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Thursday's Mini-Report, 1.12.17

01/12/17 05:31PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A surprising moment: "President Obama awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to a shocked Vice President Biden on Thursday at the White House. Biden and the president had gathered for what the White House had described as a final tribute to the vice president."

* James Clapper; "The outgoing U.S. director of national intelligence has extended an olive branch of sorts to Donald Trump -- denouncing media leaks, casting skepticism on a report that Russia has damaging material on the president-elect, and assuring Trump that America's spies stand ready to serve him."

* The vote was 81 to 17: "The Senate has approved a waiver that would allow retired Gen. James Mattis to serve as secretary of defense, granting a rare exception to a law meant that requires military veterans to have been out of uniform for at least seven years before taking the top job at the Pentagon."

* We're going to have to talk about this: "Ben Carson would not answer whether President-elect Donald Trump could benefit from Department of Housing and Urban Develop loans during a fierce line of questioning from Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren at his confirmation hearing Thursday."

* On a related note, Carson was supposed to read an opening statement that included plagiarized text. Instead, he "departed almost completely from the prepared text."

* A VW-like controversy: "The Environmental Protection Agency accused Fiat Chrysler on Thursday of installing software that enables certain diesel trucks to emit far more pollutants than emissions laws allow. The company denied those accusations, saying its software meets regulatory requirements."

* Climate crisis: "How we view the costs of future climate change, and more importantly how we quantify them, may soon be changing. A much-anticipated new report, just released by the National Academy of Sciences, recommends major updates to a federal metric known as the 'social cost of carbon' --  and its suggestions could help address a growing scientific concern that we're underestimating the damages global warming will cause."

* Republicans routinely ignore the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: "The largest U.S. business lobby group on Wednesday said it could be a mistake to quickly repeal Obamacare without developing a replacement healthcare insurance plan and urged the incoming Trump administration not to erect trade barriers."
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A trader works at the Goldman Sachs stall on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, April 16, 2012.

Despite promises, Trump keeps adding Goldman Sachs vets to his team

01/12/17 04:11PM

Given everything Donald Trump said during the campaign, it's almost hard to believe how many Goldman Sachs veterans he's adding to his administration's team. Politico reported yesterday:
Dina Powell, a Goldman Sachs partner with deep ties to both Republicans and Democrats in Washington, is leaving the bank to join the Trump administration in a senior role that will focus on entrepreneurship, economic growth and the empowerment of women, people familiar with the matter said. She is expected to work closely with President-elect Donald Trump's daughter, Ivanka, and her highly influential husband, Jared Kushner.

Powell, president of the Goldman Sachs Foundation and a major advocate for women, would instantly become one of the more powerful people in Trump's Washington.
This afternoon, the Washington Post's Robert Costa reported that Anthony Scaramucci, who also worked for Goldman Sachs, is also joining Team Trump as a "confidant" to the president.

If announcements like this one seem familiar, there's a very good reason. As regular readers know, she's hardly alone in making the transition. Steven Mnuchin, Trump's choice for Treasury Secretary, is a Goldman Sachs veteran. Steve Bannon, Trump's chief White House strategist, is a Goldman Sachs veteran. Gary Cohn, who's been offered the directorship of Trump's National Economic Council, is the president and chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs. Jay Clayton, Trump's nominee to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission, is a Goldman Sachs attorney.

And now Powell and Scaramucci joining the team, too. None of this would be especially noteworthy were it not for the way in which the president-elect used the Wall Street giant as a combination wedge/punching bag.
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FBI Director James Comey takes questions from members of the media during a news conference, Nov. 18, 2014, in Boston. (Photo by Steven Senne/AP)

Justice Department to investigate Comey, FBI election activities

01/12/17 02:35PM

There's no shortage of observers who've argued, persuasively, that FBI Director James Comey made reckless decisions at critical moments, which in turn helped put Donald Trump in the White House. Indeed, as recent developments have made clear, Comey had evidence of illegal Russian intervention in support of Trump and questions about possible Hillary Clinton emails on Anthony Weiner's laptop.

With just days remaining ahead of Election Day, and with early voting already underway, the FBI director went public with the latter, not the former. When Comey testified on Capitol Hill this week that he "would never comment on investigations" publicly, it drew sardonic laughter.

But given the larger context, none of this is funny. In fact, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz announced today he is moving forward with an investigation "how the FBI and Justice Department handled certain aspects of the Hillary Clinton email investigation."
[Horowitz's probe] will include a review of FBI Director James Comey's news conference in July and his two letters to lawmakers in late October and early November.

"In response to requests from numerous Chairmen and Ranking Members of Congressional oversight committees, various organizations, and members of the public, the Office of the Inspector General will initiate a review of allegations regarding certain actions by the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in advance of the 2016 election," the Justice Department said.
The scope of the review matters. Comey's late-October letter had a direct role in dictating the outcome of the presidential campaign, but the question surrounding the FBI's election-year activities go further than that one misguided-but-consequential letter.
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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)

Trump's CIA chief nominee 'can't imagine' being asked to torture

01/12/17 12:41PM

When Donald Trump tapped Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) to lead the CIA, civil-liberties proponents howled. As a far-right congressman, Pompeo pushed an aggressively conservative line on issues such as government surveillance, detention facilities, and even torture.

Indeed, when the Senate Intelligence Community released a report in 2014 on Bush-era "enhanced interrogation," the Kansas Republican not only condemned the document's publication, but said of the relevant officials, "These men and women are not torturers, they are patriots.... The programs being used were within the law, within the Constitution."

As his CIA confirmation hearing got underway this morning, however, Pompeo adopted a very different posture. The Hill reported:
Donald Trump's pick to lead the CIA on Thursday told lawmakers that he would "absolutely not" comply with an order from the president-elect to resume the use of interrogation techniques considered by the international community to be torture.

"Moreover, I can't imagine that I would be asked that by the president-elect," Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) said in response to questions from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).... Asked if he could commit to senators that the CIA is "out of the enhanced interrogation business," Pompeo affirmed that, "You have my full commitment."
First, while the testimony was encouraging, this certainly seems to be a departure from comments the congressman has made in the past.

Second, Pompeo "can't imagine" being asked by the Trump White House to adopt torture policies? That's odd -- because I find it pretty easy to imagine it.
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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.12.17

01/12/17 12:00PM

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

* Donald Trump recently spoke to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and tried to persuade him to change parties. The West Virginia Democrat, the most conservative Dem in the chamber, declined.

* Asked this morning about the president-elect's conflicts of interest, Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, said, "The president by law does not have conflicts. It's a somewhat silly conversation."

* Former Attorney General Eric Holder will reportedly kick off his anti-gerrymandering initiative with a speech at the Center for American Progress today. "[President Obama] thinks, and I think, that this is something that threatens our democracy," Holder told the New York Times yesterday.

* Barring any unexpected legislative developments, Vice President Joe Biden will become the first vice president in American history to serve two full terms and not cast any tie-breaking votes.

* As Rachel noted on the show the other day, Coretta Scott King wrote a pretty powerful letter in 1986 speaking out against Jeff Sessions' judicial nomination. Now that the Alabama Republican is up for Attorney General, the message is newly relevant.

* Speaking of news from last night's show, in an unexpected development, Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub spoke out publicly yesterday, criticizing Trump's plan to deal with his conflicts of interest.

* Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas) this morning called on CNN to fire Jim Acosta for being "disrespectful" towards Trump at yesterday's press conference and "disrupting" the event. I have a hunch that's not going to happen.
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Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks during an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

Giuliani will give Trump a hand with 'the cyber'

01/12/17 11:26AM

In the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State spoke in some detail about Russian cyber-crimes and Vladimir Putin's government using technology to undermine its adversaries. The political world was too focused on her emails to appreciate the seriousness of her comments.

But in response, Trump's answer referred to "the cyber" and insisted the United States must get "very tough on cyber." The Republican quickly added, "I have a son. He's 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it's unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it's hardly doable."

Nearly four months later, I still don't know what Trump was trying to say, exactly.

Regardless, the president-elect -- who yesterday said he wants credit for the RNC's security software -- clearly needs some help when it comes to this issue. As the Wall Street Journal noted, Trump has turned to Rudy Giuliani.
President-elect Donald Trump said Thursday that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani would play what appears to be an unofficial role advising him on cybersecurity and private-sector developments in this area.

Mr. Giuliani has been a longtime adviser to Mr. Trump and was under consideration to be secretary of state. In an announcement Thursday morning, Mr. Trump did not give Mr. Giuliani an official title for this new role, saying only that he will be "sharing his expertise and insight as a trusted friend."
It's not at all clear what Giuliani will do, or whether the former mayor will serve on Trump's new cybersecurity panel which is supposed to present him with policy suggestions 90 days after he takes office.

This may, in other words, be a courtesy role Trump is giving to someone who was passed over for assorted cabinet posts.
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During a campaign rally Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reads a statement made by Michelle Fields, on March 29, 2016 in Janesville, Wis. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)

Trump not above using his notoriety to reward allies, punish critics

01/12/17 10:54AM

The New York Times had an interesting article this week about the health care industry and its anxieties surrounding the changes Donald Trump and congressional Republicans intend to impose on the system. The piece, however, was a little short on quotes, and as it turns out, there was a specific reason for that.

"Some companies, anxious about changes in health policy, said they were afraid to speak out because they feared that Mr. Trump would attack them on Twitter, as he has badgered Boeing, Ford, General Motors, Lockheed Martin and Toyota," the Times explained.

President Obama spoke at MacDill Air Force Base last month, where he celebrated one of the great American freedoms: we can "criticize a president without retribution." Evidently, that freedom is a little less secure in the Trump era.

Indeed, the New York Times' report followed a related piece on tech companies on the West coast adjusting their schedules, making sure "someone is up at 3 a.m. local time to catch the [president-elect's] tweets out of fear that a Trump tweet could crash their stock and put their company into a frenzy."

As it turns out, the president-elect isn't just intimidating potential critics; as he demonstrated on Twitter this morning, he also wants to use his notoriety to reward allies.
"Thank you to Linda Bean of L.L.Bean for your great support and courage. People will support you even more now. Buy L.L.Bean."
Apparently, Linda Bean, the granddaughter of L.L. Bean's founder and a member of the company's board of directors, made an illegally large campaign contribution to a pro-Trump political action committee. This prompted some on the left to announce they'll no longer buy from the national retailer.
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Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) speaks during the DC March for Jobs, July 15, 2013.

Defending Sessions, GOP congressman sees a 'war on whites'

01/12/17 10:05AM

Sen. Jeff Sessions' (R-Ala.) nomination to be the next Attorney General is facing considerable pushback from civil-rights organizations, and for good reason. By any fair measure, the Alabama Republican's record on race and civil rights is deeply controversial.

But for some of his allies, this isn't a legitimate subject of inquiry. Indeed, as CNN reported, one of Sessions' Alabama congressional colleagues believes the GOP senator is a victim -- facing discrimination because of the color of his skin.
Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks said in a radio interview on Tuesday that criticism of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who is Donald Trump's pick to be attorney general, is part of an ongoing "war on whites" by Democrats.

"It's really about political power and racial division and what I've referred to on occasion as the 'war on whites.' They are trying to motivate the African-American vote to vote-bloc for Democrats by using every 'Republican is a racist' tool that they can envision," the Republican congressman said on "The Morning Show With Toni & Gary" on WBHP 800 Alabama radio. "Even if they have to lie about it."
Brooks, a far-right congressman with an unsettling record of rhetorical and political excesses, is considered a top contender for Sessions' Senate seat if his nomination is confirmed.

And if Brooks' concerns about a "war on whites" sounds familiar, there's a good reason for that.
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Image: *** BESTPIX *** President-Elect Donald Trump Holds Press Conference In New York

Trump's ACA claims descend deeper into incoherence

01/12/17 09:20AM

With congressional Republicans divided over how best to proceed on health care, Donald Trump talked to the New York Times this week about his own preferred roadmap -- which didn't make any sense.

At yesterday's press conference, the president-elect was asked about his replacement model for the Affordable Care Act, and Trump's answer was amazing in its incoherence. It's worth unwrapping:
"They can say what they want, they can guide you anyway they wanna guide you. In some cases, they guide you incorrectly. In most cases, you realize what's happened, it's imploding as we sit."
It's always fun when a politician argues that "they" may provide facts that the politician finds inconvenient, but Americans should ignore the facts and believe what the politician wants you to believe.
"Some states have over a hundred percent increase and '17 and I said this two years ago, '17 is going to be the bad year."
He didn't explain what "a hundred percent increase" referred to -- I suspect even he doesn't know -- but if the president-elect was referring to premiums, he's mistaken. As for the idea that 2017 is going to be the "bad" year for premiums, the evidence points in the opposite direction.
"We're going to be submitting, as soon as our secretary's approved, almost simultaneously, shortly thereafter, a plan."
That's news to congressional Republicans, who thought they were responsible for finishing the plan they started working on seven years ago, and were never told about Trump's intention to present his own blueprint.
Two men stand on the plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building as storm clouds fill the sky, June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Congressional GOP has a (health care) bridge it wants to sell you

01/12/17 08:43AM

Senate Republicans did not vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act overnight, but they did take the first important step down that road. If you're wondering what's at the end of that road, you're not alone.

Following the so-called "vote-a-rama," in which senators considered a series of amendments in rapid secession, the chamber voted 51 to 48* in support of something called a budget resolution. How does this affect "Obamacare"? Substantively, it doesn't. Last night's vote was largely about process: the Senate got the ball rolling on giving itself the ability to use reconciliation to repeal key parts of the ACA with 50 votes instead of 60.

The bill now heads to the Republican-led House, which will almost certainly approve it tomorrow. Because it's a legislative blueprint, the bill does not go to the White House for a signature. (This is effectively an outline Congress is creating for itself.)

Of course, for the GOP, this was the easy part. The party still has no health care blueprint, despite seven years of effort, and Republicans remain divided over their legislative strategy. In an instantly memorable line, Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.) said overnight, "We're loading a gun here. I want to know where it's pointed before we start the process."

But at least for now, most Republicans are content to worry about where the bullet will end up later.
Republicans say the 2016 elections gave them a mandate to roll back the health care law. "The Obamacare bridge is collapsing, and we're sending in a rescue team," said Senator Michael B. Enzi, Republican of Wyoming and the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. "Then we'll build new bridges to better health care, and finally, when these new bridges are finished, we'll close the old bridge."
Congratulations, America. You've elected a Congress that actually has a bridge it wants to sell you.
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Donald Trump holds a press conference with his VP Choice, Gov. Mike Pence, July 16, 2016. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC)

Even now, Trump struggles to understand the basics of unemployment

01/12/17 08:01AM

Towards the beginning of his press conference yesterday, Donald Trump boasted that he's been "quite active ... in an economic way." Taking credit for some recent announcements from auto makers, the president-elect said positive economic news in recent months is the result of the "great spirit" tied to his election.

"I'm very proud of what we've done," he added.

The problem, of course, is that Trump hasn't actually done anything. The jobs he took credit for yesterday had literally nothing to do with him. Either the president-elect doesn't understand that, in which case he's struggling to grasp current events, or he's trying to deceive the public about one of the nation's most important issues.

But later in the press conference, Trump made matters worse when he declared there are "96 million really wanting a job and they can't get." Apparently referring to unemployment, he added, "You know that story. The real number -- that's the real number."

No, it's not.
It is unfortunately very far from the real number. There are in fact 96 million Americans age 16 and older who are not in the labor force. Of this, just 5.4 million, or 91 million fewer than the number cited by Trump, say they want a job. The rest are retired, sick, disabled, running their households or going to school. (This number is 256,000 fewer than last year and 1.7 million fewer than the all-time high for the series in 2013.) [...]

A more charitable explanation for Trump would expand the number to include those people who are working part time because they can't find full-time work, all the unemployed and those marginally attached to the workforce. This broader measure of slack in the economy, known as the U6, is about 14.7 million. It's the lowest since May 2008, and has come down by nearly 12 million since the worst of the job market effects of the financial crisis in 2010.... If that's what the president-elect means, he's then only off by 82 million.
As CNBC's report makes clear, this isn't just an academic exercise. If policymakers, starting with an incoming president, don't understand the nature of American unemployment, they won't be able to "get economic and monetary policy right."
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