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Friday's Mini-Report, 12.15.17

12/15/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* If true, this should be interesting: "President Donald Trump's private lawyers are slated to meet with special counsel Robert Mueller and members of his team as soon as next week for what the President's team considers an opportunity to gain a clearer understanding of the next steps in Mueller's probe, according to sources familiar with the matter."

* Worth keeping an eye on: "The top U.S. Senate Democrat said on Friday he would force a vote on the Federal Communications Commission's decision to repeal the 2015 landmark net neutrality rules."

* And then there were seven: "Kamala Harris on Thursday called for President Donald Trump to resign over accusations of sexual harassment and assault, becoming the seventh senator to publicly call for Trump's resignation."

* Puerto Rico: "Two Democratic members of Congress are pushing for a federal investigation of hurricane-related deaths in Puerto Rico in light of mounting evidence suggesting that the official figure of 64 deaths has been 'artificially suppressed.'"

* The ACA works: "Fewer Americans are putting off doctor visits or struggling with medical bills, according to a new report examining the effect of the Affordable Care Act."

* DHS: "A White House senior adviser at the Department of Homeland Security previously promoted conspiracy theories about former President Barack Obama's birthplace, lamented the 'Zimbabwe-fication of America,' and mocked the LGBT community."

* The House Ethics Committee "announced Friday that it has opened an investigation into Rep. Ruben Kihuen. Two women have accused the Nevada Democrat of sexual harassment."

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Sen. Bob Corker

GOP senator abandons his principles, flips to 'yes' on tax plan

12/15/17 04:38PM

It was just two months ago that Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) made a bold declaration about the Republican tax plan on "Meet the Press." The retiring Republican senator told NBC's Chuck Todd, "If it looks like to me, Chuck, we're adding one penny to the deficit, I am not going to be for it, okay? I'm sorry. It is the greatest threat to our nation."

Despite heavy partisan pressure, the Tennessean stuck to his guns. When it came time for a floor vote on the Senate GOP's proposal, literally every Republican fell in line and did what they were told do -- except Corker. Faced with independent estimates that the Republican tax plan would add at least $1 trillion to the deficit over the next decade, Corker honored his pledge, kept his word, and opposed the plan.

With one more vote on the way -- Congress still has to vote on the final tax package -- the GOP senator suggested yesterday that his principles remain intact. "The deficit concerns certainly have not been addressed," Corker explained. "My guess is it'll be very difficult to resolve that component."

Indeed, Republicans never even tried to "resolve" his concerns -- but today he threw his principles out the window anyway.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. -- who had been the sole vote against the initial Senate bill, citing deficit concerns -- also announced his support for the GOP plan on Friday.

Corker's announcement followed word that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who announced yesterday that he wouldn't vote for the plan unless his demands for an expanded child tax credit were met, also flipped from "no" to "yes" today after GOP leaders made some modest concessions in his direction.

And so, as things stand, how many of the 52 Republican senators are prepared to break ranks on a regressive and unpopular tax plan? Literally none.

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The J. Edgar Hoover Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) building stands in Washington, D.C., Aug. 8, 2013. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

Trump escalates his FBI feud, laments the bureau's 'sad' state

12/15/17 03:47PM

Earlier this month, Donald Trump kept his feud against the Federal Bureau of Investigation going, complaining that the FBI's reputation is "in Tatters" and is now the "worst in History." (The president isn't great with capitalization.)

A few days later, Trump headlined a campaign rally in Florida, in which he characterized the FBI as being part of a "rigged system" because it didn't prosecute Hillary Clinton.

Frank Montoya, Jr., a former FBI special agent who served as the Director of the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, soon after told Business Insider, "There is a lot of anger in the FBI ... over how this president will say nary a negative word about the Russians, but will insult us every chance he gets."

Keep that quote in mind when reading about how Trump escalated his feud with the bureau this morning.

"[I]t's a shame what's happened with the FBI. But we're going to rebuild the FBI. It will be bigger and better than ever. But it is very sad when you look at those documents. And how they've done that is really, really disgraceful, and you have a lot of very angry people that are seeing it. It's a very sad thing to watch, I will tell you that."

He added there's a "level of anger" among "everybody" about "what they've been witnessing with respect to the FBI." The president went on to say, "When you look at what's gone on with the FBI and with the Justice Department, people are very, very angry."

And by "people," he appears to mean congressional Republicans and consumers of conservative media, who are worked up in the latest attempt to undermine the investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump hosts former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

On Russia and campaign 'collusion,' Trump picks the wrong fight

12/15/17 01:09PM

The original talking point from Trump World was that the Republican president and his political operation didn't collude with Russia last year during its attack on the American elections. More recently, as the Robert Mueller's investigation into the Russia scandal intensified, Team Trump shifted gears, insisting that even if there was collusion, that wouldn't necessarily be illegal.

This morning, Donald Trump decided to switch back to the original argument, saying "no collusion" five times over the course of about a minute.

"Let's put it this way: There is absolutely no collusion. That has been proven. When you look at the committees, whether it's the Senate or the House, everybody -- my worst enemies, they walk out, they say, 'There is no collusion but we'll continue to look.' They're spending millions and millions of dollars.... That was a Democrat hoax...

"There is absolutely no collusion.... So now even the Democrats admit there's no collusion. There is no collusion -- that's it."

For what it's worth, I'm not aware of any Democrats who've made any such "admission," though Trump has been known to embrace imaginary ideas as if they were true.

What Democrats are actually saying is largely the opposite. House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) explained over the weekend, for example, "The Russians offered help. The campaign accepted help. The Russians gave help. And the president made full use of that help."

And by some measures, those details -- which have already been thoroughly documented, and are not in dispute -- amount to a fairly obvious case of collusion.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.15.17

12/15/17 12:00PM

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

* Alabama's Roy Moore (R) still hasn't conceded the Senate race he lost a few days ago, but even Donald Trump thinks he should.

* In the meantime, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is launching a digital ad campaign, using Moore's radicalism to go after vulnerable 2018 Republican candidates.

* As Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette (R) moves forward with his gubernatorial campaign, the Detroit Free Press reports he's "loaded his taxpayer-funded office payroll with Republican campaign activists."

* After his federal corruption case ended in a mistrial, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ahead of his 2018 re-election campaign, is practically daring prosecutors to try again.

* Though next year's U.S. Senate race in Mississippi looks like a longshot for Democrats, party leaders have a candidate in mind whom they believe can compete in the statewide race: Brandon Presley, the Mississippi public service commissioner.

* In nearly every controversy involving politicians and sexual misconduct, the accused is a man, but in Kansas, congressional hopeful Andrea Ramsey (D) is ending her candidacy "after the Kansas City Star asked her about accusations in a 2005 lawsuit that she sexually harassed and retaliated against a male subordinate who said he had rejected her advances."

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Image: U.S. President Trump speaks to reporters before departing the White House for New York in Washington

Trump says he's not 'yet' ready to talk about a Flynn pardon

12/15/17 11:24AM

It's been two weeks since Michael Flynn, the former general who briefly served as Donald Trump's White House National Security Advisor, pleaded guilty in federal court to lying to the FBI about his communications with Russia. As part of his plea agreement, Flynn is now cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

With this in mind, Donald Trump made some news this morning from the South Lawn of the White House.

REPORTER: About Michael Flynn, would you consider a pardon for Michael Flynn?

TRUMP: I don't want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet. We'll see what happens. Let's see.

That "yet" qualifier sure stands out, doesn't it? Indeed, I wonder what Flynn himself will think when he hears this. It's almost as if the president were sending a message to his former aide, effectively saying, "No matter what the special counsel's office is telling you, I still have pardon power."

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Republican senator publicly embarrasses Trump judicial nominee

12/15/17 10:50AM

This hasn't been a great week for Donald Trump's judicial nominees. Confronted with bipartisan opposition, the White House had no choice but to pull Brett Talley's and Jeff Mateer's nominations, both of which were bizarre and difficult to defend.

Yesterday, as the Washington Post  reported, things got a little worse.

Nomination hearings for U.S. district judges tend to be dry affairs that offer little in the way of mass entertainment — in other words, they're not typically the stuff of viral videos.

But a clip of one of President Trump's federal judicial nominees struggling to answer rudimentary questions about the law garnered well more than 1 million views in a matter of hours on Thursday night and stoked speculation that another of the president's nominations might get derailed.

At issue is Trump's nomination of Matthew Petersen, perhaps best known for his work opposing many campaign-finance limits as a Bush-appointed commissioner on the Federal Election Commission. Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) decided to ask Peterson some basic questions about trial procedures -- things a would-be judge should ostensibly be aware of -- as a test of his qualifications for a lifetime position on the federal bench.

The video went viral in legal circles for a reason: Petersen did not pass the senator's quiz. (For the record, I wouldn't have passed the quiz, either, but I'm not a lawyer and no one's nominated me to serve on the federal judiciary.)

But as remarkable as the exchange was yesterday, I think there's a broader significance to this story beyond one nominee's embarrassment.

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The sun rises behind the steeple of a church, Aug. 23, 2015, in Plains, Ga. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)

Church politicking provision stripped from GOP tax plan

12/15/17 10:03AM

Donald Trump has long promised his religious right allies that he'd deliver on one of the movement's top priorities: changing the law to allow houses of worship to engage in partisan activities without fear of losing their tax-exempt status. It was therefore of great interest when House Republicans added the idea of repealing the "Johnson Amendment'" to their tax plan.

Indeed, as regular readers know, GOP lawmakers shaped their proposal in such a way as to allow any non-profit entity to engage in partisan political activities, including endorsing candidates and political parties, without inviting IRS penalties.

In practical terms, this change wouldn't just empower the religious right in its drive to turn churches into a political machine; it would also open the door to tax-deductible money laundering.

The Senate tax plan didn't include this provision, leading to uncertainty about the initiative's future. Yesterday as the Wall Street Journal reported, the push to repeal the Johnson Amendment through the Republican tax package died.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) says the chamber's parliamentarian has blocked a proposal to let churches and charities engage in partisan politics, keeping it out of the final tax bill set to be unveiled Friday.

The repeal of the Johnson Amendment was in the House tax bill but not in the Senate's version, and it was a priority for President Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.

For those concerned with the integrity of the nation's campaign finance laws, and advocates of church-state separation, this is clearly good news. But I think it's probably premature to say the entire effort is dead.

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Image: Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan retirement rumors jolt politics in the Capitol

12/15/17 09:20AM

At a press conference on Capitol Hill yesterday, a reporter asked House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) if he's "quitting anytime soon." The Republican leader shook his head, chuckled, and replied, "No, I'm not."

The answer wasn't surprising, but it's worth taking a moment to understand why the question came up in the first place.

On Wednesday night, the HuffPost's Matt Fuller, who's very well sourced in Congress, quoted an unnamed Republican lawmaker saying, "There's a whole lot of rumors and speculation that the speaker may step aside." A number of other GOP lawmakers conceded they'd heard similar chatter.

Yesterday, Politico's Tim Alberta and Rachael Bade, who are also well sourced, moved the ball forward.

Despite several landmark legislative wins this year, and a better-than-expected relationship with President Donald Trump, Ryan has made it known to some of his closest confidants that this will be his final term as speaker. [...]

In recent interviews with three dozen people who know the speaker -- fellow lawmakers, congressional and administration aides, conservative intellectuals and Republican lobbyists -- not a single person believed Ryan will stay in Congress past 2018.

AshLee Strong, a prominent spokesperson for Ryan, said in response to the report, "This is pure speculation. As the speaker himself said today, he's not going anywhere any time soon."

Of course, "soon" is a relative term. If the speaker were to retire after next year's midterms, he'd still have over a year in office remaining.

And while I'm generally reluctant to pay too much attention to Capitol Hill scuttlebutt -- either the speaker will retire or he won't, and we'll all find out soon enough -- I also think it's worth appreciating why this week's reporting on Ryan's future is so easy to believe.

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Image: APEC Summit 2017 in Vietnam

Trump's 'personal insecurities' impair US response to a security threat

12/15/17 08:44AM

Donald Trump's delicate sensibilities are easily triggered, which has caused frequent difficulties for the president in his first year in office. But an extraordinary Washington Post  piece, published yesterday, pointed at the national security implications of Trump's "personal insecurities."

Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump continues to reject the evidence that Russia waged an assault on a pillar of American democracy and supported his run for the White House.

The result is without obvious parallel in U.S. history, a situation in which the personal insecurities of the president -- and his refusal to accept what even many in his administration regard as objective reality -- have impaired the government's response to a national security threat. The repercussions radiate across the government.

Rather than search for ways to deter Kremlin attacks or safeguard U.S. elections, Trump has waged his own campaign to discredit the case that Russia poses any threat and he has resisted or attempted to roll back efforts to hold Moscow to account.

Just as alarming, current and former officials told the Washington Post that Trump's daily intelligence update -- the presidential daily brief, or PDB -- "is often structured to avoid upsetting him."

Complicating matters is the fact that the president's team appears to work from the assumption that Trump, an incurious former television personality, does not read. The article added, "Russia-related intelligence that might draw Trump's ire is in some cases included only in the written assessment and not raised orally, said a former senior intelligence official familiar with the matter. In other cases, Trump's main briefer -- a veteran CIA analyst -- adjusts the order of his presentation and text, aiming to soften the impact."

In other words, a year after a foreign adversary launched the most important attack on the United States since 9/11, Americans have an emotionally fragile president who not only doesn't want to respond -- signaling to the world that attacks against the U.S. will draw no meaningful reaction -- but is inclined to throw a tantrum when confronted with evidence about the attackers.

The result is a national security dynamic in which intelligence professionals have to walk on eggshells around the Commander in Chief, hiding and/or downplaying information about the foreign adversary that launched an espionage operation that helped put Trump in power.

The portrait that emerges is obviously alarming. But it raises a related question that warrants further scrutiny,

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Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks to media outside his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 22, 2016. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP)

With Rubio balking, future of Republican tax plan is in doubt

12/15/17 08:00AM

Two weeks ago, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) recommended an important change to the Republican tax plan: by reducing the corporate tax rate to about 21%, instead of 20%, the legislation could expand the child tax credit. GOP leaders refused, saying the 20% corporate rate was necessary and non-negotiable.

This week, however, those same Republican leaders effectively extended their middle finger at the Florida senator, deciding they could live with a 21% corporate tax rate so long as the additional resources were directed at another tax break for the wealthiest Americans.

As NBC News reported, Rubio responded the way a senator is supposed to respond -- by walking away from the bill.

Just days before an expected vote, the sweeping Republican tax bill's fate was up in the air Thursday, with few details confirmed and key senators withholding support unless changes were made.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., announced he would oppose the bill unless it expanded a child tax credit to millions of lower income families by making a larger portion refundable against payroll taxes.

"I want to support tax reform and it's important for the country, but I think this needs to be part of it," Rubio told reporters.

The legislative arithmetic is straightforward: there are currently 52 Republican senators, which means the party can lose no more than two of its own members or the regressive and unpopular tax plan dies. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) already voted against the bill once, and it sounded yesterday like he isn't changing his mind.

If Rubio joins him -- a big "if," to be sure -- that would shrink the number of GOP votes for the still-unreleased plan to 50, which would be enough for passage, but would leave Republican leaders with no margin for error.

It's against this backdrop that Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who partnered with Rubio on the idea of an expanded child tax credit, said he's also unsure about how he'll vote. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), meanwhile, haven't yet committed to supporting the proposal, and two more GOP senators -- Arizona's John McCain and Mississippi's Thad Cochran -- are dealing with some health concerns.

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