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In this March 10, 2016 photo, Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General, gestures as he speaks during an interview in Oklahoma City, Okla. (Photo by Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Trump's EPA chief keeps finding himself in hot water

04/26/17 09:20AM

The principal problem with Scott Pruitt leading the Environmental Protection Agency is that he appears to be overtly hostile, not only to environmental protections in general, but to the work of the agency he leads in specific.

But while Pruitt's work as the EPA chief is itself controversial, there are several other controversies swirling around Pruitt directly that, in a normal administration, might very well put the Oklahoma Republican's career in jeopardy.

We've learned recently, for example, that Pruitt used private email to conduct official business, though he gave sworn congressional testimony in which he said the opposite. Pruitt is also accused of illegally hiding correspondence that documented his cooperation with the oil and gas industries during his tenure as Oklahoma's attorney general. As if this weren't enough, there's also evidence pointing to Pruitt's role in a botched execution in Oklahoma.

And yesterday, yet another controversy emerged regarding the EPA administrator's work.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt is violating a federal anti-campaigning law with an upcoming Republican fundraiser, a Senate Democrat says.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) sent a letter Tuesday to Carolyn Lerner, the head of the Office of Special Counsel, seeking an investigation into Pruitt's plan to be the keynote speaker an Oklahoma Republican Party gala next week.
This doesn't look great for the far-right EPA chief.
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Image: Trump Attends the National Governors Association Meeting

Laughable White House claim: Trump has 'rebuilt' US global standing

04/26/17 08:43AM

With Donald Trump and his team struggling to spin the president's 100th day in office, it makes sense for the White House to point to vague accomplishments that are inherently subjective. Trump likes to point, for example, to the nation's improved "spirit" in the wake of his inauguration, which may seem silly, but it's a claim that's difficult to disprove because there's nothing specific or quantifiable to examine.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer rolled out a related pitch at yesterday's briefing:
"The world is responding to the leadership that the president is bringing under this -- bringing to Washington. In all, during his first 100 days, the president has made 68 calls with 38 different world leaders, and hosted a total of 16 bilateral meetings. The president has rebuilt America's standing in the world."
The number of phone calls may be accurate -- although with this White House, one shouldn't make too many assumptions -- but chatting with world leaders doesn't exactly offer evidence of leadership. Trump, after all, spoke with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull by phone soon after taking office, and that was a disaster.

But I'm fascinated by the White House's broader, vaguer belief that Trump has "rebuilt America's standing in the world." At least for now, that's tough to prove or disprove by any quantifiable metrics, but it's still pretty easy to laugh at Spicer's latest boast.
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In Trump's latest defeat, court smacks down another executive order

04/26/17 08:00AM

After railing against presidential executive orders for a couple of years as a candidate, Donald Trump and his White House team have dramatically changed course, bragging about the Republican's penchant for executive orders. That may not have been wise.

While Team Trump points to these orders as evidence of the administration's governing progress, the fact remains that many of the directives are little more than glorified press releases, with little to no policy impact. As for the orders that are substantively significant, the president keeps finding those policies blocked in the courts.
A federal judge Tuesday blunted the impact of one of President Donald Trump's executive orders on immigration, forbidding the White House from withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities --local governments that limit police cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

Federal District Court Judge William Orrick issued a nationwide injunction in response to a lawsuit filed by San Francisco and nearby Santa Clara County. They argued that the president's January 25th executive order, declaring sanctuary cities ineligible to receive federal grants, was unconstitutional.
In an injunction (pdf) that reflected the judge's apparent annoyance with the Trump administration's bad argument, Orrick wrote, "Federal funding that bears no meaningful relationship to immigration enforcement cannot be threatened merely because a jurisdiction chooses an immigration enforcement strategy of which the President disapproves."

The White House can't say it wasn't warned ahead of time that this would happen. Pretty much everyone told Team Trump it was likely to lose this case -- and that's exactly what's happening.

Making matters slightly worse, while the Justice Department's attorneys were in court arguing that the president's executive order was very narrow in scope, Trump and his White House team were saying the opposite in public, and the judge in this case chose to take the president's own words seriously.

Or as Orrick put it, "If there was doubt about the scope of the Order, the President and Attorney General have erased it with their public comments."
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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 4.25.17

04/25/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* When does all the winning start? "A federal judge in California on Tuesday temporarily blocked the Trump administration's efforts to withhold funding from cities that limit their cooperation with federal immigration enforcement"

* Try not to be surprised: "The campaign of French presidential front-runner Emmanuel Macron appears to have been targeted by hackers who may be linked to Russia."

* The key, apparently, was to simply ignore Trump's demands: "The down-payment on construction of a border wall that President Donald Trump had sought has been dropped as part of the latest GOP proposal for a spending bill to prevent a government shutdown at the end of this week."

* Arkansas "executed two death row inmates, both convicted murderers, Monday night, making it the first state to carry out two death sentences on one day since 2000."

* Sessions is ignoring Trump's pronouncements on this: "Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed on Monday that the Trump administration would vigorously prosecute white-collar crime amid concerns that such cases would fall by the wayside in favor of higher-profile priorities like violent crime and illegal immigration."

* The president sure does like retired generals: "The White House announced Tuesday that Randolph D. 'Tex' Alles, a senior customs official and retired Marine Corps general, would take over the U.S. Secret Service, becoming the agency's 25th director."

* I seem to recall Bush doing the same thing: "The Trump administration announced it will impose a 20 percent tariff on imported softwood lumber from Canada."
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Image: President Trump and Prime Minister Abe Press Conference at White House

Bipartisan agreement: Michael Flynn may have broken law

04/25/17 05:00PM

Remember when Donald Trump's former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, was seeking an immunity deal? It may have been out of concern that he broke a law or two.
Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn might have violated the law by not disclosing payments from the governments of Russia and Turkey, the bipartisan leaders of the House Oversight Committee said Tuesday.

"As a former military officer, you simply cannot take money from Russia, Turkey or anybody else. And it appears as if he did take that money. It was inappropriate, and there are repercussions for the violation of law," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the chair of the committee, told reporters.
Let's note for the record that Chaffetz hasn't exactly been overly aggressive in holding Trump administration officials accountable for alleged misdeeds, so the fact that even the Utah Republican is publicly expressing concerns about this adds important context.

Indeed, when he spoke to reporters today, Chaffetz stood alongside House Oversight Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who went on to note that the Trump White House has "refused" to provide the oversight panel "with a single piece of paper in response to our bipartisan request, and that is unacceptable."

On that same point, the White House claiming executive privilege is apparently on the table as a possible response to congressional requests for information.

Of particular interest in this case was Flynn's application for security clearance, in which he was legally required to disclose foreign payments, but in this case, the retired general did not. Though his wording was a little clunky, Jason Chaffetz suggested to NBC News that Flynn may have broken the law.

"I see no information or no data to support the notion that Gen. Flynn complied with the law," Chaffetz said.

Of course, a related question is why in the world the White House didn't vet Flynn thoroughly before he was named as the president's National Security Advisor. Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters today Flynn filled out the appropriate forms, which may be true, but it doesn't explain why officials didn't examine those forms to see if the information therein was accurate.

This isn't especially complicated: if Flynn failed to follow the law and disclose the payments, was there no one in the administration responsible for due diligence?
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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump brags about executive orders he used to condemn

04/25/17 12:53PM

Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Obama, asked a question of increasing relevance yesterday: "Remember when the GOP thought that signing executive orders during the week and playing golf on the weekend would cause the Republic to fall?"

Why, yes, I do remember that.

As Donald Trump's 100th day as president quickly approaches, the White House has found itself with a difficult rhetorical pitch. On the one hand, Trump continues to say that the 100-day standard is "ridiculous" and unimportant, and the media's preoccupation with the metric is a needless distraction. On the other hand, Trump and his team are desperate to tell everyone what an amazing 100-day stretch it's been for the Republican administration. (The New York Times' headline on this was perfect: "Trump Wants It Known: Grading 100 Days Is 'Ridiculous' (but His Were the Best")

With this in mind, the Trump White House issued a press statement today insisting that this president "has accomplished more in his first 100 days than any other President since Franklin Roosevelt." As proof, the White House's press office noted, "President Trump will have signed 30 executive orders during his first 100 days" -- the most seen from any chief executive since World War II.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to look at this boast from Team Trump. The first is to focus on substance, which doesn't do the White House any favors. The Guardian had a good report on this yesterday:
From the desk of the Oval Office to the podium at rallies filled with throngs of supporters, Trump has hailed his executive actions as "big stuff" and "very, very important". The flick of his pen is promoted by the White House a major "win" and a promise kept to voters.

"TRUMP TAKES ACTIONS TO GET WASHINGTON OUT OF THE WAY," blared the subject line of one email blast touting a rollback federal regulations.

But an analysis of Trump's executive actions as he nears the 100th day of his presidency on Saturday -- which thus far includes 25 executive orders, 24 memorandums and 20 proclamations -- show that Trump's actions are more cosmetic than they are substantive. Many of the actions establish big goals, but few provide legislative prescriptions. They order agency reviews and studies, ask for recommendations or tinker at the margins of existing law.
Some of these measures, in other words, are less examples of governing and more examples of issuing glorified press releases. The Guardian spoke to Cristina Rodríguez, a law professor at Yale University who covers constitutional and administrative law, who explained, "A lot of it is for show."
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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.25.17

04/25/17 12:00PM

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

* In Virginia's competitive Democratic gubernatorial primary, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has weighed in, throwing her support behind former Rep. Tom Perriello (D). Perriello will face Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) in a June 13 primary.

* A Republican judge in North Carolina resigned yesterday, in part to protest the increasingly ridiculous tactics from Republicans in the state legislature to shape the state judiciary in brazenly partisan ways.

* In Georgia, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) ran into a little trouble yesterday for using his official website to help Jon Ossoff's special-election campaign. After a conservative group called the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) complained, Johnson's office removed the content.

* Looking ahead to next year's midterms, Politico reported yesterday, "Potential GOP candidates whom party leaders want to recruit are afraid of walking into a buzz saw, uncertain about what kind of political environment they'll be facing by the time the midterms come around."

* Kellyanne Conway went on an extended riff this morning on the ambiguity of who leads the Democratic Party in 2017, which isn't an unreasonable point, except she added, "Is it any one of these septuagenarians like Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden?" A septuagenarian is someone between the ages of 70 and 79. Donald Trump -- Conway's boss and the ostensible head of the Republican Party -- is the oldest American president ever elected, turning 70 last June.
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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Orders Regarding Trade

Under Trump, the era of big government is making a comeback

04/25/17 11:23AM

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released this week found that 57% of the country believes the government should do more to solve problems and meet the needs of Americans, as compared to 39% who believe the government is doing too much. That's striking at face value, but consider some historical context.

This same poll has been asking this same question for more than two decades, and these results are the most progressive responses ever seen.

The Pew Research Center's latest results on a similar question were a little different, but the data nevertheless pointed to a similar trend in Americans' attitudes.
As Congress faces an April 28 deadline to fund government operations, the public is now split in their general preferences on the size and scope of government: 48% say they would rather have a bigger government providing more services, while 45% prefer a smaller government providing fewer services.

This marks the first time in eight years that as many Americans have expressed a preference for a bigger as a smaller government. Support for bigger government has increased 7 percentage points since last September, when more said they preferred a smaller government offering fewer services (50%) than a bigger government providing more services (41%). The last time the public was divided on this question was in October 2008, just prior to the election of Barack Obama.
The same national survey pointed to growing support among Americans for increased government spending on a wide range of public priorities, including benefits for veterans, education, infrastructure, health care, and scientific research.

The next question is what's driving the changes in Americans' attitudes.
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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

Public, GOP not on the same page on health care, Russia scandal

04/25/17 10:40AM

In recent months, Republicans have worked from the assumption that the American electorate wants GOP policymakers to take a sledgehammer to the Affordable Care Act. After all, the thinking goes, Republicans made their contempt for "Obamacare" a key aspect of their 2016 platform, and voters rewarded the party with great power.

But the GOP is clearly misreading its mandate. Quinnipiac's latest national poll asked respondents, "Do you think that Republicans in Congress should try to repeal and replace Obamacare again, or do you think they should move on to other issues?" The results weren't close: only 36% of the public wants GOP lawmakers to keep trying, while 60% want Republicans to move on.

Other polling is pointing in the same direction.
As President Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress gear up for another attempt at repealing and replacing Obamacare, an ABC News/Washington Post poll finds broad public preference for keeping and improving it -- including high levels of support for some of its key components.

Just 37 percent of Americans in the national survey say Obamacare should be repealed and replaced; 61 percent say it should be kept and fixed instead. Even more broadly, the public by 79-13 percent says Trump should seek to make the current law work as well as possible, not to make it fail as soon as possible, a strategy he's suggested.
Making matters slightly worse for Republicans, 62% of Americans support nationwide minimum insurance coverage standards (which the GOP is prepared to eliminate), and 70% support mandatory protections for those with pre-existing conditions (which the GOP is also prepared to scrap).

The trend line has to be even more discouraging for the right. As recently as January, this same poll found that 46% of American supporting repealing the ACA, while 47% were against the idea. After listening to the Republicans' pitch and seeing their alternative, it's 37% to 61% -- a striking shift in a short amount of time.

As the White House renews its pressure on congressional Republicans to advance the party's woefully unpopular reform package, polling like this is likely to weigh heavily on GOP lawmakers who are on the fence. With a rough midterm cycle on tap for next year, how eager are they to do the exact opposite of what most of the American mainstream wants on an issue of critical significance?
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Ivanka and Donald Trump in Aston, Pa. where they outlined Trump's proposal on childcare on Sept. 13, 2016. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC)

Ivanka Trump's influence reaches unprecedented heights

04/25/17 10:14AM

The Women20 summit got underway this morning in Berlin, and the guest list featured some extraordinarily accomplished individuals. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is hosting the event, appearing alongside speakers such as International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, among others.

It was therefore a bit jarring to see Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump's 35-year-old daughter, on hand for the event.
Ivanka Trump was in Germany on Tuesday on her first international trip as a member of her father's presidential team. In doing so, the billionaire's daughter stepped into a land that prides itself on meritocracy. [...]

While Ivanka Trump was in Berlin to promote women, the president himself was front and center during a panel discussion at the summit. The first daughter defended Donald Trump after a handful of attendees booed and groaned when she mentioned his name, saying he had encouraged "thousands" of women who worked for him.
It's worth noting that Merkel invited Ivanka Trump to participate in today's gathering.

There's been a fair amount of scrutiny in recent months over Donald Trump giving his 36-year-old son-in-law, Jared Kushner, an almost comically expansive policy portfolio, despite Kushner having no experience in government or public service. But Ivanka Trump's role in her father's administration is quickly reaching  comparable levels, despite her own lack of relevant background.

Yesterday, for example, Ivanka Trump had a piece in the Financial Times on women in the developing world -- an important topic the president's daughter has no background in. A few hours later, Donald Trump was in the Oval Office, speaking to the International Space Station, with Ivanka Trump at his side.

She's the first presidential daughter (or son) to have an office in the West Wing. She's one of the few presidential advisers to have her own chief of staff. She's offering the president guidance on matters of national security. She's meeting with world leaders -- while the business she still owns expands its opportunities in those leaders' countries.
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Image: President Trump Meets With The National Association of Manufacturers

The problem with Trump's massive corporate tax cut

04/25/17 09:20AM

With Donald Trump's presidency nearing its 100th day, the White House is, by all appearances, feeling a little antsy about its lack of accomplishments. It's one of the reasons Team Trump is scrambling this week to fund the government without a shutdown, push Republicans on health care, and unveil some vague ideas about tax policy.

We'll reportedly see some kind of tax blueprint tomorrow, but in the meantime, the Wall Street Journal reports on one of the president's top new priorities.
President Donald Trump has ordered White House aides to draft a tax plan that slashes the corporate tax rate to 15%, even if that means a loss of revenue, according to people familiar with the directive.

During a meeting in the Oval Office last week, Mr. Trump told staff he wants a massive tax cut to sell to the American public, these people said. He told aides it was less important to him that such a plan could add to the federal budget deficit, though that might make it difficult to sell to GOP lawmakers who are wary of such a large tax cut.
It's worth pausing to note that the idea of congressional Republicans prioritizing the deficit over tax cuts is very hard to believe. GOP interest in balanced budgets has long been a ridiculous sham, used primarily as an excuse to reject popular Democratic priorities.

But even putting that aside, the White House's proposed corporate tax cut -- lowering the rate from 35% to 15% -- is worth paying close attention to. In fact, I heard from a Republican reader last night who made two points that we're likely to hear quite a bit: (1) the United States has one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world, so in the name of competitiveness, a reduction is necessary; and (2) President Obama proposed cutting the corporate tax rate, too, so there's no reason to see this as a purely partisan endeavor.

Do these points have merit? Not exactly.
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