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Friday's Mini-Report, 8.17.18

08/17/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* As the jury in the Paul Manafort trial deliberated, Donald Trump vouched for his former campaign chairman, described him as "a very good person," and characterized the federal prosecution against him as "very sad."

* On a related note, there will be no verdict today, and jurors will reconvene on Monday morning.

* Something to watch closely: "President Trump has told advisers that he is eager to strip more security clearances as part of an escalating attack against people who have criticized him or played a role in the investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, two White House officials said."

* I'm generally skeptical of changes that mean less information for investors: "President Trump, in a message posted on Twitter early Friday, wrote that he had directed the Securities and Exchange Commission to study moving corporate America from reporting earnings on a quarterly basis to doing so twice a year."

* FCC: "The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, an independent agency, said Thursday that a White House official called to talk about a proposed merger between Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. and Tribune Media Co. Ajit Pai told a Senate panel that Don McGahn, the White House counsel, called for a 'status update' on the agency's action on the deal."

* Trump-era media tactics: "[Dana White] and the Pentagon's press operation have already restricted access to briefings, interviews and travel with [Defense Secretary James Mattis]. But in recent weeks, several reporters said that they increasingly feel as though individual journalists are being retaliated against for stories they've written, losing yet more access."

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A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)

Trump names his next target at the Justice Department

08/17/18 04:06PM

When the White House announced on Wednesday that Donald Trump had revoked former CIA Director John Brennan's security clearance, it became clear that he was the first target of the president's political vendetta, but not necessarily the last.

"As part of this review," Trump's statement added, "I am evaluating action with respect to the following individuals: James Clapper, James Comey, Michael Hayden, Sally Yates, Susan Rice, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, and Bruce Ohr."

For much of the country, the least familiar name on Trump's enemies list was that last one. Nevertheless, the president has been tweeting about Bruce Ohr quite a bit -- four times just since this past weekend -- and Trump got pretty worked up about him during a brief Q&A with reporters on the White House South Lawn this morning.

"That whole situation is a rigged witch hunt. It's a totally rigged deal. They should be looking at the other side. They should be looking at all the people that got fired by them. All of the people that got fired. They should be looking at Bruce Ohr and his wife Nellie for dealing with, by the way, indirectly, Russians. [...]

"I think Bruce Ohr is a disgrace. I suspect I'll be taking [his security clearance] away very quickly. I think that Bruce Ohr is a disgrace, with his wife, Nellie. For him to be in the Justice Department, and to be doing what he did, that is a disgrace."

In light of a rant like that, it's tempting to think Ohr is a figure of enormous significance -- and yet, most Americans would probably respond to Trump's little trade by asking, "Who?"

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Image: President Trump Departs White House For G7 Summit In Canada

Facing backlash, Trump touts 'tremendous response' on security clearances

08/17/18 12:41PM

It's been a couple of days since Donald Trump revoked former CIA Director John Brennan's security clearance in a petty move the president admits was related to the Russia scandal. This morning, Trump brushed off the criticism.

"I know that I've gotten tremendous response from having done that, because security clearances are very important to me," the president said. "Very, very important. And I've had a tremendous response for having done that."

And what about retired Navy Admiral William McRaven, who oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden? "I don't know McRaven," Trump added.

Well, big guy, McRaven knows you. The retired admiral wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post yesterday, urging the president to revoke his security clearance, explaining that he would consider it "an honor" to stand alongside those "who have spoken up against your presidency."

Like most Americans, I had hoped that when you became president, you would rise to the occasion and become the leader this great nation needs.

A good leader tries to embody the best qualities of his or her organization. A good leader sets the example for others to follow. A good leader always puts the welfare of others before himself or herself.

Your leadership, however, has shown little of these qualities. Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.

If you think for a moment that your McCarthy-era tactics will suppress the voices of criticism, you are sadly mistaken. The criticism will continue until you become the leader we prayed you would be.

McRaven isn't alone. NBC News reported this morning that a growing group former intelligence leaders from over the last three decades -- including William Webster, George Tenet, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, and James Clapper -- have responded angrily to the White House's move against Brennan.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.17.18

08/17/18 12:00PM

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

* Republican Party leaders in New York's 27th congressional district, where indicted Rep. Chris Collins (R) has suspended his campaign, met this week to plan what to do next. GOP officials are reportedly preparing to meet with prospective replacement candidates, but how they intend to get around state laws is unclear.

* On the heels of his failed U.S. Senate bid in West Virginia, Rep. Evan Jenkins (R) has a new plan: he's running for one of the vacant seats on the state Supreme Court.

* Though the real 2018 advertising onslaught isn't expected to begin until after Labor Day, the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is closely aligned with the House Republican leadership, is reportedly investing $10 million in anti-Democratic attack ads this month, not next.

* I try not to focus too much on the 2020 cycle, but Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is poised to endorse Deidre DeJear in Iowa's secretary of state race, and this might very well have something to do with the presidential race.

* Election-watchers will be interested to know that FiveThirtyEight yesterday launched its big U.S. House forecast, which will be updated regularly, and which currently shows Democrats winning a net gain of 35 seats, which would give them a majority in the next Congress.

* John Cox, California's Republican gubernatorial candidate, expressed some regret yesterday after comparing DMV wait times to the plight of a Holocaust survivor.

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Trump eyes more fighter jets with money that would've gone to his parade

08/17/18 11:20AM

Donald Trump's plans for a military parade in D.C. have evolved over time, but the latest goal was for a big celebration this year to commemorate the centennial of World War I. Whether the anniversary became a convenient excuse to hold a parade the president wanted anyway is an open question, but let's note that he originally wanted the parade on the 4th of July.

Regardless, as we discussed this morning, the administration pulled the plug on the idea when the price tag reached $92 million. Trump himself weighed in on the subject this morning, in a pair of tweets:

"The local politicians who run Washington, D.C. (poorly) know a windfall when they see it. When asked to give us a price for holding a great celebratory military parade, they wanted a number so ridiculously high that I cancelled it. Never let someone hold you up!

"I will instead attend the big parade already scheduled at Andrews Air Force Base on a different date, & go to the Paris parade, celebrating the end of the War, on November 11th. Maybe we will do something next year in D.C. when the cost comes WAY DOWN. Now we can buy some more jet fighters!"

This struck me as notable for a few reasons. First, it's not altogether clear the hefty price tag came from local officials in D.C. Indeed, the latest figure came by way of the Pentagon, not the mayor's office, and included costs that have effectively nothing to do with local government -- including "security, transportation of parade assets, aircraft, as well as temporary duty for troops."

Second, it's kind of amusing that Trump is so focused on parades, he's started making arrangements for alternatives now that his plans have fallen through. He can't afford to host a militaristic display in his nation's capital? Fine, he'll go to France. That'll show 'em.

But it was those last eight words that struck me as especially significant: "Now we can buy some more jet fighters!"

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Image: Donald Trump

Senate Dems zero in on Kavanaugh's most serious vulnerability

08/17/18 10:41AM

Judge Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination is controversial for all sorts of reasons, some of which may put his future in jeopardy, some of which senators may find it easier to overlook.

But to my mind, this remains the biggest vulnerability for Donald Trump's choice for the high court.

Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) Thursday asked Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to join a request for Judge Kavanaugh's Staff Secretary records and to publicly release the documents now. Feinstein is the Judiciary Committee's Ranking Member, and Leahy and Durbin are also senior members of the committee.

The senators emphasize the fact that documents that are currently "committee confidential" contain information indicating that Kavanaugh misled the Senate during his 2006 nomination hearing.

They write, "We firmly believe that Judge Kavanaugh's nomination cannot be considered unless these documents are available, including to the public and the Senate as a whole." The senators strongly urged Chairman Grassley to support their "request for Judge Kavanaugh's Staff Secretary records and to publicly release documents from Judge Kavanaugh's time in the White House in the same manner as was done for all previous Supreme Court nominees. The truth should not be hidden from the Senate or the American people."

The phrase "committee confidential" offers a big hint about the nature of the findings -- we're not yet privy to the details -- but the issue is the sort of controversy that even many Republicans may find difficult to defend.

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Smoke and flames are seen along Loma Prieta Avenue during the Loma Fire near Santa Cruz, Calif. on Sept. 27, 2016. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Maybe Trump should just stop talking about California wildfires

08/17/18 10:00AM

It's been a couple of weeks since Donald Trump first started sharing his thoughts on California wildfires, which the president has been eager to blame on Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and "bad environmental laws." None of Trump's rhetoric made sense.

The Washington Post reported, for example, that the president seemed confused about every relevant detail. CNN added that even some White House officials "admitted to being slightly perplexed" at Trump's obvious nonsense.

And yet, the president hosted a cabinet meeting yesterday and once again returned to the subject. "We're spending a fortune in California because of poor maintenance and because, frankly, they're sending a lot of water out to the Pacific," Trump claimed, adding, "We're sending millions and millions of gallons, right out into the Pacific Ocean, of beautiful, clean water coming up from the north -- or coming down from the north."

He still thinks this is about access to water. It still isn't.

But perhaps you're thinking the president is more of a big-picture guy, and to get a better sense of the administration's position, we should shift our focus to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who addressed the issue on Fox Business yesterday. The scandal-plagued cabinet secretary didn't echo his boss' focus on water access, but he did address climate change, insisting that the debate is "irrelevant to what's occurred." He added, "All you have to do is talk to the [firefighters]" to understand what really matters.

OK; let's do that.

"We have plenty of water to fight these wildfires, but let's be clear: It's our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires," said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of Cal Fire, the state's fire agency.

There's quite a bit of research to back that up. The Washington Post added:

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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)

It's hard to believe Trump's 'anonymous validators' actually exist

08/17/18 09:20AM

Donald Trump has encouraged Americans not to believe stories that cite anonymous sources. There is some irony to his warnings.

One of the biggest supporters of President Donald Trump's trade policies, according to the president, is the unnamed chief executive officer of a mystery company.

"I was with one of the greatest companies in the world. The chief executive officer. Very short while ago. And it really affects him," Trump said at a July 31 campaign rally in Tampa, referring to his controversial use of tariffs. "He said 'You know what, this does affect our company. But, Mr. President, keep going. You're doing the right thing."'

Trump didn't identify his supporter, and the White House won't say who it is. Trade groups representing the largest U.S. businesses and CEOs have almost universally opposed Trump's disruptive approach to trade. But the person fits a model: an anonymous figure -- important and powerful -- who invariably supports the president's position, according to Trump himself.

The Bloomberg News report highlighted Trump's frequent reliance on "anonymous validators" -- who, coincidentally, privately tell the president how right he is, even if we're not allowed to know who these people are.

It's not exactly a secret that this president has little use for substantive policy arguments, which only makes him more reliant on arguments based on anecdotes. The more the conventional wisdom leans against him -- with business leaders opposing his trade agenda, for example -- the more eager Trump is to share stories about the secret messages of encouragement he's received from mysterious, unidentified pals.

"Trump's unnamed allies have a lot in common," Bloomberg's piece added. "They are usually described as high-ranking and highly talented. They are almost always men."

And they are also probably imaginary.

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Image: 2018 Adult Video News Awards - Arrivals

Why the timing of Cohen's Stormy Daniels payment matters

08/17/18 08:40AM

As the Stormy Daniels scandal unfolded, we learned that the former adult-film star was initially prepared to go public with her story about an alleged affair with Donald Trump, but she changed her mind after receiving $130,000 in hush-money from the then-candidate's personal fixer, Michael Cohen.

But the timeline of events matters, because the process was not an especially smooth one. In Sept. 2016, two months before Election Day, Daniels -- whose real name is Stephanie Clifford -- was represented by Keith Davidson, who spoke with Cohen about a possible payment. The Republican candidate's lawyer balked.

But as the Wall Street Journal  reported overnight, Cohen adopted a new posture a month later -- apparently as a result of one important development.

A day after the recording surfaced of outtakes of Mr. Trump speaking to a host of NBC's "Access Hollywood," Mr. Cohen, then Mr. Trump's senior counsel, told a representative for the performer that he was open to a deal, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

Within days, Stormy Daniels, whose given name is Stephanie Clifford, signed a nondisclosure agreement that provided her $130,000 for her silence. Mr. Cohen had resisted paying Ms. Clifford when it was floated in September 2016, the person said.

Federal prosecutors in New York view the "Access Hollywood" tape as a trigger that spurred Mr. Cohen to bury potentially damaging information about his boss, as they investigate whether the payment amounted to an illegal, in-kind contribution or an expenditure that should have been disclosed by the campaign, people familiar with the matter said.

Cohen has already conceded having created an LLC to make the hush-money payment, but he's long maintained that the payoff was completely unrelated to the campaign. He was just playing the role of Trump's fixer, the argument goes, making a problem go away by making a secret payment to a porn star.

And though Trump said he knew nothing about it, the president later reimbursed Cohen.

But this latest reporting reinforces the importance of timing and context.

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Faced with a soaring price tag, Trump's military parade unravels

08/17/18 08:00AM

The first sign of trouble came before Donald Trump was even sworn in. In mid-December 2016, the incoming Republican president's team inquired about including armored military vehicles in his inaugural parade.

Seven months later, French President Emmanuel Macron treated Trump to a Bastille Day parade, and the American leader's interest intensified. In September, Trump saw Macron at the United Nations and said he'd been inspired to organize a military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. At the time, people in the room chuckled.

But Trump wasn't kidding. In February, ignoring the military's concerns, the Republican directed the Pentagon to move forward with plans for the event, and the White House's budget office said the parade would cost taxpayers as little as $10 million.

This week, however, the cost soared to $92 million, and the whole project was put on ice soon after.

The multimillion-dollar military parade through the nation's capital requested by President Donald Trump has been delayed until 2019, a Defense Department spokesman said Thursday.

"The Department of Defense and White House have been planning a parade to honor America's military veterans and commemorate the centennial of World War I," said Col. Rob Manning. "We originally targeted November 10, 2018 for this event but have now agreed to explore opportunities in 2019."

The specific wording suggests the parade may never actually happen. It's one thing to reschedule an event; it's something else to say officials will "explore opportunities in 2019."

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