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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

From the Republican fringe to the White House

02/21/17 12:44PM

A couple of weeks ago, a deputy assistant to the president in Donald Trump's White House, made a curious argument during a radio interview. The official said Team Trump will continue to repeat its "fake news" talking point until news organizations stop "attacking" the president.

The official added, "[U]ntil the media understands how wrong that attitude is, and how it hurts their credibility, we are going to continue to say, 'fake news.' ... That's the reality."

Even for Trump World, it was an odd thing to say. White House officials will keep saying "fake news," not because the news is fake, but as part of a name-calling exercise responding to coverage Trump and his aides don't like.

The official was a man by the name of Sebastian Gorka -- one of several Breitbart News alum who've been hired to work in the White House -- and he's maintained a very high media profile of late, becoming one of Trump's most notable cheerleaders and anti-media attack dogs.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Gorka, who's focused his attention for years on what he calls the "global jihadist movement," has even gained a seat at a powerful and influential table.
Mr. Gorka has now taken that view into the center of power at the White House, where he is part of the new White House Strategic Initiatives Group. He said he reports to Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump's adviser and son-in-law; Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff; and Steve Bannon, the president's chief strategist.

The Strategic Initiatives Group has been described by some U.S. officials and experts as a parallel National Security Council, writing executive orders with relatively little input from policy officials and subject matter experts.
Given Gorka's anti-Muslim attitudes, his role isn't exactly encouraging.

But it was something the Washington Post said in its profile on Gorka that stood out for me:
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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.21.17

02/21/17 12:00PM

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

* Former DNC Chairman Howard Dean, who briefly considered a comeback this year, is officially neutral in the current DNC race, but the Vermonter told MSNBC yesterday he "kinda" wants to see South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg get the gig.

* Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump's former campaign manager, conceded yesterday that the president's claims about voter fraud in New Hampshire simply aren't supported by the evidence.

* Rep. Cheri Bustos' (D-Ill.) name has been floated as a possible gubernatorial candidate in Illinois next year, but the congresswoman announced yesterday that she's ruling out a statewide bid.

* Republican dominance over federal offices has been very good for RNC fundraising: the party announced yesterday it raised $19.8 million in January, its best post-election January ever.

* Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general whom Donald Trump fired after she gave the White House good advice, is now being discussed as a possible Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Georgia -- and to date, Yates hasn't done anything to discourage the chatter.

* Kansas Democrats believe they may have a shot in next year's gubernatorial race, especially in light of Gov. Sam Brownback's (R) many failures, and with that in mind, former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer (D) launched his campaign yesterday.

* Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) is up for re-election in Missouri next year, and in an interview late last week, the senator conceded she's concerned about a primary challenger from the left.
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St Basil's Cathedral

Russian confirmations complicate dubious White House denials

02/21/17 11:20AM

The official White House line on pre-election contacts between Team Trump and Russia has been consistent for months: there were no communications. Any suggestions to the contrary, Donald Trump and his aides have insisted, are completely wrong.

There are some problems with this posture. For one thing, many U.S. intelligence officials have suggested Team Trump's claims aren't true. For another, some Russian officials have confirmed that Team Trump's claims aren't true.

The New York Times picks up today on a story I've been emphasizing for months: despite the White House's denials, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak have both said, on the record, that Vladimir Putin's government was in communications with the Trump campaign before Election Day in the U.S.

As the Times' report makes clear, the communications wouldn't necessarily have to be seen as scandalous.
It is not uncommon for a presidential campaign to speak to foreign officials, which makes the dispute particularly unusual. [...]

Under ordinary circumstances, few in Washington would blink at the statements by Mr. Ryabkov or Mr. Kislyak. It is common for foreign governments to reach out to American presidential candidates, and many foreign diplomats believe it is part of their job to get to know people who may soon be crucial to maintaining alliances or repairing broken relationships.
That's entirely correct. Team Trump could've said from the beginning, "Sure, during the campaign, we heard from foreign officials from all kinds of countries around the globe, but the communications were always routine and part of standard diplomacy."

But no. Instead, the president and his aides said the opposite, insisting that there were literally no talks until after Election Day. In other words, Team Trump would have us believe the Russian officials are lying -- even though they have no incentive to lie.
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Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, addresses a packed room at a town hall meeting in Savage, Md. April 13, 2016. (Photo by Bryan Woolston/Reuters)

As his Trump rebukes intensify, what is John Kasich up to?

02/21/17 10:40AM

For all the chatter about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) butting heads with Donald Trump, there's another high-profile Republican who's going much further to rebuke the president of his own party.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who refused to endorse Trump or even attend his party's nominating convention in Kasich's home state, had some more choice words for the president over weekend. The governor, speaking to the media from Germany, where Kasich was attending the Munich Security Conference, raised concerns about Trump's criticism of a free press, questionable support for U.S. allies in Europe, and even the scandal surrounding Russia's role in helping put the president in office.

Kasich added that he'd spoken directly with a variety of foreign officials, many of whom expressed concern about Trump and the direction of the United States.

And while the remarks were notable, let's not skip past the setting: what was the governor of Ohio doing at the Munich Security Conference, speaking with foreign officials?

For a guy who'll soon wrap up his second term -- the governor cannot seek a third -- Kasich seems awfully busy, weighing in on the health-care debate, attending a major international security conference, publicly taking issue with Trump's bizarre antics, and according to a Cleveland Plain Dealer report, watching a new organization take shape around him.
Top political advisers to John Kasich have formed a nonprofit organization that will promote themes the Ohio governor pushed during his unsuccessful run for last year's Republican presidential nomination.

Two Paths America is "inspired by the imagery and rhetoric of ... Kasich's description of the public policy choices facing us and the need to take the higher path," according to a news release [issued two weeks ago]. "Two Paths America will take the same approach in supporting the best and highest policy ideas." [...]"Two Paths" also is the title of a book Kasich plans to release in April. The book will reflect on his campaign and explore issues important to the governor.
The Plain Dealer's article added that the group and the governor's new book "will fuel speculation that Kasich is keeping his options open for the 2020 election."

Ya think?
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Speaker of the House Paul Ryan shares a laugh with Republican members of Congress after signing legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and to cut off federal funding of Planned Parenthood.

New Republican health care blueprint falls far short

02/21/17 10:00AM

Congressional Republicans have been working on a health care reform plan -- behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny -- for more than seven years. Periodically, GOP leaders assure everyone that their alternative to "Obamacare" is nearly complete, and its unveiling is imminent, only to quietly change the subject soon after.

As lawmakers left Congress late last week for a week-long break, the Republican replacement for the ACA still doesn't exist, but House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) didn't want to send his members home empty-handed -- especially knowing that they'd face concerned constituents, fearing what GOP lawmakers might do to their families' health security -- so Republicans left DC armed with an outline of some vague ideas about where the majority party is headed.

That's the good news. We're a long way from having a real, detailed GOP plan to consider, but we can at least take a closer look at what Ryan & Co. have come up with thus far, which is better than literally nothing.

The bad news is, you're really not going to like the Republican outline. A New York Times editorial yesterday summarized the key provisions nicely:
In a half-baked policy paper released on Thursday, the House speaker, Paul Ryan, trotted out washed-up ideas for "improving" the country's health care system that would do anything but. For example, the paper calls for reducing spending on Medicaid, which now provides insurance to more than 74 million poor, disabled and older people. Many millions of them would be cast out of the program.

The Republican plan would also force most people who don't get their health insurance through an employer to pay more by slashing subsidies that the A.C.A., or Obamacare, now provides. The proposal would allow families to sock away more money in health savings accounts, which may sound good at first but would primarily benefit affluent people who can afford to save more.
As is always the case, the devil is in the details, and the specifics of the latest Republican "plan" -- I'm using the word loosely -- can't be examined in earnest because they don't yet exist.

That said, we know enough about the effects of the key GOP priorities to understand the damage that would follow the implementation of the Republican ideas. Dismantling how Medicaid works, for example, would do brutal harm to millions of low-income Americans.

And we haven't even touched on the politics yet.
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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. [Update: Price is scheduled to talk to Rachel about his perspective and experiences on tonight's show.]
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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