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This photo made during an escorted visit and reviewed by the US military, shows the razor wire-topped fence at the abandoned "Camp X-Ray" detention facility at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba April 9, 2014. (Photo by Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty)

On his last day, Obama shrinks Guantanamo population to new low

01/20/17 08:41AM

Congress made it effectively impossible for President Obama to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, but lawmakers couldn't stop the outgoing president from coming close to his goal.
The Obama administration's long and fitful effort to wind down the Guantánamo Bay wartime prison came to a close on Thursday with an announcement that it had transferred four more men out of the detention complex. Their departures are expected to be the last before President Obama leaves office on Friday.

The transfer of the four detainees means that President-elect Donald J. Trump, who has called for an end to such transfers, will inherit the fates of 41 men there, 31 of whom are being held without charges or trial.
"As president, I have tried to close Guantánamo," Obama said in a letter to congressional leaders yesterday. "When I inherited this challenge, it was widely recognized that the facility -- which many around the world continue to condemn -- needed to close. Unfortunately, what had previously been bipartisan support for closure suddenly became a partisan issue. Despite those politics, we have made progress."

That's quantitatively true. Updating the tally we've been keeping an eye on, the detention facility's population peaked in 2003 with 680 prisoners. The Bush/Cheney administration began moving detainees out in its second term, and by the time President Obama took office, the population was down to 242 prisoners.

Now, as Obama exits the stage, the total is down to 41. Two weeks ago, Donald Trump, who's never demonstrated any real understanding of this issue, declared, "There should be no further releases from Gitmo." Fortunately, the current president ignored him.

As we discussed in April, the point of the gradual reductions, obviously, is to reduce the overall population, but it's also intended to appeal to Republicans' sense of fiscal sanity: the smaller the number of detainees, the harder it is to justify the massive expense of keeping open a detention facility that houses so few people. Even if congressional Republicans are inclined to ignore every other consideration, the hope is that GOP lawmakers will at least care about wasteful spending.

At least, that is, if the Guantanamo prisoner population remains low. There's a real possibility that the incoming president will reverse the progress and start adding to the detainee totals.
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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump poses for a photo after an interview with Reuters in his office in Trump Tower, in the Manhattan borough of New York, N.Y., May 17, 2016. (Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

New details from investigation cast cloud over Trump inauguration

01/20/17 08:00AM

It's safe to assume that Donald Trump and his team aren't pleased that this is on the front page of the New York Times the morning of Inauguration Day.
American law enforcement and intelligence agencies are examining intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, current and former senior American officials said.

The continuing counterintelligence investigation means that Mr. Trump will take the oath of office on Friday with his associates under investigation and after the intelligence agencies concluded that the Russian government had worked to help elect him.
U.S. intelligence agencies have already concluded that Russian agents, by way of an illegal espionage operation, intervened in the American presidential election, in part to help put Trump in the White House. We don't yet know whether, or to what extent, the intercepted communications relate to the previous findings.

According to the Times' reporting, however, the counterintelligence investigation is focused on contacts between Russia and members of Trump's campaign team, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort, former foreign policy adviser Carter Page, and longtime Republican operative Roger Stone.

The inclusion of Page is of particular interest. Just last week, incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters, "Carter Page is an individual whom the president-elect does not know." According to Trump, that wasn't true: last year, during an interview with the Washington Post, Trump singled out Page as one of only a handful of people who were advising him on matters of foreign policy.

TPM's Josh Marshall summarized the landscape nicely: "Just to state this clearly, that means that on the eve of Trump's inauguration, the nation's top law enforcement and intelligence agencies are pursuing a counter-intelligence probe of contacts and payments between key members of his campaign and Russia. We have not been here before."

Several members of Team Trump, including the president-elect himself, have said there were no contacts between the campaign and Russia before Election Day. We don't yet know whether those claims were true.

As for the timing of this news, that's nearly as interesting as the reporting itself.
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Thursday's Mini-Report, 1.19.17

01/19/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Gambia: "Fearing for his safety, the newly elected president of Gambia was sworn in on Thursday during a ceremony outside his country, part of a tense standoff in which foreign troops have crossed the border, trying to help him take power."

* A good move borne of desperation: "President-elect Donald Trump has asked roughly 50 senior Obama administration appointees to remain in their posts after his inauguration to ensure continuity in government, his incoming White House press secretary said Thursday. The officials include the highest-ranking career officials at key national security agencies like the Pentagon and State Department."

* A few more commutations before he leaves: "[O]n Thursday, his last full day in office, [President Obama] announced 330 more commutations, for nonviolent drug offenders, bringing his total number of clemencies to 1,715. He has granted commutations to more people than the past 12 presidents combined, including 568 inmates with life sentences."

* Under normal circumstances, this would put a nomination in peril: "Steven T. Mnuchin, President-elect Donald J. Trump's pick to be Treasury secretary, failed to disclose nearly $100 million of his assets on Senate Finance Committee disclosure documents and forgot to mention his role as a director of an investment fund located in a tax haven, an omission that Democrats said made him unfit to serve in one of the government's most important positions."

* Syria: "Russia and Turkey carried out their first joint airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Syria on Wednesday, further expanding their budding military cooperation, the Russian military said."

* John Kerry's last op-ed before leaving office: "As the departing secretary of state, I cannot claim objectivity. But I will leave office convinced that most global trends remain in our favor and that America's leadership and engagement are as essential and effective today as ever."

* Some stories are hard to believe: "Jailed former House Speaker Dennis Hastert says a man who accused him of sexual abuse should return $1.7 million in hush money because he broke his silence by talking to the feds."
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Image: *** BESTPIX *** President-Elect Donald Trump Holds Press Conference In New York

Worst. President-Elect. Ever.

01/19/17 04:38PM

The timing must have been terribly inconvenient for Donald Trump and his team. With just two days remaining before he's sworn in as the chief executive of the world's biggest superpower, the president-elect of the United States had to write a check for $25 million to help settle fraud lawsuits stemming from his alleged "Trump University" scam.

Never before in U.S. history has a president-elect had to face accusations of being a con man, making yesterday that much more extraordinary: while President Obama was hosting a press conference, celebrating the values that make America great, his successor was setting aside millions of dollars to pay Americans he's accused of ripping off.

Ironically, before Trump set aside the $25 million, Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, told reporters that the Trump transition will become "the gold standard going forward." But like too many things associated with the Republican, it's far more accurate to say there was a shiny veneer on the surface, covering up a transition that was surprisingly -- and unnecessarily -- terrible.

Every incoming administration runs into at least some troubles. It's inevitable: no matter how well prepared an operation is, a transition team is going to be caught off guard by unexpected problems. It's good practice for work in a White House, where events are inherently unpredictable.

But Trump's transition, silly "gold standard" boasts notwithstanding, has consistently been breathtakingly awful.

* Scandals and controversies: Just since Election Day, there have been important revelations about Russia's illegal espionage operation helping put Trump in the White House. These stories have broken alongside controversies surrounding the president-elect's ethics problems, pay-to-play fundraising, and unresolved conflicts of interest.

* Polls: Trump, who received nearly 3 million fewer votes than his principal rival, was already on track to be the least popular incoming president since the dawn of modern polling. But in a striking twist, Trump has actually managed to lose public support as his inauguration has drawn closer, which is unheard of. The more Americans saw of their president-elect, they more his standing diminished.
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President-elect Donald Trump arrives at a rally at the Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville, N.C., Dec. 6, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP)

Team Trump touts the 'diversity' of his mostly white, male cabinet

01/19/17 12:58PM

In 1992, then-Gov. Bill Clinton came up with a memorable phrase: the Democrat promised voters he'd create a cabinet that "looked like America." The point, of course, was to assure the public that when it came to policymaking, the Clinton administration would place a high priority on diversity.

It's a goal Donald Trump doesn't appear to share.

The Republican president-elect finally wrapped up his cabinet selections yesterday, tapping former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) to lead the Department of Agriculture -- and like most other members of the Trump cabinet, Perdue is a wealthy, older, white man. This post was Trump's last choice to pick a Hispanic American for his team, which means the new presidential cabinet will be the first without a Hispanic member in three decades.

During the campaign, Trump was asked if his cabinet will include women, blacks, and Hispanics. "Oh absolutely," he replied. "It's so important."

Evidently, however, Trump doesn't believe it's that important. His cabinet will have zero Hispanics, one African-American man, one white woman, and one Asian-American woman. (The number of women grows from two to four if you include Nikki Haley and Linda McMahon, who were chosen for positions that may be considered cabinet-level.)

The funny part, however, was listening to Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, defend the diversity of Trump's team. Yahoo News reported this morning:
"Look at the Cabinet. Elaine Chao, Dr. Ben Carson," he said, motioning to former presidential candidate, who was in the room. "Gov. Nikki Haley, the first Indian-American… The number one thing that Americans should focus on is, is he hiring the best and the brightest?"
First, no, we've had a chance to look at the folks Trump has chosen, and they're not actually the best and the brightest. Second, "the best and the brightest" is a phrase that was intended to be an ironic reference to those responsible for the war in Vietnam.

And third, pointing to a handful of diverse people on the president-elect's team doesn't negate the fact that Trump's cabinet will be dominated by older, white men.

Spicer added, somehow with a straight face, that the "totality of the diversity" in Trump's cabinet is "second to none."
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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.19.17

01/19/17 12:00PM

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

* Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, told reporters yesterday that DC-area hotels are "sold out for miles." As of last night, that did not appear to be true.

* When Donald Trump tweeted a picture of himself, ostensibly putting pen to paper to write his own inaugural address, he apparently was seated at the reception desk of one of his resorts. It's almost as if the picture had been staged and the president-elect isn't actually writing his own speech.

* As hearings get underway for Steve Mnuchin, Trump's nominee for Treasury Secretary, a group of progressive organizations have launched a television ad featuring a woman who lost her home to Mnuchin's bank.

* New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) now claims he was offered positions in the Trump administration, but he turned them down because his wife didn't want to move to DC. Christie, of course, ran a presidential campaign last year that would've required him to move to DC had he won.

* Though Mike Pence had said Dick Cheney would be his vice presidential role model, yesterday, the incoming V.P. told NBC News' Chuck Todd yesterday, "When I think of the kind of president that I'll be serving, I've been paying special attention to then vice president George Herbert Walker Bush."

* Avenue Strategies, the new DC lobbying firm created by former Trump aides Corey Lewandowski and Barry Bennett, has opened its doors. As Bloomberg Politics' report noted, firm is also taking "the highly unusual step ... of creating a pro-Trump super PAC," which will be called the "Great American Agenda PAC."

* The seven leading candidates running to become the next DNC chair had a fairly low-key debate yesterday, hosted by the Huffington Post.
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A man holds a sign directing people to an insurance company where they can sign up for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare in Miami, Fla in 2015. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

As ACA fight intensifies, GOP hears from 'freaked out' constituents

01/19/17 11:20AM

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) tried to deliver a speech at a rally this week, but she was interrupted by Affordable Care Act proponents. The Republican lawmaker, a member of the House GOP leadership, is part of the crusade to repeal "Obamacare," so ACA proponents chanted "save our health care" during her remarks.

Two days later, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) faced a similar reaction during a town-hall event in Grand Rapids -- which attracted a full crowd, with dozens more who tried to attend but couldn't get in.

It's like 2009 all over again, only flipped: instead of conservatives showing up to demand Congress reject the Affordable Care Act, now it's progressives showing up to demand Congress protect the reform law.

Of course, congressional Republicans could avoid confrontations like these by ending their effort to take away Americans' health security, but the Washington Post reports that GOP lawmakers are more inclined to start avoiding forums where ACA supporters might bother them.
Seven years after unruly Democratic town halls helped stoke public outrage over the Affordable Care Act, Republicans now appear keen to avoid the kind of dust-ups capable of racking up millions of views on YouTube and ending up in a 2018 campaign commercial. Only a handful of GOP lawmakers have held or are planning to host in-person town hall meetings open to all comers -- the sort of large-scale events that helped feed the original Obamacare backlash in the summer of 2009.
The Post's article noted a related anecdote: Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) hosted a discussion with constituents yesterday via Facebook, with lots of questions about health care. While Tillis's office "had advertised a 30-minute event, the senator ultimately appeared on camera for 11 minutes, answering eight questions read to him by a staff member."

The North Carolina Republican assured attendees that a "replace strategy" exists -- Tillis did not explain what that strategy is -- and he ignored "the follow-up questions that popped up in the comments alongside his video."

When Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) snuck out the back of an Aurora library over the weekend, steering clear of constituents who wanted to tell him not to take away their insurance, it was an opening salvo of sorts, which was no doubt noticed by his Republican colleagues.

Hiding from voters, however, isn't a sustainable solution.
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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks while meeting with President-elect Donald Trump following a meeting in the Oval Office Nov. 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

The literary dividing line between Trump and Obama

01/19/17 10:46AM

The list of differences between Barack Obama and Donald Trump is exhausting to even think about, but yesterday, we were reminded of one dissimilarity that was especially striking.

The New York Times sat down last week with the outgoing president to focus on Obama's love of books.
Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped -- in his life, convictions and outlook on the world -- by reading and writing as Barack Obama.

Last Friday, seven days before his departure from the White House, Mr. Obama sat down in the Oval Office and talked about the indispensable role that books have played during his presidency and throughout his life -- from his peripatetic and sometimes lonely boyhood, when "these worlds that were portable" provided companionship, to his youth when they helped him to figure out who he was, what he thought and what was important.

During his eight years in the White House -- in a noisy era of information overload, extreme partisanship and knee-jerk reactions -- books were a sustaining source of ideas and inspiration, and gave him a renewed appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition.
The transcript of the interview is worth your time, if only to get a better sense of just how much importance the president places on the written word.

"At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted, the ability to slow down and get perspective, along with the ability to get in somebody else's shoes -- those two things have been invaluable to me," Obama said. "Whether they've made me a better president, I can't say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years."

A couple of days later, Trump talked to Axios' co-founders, Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei, and the reporters asked the incoming president about his own appreciation for books. One asked, for example, what's on his nightstand.
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