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Friday's Mini-Report, 11.16.18

11/16/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* California: "Residents of San Francisco and surrounding cities woke to inhale terrible air on Friday, choking on smoke from the deadly Camp Fire more than 150 miles away, officials said."

* Education Secretary Betsy DeVos today unveiled new guidelines on how schools should address sexual assault allegations: "[A]dvocates for sexual assault survivors say they're worried that the guidelines would actually make campuses more dangerous, deter victims from coming forward and put them in traumatizing scenarios."

* On a related note: "Education Secretary Betsy DeVos began receiving around-the-clock security from the U.S. Marshals Service days after being confirmed, an armed detail provided to no other cabinet member that could cost U.S. taxpayers $19.8 million through September of 2019, according to new figures provided by the Marshals Service to NBC News."

* Of these two, the Democrat isn't returning to Congress, but the Republican is: "Reps. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., and Mark Meadows, R-N.C., have been formally sanctioned by the House Ethics Committee over sexual harassment allegations, the panel announced Friday in reports released to the public."

* VA: "Officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs testified Thursday before a House committee that they still don't know when their information technology system will be updated to address issues preventing tens of thousand' of veterans from receiving their GI Bill benefit payments on time, if at all."

* A case to watch: "The Supreme Court agreed Friday to take up an aspect of the legal battle over the Trump administration's plan to put a question about citizenship on the 2020 census form."

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Image: President Trump Holds Rally In Great Falls, Montana

Trump claims elections were 'epic' for Republicans (they weren't)

11/16/18 04:26PM

At the time of his presidential inauguration, Donald Trump benefited from a Republican majority in the Senate, where there were 52 GOP members. When the next Congress gets underway, there will be another Republican majority in the upper chamber, this time with 53 GOP members.

Evidently, the president thinks that's "epic."

"People are not being told that the Republican Party is on track to pick up two seats in the U.S. Senate, and [sic] epic victory: 53 to 47," Trump wrote on Twitter. "The Fake News Media only wants to speak of the House, were [sic] the Midterm results were better than other sitting Presidents."

I suppose "epic" is a subjective term, but as a rule, two isn't a large number. Senate Republicans enjoyed a map so heavily tilted in their favor that some thought the GOP might be able to reach a 60-seat majority in this cycle. A month before Election Day, the National Republican Senatorial Committee expected to end up with as many as 55 seats. The party obviously fell short of both thresholds.

In fact, the standard for success keeps falling. Last week, Trump said Republicans had won 55 seats. Earlier this week, it was 54. Now, it's 53.

A cynic might wonder if the president is simply pretending to be impressed with a two-seat pickup because Democrats fared so well in every other area of the election cycle.

But in terms of the public-relations offensive, Trump seems quite serious. In his interview with The Daily Caller argued:

"So we picked up three or four Senate seats depending on how it all goes -- it's a big pickup. In fact, they say in 80 years I think the presidential party's only picked up two Senate seats, I picked up three."

He actually picked up two, and the White House's party has now added Senate seats in midterm cycles three times in the last 56 years.

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Trump prepares answers to Special Counsel Mueller's questions

11/16/18 02:18PM

Donald Trump and his team have spent quite a bit of time and effort resisting cooperation with Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his investigators. That's especially true when it comes to the president answering Mueller's questions.

Back in January, Trump boasted that he was "looking forward to" an interview with investigators -- something he said he'd "love" to do -- adding that he was "absolutely" prepared to answer questions under oath. The president suggested at the time that the interview would happen in roughly "two or three weeks."

In the months that followed, Trump's lawyers offered a variety of alternatives to cooperating, before eventually reaching an agreement with the special counsel's office to answer questions in writing. The president told reporters this afternoon that he has personally completed the Q&A.

"My lawyers aren't working on that. I'm working on that. I write the answers. My lawyers don't write answers, I write answers."

"I was asked a series of questions. I have answered them very easily. Very easily. I'm sure they're tripped up because they like to catch people.... You have to be careful answering questions with people that probably have bad intentions, but no. The questions were very routinely answered by me. By me. Okay?"

The same answer included additional references to Hillary Clinton, the electoral college, and how impressed Trump was with his own presidential candidacy.

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A woman places her vote into the ballot box on March 5, 2016 in Bowling Green, Ky. (Photo by Austin Anthony/Daily News/AP)

The good news and bad news on gerrymandering

11/16/18 12:50PM

For those concerned about gerrymandering and its effects on our democracy, the 2018 elections offered some good news and some bad news.

The good news is, a lot of voters appear to be sick of it. Michigan voters, for example, approved sweeping election changes, including the creation of an independent redistricting commission that will be responsible for drawing congressional district lines.

In Colorado and Missouri, voters agreed to overhaul the redistricting process to end gerrymandering. (Utah may have done the same thing, but votes on the state's Proposition 4 are still being tallied.)

The bad news is, gerrymandered districts still exist across much of the country. Cleveland.com reported yesterday:

[Republicans in Ohio's state legislature] scored their wins for 63 percent of the seats while collecting just over 50 percent of the total vote.

This is a lot like what happened in Ohio's 16 congressional districts, where Republicans won 75 percent of the seats with just 52 percent of the overall vote.

These are two fresh examples of how skillfully gerrymandered legislative districts can sway the balance of power -- especially when one party is in full control of drawing the maps as was the case for the current districts.

Regular readers may recall that Ohio policymakers approved some modest reforms to the redistricting process in May, but those changes won't be implemented until after the 2020 Census.

Of course, the Buckeye State isn't the only one where gerrymandering was an issue. Mother Jones' Ari Berman reported yesterday that in Wisconsin, Democratic candidates managed to win a majority of the state Assembly votes, but thanks to the lines drawn by Republicans, it's the GOP that will hold a majority of the seats.

The Washington Post also reported this week, "Majorities of voters in at least three battleground states -- Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina -- chose a Democrat to represent them in the state's House of Representatives. Yet in all three states, Republicans maintained majority control over the chamber despite winning only a minority of votes."

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.16.18

11/16/18 12:00PM

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

* Democrats continue to rack up wins in U.S. House races in California, with several news outlets last night calling the 45th district for Katie Porter (D), who appears to have defeated incumbent Rep. Mimi Walters (R). It's the fifth "red" to "blue" flip in the Golden State this year.

* On a related note, thanks to Maine's system of ranked-choice balloting, Jared Golden (D) has apparently defeated incumbent Rep. Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R) in the state's 2nd congressional district.

* In Georgia's gubernatorial race, the Associated Press reports that Stacey Abrams' (D) campaign and legal team is preparing "a longshot strategy relies on a statute that's never been used in such a high-stakes contest."

* A hand recount is underway in Florida's U.S. Senate race, and as things stand, Rick Scott (R) appears to have the edge over incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D).

* The Congressional Black Caucus hasn't officially thrown its support behind anyone in the race to become the next Speaker of the House, but Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.) have both endorsed Nancy Pelosi -- even as former CBC Chair Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) weighs a possible run for the gavel.

* As of this morning, the Democratic lead in the U.S. House popular vote is up to 7.3%, from 7.2% yesterday, though it may yet inch higher. For comparison purposes, note that in 2010 -- which was widely seen as a GOP "wave" cycle -- Republicans won the U.S. House popular vote by 6.6%.

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Trump 'has not fully grasped' the role of Commander in Chief

11/16/18 10:54AM

To hear Donald Trump tell it, he loves the military in ways few presidents ever have. Trump's evidence is abundant: he has military flags in the Oval Office; he's lobbied for a massive military parade; he's increased military spending; and he likes talking about his support for the military.

But the New York Times had a great piece today looking at the issue in a way the president won't appreciate.

He canceled a trip to a cemetery in France where American soldiers from World War I are buried. He did not go to the observance at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day. He has not visited American troops in Iraq or Afghanistan.

And shortly after becoming commander in chief, President Trump asked so few questions in a briefing at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., that top military commanders cut the number of prepared PowerPoint slides to three from 18, said two officials with knowledge of the visit.

The commanders had slotted two hours for the meeting, but it lasted less than one.

Rhetorically, Mr. Trump has embraced the United States' 1.3 million active-duty troops as "my military" and "my generals" and has posted on Twitter that under his leadership, the American armed forces will be "the finest that our Country has ever had." But top Defense Department officials say that Mr. Trump has not fully grasped the role of the troops he commands, nor the responsibility that he has to lead them and protect them from politics.

There were hints along these lines before Trump took office. Ahead of the 2016 election, the then-Republican candidate mocked prisoners of war -- he likes soldiers "who weren't captured" -- lied about his financial support for veterans' charities, claimed more than once that he understood counter-terrorism better than American generals, and publicly feuded with a Gold Star family.

But as president, the problem has become more acute.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump's 'very major' new tax cut dies a quiet death

11/16/18 10:11AM

About a month ago, Donald Trump first declared publicly that he and congressional Republicans were working "around the clock" on a "very major" new tax cut, which would be ready no later than Nov. 1, despite the fact that Congress was effectively out of session until after the elections. No one in Congress had any idea what the president was talking about, and even White House officials quietly conceded they were "mystified."

Trump didn't care. The plan, which appeared to exist only in his imagination, quickly became a major applause line at the president's campaign rallies. Pressed by reporters for details, Trump boasted that he and his team had came up with a way to make his new tax plan "revenue neutral based on certain things."

The Nov. 1 deadline came and went, and the plan the president promised to present never materialized. Yesterday, Politico published a report suggesting the policy, which never really existed in any meaningful way, is dead.

White House officials are not counting on a big infrastructure package or a deal on the kind of middle-class tax cut Trump promised at the end of the campaign.

"We've been noodling more on this middle-class tax cut, how to structure it, and even pay for it," National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said in a recent interview in his West Wing office. "I don't think the chances of that are very high, because the Democrats are going to go after the corporate tax and all that stuff."

For those who've watched Trump and his operation closely in recent years, the fact that Trump made up a fictional policy, and peddled it as if it were real, is hardly shocking. Indeed, it's one of the key takeaways from his farcical little story: the president simply says stuff, without any meaningful concerns about whether his stuff reflects reality in any way.

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Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) speaks at the Growth and Opportunity Party, at the Iowa State Fair Oct. 31, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Steve Pope/Getty)

Lindsey Graham is eager to investigate DOJ, Hillary Clinton

11/16/18 09:21AM

As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) gets ready to take the reins as chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, he spoke with Fox News' Sean Hannity this week about his plans for the new year -- specifically as to the kind of issues Graham is prepared to investigate. From the Lexis-Nexis transcript:

"You know, to my Democratic friends, if you want to look backwards, we are all going to look backwards. I want to know why the FBI reached to the conclusion along with the Department of Justice that Hillary Clinton didn't commit a crime. Was it because of political bias? [...]

"Did the Department of Justice and the FBI use a document paid for by the Democratic Party? Research by foreign agents to get a warrant against an American citizen that was inappropriate, potentially unlawful? [...]

"We need a special counsel to look at all of this. But I intend to look at it. I'm going to look at it. If you are going to keep plowing everything up in 2016, count me in. If you want to look for it, I will look for it."

To unpack this a bit, Graham is describing a handful of interconnected conspiracy theories, including his belief that the Justice Department overlooked Hillary Clinton's crimes -- a rather ridiculous idea already discredited by the DOJ's inspector general -- coupled with similarly odd ideas about the "Steele dossier" and surveillance of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser.

Graham, evidently, is prepared to use the Senate Judiciary Committee to scrutinize all of this, for reasons that only appear to have merit with the most rabid of partisans.

But what struck me as especially notable about this was the way in which Graham presented this agenda as something of a threat.

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A voter steps into a voting booth to mark his ballot at a polling site for the New Hampshire primary, Feb. 9, 2016, in Nashua, N.H. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)

Two years later, Trump clings to weird New Hampshire conspiracy theory

11/16/18 08:40AM

Toward the end of Donald Trump's interview with The Daily Caller this week, reporters asked the president for his thoughts on voting troubles in Florida. As is usually the case with Trump, his answer meandered for a while, and eventually arrived at the Republican's concerns about losing New Hampshire in the 2016 presidential race.

"If you look at what happened in New Hampshire, where thousands of people came up and voted from a very liberal part of Massachusetts and they came up in buses and they voted.

"I said, 'What's going on over here?' My people said, 'You won New Hampshire easily except they have tremendous numbers of buses coming up.' They're pouring up by the hundreds, buses of people getting out, voting."

Trump added, "So what do you do? Recall the election. Recall the election. I mean, there, you should be able to recall the election."

I haven't the foggiest idea what he means by "recall the election," but the president's preoccupation with this conspiracy theory -- about an election in which he won -- offers a peek into Trump's misguided perspective on voter fraud that doesn't exist.

Circling back to our previous coverage, this is one of those odd beliefs he just can't shake. Just weeks into his presidency, Trump met with a group of senators to discuss Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination. The president, for reasons that weren’t altogether clear, insisted at the meeting that he would’ve won New Hampshire had it not been for widespread voter fraud.

According to a Politico report, after Trump insisted illegal votes were cast by people “brought in on buses,” there was “an uncomfortable silence” in the room.

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Republican U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith for Mississippi talks to supporters following the 2018 mid-term general election in Jackson, Mississippi, November 6, 2018.

Republican senator's provocative 'jokes' jolt key US Senate race

11/16/18 08:00AM

When putting together a list of key U.S. Senate races in 2018, few included the special election in Mississippi. It's a state where Donald Trump won his election by 18 points, and where Republicans tend to dominate.

But in this year's final major contest, election watchers suddenly have a reason to keep an eye on the Magnolia State.

It was earlier this week that we learned about comments from incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R), who recently joked about attending "a public hanging." Given the state's history, and the fact that she's running against Mike Espy (D), an African American former congressman, the Republican's comments struck a dissonant note.

Yesterday, the story took another unsettling turn.

A video surfaced Thursday of Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi saying it might be a "great idea" to make it harder for some people to vote, and her campaign quickly responded that she was "obviously" joking.

Hyde-Smith, who is in a runoff against Democrat Mike Espy on Nov. 27, made the remark at a campaign stop in Starkville, Mississippi, on Nov. 3. It was posted to Twitter on Thursday by Lamar White Jr., publisher of The Bayou Brief. Smith earlier this week posted video of Hyde-Smith making a comment on Nov. 2 about a "public hanging" that started a controversy.

"And then they remind me that there's a lot of liberal folks in those other schools who ... maybe we don't want to vote," Hyde-Smith is heard saying. "Maybe we want to make it just a little more difficult. And I think that's a great idea."

In a Twitter message posted late yesterday, the GOP senator wrote, "It's ok to still have a sense of humor in America isn't it?"

Of course, while having a sense of humor is a good idea, it's also a good idea for political leaders in a state with a troubled history on race to avoid "jokes" about public hangings and deliberately making it harder for certain people to vote.

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