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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 10.17.18

10/17/18 05:33PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Pompeo sure does seem to trust the Saudis: "Saudi Arabia has pledged to hold senior officials accountable if they are implicated in the disappearance and alleged killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday."

* This won't go well: "On the heels of a new Treasury Department report showing a 17 percent rise in the annual federal budget deficit, President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he was asking his Cabinet to propose major belt-tightening. 'We're going to be asking for a 5 percent cut from every secretary,' Trump told reporters, adding 'if not more.'"

* Trump told the Associated Press yesterday that D.C. lawyer Pat Cipollone will, in fact, serve as his next White House counsel.

* A story we've been following: "Prosecutors say they are ready to move ahead with Paul Manafort's sentencing in Alexandria federal court and would dismiss several outstanding charges against him if told to by Judge T.S. Ellis III. But the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election would like to reserve the right to prosecute Manafort for those crimes again."

* A burgeoning controversy in the Garden State: "New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is facing a growing scandal surrounding his administration's decision to hire a former campaign aide for a state job despite an allegation of sexual assault."

* Seven million job openings are a lot: "The United States has a record number of job openings, another sign workers have greater opportunity to find better jobs, according to new data the Labor Department released Tuesday."

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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)

Trump crafts new excuse for massive budget deficit: forest fires

10/17/18 02:21PM

A couple of months ago, 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.” As regular readers knownone 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.

The issue is still on the president's mind. In fact, he's even blaming the enormous budget deficit on -- what else? -- forest fires.

Despite promising as a candidate to balance the budget if elected, Trump has made the deficit significantly larger: it was up to $666 billion in his first year in office, and we learned this week that it grew to $779 billion in his second.

In an interview yesterday with the Associated Press, the president was reminded that he "railed" against President Obama over deficits -- despite the fact that Obama shrunk the deficit by $1 trillion in his first seven years in office -- but he's now making the budget shortfall vastly larger. Trump responded:

No. 1, I had to take care of our military. I had no choice but to do it, and I want to take care of our military. We had to do things that we had to do. And I've done them. Now we're going to start bringing numbers down.

"We also have tremendous numbers with regard to hurricanes and fires and the tremendous forest fires all over. We had very big numbers, unexpectedly big numbers. California does a horrible job maintaining their forests. They're going to have to start doing a better job or we're not going to be paying them. They are doing a horrible job of maintaining what they have. And we had big numbers on tremendous numbers with the forest fires and obviously the hurricanes."

Oh my.

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Trump clings to a Saudi arms deal that doesn't actually exist

10/17/18 12:46PM

Donald Trump has spent the last several days defending his indifference toward Saudi Arabia's apparent murder of Jamal Khashoggi by pointing to a $110 billion arms deal. The president pushed the line in his "60 Minutes" interview, and he referenced it again in his latest Fox Business interview that aired this morning.

"They have a tremendous order, $110 billion. Every country in the world wanted a piece of that order; we got all of it. And what are we going to do? I've had some senators come up, and some congressman, and they say, 'You know, sir, what I think we should do is, we should not take that order.'

"I say, 'Who are we hurting?' It's 500,000 jobs, it's ultimately going to be $110 billion. It's the biggest order in the history of our country from an outside military. And I say, we're going to turn that down? Why would we do that?

This comes four days after Trump bragged to reporters that he "worked hard" to complete the arms deal, which he added will create "450,000 jobs." (It's apparently grown by 50,000 jobs since the weekend.)

As we discussed the other day, there's room for a debate about competing goals and values. By the Republican's calculus, the White House must be prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia murdering a U.S.-based journalist because they're buying $110 billion worth of military equipment. It's a posture devoid of morality and principle, but by appearances, the president is comfortable with that. Some of his allies might even agree.

The trouble, again, is that the $110 billion arms deal that Trump believes he worked so hard to complete doesn't actually exist.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.17.18

10/17/18 12:00PM

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

* Early voting gets underway today in three more states, each of which have several competitive races: Kansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

* Already facing an uphill climb, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) is now dealing with a self-inflicted wound: her campaign recently issued an "open letter" that identified women as sexual assault survivors without their permission.

* The latest CNN poll out of Texas found Sen. Ted Cruz (R) leading Beto O'Rourke (D), 52% to 45%, among likely voters.

* On a related note, during a Cruz/O'Rourke debate last night, the candidates were asked, "Tell us something you've done in the last year that has nothing to do with politics that would give Texans insight to who you are as a person." Cruz initially responded with an awkward six seconds of silence.

* An awkward experiment in fusion politics came to an abrupt and unexpected end in Alaska yesterday, when Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott resigned "after the disclosure of recent unspecified 'inappropriate comments.'"

* Roll Call  reported yesterday that Rep. Scott Taylor's (R-Va.) campaign has continued to pay four staffers and advisers accused of forging "dozens -- possibly hundreds -- of constituent signatures to help a third-party candidate onto the ballot."

* Donald Trump's re-election campaign, perhaps trying to scare away potential primary rivals, has already raised $100 million. A Washington Post  report added, "No other president dating back to at least Ronald Reagan had raised any money at this point for his own campaign committee."

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Trump tries to move the goalposts on Russia scandal (again)

10/17/18 11:20AM

In his interview with the Associated Press yesterday, Donald Trump dismissed the idea that his campaign cooperated with Russia as "the most preposterous, embarrassing thing." In an interview with Fox Business that aired last night, the president pushed a similar line.

Trump also mocked the notion that his campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election, one of the targets of Mueller's ongoing probe.

"Do you think I called Russia? 'I need help in Idaho.' 'I need help in Iowa.' 'Oh, let's call Russia.' It's a con job," Trump said.

Is this where the goalposts are now? Investigators need to find evidence of the president literally calling Russian operatives seeking direct assistance in individual states?

It's easy to forget, but when questions surrounding Russia's election attack first emerged, Trump World's original argument was that the interference didn't happen.

When that was discredited, the president and his team said there were no communications between the Republican campaign and Russia.

When that too was discredited, Team Trump said it never tried to cooperate with Russia during its espionage operation.

When the Trump Tower meeting left that line in tatters, the president and his aides scrambled to find new places to put the goalposts. White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, for example, recently rejected the idea that Russia "directed and controlled" the Trump campaign -- knocking down a claim no one made.

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke delivers a speech billed as "A Vision for American Energy Dominance" at the Heritage Foundation on September 29, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Is a scandal-plagued cabinet secretary getting a new investigator?

10/17/18 10:40AM

If there were a contest to determine the most scandal-plagued member of Donald Trump's cabinet, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke would be a strong contender. In fact, we learned over the summer that the Interior Department's inspector general -- the agency's internal watchdog office -- launched an investigation into whether the secretary had violated conflict-of-interest laws.

What's more, as Politico noted in July, it's not the only official inquiry into Zinke's activities.

Yesterday, however, the controversial cabinet secretary appeared to catch a curious break. NBC News reported:

The White House appears to be replacing the agency watchdog at the Interior Department who is in the midst of two investigations into Secretary Ryan Zinke, drawing criticism from government oversight groups.

In an internal email sent last Friday, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson announced to his staff that after just seven months at the agency, the assistant secretary for administration, Suzanne Israel Tufts, was moving over to the Interior Department to be the acting inspector general. Acting inspectors general do not need Senate confirmation.

But the internal announcement came as news to the Interior Department IG's office, which said in a statement to NBC News, "The Office of Inspector General has received no official communication about any leadership changes."

This is a messy one. The current IG is Mary Kendall, who's led the Interior office for a decade, and whose office is already investigating the department's chief. This isn't an instance in which Kendall is retiring or leaving the agency to pursue a different job; as of yesterday, she apparently didn't even know she was being replaced.

Her successor, meanwhile, in an office that's traditionally been non-partisan, is a long-time Republican attorney, whose previous experience includes "working for the Trump campaign recruiting and training lawyers deployed by the Republican National Lawyers Association to watch the polls on Election Day 2016."

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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz attends a Penn. campaign kickoff event held on N.Y. presidential primary night at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Penn. on April 19, 2016. (Photo by Charles Mostoller/Reuters)

Cruz's line on pre-existing conditions is badly at odds with reality

10/17/18 10:01AM

In an era in which gaslighting has become an everyday problem in politics, watching Republican opponents of the Affordable Care Act and its central provisions pretend to be progressive on health care policy is a bewildering experience. But some examples are more bewildering than others.

The estimable Charles Gaba has started compiling a list of GOP officials and candidates who are scrambling to assure voters that they fully support protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions, despite taking a series of steps to take those protections away. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), however, stands out as an especially egregious case.

Here's the line he took last night in Texas, at a debate with Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D):

"We can protect pre-existing conditions, and you need to understand, everyone agrees we're going to protect pre-existing conditions."

If so, "everyone" came to this agreement very recently -- and then forgot to tell anyone.

Look, Ted Cruz isn't the first Republican to pretend to support the key pillars of "Obamacare," but given his ferocious efforts on the issue, his rhetoric is arguably the most laughable.

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Why Trump's 'natural instinct for science' is so laughable

10/17/18 09:20AM

The Associated Press asked Donald Trump yesterday about the climate crisis and his indifference toward the evidence. The president responded as only he can.

"My uncle was a great professor at MIT for many years. Dr. John Trump. And I didn't talk to him about this particular subject, but I have a natural instinct for science, and I will say that you have scientists on both sides of the picture."

As presidential word-salad goes, this is bewildering. But instead of offering a laundry list of instances in which Trump has demonstrated ignorance about scientific basics, I want to focus specifically on the president's belief that he has "a natural instinct" for science.

The trouble is, I'm reasonably sure Trump doesn't know what "instincts" are.

In May 2016, for example, then-candidate Trump sat down with Bloomberg News to discuss his views on immigration -- by most measures, his signature issue that defined his campaign. The Republican conceded at the time about his beliefs, "I'm not sure I got there through deep analysis."

Trump added that he hadn't done any meaningful research, and though he opposed the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" proposal, he wasn't sure what it entailed. But Trump was nevertheless confident that his assumptions about immigration were true anyway. "I just knew instinctively that our borders are a mess," the future president said at the time.

As we regular readers may recall, this didn't make any sense. If he had literally no substantive understanding of developments at the border, and hadn't done any analysis of immigration, it was impossible to rely on "instincts" to understand the value of current border policy.

Similarly, people can have extensive knowledge about science, or they can be ignorant on the subject. But those who have no meaningful understanding of scientific facts or details cannot have "a natural instinct for science."

They can guess what they think might be true, but that's not the same thing.

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Image: President Trump Holds Make America Great Again Rally In Pennsylvania

It's too late for Trump to avoid responsibility for midterms

10/17/18 08:40AM

There's little Donald Trump loves more than taking credit for positive developments. If something good happens, the president wants you to know he's responsible for it -- even if he isn't, even if his boasts don't make any sense.

But there's a flip-side to this dynamic: as eager as he is to take credit for good news, Trump is equally desperate to avoid blame when things don't go his way. Note, for example, the ways in which the president has denied any responsibility for the deaths of American troops who were killed in missions he approved.

It applies to electoral politics, too. With the midterm elections three weeks away, Trump realizes that Republicans are expected to struggle, especially in U.S. House races, and he's already taking steps to distance himself from culpability.

President Trump said Tuesday that it's not his fault if Republicans lose control of the House in this year's midterms, weeks after he told supporters to "pretend I'm on the ballot" in November.

Trump made the comments in a wide-ranging interview with the Associated Press.

"I don't believe anybody has ever had this kind of impact," Trump told the AP, defending his efforts to rally support for candidates across the country.

When an Associated Press reporter specifically asked if he might "bear some responsibility" if the GOP loses its House majority, the president responded, "No, I think I'm helping people."

It's far too late for this pitch. Trump's already invested too much energy into telling the public the midterms are a referendum on his presidency.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump draws odd parallel between Saudi Arabia, Brett Kavanaugh

10/17/18 08:00AM

At some level, Donald Trump seems to realize that practically everyone, including his own Republican allies, believes Saudi Arabia is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S.-based journalist and critic of the Saudi royal family. The American president, however, simply doesn't want to believe his lying eyes.

And so Trump has invested a considerable amount of time and energy in trying to cover for his allies in Riyadh, repeatedly telling the world how persuaded he's been by Saudi leaders' denials, and even peddling preemptive Saudi propaganda about "rogue killers."

In an interview with the Associated Press, the Republican went a little further still.

President Donald Trump on Tuesday criticized rapidly mounting global condemnation of Saudi Arabia over the mystery of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, warning of a rush to judgment and echoing the Saudis' request for patience.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Trump compared the case of Khashoggi, who Turkish officials have said was murdered in the Saudis' Istanbul consulate, to the allegations of sexual assault leveled against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing.

"I think we have to find out what happened first," Trump said. "Here we go again with, you know, you're guilty until proven innocent. I don't like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I'm concerned."

I have a hunch this isn't the argument Republicans want to hear -- because if the Saudis and Kavanaugh are equally blameless, they really shouldn't have confirmed the partisan jurist to the Supreme Court.

Regardless, we're gaining fresh insights into how this president sees the world. As Jon Chait explained last night, "The rationale for confirming Kavanaugh is now the same as the rationale for believing the innocence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: They are both on Trump's side, and can therefore commit any crimes they want."

Exactly. Donald Trump is the most highly selective civil libertarian anyone has ever seen.

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