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Thursday's Mini-Report, 12.7.17

12/07/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The latest school shooting: "Two students were killed in a shooting at a high school in Aztec, New Mexico, according to authorities. New Mexico State Police confirmed to reporters that the two students died Thursday at Aztec High School."

* Southern California: "Firefighters battling the blazes that have been tormenting Los Angeles and the surrounding area for four days got some help from Mother Nature when record high winds that had been expected to fuel the fires failed to materialize."

* There probably won't be a shutdown tomorrow: "The House of Representatives on Thursday narrowly passed a stop-gap spending measure to continue funding the federal government through December 22. The bill prevents a shut-down that would be triggered if Congress fails to pass a spending bill before a deadline of midnight Friday. The final tally was 235 yes votes, and 193 votes against."

* FBI Director Christopher Wray "appeared to provide the first official confirmation Thursday that the FBI has applied for secret FISA warrants in the Russia investigation -- the type of warrants that can allow the bureau to spy on the email and telephone calls of specific individuals."

* Is this really an "open question," as Haley said? "Nikki Haley, America's ambassador to the United Nations, suggested that the United States' participation in February's Winter Olympics in South Korea remains up in the air, while the White House said Thursday that 'no official decision has been made' regarding the games."

* Syria: "About 2,000 American troops are in Syria fighting the Islamic State, a Pentagon spokesman said on Wednesday, almost four times the total previously disclosed as the Trump administration changes how troop numbers are publicly counted."

* A sign of the times on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor: "The Hawaii Air National Guard has used its fighter jets and helicopters to perform the flyover for many years, but federal budget cuts prevented it from participating this year."

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Blake Farenthold

Texas Republican's sexual harassment settlement in the spotlight

12/07/17 03:29PM

With Al Franken and John Conyers stepping down from their congressional seats, Republicans are facing charges of partisan hypocrisy on sexual misconduct. Donald Trump and Roy Moore, for example, continue to enjoy the GOP's institutional support, despite the seriousness of the allegations against them.

But there's another name that keeps popping up. The New York Daily News  reported today:

[T]he case of Conyers and now Franken and others are emerging in relative isolation, perhaps arbitrarily, from a Congress where more misconduct surely lurks.

Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold, who settled a large sexual harassment claim, remains in office.

Regular readers may recall the Farenthold controversy, which first came to public light three years ago. The Texas Republican's former communications director, Lauren Greene, accused Farenthold and his chief of staff of creating a hostile work environment, gauging her interest in a sexual relationship. In her court filing, Greene alleged that Farenthold told another staffer that he had "sexual fantasies" and "wet dreams" about her.

The case was settled out of court, but the incident was politically unique: NBC News reported that the $84,000 settlement came by way of the Office of Compliance, the first such taxpayer-funded settlement to be made public.

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Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) speaks to reporters at a news conference outside the Capitol on June 9, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty)

As Al Franken steps down, a partisan division comes into focus

12/07/17 12:50PM

When it comes to scandals prompting congressional resignations, departures from the U.S. House happen with relative frequency. We saw one in October, for example, and it didn't cause much of a fuss.

U.S. senators, however, resign from Congress under a cloud of scandal far less frequently. In the last 20 years, plenty of senators have left before the end of their terms to take other jobs or due to illness, but only one -- Republican John Ensign of Nevada -- was forced out by a controversy.

Today, however, there was another.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., the former "Saturday Night Live" comic who made an improbable journey to become a leading liberal voice in the Senate, announced on Thursday that he will leave office in the coming weeks, after a string of allegations of sexual misconduct and mounting pressure from Democratic lawmakers to step down.

"Today I am announcing that in the coming weeks, I will be resigning as a member of the United States Senate," Franken said during an emotional speech from the Senate floor.

It's not yet clear exactly when Franken will formally leave Capitol Hill, but he'll reportedly give up his seat at the end of the month. It means he's likely to remain in the chamber for the final vote on the Republican tax plan, which is expected before Christmas.

The Minnesotan seemed to make today's announcement grudgingly, arguing in his remarks, "Some of the allegations against me simply are not true, others I remember very differently." Franken conceded, however, that the scandal would make it impossible for him to be an effective lawmaker.

"[T]his decision is not about me. It's about the people of Minnesota," he said. "It's become clear that I can't both pursue the Ethics Committee process and at the same time, remain an effective senator for them."

Of course, there's the broader political landscape to consider, and Franken took the opportunity to highlight the details intended to make Republicans uncomfortable.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.7.17

12/07/17 12:00PM

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

* According to the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) is likely to appoint Lt. Gov. Tina Smith (D) to fill Al Franken's (D) Senate vacancy. Under the scenario described in the article, Smith would serve until a special election next November, but she wouldn't run for the seat.

* If Doug Jones (D) has any chance of success in Alabama's Senate special election, he's going to need strong support from African-American voters. With that in mind, the Washington Post reports that Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) is organizing a series of events for this weekend featuring Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). Sewell, Booker, and Lewis are black.

* Republican strategist John Weaver, who helped run John McCain's and John Kasich's presidential campaigns, announced yesterday's he's contributed to Doug Jones' campaign. Mark Salter, another former McCain aide, has done the same thing.

* In Tennessee, former two-term Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) has decided to run for the U.S. Senate next year, hoping to succeed Sen. Bob Corker (R), who's retiring. Though Tennessee is a red state, Bredesen, who's also a former Nashville mayor, easily won his gubernatorial campaigns in 2002 and 2006.

* Though Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) isn't considered vulnerable next year, Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) is apparently under pressure from Donald Trump to run against King next year.

* In Ohio, Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) has decided to end his gubernatorial campaign and will instead be state Attorney General Mike DeWine's (R) running mate in 2018.

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Image: U.S. President Trump listens to  Speaker Ryan as he gathers with Republican House members after healthcare bill vote at the White House in Washington

Paul Ryan eyes Medicare cuts, and he thinks Trump may help

12/07/17 11:06AM

The Republican plan has never been a secret: in the broadest sense, the party is guided by a vision of shrinking government revenues through reckless tax breaks, and then using the resulting deficits to demand sweeping cuts to social-insurance programs like Medicare and Social Security.

Donald Trump, however, told the nation that he had no use for the usual GOP game. As a candidate, the Republican said he liked the idea of having the wealthy pay more in taxes, not less, and promised never to cut Medicaid, Medicare, or Social Security. Indeed, in his campaign kick-off speech, Trump said he’d make no cuts to the popular programs, and bragged about the vow via Twitter over and over and over again.

Pundits quickly labeled Trump a "populist," and working-class members of the GOP base swooned.

Keep that in mind when reading the Washington Post's report on House Speaker Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) plans for what his party will do after it approves massive tax cuts for the wealthy.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Wednesday that congressional Republicans will aim next year to reduce spending on both federal health care and anti-poverty programs, citing the need to reduce America's deficit.

"We're going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit," Ryan said during an appearance on Ross Kaminsky's talk radio show. "... Frankly, it's the health care entitlements that are the big drivers of our debt, so we spend more time on the health care entitlements -- because that's really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking."

Ryan said that he believes he has begun convincing President Trump in their private conversations about the need to rein in Medicare, the federal health program that primarily insures the elderly.

There's a lot to this, but let's focus on just two angles. The first is recognizing the audacity of Paul Ryan's shameless scam.

The House Speaker apparently expects Americans to believe it's important to "tackle the debt and the deficit," despite the fact that Ryan voted for both of George W. Bush's tax cuts, both of George W. Bush's wars in the Middle East, Medicare Part D, and the Wall Street bailout -- none of which Republicans even tried to pay for.

More to the point, if the Wisconsin congressman had even the slightest interest in balancing the budget, he wouldn't be championing a tax plan that adds $1 trillion to the deficit over the next decade. It's a bit like listening to an arsonist demand money to rebuild the home he just burned to the ground: the person responsible for creating the problem shouldn't whine about how eager he is to get others to fix the problem.

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An employee at a money changer counts $100 bills.

As the wealth gap grows, GOP tax plan would make it worse

12/07/17 10:02AM

One of the core problems with the Republican tax plan is that it intends to solve problems that don't exist. For example, the GOP is predicted on the assumption that big corporations don't have enough money to make capital investments, which is why it's necessary to slash the corporate tax rate.

In reality, that's backwards: corporate profits are already at an all-time high, and according to CEOs, giving corporations a giant tax break won't spur new investments, anyway.

But the inverse is also true. Just as the Republican plan solves problems that don't exist, it also ignores problems that do exist. The Washington Post had an item yesterday on the wealth gap.

The wealthiest 1 percent of American households own 40 percent of the country's wealth, according to a new paper by economist Edward N. Wolff. That share is higher than it has been at any point since at least 1962, according to Wolff's data, which comes from the federal Survey of Consumer Finances.

From 2013, the share of wealth owned by the 1 percent shot up by nearly three percentage points. Wealth owned by the bottom 90 percent, meanwhile, fell over the same period. Today, the top 1 percent of households own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined.

Those are, to be sure, dramatic findings. But they arrive at a time when Congress' Republican majority appears determined to make this problem vastly worse.

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File Photo: Rhino 500 handguns are on display at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Annual Meetings and Exhibits on April 14, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images, File)

Following mass shootings, House GOP votes to expand gun rights

12/07/17 09:20AM

It's rare to see bipartisan agreement in Congress on any kind of legislation related to gun policy, but Democrats and Republicans recently agreed to a modest measure to improve national background check system.

But before the proposal could pass the House, Republicans decided to add something to it.

The House approved a Republican bill on Wednesday making it easier for gun owners to legally carry concealed weapons across state lines.

The "concealed carry" bill is the first gun legislation in Congress since mass shootings in Nevada and Texas killed more than 80 people. The House approved, 231-198.

The Associated Press' report added that the change "is a top priority of the National Rifle Association," which helps explain why GOP lawmakers made this change to an otherwise bipartisan bill.

The point of the policy is to effectively override state-based conceal-carry restrictions. As the New York Times' article explained, "Some states ... require that permit applicants have live-fire experience and safety training, along with a clean criminal history. Others are more lenient, and a dozen states do not even require a permit. The House bill would not force states to change their own laws, but it would treat a concealed-carry permit like a driver's license, letting individuals allowed by one state to carry a concealed weapon with them into another state."

As a political matter, it's likely that the House bill will struggle in the Senate, where the bill will need 60 votes, which means the bipartisan effort on the background check system will die because of House Republicans' efforts to approve the NRA-backed measure.

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Image: Trump announces in Washington that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in Washington

Does Trump have 'a full understanding' of his new Israel policy?

12/07/17 08:40AM

When Donald Trump delivered remarks yesterday announcing his new U.S. policy in Israel, the president seemed eager to tell the world how impressed he is with himself. "While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise," he said, "they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering."

Ordinarily, when a president announces a dramatic shift in foreign policy, he'll explain why the change advances U.S. interests. Yesterday, however, Trump didn't bother. Indeed, a Washington Post report suggested he may not fully understand what he just did.

Several advisers said he did not seem to have a full understanding of the issue and instead appeared to be focused on "seeming pro-Israel," in the words of one, and "making a deal," in the words of another. [...]

The debate came to a head at a White House meeting Nov. 27 to hash out the waiver issue. According to people briefed on the meeting, Trump repeated his earlier assertions that he had to follow through on his campaign pledge, seemingly irritated by objections over security and the break with previous policy.

"The decision wasn't driven by the peace process," one senior official said. "The decision was driven by his campaign promise."

The circumstances are more than a little scary. During the campaign, some of Trump's allies and donors told them they cared deeply about the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem and a diplomatic recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The then-Republican candidate agreed to their appeals without any meaningful understanding of the position he was endorsing.

As president, Trump started with a political posture -- make his base happy, do what other modern presidents wouldn't do -- and worked backwards, instructing his staff to formulate a policy that would bolster his political calculation.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson advised him not to do this, and he didn't care. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis encouraged the president to pursue a different course, and Trump ignored him, too. U.S. allies from across the globe implored the president to be more responsible, and Trump paid them no mind.

Because in the end, the president cared less about pursuing a sensible policy and more about saying "I am delivering" for the cameras.

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Image: POLITICS-US-TRUMP

Trump Jr invents a 'privilege' to avoid Russia scandal questions

12/07/17 08:00AM

One of the most important events in the Trump-Russia scandal occurred at Trump Tower last summer. Top members of Donald Trump's inner circle met with Russian nationals, and after the public learned of the discussion, Donald Trump Jr. issued a written statement saying participants "primarily discussed" an adoption program, which was "not a campaign issue."

What the statement failed to mention was that the point of the meeting was for the Republican campaign to acquire stolen information from the Russian government, which had offered to provide dirt to the Trump campaign about Hillary Clinton. The written statement about the meeting, in other words, wasn't true.

It therefore mattered quite a bit when there were news accounts suggesting the president personally helped write the deceptive press statement -- suggesting Donald Trump Sr. participated directly in misleading the American public about his campaign coordinating with Russia.

If a sitting president participated in a cover-up, that's an important piece of information. And so, when Donald Trump Jr. testified behind closed doors yesterday to the House Intelligence Committee, he was asked about this. Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told reporters what happened:

"[Trump Jr.] answered the overwhelming majority of our questions. There was one significant area though where he declined to answer. He acknowledged having discussed the June 9th meeting and the emails that went into establishing that meeting after those emails became public. He acknowledged discussing that matter with his father, but refused to answer questions about that discussion on the basis of a claim of attorney-client privilege. In my view, there was no attorney-client privilege that protects a discussion between father and son."

Just so we're all clear, Donald Trump Jr. isn't an attorney. Donald Trump Sr. isn't an attorney, either. Neither is a client of the other.

And yet, the president's son, unwilling to answer questions about a key area of interest, decided that since there was a lawyer around during a conversation with his father, he can now refuse to answer the Intelligence Committee's questions.

No, seriously. That's what he said.

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