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Thursday's Mini-Report, 9.21.17

09/21/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* North Korea: "President Donald Trump announced Thursday that he had signed an executive order authorizing additional sanctions against North Korea by targeting individuals, companies and financial institutions that do business with what he called 'this criminal rogue regime.'"

* Puerto Rico: "Hurricane Maria, the most powerful storm to hit the U.S. territory in almost a century, ravaged the island, demolishing homes and knocking out all electricity. It could take half a year to restore power to the nearly 3.5 million people who live there."

* Florida: "The death toll from the south Florida nursing home that became a lethal sauna after Hurricane Irma knocked out the air conditioning rose to 10 on Thursday, authorities said."

* Facebook "has struck a deal with Capitol Hill investigators to release advertisements purchased by Russians to influence the 2016 campaign and some associated information with them, according to two people familiar with the matter."

* Related details: "Facebook has decided to turn over to Congress copies of more than 3,000 online political advertisements bought through Russian accounts during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, reversing a decision that had frustrated Capitol Hill investigators, company officials said Thursday."

* Russian officials today "raised the threat of a direct confrontation with U.S. forces in Syria, saying that it would target areas occupied by American units and U.S.-backed militias if its troops came under fire."

* Trump said he's made up his mind about the Iran nuclear deal. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson didn't appear to know that yesterday.

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Kimmel showed a 'better grasp of health policy' than GOP's Cassidy

09/21/17 04:34PM

It started in May. As regular readers know, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel spoke on the air about his young son's heart surgery, and his belief that all Americans should have access to affordable, potentially life-saving, care.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) soon after began referencing the "Jimmy Kimmel Test": for a health care proposal to have merit, the Louisiana Republican said, it should ensure families are covered regardless of income. Cassidy even appeared on Kimmel's show, vowing to protect Americans who need protecting.

The GOP senator, however, changed quite dramatically, abandoned the "test," and partnered with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on a radical, regressive proposal -- which the ABC host shredded in a brutal monologue on Tuesday night. Cassidy, Kimmel said, "lied right to my face," referencing an appearance the Republican made on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

The senator quickly defended himself, making a variety of television appearances in which he argued that Kimmel doesn't know what he's talking about. "I am sorry he does not understand," the senator told CNN. "More people will have coverage, and we protect those with pre-existing conditions."

So, who's right? In reality, more people won't have coverage, Cassidy isn't protecting those with pre-existing conditions, and Politico published a piece quoting health care analysts who concluded that between the host and the senator, "the late-night host has the better grasp of health policy."

[E]xperts say that Cassidy and Graham's bill can't guarantee those protections and that Kimmel's assessment was basically accurate because of the flexibility the bill gives states to set up their own health care systems. For example, health insurers could hike premiums for patients with pre-existing conditions if their states obtain waivers from Obamacare regulations -- as Kimmel said. [...]

The bill would also roll back the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion and make other funding changes, like converting Obamacare funds into block grants and ending traditional Medicaid as an open-ended entitlement that would force states to choose whether to cut Medicaid enrollment, benefits or payments to providers -- or else raise taxes.

Joan Alker, the program director at Georgetown University's Center for Children and Families, told Politico, "Graham-Cassidy, like the previous Senate 'repeal and replace' proposals, takes a fiscal crowbar to Medicaid's knees.... Kimmel did not overstate the impact. If Graham-Cassidy becomes law, there is no guarantee a child born with a congenital heart defect will get the coverage they need. It would depend on where they live, but even states with good intentions would struggle to protect children with the massive cuts to Medicaid included in this bill."

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Image: Bill Cassidy,Lindsey Graham

Trump isn't the only one fibbing about the GOP's health care plan

09/21/17 12:45PM

Donald Trump declared via Twitter last night, "I would not sign Graham-Cassidy if it did not include coverage of pre-existing conditions. It does!"

It doesn't! It's probably unrealistic to think the president has spent a meaningful amount of time scrutinizing the details of the legislation he's eager to sign, but Trump's assurance is plainly untrue. In fact, there's no real ambiguity here: the Affordable Care Act guarantees protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions, and the GOP's Graham-Cassidy plan eliminates that guarantee.

Of course, the president trying to deceive the public about policies he doesn't understand is, alas, a common occurrence. What's worth appreciating, however, is that Trump isn't the only one selling the Republican plan with bogus claims. Yesterday, for example, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), one of the principal architects of the GOP legislation, said under his plan "more people will have coverage" than under the Affordable Care Act. Is that true? The Washington Post took a closer look:

Cassidy has provided little evidence to support his claim of more coverage, except that innovation would flourish and help bring down costs and expand coverage. That's certainly possible, but it would be more plausible if his proposal did not slash funding to such an extent.

Kimmel's claim that 30 million fewer Americans will have insurance may be a high-end estimate. But already, in 2019, CBO calculations suggest at least 15 million fewer Americans would have insurance once the individual and employer mandates are repealed. Much of that decline might be by choice, but Cassidy insists the gap will be filled and then exceeded in 10 years. Unlike Cassidy, no prominent health-care analyst is willing to venture a guess on coverage levels -- but the consensus is that his funding formula makes his claim all but impossible to achieve.

Vox added that there is "literally no analysis" to bolster Cassidy's claim. (The Congressional Budget Office could provide lawmakers with a more detailed analysis, but Senate Republicans aren't prepared to wait until the full CBO score is ready.)

If this were the only tall tale Cassidy and his cohorts were telling, it might seem like a manageable level of mendacity, but it's actually just the start.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.21.17

09/21/17 12:00PM

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

* With eight weeks remaining in Virginia's gubernatorial race, the polls are all over the place, but nearly all of them show the Democrat with at least some kind of advantage. The latest Mason-Dixon poll, for example, show Ralph Northam (D) with the narrowest of leads over Ed Gillespie (R), 44% to 43%.

* In Alabama's Senate Republican primary, not only will Donald Trump host an event for appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R) over the weekend, but Mike Pence will also travel to Alabama on Monday to support the senator the day before the runoff election.

* Speaking of Alabama, Senate hopeful Doug Jones (D), an underdog in his ruby-red state, will get a hand from former Vice President Joe Biden, who announced yesterday he'll campaign with Jones next month.

* In New Jersey's gubernatorial race, which is also coming right up, Republicans have low expectations for Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno's (R) candidacy, but the Republican Governors Association nevertheless launched a new attack ad this week targeting Phil Murphy (D). The ad is only 15 seconds -- television commercials are usually 30 seconds -- so I'm not sure what venue the RGA has in mind for the spot.

* Given Republicans' obsession with voting irregularities, it's a little ironic that Jeffrey Gerrish, Trump's nominee to be a deputy U.S. trade representative, has been accused of voting in Virginia in 2016, months after having moved to Maryland.

* In West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice recently switched parties to become a Republican, but to his new party's disappointment, the governor announced this week he's supporting Sen. Joe Manchin's (D) re-election anyway.

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Image: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer Holds Press Briefing At White House

Facing new allegations, Price's track record does him no favors

09/21/17 11:20AM

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price's private-jet travel is tough to defend. After initially refusing comment, the far-right cabinet's secretary spokesperson said yesterday Price's chartered flights were necessary to accommodate his “incredibly demanding schedule,” but given the circumstances, it's a tough sell.

And as Politico noted, congressional Democrats clearly aren't buying it.

House and Senate Democrats on Wednesday formally requested that the HHS inspector general investigate HHS Secretary Tom Price's use of private planes for government business.

Five Democrats asked the inspector general to review Price's adherence to federal regulations on traveling by government employees, following a POLITICO investigation that found Price used charter planes to conduct official business within the United States. The request — sent by Reps. Frank Pallone and Richard Neal and Sens. Patty Murray, Ron Wyden and Gary Peters — asks the office to probe how many times Price used government or charter aircraft, the costs of the trips and whether HHS personnel raised internal concerns about Price's use of private planes.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) launched a related effort on Capitol Hill yesterday.

Ordinarily in a situation like this, officials might try to lean on their reputation, hoping their record and history of credibility might lead others to give them the benefit of the doubt. In Price's case, however, that really isn't an option.

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One of Trump's most radical judicial nominees in the spotlight

09/21/17 10:44AM

Eight months into the Trump era, it may be tempting to believe the Republican president and Republican Congress have, at least for now, failed to change the country's direction. But it's important not to forget the federal judiciary.

Shortly before lawmakers left for their summer break, for example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was asked about his party's challenges advancing its agenda. He replied, “We have a new Supreme Court justice.” McConnell had a point: while legislative setbacks matter, GOP officials are moving the courts to the right.

And that won't change anytime soon. CNN yesterday put the spotlight on one of Donald Trump's most radical judicial nominees.

In a pair of 2015 speeches, President Donald Trump's nominee for a federal judgeship in Texas described transgender children as evidence of "Satan's plan," lamented that states were banning conversion therapy and argued that sanctioning same-sex marriage would lead to polygamy and bestiality.

Jeff Mateer, the current first assistant attorney general of Texas, was serving at the time as general counsel of the First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty advocacy group known before 2016 as the Liberty Institute. He faced criticism from LGBT rights groups for his work with the organization, such as opposing the expansion of nondiscrimination protections to LGBT people in the city of Plano.

In one instance, Mateer said in reference to marriage equality, "There are people who marry themselves. Somebody wanted to marry a tree. People marrying their pets. It's just like -- you know, you read the New Testament and you read about all the things and you think, 'Oh, that's not going on in our community.' Oh yes it is. We're back to that time where debauchery rules."

CNN's report added, "Later that year in November 2015, Mateer lamented that states were banning gay conversion therapy at a conference hosted by controversial pastor Kevin Swanson, who preaches that the Biblical punishment for homosexuality is death." (If Swanson's name sounds familiar, you might've seen Rachel's segment on him two years ago.)

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Senate candidate, Rep. Bill Cassidy, left, talks to the media in Shreveport, La. on Oct. 14, 2014.

The case for the Republican health care repeal plan unravels

09/21/17 10:05AM

As this week's developments have made clear, Republicans can't offer a coherent explanation for why they're scrambling to pass a regressive health care plan. Many GOP officials have no idea what it's in the Graham-Cassidy plan they intend to vote for, or what it would do to the system and the public.

But when asked to defend their intentions, Republican lawmakers can't just offer a blank stare. In fact, over the last few days, the GOP pitch has basically been reduced to five talking points, each of which is spectacularly unpersuasive.

1. Republicans have to keep a promise. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said yesterday, "I could maybe give you 10 reasons why this bill shouldn't be considered. But Republicans campaigned on this so often that you have a responsibility to carry out what you said in the campaign. That's pretty much as much of a reason as the substance of the bill."

That's absurd. For one thing, it's ridiculous to think a vague campaign promise is as important, if not more so, than the real-world effects of overhauling the nation's health care system. For another, if Republicans "have a responsibility to carry out what [they] said in the campaign," they'd also be extending coverage to everyone, shielding Medicaid beneficiaries from cuts, and guaranteeing protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions. Instead, GOP officials appear desperate to break those promises without explanation.

2. The clock is ticking. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said on Tuesday night, "We have a Sept. 30 deadline on our promise. Let's finish the job."

Um, no. As New York's Jon Chait responded, "Can you imagine being accused on national television of sponsoring a law that would hurt millions of people, and lying about its effects, and your response is “We have a deadline”? They are rushing to enact massive, permanent changes to the health-care system because of a legislative deadline? What if you said a used car was dangerously unsafe and lacked any of the promised features, and the salesman’s response was to tell you it’s the end of the month and he has a sales quota to meet?"

3. Campaign priorities trump public priorities. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said this week, in reference to health care policymaking, "If we do nothing, I think it has a tremendous impact on the 2018 elections. And whether or not Republicans still maintain control and we have the gavel."

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump and President Sauli Niinisto of Finland joint news conference

Trump praises health care system in non-existent African country

09/21/17 09:20AM

Donald Trump attended a United Nations luncheon with African leaders yesterday, and reading from a prepared text, he offered praise for health care progress in some of the continent's countries.

"We cannot have prosperity if we're not healthy," the American president said. "We will continue our partnership on critical health initiatives. Uganda has made incredible strides in the battle against HIV/AIDS. In Guinea and Nigeria, you fought a horrifying Ebola outbreak. Nambia's health system is increasingly self-sufficient."

That, of course, struck many as odd, since there is no such country as Nambia. There's a Zambia, a Gambia, and a Namibia, but no Nambia. (The official White House transcript suggests he was going for Namibia.)

And while that was amusing, it's also forgivable. I know from experience that it's easy to flub a word here and there while reading from a prepared text. What was perhaps more interesting was something Trump said a bit earlier in his remarks:

"Africa has tremendous business potential. I have so many friends going to your countries, trying to get rich. I congratulate you. They're spending a lot of money."

Watching the video of the president's comments, it looks like he ad-libbed much of this sentiment, straying from the paper in front of him to say what was on his mind at the time. Trump even said it with a smile, as if he expected those in attendance to enjoy his candor.

And while I wasn't in the room, there was no audible laughter or applause in response to Trump's quip, perhaps because the leaders of Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Uganda, who know something about colonialism, aren't overly impressed by an American billionaire with a troubled history on race boasting about his friends trying to enrich themselves in Africa.

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U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham talks to a reporter as he arrives at Capitol Hill in Washington U.S. on May 10, 2016. (Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Entire health care industry fights to kill Republican repeal bill

09/21/17 08:40AM

There was a line in a Politico article yesterday that I read twice, because it was such a striking detail about the state of the health care fight: "To date, not one major health care industry or advocacy group has expressed support for the Graham-Cassidy plan."

That's not an exaggeration and it's no small development. Next week, the Senate is poised to vote on overhauling the American health care system, and at this point, the bill's Republican supporters have managed to persuade no one but themselves. Medical professionals hate the Graham-Cassidy plan, as do hospital administrators and every major patient-advocacy organization in the country. To a very real extent, GOP lawmakers are going up against literally everyone who has a stake in the American health care industry.

And that includes insurance companies.

The health insurance industry, after cautiously watching Republican health care efforts for months, came out forcefully on Wednesday against the Senate’s latest bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, suggesting that its state-by-state block grants could create health care chaos in the short term and a Balkanized, uncertain insurance market. [...]

The two major trade groups for insurers, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and America’s Health Insurance Plans, announced their opposition on Wednesday to the Graham-Cassidy bill. They joined other groups fighting the bill, such as the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, AARP and the lobbying arm of the American Cancer Society.

As the New York Times' report added, private insurers have been "reluctant to speak out" against Republican plans, but they now believe they don't have much of a choice.

Indeed, in a rather ironic twist, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) warned that the GOP proposal would be so destabilizing to the system that it might help pave the way for a single-payer system -- effectively turning the Republicans' current talking points on their head.

But even putting that aside, we're left with a bizarre dynamic. When the Affordable Care Act was taking shape, Democratic officials went to great lengths to work with stakeholders throughout the system, listening to their concerns, involving them in the process, cultivating their support over the course of many months. The idea wasn't exactly complicated: if policymakers are going to make fundamental changes to the health care system, it makes sense to work cooperatively with the health care industry.

Republican leaders are trying a different approach in which they ignore the health care industry and tell their members to impose systemic changes that the industry does not want.

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This file handout photo taken on May 10, 2017 made available by the Russian Foreign Ministry shows shows US President Donald J. Trump (C) speaking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and Russian Ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak.

In Russia scandal, Trump's actions are under Mueller's microscope

09/21/17 08:00AM

There was a point in the not-too-distant past at which the Russia scandal focused on events that unfolded during the 2016 election cycle. As Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation moves forward, it's increasingly obvious that the probe's focus includes examining all kinds of things Donald Trump has done since taking office.

As Rachel explained on last night's show, reporting from the New York Times and the Washington Post has moved the ball forward significantly, just over the last 12 hours.

The special counsel investigating Russian election meddling has requested extensive records and email correspondence from the White House, covering areas including the president's private discussions about firing his FBI director and his response to news that the then-national security adviser was under investigation, according to two people briefed on the requests.

White House lawyers are now working to turn over internal documents that span 13 categories that investigators for the special counsel have identified as critical to their probe, the people said.

I've heard from a few readers who were struck by the on-screen visual Rachel featured, highlighting the areas of interest to Mueller and his team, based largely on the Post's reporting, so here's your clip-and-save version: The special counsel has asked for:

1. Internal communications and documents related to Mike Flynn's FBI interview in January.
2. Documents related to Flynn`s conversations with the Russian ambassador in December.
3. Records on acting Attorney General Sally Yates' warnings to the White House about Flynn.
4. Materials related to Flynn's departure from the White House.
5. Communications on Trump's campaign foreign-policy team, which may have included at least one suspected Russian agent.
6. Documents related to Trump's meetings with former FBI Director James Comey before his firing.
7. Records of internal White House discussions about Comey's firing.
8. Documents related to external White House communications about Comey's firing.
9. Documents related to Sean Spicer's comments about Comey the week before his firing.
10. Materials related to Trump's Oval Office meeting with Russian officials the day after Comey's firing.
11. Records related to last summer's Trump Tower meeting between top members of Trump's team and Putin-connected Russians.
12. Documents related to the White House's response to media inquiries about the Trump Tower meeting.
13. Any email or document the White House holds that relates to Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman.

Remember when there was a question about whether or not Trump's actions were themselves the subject of a federal investigation? That no longer appears to be in doubt.

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