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Monday's Mini-Report, 5.22.17

05/22/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Iran: "Riding a large turnout from Iran's urban middle classes, President Hassan Rouhani won re-election in a landslide on Saturday, giving him a mandate to continue his quest to expand personal freedoms and open Iran's ailing economy to global investors."

* North Korea: "South Korean defense officials said on Monday that the missile the North launched on Sunday was a medium-range ballistic missile that cannot fly far enough to strike American military bases in Guam, as analysts had feared."

* This complaint takes chutzpah: "Turkey's Foreign Ministry lodged a formal protest Monday with the U.S. ambassador over 'aggressive' actions by American security personnel during a clash between Turkish guards and protesters as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Washington this month."

* This isn't all right: "Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held a news conference with the Saudi foreign minister in Riyadh on Sunday, but he left the American media behind."

* This isn't, either: "A reporter said he was pinned against a wall by two security officials in a public hallway at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington on Thursday after he tried to ask a question of a commissioner."

* Jared Kushner's distance from his family's business could be clearer: "Kushner, 36, who is emerging as a singularly powerful figure in the Trump White House, is keeping nearly 90 percent of his vast real estate holdings even after resigning from the family business and pledging a clear divide between his private interests and public duties."

* I can't think of a coherent defense for this: "Nearly 700 positions are vacant at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because of a continuing freeze on hiring that officials and researchers say affects programs supporting local and state public health emergency readiness, infectious disease control and chronic disease prevention."
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Image: President Trump and Prime Minister Abe Press Conference at White House

In Russia scandal, top former Trump aide pleads the 5th

05/22/17 04:30PM

The Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into Donald Trump's Russia scandal isn't breaking any speed records, but it's incrementally moving forward. NBC News reports today, for example, that Paul Manafort and Roger Stone have turned over documents related to the probe, per the committee's request.

Michael Flynn, on the other hand, is pursuing a different course. The Associated Press reported this afternoon:
President Donald Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination on Monday and declined to hand over documents sought under subpoena by a Senate panel investigating Russia's meddling in the 2016 election.

In a letter to the Senate intelligence committee, Flynn's attorneys justified the decision by citing an "escalating public frenzy against him" and saying the Justice Department's recent appointment of a special counsel has created a legally dangerous environment for him to cooperate with the panel's investigation.
The committee's leaders will now have to consider its next move, including the option of moving forward with a vote to hold Flynn in contempt of Congress. In theory, that could lead to a criminal charge.

But the short-term political problem for the White House is less ambiguous. Not only will Flynn's refusal to cooperate detract from the president's efforts to change the subject with his overseas trip, there's also the litany of quotes from Trump World about the dubiousness of those who take full advantage of their Fifth Amendment rights.
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This file handout photo taken on May 10, 2017 made available by the Russian Foreign Ministry shows shows US President Donald J. Trump (C) speaking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and Russian Ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak.

In Israel, Trump denies intel claim he was never accused of

05/22/17 12:54PM

It's been nearly two weeks since Donald Trump welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergei Kislyak into the Oval Office -- at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin -- which has proven to be controversial for all sorts of reasons. It was the American president's intelligence leak that probably mattered most.

We learned last week that Trump, for reasons that remain unclear, decided to share highly classified intelligence with his Russian guests. The sensitive secrets were provided to the United States by a third, unnamed country, and when the the Republican passed the intel on to the Russians, it sent shockwaves through the international community.

With this in mind, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, standing alongside the American president earlier, was asked at a brief press conference if he has any concerns about intelligence cooperation with the United States. He said he did not. At that point, the leaders were poised to be whisked off to their next event, but Trump stopped everyone because he had something to declare:
"Just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name 'Israel.' Never mentioned that during that conversation. They were all saying I did, so you have another story wrong. Never mentioned the word 'Israel.'"
To put it mildly, that's not what Trump was supposed to say.
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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.22.17

05/22/17 12:00PM

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

* I'll have more on this a little later today: "The Supreme Court ruled Monday that racial considerations pervaded the way North Carolina lawmakers drew congressional maps after the 2010 Census in order to maximize Republicans' advantage."

* Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) traveled to Montana yesterday to campaign in support of Rob Quist, the Democratic candidate in the state's congressional special election. The vote is this Thursday. "The eyes of the country, actually eyes all over the world, are on the great state of Montana," Sanders told a sizable crowd.

* On a related note, Quist's closing message goes after the Republican health care plan for gutting protections for those with pre-existing conditions, while delivering a tax cut for the wealthy.

* In Virginia, one of only two states to host gubernatorial elections this year, the latest Washington Post/George Mason poll shows both of the Democratic candidates -- Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello -- with double-digit leads over the likely Republican nominee, Ed Gillespie. According to the survey, Perriello leads Gillespie in a hypothetical match-up by 13 points, while Northam is up by 11 points.

* In an interesting sign of the times, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who represents a district Donald Trump lost badly, wants it to be known he was the first congressional Republican to publicly broach the subject of presidential impeachment.

* In California yesterday, state Democrats apparently elected state party vice chairman Eric Bauman to serve as the new chairman, edging out Kimberly Ellis, a Bernie Sanders supporter from the Bay Area,  Ellis, however, has not conceded the race, and has "been in touch with attorneys."
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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

Trump White House clashes with federal ethics watchdog

05/22/17 11:20AM

Up until quite recently, Walter Shaub worked in relative obscurity. Shaub is the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, an independent, non-partisan office, which tries to prevent conflicts of interest among high-ranking federal officials, and he's worked off and on at the office for 20 years.

But Donald Trump's election has brought Shaub into the spotlight in unexpected ways.

It was Shaub who balked publicly in response to Trump's decision to maintain ownership of his business ventures while serving as president. Soon after, he raised concerns about the president moving forward with cabinet nominees before the Office of Government Ethics could complete an ethics review process -- and then blew the whistle when Trump's nominees pushed back against the government's ethics requirements with "a ferocity we've not previously seen."

Last week, we learned that it was Shaub's office that stood its ground when Trump's attorneys "wanted him to submit an updated financial disclosure without certifying the information as true." And this week, the New York Times highlights the latest skirmish in this ongoing saga.
The Trump administration, in a significant escalation of its clash with the government's top ethics watchdog, has moved to block an effort to disclose any ethics waivers granted to former lobbyists who have work in the White House or federal agencies.

The latest conflict came in recent days when the White House, in a highly unusual move, sent a letter to Walter M. Shaub Jr., the head of the Office of Government Ethics, asking him to withdraw a request he had sent to every federal agency for copies of the waivers. In the letter, the administration challenged his legal authority to demand the information.
This is a tough one for the administration to defend.
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Prominent among the sights to see in Jackson, Miss., is the Mississippi State Capitol, photographed, June 10, 1999. Completed in 1903, the building exemplifies the beaux arts classical style of architecture.

Mississippi Republican faces pushback following 'lynching' comment

05/22/17 10:40AM

Local officials in New Orleans last week finished removing Confederate-era monuments from prominent positions in the city, which, not surprisingly, was the subject of some debate. But the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, highlighted a Republican lawmaker who made clear what he intends to do if a similar effort is launched in his home state.
State Rep. Karl Oliver, R-Winona, in a Facebook post wrote that Louisiana leaders removing Confederate monuments should be "lynched" and compared their actions to Nazis.

The GOP representative of District 46 wrote the following in a Facebook post: "The destruction of these monuments, erected in the loving memory of our family and fellow Southern Americans, is both heinous and horrific. If the, and I use this term extremely loosely, 'leadership' of Louisiana wishes to, in a Nazi-ish fashion, burn books or destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED! Let it be known, I will do all in my power to prevent this from happening in our State."
I'll gladly concede that random state lawmakers say ridiculous things with some regularity, and as a rule, turning each incident into a national news story is a Sisyphean task.

But there's a legitimate conversation underway about the future of Confederate monuments in much of the South, and the fact that sentiments such as Karl Oliver's still exist -- from an elected lawmaker, publishing online for the public to see -- are a reminder about the state of the debate in some corners.

The fact that this Mississippi Republican represents the community of Money -- the same town in which Emmett Till was lynched in 1955 -- makes Oliver's statement that much more striking.
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Image: US President Donald J. Trump visits Saudi Arabia

Trump's Commerce Sec marvels at lack of protests in Saudi Arabia

05/22/17 10:00AM

The first stop on Donald Trump's overseas tour ended largely without incident. No one understands what was up with that orb, but in general, the American president did not cause any diplomatic crises during his brief trip to Saudi Arabia.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appeared on CNBC this morning to boast about how well it went. In fact, he offered proof that Trump's first stop went off without a hitch:
"[The] thing that was fascinating to me, there was not a single hint of a protestor anywhere there during the whole time we were there. Not one guy with a bad placard."
At that point, the CNBC host interjected, reminding the secretary of Commerce that Saudis may have wanted to protest Trump, but local citizens aren't allowed to express such criticisms publicly.

"In theory, that could be true," Ross responded, "but boy there was certainly no sign of it." The cabinet secretary then proceeded to brag some more about how smoothly everything went in the authoritarian country -- including some "gigantic bushels of dates" he received as a gift from people he identified as Saudi security guards.

Someone might want to remind Ross that Saudi Arabia banned all protests and marches years ago. BBC News reported six years ago this month that a statement was read on state television that said "security forces would use all measures to prevent any attempt to disrupt public order."

It's not that Ross was wrong -- I'm quite certain Trump and his entourage were confronted with nothing but polite and welcoming locals -- it's that he apparently has no idea why he's right. There wasn't "a single hint of a protestor anywhere" because in Saudi Arabia, public dissent is quashed by force of law. What the president's cabinet secretary was arguing, in effect, was that he didn't see any Saudi who was willing to put his freedom or security at risk by holding up a critical placard, which is hardly something worth bragging about.
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A trader works at the Goldman Sachs stall on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, April 16, 2012.

Goldman Sachs exec ends bid to join Trump administration

05/22/17 09:20AM

Two months ago, James Donovan, a longtime Goldman Sachs executive, became Donald Trump's nominee to serve as deputy to the Treasury secretary, serving just below Steve Mnuchin. On Friday afternoon, that nomination came to a rather abrupt halt.
James Donovan, the Goldman Sachs executive who was poised to become deputy Treasury secretary, is backing out of consideration.

Mr. Donovan, 50, recently told administration officials that he could not take the job because of unexpected family matters that required more of his attention.
While Donovan is hardly a household name, and his nomination wasn't considered a major development, his withdrawal is a story with a fairly broad reach.

For example, Trump, after having used Goldman Sachs as a punching bag for much of the campaign, had chosen seven veterans of the Wall Street giant to work on his team. With Donavan stepping aside, and Anthony Scaramucci also walking away from an administration job offer, there are now five prominent Goldman Sachs executives remaining on Team Trump.

There's also the fact that the president still has far too many vacancies in key posts throughout his administration. The Treasury Department is ostensibly poised to play a key role in a massive tax-reform initiative, but the cabinet agency remains understaffed: there are 28 positions at Treasury that require Senate confirmation, and as of today, only one of those offices has a confirmed nominee in place. With Donavan out, the president now needs to nominate someone for 19 of the 28 posts.

And then, of course, there's the growing list of Trump World members who've already moved on to other career opportunities.
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Image: President Trump Departs White House To Honor NAVY Seal Killed in Yemen Raid

Saudi Arabia, UAE pledge $100 million to fund backed by Ivanka Trump

05/22/17 08:40AM

About a month ago, Ivanka Trump boasted about a new initiative: in addition to her White House duties, the president's daughter is helping raise money to "benefit female entrepreneurs around the globe." As part of the endeavor, Ivanka Trump had already begun soliciting contributions from international donors.

It wasn't long before legal and ethical questions arose -- when the president of the United States' daughter starts asking for money from prospective donors abroad, scrutiny is inevitable -- prompting Ivanka Trump to make clear that the World Bank would manage the investment fund; she was merely championing the worthy cause.

The story took an interesting turn over the weekend with new "pay-to-play" concerns. NPR reported:
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will donate a combined $100 million to a World Bank fund for women entrepreneurs that was the brainchild of Ivanka Trump.

The announcement by World Bank President Jim Young Kim came during a visit to Saudi Arabia by President Trump, who was accompanied by his wife, Melania, daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Some context is in order. It was just last year, for example, that Donald Trump said he was outraged that the Clinton Foundation accepted charitable contributions from Saudi Arabia, which, the Republican said, wants "women as slaves" and to "kill gays." He added at the time, "Hillary must return all money from such countries!"

And yet, here we are, watching Trump's daughter raising money by accepting a sizable charitable contribution from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

What's more, it's important to consider the motivation behind the donation. The Washington Post's Anne Applebaum noted, "The announcement that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will donate money to her fund was a 'pay to play' far more blatant than anything Hillary Clinton ever dreamed of."
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Image: US-SAUDI-ISLAMIC-SUMMIT-TRUMP

In Saudi Arabia, Trump retreats from years of posturing

05/22/17 08:00AM

There was a fair amount of interest in Donald Trump's speech in Riyadh yesterday, with the American president addressing dozens of Muslim leaders from the region. The ambiguity surrounding the purpose of the remarks only heightened the curiosity: what exactly would Trump -- with a record of hostility towards Islam in general and Saudi Arabia in specific -- do with this platform?

As it turns out, not a whole lot. The Republican's speech in Saudi Arabia, by any fair measure, turned out to be pretty conventional, which inadvertently told us something important about Trump.
The speech during the initial stop of the president's first foreign trip was a stark contrast to his previous comments on Islam. As a candidate, Trump frequently criticized the religion, saying, "I think Islam hates us" and "there's a tremendous hatred there."

In Riyadh, Trump said, "This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it."
Perhaps the most provocative portion of the speech came when Trump strayed from the prepared text: he was supposed to reference "confronting the crisis of Islamist extremism," but he instead said "confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism." A senior administration official said soon after that the slip was not deliberate, but rather, was the result of the president being "exhausted" on his first full day abroad.

Regardless, the story here is less about a conventional speech and more about the fact that Trump retreated from his previous postures. Remember, Trump rose to prominence in Republican presidential politics by attacking Islam relentlessly, including his call for a notorious Muslim ban, which his White House tried and failed to implement a few months ago.

His rebukes against Saudi Arabia in particular have been nearly as plentiful. In 2012, Trump falsely accused Saudi Arabia of conspiring with Barack Obama to lower gas prices and making illegal campaign contributions. More recently, he argued that Saudis "want women as slaves and to kill gays." Trump also insisted over and over and over again that he wanted to change U.S. policy so that Saudi Arabia pays us more for national security aid.
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