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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 8.23.17

08/23/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Vice Adm. Joseph P. Aucoin, the head of the Seventh Fleet: "Two days after ordering a rare suspension of ship operations worldwide, the Navy relieved the commander of the fleet that had sustained four accidents in Asia and the deaths of more than a dozen sailors this year."

* The backlash continues: "The fallout from President Donald Trump's equivocal response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, continues this week, with the resignation of US Science Envoy Daniel Kammen. 'Acts and words matter,' Kammen wrote in a letter announcing his decision. 'To continue in my role under your administration would be inconsistent with the United States Oath of Allegiance to which I adhere.'"

* Speaking of Charlottesville: 'Workers covered a statue of Robert E. Lee and Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson in Charlottesville, Virginia, with a black tarp on Wednesday afternoon in a symbol of mourning for the woman who was killed after a white nationalist rally earlier this month."

* Low expectations: "Presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner returned to the Mideast this week to revive negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But any optimism that an unconventional Trump administration might be able to jump-start meaningful talks has been complicated by political crises on both sides."

* A case worth watching: "The Secret Service has agreed to stop erasing White House visitor log data while a lawsuit demanding public access to some of the information goes forward. Justice Department lawyers said in a court filing Tuesday night that, pending resolution of the case, the Secret Service will suspend its practice of disposing of the information after it is transferred to a White House records repository."

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Image: Trump holds a healthcare meeting with Senate Republicans at the White House in Washington

Trump's economic illiteracy isn't getting any better

08/23/17 04:03PM

It's tempting to do a detailed fact-check of Donald Trump's speech in Phoenix last night, but the very idea is exhausting. The president's lies were so frequent, and so brazen, that it would be easier to do a fact-check in reverse and highlight the claims he made that were true.

It'd be a short list.

But there was one line that jumped out at me because it dovetails with a rhetorical line I've been keeping an eye on in recent months. Trump was eager to argue that he's produced amazing economic gains -- the president touted the million-job figure again, though I don't think he appreciates why that tally is so underwhelming -- which led him to this gem:

"[E]conomic growth has surged to 2.6 percent. Remember, everybody said, 'You won't bring it up to 1 percent. You won't bring it up to 1.2 percent.'"

Everybody didn't say that. In fact, literally no one said that because this rhetoric doesn't make any sense. The president seemed lost trying to talk about this a month ago, and his economic illiteracy doesn't seem to be getting any better.

I'm trying to think of a way to explain this in a way Trump wouldn't find confusing. The strength of the economy is generally measured by GDP, or gross domestic product. Four times a year, we get a quarterly GDP report, showing the strength of the economy from the previous three months. (That report is revised twice more after an initial release, but let's keep things simple.) Eventually, we get a GDP report for the entire calendar year.

Trump's correct that the most recent quarterly report -- reflecting the economy in April, May, and June -- showed growth of 2.6%, which reflects a relatively healthy economy. But the president is under the impression that 2.6% growth is somehow an extraordinary accomplishment -- he recently called it an "unbelievable number" -- which isn't even close to being true.

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James Clapper

Former DNI worries about Trump's fitness, access to nuclear codes

08/23/17 02:05PM

A couple of weeks ago, former CIA Director John Brennan, responding to Donald Trump's reaction to Charlottesville, could hardly contain his frustrations. The Republican president, Brennan said, through "his words and his actions," is "putting our national security and our collective futures at grave risk."

The former CIA director added that Trump is poised to do "lasting harm to American society and to our standing in the world."

As it happens, Brennan isn't the only former intelligence chief thinking along these lines. As the Washington Post noted, James Clapper, the Obama administration's Director of National Intelligence, was equally incensed after watching Trump's remarks last night in Phoenix.

James R. Clapper Jr., former national intelligence director, questioned President Trump's fitness for office following his freewheeling speech in Phoenix on Tuesday night, which Clapper labeled "downright scary and disturbing."

"I really question his ability to be -- his fitness to be -- in this office," Clapper told CNN's Don Lemon early Wednesday morning. "I also am beginning to wonder about his motivation for it -- maybe he is looking for a way out."

Clapper went on to say that he found the president's speech "downright scary and disturbing," adding that Trump exhibits a "complete intellectual, moral, and ethical void.... How much longer does the country have to -- to borrow a phrase -- endure this nightmare?"

The former DNI went on to say, "I worry about, frankly, the access to nuclear codes."

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.23.17

08/23/17 12:00PM

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

* With timing running out in Virginia's gubernatorial race, the new Roanoke College poll shows Ralph Northam (D) up by seven over Ed Gillespie (R), 43% to 36%.

* On a related note, Gillespie released his first general-election television ad this morning, noting that he was a former presidential adviser. He doesn't mention that the president he worked for was George W. Bush.

* Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, meanwhile, announced this week that his political operation, NextGen America, will invest in Northam's campaign ahead of the Nov. 7 election.

* In Rhode Island last night, Democrats won another state legislative special election, with community organizer Dawn Euer winning a state Senate race. The seat was previously held by a Democrat, so it doesn't affect that balance in the chamber.

* In Phoenix last night, Donald Trump criticized Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, but he was careful not to use their names specifically. "I will not mention any names," he said. "Very presidential, isn't it?"

* This morning, Trump dropped the pretense and renewed his criticisms of Jeff Flake by name.

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Image: Trump speaks at Trump Tower in New York

Trump eyes 'termination' of NAFTA as negotiations continue

08/23/17 11:23AM

As his presidency reached the 100-day mark, Donald Trump wanted to do something dramatic, and the president thought canceling the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would do the trick. As Trump acknowledged, "I was all set to terminate. I looked forward to terminating. I was going to do it."

As we discussed at the time, Trump eventually changed his mind, however, saying he spoke with Canadian and Mexican leaders who convinced him not to walk away from the agreement. The Washington Post offered a behind-the-scenes look in April at how the president's team convinced him to change course (it apparently involved showing him a lot of maps).

Nevertheless, the drama surrounding Trump's intentions have opened the door to a new round of negotiations with America's neighbors. And how's that going? Vox's Matt Yglesias took a closer look this morning at the degree to which Canada is taking the process seriously.

According to Alexander Panetta of the Canadian Press, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau "has created an election-style nerve center to handle White House-related challenges" during the NAFTA renegotiation process. The team features eight staffers, including "two former trade officials, two senior PMO officials, an ambassador, a writer, a cabinet minister."

The goal is to be able to push back on both a strategic and tactical level to presidential negotiating ploys, including social media threats to pull out of NAFTA altogether in order to gain leverage.... Canada also has a clear list of negotiating objectives, including both key NAFTA provisions that Trudeau's government is committed to keeping and aspirations to win more access for Canadian companies to state and local government contracts and more access for Canadian professionals like computer programmers to jobs in the United States.

OK, so it sounds as if Canada is taking this process seriously. How about the Trump administration?

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President-elect Donald Trump, walks with his wife Melania Trump, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after a meeting at the U.S. Capitol Nov. 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty)

Dr. Frankenstein didn't like his creation, either

08/23/17 10:20AM

Donald Trump has spent a chunk of August publicly feuding with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), with the two Republican leaders trading thinly veiled rebukes. It's all part of one of the year's less expected political food fights.

But privately, it's reportedly much worse. We talked earlier about this New York Times piece, which raises the prospect of Trump obstructing justice by expecting McConnell to intervene in the investigation into the Russia scandal, but at a more basic level, we're also learning that the Senate Majority Leader doesn't appear to have confidence in his party's president.

The relationship between President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, has disintegrated to the point that they have not spoken to each other in weeks, and Mr. McConnell has privately expressed uncertainty that Mr. Trump will be able to salvage his administration after a series of summer crises.

What was once an uneasy governing alliance has curdled into a feud of mutual resentment and sometimes outright hostility.... Angry phone calls and private badmouthing have devolved into open conflict.

The Times' article added that McConnell has privately marveled at Trump's unwillingness "to learn the basics of governing." The Senate GOP leader has also "expressed a sense of bewilderment about where Mr. Trump's presidency may be headed."

McConnell's concerns are obviously grounded in fact, and on the surface, it's tempting to feel some sympathy for him. But it's important not to lose sight of the senator's role in making the mess he finds himself in the middle of.

Like Dr. Frankenstein, McConnell created a monster he thought he could control, only to discover he doesn't care for the results.

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Image: Tillerson testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing in Washington

Trump's Secretary of State suggests US may not win in Afghanistan

08/23/17 09:20AM

When Donald Trump presented his new vision for U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the president frequently used the word "win." For example, Trump declared when we dispatch American servicemen and women abroad, "we will always win." He added, "I'm a problem solver and, in the end, we will win.... Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win."

Subtle, this wasn't.

As the Washington Post reported, however, it didn't take long before a leading voice from the president's cabinet stepped all over that message.

President Trump assured us Monday night -- repeatedly -- that the United States will win the war in Afghanistan. But his secretary of state would apparently like to set the bar considerably lower than that.

In a classic case of Trump's big talk running into stubborn realities -- almost immediately -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday afternoon played down the idea that the U.S. military would walk away from Afghanistan with a victory.

He addressed the Taliban directly: "You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you."

At a certain level, this position is understandable. Many foreign policy experts -- here and around the world -- believe it's simply not possible to prevail in Afghanistan, at least not militarily. Though Tillerson didn't say so explicitly, his comments suggest he expects to see some kind of stalemate in Afghanistan, which would presumably lay the groundwork for diplomacy with the Taliban.

But that doesn't make the Secretary of State's comments any less problematic.

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The Arizona-Mexico border fence near Naco, Ariz., March 29, 2013.

On immigration, Trump has an offer Dems can easily refuse

08/23/17 08:40AM

At a rally in Phoenix that served no real purpose last night, Donald Trump mentioned his idea for a border wall 17 times. In fact, the president appears convinced that this will happen. "We are building a wall on the southern border," the Republican said, adding, "Believe me, if we have to close down our government, we're building that wall.... We're going to have our wall. We're going to get our wall.... Believe me, one way or the other, we're going to get that wall."

The unpopular president's confidence, however, cannot create political will where none exists. But the White House apparently has a plan, which McClatchy reported on yesterday:

Donald Trump's top aides are pushing him to protect young people brought into the country illegally as children -- and then use the issue as a bargaining chip for a larger immigration deal -- despite the president's campaign vow to deport so-called Dreamers.

The White House officials want Trump to strike an ambitious deal with Congress that offers Dreamers protection in exchange for legislation that pays for a border wall and more detention facilities, curbs legal immigration and implements E-verify, an online system that allows businesses to check immigration status, according to a half-dozen people familiar with situation, most involved with the negotiations.

At first blush, this may sound like the basis for a compromise. Democrats would get protections for young immigrants -- the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy -- while Republicans would get a border wall, cuts to legal immigration, the E-verify system, and detention facilities for undocumented immigrants, among other things.

Except, it's not really a trade-off in any meaningful sense, since Democrats have what they want: the DACA policy for young Dreamers already exists. Instead, it's more of a hostage strategy: Trump is saying he'll destroy DACA unless Congress approves all of the other goodies on his immigration wish list.

Trump's promises about Mexico paying for the wall are out. Trump looking for ways to force Congress to give him taxpayer dollars is in, even if he has to use hundreds of thousands of kids as leverage.

Is there any chance Democrats would go along with such a scheme?

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Image: Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell

Trump wanted McConnell to 'protect him' from Russia scandal probe

08/23/17 08:00AM

Donald Trump has clashed with Attorney General Jeff Sessions because the president expected the nation's chief law-enforcement official to shield the White House from the investigation into the Russia scandal. Trump also clashed with former FBI Director James Comey -- whom Trump ultimately fired -- because the president wanted Comey to protect him from the same probe.

And as Rachel noted on last night's show, the New York Times reports that Trump has also clashed with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for -- you guessed it -- not doing more to shield him from the investigation that threatens to derail his presidency.

In a series of tweets this month, Mr. Trump criticized Mr. McConnell publicly, and berated him in a phone call that quickly devolved into a profane shouting match.

During the call, which Mr. Trump initiated on Aug. 9 from his New Jersey golf club, the president accused Mr. McConnell of bungling the health care issue. He was even more animated about what he intimated was the Senate leader's refusal to protect him from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to Republicans briefed on the conversation.

At face value, the fact that the Republican president and the Republican leader in the Senate engaged in "a profane shouting match" is itself a dramatic development, to the extent that intra-party warfare may affect GOP policymakers' ability to govern in the Trump era.

But there's another angle to this that warrants scrutiny: if Trump pressured McConnell to intervene in senators' investigation into the Russia affair, that may bolster allegations that the president obstructed justice.

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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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