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FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 27, 2016 before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on on terror threats. (Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

FBI's Comey confirms investigation into Team Trump's Russia ties

03/20/17 12:23PM

There's been some debate about whether Donald Trump's campaign operation is under a federal investigation or not. This morning, FBI Director James Comey ended that debate.
The FBI is investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with a covert Russian campaign to interfere with the U.S. presidential election, FBI Director James Comey told Congress Monday, an explosive disclosure that could shadow the Trump presidency.

In his opening statement at a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee, Comey said the investigation was being undertaken "as part of our counterintelligence mission," and that he could not disclose any details about it. Normally, he said, the FBI doesn't confirm or deny investigations, but it can make exceptions in cases of major public interest.
Specifically, Comey told the House Intelligence Committee, during its open hearing, that he's been authorized by the Justice Department to confirm that "the FBI, as part of our counter-intelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts. As with any counter-intelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment or whether any crimes were committed."

At a certain level, I can appreciate why this news is consistent with expectations -- because the political world has been discussing for months reports of precisely this kind of counter-intelligence investigation. Political observers have invested considerable energy into exploring the allegations -- and the implications of the allegations -- surrounding Russia's espionage operation to help elect Trump, and the possibility of people close to Trump playing some cooperative role in Moscow's efforts.

But before this morning, there were limits on what we knew for certain about the nature of probe. It's what makes Comey's acknowledgement so extraordinary: a president's campaign is under an FBI investigation. In a development so stunning, it's strange to even put in writing, federal investigators are exploring whether members of the president's campaign team cooperated with a foreign adversary's illegal scheme to influence the outcome of an American election.

This is not, in other words, just another day for American politics.
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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.20.17

03/20/17 12:00PM

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

* Donald Trump's approval rating in the latest Gallup daily tracking poll dropped to just 37% yesterday, while his disapproval reached 58%. This marks a new low in the president's support, and surpasses the worst ratings at any point in Barack Obama's presidency.

* On a related note, among post-Watergate presidents, Trump's 37% approval rating is easily the worst among his modern predecessors at this point into his first term.

* The American Hospital Association has launched a new television ad campaign criticizing the Republican health care plan. The spot reportedly began airing yesterday in the D.C. area "and on national television, including during the Sunday morning news shows."

* In Virginia's Democratic gubernatorial primary, most of the people in Hillary Clinton's orbit are supporting Lt Gov. Ralph Northam, which is why it came as something of a surprise to see John Podesta throw his support behind former Rep. Tom Perriello.

* Speaking of Virginia's gubernatorial race, Denver Riggleman (R) ended his long-shot bid late last week, after struggling to raise money for his campaign.

* Rep. Jim Renacci (R), a conservative four-term congressman, launched his gubernatorial campaign in Ohio this morning. In an apparent bid to tie himself to Trump's messaging, Renacci's new campaign website is OhioFirst.com.

* The Associated Press reported over the weekend on a new poll that found among U.S. voters age 30 or under, Trump's approval rating is just 22%. The same data found more than half of these younger voters don't see Trump's presidency as legitimate.
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Image: US President Donald J. Trump and Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel joint press conference

Trump doesn't understand NATO nearly as well as he thinks he does

03/20/17 11:24AM

Donald Trump has a variety of bad habits, but one of the more jarring is his tendency to comment on things he knows practically nothing about.

Trump loves to share his thoughts on the Affordable Care Act, for example, despite not understanding it in any meaningful way. He's had all kinds of things to say about "Brexit," even after admitting, "I don't think anybody should listen to me because I haven't really focused on it very much."

And then, there's NATO. The president shared some thoughts via Twitter over the weekend that were notable because they offered fresh evidence of Trump's confusion about another issue he claims to take seriously.
"Despite what you have heard from the FAKE NEWS, I had a GREAT meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nevertheless, Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!"
Trump's hostility towards the NATO alliance is well documented -- he called NATO "obsolete" as recently as January -- but the president's latest online missive suggests he still doesn't know what he's talking about.

Germany does not, in reality, owe "vast sums of money to NATO." As the New York Times reported, in a very polite way, "The message was misleading because no nation actually 'owes' money to NATO; its direct funding is calculated through a formula and paid by each of the 28 nations that are members. Mr. Trump may have been referring to the fact that Germany, like most NATO countries, falls short of the alliance's guideline that each member should allocate 2 percent of its gross domestic product to military spending, but that money is not intended to be paid to NATO or to the United States."
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Smoke rises after an U.S.-led air strike in the Syrian town of Kobani on Oct. 8, 2014.

Trump borrows from Obama for nation's 'new' ISIS plan

03/20/17 10:41AM

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump assured Americans he had amazing ideas for how best to annihilate ISIS. The Republican wouldn't tell voters what the plan entailed, of course, but rest assured, it was going to be awesome.

The first sign that Trump's plan may not actually exist, however, came on January 28, when the president signed an executive directive on the matter, effectively asking his national security team to come up with some kind of anti-ISIS plan for him. (For the record, the directive wasn't exactly necessary: Trump could've just given an order. That, however, wouldn't have been theatrical enough for this president.)

The Trump administration's plan has now taken shape, and as NBC News reported, it looks pretty familiar.
Donald Trump promised during the campaign to implement a "secret plan" to defeat ISIS, including a pledge to "bomb the hell out of" the terror group in Iraq and Syria.

Now, the Pentagon has given him a secret plan, but it turns out to be a little more than an "intensification" of the same slow and steady approach that Trump derided under the Obama administration, two senior officials who have reviewed the document told NBC News.

The plan calls for continued bombing; beefing up support and assistance to local forces to retake its Iraqi stronghold Mosul and ultimately the ISIS capital of Raqqa in Syria; drying up ISIS's sources of income; and stabilizing the areas retaken from ISIS, the officials say.
In other words, Trump, after condemning Obama's strategy, is now implementing Obama's strategy. A New York Times report added today that, with limited exceptions, Trump officials "have shown few other signs that they want to back away from Mr. Obama's strategy."

Retired Admiral James Stavridis, an NBC News analyst, added, "The current plan to defeat the Islamic State is just like that old saying: Plan B is just, 'Try harder at Plan A.'"
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Senate candidate, Rep. Bill Cassidy, left, talks to the media in Shreveport, La. on Oct. 14, 2014.

GOP senator acknowledges Americans' 'right' to health care

03/20/17 10:00AM

In Democratic and progressive circles, Americans' right to health security is a given, on par with citizens' rights to public education and access to clean water. But in Republican circles, the resistance to such an idea is strong. Once the public believes Americans are entitled to affordable health care, simply as a basic proponent of citizenship, GOP plans in this area become untenable.

It was therefore surprising to see Sen. Bill Cassidy (R) of Louisiana offer these comments to the New York Times.
"The folks who Hillary Clinton called the 'deplorables' are actually those who want better coverage, who we'd be hurting if we don't change this bill," Mr. Cassidy said, noting that Mr. Trump promised "he'd give them better care."

The senator, a physician who once worked in his state's charity hospital network, bluntly said that the philosophical debate was over and that his party ought to be pragmatic about how best to create a more cost-efficient and comprehensive health care system.

"There's a widespread recognition that the federal government, Congress, has created the right for every American to have health care," he said, warning that to throw people off their insurance or make coverage unaffordable would only shift costs back to taxpayers by burdening emergency rooms. "If you want to be fiscally responsible, then coverage is better than no coverage."
The Times' report added that this is roughly in line with the attitudes of many Republican voters themselves: the latest Pew Research Center report found that most GOP voters who make below $30,000 a year "believe the federal government has a responsibility to ensure health coverage for all."

It's an important development for a few reasons. First, it's a reminder as to why congressional Republicans fought tooth and nail to kill the Affordable Care Act in the first place: once Americans have an important social-insurance benefit, and families come to rely on it, scrapping the benefit becomes politically unrealistic.

If "the right for every American to have health care" now exists, Democrats and Republicans can argue about the details of how best to recognize that right, not whether the right deserves to be recognized in the first place.
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ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson delivers remarks on the release of a report by the National Petroleum Council on oil drilling in the Arctic, on March 27, 2015, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

Tillerson: 'I'm not a big media press access person'

03/20/17 09:20AM

About a month ago, Politico reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was concerned about public perceptions surrounding his work. The more people -- inside the United States and around the world -- believed the former ExxonMobil CEO was out of the loop when it came to the White House's major foreign policy decisions, the harder it would be for him to do his job.

To that end, the report said Tillerson "asked his aides to find ways to improve his media profile."

A month later, either Tillerson's priorities have changed or someone has changed his priorities for him. Slate explained:
It was already clear Secretary of State Rex Tillerson doesn't really see the press as a priority. He has avoided public events and broke with tradition by refusing to allow journalists to join him on his first major mission to Asia. Now he has made his dislike of the media official, telling conservative outlet Independent Journal Review, the only one allowed to accompany Tillerson on his trip, that he sees journalists as mere pawns to transcribe the administration's message.

"I'm not a big media press access person," he said. "I personally don't need it."
Of course, in his capacity as the nation's chief diplomat, Tillerson's needs aren't nearly as important as our needs. He now helps speak for 319 million Americans, not the stock holders of an oil giant.

Traditionally, secretaries of state have seen interaction with journalists as an integral part of the job. Tillerson -- who, like Trump, had literally zero experience in public service before joining the administration's cabinet -- doesn't seem to care.
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Donald Trump joins in the celebration of the opening of his championship golf course in Sterling, Va., June 23, 2015, (Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan/The Washington Post/Getty)

Trump and his team don't want to talk about his golf game

03/20/17 08:40AM

Donald Trump played golf again over the weekend at his course in Florida, marking the 11th time he's hit the links since taking office eight weeks ago. Under normal circumstances, no one would care about this, since just about every modern president has done the same thing.

But with Trump, the circumstances are a little different. A month ago, for example, White House officials gave misleading information about the president's time on the course, and yesterday, as the New York Times noted, Team Trump seemed reluctant to say much of anything on the subject.
President Trump spent seven hours this weekend at Trump International Golf Club here, where a crisp breeze and cloudless skies beckoned golf lovers to the manicured 27-hole course.

Did he play any golf? "Very little," Mr. Trump told reporters traveling with him on Sunday on Air Force One back to Washington.... The White House refused to provide any details.... Questions about whether the commander in chief also indulged in his favorite game went unanswered by White House officials traveling with the president.
We know, however, that Trump did play. One of the president's friends posted a picture online leaving little doubt, and Trump's "very little" comment made clear that the golf outing, which his aides were reluctant to acknowledge, actually happened.

As I've noted before, I'm not at all inclined to criticize Trump for wanting to golf, It's a tough job, and presidents should unwind however they want. It's not something the public should get too worked up about.

But while I don't care if Trump hits the links, I do care about hypocrisy and secrecy. The fact that the president golfs is less important than the fact that he routinely promised voters before the election that he'd do the opposite.
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Image: US-GERMANY-TRUMP-MERKEL

Donald Trump is running out of foreign leaders to alienate

03/20/17 08:00AM

It's a scene so familiar, it's almost a cliché: a foreign leader visits the White House, and there's an Oval Office photo op in front of the room's fireplace. The American president is on the right, the foreign leader is on the left, and the two share a hearty handshake to demonstrate a friendly, cooperative relationship.

In the Trump era, the scene has been rewritten. Last month, the U.S. president welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the White House, and Trump repeatedly pulled the Japanese leader's arm as some kind of bizarre power move, culminating in a hilarious post-shake look from Shinzo. Last week, as The New Republic noted, it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel's turn to sit across from Donald Trump, leading to "one of the most cringe-inducing staged events in political history."
Studiously avoiding talking to or even looking at each other, both world leaders strongly suggested they couldn't wait to stop being in each other's company.... When Merkel asked if Trump wanted to shake hands, he ignored her.

It could be that she was speaking too softly, although he also paid no heed to the photographers echoing her requests. Whether out of inadvertence or deliberate rudeness, with perhaps a tinge of sexism in the mix, Trump finished his encounter with Merkel on a note of disdain.
The same afternoon, the U.S. president made a bizarre joke about the NSA having monitored Merkel's communications, needlessly raising a point of contention between the two countries in order for Trump to further his new favorite anti-Obama conspiracy.

Soon after, Merkel participated in a White House meeting, where she was inexplicably seated next to the president's adult daughter, Ivanka Trump. "On a day filled with awkward moments," Politico noted, "probably none was more cringe-worthy to German eyes than the picture of the president's glamorous daughter ... perched next to no-nonsense Merkel as she praised her father's commitment to job creation."

Perhaps this was to be expected. Trump repeatedly complained about Merkel during his campaign, accusing her of "ruining Germany" and being a "catastrophic leader." The Republican even tried to start an anti-Clinton hashtag campaign: "#AmericasMerkel." It wasn't a compliment.

But at a certain point, it's hard not to wonder how many more foreign allies Trump intends to offend.
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Friday's Mini-Report, 3.17.17

03/17/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* I wish I understood why he says the things he says: "President Donald Trump used a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to deflect criticism about his unsubstantiated claim that the Obama administration spied on him, reviving a sensitive diplomatic incident in which the U.S. was revealed to have snooped on her cell phone."

* Making a bad bill worse: "President Trump signed on to a pair of changes to the House Republican health plan and declared '100 percent' backing for it Friday, moving to consolidate support among GOP lawmakers in hopes of moving it through the House next week."

* On a related note: "The latest group to oppose the GOP plan is Consumers Union, which scored the proposed plan. 'In the AHCA many millions of Americans, from children to seniors, will be left uninsured or with insurance that falls short of their needs,' the report card from Consumers Union says. 'The bill provides less coverage at a higher cost for consumers than the ACA.'"

* The inevitable appeal: "The Trump administration filed court papers Friday hoping to salvage its second version of a travel ban, after two judges in separate cases this week found it likely violated the Constitution."

* A story worth watching closely: "Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who was removed from his post by the Trump administration last week, was overseeing an investigation into stock trades made by the president's health secretary, according to a person familiar with the office."

* Russia ties: "A Reuters review found that at least 63 individuals with Russian passports or addresses have bought at least $98.4 million worth of property in seven Trump-branded luxury towers in southern Florida."
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