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Report suggests possible intimidation of IRS whistleblower

Report suggests possible intimidation of IRS whistleblower

12/06/19 09:47PM

Rachel Maddow points out a new CNN report that the IRS whistleblower who flagged potential inappropriate efforts to influence the mandatory audit program of a president's tax returns was informed by an official that providing taxpayer information to the Senate Finance Committee could be a violation. This is not true, according to... watch

Friday's Mini-Report, 12.6.19

12/06/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Deadly shooting at Pensacola Naval Base: "The suspect in a shooting that killed three people and injured several others at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida, on Friday morning was a member of the Saudi Air Force who was in the U.S. for training, officials said."

* Maybe they couldn't think of a defense: "The White House on Friday rejected an invitation to take part in impeachment hearings before the House Judiciary Committee."

* Team Trump sure does worry about disclosure of the president's finances: "Lawyers for President Donald Trump asked the Supreme Court on Friday to block subpoenas issued by House Democrats to Deutsche Bank and Capital One for the president's financial records."

* The future of the so-called "public charge" policy: "A divided federal appeals court has lifted several injunctions blocking the Trump administration from implementing a rule aimed at limiting immigration benefits for individuals who participate in government programs such as food stamps or Medicaid."

* Bringing France to a halt: "Angry railway employees, teachers and other workers in France showed no signs of backing down from a nationwide strike on Friday, having brought public transportation to a standstill in a protest over President Emmanuel Macron's plans to overhaul the nation's pension system."

* West Virginia: "Officials are investigating a group of West Virginia corrections trainees who were photographed seemingly making a Nazi salute in their uniforms."

* That's a very good point: Republicans are all about boosting economic growth, so they say.... Unless it comes to punishing poor people. In which case, even the economy has to take a back seat."

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Image: A statue of the United States first President, George Washington, is seen under the Capitol dome in Washington

Dems pass another priority, approve Voting Rights Advancement Act

12/06/19 02:41PM

When the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in a highly controversial 5-4 ruling, the court's conservative majority effectively ended federal oversight of areas with history of voter-discrimination laws. If officials in those areas wanted to change their voting laws, the Voting Rights Act required pre-clearance from the Justice Department.

In Shelby County v. Holder, the high court's conservatives scrapped the requirement and challenged Congress to come up with a new formula for determining which areas deserved extra federal scrutiny of their voting laws, and which didn't.

In the six years that followed the ruling, state Republican officials wasted little time in taking advantage of the new legal landscape -- new voter-suppression measures passed in much of the country -- but federal lawmakers did not take up the Supreme Court's challenge and made no effort to create new standards.

Today, as Vox's Ella Nilsen explained, that changed.

Six years after the Supreme Court stripped key parts of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, America's signature legislation protecting voters of color, the House of Representatives passed a bill meant to restore those safeguards.

In a mostly party-line vote, the legislation was approved 228-187. The Voting Rights Advancement Act, introduced by Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), is a key part of Democrats' agenda to expand voting rights. It would make it more difficult for states to discriminate against voters of color, and give the federal government a stronger ability to take action against states with a history of discrimination.

At the end of the voting on the House floor today, it was Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement, who held gavel, adding symbolic weight to the circumstances.

Mother Jones' Ari Berman fleshed out the practical effects of the legislation: "It would initially cover 11 states: nine in the South, plus California and New York, which have more recently been found to discriminate against Latinos and Asian Americans. The bill would also require all states to get federal approval for election changes that are known to disproportionately affect voters of color, such as strict voter ID laws, tighter voter registration requirements, and polling place closures in areas with large numbers of minority voters."

The Voting Rights Advancement Act enjoyed unanimous support from the House Democrats voting today, but literally only one House Republican -- Pennsylvania's Brian Fitzpatrick -- supported the proposal. (The last time the chamber voted on the Voting Rights Act, in 2006, it passed 390 to 33. GOP politics has changed quite a bit since.)

Now that the bill has passed the House, it heads to the Republican-led Senate, where it will, of course, go completely ignored. That's discouraging for voting-rights advocates, but it also speaks to a larger truth that's often overlooked.

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Congressional Black Caucus Returns Controversial Painting  To Capitol Hill

As Duncan Hunter weighs his options, Issa wants Trump to intervene

12/06/19 12:46PM

Even by the standards of modern congressional scandals, Rep. Duncan Hunter's (R-Calif.) case is a doozy. As regular readers know, California Republican's multi-count criminal indictment accused him, of among other things, stealing campaign funds for personal use and clumsily trying to cover it up. As part of the case, prosecutors also alleged Hunter illegally used contributions to help finance extramarital affairs, including some with lobbyists.

After repeatedly insisting he's innocent, and blaming a political "witch hunt" for his predicament, the congressman pleaded guilty this week to conspiracy to misuse campaign funds. He's scheduled to be sentenced in March, and he faces up to five years in prison.

Though resignation seems like the obvious next step for Hunter, the GOP lawmaker, at least for now, seems intent on sticking around. In fact, the day after pleading guilty, the congressman was back on the House floor, casting votes as if he were a member in good standing. Roll Call reported yesterday that some of his colleagues reminded Hunter that he's not, in fact, a member in good standing: he's been stripped of his committee assignments and the Ethics panel wants him to stop voting on legislation.

The House Ethics Committee notified Rep. Duncan Hunter that his recent guilty plea means he should no longer cast votes in the House. The instruction is not mandatory, but the panel threatened action against him if he continues to vote. [...]

The Thursday letter from House Ethics specifies that Hunter "should refrain from voting on any question at a meeting of the House," until or unless a court reinstates the presumption of his innocence. It says he could resume voting if reelected to the House despite the guilty plea.

I won't pretend to know what the California congressman intends to do next, though one of the Republicans who hopes to succeed Hunter on Capitol Hill yesterday raised a provocative possibility: what if Donald Trump intervenes on Hunter's behalf?

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.6.19

12/06/19 12:00PM

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

* Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.) this morning became the latest Republican member of Congress to announce his retirement, citing North Carolina's new congressional map that makes his district more Democratic.

* On a related note, Holding's announcement comes just one day after Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) said he, too, has decided not to run for re-election next year. For those keeping score, 19 House Republican incumbents are now retiring from elected office, while an additional three GOP House members are giving up their seats to seek statewide office.

* Speaking of 2020 plans, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) still hasn't yet officially declared her electoral intentions, though the Maine Republican told a reporter yesterday that she'll announce her decision within the next two weeks. (For the record, I don't really expect Collins to retire.)

* Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) this morning released a letter from her physician describing her as "very healthy." Referring to the senator, who turned 70 over the summer, Dr. Beverly Woo, a physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, wrote, "There are no medical conditions or health problems that would keep her from fulfilling the duties of the President of the United States." The letter was accompanied by several pages of medical records.

* John Kerry, a former senator, former secretary of State, and former presidential nominee, endorsed Joe Biden's candidacy in a written statement yesterday.

* Democratic presidential hopeful Julian Castro announced last night that he's reached the 200,000-donor threshold -- the minimum for qualifying for this month's presidential primary debate -- though his polling support leaves him short of making it onto the stage.

* Though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hasn't officially launched a U.S. Senate campaign in his native Kansas, CNN reports the Republican "attended an off-the-books sit-down meeting with a conservative group that included a small number of wealthy Republican donors, which was not on his official schedule while he was in London to attend this week's NATO Summit."

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Lawyer and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani at a press conference after appearing in court to call for the dismissal of a lawsuit filed against video game giant Activision in Los Angeles, Calif., Oct. 16, 2014. (Photo by Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Perhaps Giuliani should stop trying to 'help' his Oval Office client

12/06/19 11:12AM

Despite the reported criminal investigation into him, Rudy Giuliani thought it'd be a good idea to travel to eastern Europe this week, as part of an ongoing effort to help Donald Trump, dig up damaging revelations about Joe Biden, and pursue imagined evidence that Russia didn't attack our elections in 2016.

In fact, as Rachel noted on the show last night, it was just a couple of days ago when Giuliani met with a former Ukrainian prosecutor linked to Russian intelligence, whom Giuliani is relying on for dubious anti-Biden dirt.

Trump's lawyer briefly interrupted his trip yesterday to publish a couple of tweets, making the case that the impeachment effort against his client is a "farce." To bolster the assertion, Giuliani insisted that the Trump administration did not withhold military aid to Ukraine -- a bizarre claim, since the president has already acknowledged the opposite.

The former mayor added:

"The conversation about corruption in Ukraine was based on compelling evidence of criminal conduct by then VP Biden, in 2016, that has not been resolved and until it is will be a major obstacle to the US assisting Ukraine with its anti-corruption reforms.

"The American people will learn that Biden & other Obama administration officials, contributed to the increased level of corruption in Ukraine between 2014 to 2016. This evidence will all be released very soon."

Those waiting for actual "evidence" should probably lower their expectations, but that's not what made Giuliani's missives interesting.

It was earlier this week when Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee released a "report" -- I'm using the word loosely -- making the case that Trump is actually innocent, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. The GOP lawmakers conceded that the American president may have pressed his Ukrainian counterpart, but according to the panel's Republican members, Trump was motivated solely by his sincere and deeply held concerns about corruption in Kyiv, not digging up dirt on a domestic political rival.

As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent explained a few days ago, the argument is impossible to take seriously, though I think Giuliani just made matters quite a bit worse.

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National Review calls on Newt Gingrich to quit

At the intersection of impeachment and Christmas

12/06/19 10:17AM

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) made rather predictable comments to Fox News about the impeachment process targeting Donald Trump, though he made a point to connect the congressional effort to an upcoming holiday.

"The whole thing is a joke. It is frankly very, very close to what Clarence Thomas once described as 'a modern-day lynch mob.' ... And really, on the eve of Christmas, it is really sad to see the dishonesty and the partisanship that the House Democrats are displaying."

As luck would have it, the current presidential impeachment process isn't the first to unfold "on the eve of Christmas." In fact, the last one did, too.

Let's take a stroll down memory lane. In 1998, the Republican House majority, led by Gingrich, expected to see its ranks grow by 30 seats in the midterm elections. Voters had a different idea: with widespread opposition to the GOP's impeachment effort against then-President Bill Clinton, it was House Democrats who actually gained seats that cycle, a historical rarity for the White House's party in a president's sixth year.

Republicans, unwilling to take the hint, proceeded with the process anyway, using Congress' lame-duck session to impeach Clinton, the will of the electorate be damned. Gingrich and his party held the votes on the impeachment articles -- which fell largely along party lines -- on Saturday, Dec. 19, 1998, six days before Christmas.

It was around this same time that Gingrich announced that he'd resign, in part because his GOP conference blamed him for their electoral misfortunes, in part because of the ethical lapses, and in part because he'd engaged in an extramarital affair while leading the push to impeach Clinton over an extramarital affair.

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Trump admin: More US troops may be headed for Middle East

12/06/19 09:23AM

The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday night that the Trump administration is considering a plan to significantly expand "the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East," including the deployment of "as many as 14,000 additional troops." The pushback from Donald Trump and the Pentagon, however, was categorical: the reporting, they said, was "wrong."

Yesterday, however, a top Pentagon official, Undersecretary of Defense John Rood, was on Capitol Hill, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that 14,000 additional troops have already been deployed to the region this year, and more may be on the way.

"We haven't made a decision yet," Mr. Rood said under questioning by Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.). "Based on what we are seeing ... it is possible we would need to adjust our force posture. I think that would be a prudent step, depending on what we observe, because our objective is to deter Iranian aggression." [...]

Ms. Blackburn then asked Mr. Rood whether additional forces were being considered, or whether the Pentagon might send fewer than 14,000. "Yes," he responded.

"We are evaluating the threat situations," he said. "We will need to make dynamic adjustments to our posture."

Also yesterday afternoon, a reporter asked the president about the possibility of increased troop deployments to the Middle East. "We'll announce -- whatever we do, we'll announce," Trump replied. "But certainly, there might be a threat. And if there is a threat, it will be met very strongly."

Of course, these possible deployments would follow the additional deployments from earlier this year. The Associated Press added in a report yesterday, "President Donald Trump has approved those increases, even though he also routinely insists that he is pulling U.S. troops out of the Middle East and withdrawing from what he calls 'endless wars' against extremists."

The New York Times had a related report along these lines in October, noting that there are more American troops in the Middle East now than when Trump took office nearly three years ago.

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Job numbers bounce back in November (but there's a small asterisk)

12/06/19 08:44AM

Ahead of this morning's jobs report, most projections pointed to growth in November in the ballpark of 180,000, in part because of the effects of the General Motors strike. It looks like those expectations understated matters.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this morning that the economy added 266,000 jobs last month, while the unemployment rate inched down a little to 3.5%. Fortunately, the revisions from September and October were also revised up, adding 41,000 jobs from previous reporting.

These are, to be sure, very encouraging figures, though as the New York Times noted this morning, ahead of the report's release, the jump in hiring "will not be as big as the report's totals might suggest. Nearly 50,000 striking workers at General Motors returned to their jobs last month. Their six-week walkout meant that they were not included in the government's October surveys. Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton, said the job creation numbers could be further inflated by another 12,000 workers at auto suppliers and related businesses, who were also not working because of the G.M. strike and have now been rehired."

Still, even accounting for the GM angle, November's job report is very encouraging and points to a healthy, stable job market.

As for the political implications, Donald Trump has now been in office for 34 full months -- February 2017 through November 2019 -- and in that time, the economy has created 6.56 million jobs. In the 34 months preceding Trump's presidency -- April 2014 to January 2017 -- the economy created 7.71 million jobs.

As regular readers know, some have asked what would happen if we looked at the same numbers, but assigned the job totals from January 2017 to Trump, even though Obama was president for most of the month. On balance, I think that paints a misleading picture, but it doesn't change the underlying dynamic: if we applied jobs from January 2017 to Trump and compared the last 35 months to the previous 35 months, job totals still slowed from 7.88 million to 6.81 million.

The White House, meanwhile, believes we should actually start the clock for Trump at November 2016 -- the month of the Republican's election -- and apply the jobs created during the final months of the Obama era to the current Republican president. But that still doesn't help: if we compare the last 37 months to the previous 37 months, job totals slowed from 8.23 million to 7.19 million.

Trump continues to tell the world that he's overseeing the strongest domestic job growth in American history, which is plainly false. What's more, the White House has not yet offered an explanation for why job growth has slowed since Trump took office.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

Trump again accused of mishandling info, creating security threat

12/06/19 08:00AM

The House Intelligence Committee this week released a new report on Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal, which included phone records that pointed to a familiar concern: the president continues to use unsecured telephones. That includes frequent communications with Rudy Giuliani -- while the former mayor was abroad -- that the Washington Post reported were "vulnerable to monitoring by Russian and other foreign intelligence services."

The revelations raise the possibility that Moscow was able to learn about aspects of Trump's attempt to get Ukraine to investigate a political rival months before that effort was exposed by a whistleblower report and the impeachment inquiry, officials said. [...]

The disclosures provide fresh evidence suggesting that the president continues to defy the security guidance urged by his aides and followed by previous incumbents -- a stance that is particularly remarkable given Trump's attacks on Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign for her use of a private email account while serving as secretary of state.

The problem, of course, extends beyond breathtaking hypocrisy. By willfully ignoring security guidance, Trump has created a vulnerability that Russia could exploit to advance its interests over ours.

The Post spoke to John Sipher, former deputy chief of Russia operations at the CIA, who said the Republican president and his lawyer have effectively "given the Russians ammunition they can use in an overt fashion, a covert fashion or in the twisting of information." He added that it's so likely that Russia tracked these calls that the Kremlin probably knows more now about those conversations than impeachment investigators.

The same article noted that Trump has "absolutely" created a security issue by using lines vulnerable to interception and blowing off aides who've tried to steer the president in more responsible directions.

And in case that weren't quite enough, the Post reported that after White House officials made "a concerted attempt" in 2017 to have Trump use secure White House lines, the president came to realize this meant officials such as then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly would know to whom Trump was speaking.

The president considered this unacceptable and "reverted to using his cellphone."

And with that in mind, this seems like a good time to update my entirely subjective rundown of the most egregious examples of Trump mishandling sensitive information and creating security risks.

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