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E.g., 2/21/2019
E.g., 2/21/2019

Thursday's Mini-Report, 2.21.19

02/21/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A terrifying story: "A U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant working in the nation's capital lived a secret life as a 'domestic terrorist' who aspired to mass murder and compiled a target list of prominent politicians and journalists, federal prosecutors allege in court papers."

* This controversy is just getting started: "In the weeks before his inauguration, top officials on President Trump's inaugural committee repeatedly sounded alarms about the budgets submitted by several vendors, according to correspondence, committee records and draft budgets reviewed by The Wall Street Journal."

* It sounds like the White House never really tried: "The Trump administration has broken off talks with the California Air Resources Board over vehicle fuel-efficiency standards and is on track to roll back standards set by President Barack Obama, the White House said Thursday."

* Another successful strike: "West Virginia teachers said they would return to their schools Thursday after two days out on strike. Their announcement came late Wednesday when a bill pushing charter schools and education savings accounts died in the state legislature."

* Israeli politics, Part I: "After two weeks of efforts, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded in forming a united ultra right-wing party that will run in the April 9 elections, paving the way for Jewish supremacists from the 'Jewish Power' party to make it into the next Knesset."

* Israeli politics, Part II: "Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's two main rivals are joining forces for April's elections, a move that poses a serious challenge to the right-wing leader's bid for a record fifth term."

* Mark your calendars: "Michael D. Cohen has agreed to testify in public next Wednesday before Congress about his work as President Trump's personal lawyer and longtime fixer, but lawmakers said they would limit the scope of their questioning in deference to the special counsel."

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Image: Trump Confidant Roger Stone Testifies Before House Intelligence Committee

Judge imposes sweeping gag order on Roger Stone

02/21/19 04:31PM

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson released Roger Stone from federal custody, but imposed a limited gag order on the longtime Republican operative. Stone, facing federal obstruction, giving false statements, and witness tampering charges, was told he couldn't comment on his case from the courthouse.

In other words, the judge didn't want Stone creating a circus while entering or exiting the judicial building.

This week, however, Donald Trump's longtime associate thought it'd be a good idea to publish a photo of the judge in his case to one of his social-media accounts, alongside what appeared to be crosshairs near her head. It prompted a new court hearing and new restrictions on the defendant.

A federal judge ordered that longtime Republican operative and Trump confidant Roger Stone may not speak publicly about the investigation or case against him.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington said it would be "foolhardy" to wait for Stone to transgress again in the wake of an Instagram post that appeared to show her photo near crosshairs and suggested both she and the special counsel were biased.

"I'm not giving you another chance," she said. "I have serious doubts whether you've learned any lesson at all."

There was a very real possibility that Stone could've been sent to jail today. With this in mind, the GOP operative has to be delighted that he's going home this afternoon.

Indeed, while Jackson was critical of Stone during today's court proceedings -- the judge specifically said his apologies rang "hollow" -- she also refrained from taking more serious steps against the defendant. Stone can continue to raise money for his defense fund, he can continue to speak on issues unrelated to his pending criminal charges, and he won't be stuck in jail ahead of his trial.

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US allies ignore Trump's appeal for troops in Syria

02/21/19 12:51PM

When Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria late last year, the president apparently didn't feel the need to talk about his new policy with key officials and policymakers. Key members of Congress, for example, were blindsided by the news.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was reportedly "in the dark" until after Trump had made his decision, and Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. military's Central Command, recently conceded during congressional testimony, "I was not consulted."

Given these circumstances, it's not surprising that the Republican president didn't consult with U.S. allies, either, though he may now realize that was unwise. The Washington Post reported overnight:

As the deadline approaches for the withdrawal of U.S. forces fighting the Islamic State in Syria, America's closest European allies have turned down a Trump administration request to fill the gap with their own troops, according to U.S. and foreign officials.

Allies have "unanimously" told the United States that they "won't stay if you pull out," a senior administration official said. France and Britain are the only other countries with troops on the ground in the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State. [...]

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said last week that he was mystified by Trump's policy. On Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that "there is no prospect of British forces replacing the Americans" in Syria.

There are a few angles to this that are worth keeping in mind, aside from the fact that Trump obviously should've had a conversation or two with our coalition partners before announcing his withdrawal plans.

First and foremost, if the reporting is correct and the Trump administration requested that European allies keep and deploy troops to Syria, it necessarily means the White House expects Trump's policy to produce adverse consequences. Otherwise, the appeal for European troops wouldn't have been made.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.21.19

02/21/19 12:00PM

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

* In North Carolina's 9th congressional district, the State Board of Elections heard testimony from Mark Harris' (R) son, John Harris, who said he'd warned his father about the candidate's consultants and their history of illegal tactics. The son testified that his father ignored the warnings.

* Dashing the hopes of Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told NBC News this morning that he's ruled out running for the U.S. Senate in Kansas next year.

* As Rachel noted on the show last night, Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) presidential campaign raised nearly $6 million, mostly through small donors, in its first 24 hours, which is extraordinarily impressive.

* In related news, the senator is reportedly poised to sign a DNC pledge, in which the Vermont independent will agree to "run for president as a Democrat in 2020 and serve as one if elected." This would apparently rule out the possibility of a third-party campaign in the event Sanders fails to earn the Democratic nomination.

* Rep. Bradley Byrne (R) has launched a U.S. Senate bid in Alabama, which means incumbent Sen. Doug Jones (D) is likely to have a tough re-election bid in 2020. That said, Byrne will probably not run unopposed in a GOP primary.

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Spotlight turns to the White House's dubious non-disclosure agreements

02/21/19 11:05AM

About a year ago, when White House press briefings still occasionally occurred, a reporter asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders whether officials on Donald Trump's team are asked to sign non-disclosure agreements. "There's an ethics agreement," she replied. "Beyond that, I can't get into any additional details."

As regular readers may recall, it was several months later when Kellyanne Conway seemed to confirm what Sanders would not. "We've all signed them in the West Wing," Conway told ABC News. We have confidentiality agreements in the West Wing, absolutely we do. And why wouldn't we? ... Everybody signs an NDA."

That may not have been an exaggeration. The Daily Beast reports today that when White House interns got to work last month, the orientation process included a specific kind of "ethics training."

Soon enough, according to three sources familiar with the process, a representative from the White House counsel's office materialized to greet the newcomers, and to demand what the Trump White House has required of so many other interns and senior officials.

Upon orientation, the interns signed their very own non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), with the envoy of the counsel's office warning them that a breach of the NDA -- blabbing to the media, for instance -- could result in legal, and thus financial, consequences for them. Interns were also told that they would not receive their own copies, these sources said.

In case this isn't obvious, the idea of having White House interns sign NDAs is kind of bizarre. I can say from my personal experience -- I interned in the White House in 1995 -- that such a practice would've seemed ridiculous in the not-too-distant past.

But the oddity of the practice is only part of the problem.

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U.S.  President Obama meets with President-elect Trump in the White House Oval Office in Washington

Trump convinces himself other countries wouldn't talk to Obama

02/21/19 10:23AM

At a brief Q&A with reporters yesterday in the Oval Office, Donald Trump was asked about possibly imposing new tariffs on his European allies. The American president, sitting alongside Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, meandered for a while, before sharing a familiar argument:

"[T]he bottom-line result is whether or not we can make a deal with the EU that's fair. We you we lose about $151 billion trading with the EU. That's a lot of money. And this is been going on for many years.

"They wouldn't meet with the Obama administration and they're meeting with us. So we'll see what happens. We'll see what happens."

Right off the bat, Trump made clear that he's still badly confused about the most basic trade details. He not only exaggerated the size of the U.S. trade deficit with the European Union -- the $151 billion figure ignores services trade -- the Republican also characterized the trade imbalance as proof of the United States "losing" money. That continues to be both wrong and bizarre.

But it's that other point that stood out for me: in Trump's mind, E.U. trade officials "wouldn't meet with the Obama administration." That's true, just so long as one overlooks all of the meetings E.U. trade officials had with the Obama administration.

I wish I knew where Trump came up with this stuff. As the Toronto Star's Daniel Dale has noted more than once, the European Union engaged in "full-scale trade negotiations, on a proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, for three years with Obama."

Circling back to our previous coverage, while "Trump lies about his predecessor" isn't exactly an unfamiliar story, this is a very specific kind of lie, which Trump seems to turn to with unsettling frequency.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump seems unaware of his plan to end criminalization of homosexuality

02/21/19 09:20AM

U.S. officials told NBC News this week that the Trump administration is launching "a global campaign to end the criminalization of homosexuality in dozens of nations where it's still illegal to be gay." The effort will be led by Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, who is also the highest-profile openly gay person in the administration.

Wouldn't a progressive goal like this face pushback from the White House's far-right base? Grenell told NBC News that the initiative has broad, bipartisan support. Asked specifically whether Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Trump himself were on board with his efforts, Grenell added that "decriminalizing homosexuality is something that people absolutely agree is a policy that we have to move forward on."

It was against this backdrop that the president fielded a question on the subject during a brief Q&A with reporters in the Oval Office yesterday.

Q: Mr. President, on your push to decriminalize homosexuality, are you doing that? And why?

TRUMP: Say it?

Q: Your push to decriminalize homosexuality around the world.

TRUMP: I don't know which report you're talking about. We have many reports. Anybody else?

Occasionally, the president will try to be coy on a subject he's reluctant to talk about, but watching the clip, Trump seemed genuinely confused. He didn't appear to have any idea what the reporter was referring to.

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U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement from the Roosevelt Room next to the empty chairs of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (L), D-New York, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (R), D-California, after they cancelled their meeting at the Whi

Trump is an unreliable narrator about his own presidency

02/21/19 08:42AM

Six weeks ago, Donald Trump published a tweet that appeared to include a policy pronouncement. After complaining about California's approach to forest management -- an issue he only pretends to understand -- the president wrote that he'd ordered FEMA to send the Golden State "no more money."

So, did he actually order FEMA to cut off California? Of course not. BuzzFeed reported overnight:

Although President Donald Trump tweeted that he had ordered his administration to cut off disaster aid to wildfire victims in California, federal officials confirmed on Wednesday that they never received any such directive.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which helps survivors of national disasters recover, told BuzzFeed News for the first time that Trump never issued an order to stop sending money to California.

BuzzFeed filed requests with FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, both of which concluded that the agencies had received no such orders from the White House.

At face value, this may seem fairly minor. There was no reason to believe the nation's largest state had been cut off from federal emergency aid, so these findings are in line with expectations. Indeed, I imagine many observers had forgotten about the presidential tweet soon after it was published. I certainly did.

But what strikes me as notable about this is the degree to which it reinforces a larger point: Trump often just says stuff, issuing declarations that no one takes seriously because we know they're wholly insincere.

It happens all the time, to the point that's become the background noise of our political discourse. Late last week, for example, the president boasted, "We have a lot of great announcements having to do with Syria and our success with the eradication of the caliphate. And that will be announced over the next 24 hours."

That was 140 hours ago. There's been no announcement. No one's surprised.

Trump is now seen as an unreliable narrator of his own presidency. Whatever the Republican says about his plans and priorities must automatically, in every instance, be taken with a grain of salt.

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel walk along a section of the recently-constructed fence at the U.S.-Mexico border on Feb. 26, 2013 in Nogales, Ariz. (Photo by John Moore/Getty)

Major drug bust at border undermines Trump talking points

02/21/19 08:00AM

A few weeks ago, Donald Trump published a tweet touting "the biggest Fentanyl bust in our Country's history," which had just occurred at the U.S./Mexico border. In this case, the president's claim had the benefit of being true: U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials captured 254 pounds of fentanyl, with a street value of several millions dollars.

But if Trump's missive was intended to prove a larger point about drugs entering the country through Mexico, the details proved problematic: the historic fentanyl bust was made at a port of entry. As Time magazine reported, the drugs were found hidden "in a compartment under the rear floor of a tractor-trailer after a scan during a secondary inspection indicated 'some anomalies' in the load."

Literally the next day, the president sat down with the New York Times and argued, "[U]nlike what the Democrats say, they don't, you don't bring trucks of drugs through the checkpoints. You bring trucks of drugs by making a right 20 miles, and a left into the country."

Except, it's not just what "the Democrats" say; it's what his own administration says. In the case of the fentanyl bust, it's what happened the day before.

Yesterday, something similar happened. USA Today reported:

A commercial shipment of frozen strawberries coming from Mexico contained $12.7 million worth of methamphetamine, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced Tuesday.

The alleged drug-smuggling operation was discovered at the cargo facility at the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge in southern Texas on Feb. 16, a release says. Officers found 906 pounds of the drug concealed in a trailer, CBP says.

A 42-year-old man who is a Mexican citizen was arrested in connection with the seizure, according to the release.

To be sure, this is an enormous drug bust, and one of the White House's prominent media allies was eager to tout the smuggling attempt.

But again, developments like these are emblematic of a larger truth: Trump's talking points are plainly wrong.

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