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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 3.21.18

03/21/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Austin: "'Exotic' batteries ordered online helped lead authorities to the Austin, Texas, bombing suspect before he died early Wednesday as police closed in, multiple senior law enforcement officials told NBC News."

* Related news: "Investigators piecing together a portrait of the suspected Austin, Texas, serial bomber -- who brought a manhunt to an end early Wednesday after he blew himself up -- may find some clues in a 2012 blog."

* The Fed: "The Federal Reserve voted Wednesday to raise interest rates by one-quarter of a percentage point, in the central bank's first policy meeting led by its new chairman, Jerome 'Jay' Powell."

* After nearly a year in which Donald Trump never mentioned Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the president has now gone after Mueller's probe for a third time.

* Presidents aren't supposed to do stuff like this: "President Trump on Wednesday criticized his own Justice Department for not urging the Supreme Court to get involved in a fight over whether Arizona can deny driver's licenses to the young undocumented immigrants known as 'dreamers.'"

* That was quick: "A federal judge is temporarily blocking a new Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks, the most restrictive abortion law in the United States."

* In related news: "Idaho will become the latest conservative state to require women seeking abortions to be informed that the drug-induced procedures can be halted halfway, despite opposition from medical groups that say there is little evidence to support that claim."

* Not too surprising: "A New York judge dismissed former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page's defamation suit against Yahoo News' parent company Tuesday."

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U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks during his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept.22, 2016. (Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Paul Ryan bolsters Democratic concerns with focus on entitlements

03/21/18 12:52PM

It's only been a few months since Republicans approved a massive package of regressive tax breaks, but so far, Democratic predictions about the GOP policy are holding up pretty well.

Democrats said, for example, that the corporate beneficiaries of the tax breaks would use their windfalls on priorities such as stock buybacks, which is what's happening. Dems said the Republican plan included all kinds of sloppy and consequential errors that would need fixes, which is also happening.

And Democrats said that once the tax cuts blow a massive hole in the budget, Republicans will use the mess they created to justify cuts to social-insurance programs that millions of families rely on. And wouldn't you know it, a Bloomberg Politics reporter highlighted this quote yesterday from House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.):

Paul Ryan reiterates his call for cutting "entitlements," saying that's the "name of the game on debt and deficits."

"We're just going to have to keep at it," he says.

Now, we're not.

The idea that the Wisconsin congressman actually cares about "debt and deficits" is obviously hard to take seriously. In the Bush/Cheney era, Ryan voted with his party in support of both of George W. Bush's tax cuts, both of George W. Bush's wars in the Middle East, Medicare Part D, and the Wall Street bailout -- none of which Republicans even tried to pay for.

More recently -- which is to say, a few months ago -- Ryan helped champion a GOP tax plan that adds $1 trillion to the deficit over the next decade.

With this in mind, no one should be fooled into thinking the House Speaker is genuinely committed to tackling "debt and deficits." Ryan's record obviously points in the opposite direction.

But what I'm especially interested in is the degree to which the Republican leader's rhetoric bolsters Democratic predictions.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.21.18

03/21/18 12:00PM

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

* Primary Day proved to be quite interesting in Illinois, where Rep. Dan Lapinski (D-Ill.) apparently won a very competitive race; Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) narrowly survived his primary; J.B. Pritzker (D) earned the opportunity to take Rauner on; and a neo-Nazi won an uncontested Republican congressional primary.

* Still upset that their gerrymandering plan was rejected, a dozen Pennsylvania Republicans yesterday introduced a measure yesterday to impeach four members of the state Supreme Court.

* What may be today's most notable campaign-related tidbit is the Public Policy Polling survey in Tennessee, where former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) leads Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) in their U.S. Senate race, 46% to 41%, at least in this poll. The seat is currently held by Sen. Bob Corker (R), who's retiring.

* Speaking of competitive Senate races, Public Policy Polling also found Sen. Dean Heller (R) trailing Rep. Jacky Rosen (D), 44% to 39%. Heller, of course, is the only GOP incumbent senator running in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

* The Koch-backed Americans For Prosperity (AFP) is making another six-figure ad buy, this time targeting Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a moderate North Dakota Democrat, who's up for re-election this year.

* As Cambridge Analytica is embroiled in scandal, its former clients are starting to face new scrutiny. In North Carolina, the News & Observer  reports today on the state GOP and Sen. Thom Tillis paying the controversial data firm $345,000 in the 2014 election cycle.

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Trump can't stop blindsiding his own team (and he doesn't want to try)

03/21/18 11:20AM

Last week, Donald Trump called Larry Kudlow to offer him the job of leading the White House National Economic Council. But during the call, the president apparently took pleasure in the fact that his own team had no idea he was extending the offer.

Kudlow told the Wall Street Journal that the president said on the call, "No one else knows that you and I are having this conversation."

According to the Washington Post, the same thing happened when Trump brought on Joe diGenova, a television pundit and far-right conspiracy theorist, to serve on his legal defense team.

The hiring caught many of his advisers by surprise, prompting fears that Trump is preparing for bigger changes to his legal team -- including possible departures -- as he goes on the offensive in the primary legal challenges facing him.

Trump is not consulting with top advisers, including Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and chief White House lawyer Donald McGahn, on his Russia legal choices or his comments about the probe, according to one person with knowledge of his actions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive conversations. He is instead watching television and calling friends, this person said.

"He is instead watching television" might as well be the name of the PBS documentary series on Trump's presidency.

But even putting that aside, I remain fascinated by the number of instances in which Trump blindsides his White House team. Before the president took office, the conventional wisdom was that Trump, a confused amateur with no relevant experience, knowledge, curiosity, or familiarity with the most basic details of government, would rely heavily on his staff, since left to his own devices, the president would obviously have no idea what he's doing.

Those assumptions have fallen short. Trump now seems to enjoy winging it, making major decisions without consulting anyone in the White House, reveling in the chaos.

When he declared in his Republican convention speech that he "alone" can fix what ails the nation, Trump apparently wasn't kidding.

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Image: President Trump announces steep tarrifs on imported steel and aluminum

Does Trump understand what an 'arms race' is?

03/21/18 10:40AM

Donald Trump spoke briefly with the press yesterday from the Oval Office, sitting alongside Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, but managed to cover some interesting ground. The American president made headlines, for example, by announcing he'd called to congratulate Russia's Vladimir Putin on his recent election.

But there was something else about Trump's unscripted comments that stood out for me as, well, a little confusing. From the official White House transcript:

"I had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory -- his electoral victory. The call had to do, also, with the fact that we will probably get together in the not-too-distant future so that we can discuss arms, we can discuss the arms race. As you know, he made a statement that being in an arms race is not a great thing. That was right after the election -- one of the first statements he made.

"And we are spending $700 billion this year on our military, and a lot of it is that we are going to remain stronger than any other nation in the world by far.

"We had a very good call, and I suspect that we'll probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control, but we will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have."

To know anything about Trump's rhetorical style is to understand that the president often likes to use phrases he doesn't fully understand. I'm convinced, for example, that he has no idea what a "witch hunt" is. The president also talks about "clean coal," without knowing what that means. I don't think he knows what a "blind trust" is, either.

And now it's probably worth taking a closer look at what an "arms race" is -- or at least what Trump thinks it is.

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Bacardi Presents Playboy's Super Saturday Night Party

One day, one president, and three women Trump would like to silence

03/21/18 10:00AM

The confluence of developments yesterday involving women who claim to have had affairs with or been sexually harassed by Donald Trump was rather extraordinary.

First, of course, there's Stormy Daniels, the adult-film actress who received $130,000 in hush money from Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, shortly before the 2016 presidential election. Soon after the president's lawyer insisted that the pre-election payoff had nothing to do with the election, NBC News reported that Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, passed a lie-detector test.

Second, there's Summer Zervos, a former contestant on Trump's reality show, who alleges he made unwanted sexual advances toward her back in 2007. She's now suing the president, and despite Trump's lawyers' efforts, a New York judge ruled yesterday that the case can go forward. Though the decision will be appealed, the possible discovery process in this case offers untold possibilities.

And then there's Karen McDougal. A few days before the 2016 election, the Wall Street Journal  reported the company that owns the National Enquirer paid the former Playboy centerfold $150,000 for the exclusive rights to her story about her alleged affair with Trump. The tabloid then chose not to publish it.

And as the New York Times  reported yesterday, she, too, is suing in the hopes of being able to tell the public about her experiences. Her lawsuit is targeting the National Enquirer's parent company,

Ms. McDougal, in a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, claims that [Michael Cohen, Trump's personal attorney] was secretly involved in her talks with the tabloid company, American Media Inc., and that A.M.I. and her lawyer at the time misled her about the deal. She also asserts that after she spoke last month with The New Yorker, which obtained notes she kept on Mr. Trump, A.M.I. warned that "any further disclosures would breach Karen's contract" and "cause considerable monetary damages."

Note, that New Yorker piece, written by Ronan Farrow, explained last month, "[McDougal's] account provides a detailed look at how Trump and his allies used clandestine hotel-room meetings, payoffs, and complex legal agreements to keep affairs -- sometimes multiple affairs he carried out simultaneously -- out of the press."

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Republican Presidential hopeful Ben Carson speaks during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) 2016 at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md., March 4, 2016. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

Carson, cabinet colleagues face awkward questions about use of public funds

03/21/18 09:20AM

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is already facing difficult questions about the exorbitant costs of his taxpayer-financed travel, and this week, the story grew a little more serious. We know that the cabinet secretary inquired about using a military plane for his European honeymoon, though Mnuchin said he found another option and withdrew his request.

Mother Jones, citing documents from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), reported this week that the Treasury secretary's version of events is in doubt.

It's against this backdrop that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who's also faced months of controversy over his taxpayer-financed travel, is facing another round of unflattering headlines. The Associated Press reported yesterday that the Oklahoma Republican "spent more than $120,000 in public funds last summer for a trip to Italy," including more than $30,000 just to cover the cost of Pruitt's enormous security detail.

The Washington Post  reported last night, meanwhile, that the Environmental Protection Agency "turned over documents to Congress late Tuesday detailing nearly $68,000 in newly disclosed travel costs" Pruitt during the past seven months.

And then, of course, there's HUD Secretary Ben Carson, who's struggled to keep his story straight about his very expensive taxpayer-funded furniture, and who yesterday tried to clear things up during a congressional hearing. As the New York Times  reported, it didn't go well.

Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, told a House committee on Tuesday that he had "dismissed" himself from the decision to buy a $31,000 dining room set for his office last year, leaving the details to his wife and staff.

Mr. Carson offered a rambling, at times contradictory, explanation of the purchase of the table, chairs and hutch, a transaction that turned into a public relations disaster that led President Trump to consider replacing him, according to White House aides.

Carson added yesterday that the new furniture was necessary in part for security reasons. He told lawmakers than aide told him, "People are being stuck by nails, a chair collapsed with somebody sitting in it, it's 50 years old."

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during a news briefing at the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017.

White House's Sanders won't say if Russian elections were 'free and fair'

03/21/18 08:40AM

Part of "leading the free world" is taking a stand in support of free and fair elections. It's what administrations from both parties have done for generations.

It's also what made this exchange yesterday between a reporter and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders so striking:

Q: Does the White House believe that the election in Russia was free and fair?

SANDERS: Look, in terms of the election there, we're focused on our elections. We don't get to dictate how other countries operate.

It wasn't a trick question. Donald Trump's chief spokesperson could've very easily acknowledged international concerns that the Russian elections -- in which Vladimir Putin's rivals were not allowed to run -- were little more than a sham intended to give the appearance of legitimacy to an autocratic ruler's ongoing reign.

But that's not what Sanders said. Instead, she dodged, suggesting how other countries conduct their elections are their own business. MSNBC's Kasie Hunt, noting a video clip of the exchange, was exactly right when she wrote, "This is just a truly astonishing moment coming from the White House podium."

I'm especially interested the in selectivity of Team Trump's principles.

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Image: APEC Summit 2017 in Vietnam

Inside the White House, Trump's Putin call was an 'OMG moment'

03/21/18 08:00AM

Donald Trump acknowledged yesterday that he'd called Russian President Vladimir Putin in the morning, and it was "a very good call" between the two leaders. The obvious follow-up question has become, "A very good call for whom?"

The Washington Post's report on the conversation was amazing.

President Trump did not follow specific warnings from his national security advisers Tuesday when he congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin on his reelection -- including a section in his briefing materials in all-capital letters stating "DO NOT CONGRATULATE," according to officials familiar with the call.

Trump also chose not to heed talking points from aides instructing him to condemn the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain with a powerful nerve agent, a case that both the British and U.S. governments have blamed on Moscow.

Whether the American president realizes this or not, this is a delicate moment in U.S./Russia relations. The Kremlin stands accused -- by the Trump administration, among others -- of recently launching a poison-gas assassination attempt on British soil. The White House also just last week announced sanctions against Russia in response to its attack on our elections.

And Russia just held a national election -- described by many observers as a "sham" -- in which Putin's rivals weren't allowed to run.

It's against this backdrop that White House officials urged Donald Trump to do two things: (1) don't congratulate the Russian autocrat; (2) condemn Russia's actions in the U.K. This is a time for the American president -- ostensibly the "Leader of the Free World" -- to be firm and resolute.

And yet, Trump ignored the all-caps guidance, congratulated Putin, and said nothing about the nerve-agent attack or the U.S. election attack.

The Washington Post's Carol Leonnig told Rachel on the show last night that the American president's call became an "OMG moment" inside the White House, as officials tried to digest what had just happened.

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