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Monday's Mini-Report, 7.17.17

07/17/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* At the start of "Made in America" week, this was an odd announcement: "The Trump administration acted Monday to allow 15,000 more visas for temporary seasonal workers this year."

* Something to look forward to: "President Donald Trump must release certain records of visitors to his Mar-a-Lago resort in southern Florida by early September, a federal judge ruled late Friday in a suit filed by a prominent government watchdog group."

* Asset forfeiture: "Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday said he'd be issuing a new directive this week aimed at increasing police seizures of cash and property."

* Middle East: "The United Arab Emirates orchestrated the hacking of Qatari government news and social media sites in order to post incendiary false quotes attributed to Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, in late May that sparked the ongoing upheaval between Qatar and its neighbors, according to U.S. intelligence officials."

* Trump's former campaign chairman remains in the news: "Paul J. Manafort, President Trump's former campaign chairman, recently filed financial reports with the Justice Department showing that his lobbying firm earned nearly $17 million for two years of work for a Ukrainian political party with links to the Kremlin. Curiously, that was more than the party itself reported spending in the same period for its entire operation -- the national political organization's expenses, salaries, printing outlays and other incidentals."

* This guy isn't getting any better: "In his latest repugnant remarks about sexual assault, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reportedly quipped that he might congratulate rapists for 'having the balls' to commit a crime that's potentially punishable by execution."

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White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivers his first statement in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017.

Spicer sticks to discredited 'adoption' story on Russia meeting

07/17/17 04:36PM

During his confirmation hearing last week on Capitol Hill, Christopher Wray, Donald Trump's choice to lead the FBI, said if any campaign is contacted by a foreign government, it'd "wise" to contact federal law enforcement officials.

"[A]ny threat or effort to interfere with our elections from any nation state or any nonstate actor is the kind of thing the FBI would want to know," Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

And yet, just this morning, the president took a very different posture. Donald Trump declared via Twitter that when top members of his campaign's inner circle met with a Kremlin-linked lawyer and a former Soviet counterintelligence officer to obtain information about his opponent, it was a meeting "most politicians" would have gone along with. "That's politics!" Trump declared.

So, which is it? Is Chris Wray right that campaigns should contact the FBI, or is the president right that campaigns should just see outreach from foreign adversaries as routine politics? A reporter asked White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer about the contradiction today.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday appeared to be confused about Donald Trump Jr.'s June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer, claiming it was about adoptions — contradicting both Donald Trump Jr. and the president, who have both confirmed the true reason for the meeting.

During an off-camera briefing with reporters, Spicer claimed that "the president has made it clear through his tweet, and there was nothing as far as we know that would lead anyone to believe that there was anything except for a discussion about adoption," referring to the original reason Trump Jr. gave for meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.

Really, "nothing"? Because we've all seen the email chain from Donald Trump Jr. -- the subject line quite literally read, "Russia - Clinton - private and confidential " -- which made it clear that this discussion wasn't about adoption policy. It was, as the publicly available documents have made perfectly clear, a meeting intended to allow the Russian government to provide information to the Trump campaign, which Moscow wanted to help.

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Image: Donald Trump, Andrzej Duda

On infamous Russia meeting, Trump's story keeps evolving

07/17/17 12:35PM

In June 2016, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort had a private meeting with, among others, a Kremlin-liked Russian attorney and a former Soviet counterintelligence officer. The controversy surrounding the meeting has taken the president's Russia scandal to a new level, and Donald Trump Sr. has done his best to downplay the significance of the campaign discussion.

This morning, for example, the president argued via Twitter:

"Most politicians would have gone to a meeting like the one Don jr attended in order to get info on an opponent. That's politics!"

At a certain level, this is a continuation of the argument the president started pushing last week, insisting that opposition research is a routine part of any national political campaign, so there's no need to make a fuss about the June 2016 meeting. If you have an opportunity to quietly obtain damaging information about your opponent, the argument goes, you take advantage of it.

According to actual "oppo" professionals, this argument is completely wrong, at least in the context of the Russia scandal. It's one thing for campaign officials to pursue a possible lead; it's something else entirely to meet with representatives of a foreign adversary that's launched an espionage operation against the United States.

What's more, the "anyone would have done the same thing" line is belied by recent history: in 2000, someone leaked the Bush campaign's debate-prep materials to the Gore campaign. Gore's aides promptly called the FBI -- which is what Trump's inner circle should've done, but didn't.

But what stands out as especially notable about Trump's latest pitch is the degree to which it contradicts the old pitches.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.17.17

07/17/17 12:00PM

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

* Please stop doing this: "Nearly 3,400 Coloradans canceled their voter registrations in the wake of the Trump administration's request for voter info, the Secretary of State's Office confirmed Thursday, providing the first statewide glimpse at the extent of the withdrawals."

* In Iowa, where Donald Trump won with relative ease in 2016, a new Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll shows the president's approval rating dropping to 43%, while 52% disapprove. (Random tidbit: Trump won Iowa by a larger margin than he won Texas. His deteriorating support in the Hawkeye State was not entirely predictable.)

* White House officials let Politico know that they've "met with at least three actual or prospective primary challengers" who may take on Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) ahead of his re-election campaign next year. Trump, you'll recall, has disliked the Arizona senator for quite a while.

* Now that Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, has served his time in a federal penitentiary, he's weighing a U.S. Senate campaign in West Virginia. Whether Blankenship would run as a Republican or an independent is unclear.

* Ahead of his re-election bid next year, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) has reportedly been replacing longtime allies with members of a far-right think tank called the Illinois Policy Institute. The shake-up led the governor's chief campaign strategist, Mike Zolnierowicz, to quit on Friday.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks with reporters reporters after the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Aug. 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Who benefits from a delayed vote on Republican health care plan?

07/17/17 11:30AM

This was supposed to be the week the fight over the Republican health care overhaul reached its endpoint. One way or the other, the Senate GOP leadership planned to bring their regressive plan to the floor, and it'd either pass and get rubber-stamp approval from the Republican-led House, or it'd fail.

At least, that was the plan. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had surgery for a blood clot the other day, and while the procedure reportedly went well, he'll be home in Arizona this week, recovering. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), pushing a bill that was already facing tough odds, said McCain's absence would delay the vote for at least a week.

In theory, this could help GOP leaders, giving them more time to twist arms and buy off on-the-fence members with special goodies and giveaways. (I've heard the phrase "Christmas in July" used more than once from Capitol Hill contacts in recent days.) But in practice, the more the Republican health care is exposed to sunlight, the worse it appears.

McConnell is well aware of this, which is precisely why he's been in such a rush to pass it. More time means more scrutiny, and more scrutiny means more exposure of the bill's many flaws.

So, where does that leave the state of the debate? For Republican officials, in a less-than-ideal place. The Wall Street Journal had this report over the weekend, for example, on major insurers balking -- in rather blunt terms -- at the revised details of the current GOP blueprint.

The provision, backed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, would authorize insurers to sell coverage that wouldn't meet ACA standards on the condition that they also sell at least some plans that did. While this setup could offer healthy people less expensive policies, insurers and actuaries say it would likely prove dysfunctional over time, pushing up rates and reducing offerings for people buying the compliant plans.

In a letter sent Friday night to the Senate Republican and Democratic leadership, the two major associations representing health insurers, which don't typically send such missives jointly, said the amendment "is simply unworkable in any form and would undermine protections for those with pre-existing medical conditions, increase premiums and lead to widespread terminations of coverage for people currently enrolled in the individual market."

"Simply unworkable in any form" isn't an especially subtle phrase.

The insurers' statement follows opposition to the Republican legislation from practically every major stakeholder in the health care industry, including organizations representing doctors, nurses, hospitals, patients, and seniors. It's difficult to think of any recent policy measure that's united every possible faction of the industry, including insurers, but the GOP bill has managed to pull it off.

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GOP voters still question whether Russia targeted US election

07/17/17 11:02AM

About a week ago, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, declared with confidence, "Everybody knows that Russia meddled in our elections." It's a defensible observation -- everybody should know about Russia's attack -- but it's regrettably not true. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shed some interesting light on public attitudes on Donald Trump's Russia scandal.

The Post-ABC poll finds 60 percent of Americans think Russia tried to influence the election outcome, up slightly from 56 percent in April. Some 44 percent suspect Russian interference and think Trump benefited from their efforts. Roughly 4 in 10 believe members of Trump's campaign intentionally aided Russian efforts to influence the election, though suspicions have changed little since the spring.

Americans' views on Russia's role in the election continue to divide along partisan lines. Among Democrats, 8 in 10 believe Russia attempted to influence the election and more than 6 in 10 think members of Trump's team attempted to aid their efforts. But among Republicans, one-third think Russia tried to influence the election outcome, and fewer than 1 in 10 think Trump's associates sought to help them [emphasis added].

This is roughly in line with the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which had results that pointed in a similar direction.

So, when Nikki Haley,says "everybody knows that Russia meddled in our elections," she's right -- so long as voters in her own party are excluded from "everybody."

It was the crime of the century, the biggest attack on the United States since 9/11, and the basis for one of the most important political scandals in American history. And yet, eight months after the election, the clear majority of Republican voters -- 55 percent, to be exact -- believe the event did not actually occur.

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Image: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer Holds Press Briefing At White House

HHS's Tom Price wants to roll back the clock on health care

07/17/17 10:30AM

The latest iteration of the Senate Republicans' health care plan includes a provision from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), which would do systemic harm to Americans with pre-existing conditions. ABC News' Jonathan Karl brought up the subject yesterday with HHS Secretary Tom Price, and the Republican's response was probably more candid than he intended.

KARL: There's no doubt there's significant problems with the current system. But if you look at the Republican plan to modify it and replace it, more than 10 medical groups are against it. Thirty-two cancer organizations oppose it. And on Thursday, in a rare joint statement by the biggest insurance companies in the country, called the Cruz Amendment unworkable in any form and warned it would lead to, quote, "widespread terminations of coverage." So, Dr. Price, why this wall of opposition?

PRICE: It's really perplexing, especially from the insurance companies, because all they have to do is dust off how they did business before Obamacare.

Well, yes, I suppose that's true, but it's not much of a selling point. Price, a former far-right congressman before joining the Trump administration, is effectively admitting that he and other Republicans hope to turn back the clock to before the Affordable Care Act took effect.

For Price, the solution is apparently easy: private insurers can simply "dust off" their old policies, back when Americans with pre-existing conditions were screwed.

To a very real extent, the Secretary of Health and Human Services is making the same argument as health-care advocates who oppose the GOP legislation. Patient advocates have insisted that the Republican plan in general, and the Cruz amendment in specific, would return the country to the bad ol' days.

To which Price effectively suggested to a national television audience yesterday, "Yep, that's the plan."

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The wrong president to tout 'Made in America' week

07/17/17 10:00AM

You might have missed "energy week" at the White House. It followed "transportation week." And who can forget the unbridled excitement surrounding "workforce development week," which somehow escaped the nation's attention.

Donald Trump's communications apparatus -- still lacking a communications director -- apparently hopes to convey a sense of purpose and accomplishment with message-specific weeks, which no one actually seems to care anything about. It's not an inherently bad idea -- these little p.r. gimmicks are, in theory, a chance for an administration to highlight its priorities -- but in practice, the undisciplined president tends to shift attention elsewhere.

Nevertheless, Trump World keeps trying. According to the Washington Post, this week is "Made in America" week, which is certainly an issue the president pretends to care about, despite being the wrong messenger for this particular message.

President Trump, whose company outsources the manufacturing of many of its products to overseas factories, is unveiling "Made in America" week at the White House to promote products made in the United States.

In keeping with the "America First" theme of Trump's inauguration, the administration will highlight U.S. manufacturing in the coming week, the latest of its theme weeks orchestrated by aides to bring discipline to the White House and focus Trump's schedule and message on a set of policies.

What this week's events will likely exclude is an exploration of Trump's business practices, which have relied on product manufacturing in "a global network of factories in a dozen countries -- including Bangladesh, China and Mexico."

Trump administration officials hosted a background briefing with reporters yesterday to highlight this week's events. Asked whether the White House intends to comment about the Trump Organization's outsourcing, a spokesperson said, "We'll get back to you on that."

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Trump sees his historically awful public standing as 'not bad'

07/17/17 09:30AM

Donald Trump has convinced himself he's an extraordinary success. His constituents don't seem to agree.

President Trump's standing with the American people has deteriorated since the spring, buffeted by perceptions of a decline in U.S. leadership abroad, a stalled presidential agenda at home and an unpopular Republican health-care bill, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Approaching six months in office, Trump's overall approval rating has dropped to 36 percent from 42 percent in April. His disapproval rating has risen five points to 58 percent. Overall, 48 percent say they "disapprove strongly" of Trump's performance in office, a level never reached by former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and reached only in the second term of George W. Bush in Post-ABC polling.

To help drive the point home, I put together the above chart, relying on data from Washington Post, ABC News, and Gallup, to show every president's public standing after six months in office since the dawn of modern American polling. Trump isn't just unpopular; he's unpopular in ways we haven't seen in modern times.

But that's not new. What is new is the president commenting on his woefully weak public support.

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A secret service agent keeps a watch in Vista, Calif. on May 22, 2016. (Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters)

Trump's lawyer makes a curious argument about the Secret Service

07/17/17 09:00AM

Jay Sekulow, one of Donald Trump's top attorneys working on the Russia scandal, appeared on all five Sunday morning public-affairs shows yesterday, mostly sticking to a fairly predictable script. The Republican lawyer, for example, accused former FBI director James Comey of having "illegally leaked information," which isn't true, and added that opposition research "is not a thing of value," which is absurd.

But on ABC's "This Week," Sekulow raised a point I hadn't heard before. Referring to the controversial June 2016 meeting between members of Trump's inner circle, a Kremlin-linked lawyer, and a former Soviet counterintelligence officer, Sekulow said:

"I wonder why the Secret Service, if this was nefarious, why the Secret Service allowed these people in. The president had Secret Service protection at that point, and that raised a question with me."

That's an odd thing to say. In Sekulow's mind, it was up to the Secret Service to intervene and prevent "nefarious" meetings from taking place between Trump campaign officials and foreign nationals? Is this some sort of new buck-passing argument?

In a statement released yesterday, a spokesperson for the Secret Service said Donald Trump Jr., who helped organize the meeting in order to receive campaign information from the Russian government, did not have a protective detail at the time. "Donald Trump, Jr. was not a protectee of the USSS in June, 2016," the statement said. "Thus we would not have screened anyone he was meeting with at that time."

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the media on the golf course at his Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeen, Scotland, June 25, 2016. (Photo by  Carlo Allegri/Reuters )

Trump again blurs the line between his office and his business

07/17/17 08:30AM

There's reason to believe Donald Trump takes the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament seriously, and not because he's a fan of the game. USA Today reported last week, for example, that Trump allegedly threatened to sue the U.S. Golf Association if it moved the event from the club he owns in Bedminster, N.J.

It's against this backdrop that the president used his Twitter account to heavily promote the tournament, starting with this tweet on Friday morning:

"Left Paris for U.S.A. Will be heading to New Jersey and attending the #USWomensOpen, their most important tournament, this afternoon."

From there, Trump tweeted about the U.S. Women's Open again and again and again and again and again. He let American know that the event would be "very exciting" and he'd personally be in attendance.

In all, over the course of 48 hours, Trump used his social-media bullhorn to promote the golf tournament six times -- effectively doing commercials for an event held at a private club he continues to own and profit from.

And then once the tournament was over, the president published a seventh tweet on the subject, congratulating the winner.

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Vice President-elect Mike Pence speaks to reporters at Trump Tower, Nov. 29, 2016 in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

It's not just the Russia scandal: Pence lies about health care, too

07/17/17 08:00AM

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) could barely contain his frustration over the weekend. "[T]here is real evil in the epidemic rate of lying that is going on right now," the Connecticut senator wrote, pointing to the latest comments from Vice President Mike Pence. "This is not normal."

We've unfortunately reached a point in contemporary politics where a quote like that, in isolation, needs some clarification -- because Mike Pence says untrue things about a great many things.

The far-right vice president, for example, has been caught making all kinds of demonstrably false claims about Donald Trump and the Russia scandal, but the latest controversy surrounds Pence's mendacious rhetoric on health care, starting with a speech to the National Governors Association. The Washington Post reported that Pence singled out Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), arguing that Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act in the Buckeye State has caused widespread problems.

"I know Governor Kasich isn't with us, but I suspect that he's very troubled to know that in Ohio alone, nearly 60,000 disabled citizens are stuck on waiting lists, leaving them without the care they need for months or even years," said Pence.

The waiting lists Pence referred to apply to Medicaid's home and community-based services, and have not been affected by the program's expansion under the ACA. States have long had waiting lists for these services, and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation's executive vice president, Diane Rowland, noted that waiting lists in non-expansion states are often longer than in expansion states, which currently receive a 95 percent federal match for their newly covered beneficiaries.

Kasich's office explained that the vice president's claims are "not accurate," and are "the opposite of what actually happened." The governor's press secretary added, "That's what we call #fakenews."

Pence's office said in response that he wasn't trying to connect Medicaid expansion and the waiting lists, but that, too, wasn't true.

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