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Image: President Elect Trump Continues His "Thank You Tour" In Grand Rapids, Michigan

As power shifts, Trump's team remains unprepared to govern

01/20/17 11:08AM

When one U.S. administration transfers power to another, it's not uncommon for various officials to remain at their posts for a while, which is why this Associated Press report, published yesterday, may not have seemed especially surprising.
President-elect Donald Trump has asked roughly 50 senior Obama administration appointees to remain in their posts after his inauguration to ensure continuity in government, his incoming White House press secretary said Thursday.

The officials include the highest-ranking career officials at key national security agencies like the Pentagon and State Department.
Just on the surface, there is a certain irony to the appeals: much of Trump's campaign platform was predicated on the idea that President Obama's team was an incompetent and disastrous failure, unfit for power, who must be replaced by people hand-picked by the Republican amateur.

Evidently, as of yesterday, Trump decided Obama administration officials aren't so bad after all -- because the people he spent a year bashing are now being asked to keep doing their jobs a while longer.

Note, we're not just talking about random, low-level officials in obscure government offices. Team Trump has pleaded with top members of Obama's team -- professionals who work on highly sensitive tasks related to national security, for example -- to stick around, for an indefinite amount of time, while the incoming administration gets its act together.

And therein lies the broader point. Trump and his team have known for months they needed to prepare a vast executive-branch team to take the reigns of power this afternoon -- and they blew it badly. The Republicans didn't just ask dozens of Obama appointees to keep going to work because of the officials' competence; Trump World is also scrambling because it's desperate.
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Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn arrives at Trump Tower, Nov. 17, 2016. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and high level positions for the new administration. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Trump facing foreign policy 'uprising' within his own team

01/20/17 10:11AM

It's alarmingly difficult to identify the scariest member of Donald Trump's team, but a credible case can be made for National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

As regular readers know, Flynn has peddled bizarre conspiracy theories; he shared classified information with foreign officials without permission; his ties to Russia haven’t been explained in any real detail; and he was on the Turkish government’s payroll while serving as a top adviser to the Trump campaign without ever publicly disclosing that fact.

But as Trump World assumes control over the executive branch, Flynn isn't just worrying Trump's detractors. The Wall Street Journal reported overnight that the president-elect is trying to "quell an uprising within his own defense and foreign-policy team," with Flynn at the center of the dispute.
His pick for national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has long clashed with the intelligence-community establishment over the U.S. fight against global terrorism, and is now butting heads with members of Mr. Trump's team, including Rex Tillerson, Mr. Trump's pick for secretary of state, [Gen. James Mattis, the defense secretary pick] and [Mike Pompeo, his pick to run the Central Intelligence Agency].

Officials inside and close to the transition said that Gen. Flynn has been pushing various people for jobs at State and Defense, and is perceived as overreaching in his role as national security adviser.
The Journal's piece added that it fell to Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon to meet with Tillerson, Mattis, and Pompeo, and "soothe concerns" about the incoming National Security Advisor.

This isn't exactly reassuring. First, the amateur president-elect's chosen Secretary of State, Defense Secretary, and CIA chief are already unhappy with Trump's top advisor on matters of national security. The team hasn't even taken the reigns yet -- we don't yet know for sure whether Tillerson will be confirmed -- and there's already infighting.

Second, that infighting is significant enough that officials in Trump World are dishing to the media the day before Inauguration Day.
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Image: U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a "Thank You USA" tour rally in Grand Rapids

Trump World tries to explain away broad unpopularity

01/20/17 09:22AM

As President Obama passes the torch to President-elect Trump, Americans are witnessing all sorts of firsts, including the largest-ever gap in popularity from one leader to his successor.

Obama is exiting the stage on a high note, with an approval rating at 60% or higher in several new surveys. Donald Trump, meanwhile, is the least popular new president since the dawn of modern polling, with the latest CBS News poll giving an approval rating of just 37% and a favorability rating of just 32%. A Fox News poll released last night showed similar results.

For his part, Trump seems to believe there's a giant media/polling conspiracy underway -- he insisted this week that the polls are "rigged" -- and his team is under the impression that the data doesn't matter.
Mr. Trump's advisers said privately that his unexpected rise to power showed that such traditional barometers did not matter as much anymore. If polls were to be believed, he would not have been president, they said.
It's not quite that simple. Polls were right when they showed Trump dominating in the Republican presidential primaries, and they were right again when they showed Trump trailing Hillary Clinton in the popular vote by millions.

For that matter, polling on approval and favorability ratings is vastly easier than putting together polling screens on who's likely to cast a ballot. When every independent poll shows a politician is unpopular, it means he really is unpopular. Most members of Congress, who'll be asked to endorse Trump's widely disliked agenda, will be on the ballot next year, and it's safe to assume they'll be far less cavalier about Americans' attitudes.

But just as notable is the fact that Trump World's attitudes towards polls may carry alarming consequences.
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This photo made during an escorted visit and reviewed by the US military, shows the razor wire-topped fence at the abandoned "Camp X-Ray" detention facility at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba April 9, 2014. (Photo by Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty)

On his last day, Obama shrinks Guantanamo population to new low

01/20/17 08:41AM

Congress made it effectively impossible for President Obama to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, but lawmakers couldn't stop the outgoing president from coming close to his goal.
The Obama administration's long and fitful effort to wind down the Guantánamo Bay wartime prison came to a close on Thursday with an announcement that it had transferred four more men out of the detention complex. Their departures are expected to be the last before President Obama leaves office on Friday.

The transfer of the four detainees means that President-elect Donald J. Trump, who has called for an end to such transfers, will inherit the fates of 41 men there, 31 of whom are being held without charges or trial.
"As president, I have tried to close Guantánamo," Obama said in a letter to congressional leaders yesterday. "When I inherited this challenge, it was widely recognized that the facility -- which many around the world continue to condemn -- needed to close. Unfortunately, what had previously been bipartisan support for closure suddenly became a partisan issue. Despite those politics, we have made progress."

That's quantitatively true. Updating the tally we've been keeping an eye on, the detention facility's population peaked in 2003 with 680 prisoners. The Bush/Cheney administration began moving detainees out in its second term, and by the time President Obama took office, the population was down to 242 prisoners.

Now, as Obama exits the stage, the total is down to 41. Two weeks ago, Donald Trump, who's never demonstrated any real understanding of this issue, declared, "There should be no further releases from Gitmo." Fortunately, the current president ignored him.

As we discussed in April, the point of the gradual reductions, obviously, is to reduce the overall population, but it's also intended to appeal to Republicans' sense of fiscal sanity: the smaller the number of detainees, the harder it is to justify the massive expense of keeping open a detention facility that houses so few people. Even if congressional Republicans are inclined to ignore every other consideration, the hope is that GOP lawmakers will at least care about wasteful spending.

At least, that is, if the Guantanamo prisoner population remains low. There's a real possibility that the incoming president will reverse the progress and start adding to the detainee totals.
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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump poses for a photo after an interview with Reuters in his office in Trump Tower, in the Manhattan borough of New York, N.Y., May 17, 2016. (Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

New details from investigation cast cloud over Trump inauguration

01/20/17 08:00AM

It's safe to assume that Donald Trump and his team aren't pleased that this is on the front page of the New York Times the morning of Inauguration Day.
American law enforcement and intelligence agencies are examining intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, current and former senior American officials said.

The continuing counterintelligence investigation means that Mr. Trump will take the oath of office on Friday with his associates under investigation and after the intelligence agencies concluded that the Russian government had worked to help elect him.
U.S. intelligence agencies have already concluded that Russian agents, by way of an illegal espionage operation, intervened in the American presidential election, in part to help put Trump in the White House. We don't yet know whether, or to what extent, the intercepted communications relate to the previous findings.

According to the Times' reporting, however, the counterintelligence investigation is focused on contacts between Russia and members of Trump's campaign team, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort, former foreign policy adviser Carter Page, and longtime Republican operative Roger Stone.

The inclusion of Page is of particular interest. Just last week, incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters, "Carter Page is an individual whom the president-elect does not know." According to Trump, that wasn't true: last year, during an interview with the Washington Post, Trump singled out Page as one of only a handful of people who were advising him on matters of foreign policy.

TPM's Josh Marshall summarized the landscape nicely: "Just to state this clearly, that means that on the eve of Trump's inauguration, the nation's top law enforcement and intelligence agencies are pursuing a counter-intelligence probe of contacts and payments between key members of his campaign and Russia. We have not been here before."

Several members of Team Trump, including the president-elect himself, have said there were no contacts between the campaign and Russia before Election Day. We don't yet know whether those claims were true.

As for the timing of this news, that's nearly as interesting as the reporting itself.
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Thursday's Mini-Report, 1.19.17

01/19/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Gambia: "Fearing for his safety, the newly elected president of Gambia was sworn in on Thursday during a ceremony outside his country, part of a tense standoff in which foreign troops have crossed the border, trying to help him take power."

* A good move borne of desperation: "President-elect Donald Trump has asked roughly 50 senior Obama administration appointees to remain in their posts after his inauguration to ensure continuity in government, his incoming White House press secretary said Thursday. The officials include the highest-ranking career officials at key national security agencies like the Pentagon and State Department."

* A few more commutations before he leaves: "[O]n Thursday, his last full day in office, [President Obama] announced 330 more commutations, for nonviolent drug offenders, bringing his total number of clemencies to 1,715. He has granted commutations to more people than the past 12 presidents combined, including 568 inmates with life sentences."

* Under normal circumstances, this would put a nomination in peril: "Steven T. Mnuchin, President-elect Donald J. Trump's pick to be Treasury secretary, failed to disclose nearly $100 million of his assets on Senate Finance Committee disclosure documents and forgot to mention his role as a director of an investment fund located in a tax haven, an omission that Democrats said made him unfit to serve in one of the government's most important positions."

* Syria: "Russia and Turkey carried out their first joint airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Syria on Wednesday, further expanding their budding military cooperation, the Russian military said."

* John Kerry's last op-ed before leaving office: "As the departing secretary of state, I cannot claim objectivity. But I will leave office convinced that most global trends remain in our favor and that America's leadership and engagement are as essential and effective today as ever."

* Some stories are hard to believe: "Jailed former House Speaker Dennis Hastert says a man who accused him of sexual abuse should return $1.7 million in hush money because he broke his silence by talking to the feds."
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Image: *** BESTPIX *** President-Elect Donald Trump Holds Press Conference In New York

Worst. President-Elect. Ever.

01/19/17 04:38PM

The timing must have been terribly inconvenient for Donald Trump and his team. With just two days remaining before he's sworn in as the chief executive of the world's biggest superpower, the president-elect of the United States had to write a check for $25 million to help settle fraud lawsuits stemming from his alleged "Trump University" scam.

Never before in U.S. history has a president-elect had to face accusations of being a con man, making yesterday that much more extraordinary: while President Obama was hosting a press conference, celebrating the values that make America great, his successor was setting aside millions of dollars to pay Americans he's accused of ripping off.

Ironically, before Trump set aside the $25 million, Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, told reporters that the Trump transition will become "the gold standard going forward." But like too many things associated with the Republican, it's far more accurate to say there was a shiny veneer on the surface, covering up a transition that was surprisingly -- and unnecessarily -- terrible.

Every incoming administration runs into at least some troubles. It's inevitable: no matter how well prepared an operation is, a transition team is going to be caught off guard by unexpected problems. It's good practice for work in a White House, where events are inherently unpredictable.

But Trump's transition, silly "gold standard" boasts notwithstanding, has consistently been breathtakingly awful.

* Scandals and controversies: Just since Election Day, there have been important revelations about Russia's illegal espionage operation helping put Trump in the White House. These stories have broken alongside controversies surrounding the president-elect's ethics problems, pay-to-play fundraising, and unresolved conflicts of interest.

* Polls: Trump, who received nearly 3 million fewer votes than his principal rival, was already on track to be the least popular incoming president since the dawn of modern polling. But in a striking twist, Trump has actually managed to lose public support as his inauguration has drawn closer, which is unheard of. The more Americans saw of their president-elect, they more his standing diminished.
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President-elect Donald Trump arrives at a rally at the Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville, N.C., Dec. 6, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP)

Team Trump touts the 'diversity' of his mostly white, male cabinet

01/19/17 12:58PM

In 1992, then-Gov. Bill Clinton came up with a memorable phrase: the Democrat promised voters he'd create a cabinet that "looked like America." The point, of course, was to assure the public that when it came to policymaking, the Clinton administration would place a high priority on diversity.

It's a goal Donald Trump doesn't appear to share.

The Republican president-elect finally wrapped up his cabinet selections yesterday, tapping former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) to lead the Department of Agriculture -- and like most other members of the Trump cabinet, Perdue is a wealthy, older, white man. This post was Trump's last choice to pick a Hispanic American for his team, which means the new presidential cabinet will be the first without a Hispanic member in three decades.

During the campaign, Trump was asked if his cabinet will include women, blacks, and Hispanics. "Oh absolutely," he replied. "It's so important."

Evidently, however, Trump doesn't believe it's that important. His cabinet will have zero Hispanics, one African-American man, one white woman, and one Asian-American woman. (The number of women grows from two to four if you include Nikki Haley and Linda McMahon, who were chosen for positions that may be considered cabinet-level.)

The funny part, however, was listening to Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, defend the diversity of Trump's team. Yahoo News reported this morning:
"Look at the Cabinet. Elaine Chao, Dr. Ben Carson," he said, motioning to former presidential candidate, who was in the room. "Gov. Nikki Haley, the first Indian-American… The number one thing that Americans should focus on is, is he hiring the best and the brightest?"
First, no, we've had a chance to look at the folks Trump has chosen, and they're not actually the best and the brightest. Second, "the best and the brightest" is a phrase that was intended to be an ironic reference to those responsible for the war in Vietnam.

And third, pointing to a handful of diverse people on the president-elect's team doesn't negate the fact that Trump's cabinet will be dominated by older, white men.

Spicer added, somehow with a straight face, that the "totality of the diversity" in Trump's cabinet is "second to none."
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