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Thursday's Mini-Report, 3.21.19

03/21/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* New Zealand takes swift action: "New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced plans to ban nearly all military-style semi-automatic and assault rifles on Thursday, six days after a gunman killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch."

* I have a hunch he hasn't thought this through: "President Donald Trump said Thursday that it's time for the United States to recognize Israel's sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights, an announcement that signals a shift in U.S. policy and comes ahead of the Israeli prime minister's planned visit next week to the White House."

* Houston: "National Guard troops have been called in and residents were told to stay inside after elevated levels of benzene were detected early Thursday near a Houston-area petrochemicals storage facility that caught fire this week."

* I hope you saw Rachel's coverage of this last night: "Two mystery litigants citing privacy concerns are making a last-ditch bid to keep secret some details in a lawsuit stemming from wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein's history of paying underage girls for sex. Just prior to a court-imposed deadline Tuesday, two anonymous individuals surfaced to object to the unsealing of a key lower-court ruling in the case, as well as various submissions by the parties."

* I didn't realize how significant this problem is: "[I]n her first three months in Congress, aides say, enough people have threatened to murder [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)] that Capitol Police trained her staff to perform risk assessments of her visitors."

* I wonder what he'll say: "Former President Barack Obama will meet with House Democratic freshmen on Monday, according to an invitation obtained by POLITICO. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is hosting the reception, which will occur Monday evening after House votes, to 'celebrate the freshman class of the 116th Congress.' The event is only for members and limited to the 60-plus freshman class."

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U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a press conference after the meeting of U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2

On Trump-Putin talks, White House to keep info from Congress

03/21/19 02:52PM

Ahead of his July 2018 summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump insisted that the meeting be limited to a one-on-one discussion, with no other U.S. officials, even members of the Trump cabinet, participating. As regular readers know, the White House never exactly explained why, but the assumption throughout the government was that the American leader would brief U.S. officials on the details of the meeting afterwards.

That didn't happen. White House officials, military leaders, and even Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats all conceded in the days following the summit that they didn't fully know what transpired behind closed doors.

It wasn't an isolated incident. The Washington Post reported a couple of months ago that Trump has "gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations" with the Russian autocrat who attacked our elections in 2016 in order to put the Republican in power -- at one point even "talking possession" of his own interpreter's notes after a conversation with Putin.

Soon after the article ran, Trump sat down for one of his many Fox News interviews and was asked whether he'd release information about his conversations with Putin. "I would," Trump replied. "I don't care.... I'm not keeping anything under wraps."

Actually, he is. Politico reported this afternoon:

The White House on Thursday rejected congressional Democrats' demands for documents relating to President Donald Trump's private discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin — escalating tensions between the Trump administration and Congress over a crucial piece of Democrats' oversight ambitions. [...]

In his letter to Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), [White House Counsel Pat Cipollone] cited precedents going back to the George Washington and Bill Clinton administrations to assert Trump's authority to conduct foreign affairs, and to argue that Congress has no right to information about one-on-one conversations between the president and a foreign leader.

In general, that principle may seem reasonable. But in the Trump era, it's not quite that simple.

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Trump's latest claims about ISIS appear dubious (again)

03/21/19 12:45PM

It's been a few months since Donald Trump declared that he was withdrawing all U.S. military forces out of Syria -- a policy the president has since altered several times. During a brief Q&A with reporters yesterday, Trump fielded a question on the subject, which he answered with a visual aide.

Q: Have you reversed your policy on Syria?

TRUMP: No, no. We're -- in Syria, we're leaving 200 people there and 200 people in another place in Syria, closer to Israel, for a period of time. I brought this out for you because this is a map of -- everything in the red -- this was on Election Night in 2016. Everything red is ISIS. When I took it over, it was a mess. Now, on the bottom, that's the exact same. There is no red. In fact, there's actually a tiny spot, which will be gone by tonight.

For now, let's focus specifically on those last few words: ISIS-controlled territory, the president said, "will be gone by tonight."

A few hours later, at an event in Ohio, Trump repeated the line, telling his audience, "Let me tell you about ISIS. They're not doing so well. You know, we took over the caliphate. You'll see it tonight."

So, what happened last night?

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.21.19

03/21/19 12:00PM

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

* Though Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) caused a bit of a stir this week, hiring two fierce Hillary Clinton critics for his presidential campaign team, it turns out he also hired someone from Clinton's 2016 team: Tyson Brody, Clinton's deputy research director, will now oversee the Vermonter's research operation.

* We recently learned that former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) raised $6.1 million on his first day as a presidential candidate, and yesterday, his team released some additional details: there were more than 128,000 unique donors, with an average donation of $47. In contrast, Bernie Sanders had 223,000 donors, with a $27 average contribution, on his first day.

* On a related note, Mark Gallogly, a prominent Democratic bundler who helped support Barack Obama's campaigns, is reportedly prepared to back O'Rourke's 2020 candidacy.

* Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is on record saying he doesn't support changes to the Senate's filibuster rules, but this week, he hedged on the issue and said he's open to an institutional change.

* The latest Emerson poll shows former Vice President Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders tied at 26% each among Democrats nationwide. The only other candidates to reach double digits were Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) at 12% and Beto O'Rourke at 11%.

* The same poll showed some hypothetical general election match-ups against Donald Trump, and Biden easily fared the best, leading the president by 10 points, 55% to 45%.

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On economic data, it's Trump vs the Trump administration

03/21/19 11:20AM

For quite a while, Donald Trump was so convinced of his ability to unleash unprecedented economic growth that he made rather ridiculous promises to the public. As we we discussed a few months ago, Candidate Trump routinely promised “4% annual economic growth” – and in some cases, he suggested his policies could push growth to as high as 6%.

After the election, someone must've told the president that those promises were wildly unrealistic, so the White House moved the goalposts a bit, lowering the target to 3% GDP growth.

In Trump's first year in office, economic growth reached 2.2%, which wasn't bad, though it was short of the Republican's promises. In his second year, according to Trump's own Commerce Department, growth reached 2.9% -- which is certainly very close to the president's revised goal, but not quite the number Trump had in mind. (It was the same growth Americans saw in 2015, the year Trump launched his campaign, when he said the economy was awful.)

And yet, Trump and the Trump administration apparently aren't on the same page. For example, a few weeks ago, the White House published a curious report insisting that "economic growth has reached 3 percent for the first time in more than a decade," adding that all of the credit should go the president. Yesterday, at event in Ohio, Trump was also eager to boast about crossing the threshold.

"We just came out with numbers -- the Economic Report of the President: 3.1 percent GDP. The first time in 14 years that we cracked 3, right? That's pretty good -- 3.1. The press tried to make it 2.9. I said, 'It's not 2.9.' What they did is they took odd months. I said, 'No, no, no. You go from January to December. You don't take certain months and add them up.' Because I said, 'We're going to break 3.' And we did. We did 3.1.

"The fake news tried to change it but we caught them. I said -- I said, 'You know, we didn't break the 3. Oh, that's terrible.' They said, 'Yes, sir, you did. They just took odd months.' I said, 'No, no, January to December.' 3.1 percent, first time in 14 years. Congratulations. Sort of incredible. It's true."

It's not actually true.

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Early Voting Starts In Florida

Are Florida Republicans really pursuing a new 'poll tax'?

03/21/19 10:45AM

It's been a few months since voters in Florida easily approved a ballot measure called Amendment 4, which restored the voting rights of an estimated 1.5 million former felons. It was one of the biggest and most consequential steps forward for voting rights in the United States in decades.

Republicans in the Sunshine State didn't appear to be especially pleased with the change. For example, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a former far-right congressman, was accused of trying to "slow walk the implementation" of the voter-approved measure. Now, the GOP-controlled legislature is eyeing an important new change to the law, which would be a major step backwards. Politico reported this week:

A bill that would limit voting rights that ex-offenders gained under the ballot measure cleared its first stop in a Republican-controlled Florida House committee on a party-line vote Tuesday, and the president of the state Senate said he expects his chamber to draw up a companion measure.

Democrats and others condemned the move, likening the legislation to a poll tax imposed on African-Americans during the Jim Crow era.

The debate is relatively straightforward: the Republican proposal would allow former felons to have their voting rights restored, as the new law demands, just so long as they first pay court costs and fines associated with their previous misdeeds. Those who don't pay -- or can't afford to pay -- wouldn't be able to register to vote.

Was this a condition in the voter-approved Amendment 4? No, but many GOP state policymakers believe it's a worthwhile addition.

Many Democrats and voting-rights advocates have labeled the Republican proposal a "poll tax," and it's easy to understand why.

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Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., pauses as he speaks about the Iran nuclear agreement at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington, D.C. Sept. 8, 2015. (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Poll answers the 'What happened to Lindsey Graham?' question

03/21/19 10:13AM

It wasn't long after Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was elected to the Senate in 2002 that he positioned himself as one of the chamber's more constructive lawmakers. It's not that Graham was a moderate on the major issues of the day -- he's always been a rather staunch conservative -- but he demonstrated a willingness to forge relationships and work on bipartisan agreements.

The South Carolinian also occasionally expressed concern about the future of his Republican Party, warning that too much radicalism and too little interest in broadening the GOP's appeal would lead to electoral setbacks. Even here, the senator's concerns seemed rooted in pragmatism.

That version of Lindsey Graham is gone. The senator who condemned Donald Trump's rise now carries the president's water. The lawmaker who believed in partnering with Democrats now prefers bitter partisanship to cooperation. Graham's eagerness to pass bills has been replaced with a desire to impress his party's far-right base.

There's no shortage of speculation as to what caused Graham's metamorphosis, and as we recently discussed, there are even occasional conspiracy theories about Trump having something damaging on the senator, which the president uses to extort Graham into compliance.

The truth is simpler.

Regarding U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, his approval rating among Republicans has continued to rise, it now stands at 74% in the Winthrop Poll. Only 25% of Democrats polled support Graham.

"Graham's approval has benefited from his defense of, and alignment with, President Trump. While Graham's numbers used to lag those of other Republicans among GOP identifiers, since he has taken up the President's banner on most every issue, his approval among Republicans in South Carolina has steadily risen," [Dr. Scott Huffmon, Winthrop poll director] said.

A year ago, Graham's approval among South Carolina Republicans was 51%, and there was a very real chance the senator would face a primary rival ahead of his 2020 re-election bid.

Today, his approval among South Carolina Republicans is 74% -- and the chatter about a primary challenge has disappeared.

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Image: Senate Judiciary Committee

Trump's line on the Mueller report takes a confusing turn

03/21/19 09:20AM

About a month ago, asked about a possible report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Donald Trump said he was eager to read the findings. "I look forward to seeing the report," the president told reporters.

Last week, however, the Republican dramatically switched gears. During a rather manic Twitter tantrum, Trump not only called Mueller's investigation "illegal," the president said there never should have been a special counsel, and as such, "there should be no Mueller Report."

Yesterday, during a brief Q&A, Trump flipped back to his original position, telling reporters, "I look forward to seeing the report." And while the reversal was notable on its own right, part of what made this interesting was the rhetorical journey the president took before arriving at this point.

Q: Do you know when the Mueller report will be released, Mr. President?

TRUMP: I have no idea. No collusion. No collusion. I have no idea when it's going to be released. It's interesting that a man gets appointed by a deputy; he writes a report. You know -- never figured that one out. A man gets appointed by a deputy; he writes a report. I had the greatest electoral victory -- one of them -- in the history of our country. Tremendous success. Tens of millions of voters. And now somebody is going to write a report who never got a vote.

Much of this is gibberish. Trump seems to believe that Mueller shouldn't be able to write a report (a) because he was appointed by a deputy attorney general; (b) because of the size of Trump's victory; and (c) because Mueller "never got a vote."

On the first point, I have no idea why that's relevant. On the second, Trump's election victory was smaller than most modern presidents' victories. And on the third point, I have no idea what Trump was trying to say.

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The Pentagon, the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, Arlington County, Virginia.

Trump's acting Pentagon chief faces new ethics probe

03/21/19 08:40AM

When Defense Secretary James Mattis announced his resignation in December, the retired four-star general envisioned a fairly long transition period. As regular readers know, the then-Pentagon chief intended to stay on through the end of February, allowing Donald Trump time to nominate a successor, and the Senate time to evaluate him or her ahead of a confirmation vote.

At least, that was the plan. Eventually, Trump, who didn't read Mattis' page-and-a-half resignation letter, learned from television what the secretary had written -- at which point the president directed another cabinet official to tell Mattis he'd have to leave before the new year began. The smooth transition the White House promised wouldn't exist because Mattis hurt Trump's feelings.

Three months later, the president still hasn't nominated a new Defense secretary. The acting Pentagon chief, Patrick Shanahan is the longest acting Defense secretary in American history.

And while that raises a series of difficult questions about the president's approach to governance, a new and related problem has risen to the fore.

The Pentagon's inspector general has formally opened an investigation into a watchdog group's allegations that acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has used his office to promote his former employer, Boeing Co.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed an ethics complaint with the Pentagon's inspector general a week ago, alleging that Shanahan has appeared to make statements promoting Boeing and disparaging competitors, such as Lockheed Martin.

Shanahan, who was traveling with President Donald Trump to Ohio on Wednesday, spent more than 30 years at Boeing, leading programs for commercial planes and missile defense systems.

This follows a Politico report from January, which alleged that Shanahan, before becoming acting secretary, used his previous DOD post to boost his former employer and disparage Boeing's competitors in high-level Pentagon meetings.

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U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) attends the third day of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Aug.. 29, 2012 in Tampa, Fla. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty)

Trump's offensive against McCain isn't just ugly, it's also dishonest

03/21/19 08:00AM

In the wake of John McCain's passing, Donald Trump made no real effort to hide his contempt for the late senator, taking cheap and unnecessary shots at the Arizonan for months. This week, however, the presidential campaign against McCain took an even darker turn.

Over the weekend, Trump lashed out at McCain for his grades at the Naval Academy, his opposition to a far-right health care gambit, and his willingness to turn the Steele dossier over to the FBI -- which, incidentally, the president lied about. On Tuesday, Trump kept the offensive going during a White House visit with a foreign leader.

Congressional Republicans have reportedly begged the president to stop. Instead, yesterday, Trump did the opposite.

President Donald Trump hit the late Sen. John McCain with a fresh attack Wednesday, hammering the former prisoner of war as weak on veterans issues -- and griping about the Arizona Republican's funeral -- during a speech at an Army tank plant in Lima, Ohio.

The full transcript of the remarks is online, and even by Trump standards, the speech was bizarre. He whined, for example, that he wasn't thanked for McCain's funeral, which is staggering in its pettiness, and which rested on a wild exaggeration of the president's actual role in the services.

The president also suggested his Veterans Choice Act was proof that McCain "didn't get the job done" for veterans, despite the fact that the law was signed into law before Trump took office -- and was co-sponsored by McCain.

It's one thing for a president to lash out publicly at a dead man who can't defend himself; it's something else for the president to do so while lying.

The larger question, meanwhile, is why in the world Trump is doing this.

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