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Thursday's Mini-Report, 10.18.18

10/18/18 05:31PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Remember, the White House is a fine-tuned machine: "President Donald Trump's chief of staff and his national security adviser engaged in a profanity-laced argument outside the Oval Office on Thursday, according to three people familiar with the episode.... The shouting match was so intense that other White House aides worried one of the two men might immediately resign. Neither is resigning, the people said."

* Acknowledging the obvious: "President Donald Trump said on Thursday that the U.S. is awaiting the completion of a Saudi investigation into the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi before deciding on an official response, but that it appears the missing reporter is dead."

* Sounds like Ben Carson doesn't know what's happening around him: "Interior Department officials said Thursday that they did not approve the hiring of a political appointee as the agency's acting watchdog, calling the announcement of her move by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson '100 percent false information.'"

* Quite a coincidence: "The United States received a payment of $100 million from Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, the same day Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Riyadh to discuss the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a State Department official confirmed Wednesday amid global calls for answers in the case."

* The revolving door: "White House Counsel Don McGahn left the Trump administration on Wednesday, White House officials said, the latest in a string of high-profile departures."

* On a related note, the final meeting between Trump and McGahn yesterday was reportedly "respectful but not friendly."

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No, Trump won't be remembered as 'the most honest president' ever

10/18/18 03:51PM

The controversy on the front burner at the White House this week is Donald Trump's weakness towards Saudi Arabia, which the president justifies by pointing to a $110 billion arms deal that, in reality, does not exist. On a daily basis, Trump has pointed to the deal in staggeringly dishonest ways, lying about its size, its job impact, and the effort he invested in the non-existent agreement.

This is, by any fair measure, a powerful reminder that this president is a uniquely dishonest figure, not only in White House history, but in modern American public life. Trump lies about matters large and small as a matter of course -- even when he doesn't have to, even when the truth would be equally effective.

And yet, some on the right believe this is the wrong metric upon which to evaluate the Republican's truthfulness. As odd as this may sound, some conservatives believe Trump's lies and Trump's honesty are two entirely independent things that need not overlap.

The Washington Post's Marc Thiessen, for example, a former speechwriter in the Bush/Cheney White House, wrote a deeply strange column -- which delighted Donald Trump -- praising the current president for, of all things, honesty.

Donald Trump may be remembered as the most honest president in modern American history.

Don't get me wrong, Trump lies all the time. He said that he "enacted the biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history" (actually they are the eighth largest) and that "our economy is the strongest it's ever been in the history of our country" (which may one day be true, but not yet). In part, it's a New York thing -- everything is the biggest and the best.

But when it comes to the real barometer of presidential truthfulness -- keeping his promises -- Trump is a paragon of honesty.

Just so we're clear, I didn't edit this excerpt in a misleading way. Thiessen really did write, in successive sentences, that Trump "lies all the time" and that he may be remembered "as the most honest president in modern American history."

And for the conservative columnist, this makes perfect sense.

Similarly, Politico spoke this week with House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who was asked if he'd consider the current president a role model to his young children. "I think he is a role model in that he's actually following through on his promises," the far-right congressman replied.

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The J. Edgar Hoover Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) building stands in Washington, D.C., Aug. 8, 2013. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

New questions surround Trump's role in the FBI headquarters project

10/18/18 12:43PM

As regular readers know, Donald Trump's keen interest in the FBI's headquarters has been at the center of an ongoing controversy. Axios reported in July, for example, that the president doesn't just rant about the current building's appearance, he also "wants to oversee the project at an excruciating level of detail."

The piece added that there's been a debate ongoing for quite a while about whether to leave the FBI where it is or relocate the bureau's headquarters to a nearby suburb. An Axios source said Trump is "dead opposed to plans to move it out of D.C."

The question is why. Congressional Democrats are increasingly eager to get an answer.

President Donald Trump was more instrumental than previously known in scrapping plans to move the FBI headquarters out of Washington to the DC suburbs, according to newly released internal government emails. [...]

The documents were released Thursday by House Democrats in a letter to General Services Administrator Emily Murphy that suggests she misled Congress about the President's involvement.

Let's back up for a minute to review how we reached this point, because there's a controversy here that could pose meaningful trouble for the White House.

For those unfamiliar with D.C., the Federal Bureau of Investigation is currently located along Pennsylvania Avenue, about four blocks east of the White House.

As we've discussed, it's also about a block from the Trump International Hotel, which the president still owns and profits from. If the current FBI headquarters were redeveloped in its existing space, it'd benefit Trump's investment. For that matter, keeping the bureau in its current home would guarantee that a competing hotel wouldn't go in at that location.

All of which makes it interesting that the Trump White House was directly involved in the talks about plans for the building.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.18.18

10/18/18 12:00PM

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

* Former President Barack Obama this week unveiled a new get-out-the-vote video, aimed specifically at young voters. For good or ill, the video is strictly non-partisan and makes no reference to specific candidates or parties.

* In the new Fox News poll, Democrats lead Republicans on the congressional generic ballot, 49% to 42%. The seven-point advantage is unchanged from a survey from the same pollster last month.

* In Tennessee, a new poll from Vanderbilt University found former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) with the narrowest of leads over Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) in the state's U.S. Senate race, 44% to 43%.

* In New Jersey, where some recent polling pointed to trouble for incumbent Sen. Robert Menendez (D), two new surveys show him with relatively comfortable leads over his Republican challenger, Bob Hugin. Quinnipiac found the Democrat ahead, 51% to 44%, while Monmouth showed Menendez leading, 49% to 40%.

* After Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's (D-N.D.) campaign accidentally revealed the names of sexual assault victims without their permission, the senator accepted the resignation of a staffer who took responsibility for the mistake.

* Though most election watchers have come to see Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa) as a likely loser in the midterms, the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, closely aligned with the House Republican leadership, is making a last-ditch effort in the district, launching a new attack ad targeting Blum's Democratic rival, Abby Finkenauer.

* In Utah, Rep. Mia Love (R), facing a tough re-election fight, has asserted that the Federal Election Commission has cleared her of any wrongdoing after she raised money for a primary fight she knew she would not have. Love's claims of exoneration, however, may not have been true.

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A man holds a sign directing people to an insurance company where they can sign up for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare in Miami, Fla in 2015. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

Poll shows support for 'Obamacare' reaching an all-time high

10/18/18 11:20AM

This week's new Fox News poll asked respondents for their opinions on a variety of people and entities. Take a look at the results among registered voters:

* The Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"): 53% favorable, 42% unfavorable
* The Democratic Party: 49% favorable, 46% unfavorable
* The #MeToo Movement: 48% favorable, 32% unfavorable
* Donald Trump: 44% favorable, 53% unfavorable
* The Republican Party: 44% favorable, 51% unfavorable
* The Republicans' 2017 tax cuts: 44% favorable, 35% unfavorable

Among likely voters, support for the ACA now stands at 54% -- slightly better than among registered voters -- which is an all-time high in this survey.

And that, in and of itself, is a pretty remarkable thing. As we discussed a few months ago, after years of attacks, lawsuits, and sabotage efforts, we're left with a political landscape in which the Affordable Care Act is more popular than the Republican Party, Republican tax breaks, and the Republican president (who, incidentally, continues to tell people that the ACA is "dead," all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding).

The same Fox poll, meanwhile, found health care is the top motivating issue for voters in this year's congressional midterm elections. A new report published this morning from the Kaiser Family Foundation found the same thing.

As for the political takeaway of results like these, there are a couple of angles to keep in mind.

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Trump still doesn't understand how raises for US troops work

10/18/18 10:40AM

The Associated Press asked Donald Trump this week why he hasn't yet visited a military base in a combat zone like in Iraq and Afghanistan. The president said he would eventually, though he doesn't see it as "overly necessary."

Trump added, "I've been very busy with everything that's taking place here.... I'm doing a lot of things. I'm doing a lot of things."

He didn't specify what those "things" are, exactly, though they apparently include activities such as golfing, watching television, and holding a whole lot of campaign rallies. (I wonder what would've happened if Barack Obama had peddled a line like this one.)

But as part of the Republican president's answer, he added a familiar  claim:

"Nobody has been better at the military. Hey, I just got them a pay raise. [They] haven't had a pay raise in 11 years. I just got them a substantial pay raise. 'They' meaning our military people."

In one recent iteration of this story, Trump said the troops hadn't received a raise in "10 years." Now it's up to 11.

Except, to the extent that the truth matters, it should be zero. As we discussed a few months ago, there were raises for our military in 2017. And 2016. And 2015 and 2014. And every other year of the Obama era. And every year of the Bush era. And every year of the Clinton era.

In fact, the military has gotten a raise practically every year since the end of World War II. It’s the sort of detail a competent Commander in Chief should probably be aware of.

As for why Trump keeps repeating this lie, I suspect Cadet Bone Spurs considers himself some kind of unique champion of the military.

He isn't. In fact, Trump may have convinced himself that "nobody has been better at the military" -- whatever that means -- but many in uniform are unimpressed.

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel walk along a section of the recently-constructed fence at the U.S.-Mexico border on Feb. 26, 2013 in Nogales, Ariz.

Republican voters see illegal immigration as the nation's #1 issue

10/18/18 10:05AM

In a time of deep political divisions, it stands to reason that Americans will differ on how best to answer the nation's most pressing questions. The Pew Research Center found this week, however, that Americans can't even agree on the questions.

The Pew report explained that Republican and Democratic voters "differ widely in views of the seriousness of numerous problems facing the United States, including the fairness of the criminal justice system, climate change, economic inequality, and illegal immigration."

It's one thing to differ on how to address issues; it's something else when the public is at odds over whether assorted challenges should be seen as legitimate issues at all.

Among Democratic voters, several issues were seen as "very important" national challenges: the affordability of college education (named by 71% of Dems), how the criminal justice system treats racial and ethnic minorities (71%), climate change (72%), the wealth gap (77%), ethics in government (80%), gun violence (81%), and the affordability of health care (83%).

Among Republican voters, only one issue was of comparable significance: illegal immigration. It was named by 75% of GOP voters as a "very important" national issue.

The gap between partisans raises a unique set of concerns, but Slate's Leon Krauze explained yesterday that there's simply no reason for Republicans to see illegal immigration as the #1 most important issue facing the United States.

[T]here is no evidence to support the idea that illegal immigration has become an urgent problem for the United States, much less a national security emergency. As pro-immigration advocates have repeated ad nauseam, various studies suggest that immigrants are considerably less prone to engage in criminal activity than native-born Americans. [...]

Immigration is also not the economic scourge nativists claim it is. On the contrary: Various industries would collapse in the United States without the reliable low-skilled workforce long provided by undocumented immigrants.

What's more, the New York Times  reported a few months ago that the number of immigrants caught illegally trying to cross the border in 2017 was the lowest in nearly five decades. In fact, illegal border crossings began to fall years ago -- the Obama administration increased border security, a fact the right prefers to ignore -- and have since reached generational lows.

All of which leads to an obvious question: why do Republican voters see this as the nation's top issue.

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Florida Governor Rick Scott visits the Marian Center which offers services for people with intellectual disabilities on July 13, 2015 in Miami Gardens, Fl. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

Florida's Rick Scott has a blind trust that isn't so blind after all

10/18/18 09:21AM

The Miami Herald had an interesting report over the summer on Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) -- already a very wealthy man when he took office nearly eight years ago -- and the fact that he's seen his fortune grow considerably during his public service. The article quoted a Tallahassee attorney who is suing the governor for violating the state financial disclosure law saying, "It seems incredible that our governor made over $120 million and we really have no clue as to how."

The Herald's headline, referring to the Republican governor, asked, "How 'blind' is his blind trust?"

The answer has since come into sharper focus. The New York Times  reported yesterday:

To shield himself from future conflict charges, Mr. Scott, who is now running to unseat the incumbent senator Bill Nelson, created a $73.8 million investment account that he called a blind trust. But an examination of Mr. Scott's finances shows that his trust has been blind in name only. There have been numerous ways for him to have knowledge about his holdings: Among other things, he transferred many assets to his wife and neither "blinded" nor disclosed them. And their investments have included corporations, partnerships and funds that stood to benefit from his administration's actions.

Only in late July, when compelled by ethics rules for Senate candidates, did Mr. Scott disclose his wife's holdings. That report revealed that his wife, Ann Scott, an interior decorator by trade, controlled accounts that might exceed the value of her husband's. Their equity investments largely mirrored each other, meaning that Mr. Scott could, if he wanted, track his own holdings by following his wife's.

As a rule, for news like this to break, three weeks before Election Day, would be a disaster for a statewide candidate. After all, it now appears Rick Scott was far from truthful about his not-so-blind trust, and the governor invested in businesses that could profit from the governor's governmental decisions, creating a textbook conflict of interest.

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Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) arrives in the Capitol for the Senate Republicans' policy luncheon on June 28, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

Key GOP senator: Trump admin has 'clamped down' on Khashoggi intel

10/18/18 08:40AM

On the front page of the Washington Post this morning, readers are confronted with a story that begins, "The Trump administration and the Saudi royal family are searching for a mutually agreeable explanation for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi -- one that will avoid implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is among the president's closest foreign allies, according to analysts and officials in multiple countries."

That's a rather extraordinary sentence. One of the nation's preeminent news organizations reported, in a matter-of-fact sort of way, that Donald Trump's White House is effectively helping with a cover-up.

A foreign country stands accused of murdering a U.S.-based journalist, and the American president's team is now working with that country on an acceptable cover story that protects Trump's ally.

A separate Washington Post  report added:

...Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said the administration had "clamped down" on sharing intelligence about the Khashoggi case. He said an intelligence briefing scheduled for Tuesday was canceled and he was told no additional intelligence would be shared with the Senate for now, a move he called "disappointing."

"I can only surmise that probably the intel is not painting a pretty picture as it relates to Saudi Arabia," Corker said.

Well, yes, I think that's a safe assumption. But I also think it's more than simply "disappointing."

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has extensive oversight authority over the executive branch's handling of international affairs, has more than a few questions right now about Saudi Arabia and the White House's policy toward the Middle Eastern giant.

But the Trump administration, while working with the Saudi royal family on "a mutually agreeable explanation for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi," has decided to "clamp down" on sharing intelligence with Congress.

There's no reason for lawmakers to respond by simply shrugging their shoulders in frustration.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, May 17, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

McConnell: Midterms will determine whether GOP tries to repeal ACA

10/18/18 08:00AM

With only three weeks remaining before Election Day, and early voting already underway across much of the country, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is trying a risky strategy: the GOP leader is talking candidly about his party's post-election plans.

A week ago, for example, McConnell spoke out against congressional oversight of Donald Trump's White House, dismissing presidential accountability as "presidential harassment." Earlier this week, the Kentucky Republican said he hopes to address the deficit he grew by cutting social-insurance programs like Medicare and Social Security.

And yesterday, the Senate GOP leader told Reuters that if his party can hold onto power after next month's congressional midterm elections, Republicans are likely to try again to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans could try again to repeal Obamacare if they win enough seats in U.S. elections next month, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said on Wednesday, calling a failed 2017 push to repeal the healthcare law a "disappointment." [...]

He said, "If we had the votes to completely start over, we'd do it. But that depends on what happens in a couple weeks."

In "a couple of weeks," of course, are the nation's midterm elections.

In a separate interview with Bloomberg News, McConnell also expressed support for a GOP lawsuit that would gut protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions.

The fact that ACA repeal remains a Republican priority does not come as a surprise. Despite very recent GOP efforts to present themselves to voters as progressive health care advocates, Republicans are still largely defined by their contempt for "Obamacare" and its benefits. McConnell simply acknowledged out loud what's been obvious for a while: of course a Republican-led Congress and a Republican-led White House will again try to tear down the existing system.

What is surprising, however, is the risk McConnell is willing to take this close to the election.

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