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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 component of citizenship, GOP policy in this area becomes 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 326 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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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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The National Debt Clock, a billboard-size digital display showing the increasing US debt, on Sixth Avenue August 1, 2011 in New York.

Republicans' concerns about the deficit quietly disappear

03/17/17 12:51PM

About a year ago, Donald Trump made one of the more outlandish claims of his candidacy: he said he would eliminate the national debt in eight years.

Specifically, Trump told the Washington Post that he wants to see the United States "get rid of the $19 trillion in debt." Pressed for details, the GOP candidate said he "could do it fairly quickly," eliminating the debt "over a period of eight years."

This was, as we discussed at the time, nuts. He was effectively promising to deliver multi-trillion-dollar surpluses every year for eight years, which no one considers even remotely possible.

A year later, the White House doesn't even pretend to care about those priorities. Politico noted yesterday:
While steep cuts to departments like the EPA are expected under a Republican president, Trump's plan leaves out the key conservative priority of deficit reduction. [...]

[OMB Director Mick Mulvaney], once among Congress' toughest deficit hawks, also acknowledged the White House budget leaves the nation's $488 billion federal deficit untouched. The decision ignores what has become the fiscal gold standard within the GOP: a budget that balances within 10 years.
Mulvaney, the president's budget director, specifically told reporters yesterday, "[J]ust to clarify, it's not a balanced budget. There will still be roughly a $488 billion deficit, according to the Congressional Budget Office, next year."

To be sure, this doesn't come as too big of a surprise, but that doesn't make it any easier for Republicans to defend.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the National Federation of Republican Assemblies on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Mark Humphrey/AP)

Trump supporter credits him with 'Obamacare' benefits

03/17/17 12:00PM

The Washington Post noted a health care anecdote out of Nashville that I read three times, just to make sure I wasn't getting it wrong.
Soon after Charla McComic's son lost his job, his health-insurance premium dropped from $567 per month to just $88, a "blessing from God" that she believes was made possible by President Trump.

"I think it was just because of the tax credit," said McComic, 52, a former first-grade teacher who traveled to Trump's Wednesday night rally in Nashville from Lexington, Tenn., with her daughter, mother, aunt and cousin.

The price change was actually thanks to a subsidy made possible by former president Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, which is still in place, not by the tax credits proposed by Republicans as part of the health-care bill still being considered by Congress.
This is quite a moment. We've reached the point at which some conservatives decide they like Obamacare so much that they're inclined to give Trump credit for it.

It reinforces the idea, voiced by many in recent weeks, that Republicans could very easily write up some superficial changes to the Affordable Care Act, put it in the form of legislation, pass it, and wait for voters -- most of whom are increasingly fond of the ACA -- to thank them.

This could effectively be the health care version of George Aiken's famous paraphrase from the Vietnam era: Declare victory and go home.
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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump walks behind former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson after receiving Carson's endorsement at a campaign event in Palm Beach, Fl., March 11, 2016. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Voters in urban areas discover what they 'have to lose' under Trump

03/17/17 11:20AM

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson was in Detroit yesterday, visiting one of the cabinet agency's field offices, and visiting a local restaurant funded by the Motor City Match program, which as CNBC reported, "pairs businesses in Detroit with available real estate options" and "helps businesses locate and thrive in Detroit by providing competitive grants, loans and counseling to building owners and business owners."

Carson pointed to the program as "a wonderful example of community revitalization at work."

And while that may be true, Motor City Match receives federal funding through HUD's Community Development Block Grant program. As CNBC's report added, under Donald Trump's budget, the Community Development Block Grant program would be eliminated entirely.

In other words, this "wonderful example of community revitalization at work" probably would not exist if Carson's boss has his way.

NBC News' Jane C. Timm did a great job yesterday noting just how far the Trump White House intends to go targeting programs like these intended to benefit urban communities.
Released Thursday, the budget calls for $6.2 billion of cuts to the nation's Housing and Urban Development agency, putting the already strapped federal housing authority under even bigger strain. [...]

To slash an additional 1.1 billion from the HUD budget, Trump's proposal eliminates the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, the Choice Neighborhoods program, and the Self-help Homeownership Opportunity program, SHOP. The administration calls these "lower priority programs."
Mary Cunningham, co-director of the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Center, told NBC News, "The impact of this budget is there's going to be more people who are homeless, who are living in substandard housing, or struggling to pay rent. This budget does not outline a plan to fix the inner cities -- it does the opposite. It cuts money that cities rely on."
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