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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

On civility, GOP picks the wrong messengers for the right message

02/10/17 10:40AM

During the debate over Jeff Sessions' attorney general nomination, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tried to read a letter from the late Coretta Scott King, only to get shut down by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who said the letter was, in effect, too mean to be read on the Senate floor.

The incident ended up generating some renewed interest in political civility, with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) arguing, for example, "We have to treat each other with respect or this place is going to devolve into a jungle." The Utah Republican added that Jeff Sessions' Senate critics "ought to be ashamed" of their harsh rhetoric towards a colleague, reminding Democrats to "think of his wife."

It was, however, literally last week when Hatch called his Democratic Senate colleagues "idiots." Hatch is also on record describing progressives as "dumbass liberals."

So much for treating people with "respect."

A day later, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza celebrated floor remarks from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who also used the Warren/McConnell dispute as a springboard to talk about political civility.
Rubio's speech was a plea for civility in the Senate, a warning that if civilized debate dies in the Senate, it will die in the broader society too. It's an important address — and one well worth spending eight minutes of your life listening to.

"We are becoming a society incapable of having debate anymore.... We are reaching a point in this republic where we are not going to be able to solve the simplest of issues because everyone is putting themselves in a corner where everyone hates everybody.

"What's at stake here tonight ... is not simply some rule but the ability of the most important nation on earth to debate in a productive and respectful way the pressing issues before it."
I don't have a problem with the message. I take issue with the messengers.
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Las Vegas Sands Corporation Chairman Sheldon Adelson speaks to students at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada in Las Vegas, April 26, 2012.

A Republican megadonor and the 'perfect little puppet'

02/10/17 10:03AM

Exactly three weeks ago, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the nation's 45th president, delivering a widely panned inaugural address in which he vowed to transfer power from the nation's capital "back to you, the people."

Seated behind Trump were members of Congress, members of the new president's family, former presidents, and one Republican Party megadonor: billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. It was the first time in recent memory a new president welcomed a major campaign contributor literally onto the inaugural dais. Soon after, Adelson attended an exclusive luncheon with Trump and congressional leaders at the Capitol.

It's the same Republican megadonor who also joined Trump for dinner last night at the White House. The Washington Post reported yesterday about the presidential gathering:
Republican financier Sheldon Adelson will dine with President Trump on Thursday night at the White House, according to a Trump adviser who was not authorized to speak publicly. Other White House officials and Trump associates are also expected to attend the dinner, the adviser said.

Adelson, who has an estimated net worth of $29.6 billion, and his wife, Miriam, were major Trump donors last year, and continue to have a close relationship with the president.
Evidently. The casino magnate contributed tens of millions of dollars to help put Trump in the White House, which appears to have bought him the kind of access "you, the people" don't enjoy.

At face value, the idea that a sitting president would break bread with a major donor isn't that unusual -- every modern president has done the same thing -- but it's Trump's previous comments about Adelson in particular that make this relationship noteworthy.
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Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn arrives at Trump Tower, Nov. 17, 2016. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and high level positions for the new administration. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

New Russia revelations pose new problems for Trump's NSA

02/10/17 09:22AM

Michael Flynn, Donald Trump's National Security Advisor, has maintained close ties to Moscow in recent years, even getting paid by the Kremlin's propaganda outlet. It therefore caused quite a stir a month ago, when the Washington Post noted that Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak "several times" on Dec. 29, one day after President Obama retaliated against Russia for its role in the election hacking scandal.

The question, of course, was why Flynn made those calls. If he tried to undermine U.S. sanctions, for example, urging Russia not to retaliate because the Trump administration would pursue a more favorable policy, the communications may have been illegal under the Logan Act.

Team Trump said these were routine and uncontroversial calls, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Flynn and Kislyak merely spoke to coordinate upcoming conversations between the American and Russian presidents. As the Washington Post reported overnight, the White House's denials may have been false.
National security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country's ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials, current and former U.S. officials said.

Flynn's communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election.
As recently as Wednesday, Flynn insisted, on the record, that he did not discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador. Yesterday, however, the White House national security advisor said though a spokesperson that Flynn "indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn't be certain that the topic never came up."

And that not-so-subtle shift has the potential to be a very serious problem.
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Xi Jinping

In striking reversal, Trump tells China what it wants to hear

02/10/17 08:40AM

Less than a month after winning the presidential election, Donald Trump spoke directly with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, which not only stunned international observers, but also undermined the "One-China" policy, uprooting decades of carefully crafted, delicate diplomacy that had been honored by both parties.

When many speculated that the Republican bumbled into this by accident, the White House quickly pushed back, insisting that Trump -- who likes to present himself as master negotiator and strategic genius -- was executing a brilliant plan, keeping China on its toes.

"I fully understand the One-China policy," Trump said on Dec. 11. "But I don't know why we have to be bound by a One-China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things."

As of last night, the new president has dramatically changed course.
President Donald Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping in a phone call Thursday that he intends to honor the so-called "One China" policy, after earlier suggesting it was open for negotiation in comments that rankled Beijing, the White House said.

"The two leaders discussed numerous topics and President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our 'one China' policy," the statement said, which described the talks as "extremely cordial."
Note the oddity of the phrasing: Trump didn't just endorse the One China policy; he did so "at the request" of the Chinese president. In other words, Xi Jinping told Trump he wanted the White House to reiterate its support for the policy -- publicly and in writing -- and the U.S. president effectively responded, "Sure thing."

It's hard not to see this as a humiliating moment for Trump, who seriously thought he could play diplomatic hardball with Beijing, only to fail spectacularly with a gambit that was clearly not thought out well.
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Image: Donald Trump

Trump has no one to blame but himself for Muslim ban's failures

02/10/17 08:00AM

A few weeks before Election Day, with fraud allegations dogging Donald Trump and his dubious "university," the Republican's lawyers started worrying that the presidential candidate's provocative campaign rhetoric may undermine their legal defense. Trump's attorneys argued to the judge that everything he said publicly about the case during campaign shouldn't count.

That argument didn't prove persuasive.

This came to mind last night when a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled unanimously against the Trump administration's Muslim ban, pointing in part to the GOP president's own rhetoric about the White House's executive order. From the ruling:
"The States argue that the Executive Order violates the Establishment and Equal Protection Clauses because it was intended to disfavor Muslims. In support of this argument, the States have offered evidence of numerous statements by the President about his intent to implement a 'Muslim ban' as well as evidence they claim suggests that the Executive Order was intended to be that ban, including sections 5(b) and 5(e) of the Order. It is well established that evidence of purpose beyond the face of the challenged law may be considered in evaluating Establishment and Equal Protection Clause claims."
In other words, the administration's lawyers were forced to argue, in effect, "Let's all agree to overlook what Trump said about Trump's policy." To which the 9th Circuit effectively replied, "Um, no."

To be sure, this is a multi-faceted case, and the White House lost on a variety of grounds, but I'm struck by the fact that Donald Trump continues to be Donald Trump's biggest enemy. As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent explained last week, the president not only talked up his Muslim ban as a candidate, Trump also spoke in some depth about his policy being "deliberately discriminatory in intent and effect."

All the plaintiff's counsel had to do was point to the president's own record, which the 9th Circuit considered highly relevant to putting Trump's policy in a broader legal context.
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Thursday's Mini-Report, 2.9.17

02/09/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Syria: "U.S. forces killed 11 al Qaeda operatives -- including a longtime ally of Osama bin Laden -- in two airstrikes last week in Syria, the Defense Department said Wednesday."

* Following Kellyanne Conway's on-air endorsement of Ivanka Trump's product line: "Asked about Conway's comments during Thursday's White House press briefing, Sean Spicer said she 'has been counseled on that subject, and that's all.'"

* Arizona: "Emotional protests broke out in Phoenix Wednesday night after a Mexican-born mother-of-two was detained for deportation. Dozens of demonstrators surrounded a van carrying Guadalupe García de Rayos from a detention center, with one man putting his arm in a wheel well to stop it."

* Afghanistan: "The commander of the American-led international military force in Afghanistan told Congress on Thursday that he needed a few thousand additional troops to more effectively train and advise Afghan soldiers."

* North Dakota: "Construction crews have resumed work on the final segment of the Dakota Access pipeline, and the developer of the long-delayed project said Thursday that the full system could be operational within three months. Meanwhile, an American Indian tribe filed a legal challenge to block the work and protect its water supply."

* Resignation was the right call: "A Michigan Republican has resigned after causing outrage by suggesting that protesters at University of California, Berkeley, should be shot."
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

New questions surround Trump's conversation with Putin

02/09/17 04:41PM

As president-elect, Donald Trump spoke to a variety of international leaders, and in a few too many instances, the calls did not go well. Obama administration officials offered to help prepare the Republican, and offer guidance on avoiding potential pitfalls, but Trump and his team decided to wing it -- and the consequences weren't pretty.

As president, Trump has spoken to many more officials from around the world, and the calls appear to be getting worse. The amateur leader's recent call with the president of Mexico was a disaster. His chat with the Australian prime minister was worse. Politico reported yesterday that Trump "spent much of a recent phone call with French President Francois Hollande veering off into rants about the U.S. getting shaken down by other countries ... creating an awkward interaction with a critical U.S. ally."

And then, of course, there's Russia. This Reuters report is getting a lot of attention today, and for good reason.
In his first call as president with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump denounced a treaty that caps U.S. and Russian deployment of nuclear warheads as a bad deal for the United States, according to two U.S. officials and one former U.S. official with knowledge of the call.

When Putin raised the possibility of extending the 2010 treaty, known as New START, Trump paused to ask his aides in an aside what the treaty was, these sources said.

Trump then told Putin the treaty was one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration, saying that New START favored Russia. Trump also talked about his own popularity, the sources said.
As is always the case with stories like these, the sourcing matters, and we don't know for sure who Reuters spoke to. The report hasn't been independently verified by NBC News or MSNBC.

But the reporting is also very easy to believe.
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