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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 8.22.17

08/22/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The latest on the USS McCain: "The remains of 'some' American sailors have been found in sealed compartments aboard the USS John S. McCain, Adm. Scott Swift of the U.S. Pacific Command said Tuesday."

* Missouri: "Gov. Eric Greitens (R) on Tuesday stayed the scheduled execution of Marcellus Williams, just hours before the death-row inmate was set to be put to death for the 1998 killing of a former newspaper reporter."

* Sanctions: "As part of a broad effort to further isolate North Korea, the Treasury Department on Tuesday placed sanctions on Chinese and Russian individuals and firms it said had conducted business with the country in ways that advanced its missile and nuclear weapons program."

* A slow-motion backlash: "After a wave of charities pulled fundraising events from President Donald Trump's Mar-A-Lago club in the wake of his response to the Charlottesville attack, a local New Jersey charity announced Monday that it would no longer hold an event at Trump's golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey."

* On a related note: "A Florida charity for children announced Tuesday that it was canceling plans to hold a fundraiser luncheon at President Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club next winter — adding to an exodus of its high-paying charity clients in the days after his comments about violent protests in Charlottesville."

* A story can be both surprising and disappointing at the same time: "U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt appears in an agribusiness video urging farmers and ranchers to comment on the proposed repeal of the Obama-era Clean Water Rule, promoting the rollback of a regulation that he sued to stop as Oklahoma attorney general."

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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 balks at censuring Trump over racially inflammatory rhetoric

08/22/17 12:51PM

At a town-hall forum on CNN last night, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was willing to say Donald Trump was "wrong" when the president failed to fully condemn racist activists in Charlottesville. But a voter at the event pressed the Republican leader on going a step further.

"Speaker Ryan, as the leader of the congressional Republicans, I'd like to ask you what concrete steps that you will take to hold the president accountable when his words and executive actions either implicitly or explicitly condone, if not champion, racism and xenophobia," the Wisconsin voter said. "For example, will you support the resolution for censure?"

This generated quick applause, though Ryan wouldn't budge.

"I will not support that. I think that would be -- that would be so counterproductive. If we descend this issue into some partisan hack-fest, into some bickering against each other, and demean it down to some political food fight, what good does that do to unify this country? ... So I think that would be the absolutely worst thing we should do."

It's a curious argument. For members of Congress to tolerate presidential defense of racists is, according to the Speaker of the House, apparently preferable to formal criticism.

What Ryan may not appreciate is the degree to which the nature of his opposition is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.22.17

08/22/17 12:00PM

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

* When Donald Trump travels to Phoenix today, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) will greet him on the tarmac, but the Republican governor will not join the president at his campaign rally this evening.

* In Wisconsin, House Speaker Paul Ryan's (R) Democratic challenger, Randy Price, released a new ad yesterday connecting the Republican incumbent to Trump, who isn't too popular in the Badger State right now.

* Speaking of Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) is getting ready to run for a third term, and this morning, state schools chief Tony Evers (D) kicked off his campaign against him. Though Evers is likely to be part of a crowded primary, WISN in Milwaukee noted he'll probably be Walker's only rival "who has won a statewide election."

* To no one's surprise, incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) made it official yesterday, launching his re-election bid in Indiana. He's widely seen as one of the top GOP targets of the 2018 cycle.

* In Arizona, the Senate Republican leadership's super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, has already unveiled a new attack video targeting Kelli Ward, Sen. Jeff Flake's (R-Ariz.) primary rival.

* On MSNBC yesterday, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was asked whether she believes Trump will be her party's presidential nominee in 2020. “It’s too difficult to say,” Collins replied.

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A coal train waits to leave a coal yard in rural West Virginia.

Interior Department halts study on coal mining health risks

08/22/17 11:20AM

One of the more alarming habits of the Bush/Cheney administration was its tendency to get rid of reports that offered information the White House didn't like. As long time readers may recall, it was a trick the Republican administration pulled off a few too many times.

In 2005, for example, after a government report showed an increase in terrorism around the world, the administration stopped publishing annual data on international terrorism. When the Bush administration was discouraged by data about factory closings, the administration announced (on Christmas Eve) it would stop publishing information about factory closings. When Bush's Department of Education found that charter schools were underperforming, the administration sharply cut back on the information it collected about charter schools.

It's an approach the Trump administration is starting to duplicate. The New York Times reported overnight:

The Interior Department has ordered a halt to a scientific study begun under President Obama of the public health risks of mountaintop-removal coal mining.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which was conducting the study, said in a statement Monday that they were ordered to stop work because the Interior Department is conducting an agencywide budgetary review.

The Times' report explained that when mining companies do mountaintop coal mining, they "dump the rubble into the surrounding valleys and streams, in many cases leading to extensive pollution." Under the Obama administration and at the request of state officials in West Virginia, the National Academies of Sciences put together a panel of 12 experts to assess "new approaches to safeguard the health of residents" living near the mines.

That assessment has now been halted before its completion. The underlying problem hasn't gone away, of course, but Trump administration officials have reportedly decided there's no real urgency in obtaining information on how to address that problem.

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Iowa Republican senatorial candidate college professor Sam Clovis looks on before a live televised debate at Iowa Public Television studios on April 24, 2014, in Johnston, Iowa. (Photo by Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Spotlight focuses on prominent Trump nominee's anti-LGBT views

08/22/17 10:42AM

When Donald Trump nominated Sam Clovis to be the Department of Agriculture's top scientist, an obvious problem emerged: Sam Clovis isn't a scientist. The USDA post manages research on everything from climate change to nutrition, and the president's choice for the post seemed to have the wrong background.

As a Washington Post report put it in May, the nomination represented "a break with recent Republican and Democratic administrations alike, which have previously reserved the high-level position for scientists with expertise in agricultural research."

But it as it turns out, this isn't the end of the controversy. CNN reported yesterday:

Sam Clovis, Donald Trump's pick to be chief scientist for the Department of Agriculture, has argued that homosexuality is a choice and that the sanctioning of same-sex marriage could lead to the legalization of pedophilia, a CNN KFile review of Clovis' writings, radio broadcasts, and speeches has found.

Clovis made the comments between 2012 and 2014 in his capacity as a talk radio host, political activist, and briefly as a candidate for US Senate in Iowa.

There's more where this came from. CNN also reported a couple of weeks ago that Clovis "maintained a now-defunct blog for years in which he accused progressives of 'enslaving' minorities, called black leaders 'race traders,' and labeled former President Barack Obama a 'Maoist' with 'communist' roots."

Clovis also questioned Obama's birth place, accused then-Attorney General Eric Holder of being "a racist black," and said then-Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, who now heads the Democratic National Committee, was "a racist Latino."

At least so far, none of this has derailed Clovis' nomination, which is still pending in the Senate.

But while we wait to see what senators have to say about the Iowa Republican's fate, let's take a minute to note why his name might sound familiar.

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Image: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan hosts press conference following a Republican caucus meeting

Paul Ryan flubs yet another attack on 'Obamacare'

08/22/17 10:11AM

About halfway through his town-hall event with CNN's Jake Tapper last night, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) expressed his frustrations with his party's inability to pass a far-right health care bill. "The House has passed its bill; we're waiting for the Senate to pass theirs," he said. "Who wasn't disappointed that the Senate failed to pass that bill by one vote the other day? We all are."

At that point, Ryan was roundly booed -- suggesting his assumptions about public attitudes aren't quite right.

But that's not the only mistake the House Speaker made. From the transcript:

"The reason I'm disappointed is because the status quo is not an option. Obamacare is not working.... We've got dozens of counties around America that have zero insurers left. So doing nothing really isn't an option."

There are two important problems with this. The first, as New York's Jon Chait explained, is that it's the wrong argument from the wrong side of the political divide: "This was not a good argument against Obamacare, since the lack of insurers was largely a result of the Trump administration deliberately driving them out. Nor was it a good argument for the Republican replacement, the largest effect of which was to slash funding for Medicaid, a solution not even plausibly related to the separate problems of the exchanges."

But even if we look past the logic, the other problem is more serious: Ryan simply has his facts wrong.

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Image: Trump Hosts Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi At The White House

How Trump's team changed his mind about the war in Afghanistan

08/22/17 09:21AM

Donald Trump spent several years calling for the swift withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, ending the longest war in American history. Now he's doing the opposite. There are several interesting reports in major media outlets today explaining how the president's team convinced him, as he put it last night, to abandon his "instincts."

By all accounts, the process wasn't one in which members of Trump's team came up with a series of options, from which the president made his choice. Rather, as is often the case in this White House, officials chose the course they preferred and then began the work of persuading their boss to endorse it.

"It wasn't a debate," a senior White House aide told Politico. "It was an attempt to convince the president."

There's ample evidence that this task wasn't easy, though as became clear last night, Trump's national security team eventually wore him down. The Washington Post's account of how this unfolded -- the president "pinballed between his militaristic and anti-interventionist impulses" -- included an important detail.

President Trump was frustrated and fuming. Again and again, in the windowless Situation Room at the White House, he lashed out at his national security team over the Afghanistan war, and the paucity of appealing options gnawed at him. [...]

Trump's private deliberations -- detailed in interviews with more than a dozen senior administration officials and outside allies -- revealed a president un­attached to any particular foreign-policy doctrine, but willing to be persuaded as long as he could be seen as a strong and decisive leader.

This sounds familiar, which is part of the problem with Trump's failing presidency.

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Iraqi special forces advance towards the city of Mosul, Iraq on Oct. 19, 2016. (Photo by Khalid Mohammed/AP)

Trump wants credit for mission he opposed, had nothing to do with

08/22/17 08:40AM

As far as Donald Trump is concerned, seven months into his presidency, he's already implementing national security policies that are having a positive effect. This line from his speech last night on the war in Afghanistan was rather jarring:

"As we lift restrictions and expand authorities in the field, we are already seeing dramatic results in the campaign to defeat ISIS, including the liberation of Mosul in Iraq."

In Trump's mind, drawing connections between unrelated developments is a little too easy. Mosul has been freed of ISIS control, he's "lifted restrictions" in the field, ergo Mosul has been liberated because of the changes he's implemented.

Except that's not how reality works. In this case, the mission in Mosul began before Trump was elected: Iraq's second-largest city was liberated because of a mission launched by Barack Obama.

Indeed, what Trump didn't mention -- and may not remember -- is that he opposed the mission he now wants credit for.

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Image: Donald Trump

Trump's new Afghanistan strategy is missing a new strategy

08/22/17 08:00AM

Donald Trump's speech last night was intended to present his vision for a new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. After listening to the president's remarks, I have no idea what that new strategy is going to be.

President Donald Trump announced a new approach -- but no details -- for the U.S. war in Afghanistan on Monday, marking a major policy reversal for the man who in recent years had insisted America pull out of the war-torn country.

Acknowledging that his "original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts," Trump said in a prime-time address to the nation from Ft. Myer in Arlington, Virginia, that after becoming president he realized a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan would cede ground to terror groups.

"We are not nation-building again," Trump said before an audience of service members. "We are killing terrorists."

Of course, planning to go kill bad guys is an excellent strategy for a combat video game, but it's not necessarily the basis for a sound policy for dealing with the longest war in American history.

Trump and his national security team have reportedly been hard at work for months on overhauling the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, and while the approach outlined last night is certainly new for Trump -- he effectively told voters he'd pursue the opposite tack -- it's not new for the country.

The president, using language that was effectively identical to George W. Bush's war rhetoric, presented a plan in which the war in Afghanistan will continue indefinitely, with undetermined troop levels, until we "win" -- which is itself problematic, since Trump hasn't explained what a victory would look like or how his latest strategy would achieve this goal.

Philip Carter, the former assistant secretary of Defense, told Rachel last night Trump's speech was "opaque with respect to details, objectives, goals, and troop levels." In other words, the president's remarks lacked the most basic elements that are supposed to make up a national address on a new war strategy.

There was, however, one new thing that jumped out in the latter half of the speech:

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