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Thursday's Mini-Report, 10.5.17

10/05/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Pay careful attention to the details on this one: "In its first public statement since the deadliest shooting in modern American history, the National Rifle Association on Thursday called for new regulations on bump stocks that rapidly accelerate a weapon's rate of fire."

* Niger: "Three United States Army Special Forces were killed and two were wounded on Wednesday in an ambush in Niger while on a training mission with troops from that nation in northwestern Africa, American military officials said."

* An important ruling: "Rebuffing the Trump administration, a federal judge on Wednesday ordered the Interior Department to reinstate an Obama-era regulation aimed at restricting harmful methane emissions from oil and gas production on federal lands."

* Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reversed "a federal government policy that said transgender workers were protected from discrimination under a 1964 civil rights law, according to a memo on Wednesday sent to agency heads and US attorneys."

* The final vote was 65 to 32: "The Senate on Thursday confirmed Randal K. Quarles as the Federal Reserve's vice chairman for supervision, an important victory for the Trump administration in its campaign to ease some financial regulations imposed after the 2008 financial crisis."

* Trump-Russia: "The special counsel investigating whether Russia tried to sway the 2016 U.S. election has taken over FBI inquiries into a former British spy's dossier of allegations of Russian financial and personal links to President Donald Trump's campaign and associates, sources familiar with the inquiry told Reuters."

* This is a good round-up of the top 10 "career recipients of N.R.A. funding – through donations or spending to benefit the candidate – among both current House and Senate members."

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In this April 13, 2014 file photo, the Internal Revenue Service Headquarters (IRS) building is seen in Washington, D.C. (Photo by J. David Ake/AP)

The demise of the IRS 'scandal' and the need for accountability

10/05/17 04:51PM

There was a brief point a few years ago in which the IRS "scandal" looked like a legitimate, proper controversy, worthy of real scrutiny. As regular readers may recall, when the story first broke, there was reason to believe politically motivated officials at the Internal Revenue Service "targeted" conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, and the uneven treatment represented an outrageous abuse of power. President Obama even denounced what he saw as possible wrongdoing.

After a few days, though, the story unraveled. Despite the apoplexy from Republicans and much of the Beltway media, we soon discovered that the tax agency scrutinized groups from the left, right, and center with equal vigor, effectively ending the story.

Much of the right, however, wouldn't give up, convinced that they'd finally found a credible Obama-era scandal. They were spectacularly wrong: the Justice Department and the FBI launched an exhaustive search and found nothing. The Washington Post reports today that the Treasury Department came up empty, too.

A federal watchdog has identified scores of cases in which the Internal Revenue Service may have targeted liberal-leaning groups for extra scrutiny based on their names or political leanings, a finding that could undermine claims that conservatives were unfairly targeted under President Barack Obama.

The Washington Post's phrasing is quite generous: the revelations "could undermine claims that conservatives were unfairly targeted under President Barack Obama"? If "could undermine" is synonymous with "completely discredits," then sure.

For those of us who've followed the story closely, this new reporting isn't exactly a breakthrough moment. The "scandal" evaporated years ago, and despite assorted partisans desperately trying to keep it alive, every serious examination has come to the same conclusion: the controversy never existed. After several years of scrutiny and multiple investigations, there's just nothing here.

The only thing missing is some accountability.

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Sen. Bob Corker

GOP senator: Trump's cabinet separates 'our country from chaos'

10/05/17 12:41PM

During his exceedingly brief tenure as the White House's communications director, Anthony Scaramucci expressed disappointment in some of the people in Donald Trump's orbit. "There are people inside the administration who think it is their job to save America from this president," he noted.

Yesterday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) made the case that there are people inside the administration whose job really is saving America from this president. The Republican senator, who recently announced his retirement, was quite candid with reporters yesterday when asked about reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the president a "moron" and had to be talked out of quitting.

"I think Secretary Tillerson, [Defense Secretary Jim Mattis], and [White House Chief of Staff John Kelly] are those people that help separate our country from chaos, and I support them very much.... I think [Tillerson's] in a very trying situation, trying to solve many of the world's problems, a lot of times without the kind of support and help that I'd like to see him have."

Asked specifically if he meant officials like Tillerson, Mattis, and Kelly are preventing Trump-imposed "chaos," Corker didn't answer directly. "They work very well together to make sure that the policies we put forth around the world are sound and coherent," the Republican senator replied. "There are other people within the administration, in my belief, that don't."

Subtle, this wasn't. As a Washington Post report noted, "Suggesting that there would be 'chaos' if not for the generals and Tillerson is to suggest that not only is Trump not a steady leader, but that things are basically ready to unravel behind the scenes."

I think that's right, but it's also a little terrifying.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.5.17

10/05/17 12:00PM

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

* In the wake of Rep. Tim Murphy's (R-Pa.) sex scandal, the conservative congressman has decided not to seek re-election in 2018. His district, in Pennsylvania's Southwest corner, is generally seen as a Republican stronghold. [Update: A few hours after I published this, Murphy decided to resign.]

* The Des Moines Register reported this week that Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) pays his son and daughter-in-law as full-time, year-round campaign staffers, and has done so for more than a decade. The article described the arrangement as "unusual," though probably legal.

* In Virginia's gubernatorial race, a new Washington Post-Schar School poll found Ralph Northam (D) with a double-digit lead over Ed Gillespie (R), 53% to 40%, though few in either party believe the Democrat's advantage is this large.

* In this year's other gubernatorial race, the latest Monmouth University poll found Phil Murphy (D) leading Kim Guadagno (R), 51% to 37%, in New Jersey.

* Alabama's Roy Moore (R) was in D.C. yesterday, and met with Steve Bannon and members of his state's U.S. House delegation. The Republican Senate nominee did not, however, meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) or fellow Alabaman Sen. Richard Shelby (R).

* Speaking of Bannon, the former White House strategist has apparently also decided to support convicted felon Michael Grimm in the Republican's congressional comeback bid in New York.

* A new USA Today/Suffolk poll found the Republican Party's public standing "plummeting." The GOP has a 23% favorable rating and a 62% unfavorable rating. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, isn't winning any popularity contests, but it's in slightly better shape: 37% favorable, 48% unfavorable.

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Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chair of the Senate Republican Caucus, speaks with reporters at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, July 24, 2013. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Asked about mass shootings, GOP senator advises, 'Get small'

10/05/17 11:20AM

Like many policymakers, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, was asked this week about how officials might respond to the mass shooting in Las Vegas. The South Dakota Republican conceded that Congress "ought to take a look at" topics such as bump stocks.

But in an interview with NBC News' Hallie Jackson, Thune suggested Americans probably shouldn't look to policymakers to pass major new legislation on this issue:

"I think people are going to have to take steps in their own lives to take precautions, to protect themselves. And in situations like that, you know, try and stay safe. As somebody said -- get small."

I suppose there's a kernel of good advice in there somewhere -- if a potential victim of a gunman can't get away, it makes sense to give him or her a smaller target -- though if given a choice between Americans getting "small" and getting new protections from gun violence, I suspect most would prefer the latter.

But what stood out for me was the first part of his answer, not the second.

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Image: President Trump Departs White House En Route To Puerto Rico

White House urges public to disregard Trump rhetoric (again)

10/05/17 10:41AM

Last week, in one of his first public comments about Puerto Rico after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria, Donald Trump reminded Americans on the island that Puerto Rico is "billions of dollars in debt to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with." Even at the time, it was a bizarre thing to say given the scope and scale of the personal crises.

This week, however, was nearly as odd. Trump told Fox News, in reference to Puerto Rico's debt, "You know, they owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we're going to have to wipe that out. You can say goodbye to that. I don't know if it's Goldman Sachs, but whoever it is, you can wave goodbye to that."

No one knew quite what that meant, or whether the White House even has the authority to simply "wipe out" billions of dollars in debt, but the president's rhetoric rattled bond markets and sparked some "chaos" in the finance industry.

Which made it all the more remarkable when the Trump administration announced that Trump's public pronouncements on a subject shouldn't be taken too seriously. The New York Times reported yesterday:

The Trump administration on Wednesday walked back the president's apparent vow to wipe out Puerto Rico's debt, suggesting that the island would have to solve its own fiscal woes despite the catastrophic damage it has endured from two powerful hurricanes.

"I wouldn't take it word for word with that," Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said on CNN in reference to President Trump's suggestion that the United States might clear Puerto Rico's debt.

Oh. So, Trump said three times, out loud and on camera, that he'd make Puerto Rico's debts disappear, but we're now supposed to believe that the truth is pretty much the opposite. One can believe the president or his budget director, but not both, and according to Mulvaney, no one should take his boss' declarations at face value.

Vice President Mike Pence recently said, "President Trump is a leader who says what he means and means what he says." Imagine how much more effective this administration would be if Pence weren't so hilariously wrong.

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A Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

The problem with Donald Trump's preoccupation with the F-35

10/05/17 10:00AM

A few months ago, Donald Trump spoke to graduating cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, and he made a few headlines by whining, "No politician in history -- and I say this with great surety -- has been treated worse or more unfairly" than himself.

In the same speech, however, the president went on to say, "I won't talk about how much I saved you on the F-35 fighter jet. I won't even talk about it."

The funny thing is, he can't stop talking about it.

Late last week, for example, before HHS Secretary Tom Price resigned, Trump was asked about his scandal-plagued cabinet secretary. The president told reporters, "I certainly don't like the optics. As I said, we renegotiate deals. We're renegotiating trade deals. We're renegotiating -- as an example, the F-35 fighter plane, I've saved hundreds of millions of dollars. So I don't like the optics of what you just saw."

Though the F-35 had nothing to do with the Price controversy, moments later, Trump did it again. "I have a great Cabinet, and we save hundreds of millions of dollars through negotiation," he said. "I'll give you an example. With the F-35 fighter plane -- me, myself -- I've saved hundreds of millions of dollars in negotiating. And that's one of the reasons I don't like seeing anybody even have a question about, you know, flying."

I think he was trying to say that F-35 savings help cover the costs of his cabinet members using taxpayer money for chartered private jets -- as if that somehow made sense.

This week, Trump traveled to Puerto Rico, where he received a briefing on Hurricane Maria relief efforts. After an Air Force representative talked about clearing runways on the island, the president immediately focused his attention on ... wait for it ... the F-35.

AIR FORCE REPRESENTATIVE: We have four major runways that are fully open and operational; flown about 700-plus strategic airlift sorties to and from OCONUS, (inaudible) Puerto Rico to provide life-sustaining support.

TRUMP: Amazing job. Amazing job. So amazing that we're ordering hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of new airplanes for the Air Force, especially the F-35. Do you like the F-35? [...] I said, how does it do it in fights? And how do they do in fights with the F-35? They said, we do very well. You can't see it. Literally, you can't see it. So it's hard to fight a plane that you can't see, right?


TRUMP: But that's an expensive plane that you can't see. And as you probably heard, we cut the price very substantially -- something that other administrations would never have done, that I can tell you. So thank you very much.

Trump's rhetoric about the F-35 has gradually evolved from odd to creepy to you've-got-to-be-kidding-me.

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Following 'moron' flap, Tillerson's Trump troubles persist

10/05/17 09:24AM

The story sounds apocryphal, but it's true. As the Washington Post  confirmed several years ago, in 1974, an upstart magazine called New Times published a rather brutal piece on Congress' 10 dumbest members. Then-Sen. William Scott (R-Va.) was ranked #1 -- which is to say, the dumbest of the dumb on Capitol Hill.

The smart move, of course, would've been for Scott to ignore the article. Instead, the Virginia Republican hosted a press conference in his office in order to tell congressional reporters that he was not, in fact, dumb. Not surprisingly, this led to all kinds of mockery, and questions about the senator's intelligence became a popular topic of conversation.

And while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's press conference yesterday wasn't quite as ridiculous, it was in the same vein. The Washington Post explained yesterday afternoon:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just delivered an unscheduled statement to reporters about "some news reports this morning that I want to address."

But while Tillerson went on to dispute one major contention in those "reports" -- that he considered resigning -- he directly and pregnantly declined to dispute another one -- that he called his boss, President Trump, a "moron."

The juxtaposition of those two things was striking, and it leads to basically one logical conclusion: He can't deny it ... because he said it.

The trouble started yesterday with an NBC News piece. At a July meeting at the Pentagon, Tillerson reportedly said in front of several officials that he thinks the president is a "moron." One of the NBC reporters later clarified that one of her sources specifically said the Secretary of State called Trump a "f***ing moron."

Trump administration officials pushed back against the story, but CNN soon after ran a story of its own, confirming with its own sources that Tillerson really did call Trump a "moron."

The cabinet secretary then held a press conference -- no doubt knowing what he'd be asked -- in which he dodged the question about whether he called the president a "moron."

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Image: Donald Trump

Trump wants a Senate Intel Committee probe of US media outlets

10/05/17 08:40AM

The top two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee held an informal briefing for the press yesterday, updating the public on the state of their investigation into the Russia scandal. And while there weren't any blockbuster revelations, Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) agreed with U.S. intelligence agencies about Vladimir Putin's government having intervened in the American election on Donald Trump's behalf.

The president, meanwhile, would like the Senate panel to ignore the foreign adversary's attack on our democracy, and instead turn its attention to a different matter entirely.

"Why Isn't the Senate Intel Committee looking into the Fake News Networks in OUR country to see why so much of our news is just made up-FAKE!"

Yes, I know, we've all grown quite inured to routine Trump nonsense, but let's not brush past the fact that the sitting president of the United States wants an investigation into American news organizations that publish reports he disapproves of.

Trump's authoritarian instincts do not serve him well in our system of government.

What's more, let's not overlook the context: the Senate Intelligence Committee is in the midst of an ongoing examination of foreign intervention in our political system -- a probe the White House is desperate to see end -- including Russia's media and propaganda tactics. None of this is of interest to the president who's benefited from Putin's efforts. Trump is far more interested in cracking down on American journalists.

To be sure, the president will not get his wish. Not only does the Senate Intelligence Committee have its hands full, but it has no jurisdiction to "look into" U.S. outlets that report news Trump doesn't like. The fact that he doesn't know or care about this only adds insult to injury.

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Image: President Trump Meets With The National Association of Manufacturers

Widespread corruption allegations add to Trump World's troubles

10/05/17 08:00AM

The Washington Post  reported late yesterday that Joel Clement, a scientist and policy expert at the Interior Department, was "removed from his job by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke shortly after" he disclosed how climate change affects Alaska Native communities. Clement was reassigned "to an accounting position for which he has no experience," prompting him to resign.

On his way out, however, the scientist noted that there are laws in place to prevent this kind of mistreatment -- laws that Donald Trump's cabinet secretary appears to have ignored. The department's inspector general has launched an investigation into this and related reassignments.

And while that obviously seems like a worthwhile probe, let's not forget an important detail: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, less than a year at his post, is also facing an investigation into his controversial travel habits, which isn't to be confused with an unrelated probe into his alleged intimidation tactics against Republican senators during the health care fight.

That's quite a few probes for one cabinet secretary in one year, but as Slate's Jamelle Bouie noted last night, the problem extends well beyond the Interior Department.

Amid the chaos and dysfunction that marks Washington in the age of Trump, it can be easy to miss that this White House is corrupt. Remarkably, unbelievably, corrupt. [...]

Democracy needs trust to survive, and corruption erodes that trust. The longer it continues, the more it becomes just the background noise of our politics, the harder it is to plot a correction and restore the democratic faith necessary to tackle collective problems. If, like many in the Republican Party, one does not believe in collective action for public good, then this is not a problem. For those of us who do, however, it is a crisis.

HHS Secretary Tom Price was under investigation, and the scandal led to his resignation. Zinke is facing more than one investigation. VA Secretary David Shulkin is under investigation. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is under investigation. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was investigated for violating the Hatch Act. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been caught up in so many controversies, it's been genuinely difficult to keep up with all of them. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has faced accusations of lying under oath about his interactions with Russian officials during the campaign.

And that's just Trump's cabinet.

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