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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 8.21.18

08/21/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* It's a crazy day, but this paragraph is extremely important: "Michael D. Cohen, President Trump's former fixer, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to campaign finance and other charges. He made the extraordinary admission that he paid a pornographic actress 'at the direction of the candidate,' referring to Mr. Trump, to secure her silence about an affair she said she had with Mr. Trump."

* Cyber-security: "Microsoft said Tuesday that it executed a court order to shut down six websites created by a group tied to Russian intelligence that sought to spoof conservative U.S. institutions, the U.S. Senate and Microsoft itself."

* North Carolina: "Protesters toppled the Silent Sam Confederate statue on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill on Monday night. The monument was ripped down after 9:15 p.m. Earlier in the evening, protesters covered the statue with tall, gray banners, erecting 'an alternative monument' that said, in part, 'For a world without white supremacy.'"

* Net neutrality: "A group of 22 state attorneys general and the District of Columbia late Monday asked a U.S. appeals court to reinstate the Obama administration's 2015 landmark net neutrality rules and reject the Trump administration's efforts to preempt states from imposing their own rules guaranteeing an open internet."

* I don't imagine this comes up in most countries: "In a nod to the sad reality that shootings at the nation's schools are far too prevalent, the United States government will award a $1.8 million grant to create a program to teach high school students proper bleeding-control techniques."

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Image: FILE PHOTO: Manafort arrives for arraignment on charges of witness tampering, at U.S. District Court in Washington

Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chair, convicted on 8 counts

08/21/18 05:06PM

Just two days ago, while complaining about the investigation into the Russia scandal, Donald Trump wrote, "So many lives have been ruined over nothing."

Perhaps "nothing" wasn't the best choice of words.

A federal jury in Virginia convicted Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, on eight counts involving bank and tax fraud on Tuesday, but no verdicts could be reached on the 10 other charges he faced.

The trial was the first public test of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, and while the special counsel was vindicated, the victory wasn't total.

For those keeping score, Manafort was on trial on 18 counts, and he was found guilty on eight of them: five related to tax fraud, one related to failure to file reports on foreign bank accounts, and two related to bank fraud. On the other 10 counts -- three related to filing reports on foreign-bank accounts and seven related to bank fraud -- the jury couldn't reach a verdict and the judge declared a mistrial on those specific charges.

For Mueller and his special counsel team, this is an important victory, but for the former chairman of the presidential political operation, it's a very bad day -- which will likely be followed by a series of even worse days.

Indeed, let's not forget that Manafort is poised to go on trial on several related charges next month in a D.C. courtroom, where an entirely different jury will hear a separate case.

Manafort's attorneys will probably appeal today's convictions, but it's also possible Mueller's team will offer him another opportunity to cooperate with prosecutors.

The fact that this has transpired the same afternoon as Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer, surrendered to the FBI and reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors, makes the day that much more extraordinary.

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Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen reaches plea deal

08/21/18 03:07PM

There have been rumors for months about Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's former lawyer and "fixer," and the possibility of criminal charges. As of this afternoon, those rumors are poised to become fact.

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former personal attorney, has reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors, multiple sources familiar with the matter tell NBC News.

Cohen is expected to plead guilty to charges related to bank fraud, tax fraud and a campaign finance violation, stemming from a federal investigation in New York. He is scheduled to appear in federal court in Manhattan at 4 p.m. Tuesday.

The details of the story are still coming into focus, but in terms of how these developments relate to the president, we need to know whether Cohen's plea deal includes a cooperation agreement. In other words, as part of the negotiations with prosecutors, will Trump's former attorney agree to be a witness against his former boss?

According to the New York Times, the answer is no. The newspaper, reporting a detail that has not yet been confirmed by MSNBC or NBC News, said this afternoon the deal that does not include cooperation with authorities.

This suggests Cohen has not "flipped" on Trump, at least at this stage in the process. That said, the process is far from over.

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Emissions from a coal-fired power plant drift skyward in Ghent, Ky.

Coming to terms with just how dangerous Trump's pollution plan is

08/21/18 12:48PM

It's been four years since Barack Obama first unveiled the details of his administration's Clean Power Plan, which was a fairly ambitious policy intended to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants, and which set a goal of cutting emissions 30% by 2030. As part of the plan, states would have had some flexibility in how they reached the target.

At the risk of oversimplifying matters, the Democratic White House effectively told states that they could work toward the pollution-reduction goal however they pleased, so long as they worked toward the agreed upon target.

As a candidate, Donald Trump -- who's argued that the evidence pointing to a climate crisis is part of a Chinese conspiracy -- promised to undo Obama's plan. We're now starting to learn about the Republican's alternative. NBC News reported on what the White House is calling the Affordable Clean Energy rule:

The plan would let states relax pollution rules for power plants that need upgrades, according to a summary of the plan and several people familiar with the full proposal who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the plan publicly.

Combined with a planned rollback of car-mileage standards, the plan represents a significant retreat from Obama-era efforts to fight climate change and would reverse an Obama-era push to shift away from coal and toward less-polluting energy sources such as natural gas, wind and solar power. Trump has already vowed to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement as he pushes to revive the coal industry.

The policy isn't subtle: Trump and his team are relaxing pollution rules, which in turn will keep coal-power plants in business longer, and in the process, make the climate crisis worse.

This is in keeping with the administration's overall posture toward environmental safeguards, as evidenced by the fact that Trump's EPA is currently being led by Andrew Wheeler, a former coal-industry lobbyist.

But what's especially striking about this approach is the number of people who are likely to die from it.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.21.18

08/21/18 12:00PM

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

* It's Primary Day in Alaska and Wyoming, and the race to watch is Wyoming's Republican gubernatorial primary, where GOP megadonor Foster Friess is the highest-profile member of a large field of candidates.

* On a related note, Donald Trump this morning endorsed Friess, using rhetoric that will sound very familiar for a reason.

* In Nevada, where term limits prevent Gov Brian Sandoval (R) from seeking a third term, the Republican governor announced yesterday that he will not endorse anyone in the race to succeed him. That's quite a snub for his party's nominee, state Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R).

* Can Democrats re-take the Senate in this year's midterms? Not if casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has his say: the billionaire has given $25 million to the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC focused on Republican control of the upper chamber.

* In Pennsylvania, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Scott Wagner joked at an event that Russians will "help" him in his race against incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf (D). At the November 2017 gathering, Wagner added, "If I have to use Paul Manafort, I will."

* In response to a federal court ruling against the commonwealth's current state legislative districts, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is calling the General Assembly into special session on Aug. 30 to draw a new map that will be less gerrymandered to benefit Republicans.

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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks at the American Action Forum, Jan. 30, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

Walker faces 'mounting criticism' from his own former cabinet members

08/21/18 11:20AM

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is running for a third term, which isn't proving to be especially easy. Despite an overwhelming financial advantage, some recent polling shows the incumbent trailing state schools Superintendent Tony Evers (D), who last week won a competitive Democratic gubernatorial primary.

But complicating matters for the governor, the Associated Press reported that Walker is confronting "mounting criticism" from former members of his own cabinet.

A second former top official with Gov. Scott Walker's administration has endorsed his Democratic opponent and cut a video criticizing the Republican incumbent.

The latest online ad, released Monday, features former Department of Financial Institutions Secretary Peter Bildsten blasting Walker as only caring about pleasing donors and calling for administration officials to dodge the open records law.

The trouble started with former Corrections Secretary Ed Wall, who was also on Walker's team, and who recently said he saw widespread mismanagement and lax ethics in the governor's administration. Now it's Bildsten who's alleging that the Republican governor's team "told him to meet with payday loan lobbyists and discouraged him from creating documents that could be turned up under the state's open records law," according to a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Both former members of Walker's cabinet have announced their support for his Democratic opponent.

Of course, the news isn't all bad for the Wisconsin governor: the Kochs apparently still like him.

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Federal Reserve To Announce Policy Decisions After One-Day Meeting

The problem with Trump whining about the Fed and interest rates

08/21/18 10:43AM

Donald Trump spoke to a group of wealthy donors in the Hamptons last week and reportedly spent some time whining about Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve chairman he chose for the post late last year. As the president told contributors, Powell has gradually raised interest rates, to the disappointment of the White House.

We do not, however, have to rely on second-hand accounts from a fundraiser to learn Trump's thoughts on the subject. The president was rather candid about Powell and the Fed in his interview yesterday with Reuters.

"I'm not thrilled with his raising of interest rates, no. I'm not thrilled," Trump said, referring to Powell. Trump nominated Powell last year to replace former Fed Chair Janet Yellen.

Asked if he believed in the Fed's independence, Trump said: "I believe in the Fed doing what's good for the country."

The president added, in apparent reference to his trade war, "[D]uring this period of time, I should be given some help by the Fed."

There are a couple of angles to this to keep in mind. The first, obviously, is the fact that presidents are supposed to keep their distance from the Federal Reserve's decisions, respecting the institution's independence.

Trump, however, isn't exactly a respect-norms-and-honor-boundaries sort of president.

Second, I'd love to know more about the Republican's evolution on interest rates -- because he used to have a very different position than the one he's pushing now.

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GOP has little interest in 'Mar-a-Lago crowd' that helped run the VA

08/21/18 10:04AM

Pro Publica's report two weeks ago on "the Mar-a-Lago Crowd" helping oversee Donald Trump's Department of Veterans Affairs read like the plot of a farcical film.

It described a dynamic in which three wealthy members of Trump's Florida resort have effectively overseen a federal cabinet agency for months, despite having no relevant experience, and despite no oversight or accountability of any kind, basically because they're pals with the president through the club he still owns and profits from.

Dr. Bruce Moskowitz, a West Palm Beach doctor, Ike Perlmutter, the chairman of Marvel Entertainment, and Marc Sherman, a Florida lawyer, have been at the center of this scheme for reasons no one can explain. The triumvirate have overseen everything from the VA's digital records system to personnel decisions, occasionally using their influence in ways that may have benefited their private financial interests.

House Democrats were furious in response to the revelations, and Senate Democrats soon followed, demanding congressional hearings. Some veterans' advocacy groups announced plans to file suit to prevent "the Mar-a-Lago Crowd" from helping run an agency the trio has nothing to do with.

And what about congressional Republicans with oversight authority over the Trump administration's handling of veterans' issues? Roll Call  reports that GOP lawmakers are taking a pass.

Top Republican lawmakers have no plans to examine the alleged influence that a trio of President Donald Trump's friends have at the Department of Veterans Affairs, even as Democrats call for an investigation.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the VA now has a new secretary, so he's "moving ahead" without any real scrutiny of what's transpired.

The Georgia Republican conceded that Trump's Mar-a-Lago pals did work that circumvented the oversight committee, but Isakson added, "There wasn't anything I could do about it. It never caused us any trouble. It was certainly disruptive and held the VA back some, but we got a great secretary now."

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Image: Donald Trump, Melania Trump, Barron Trump

Trump thinks he 'could run' the Mueller probe if he wanted to

08/21/18 09:20AM

Donald Trump covered a fair amount of ground in an Oval Office interview with Reuters yesterday, but the president's thoughts on Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe were of particular interest.

President Donald Trump says that he has chosen to stay out of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation — but he claimed that he is "totally allowed" to be involved in the probe and could even "run it."

"I've decided to stay out," Trump said in an interview with Reuters published Monday. "Now, I don't have to stay out. I can go in and I could do whatever. I could run it if I want.

"I'm totally allowed to be involved if I wanted to be. So far, I haven't chosen to be involved. I'll stay out," Trump said.

I'm not altogether sure what the president meant -- or more to the point, what the president thinks he meant -- but his sentiment sounded an awful lot like the memo Trump's legal defense team sent to Mueller in January, which the New York Times obtained and published.

As regular readers may recall, it was in this memo that the president's lawyers argued that Trump not only can't obstruct justice, but he also can't be subpoenaed or charged. A president, they insisted, has "exclusive authority over the ultimate conduct and disposition of all criminal investigations and over those executive branch officials responsible for conducting those investigations."

In these attorneys' vision, the president is effectively above the law, capable of dictating the terms, scope, and duration of any federal investigation, for any reason and at any time.

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Two men stand on the plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building as storm clouds fill the sky, June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.

As deficit grows, GOP leaders eye cuts to Medicare, Social Security

08/21/18 08:40AM

Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), who currently chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, sat down with CNBC's John Harwood, who asked the Ohio Republican about the fact that the deficit is soaring in the wake of his party's tax breaks.

Predictably, the congressman responded to the issue the way GOP lawmakers nearly always respond to the issue.

Harwood: No misgivings about a tax cut that was not paid for, that's allowing debt and deficits to rise like it is now?

Stivers: I do think we need to deal with our some of our spending. We've got to try to figure out how to spend less.

Note the pivot: massive tax breaks for the wealthy and big corporations has turned a modest budget shortfall into an enormous budget shortfall. Stivers sees that as a problem in need of attention, not by reversing course on regressive tax policies, but by looking at spending.

And that, naturally, led to a conversation between Stivers and Harwood on social-insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare -- what are frequently referred to as "entitlements" -- which Republicans want to cut in order to clean up the budget mess they created with tax cuts.

If this sounds familiar, there's a good reason for that. It was just a few months ago that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said the "name of the game on debt and deficits" is cutting "entitlements."

At face value, it's difficult to take the rhetoric seriously. If Republican policymakers were genuinely concerned about the budget deficit, they wouldn't have passed unnecessary tax breaks for people who don't need them, without even trying to find a way to pay for the cuts. No one should accept the premise that GOP leaders are sincere about fiscal responsibility.

But even more important is the bigger picture: GOP officials like Stivers and Ryan are helping prove Democrats right about one of the most serious threats posed by the Republican tax plan.

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Donald Trump

What went wrong with Trump's 'salute' to ICE, Customs and Border Patrol

08/21/18 08:00AM

The point of Donald Trump's event in the White House yesterday was to "salute the heroes" of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). And while I'm sure the attendees welcomed the presidential appreciation, the celebration was not without flaws.

For example, when trying to applaud the CBP, Trump said "CBC" -- eight times. This was not the speechwriters' fault -- the teleprompter said "CBP" -- and he never quite got it right.

Making matters quite a bit worse, the most memorable moment of the gathering didn't do the president any favors.

It was supposed to be a White House salute to the heroism of immigration agents who put their lives on the line to protect Americans. But on Monday, President Trump appeared to have something else on his mind: the ethnicity of one of the men he was honoring.

"Speaks perfect English," Mr. Trump blurted out as he encouraged Adrian Anzaldua, a Hispanic-American Border Patrol agent and dog handler from Texas, to join him onstage in the East Room. Mr. Anzaldua recently arrested a smuggler in Laredo who had tried to bring 78 people into the United States illegally inside a truck trailer.

When he wasn't commenting on Anzaldua's ethnicity, Trump seemed preoccupied with turning the event into an overtly partisan affair. "The Republicans were with you all the way, all the way," the president told the officials on hand, needlessly politicizing the gathering. He went on to call Democrats the "opposition," who "don't mind crime."

Trump added, in reference to the midterm elections, "I think we're going to have much more of a red wave than you're going to see as a phony blue wave. Blue wave means crime. It means open borders. Not good."

Remember, this wasn't a partisan fundraiser or a campaign rally; it was an official White House event to honor public officials.

And then, of course, there were the lies.

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