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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 2.21.17

02/21/17 05:31PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Deportations: "To immigration advocates, the Trump administration laid out nothing short of a mass deportation plan on Tuesday when it detailed how it will enforce U.S. immigration laws."

* A scary situation in Nevada: "The National Weather Service in Reno has issued a flash flood warning for a dam failure in central Lyon County in west central Nevada."

* A dramatic departure from Obama-era policies: "The Trump administration plans to roll back protections for transgender students and is preparing changes to federal guidance that required the nation's public schools to allow students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that matched their gender identities."

* Interesting case: "No one disputes that a U.S. Border Patrol agent shot and killed an unarmed 15-year-old near the border that separates El Paso, Texas from Juarez, Mexico. The agent was on the U.S. side of the border. The boy, a Mexican national, was on the other. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether his parents can sue the agent for killing their son. Based on their questions, the justices seemed to indicate the answer would be no."

* Good move in North Carolina: "Gov. Roy Cooper (D) announced Tuesday he was dropping his state's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court over a 2013 voting bill that a federal appeals court called the most restrictive in the state 'since the era of Jim Crow.'"

* ISIS eyes the skies: "Late last month, a pair of Islamic State fighters in desert camouflage climbed to the top of a river bluff in northern Iraq to demonstrate an important new weapon: a small drone, about six feet wide with swept wings and a small bomb tucked in its fuselage."
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Following a week of pressure, Trump denounces rise in anti-Semitism

02/21/17 02:52PM

At a White House event last week, a reporter asked Donald Trump about the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States. The president responded by talking about how impressed he was with his electoral vote totals in the 2016 election.

A few days later, a Jewish publication raised the same concerns. Trump said it was "not a fair question," told the reporter to "sit down," talked about how he isn't personally anti-Semitic, and blamed his "opponents" from "the other side" for anti-Semitism. The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement soon after, describing the president's answer as, among other things, "mind-boggling."

The fact that his rhetoric came on the heels of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day controversy didn't help matters.

Today, at long last, Trump managed to answer the question the way he's supposed to.
President Donald Trump on Tuesday denounced the recent rise in bomb threats against Jewish community centers across the country, saying the anti-Semitism and racism that continue to afflict America must be addressed.

"Anti-Semitism is horrible, and it's gonna stop and it has to stop," Trump told NBC News in an exclusive interview, after touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.... "I think it's terrible," Trump said of the anti-Semitic threats. "I think it's horrible. Whether it's anti-Semitism or racism or any -- anything you wanna think about having to do with the divide. Anti-Semitism is, likewise, it's just terrible."
To a certain extent, it's discouraging that this is even a news story worthy of note. Had any other modern American president condemned anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic threats, the comments would have been well received, but largely overlooked. It's simply assumed that the White House reacts with disgust in response to hateful incidents.

But with Trump, the bar has been lowered -- to the point that there's some relief that the president managed to say the right thing following a week of pressure.
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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

From the Republican fringe to the White House

02/21/17 12:44PM

A couple of weeks ago, a deputy assistant to the president in Donald Trump's White House, made a curious argument during a radio interview. The official said Team Trump will continue to repeat its "fake news" talking point until news organizations stop "attacking" the president.

The official added, "[U]ntil the media understands how wrong that attitude is, and how it hurts their credibility, we are going to continue to say, 'fake news.' ... That's the reality."

Even for Trump World, it was an odd thing to say. White House officials will keep saying "fake news," not because the news is fake, but as part of a name-calling exercise responding to coverage Trump and his aides don't like.

The official was a man by the name of Sebastian Gorka -- one of several Breitbart News alum who've been hired to work in the White House -- and he's maintained a very high media profile of late, becoming one of Trump's most notable cheerleaders and anti-media attack dogs.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Gorka, who's focused his attention for years on what he calls the "global jihadist movement," has even gained a seat at a powerful and influential table.
Mr. Gorka has now taken that view into the center of power at the White House, where he is part of the new White House Strategic Initiatives Group. He said he reports to Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump's adviser and son-in-law; Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff; and Steve Bannon, the president's chief strategist.

The Strategic Initiatives Group has been described by some U.S. officials and experts as a parallel National Security Council, writing executive orders with relatively little input from policy officials and subject matter experts.
Given Gorka's anti-Muslim attitudes, his role isn't exactly encouraging.

But it was something the Washington Post said in its profile on Gorka that stood out for me:
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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.21.17

02/21/17 12:00PM

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

* Former DNC Chairman Howard Dean, who briefly considered a comeback this year, is officially neutral in the current DNC race, but the Vermonter told MSNBC yesterday he "kinda" wants to see South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg get the gig.

* Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump's former campaign manager, conceded yesterday that the president's claims about voter fraud in New Hampshire simply aren't supported by the evidence.

* Rep. Cheri Bustos' (D-Ill.) name has been floated as a possible gubernatorial candidate in Illinois next year, but the congresswoman announced yesterday that she's ruling out a statewide bid.

* Republican dominance over federal offices has been very good for RNC fundraising: the party announced yesterday it raised $19.8 million in January, its best post-election January ever.

* Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general whom Donald Trump fired after she gave the White House good advice, is now being discussed as a possible Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Georgia -- and to date, Yates hasn't done anything to discourage the chatter.

* Kansas Democrats believe they may have a shot in next year's gubernatorial race, especially in light of Gov. Sam Brownback's (R) many failures, and with that in mind, former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer (D) launched his campaign yesterday.

* Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) is up for re-election in Missouri next year, and in an interview late last week, the senator conceded she's concerned about a primary challenger from the left.
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St Basil's Cathedral

Russian confirmations complicate dubious White House denials

02/21/17 11:20AM

The official White House line on pre-election contacts between Team Trump and Russia has been consistent for months: there were no communications. Any suggestions to the contrary, Donald Trump and his aides have insisted, are completely wrong.

There are some problems with this posture. For one thing, many U.S. intelligence officials have suggested Team Trump's claims aren't true. For another, some Russian officials have confirmed that Team Trump's claims aren't true.

The New York Times picks up today on a story I've been emphasizing for months: despite the White House's denials, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak have both said, on the record, that Vladimir Putin's government was in communications with the Trump campaign before Election Day in the U.S.

As the Times' report makes clear, the communications wouldn't necessarily have to be seen as scandalous.
It is not uncommon for a presidential campaign to speak to foreign officials, which makes the dispute particularly unusual. [...]

Under ordinary circumstances, few in Washington would blink at the statements by Mr. Ryabkov or Mr. Kislyak. It is common for foreign governments to reach out to American presidential candidates, and many foreign diplomats believe it is part of their job to get to know people who may soon be crucial to maintaining alliances or repairing broken relationships.
That's entirely correct. Team Trump could've said from the beginning, "Sure, during the campaign, we heard from foreign officials from all kinds of countries around the globe, but the communications were always routine and part of standard diplomacy."

But no. Instead, the president and his aides said the opposite, insisting that there were literally no talks until after Election Day. In other words, Team Trump would have us believe the Russian officials are lying -- even though they have no incentive to lie.
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Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, addresses a packed room at a town hall meeting in Savage, Md. April 13, 2016. (Photo by Bryan Woolston/Reuters)

As his Trump rebukes intensify, what is John Kasich up to?

02/21/17 10:40AM

For all the chatter about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) butting heads with Donald Trump, there's another high-profile Republican who's going much further to rebuke the president of his own party.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who refused to endorse Trump or even attend his party's nominating convention in Kasich's home state, had some more choice words for the president over weekend. The governor, speaking to the media from Germany, where Kasich was attending the Munich Security Conference, raised concerns about Trump's criticism of a free press, questionable support for U.S. allies in Europe, and even the scandal surrounding Russia's role in helping put the president in office.

Kasich added that he'd spoken directly with a variety of foreign officials, many of whom expressed concern about Trump and the direction of the United States.

And while the remarks were notable, let's not skip past the setting: what was the governor of Ohio doing at the Munich Security Conference, speaking with foreign officials?

For a guy who'll soon wrap up his second term -- the governor cannot seek a third -- Kasich seems awfully busy, weighing in on the health-care debate, attending a major international security conference, publicly taking issue with Trump's bizarre antics, and according to a Cleveland Plain Dealer report, watching a new organization take shape around him.
Top political advisers to John Kasich have formed a nonprofit organization that will promote themes the Ohio governor pushed during his unsuccessful run for last year's Republican presidential nomination.

Two Paths America is "inspired by the imagery and rhetoric of ... Kasich's description of the public policy choices facing us and the need to take the higher path," according to a news release [issued two weeks ago]. "Two Paths America will take the same approach in supporting the best and highest policy ideas." [...]"Two Paths" also is the title of a book Kasich plans to release in April. The book will reflect on his campaign and explore issues important to the governor.
The Plain Dealer's article added that the group and the governor's new book "will fuel speculation that Kasich is keeping his options open for the 2020 election."

Ya think?
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Speaker of the House Paul Ryan shares a laugh with Republican members of Congress after signing legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and to cut off federal funding of Planned Parenthood.

New Republican health care blueprint falls far short

02/21/17 10:00AM

Congressional Republicans have been working on a health care reform plan -- behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny -- for more than seven years. Periodically, GOP leaders assure everyone that their alternative to "Obamacare" is nearly complete, and its unveiling is imminent, only to quietly change the subject soon after.

As lawmakers left Congress late last week for a week-long break, the Republican replacement for the ACA still doesn't exist, but House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) didn't want to send his members home empty-handed -- especially knowing that they'd face concerned constituents, fearing what GOP lawmakers might do to their families' health security -- so Republicans left DC armed with an outline of some vague ideas about where the majority party is headed.

That's the good news. We're a long way from having a real, detailed GOP plan to consider, but we can at least take a closer look at what Ryan & Co. have come up with thus far, which is better than literally nothing.

The bad news is, you're really not going to like the Republican outline. A New York Times editorial yesterday summarized the key provisions nicely:
In a half-baked policy paper released on Thursday, the House speaker, Paul Ryan, trotted out washed-up ideas for "improving" the country's health care system that would do anything but. For example, the paper calls for reducing spending on Medicaid, which now provides insurance to more than 74 million poor, disabled and older people. Many millions of them would be cast out of the program.

The Republican plan would also force most people who don't get their health insurance through an employer to pay more by slashing subsidies that the A.C.A., or Obamacare, now provides. The proposal would allow families to sock away more money in health savings accounts, which may sound good at first but would primarily benefit affluent people who can afford to save more.
As is always the case, the devil is in the details, and the specifics of the latest Republican "plan" -- I'm using the word loosely -- can't be examined in earnest because they don't yet exist.

That said, we know enough about the effects of the key GOP priorities to understand the damage that would follow the implementation of the Republican ideas. Dismantling how Medicaid works, for example, would do brutal harm to millions of low-income Americans.

And we haven't even touched on the politics yet.
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Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump and Republican Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence celebrate, during the final day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty)

VP Mike Pence offers a curious take on Russia scandal developments

02/21/17 09:21AM

Asked why he fired Michael Flynn, the former White House National Security Advisor, Donald Trump told reporters last week Flynn was doing great work, but he "didn't tell the Vice President of the United States the facts." The president added, "I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence, very simple.'

But it wasn't "very simple" at all. Trump was reportedly alerted to the truth weeks earlier, but waited to oust Flynn until the public -- and, by some accounts, Pence -- learned the truth.

And what does Pence have to say about this? The vice president was in Brussels yesterday, participating in talks with European Union and NATO leaders, and as USA Today reported, Pence addressed the Flynn controversy publicly for the first time.
"I would tell you that I was disappointed to learn that the facts that have been conveyed to me by General Flynn were inaccurate," Pence said in his first public discussion of the matter. "But we honor General Flynn's long service to the United States of America, and I fully support the president's decision to ask for his resignation.

"And it was the proper decision, it was handled properly and in a timely way."
It's the use of the word "timely" that sticks out like a sore thumb. Flynn spoke to Russia's ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, several times on Dec. 29. Two weeks later, according to the White House's own version of events, Flynn told Pence his communications were unrelated to U.S. sanctions, and on Jan. 15, Pence assured the public that sanctions were not part of the Flynn/Kislyak discussions.

On Jan. 26, acting Attorney General Sally Yates told the White House that Flynn and Kislyak did, in fact, discuss sanctions, but it wasn't until Feb. 14 that Flynn was forced out. A variety of adjectives come to mind, but "timely" isn't one of them.

Indeed, it's increasingly difficult to know quite what to make of Mike Pence's role in this mess.
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Image: US President Trump signs executive order to allow Dakota,. Keystone pipelines

Trump, GOP lawmakers scrap Stream Protection Rule

02/21/17 08:40AM

Donald Trump is not yet accustomed to bill-signing ceremonies. The president, just a month into his term, walked into a room in the White House last week to sign a measure backed by the coal industry, said a few words, smiled for the cameras, and turned to leave the room.

An aide had to remind Trump to actually sign the bill into law.

By most measures, we would've been better off had the president actually left without signing it. At issue is a policy called the Stream Protection Rule, created by President Obama, which sought to protect the nation's waterways "from debris generated by a practice called surface mining. The Interior Department had said the rule would protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests by keeping coal mining debris away from nearby waters."

The Congressional Research Service recently published a report on the Stream Protection Rule, which congressional researchers said was an effective policy in protecting drinking water and combating climate change.

As 2017 got underway, Republicans made the elimination of the Stream Protection Rule one of their first big priorities, and that in turn led to Trump's signing ceremony last week. As the Washington Post noted yesterday, the president's fans were impressed.
Several people said they would have liked to see more coverage of a measure that Trump signed Thursday that rolled back a last-minute Obama regulation that would have restricted coal mines from dumping debris in nearby streams. At the signing, Trump was joined by coal miners in hard hats.

"If he hadn't gotten into office, 70,000 miners would have been put out of work," Patricia Nana, a 42-year-old naturalized citizen from Cameroon. "I saw the ceremony where he signed that bill, giving them their jobs back, and he had miners with their hard hats and everything -- you could see how happy they were."
Now seems like a good time to do a little fact-checking.
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A man walks across the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency at the lobby of the Original Headquarters Building at the CIA headquarters on Feb. 19, 2009 in McLean, Va. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

Disgusted by Donald Trump's antics, CIA veteran resigns

02/21/17 08:00AM

To hear Donald Trump tell it, he and the intelligence community get along swimmingly. The Republican president, who's repeatedly questioned intelligence professionals' integrity and professionalism, told the CIA on his first full day in office that the media "sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community." The truth, he added, is "exactly the opposite."

A few days later, reflecting on his reception at the agency, Trump added, "I got a standing ovation. In fact, they said it was the biggest standing ovation since Peyton Manning had won the Super Bowl and they said it was equal. I got a standing ovation. It lasted for a long period of time."

But while the president was clearly delighted with himself, some intelligence professionals had a very different reaction. The Washington Post published a piece overnight from Edward Price, a former CIA analyst and spokesperson for the National Security Council, who intended to spend the rest of his career at the CIA, where he's worked for over a decade. But his plans changed last week after Price, who worked for presidents from both parties, "reluctantly concluded" that he simply couldn't be part of Donald Trump's team. [Update: Price is scheduled to talk to Rachel about his perspective and experiences on tonight's show.]
I watched in disbelief when, during the third presidential debate, Trump casually cast doubt on the high-confidence conclusion of our 17 intelligence agencies, released that month, that Russia was behind the hacking and release of election-related emails. On the campaign trail and even as president-elect, Trump routinely referred to the flawed 2002 assessment of Iraq's weapons programs as proof that the CIA couldn't be trusted -- even though the intelligence community had long ago held itself to account for those mistakes and Trump himself supported the invasion of Iraq.

Trump's actions in office have been even more disturbing. His visit to CIA headquarters on his first full day in office, an overture designed to repair relations, was undone by his ego and bluster. Standing in front of a memorial to the CIA's fallen officers, he seemed to be addressing the cameras and reporters in the room, rather than the agency personnel in front of them, bragging about his inauguration crowd the previous day. Whether delusional or deceitful, these were not the remarks many of my former colleagues and I wanted to hear from our new commander in chief. I couldn't help but reflect on the stark contrast between the bombast of the new president and the quiet dedication of a mentor -- a courageous, dedicated professional -- who is memorialized on that wall. I know others at CIA felt similarly.
So much for comparing Trump's reception to Peyton Manning after the Super Bowl.
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