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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 11.22.17

11/22/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Bijan Kian: "A former business associate of Michael Flynn has become a subject of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation for his role in the failure of Flynn's former lobbying firm to disclose its work on behalf of foreign governments, three sources familiar with the investigation told NBC News."

* Didn't our most recent president spend the day before Thanksgiving feeding the hungry? "President Donald Trump on Wednesday escalated his feud with the father of one of the three UCLA basketball players who was detained in China on suspicion of shoplifting, calling him a 'fool.'"

* On a related note, the White House insisted to reporters this morning that the president had a "full schedule" today. An hour later, Trump was golfing.

* The Hague: "With applause inside and outside the courtroom at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Gen. Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb commander, was sentenced to life imprisonment on Wednesday for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes."

* This is quite a story: "No medical drama is complete without a bold-yet-sensitive heartthrob doctor in a leading role. The incredible tale of a North Korean soldier's escape across the demilitarized zone last week is no exception."

* The scope of the societal scourge: "Two state legislators in Minnesota are stepping down in response to harassment allegations amid a national wave of politicians, journalists and entertainers being accused of sexual misconduct."

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US military soldiers march during the Veterans Day Parade in New York on Nov. 11, 2014. (Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty)

Trump's efforts to privatize veterans' care causes alarm

11/22/17 04:53PM

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump was quite candid about his support for privatizing at least some areas of veterans' care, explicitly endorsing the idea, more than once. After the election, during his presidential transition, the Republican recommitted to his privatization agenda.

There was some question, however, about whether the administration would follow through, especially after David Shulkin, Trump's choice to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, told senators during his confirmation hearings that the VA "will not be privatized under my watch."

As Rachel noted on the show this week, all of this came to mind when the Associated Press reported that the VA is exploring "the possibility of merging its health system with the Pentagon's." And while that may not sound like a major development, the fear is that existing VA hospitals and clinics will be in jeopardy if/when the VA system is merged with a private system.

News of the plan stirred alarm from veterans groups, who said they had not been consulted, and sharp criticism from congressional Democrats who pledged to oppose any VA privatization effort that forces veterans "to pay out of pocket for the benefits they have earned with their heroism." [...]

"Today, we see evidence that the Trump administration is quietly planning to dismantle veterans' health care," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "House Democrats will fight tooth and nail against any efforts to diminish or destroy VA's irreplaceable role as the chief coordinator, advocate and manager of care for veterans."

This coincided with a Wall Street Journal report that said the Trump administration is eyeing "a larger role" for private-sector providers in veterans' health care -- which reinforces privatization fears.

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U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) speaks to a reporter at the end of a news conference April 22, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Rep. Conyers held the news conference to discuss the "End Racial Profiling Act." (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

Conyers to face Ethics Committee probe following harassment claims

11/22/17 04:14PM

After Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) was confronted with evidence of a sexual-harassment settlement in 2014, there was some confusion about the nature of his denial. By late yesterday, the Michigan Democrat's office clarified matters, saying Conyers agreed to settle the case, though he insists he did nothing wrong, and he considered the $27,000 settlement to effectively serve as "a reasonable severance payment."

Yesterday afternoon, another former Conyers aide raised similar allegations, claiming that he'd created "a hostile work environment" with unwanted advances, though the congressman's office emphasized that the woman in this case ended up withdrawing her lawsuit.

The House Ethics Committee, which has already announced the start of an investigation, is poised to sort out what happened.

Later Tuesday, the House Ethics Committee said it had started an investigation into the allegations against Conyers, following calls from several Democrats in the chamber to do so.

"The Committee is aware of public allegations that Representative John Conyers, Jr. may have engaged in sexual harassment of members of his staff, discriminated against certain staff on the basis of age, and used official resources for impermissible personal purposes," the committee's statement said in announcing its investigation.

Several Democratic House members, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who revealed earlier this month that she had been sexually assaulted when she was in her 20s by the chief of staff she was an aide to, had called on the committee to investigate Conyers.

Let's note for context that Speier recently told a House panel that she's aware of two current members of Congress -- one Democrat and one Republican -- who have engaged in sexual harassment during their service on Capitol Hill. She clarified last night that when she made these comments, she wasn't referring to Conyers.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

Did an official fake a bad connection to get Trump off the phone?

11/22/17 01:54PM

A group of moderate Democratic senators recently attended a meeting on tax policy at the White House, and Donald Trump called into the discussion during his Asia-Pacific trip, apparently hoping the personal touch would help persuade them to support the Republican plan.

By all accounts, the meeting didn't go especially well. As we discussed two weeks ago, Trump reportedly talked more than he listened; he couldn’t address any of the substantive details of tax policy; he brazenly lied about the tax benefits that would go towards the wealthy in his party’s plan; and he apparently shared an anecdote about a fictional conversation with his accountant.

But our understanding of the conversation took an interesting turn this morning.

Top White House economic advisor Gary Cohn pretended to have a bad connection to get off a call with President Donald Trump this month, a Democratic senator said Wednesday.

Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware told CNN that Cohn took the call from the president during a discussion with Democratic senators about tax reform. Carper said Cohn wanted to have a conversation on tax reform without Trump, who was traveling in Asia at the time.

As the Delaware Democrat explained it, it was nice of the president to call in personally to the conversation, but Trump just kept talking. Reflecting on the events, Carper said, "I said to Gary, it was a room where we're all sitting around this big table, and I said, 'Gary why don't you do this, just take the phone from, you know, your cellphone back and just say, 'Mr. President, you're brilliant! But we're losing contact, and I think we're going to lose you now, so good-bye.'"

Carper, referring to Gary Cohn, added, "And that's what he did, and he hung up."

Pressed by the CNN host if Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council at Trump's White House, actually faked a bad connection in order to get the president off the phone, the senator replied, "Well, I wouldn't -- I don't want to throw him under the bus, but yes."

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In this Jan. 29, 2015 file photo, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/File/AP)

Key GOP senator breaks his promise on judicial nominees

11/22/17 12:47PM

As things stand, there isn't a whole lot Senate Democrats can do to block Donald Trump's most extreme judicial nominees. Filibusters on would-be jurists are no more, and urging Senate Republicans to keep the president's worst nominees off the federal bench doesn't seem to work.

Blue slips, however, still exist. It's a rather obscure, century-old rule, but it works in a fairly straightforward way: in order for a judicial nominee to get a confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, he or she needs approval from both of the senators from the nominee's home state. (They need to, in a rather literal sense, return a blue slip to the committee, allowing the process to continue.) In practical terms, that creates trouble for this White House if a nominee comes from a state with two Democratic senators.

For example, Trump has nominated Minnesota's David Stras for the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, but he doesn't have the support of Minnesota's Senate delegation. According to the standards and traditions of the chamber, that means Stras can't get a hearing and can't be confirmed.

And so, it was jarring to see this Politico report the other day, explaining that Republicans no longer feel like honoring blue slips.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley is burning the blue slip for some judicial nominees.

The Iowa Republican announced Thursday that he is going ahead with a confirmation hearing for a nominee to the powerful appellate courts despite the objections of a Democrat who had been blocking the nomination for months.

The move will likely escalate the judicial wars in the Senate.

Ya think?

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.22.17

11/22/17 12:00PM

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

* In Alabama's Senate special election, a new Raycom News Network Senate Election poll conducted by Strategy Research found Roy Moore (R) with a narrow lead over Doug Jones (D), 47% to 45%.

* Alabama pastor Flip Benham, a prominent Moore ally, argued yesterday that the Republican candidate dated "younger ladies" when he was in his 30s because Moore admired their "purity."

* Moore's campaign, meanwhile, wasted little time yesterday promoting Donald Trump's apparent support for the GOP candidate, voiced from the White House's South Lawn yesterday.

* The candidate who spends the most doesn't always win the race, but I was amazed to see Politico report yesterday that Jones' campaign has "outspent Moore on television advertising by a 14-to-1 margin."

* In Kansas, Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), who leads Trump's voting commission, will host a fundraiser next week in support of his gubernatorial campaign. The headliner: Donald Trump Jr., who ostensibly helps lead the president's business interests, and who's supposed to be steering clear of politics.

* In a bit of a surprise, former Rep. Gwen Graham (D) is not only making Medicaid expansion one of the centerpieces of her gubernatorial campaign in Florida, she also vowed this week to "veto Republican legislative priorities if lawmakers refused to work with her to expand the health care program."

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Poll points to partisan gap in attitudes on sexual harassment

11/22/17 11:20AM

There's no reason to see sexual misconduct as a partisan issue. Politicians from both parties have faced credible allegations, and that's likely to continue as the societal scandal continues to unfold.

But a Quinnipiac poll released yesterday suggests there's a gap in how partisans perceive the seriousness of the issue. The question read:

"If a political candidate has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, would you still consider voting for them if you agreed with them on the issues, or would you definitely not vote for them?"

In areas such as age and ethnicity, the differences were modest, but the partisan split was enormous. Among Republicans, a narrow plurality -- 43% to 41% -- would consider supporting a candidate accused of sexual harassment by multiple women.

Among independents, a 61% majority said they wouldn't consider voting for such a candidate, and among Democrats, that number was 81%.

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A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)

The politics behind the case of the suspected Iranian hacker

11/22/17 10:43AM

When HBO was hacked earlier this year, it generated quite a few headlines. Those responsible for the cyberattack not only managed to steal new episodes of popular shows, they also got their hands on scripts for "Game of Thrones," which is one of the biggest shows on television.

With that in mind, there was quite a bit of coverage yesterday when federal authorities announced charges against Behzad Mesri, a suspected Iranian hacker, who was allegedly responsible for targeting HBO's system.

And while that's interesting in its own right, what I found especially important about this is the fact that we knew it was coming. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that the Justice Department plans to announce "several cases involving Iranian suspects in the coming month," including yesterday's break in the HBO case.

Last month, national security prosecutors at the Justice Department were told to look at any ongoing investigations involving Iran or Iranian nationals with an eye toward making them public.

The push to announce Iran-related cases has caused internal alarm, these people said, with some law enforcement officials fearing that senior Justice Department officials want to reveal the cases because the Trump administration would like Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran. A series of criminal cases could increase pressure on lawmakers to act, these people said.

Some federal law enforcement officials have also voiced concerns that announcing the cases, rather than keeping them under seal, could imperil ongoing investigative work or make it harder to catch suspects who might travel out of Iran, according to the people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing investigations.

This may seem like a dry look at behind-the-scenes decisions at the DOJ, but if you saw Rachel's A block on Monday night, you may realize why this is important.

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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP-DEPARTS

Trump picks the wrong issue to target Alabama's Doug Jones

11/22/17 10:06AM

The day before Virginia's gubernatorial election, Donald Trump lashed out at then-candidate Ralph Northam (D) as being "weak" on veterans -- despite the fact that Northam, unlike Trump, actually is a veteran, serving honorably in the Army for eight years.

So why is it, exactly, Trump pursued this line of attack? Probably because he thought it sounded good. There are a lot of veterans in the commonwealth, so Trump likely made the attack, without concern for whether it made sense or not, in the hopes that it'd encourage veterans to vote Republican.

I thought of this yesterday watching the president go after Doug Jones' (D) Senate candidacy in Alabama.

"I can tell you one thing for sure: We don't need a liberal person in there, a Democrat -- Jones. I've looked at his record. It's terrible on crime.... I can tell you for a fact, we do not need somebody that's going to be bad on crime."

Asked soon after if he intends to campaign in support of Roy Moore, the president added, "I'll be letting you know next week, but I can tell you, you don't need somebody who's soft on crime, like Jones."

Let's pause for a moment to take stock. Doug Jones is a former federal prosecutor -- a role in which he went after criminals. He's perhaps best known for convicting a pair of KKK members responsible for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which left four children dead.

Roy Moore, who's been accused of sexual assault, is an alleged child molester. Up until two weeks ago, he was best known for having been removed from the bench -- twice -- for ignoring federal court rulings he disagreed with.

In Trump's mind, one of these two men are "soft on crime" -- and it's not the one common sense is pointing at.

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

'Putin's favorite congressman' received a Kremlin code name

11/22/17 09:20AM

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who's been described as "Putin's favorite congressman," has earned quite a reputation. In a closed-door event last year, for example, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told GOP lawmakers, "There's two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump."

The House GOP leadership later said McCarthy was kidding. Of course, if it didn't reflect Republicans' thinking, officials in the room wouldn't have laughed.

Keep this anecdote in mind when reading the New York Times' latest reporting on the California congressman.

For two decades, Representative Dana Rohrabacher has been of value to the Kremlin, so valuable in recent years that the F.B.I. warned him in 2012 that Russia regarded him as an intelligence source worthy of a Kremlin code name.

The following year, the California Republican became even more valuable, assuming the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee that oversees Russia policy. [...]

Mr. Rohrabacher has laughed off suggestions that he is a Russian asset, and said in an interview that he did not remember being briefed that the Russians viewed him as a source. The F.B.I. and the senior members of the House Intelligence Committee sat Mr. Rohrabacher down in the Capitol in 2012 to warn him that Russian spies were trying to recruit him, according to two former intelligence officials.

"I remember them telling me, 'You have been targeted to be recruited as an agent,'" Rohrabacher told the Times. "How stupid is that?"

I don't know, big guy. You're the one with a Kremlin code name, so maybe you should tell us.

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Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Despite the risks, Murkowski backs ACA mandate repeal

11/22/17 08:40AM

When Senate Republican leaders added the repeal of the ACA's individual mandate to their tax plan, it looked like an enormous gamble. After all, the GOP's efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act were derailed by bipartisan opposition, and by tying tax cuts for the wealthy to health care policy, it raised the prospect of greater opposition to the latest Republican gambit.

But that only works if the GOP senators who helped rescue the health care system over the summer are willing to do so again now. Evidently, that may not be the case.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she would support repealing the Affordable Care Act's individual insurance mandate, giving a potential boost to the Republican effort to pass a massive tax cut package next week.

"I believe that the federal government should not force anyone to buy something they do not wish to buy, in order to avoid being taxed," Murkowski wrote in an opinion piece published Tuesday by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Let's back up for a minute in order to better understand the landscape here. The original Republican plan was to overhaul the federal tax code in order to benefit the wealthy and corporations, but the effort ran into trouble when GOP officials couldn't get their numbers to add up. They needed more money to cover the cost of a permanent corporate tax break.

At Donald Trump's urging, Republicans determined they could repeal the "Obamacare" individual mandate and have an additional $338 billion over the next decade to pay for more tax breaks. As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, for the right, this represented the best of both worlds: the GOP could gut the health care law they love to hate, and at the same time, they could redirect that money to finance tax cuts.

There was, however, a catch: the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office explained to lawmakers that repealing the ACA's individual mandate would destabilize the insurance market, force many consumers to pay higher premiums, and end coverage for 13 million Americans over the next decade. Hospitals, doctors, and insurers all said this was a very bad idea.

The result was effectively a caricature of Montgomery Burns-style policymaking: Republicans are pursuing a plan that would leave millions of families without health security, disproportionately hurt the poor, all in the hopes of redistributing wealth from the bottom up.

As of yesterday, Lisa Murkowski isn't yet prepared to say no to this.

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