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Monday's Mini-Report, 2.27.17

02/27/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

Wave of anti-Semitism: "Police were trying to identify the vandals who knocked over or damaged at least 100 headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia as the nation grappled Monday with yet another wave of anti-Semitic incidents. Meanwhile, bomb threats forced the evacuations of Jewish Community Centers in New York and in 10 other states."

* Kansas: "Adam Purinton, the 51-year-old man accused of hurling racial slurs before opening fire on two Indian men in a Kansas bar last week, appeared calm and composed during a brief court appearance Monday."

* Afghanistan: "At least 10 police officers and the wife of a police commander were killed in an ambush by Islamic State militants in the northern province of Zawzjan, a provincial official said on Saturday."

* North Korea: "Plans for back-channel talks in New York between government representatives from North Korea and former U.S. officials were scuttled Friday after the State Department withdrew visa approvals for Pyongyang's top envoy on U.S. relations, according to people familiar with the matter."

* This isn't surprising, but it is disheartening: "Reversing a position the Justice Department has maintained for years, the Trump administration's Civil Rights Division will state in federal court this week that the federal government no longer claims Texas legislators acted with discriminatory intent in 2011 when they passed one of the strictest voter ID laws in the nation."

* House Republican leaders are going to have a problem: "Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told CNN on Monday that he will vote against a draft of the GOP Obamacare repeal bill that was leaked last week."
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Image: President Trump Departs White House To Honor NAVY Seal Killed in Yemen Raid

Questions surrounding Trump's Yemen raid linger

02/27/17 12:43PM

It's been about a month since Donald Trump ordered his first military raid as president, which tragically turned deadly. As we've discussed, the plan was to acquire intelligence and equipment at an al Qaeda camp in Yemen, but the mission quickly went sideways: Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens, a member of SEAL Team 6, was killed; several other Americans were injured; and by the end of the operation, multiple civilians, including children, were dead.

It's been described as a mission in which "almost everything went wrong," a dynamic made more complicated by U.S. military officials suggesting to Reuters that Trump approved the mission "without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations."

Owens' father, Bill, told the Miami Herald that he still has questions about what happened and hopes an inquiry will produce answers.
Trump administration officials have called the mission a success, saying they had seized important intelligence information. They have also criticized detractors of the raid, saying those who question its success dishonor Ryan Owens' memory. His father, however, believes just the opposite.

"Don't hide behind my son's death to prevent an investigation," said the elder Owens, pointing to Trump's sharp words directed at the mission's critics, including Sen. John McCain.

"I want an investigation.... The government owes my son an investigation," he said.
Bill Owens, himself a veteran, was on hand when his son's remains arrived at Dover Air Force Base. Told before the plane landed that the president was en route, he told the chaplain, "I'm sorry, I don't want to see him." He went on to tell the Miami Herald, "I told them I didn't want to make a scene about it, but my conscience wouldn't let me talk to him."

The White House's rhetoric about what transpired in Yemen, at least thus far, has been discouraging. Team Trump's efforts to blame the raid on the Obama administration, for example, has unraveled under scrutiny. Making matters worse, White House officials, including Trump and press secretary Sean Spicer, have made multiple efforts to squelch questions about the mission, using Owens' memory in a way the fallen soldier's father doesn't appreciate.
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Trump: 'Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated'

02/27/17 12:02PM

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump seemed to think health care policy was easy. In remarks this morning at a White House event for governors, the Republican president indicated a different perspective.
"We're going to repeal and replace Obamacare, and get states the flexibility that they need to make the end result really, really good for them. Very complicated issue.... I have to tell you, it's an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated."
Everyone knew that health care policy could be complicated. Everyone. It was complicated when Democrats spent months shaping the Affordable Care Act. It was complicated when Republicans spent seven years working behind closed doors on their alternative to the ACA. It was complicated for generations as policymakers in both parties launched various efforts to extend health security to Americans for the better part of a century.

To be surprised by its complexity is to be alarmingly ignorant of the debate that's been ongoing for decades. It appears the only person in America who assumed health-care policy is simple is the one Americans elected president.

But that's not all Trump said this morning. The Republican, apparently aware that polls show the ACA's support reaching an all-time high, added, "People hate [Obamacare] but now they see that the end is coming and they say, 'Oh maybe we love it.' There's nothing to love."

I listened to this comment a few times, and I'm still not entirely sure what it means. Americans love the policy they hate? There's nothing to love about your family having health insurance?

Trump went on to say that he intends to tackle health care before tax cuts -- GOP leaders have apparently convinced the president of this, though it's not entirely true -- despite the fact that he "wishes" he could reverse the priorities.

But aside from the usual palaver -- the president doesn't care for the ACA, for reasons he generally fails to explain -- perhaps the most interesting comment was Trump's apparent boast about his own White House health care plan.

"We have come up with a solution that's really, really, I think, very good," he added this morning.

If Trump knows what he's saying -- an open question, to be sure -- he may have made a little news with the comment.
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White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivers his first statement in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017.

New leak exposes details of Team Trump's anti-leak campaign

02/27/17 11:30AM

The circular logic of Donald Trump's complaints are routinely lost on the president. Over the weekend, for example, the Republican's latest online whining was a gem: "Russia talk is FAKE NEWS put out by the Dems, and played up by the media, in order to mask the big election defeat and the illegal leaks!"

Yes, of course. The revelations about the Russia scandal, according to Trump, are little more than a ruse intended to obscure the illegal leaks surrounding the Russia scandal.

This, alas, isn't new. At his CPAC appearance on Friday, the president argued that the reports based on the leaks are made-up by news organizations, which are citing sources that don't exist. He also argued -- in the same speech -- that he's outraged that administration officials are leaking real, sensitive, and at times classified information to journalists, who are publishing reports damaging to his White House. How does Trump reconcile the contradiction? So far, he doesn't seem to understand that the contradiction exists.

Nevertheless, Team Trump may not fully believe its own nonsense about the media making up sources, because if the White House were sincere, it wouldn't be working quite so hard on identifying leakers in its midst. Politico reported yesterday on Sean Spicer's latest efforts:
Last week, after Spicer became aware that information had leaked out of a planning meeting with about a dozen of his communications staffers, he reconvened the group in his office to express his frustration over the number of private conversations and meetings that were showing up in unflattering news stories, according to sources in the room.

Upon entering Spicer's second floor office, staffers were told to dump their phones on a table for a "phone check," to prove they had nothing to hide.

Spicer, who consulted with White House counsel Don McGahn before calling the meeting, was accompanied by White House lawyers in the room, according to multiple sources.... The phone checks included whatever electronics staffers were carrying when they were summoned to the unexpected follow-up meeting, including government-issued and personal cell phones.
Naturally, Spicer's efforts to crack down on leaks also leaked.

Morale in the West Wing must be amazing right now.
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A U.S. Navy sailor stands on the deck of the USS Farragut as his ship approaches the USS Bataan to practice ‘UNREP’, or underway replenishment of cargo and fuel on May 24, 2016. (Photo by Balazs Gardi for MSNBC)

As Navy nominee withdraws, Trump's personnel troubles get worse

02/27/17 11:00AM

At a White House press briefing last week, reporters asked Sean Spicer about the Trump administration's difficulties in filling key government posts. The president's press secretary was incredulous, as if the questions themselves were obviously based on a bogus premise.

"I think when you look across where we are and we track the number of folks that are in the pipeline, we're doing very, very well with getting all of these positions filled," Spicer said. He added, "I think we're doing a phenomenal job of staffing the government."

Yeah, about that...
President Donald Trump's nominee for Navy secretary, Philip Bilden, withdrew from consideration Sunday, becoming the second Pentagon pick unable to untangle his financial investments in the vetting process.

"Mr. Philip Bilden has informed me that he has come to the difficult decision to withdraw from consideration to be secretary of the Navy," Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a statement. "This was a personal decision driven by privacy concerns and significant challenges he faced in separating himself from his business interests."
The Politico report on this noted that Bilden was derailed by challenges "during a review by the Office of Government Ethics to avoid potential conflicts of interest."

Note, a week before Bilden withdrew, Spicer declared on Twitter that reports about Bilden stepping aside are wrong. The press secretary said he'd just spoken to him, and Bilden was "100% commited [sic]" to being the next Secretary of the Navy.

If there are folks trying to pull together a list of the claims Sean Spicer has made that have turned out to be untrue, you have my sympathies. The volume of content must be overwhelming.
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House Speaker Paul Ryan arrives at his office on Capitol Hill on June 8, 2016. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Republican health care plan leaks, becomes subject of controversy

02/27/17 10:30AM

One of the most important angles to the long-awaited Republican health-care plan is the context: Americans have been promised that the GOP alternative to the Affordable Care Act would meet a series of key benchmarks.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump promised, "I am going to take care of everybody. I don't care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody's going to be taken care of much better than they're taken care of now." After the election, the Republican president vowed, "We're going to have insurance for everybody.... Everybody's going to be taken care of."

And it's against this backdrop that Politico, among others, reported on Friday on the GOP plan that makes no meaningful effort to keep any of Team Trump's promises.
A draft House Republican repeal bill would dismantle the Obamacare subsidies and scrap its Medicaid expansion, according to a copy of the proposal obtained by POLITICO.

The legislation would take down the foundation of Obamacare, including the unpopular individual mandate, subsidies based on people's income, and all of the law's taxes. It would significantly roll back Medicaid spending and give states money to create high risk pools for some people with pre-existing conditions. Some elements would be effective right away; others not until 2020.

The replacement would be paid for by limiting tax breaks on generous health plans people get at work -- an idea that is similar to the Obamacare "Cadillac tax" that Republicans have fought to repeal.
It's worth emphasizing that this refers to an actual bill. Before members took a break last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) sent Republican lawmakers home with a series of talking points related to health care policy, including the vague outline of a GOP blueprint, but the draft that emerged late last week is actual legislative text, not a public-relations document.

And as is obvious reviewing the bill, it's a doozy. By replacing the ACA with this Republican approach, the wealthy would get a massive tax break, while assistance to working families would be reduced and Medicaid expansion would face a big cut. To pay for their policy, GOP leaders intend to begin taxing employer-provided insurance -- a policy that would cause massive disruptions and which many Republicans have already dismissed as a non-starter.
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Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a rally with Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Riverfront Sports athletic facility on Aug. 15, 2016 in Scranton, Pa. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty)

Why a state Senate race in Delaware became national news

02/27/17 10:01AM

Technically, there have been a few elections since Donald Trump became president last month. In early February, a Democrat won a special election in an Iowa state House district, and a week later, a Dem cruised to an easy victory in a special election in a Virginia state House district.

But those races were largely overlooked outside their local areas and for good reason: they didn't dictate control of any legislative chambers; they didn't attract the attention of any national figures; and they weren't in competitive districts where the outcome was in doubt.

The state Senate special election in Delaware, however, was a very different story. The News Journal in Wilmington reported:
Democrat Stephanie Hansen won the special election for the 10th District Senate seat Saturday, capturing 58 percent of the votes cast and preserving her party's control of the Legislature.

The race drew national attention and donations from across the country. Former Vice President Joe Biden and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley both campaigned on Hansen's behalf in the weeks leading up to the election.
In her victory speech, Hansen declared, "This was the first swing election in the country since the inauguration. It was the first chance for voters to rise up with one voice to say we're bigger than the bullies. It was the first chance for voters to declare with one loud voice that we're better than the politics of fear and division. What we accomplished together will have implications for our entire state and country, and I think tonight they're hearing us loud and clear in all corners of this country -- and certainly in D.C. and in Dover."

Democrats have held Delaware's state Senate for nearly a half-century, but that control was at stake on Saturday, which is precisely why national Democrats were so eager to get involved. For Republicans to gain power in a blue state a month into the Trump era would have been an embarrassing setback.

And as the dust settled on Saturday night, the opposite had happened.
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U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez chats with trainees at the Siemens training facility on Oct. 28, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty)

Tom Perez takes the reins at the DNC, marking a new era

02/27/17 09:30AM

The race to lead the Democratic National Committee seemed to go on quite a while, but at a party gathering in Atlanta over the weekend, it wrapped up in an interesting way.
After a difficult 2016 campaign that saw them lose the White House, both chambers of Congress and state houses across the country, Democrats elected Tom Perez on Saturday to lead the Democratic National Committee and rebuild the party.

Perez, the former labor secretary in the Obama administration, won in a second round of voting and was considered the heavy favorite of the Democratic establishment. He earned 235 votes from the 447 DNC members -- the voting bloc that decides the chairmanship.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the early favorite for the post who enjoyed the support of many of the party's congressional leaders, was a very competitive second. When Perez was gracious enough to offer the Minnesota Democrat the party's vice chairmanship, Ellison was equally gracious in accepting.

"We don't have the luxury, folks, to walk out of this room divided," Ellison told DNC members. "We don't have that luxury, and I just want to say to you that it's my honor to serve this party under Chairman Perez."

Ellison fans are disappointed, but there's a clear upside for them with the results: he gets to stay in Congress -- Ellison had vowed to step down to focus on the DNC full time as its chair -- while simultaneously helping lead the party as its vice chair.

I generally think the significance of the party chairs is overstated. In 2009 and 2010, for example, Republican officials clashed repeatedly with then-RNC Chairman Michael Steele, but the conflicts did nothing to slow the party's massive gains in 2010. After Republicans' failures in 2012, then-RNC Chairman Reince Priebus established a roadmap to help the party get back on track. Party officials ignored it, did largely the opposite, and took total control of Washington in 2016. Priebus received a nice promotion soon after.

That said, the fight for the DNC chairmanship did tell us something notable about the state of Democratic politics.
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Image: White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland

Priebus' improper contacts with the FBI come into focus

02/27/17 09:00AM

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a top Donald Trump ally, did his best yesterday to defend the White House urging FBI officials to downplay the Russia scandal. The Republican governor's defense isn't that the White House is innocent, but rather, that Team Trump doesn't know what it's doing.
"I can guarantee this, I don't think [White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus] will ever have that kind of conversation with the FBI, with FBI personnel, again," he said.

"Remember, these are all people who have never been in government before," Christie said. "And so they're going to need to learn these things."
Factually, Christie's point has merit -- we have an amateur president who's surrounded himself with people who have no governing experience -- but it's still not much of a defense. By his reasoning, it didn't occur to the president's chief of staff it might be problematic for the White House to intervene in a pending federal investigation. It's one of those things the person running the White House needs to know, not "learn."

Of course, Christie's defense of Priebus' outreach to the FBI acknowledges the underlying detail that matters: Priebus reached out to the FBI. The allegation that shook the political world on Thursday night and Friday morning, we now know, is true.
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