the best answers could probably come from the U.S. Attorney who signed off on the deal.

His name is Alex Acosta, the Labor secretary who, according to a federal judge, handled the case so poorly that he broke the law.

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