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Monday's Mini-Report, 9.18.17

09/18/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Another one: "Hurricane Maria was strengthening fast into a monster storm Monday as it barreled towards Martinique and Puerto Rico and the other Irma-battered Caribbean islands."

* St. Louis: "Protests in St. Louis over a former police officer's acquittal in the shooting death of a black man continued Monday after a weekend capped by the arrests of more than 80 people."

* Oh my: "On the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, President Donald Trump on Monday previewed a new tradition he would like to institute: a parade of military pageantry in the nation's capital in the style of the one he attended in Paris for Bastille Day this year."

* In related news: "President Donald Trump opened his first remarks at the United Nations Monday by complimenting the Trump-branded property across the street."

* Trump's latest court defeat: "A federal judge has blocked the Trump administration's attempt to use Justice Department public-safety grant programs to discourage so-called sanctuary city policies aimed at protecting undocumented immigrants."

* Russia: "A revitalized Russian military on Monday sent tanks, paratroopers, artillery, antiaircraft weapons, jets and helicopters into frigid rains to engage the forces of a mock enemy called the 'Western Coalition.' The barrage of firepower, part of war games that began last week, was an explosive show of force that Baltic leaders said was a simulation of an attack against NATO forces in Eastern Europe."

* I wonder if Elton John will mind: "President Trump is calling Kim Jong Un names -- the 'Rocket Man.'"

* Afghanistan: "Soon, American Embassy employees in Kabul will no longer need to take a Chinook helicopter ride to cross the street to a military base less than 100 yards outside the present Green Zone security district."

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Image: President Trump Meets With The National Association of Manufacturers

In Russia scandal, Trump's legal team isn't a fine-tuned machine

09/18/17 12:52PM

In recent weeks, Donald Trump's outside legal team, created to protect the president's interests as the Trump-Russia scandal moves forward, hasn't exactly shined. A series of bizarre incidents, including instances in which the president's lawyers got into odd email arguments with total strangers, have made some members of Trump's legal team look quite foolish.

But this New York Times report makes them look even worse. The piece is about arguments among the president's attorneys about "how much to cooperate" with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, and the challenge of balancing investigatory demands and the "prerogatives of the office of the presidency."

The debate in Mr. Trump's West Wing has pitted Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, against Ty Cobb, a lawyer brought in to manage the response to the investigation. Mr. Cobb has argued for turning over as many of the emails and documents requested by the special counsel as possible in hopes of quickly ending the investigation -- or at least its focus on Mr. Trump.

Mr. McGahn supports cooperation, but has expressed worry about setting a precedent that would weaken the White House long after Mr. Trump's tenure is over. He is described as particularly concerned about whether the president will invoke executive or attorney-client privilege to limit how forthcoming Mr. McGahn could be if he himself is interviewed by the special counsel as requested.

The friction escalated in recent days after Mr. Cobb was overheard by a reporter for The New York Times discussing the dispute during a lunchtime conversation at a popular Washington steakhouse. Mr. Cobb was heard talking about a White House lawyer he deemed "a McGahn spy" and saying Mr. McGahn had "a couple documents locked in a safe" that he seemed to suggest he wanted access to. He also mentioned a colleague whom he blamed for "some of these earlier leaks," and who he said "tried to push Jared out," meaning Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, who has been a previous source of dispute for the legal team.

Some geographic context is probably in order. The head of the president's defense team went to BLT Steak, about two blocks north of the White House, sat outside, and had a loud and candid conversation about the investigation into the Russia scandal. BLT Steak is located at 1625 I Street.

The New York Times' D.C. bureau is located at 1627 I Street. In other words, Trump's top outside counsel effectively went to the New York Times' front door and started sharing his thoughts on sensitive information related to the president's legal defense in the most serious political scandal since Watergate.

That was ... unwise.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.18.17

09/18/17 12:00PM

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

* In Alabama's Senate Republican primary, Rep. Mo Brooks (R) is no longer neutral: the far-right congressman endorsed Roy Moore over the weekend. Appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R) was hoping Brooks would stay on the sidelines.

* On a related note, following through on a promise, Donald Trump will campaign in Alabama on Saturday in support of Strange's candidacy. The GOP primary runoff is Sept. 26, which is a week from tomorrow.

* In Michigan, the president has thrown his support behind state Attorney General Bill Schuette's (R) 2018 gubernatorial campaign. (Trump tweeted his endorsement over the weekend, spelled Schuette's name wrong, then tweeted a new endorsement about 12 hours later.)

* Lawmakers in California are moving forward with state legislation that would require presidential candidates to release five years' worth of tax returns in order to qualify for the statewide ballot. The measure passed the state Assembly late last week.

* Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D), one of the highest profile politicians in the state, announced Friday that she won't seek re-election to her current post next year, setting off intense speculation about her career plans.

* In New Jersey, we don't yet know how Sen. Bob Menendez (D) will fare in his corruption trial, but many of his constituents have apparently seen enough: the latest Quinnipiac poll shows 50% of Garden State voters believe the senator does not deserve another term, while 20% believe he does.

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FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the House Select Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on April 11, 2013. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

As Russia scandal moves forward, Team Mueller isn't done growing

09/18/17 11:30AM

It might've been easy to miss this Politico piece -- it was published around midnight on Friday evening -- but for those following the Trump-Russia scandal closely, the piece was chock full of interesting news. Let's start with the 16th lawyers to join the Special Counsel Robert Mueller's legal team.

An attorney working on the Justice Department's highest-profile money-laundering case recently transferred off that assignment in order to join the staff of the special prosecutor investigating the Trump campaign's potential ties to Russia, POLITICO has learned.

Attorney Kyle Freeny was among the prosecutors on hand Friday as Jason Maloni, a spokesman for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, testified before a grand jury at federal court in Washington.

Freeny's background in examining potential money-laundering is significant given the money-laundering questions surrounding this controversy. See this TRMS segment from mid-August, for example.

Also note, Freeny has been working on the Justice Department's case related to profits from the film "The Wolf of Wall Street," which as the Politico article noted, was allegedly financed "with assets looted from the Malaysian government." (Donald Trump hosted a controversial meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at the White House last week.)

The same Politico piece also noted that the "Wolf of Wall Street" case is a product of the Justice Department's Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, "an effort to pursue the proceeds of foreign corruption and return such monies to the public in the affected countries." This is the same initiative that's investigating Ukrainian officials, including former President Viktor Yanukovych -- who was a benefactor of Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's former campaign chairman.

And that wasn't the only news related to the scandal that emerged over the weekend:

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This file photo taken on Feb. 05, 2016 shows WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange coming out on the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy to address the media in central London. (Photo by Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty)

'Putin's favorite congressman' sought deal for WikiLeaks founder

09/18/17 11:00AM

As a rule, it's best not to get too worked up about random quips from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). The California Republican, for example, recently argued that last month's violence in Charlottesville was staged by liberals and was "a total hoax."

But while foolish palaver like this is easy to dismiss, some of Rohrabacher's antics are harder to overlook. The Wall Street Journal reported the other day, for example, that the GOP lawmaker reached out to the White House last week about brokering a deal in which Donald Trump would help WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and in exchange, Assange would provide evidence exonerating Russia in the scandal surrounding the attack on American elections.

The proposal made by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R., Calif.), in a phone call Wednesday with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, was apparently aimed at resolving the probe of WikiLeaks prompted by Mr. Assange's publication of secret U.S. government documents in 2010 through a pardon or other act of clemency from President Donald Trump.

The possible "deal" -- a term used by Mr. Rohrabacher during the Wednesday phone call -- would involve a pardon of Mr. Assange or "something like that," Mr. Rohrabacher said. In exchange, Mr. Assange would probably present a computer drive or other data-storage device that Mr. Rohrabacher said would exonerate Russia in the long-running controversy about who was the source of hacked and stolen material aimed at embarrassing the Democratic Party during the 2016 election.

So let me get this straight. A pro-Putin congressman wants to help an operative who's alleged to have helped Putin's election attack, all as part of an agreement that the congressman believes would exonerate Putin's government.

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Committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) speaks to reporters after a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Capitol Hill University March 5, 2014 in Washington, D.C.

Issa ordered to pay former rival after dubious campaign lawsuit

09/18/17 10:30AM

The closest congressional race of 2016 was held in southern California, where Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) was so worried about a challenge from Doug Applegate (D), a retired Marine colonel, that the Republican congressman produced direct-mail ads suggesting he'd worked cooperatively with Barack Obama -- whose presidency he fruitlessly tried to tear down.

In fact, Issa, who very narrowly eked out a victory, was also scared enough during the campaign to threaten Applegate with a defamation lawsuit based on criticisms the Democrat raised during their heated race.

Sure, once in a great while, candidates will make this threat, but nearly everyone has the good sense not to actually file such a case. Issa, however, the day after Election Day, actually went through with it, suing his defeated Democratic rival for defamation. How'd that turn out? The San Diego Union Tribune reported last week on the result of this misguided litigation.

A judge has ordered Rep. Darrell Issa to pay his opponent from last year's election more than $45,000 in legal expenses fees incurred during a defamation lawsuit.

In November, Issa, a Vista Republican, sued Democrat Doug Applegate over attack commercials the congressman said hurt his reputation. In March, a judge said that Issa didn't prove his case, but also sided with Applegate who argued that he was exercising his free speech rights with the television commercials, and that Issa's lawsuit was an attempt to silence criticism.

Now the judge has ordered Issa to reimburse Applegate, his campaign, and campaign manager Robert Dempsey. According to the June decision, Issa must pay $42,500 in attorney fees and another $2,842 in legal costs the defendants incurred while protecting themselves against Issa' lawsuit.

What makes this story amusing are the parallel failures in judgment. First, Issa pointed to several specific Applegate ads as defamatory, which fell flat. The court found that the commercials were, at a minimum, defensible.

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A person man uses a laptop. (Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa/AP)

The politics of the Equifax mess pose challenges for Republicans

09/18/17 10:00AM

It's been a week since the Equifax controversy first broke, and the scope of the story is still coming into focus. One of the nation's largest credit reporting agencies was apparently the target of a major hack that "may have exposed private information belonging to 143 million people," including Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, birth dates, home addresses, and in some instances, driver's license numbers.

Making matters worse, three Equifax executives sold stock in the company after the breach was discovered (they deny any wrongdoing). Making matters worse still, it took about six weeks for the company to tell the public about the breach.

So, what does this have to do with politics? Quite a bit, actually. The Equifax mess has made it vastly easier for progressives to make the case that federal officials should be regulating the heck out of the credit-reporting agencies, but as the New York Times reported, that's unlikely to happen given the direction of the prevailing political winds.

The credit bureaus have for decades successfully fended off calls in Congress for more oversight, despite warnings about potential problems that go back to Senator William Proxmire, a Wisconsin Democrat, in the 1960s. Now, the industry is likely to find support in the agenda of President Trump, who has pledged to strip away "burdensome" business regulations. [...]

Equifax spent $1.1 million on lobbying last year, up from $300,000 in 2006, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Roll Call reported last week that Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee have been pressing for hearings on the Equifax scandal, but Banking Committee Chairman Michael Crapo (R-Idaho) was undecided on whether to bother. (The bipartisan leadership of the Senate Finance Committee, however, sent a written request for information to Equifax last week.)

And what about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which congressional Republicans have been trying to gut?

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Trump admin shields Mar-a-Lago visitor logs from scrutiny

09/18/17 09:30AM

Americans wondering about the visitors getting an audience with Donald Trump at the White House will have to keep wondering: soon after taking office, Trump World decided to scrap Obama-era transparency rules and announced White House visitor logs would be kept secret.

But this president doesn't just hold meetings with visitors to the presidential residence; Trump also hosts conversations at the Florida resort he still owns and profits from. Perhaps the public can see the visitor logs from Mar-a-Lago?

In July, a federal judge sided with watchdog organizations, which sued to gain access to the information, asking not for club members' names, but only the names of those who'd met with the president. On Friday afternoon, following a hurricane-related delay, the Trump administration responded to the request, and as the Washington Post reported, it wasn't much of an answer.

The list had just 22 names, all from the same group of visitors: a delegation of Japanese officials and assistants who accompanied Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on a February stay at Trump's resort.... Of course, that's not the full list of visitors to Mar-a-Lago.

Many hundreds of other people entered the club during the days when the president was there. They included club members: Initiation now costs $200,000. Nonmembers, who came for one of the charity galas in the club's ballrooms. Members' friends, who joined them on the dining terrace. Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping, who famously shared "the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake" (in Trump's words) with the president at the club while U.S. Navy ships were preparing to launch missiles at military installations in Syria.

None of those names were released.

But if a court already sided with the watchdog groups, including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the National Security Archive, on the FOIA request, how exactly is the Trump administration choosing secrecy over transparency? The New York Times summarized the basics of the legal dispute:

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is seen as the sun sets on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Senate Dems issue a 'red alert' on Republican repeal efforts

09/18/17 09:00AM

Senate Republicans only have 13 days remaining, including today, to pass the final iteration of their regressive health care plan, and most of the stakeholders continue to act as if the GOP crusade will fail. In recent days, Senate Democrats have become far less sanguine about the possibility.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) issued a "red alert" to health care advocates late Friday, and we've seen similar sentiments from Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand‏ (D-N.Y.), and Al Franken (D-Minn.). Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told health care proponents, "Drop what you are doing to start calling, start showing up, start descending on DC." Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been focused on his single-payer proposal, but he added yesterday, "Our immediate concern is to beat back yet another disastrous Republican proposal to throw millions of people off health insurance."

Among opinion leaders, progressive voices like the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne and the New York Times' Paul Krugman both devoted their columns today to warning the public that the threat to the existing health care system is quite real.

Politico reported over the weekend, "Obamacare repeal is on the brink of coming back from the dead."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his leadership team are seriously considering voting on a bill that would scale back the federal government's role in the health care system and instead provide block grants to states, congressional and Trump administration sources said.

It would be a last-ditch attempt to repeal Obamacare before the GOP's power to pass health care legislation through a party-line vote in the Senate expires on Sept. 30.

The Washington Post reported this morning, meanwhile, that the Senate Republican leadership asked the Congressional Budget Office to "fast-track consideration" of the plan.

At this point, there are basically two broad questions to consider: (1) whether this thing might pass; and (2) just how bad a bill is it?

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President Elect Donald Trump arrives on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan.20, 2017 in Washington, DC. In today's inauguration ceremony Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Questions surround Trump's $25 million inaugural concert

09/18/17 08:30AM

We've been keeping an eye in recent months on Donald Trump's inaugural committee, which by some metrics, was a great success. After his election, the Republican eliminated caps on individual contributions -- caps that George W. Bush and Barack Obama both utilized -- and sold "exclusive access" for seven-figure contributions.

The result was a fundraising juggernaut: Trump's inaugural committee took in $107 million, much of which went unspent during poorly attended festivities.

The Associated Press picked up on the thread over the weekend, shining a light on an increasingly interesting mystery.

President Donald Trump's inaugural committee raised an unprecedented $107 million for a ceremony that officials promised would be "workmanlike," and the committee pledged to give leftover funds to charity. Nearly eight months later, the group has helped pay for redecorating at the White House and the vice president's residence in Washington.

But nothing has yet gone to charity.

What is left from the massive fundraising is a mystery, clouded by messy and, at times, budget-busting management of a private fund that requires little public disclosure.

Of particular interest was the AP's discovery that Trump's committee spent $25 million on a pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, which the Associated Press described as "head-scratching" for good reason. Barack Obama's pre-inaugural concert at the same location eight years earlier featured far higher-profile entertainers, roughly 40 times as many attendees, and cost one-fifth as much.

As for the leftover money going to charity, Trump's committee originally said it'd release the details of its charitable donations in April, but that didn't happen. Instead, the committee said in April that it was still "identifying charities toward which it would direct leftover money." That was nearly five months ago.

Making matters slightly worse, we don't know why we don't know. Consider this excerpt from the Associated Press piece:

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How did Sean Spicer go from the bushes to mainstream acceptance?

09/18/17 08:00AM

A friend of mine sent me a YouTube clip a few months ago of a rap battle between CBS's James Corden and entertainer Riz Ahmed on the "Late Late Show." It was a fun segment, and at one point during their back and forth, Ahmed made a quick political reference.

"I speak the truth, you're a liar," he rapped in reference to the talk-show host. "He's like Sean Spicer mixed with a singing Uber driver."

Spicer was, of course, still the press secretary in Donald Trump's White House at the time.

This, coupled with Melissa McCarthy's brutal depiction of Spicer on "Saturday Night Live," struck me as pretty compelling evidence that the Republican's bizarre truth allergy had entered the national zeitgeist. Spicer was the guy who brazenly lied and hid the bushes, and everyone knew it.

With this in mind, when Spicer resigned in July, he was effectively a national laughingstock. And yet, here we are, just two months later, watching the former presidential spokesperson gain mainstream acceptance.

Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer popped up on Sunday night's Emmy Awards to poke fun at himself. [...]

Providing the punchline to a setup by host Stephen Colbert on Sunday night, Spicer rolled in on a wheeled podium -- a nod to Melissa McCarthy's portrayal of him on "Saturday Night Live" -- and proclaimed: "This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period, both in person and around the world."

In the lobby, the former press secretary was seen having a grand time, which apparently is becoming quite common for him. Spicer's had fun with Jimmy Kimmel. He's hitting the paid speaking circuit. He's accepted a fellowship at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

In other words, Trump's former press secretary is being rewarded for having lied to the public for months.

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