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Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump and Republican Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence celebrate, during the final day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty)

VP Mike Pence offers a curious take on Russia scandal developments

02/21/17 09:21AM

Asked why he fired Michael Flynn, the former White House National Security Advisor, Donald Trump told reporters last week Flynn was doing great work, but he "didn't tell the Vice President of the United States the facts." The president added, "I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence, very simple.'

But it wasn't "very simple" at all. Trump was reportedly alerted to the truth weeks earlier, but waited to oust Flynn until the public -- and, by some accounts, Pence -- learned the truth.

And what does Pence have to say about this? The vice president was in Brussels yesterday, participating in talks with European Union and NATO leaders, and as USA Today reported, Pence addressed the Flynn controversy publicly for the first time.
"I would tell you that I was disappointed to learn that the facts that have been conveyed to me by General Flynn were inaccurate," Pence said in his first public discussion of the matter. "But we honor General Flynn's long service to the United States of America, and I fully support the president's decision to ask for his resignation.

"And it was the proper decision, it was handled properly and in a timely way."
It's the use of the word "timely" that sticks out like a sore thumb. Flynn spoke to Russia's ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, several times on Dec. 29. Two weeks later, according to the White House's own version of events, Flynn told Pence his communications were unrelated to U.S. sanctions, and on Jan. 15, Pence assured the public that sanctions were not part of the Flynn/Kislyak discussions.

On Jan. 26, acting Attorney General Sally Yates told the White House that Flynn and Kislyak did, in fact, discuss sanctions, but it wasn't until Feb. 14 that Flynn was forced out. A variety of adjectives come to mind, but "timely" isn't one of them.

Indeed, it's increasingly difficult to know quite what to make of Mike Pence's role in this mess.
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Image: US President Trump signs executive order to allow Dakota,. Keystone pipelines

Trump, GOP lawmakers scrap Stream Protection Rule

02/21/17 08:40AM

Donald Trump is not yet accustomed to bill-signing ceremonies. The president, just a month into his term, walked into a room in the White House last week to sign a measure backed by the coal industry, said a few words, smiled for the cameras, and turned to leave the room.

An aide had to remind Trump to actually sign the bill into law.

By most measures, we would've been better off had the president actually left without signing it. At issue is a policy called the Stream Protection Rule, created by President Obama, which sought to protect the nation's waterways "from debris generated by a practice called surface mining. The Interior Department had said the rule would protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests by keeping coal mining debris away from nearby waters."

The Congressional Research Service recently published a report on the Stream Protection Rule, which congressional researchers said was an effective policy in protecting drinking water and combating climate change.

As 2017 got underway, Republicans made the elimination of the Stream Protection Rule one of their first big priorities, and that in turn led to Trump's signing ceremony last week. As the Washington Post noted yesterday, the president's fans were impressed.
Several people said they would have liked to see more coverage of a measure that Trump signed Thursday that rolled back a last-minute Obama regulation that would have restricted coal mines from dumping debris in nearby streams. At the signing, Trump was joined by coal miners in hard hats.

"If he hadn't gotten into office, 70,000 miners would have been put out of work," Patricia Nana, a 42-year-old naturalized citizen from Cameroon. "I saw the ceremony where he signed that bill, giving them their jobs back, and he had miners with their hard hats and everything -- you could see how happy they were."
Now seems like a good time to do a little fact-checking.
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A man walks across the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency at the lobby of the Original Headquarters Building at the CIA headquarters on Feb. 19, 2009 in McLean, Va. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

Disgusted by Donald Trump's antics, CIA veteran resigns

02/21/17 08:00AM

To hear Donald Trump tell it, he and the intelligence community get along swimmingly. The Republican president, who's repeatedly questioned intelligence professionals' integrity and professionalism, told the CIA on his first full day in office that the media "sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community." The truth, he added, is "exactly the opposite."

A few days later, reflecting on his reception at the agency, Trump added, "I got a standing ovation. In fact, they said it was the biggest standing ovation since Peyton Manning had won the Super Bowl and they said it was equal. I got a standing ovation. It lasted for a long period of time."

But while the president was clearly delighted with himself, some intelligence professionals had a very different reaction. The Washington Post published a piece overnight from Edward Price, a former CIA analyst and spokesperson for the National Security Council, who intended to spend the rest of his career at the CIA, where he's worked for over a decade. But his plans changed last week after Price, who worked for presidents from both parties, "reluctantly concluded" that he simply couldn't be part of Donald Trump's team.
I watched in disbelief when, during the third presidential debate, Trump casually cast doubt on the high-confidence conclusion of our 17 intelligence agencies, released that month, that Russia was behind the hacking and release of election-related emails. On the campaign trail and even as president-elect, Trump routinely referred to the flawed 2002 assessment of Iraq's weapons programs as proof that the CIA couldn't be trusted -- even though the intelligence community had long ago held itself to account for those mistakes and Trump himself supported the invasion of Iraq.

Trump's actions in office have been even more disturbing. His visit to CIA headquarters on his first full day in office, an overture designed to repair relations, was undone by his ego and bluster. Standing in front of a memorial to the CIA's fallen officers, he seemed to be addressing the cameras and reporters in the room, rather than the agency personnel in front of them, bragging about his inauguration crowd the previous day. Whether delusional or deceitful, these were not the remarks many of my former colleagues and I wanted to hear from our new commander in chief. I couldn't help but reflect on the stark contrast between the bombast of the new president and the quiet dedication of a mentor -- a courageous, dedicated professional -- who is memorialized on that wall. I know others at CIA felt similarly.
So much for comparing Trump's reception to Peyton Manning after the Super Bowl.
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Monday's Mini-Report, 2.20.17

02/20/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A big NSA improvement: "President Donald Trump on Monday named Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as his national security adviser, a week after Michael Flynn resigned from the post."

* There's no reason to assume Trump will honor the FEC norms: "A Democrat on the Federal Election Commission is quitting her term early because of the gridlock that has gripped the panel, offering President Trump an unexpected chance to shape political spending rules.... By tradition, Senate Democrats would be allowed to select the replacement, but, by law, the choice belongs to the president, and Mr. Trump has shown little interest in Washington customs."

* This report hasn't been confirmed elsewhere, but it's an angle worth keeping an eye on: "CBS News has learned that on Thursday, an angry President Trump called CIA Director Mike Pompeo and yelled at him for not pushing back hard enough against reports that the intelligence community was withholding information from the commander-in-chief."

* Art Laffer continues to cause trouble: "The same day the University of Tennessee released a report suggesting Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to pay for state transportation projects has more merit than the competing alternatives before lawmakers, a prominent supply-side economist spoke Wednesday to House members about what he sees as the dangers of the governor's plan" (thanks to reader P.A. for the tip).

* A story worth watching: "Native American reservations cover just 2 percent of the United States, but they may contain about a fifth of the nation's oil and gas, along with vast coal reserves. Now, a group of advisors to President-elect Donald Trump on Native American issues wants to free those resources from what they call a suffocating federal bureaucracy that holds title to 56 million acres of tribal lands, two chairmen of the coalition told Reuters in exclusive interviews."
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Presidential contender Donald Trump gestures to the media on the 17th fairway on the first day of the Women's British Open golf championship on the Turnberry golf course in Turnberry, Scotland, July 30, 2015. (Photo by Scott Heppell/AP)

White House forced to reverse course on Trump's golfing

02/20/17 04:43PM

For the third consecutive weekend, Donald Trump has headed south, spending time at his private club in South Florida, where the president appears to enjoy golfing. And while that ordinarily wouldn't be especially notable -- just about every modern president has enjoyed hitting the links -- with Trump, nothing is ever easy.

Because Trump complained bitterly for years about President Obama's golfing, the Republican's aides are a little touchy about the subject, to the point that they've begun shading the truth a bit. Politico reported this afternoon:
After initially saying Trump had only played a few holes, the White House reversed itself Monday after professional golfer Rory McIlroy posted on his website that he had played 18 holes with the president.

"As stated yesterday the President played golf. He intended to play a few holes and decided to play longer," White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said Monday.
I'll gladly concede that this White House's falsehoods are so numerous, giving deceptive information about the president's golf game hardly registers. For that matter, the president's own lies are often so serious, it's hard to get too worked up about this latest misstep.

But even with those caveats in mind, it's an odd thing to lie about. Have we really reached the point at which Trump World is so accustomed to pushing bogus and misleading information that even the president's golfing is fair game?
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Image: FILE PHOTO: Trump speaking by phone with Putin in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington

Trump's Russia scandal takes an unexpected turn

02/20/17 01:02PM

On Friday afternoon, FBI Director James Comey delivered a classified, hour-long briefing to the Senate Intelligence Committee on the Russia scandal, and soon after, the Senate Intelligence Committee sent "formal requests to more than a dozen organizations, agencies and individuals, asking them to preserve all materials related to the committee's investigation" into the controversy.

We don't know much about how the briefing went -- committee members were tight-lipped following Comey's presentation -- though Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted late Friday that he's "now very confident" that the committee will conduct "thorough bipartisan investigation" into Russia's "interference and influence."

Reading between the lines, this makes it sound as if the Republican-led panel is trying to knock down the idea that a special select committee is necessary to investigate the scandal without political interference.

A day later, Reuters reported that the FBI is pursuing "at least three separate probes" related to Russian intervention in American politics, "according to five current and former government officials with direct knowledge of the situation." Two of three, according to the report, relate to alleged cyber-crimes, while the third is the ongoing counter-espionage probe.

And then yesterday, the New York Times moved the ball forward, though in an unexpected way.
A week before Michael T. Flynn resigned as national security adviser, a sealed proposal was hand-delivered to his office, outlining a way for President Trump to lift sanctions against Russia.

Mr. Flynn is gone, having been caught lying about his own discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador. But the proposal, a peace plan for Ukraine and Russia, remains, along with those pushing it: Michael D. Cohen, the president's personal lawyer, who delivered the document; Felix H. Sater, a business associate who helped Mr. Trump scout deals in Russia; and a Ukrainian lawmaker trying to rise in a political opposition movement shaped in part by Mr. Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort.
The "Ukrainian lawmaker," in this case, is Andrii Artemenko, who's allied with Putin's government.

According to the Times' reporting, Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer, claims he received a sealed envelope from Felix Sater, a controversial figure in Trump's orbit, and Cohen delivered the envelope to Michael Flynn before his resignation.
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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.20.17

02/20/17 12:00PM

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

* The field of candidates running to lead the DNC got a little smaller over the weekend, when New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley ended his bid and threw his support to Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). The election is this weekend in Atlanta.

* Ellison and Tom Perez, who appear to be the top two contenders for the DNC job, also picked up some new labor endorsements on Friday.

* In the race to replace Tom Price in Georgia, Republican Karen Handel is promising local Republicans she'll "work to build a wall on the border and end Muslim immigration." This is a district Donald Trump narrowly won in November.

* The Washington Post reports that Virginia Democrats "plan to challenge 45 GOP incumbents in the deep-red House of Delegates this November, including 17 lawmakers whose districts voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton." Though some Republican incumbents will still run opposed, 45 Democratic challengers this year would be a significant improvement over the 21 the party ran two years ago.

* Speaking of Virginia, which holds its gubernatorial race this year, the latest Quinnipiac poll shows the president with a 38% approval rating in the commonwealth, which probably won't help the GOP slate.

* DCCC recruitment chair Denny Heck (D-Wash.) is apparently unconcerned about finding credible contenders for the 2018 midterms. "We're raining candidates," he said last week.

* As the White House's campaign against news organizations continues, the president described the press on Friday as "the enemy of the people." Asked about the condemnation, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said yesterday, "I think you should take it seriously."

* In Ohio, state Treasurer Josh Mandel reportedly used state money "on a $1.3 million TV ad campaign" to tout a new program. The ads featured Mandel standing alongside Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer, a popular statewide figure. The ads, which were not approved by the Ohio Controlling Board, reached airwaves shortly before Mandel, a Republican, kicked off his Senate campaign.
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Administration adopts a 'Never-Mind-What-Trump-Said' foreign policy

02/20/17 11:35AM

On his first full day as president, Donald Trump delivered a speech at CIA headquarters, where he lamented the fact Americans did not take Iraqi oil after the 2003 invasion. "The old expression, to the victor belong the spoils," the new president said, adding, "We should've kept the oil. But, okay, maybe we'll have another chance."

A few days later, in an interview with ABC News, Trump said, four times, "We should have taken the oil." Asked about the "maybe we'll have another chance" comment, Trump added, "[W]e'll see what happens. I mean, we're gonna see what happens."

Nearly a month later, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Baghdad this morning, declaring, "We're not in Iraq to seize anybody's oil."

I call this part of the "Never-Mind-What-Trump-Said' approach to foreign policy, which follows an increasingly familiar pattern: the president makes a ridiculous comment, which creates international alarm, which leads to leading members of the Trump administration trying to reassure global observers that there's simply no reason to take the leader of the free world's claims seriously.

As Politico noted over the weekend, this happens with alarming regularity.
Even though the administration is less than a month old, both [Secretary of State Rex Tillerson] and [Defense Secretary James Mattis] have been in perpetual cleanup mode, making calls to leaders around the world with far less drama and unpredictability than Trump's own calls and traveling to assuage the anxieties of key allies in Asia and Europe. Both have spent much of their first weeks in office in other countries, reassuring allies about Trump's ad hoc approach to foreign policy that is being driven largely by the president's son-in-law.
It's not just Tillerson and Mattis. Last week, literally the day after Trump dismissed a possible two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said the exact opposite, insisting, "We absolutely support a two-state solution."

And then there's Vice President Mike Pence, whose vision of foreign policy appears to be wholly at odds with his boss', even as he tries to argue that the two are on the same page.
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Image: File Photo: Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing

Betsy DeVos hasn't changed her mind about education

02/20/17 11:00AM

Betsy DeVos' nomination to lead the Department of Education was one of the most contentious confirmation fights Americans have seen in a while, but despite bipartisan opposition, she was narrowly confirmed anyway -- thanks to a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence.

Her brief tenure thus far hasn't been much smoother. DeVos has faced a variety of protests since taking over as the nation's Education Secretary, and like much of the Trump administration, the Michigan Republican believes it's best to dismiss her critics as being part of a conspiracy against her. "I don't think most of those are spontaneous, genuine protests," DeVos told a conservative website last week. "I think they're all being sponsored and very carefully planned."

She's offered no evidence, only her assumptions.

At the same time, DeVos is also sticking to her far-right views on education policy, despite her new job. Axios asked the megadonor/cabinet secretary last week if, in her ideal world, the federal government would have any role in education. She replied:
"It would be fine with me to have myself worked out of a job, but I'm not sure that -- I'm not sure that there will be a champion movement in Congress to do that."
Oh. So, the nation's Education Secretary, even now, isn't sure the position she now holds should exist -- apparently because she's still not on board with the idea of having a federal Department of Education, which she now leads.

The quote made it sound as if DeVos is simply waiting for Congress to follow through on the far-right vision she embraced before her confirmation hearing.
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50 subject one dollar note sheets are run through an intaglio printing press before the face is printed at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C., April 14, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

As the budget takes shape, Team Trump pushes highly dubious math

02/20/17 10:32AM

Donald Trump's White House hasn't yet released its first budget blueprint, but the New York Times reported over the weekend on a draft's "hit list" of programs the president and his team intends to eliminate, including "longstanding conservative targets like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation, AmeriCorps and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities." More surprising is Team Trump also targeting the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy.

For all of the president's rhetoric about tackling the opioid crisis, eliminating the ONDCP would be a giant step backwards.

But while we wait for the official document, and Congress' reaction to it, the Wall Street Journal published a fascinating scoop on how Trump World is approaching budget math.
The Trump administration has drafted preliminary economic growth forecasts in its federal budget planning that rely on assumptions that are far rosier than projections made by independent agencies and most private forecasters, according to several people familiar with the discussions. [...]

What's unusual about the administration's forecasts isn't just their relative optimism but also the process by which they were derived. Normally, the executive branch starts with a baseline forecast prepared by career staff of the CEA.... Discussions for the Trump administration unfolded differently, with transition officials telling the CEA staff the growth targets that their budget would produce and asking them to backfill other estimates off those figures.
Got that? Trump's team has started with the growth forecast that it likes -- which also happens to be consistent with what the Republican president said during the campaign -- and wants to work backwards to justify the numbers chosen in advance.

The Federal Reserve and the Congressional Budget office expect growth of around 2% in the coming years, but Trump's budget will project growth between 3% and 3.5% a year, every year for the next decade.

Maybe the White House would attract more capable economists if the administration didn't try nonsense like this.
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House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy prepares to speak to the media after unexpectedly dropping out of consideration to be the next Speaker of the House on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 8, 2015. (Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

GOP leader warns Trump critics 'are putting Californians at risk'

02/20/17 10:00AM

At this point, there are only a handful of states in which Democrats dominate, but it's safe to say California is one of them. Not only do Dem officials control much of the state government and statewide offices, but in 2016, Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in the Golden State by 30 points.

But California is nevertheless a massive and diverse place, and there are plenty of Republican-friendly areas in the state. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), for example, represents Bakersfield in the single "reddest" congressional district on the West Coast.

And according to the New York Times, the GOP leader has a suggestion for his fellow Californians: it's time to start being nicer to Donald Trump.
One month into the Trump presidency, Mr. McCarthy is a man with a foot in two warring camps. He represents a 10,000-square-mile red rural stronghold in the farmland of central California, a state that Mr. Trump lost by four million votes. His seniority in the House leadership, and his ties to Mr. Trump, mean that he is indisputably the most powerful Californian in the nation's capital.

And in an interview here, Mr. McCarthy left no doubt that his loyalties in this fight were east of the Mississippi River. He assailed California's Democratic leaders for provoking the president, and warned that it could prove damaging to the state, particularly as the Trump administration created an infrastructure program to pay for public works projects across the nation.
McCarthy told the Times that he will, of course, represent his district and state, "but what they are doing, they are playing with fire. Donald Trump is not going out in any way or form to attack California. They are the ones who are attacking California right now. They are the ones who are putting Californians at risk in every shape and form. And they are doing it to make a political point, which is wrong."

That's the kind of quote that could use some clarification.
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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

Blame Trump, not Democrats, for the administration's empty offices

02/20/17 09:30AM

Sometimes, the right thing happens for the wrong reason. Take Elliott Abrams, for example.

Abrams, a controversial figure in Republican foreign policy for decades, was poised to become the deputy secretary of state in Donald Trump's administration, but the nomination never came. The president learned that Abrams was openly critical of his candidacy last year, and as a consequence, Abrams would not be welcome on Trump's team.

And while I'm generally pleased with the outcome -- Abrams' return to a position of government authority struck me as a very bad idea -- these developments are emblematic of an administration that remains largely empty, in large part because of the president's difficulties. The New York Times reported over the weekend:
Mr. Trump remains fixated on the campaign as he applies a loyalty test to some prospective officials. For their part, many Republicans reacted to what happened to Mr. Abrams with dismay, leaving them increasingly leery about joining an administration that cannot get past the past.

As Mr. Trump brings candidates for national security adviser to meet with him in Florida this weekend, he presides over a government where the upper echelons remain sparsely populated. Six of the 15 statutory cabinet secretaries are still awaiting Senate confirmation as Democrats nearly uniformly oppose almost all of the president's choices.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is still without a deputy, and Trump hasn't named under secretaries or assistant secretaries. The Times' report added that there are similar problems at a variety of other cabinet agencies, where nominees simply haven't been sent to the Senate for consideration.

Republicans may be eager to blast Democratic "obstruction" and partisan delays, but the truth of the matter is simple: Democrats can't block nominees who don't exist.

Looking past the numbers, what seems to be the problem here? Why isn't the White House completing this most basic of tasks?
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