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In this March 10, 2016 photo, Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General, gestures as he speaks during an interview in Oklahoma City, Okla. (Photo by Sue Ogrocki/AP)

New emails shed light on EPA chief's industry ties

02/22/17 12:49PM

Donald Trump chose so many top administration officials who were hostile to their agencies' core mission that the nominations almost seemed sarcastic. The president chose Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education despite her opposition to public schools; he chose Andy Puzder to lead the Department of Labor despite his opposition to workers; and Trump chose Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA despite his overt hostility towards environmental safeguards.

Pruitt, who clashed with the EPA during his tenure as attorney general of Oklahoma, spoke to the agency's employees yesterday, and by some measures, the new administrator's remarks were not well received.

But while Pruitt settles into his new office, we're not yet done scrutinizing the work he did before he reached the EPA. The New York Times reported this morning:
During his tenure as attorney general of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt, now the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, closely coordinated with major oil and gas producers, electric utilities and political groups with ties to the libertarian billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch to roll back environmental regulations, according to over 6,000 pages of emails made public on Wednesday.

The publication of the correspondence comes just days after Mr. Pruitt was sworn in to run the E.P.A., which is charged with reining in pollution and regulating public health.
If you missed Rachel's coverage of this last week, it's a doozy of a story. Pruitt, in effect, was illegally hiding official emails that documented his cooperation with the oil and gas industries -- the industries he'll ostensibly help oversee as the head of the EPA. The Center for Media and Democracy filed suit to obtain the emails Pruitt wanted to hide, and last week, a judge ordered their release.

This, of course, unfolded before the Senate confirmation vote, which led Democrats to make an obvious request: members should wait a few days to review the documents before deciding whether to give Pruitt the job. Republican leaders refused -- saying it made more sense to vote on the nomination with less information about Pruitt's professional background, instead of more.

Asked why he couldn't wait for senators to have a more complete picture, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), doing his best imitation of Bartleby the Scrivener, said, "Because I choose not to."
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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.22.17

02/22/17 12:00PM

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

* After hinting in this direction last week, Howard Dean this morning endorsed South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg in the race to become the next DNC chair. The election is now just three days away.

* Donald Trump, oddly enough, also commented this morning on the DNC race, noting that Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) predicted early on that Trump could win the White House, even as others thought that was ridiculous. This happens to be true. Watch this clip from July 2015, and pay particular attention the reaction from pundits who heard Ellison's comments.

* On a related note, an informal poll from The Hill shows Ellison ahead of Tom Perez in the DNC race, though Perez claims to have nailed down more endorsements.

* In Georgia's congressional special election to replace Tom Price, the Daily Kos community has now raised $927,000 in support of Jon Ossoff (D). The election is scheduled for April 18, with a possible June 20 runoff.

* Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) is scheduled to meet this week with Donald Trump. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said yesterday the meeting was requested by the governor; a leading Kasich adviser said the president requested the meeting.

* In Virginia, the latest Quinnipiac poll offered good news for Sen. Tim Kaine (D). Asked about hypothetical match-ups against Laura Ingraham and Carly Fiorina, the incumbent Democrat, who's up for re-election next year, leads both by 20 points.

* NRSC continues to run into some recruiting troubles. In the wake of Reps. Sean Duffy (Wis.) and Pat Meehan (Pa.) passing on 2018 Senate bids, Rep. Susan Brooks (Ind.) has also said she's skipping the statewide race next year.
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White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivers his first statement in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017.

The White House's response to Islamophobia is familiar, but wrong

02/22/17 10:40AM

In October, during the second presidential debate, a young woman posed a good question to the candidates: "There are 3.3 million Muslims in the United States, and I'm one of them. You've mentioned working with Muslim nations, but with Islamophobia on the rise, how will you help people like me deal with the consequences of being labeled as a threat to the country after the election is over?"

Donald Trump was the first to respond, and he offered a memorable answer. The Republican said, "Well, you're right about Islamophobia, and that's a shame, but..." Trump proceeded to talk at great length about his perceptions about security threats posed by Muslims, his concerns that Muslims don't report potential violence in advance, and his outrage that President Obama and Hillary Clinton don't throw around the term "radical Islamic terrorism."

In other words, an American expressed concerns about Islamophobia, and Trump responded by effectively endorsing Islamophobia.

With this in mind White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked yesterday about a recent report showing that the number of organized anti-Muslim groups in the United States tripled last year. In response to pressure, the president eventually spoke out against anti-Semitism, but will Trump be forceful about addressing Islamophobia? Spicer responded:
"I think that the president, in terms of his desire to combat radical Islamic terrorism, he understands that people who want to express a peaceful position have every right in our Constitution. But if you come here or want to express views that seek to do our country or our people harm, he is going to fight it aggressively, whether it's domestic acts that are going on here or attempts through people abroad to come into this country.

"So there's a big difference between preventing attacks and making sure that we keep this country safe so that there is no loss of life in allowing people to express themselves in accordance with our First Amendment. Those are two very, very different, different, different things."
It's as if he didn't understand the question. Asked about anti-Muslim hate groups, the White House press secretary immediately spoke about Trump's "desire to combat radical Islamic terrorism."
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In this Jan. 12, 2016 file photo, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback speaks to the legislature in Topeka, Kan. (Photo by Orlin Wagner/AP)

Kansas Republicans send Brownback a tax hike

02/22/17 10:06AM

In the 21st century, it's effectively impossible to get Republican officials to support raising taxes on anyone, by any amount, for any reason. But in Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback's (R) radical economic experiment has failed so spectacularly, GOP officials believe they've run out of choices.

The Kansas City Star reported late last week that the state legislature, where Republicans dominate in both chambers in one of the nation's reddest red states, "passed a bill to increase taxes Friday that could mark the end of many of the policies long championed by Gov. Sam Brownback."
The legislation would bring the state more than $1 billion over a two-year span. It does that by raising a second income tax rate, bringing in a third bracket and ending a tax exemption for roughly 330,000 business owners. [...]

The state faces roughly $750 million in budget shortfalls over the next two years.
To be sure, if local reporting is any indication, state lawmakers weren't altogether pleased with their solution, but Brownback's tax cuts have left the state's finances in such shambles, even Kansas' Republican-led chambers have found themselves ready to change direction.

That said, it may not matter. The Kansas City Star reported today:
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting to discuss the Ukrainian peace process at the German federal Chancellery on Oct. 19, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty)

Many Republican voters decide Putin's not so bad after all

02/22/17 09:20AM

When Donald Trump invested quite a bit of energy in 2016 singing Russian President Vladimir Putin's praises, there was an inherent electoral risk. Putin is not only the leader of an American adversary, but he's also an authoritarian whom the American mainstream broadly disapproves of.

As it turns out, the risk didn't matter -- Trump won the election anyway, thanks in part to an illegal Russian espionage operation -- and the Republican president's success managed to change some Americans' perceptions. Gallup reported yesterday:
Americans see Russian President Vladimir Putin in a better light than two years ago. Twenty-two percent now say they have a favorable opinion of Putin, up from 13% in 2015 and the highest percentage with a favorable view of the Russian leader since 2003. [...]

A major reason for the overall rise in Putin's favorable rating this year is Republicans' more positive views of the Russian leader, from 12% in 2015 to 32% today.
It'd obviously be a stretch to characterize Putin as popular in the United States, but the fact that the Russian leader's support among Republicans has nearly tripled over the course of a few years is extraordinary.

Washington Post piece added, "That movement is likely attributable to Trump's praise for Putin on the campaign trail.... In recent years, we've seen opinions on most every issue begin to track more and more with partisanship. Republicans like Trump, so they like who Trump likes. Period."
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Trump's lawyer responds to Russia questions with evolving answers

02/22/17 08:43AM

Last month, a controversial meeting took place in a hotel lobby in New York. In attendance were Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's personal attorney; Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Artemenko, a member of a pro-Putin party; and Felix Sater, a businessman who's worked for years to facilitate Trump business deals in Russia. The trio discussed a plan to end hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, effectively by giving Vladimir Putin everything he wants in exchange for nothing.

So far, these basic details are not in dispute. We know there was a meeting; we know who attended; and we know what they discussed.

Understanding what happened next is more complicated.

According to the New York Times, after the meeting, Cohen took a sealed envelope with the outline of the plan to the White House and delivered it to National Security Advisor Michael Flynn's office before Flynn's resignation. The Times' reporting, according to the paper, was based on Cohen's own assessment of what transpired.

Soon after, however, Cohen talked to the Washington Post and gave a very different version of events, saying he attended the meeting and took a written copy of the plan, but never delivered it to Flynn or anyone else at the White House.

Soon after, it was time for Version #3.
Cohen shifted his story again on Monday, telling Business Insider in a series of text messages that he denies "even knowing what the plan is." But he said in a later message that he met with Artemenko in New York for "under 10 minutes" to discuss a proposal that Artemenko said "was acknowledged by Russian authorities that would create world peace."

"My response was, 'Who doesn't want world peace?'" Cohen said.
Cohen then spoke to NBC News, confirming his attendance at the meeting, but denying the delivery of any documents. "I didn't spend two seconds talking about this," he said, "not even one second."

Cohen added that even if he had taken an envelope with a Ukrainian peace plan to the White House, "So what? What's wrong with that?"
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Image: Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In St. Augustine, Florida

Annoyed by pushback, Trump takes aim at progressive activism

02/22/17 08:00AM

At his White House press conference last week, Donald Trump acknowledged the progressive activists working to protect their health care benefits, but the president quickly added that these Americans don't really count.

"We've begun preparing to repeal and replace Obamacare," he said. "Obamacare is a disaster, folks. It's a disaster. You can say, 'Oh, Obamacare.' I mean, they fill up our rallies with people that you wonder how they get there, but they're not the Republican people that our representatives are representing."

It was a bizarre peek into the thinking of a president who doesn't fully understand the basics of our democracy. Elected Republican officials, in Trump's mind, should focus on representing "Republican people." Others may speak up and petition the government for redress of grievances,  but as far as Trump is concerned, their voices are neither important nor relevant.

Republicans are elected to represent Republicans, the argument goes, not all of their constituents. It's a zero-sum game: if your side of the political divide isn't in a position of power, then you might as well sit down, shut up, and stop asking impertinent questions at town-hall forums in which GOP officials want to hear from "the Republican people" -- as opposed to, say, the American people.

Trump made a similar comment on Twitter late yesterday:
"The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists. Sad!"
Because the president doesn't write well, it's not entirely clear why he referred to "so-called" angry crowds. Perhaps he doesn't believe people are genuinely upset? Maybe he's convinced they aren't actual crowds?

Either way, Trump evidently thinks  it's "sad" when liberals get engaged, participate in the political system, and express their concerns to Republican lawmakers -- as if organized activism is somehow less legitimate than spontaneous activism.
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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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