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Monday's Mini-Report, 7.22.19

07/22/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A stunning protest in Puerto Rico: "Hundreds of thousands of people occupied San Juan's biggest highway on Monday demanding the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, in the island's largest protest in recent history."

* According to Robert Mueller's spokesperson, when he testifies before congressional committees on Wednesday, he will "have a brief opening statement and then offer the entire report of the special counsel investigation as his full statement for the hearing record."

* In related news: "President Donald Trump insisted Monday that he wouldn't be watching former special counsel Robert Mueller's upcoming congressional testimony, then conceded he might watch 'a little bit.'"

* Resolving the mystery of Mike Pence's canceled trip to New Hampshire: "Among the problems was a federal law enforcement probe involving individuals Pence would likely encounter, according to a law enforcement official briefed on the incident. If Pence stepped off the vice presidential aircraft, one of the people he would have seen on the ground was under investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration for moving more than $100,000 of fentanyl from Massachusetts to New Hampshire."

* Charlie Rispoli, a 14-year veteran of the Gretna, Louisiana, police force, thought it'd be a good idea to suggest online that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) be shot for her political beliefs. Rispoli was fired today. (To the extent that this matters, the officer was responding to a fictional story published to a satirical website, which he may have assumed was real.)

* Seriously? "The Trump administration, which next year will host the leaders of the world's most powerful economies for the G7 summit, is down to its final few choices after completing site surveys of possible locations -- and Trump National Doral, President Trump's 800-acre golf club in Miami, is among the finalists."

* An important detail: "Migrants targeted under Trump are much less likely to have criminal records."

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An ambulance pulls into the Dallas Fire-Rescue station 37 in Dallas, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014.

As policymakers tackle 'surprise' medical bills, ambulances get a pass

07/22/19 12:55PM

In recent months, the policy debate surrounding "surprise" medical bills has spread with impressive speed. The House held its first-ever hearing on the issue in April; federal legislation was unveiled in May; and at the state level, five legislatures have approved new measures just this year.

The heart of the debate is relatively simple: Americans often go to emergency rooms in a crisis and assume their visit will be covered by insurance. But as part of their emergency care, patients are often treated by out-of-network medical professionals, who don't have contracts with the relevant insurer, which means consumers end up receiving "surprise" invoices, which can be quite expensive.

Policymakers have explored a variety of remedies, mostly dealing with price caps and negotiated pricing among hospitals and insurers, but the New York Times had an interesting piece today noting that none of the proposals deal with ambulatory care -- which happens to be the largest part of the "surprise"-bill debate.

Congress has shown little appetite to include ambulances in a federal law restricting surprise billing. [...]

Patient groups elsewhere also say they ran into political trouble. Of the five states that passed surprise billing regulations in 2019, only Colorado's new law takes aim at ambulance billing — not by regulating it, but by forming a committee to study the issue.

"The surprise bills laws are hard enough to get," said Chuck Bell, program director for advocacy at Consumers Union, who worked to pass a Florida surprise billing law in 2016. "You're struggling with health plans, hospitals and doctors and other provider groups. At a certain point you don't want to invite another big gorilla in the room to further widen the brawl."

In time, I imagine some kind of consumer protections will take shape, though it's anyone's guess when.

But NBC News' Benjy Sarlin raised an important point: "If you want a sense of how hard even the most modest Democratic health care plans will be to pass, look at how much industry resistance politicians are facing just to stop surprise out-of-network bills from ambulances."

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.22.19

07/22/19 12:00PM

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

* Facing scandals and protests, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello announced yesterday he won't seek re-election next year. That almost certainly won't satisfy his many critics, who are calling for his immediate resignation.

* The RNC outraised the DNC in June, $20.7 million to $8.5 million, and as Politico noted, that's not the only bad news for Democrats: in the latest FEC report "The DNC also spent almost as much money as it raised -- $7.5 million -- during that time and finished the month with $9.3 million cash on hand. Meanwhile, the RNC is building a large war chest during the lead-up to 2020 and had $43.5 million cash on hand at the end of the month."

* In Virginia, Republicans control the House of Delegates by the narrowest of margins -- it's a 51-49 chamber -- which made it all the more notable on Friday when Del. Nick Freitas, the GOP incumbent in a ruby-red district withdrew after "missing a filing deadline and submitting incomplete paperwork." There's talk of a possible write-in campaign.

* In Massachusetts' heavily Democratic 1st congressional district, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse (D) this morning kicked off a primary campaign against House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D).

* Five years after her unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign, former Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis (D) officially launched a congressional campaign in the state's 21st district. Davis intends to take on incumbent freshman Rep. Chip Roy (R) in a fairly conservative part of the state.

* The latest national poll from the Pew Research Center found Democratic voters largely pleased with their 2020 presidential choices: "[R]oughly two-thirds of Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters (65%) say they have an excellent (23%) or good (42%) impression of the Democratic presidential candidates as a group. By comparison, in September 2015, only about half of Democratic voters (51%) said the same."

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Voting booths are illuminated by sunlight as voters cast their ballots at a polling place on Nov. 6, 2012. (Photo by Jae C. Hong/AP)

Member of Trump's voting commission settles embarrassing lawsuit

07/22/19 11:20AM

Around this point two years ago, Donald Trump was very excited about his ridiculous "voter integrity" commission, which existed because of the president's mistaken belief that illegal ballots caused him to lose the popular vote. Every time the president would appoint a new member to his panel, the commission grew a little more discouraging.

This was especially true when the White House tapped J. Christian Adams, a veteran of the Justice Department's voting section during the Bush/Cheney era, to join the effort.

As regular readers may recall, Adams first rose to public prominence as the “chief agitator” behind the absurd New Black Panther Party story -- alleging two black men with braids in their beards were intimidating white people while loitering outside a Philadelphia voting precinct in 2008.

In the years that followed, Adams began “pushing restrictive elections laws and voter purges across the country.” He also helped lead an organization that published a couple of "Alien Invasion" reports, purporting to show "aliens who registered to vote illegally" in Virginia.

As TPM reported the other day, that didn't work out too well.

A former Trump voter fraud commissioner will apologize to citizens he wrongly described as noncitizens in reports claiming mass voter fraud in Virginia, according to a tentative settlement agreement reached this week in a lawsuit brought against the commissioner.

J. Christian Adams and his group the Public Interest Legal Foundation were sued last year over the "Aliens Invasion" reports they released in 2016 and 2017. The reports -- which included names, phone numbers, addresses and Social Security numbers of individuals removed from voter rolls allegedly because they were noncitizens -- amounted to defamation and voter intimidation, the lawsuit alleged.

As part of the agreement, Adams' group will reportedly have to publish a statement in front of its old reports that reads, "PILF recognizes that individuals in [the removed exhibits] were in fact citizens and that these citizens did not commit felonies. PILF profoundly regrets any characterization of those registrants as felons or instances of registration or voting as felonies."

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Image: Donald Trump

Why Trump's early plans for a second term matter

07/22/19 10:40AM

It may not be the highest-profile fight in D.C. right now, but there have been several rounds of behind-the-scenes budget talks of late, with the goal of completing work on a bipartisan package this week that would raise the debt ceiling and prevent a government shutdown in the fall.

By all accounts, those negotiations have been quite constructive, and a deal is taking shape. The key to the recent breakthrough was the White House abandoning its calls for spending cuts, which House Democratic leaders opposed. Once the Trump administration largely gave up on that idea, it cleared the way for progress.

For those hoping to see federal policymakers avoid a crisis or two, it's best to keep expectations in check until the president puts his signature on a bill. After all, we know from experience that Donald Trump may endorse a deal, and may even intend to sign it, right up until he sees someone on "Fox & Friends" tell him it's a bad idea.

But while we wait for negotiators to complete their work, it's worth noting that the president may be willing to walk away from spending-cut demands now because he's eyeing a different approach in 2021. The Washington Post had an interesting item over the weekend on Trump's post-election plans.

President Trump has instructed aides to prepare for sweeping budget cuts if he wins a second term in the White House, five people briefed on the discussions said, a move that would dramatically reverse the big-spending approach he adopted during his first 30 months in office.

Trump's advisers say he will be better positioned to crack down on spending and shrink or eliminate certain agencies after next year, particularly if Republicans regain control of the House of Representatives.

At a certain level, all of this may seem wildly premature. The White House is engaged in ongoing budget talks this week, and with looming deadlines, there's a necessary focus on completing a deal quickly.

For that matter, it's hard to say with any confidence who'll win the 2020 presidential race, or which party will have control of either chamber of Congress.

But the fact that Trump is thinking along these lines is emblematic of a larger point that often goes overlooked.

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Image: Donald Trump, William Barr, Wilbur Ross

Wilbur Ross' cabinet agency reaches 'new heights of dysfunction'

07/22/19 10:00AM

After the Jeffrey Epstein scandal forced Labor Secretary Alex Acosta out of the cabinet, the political world pondered which member of Donald Trump's team would be the next to go. The smart money appears to be on Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

NBC News reported a week ago that the president has told confidants that he's considering forcing Ross out, which would make sense given that the Commerce chief was largely responsible for derailing the White House's census scheme. The report added that some members of Team Trump expect Ross to depart "possibly as soon as this summer."

What's less clear is whether the Commerce secretary would be missed. Politico reports today on the cabinet agency becoming "chaotic" and reaching "new heights of dysfunction."

Constant infighting among top officials. Sudden departures of senior staffers without explanation. A leader who is disengaged and prone to falling asleep in meetings.

The Commerce Department has reached its apex of dysfunction under Wilbur Ross, according to four people with knowledge of the inner workings of the department. The 81-year-old Commerce secretary, who has for months endured whispers that he is on the outs, spends much of his time at the White House to try to retain President Donald Trump's favor, the sources said, leaving his department adrift.

He's hardly the only top Trump official to seek the president's approval. But department insiders say they've rarely seen Commerce so rudderless -- and they say Ross's penchant for managing upward at the expense of his staff is leading to what one plugged-in observer described as "a disaster over there."

The article characterized Ross as basically clueless and reluctant to hold routine meetings with senior staffers.

One source added, "Because he tends to fall asleep in meetings, they try not to put him in a position where that could happen so they're very careful and conscious about how they schedule certain meetings."

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Donald Trump

Behind the scenes, Trump feared resolution condemning racist message

07/22/19 09:20AM

On occasion, Congress can move quite quickly. It was eight days ago, on July 14, when Donald Trump, inspired by a Fox News segment, published a series of tweets urging four American congresswomen of color to "go back" to "broken and crime infested places from which they came."

One day later, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) introduced a resolution condemning the president's racist missive. The day after that, it passed. The New Jersey Democrat spoke with Rachel the night of the vote and she noted that the White House lobbied congressional Republicans on the resolution, suggesting he cared about the non-binding outcome.

"Of course he cares," Malinowski replied. "He wants us to think he doesn't, but of course he does."

The Washington Post published an interesting behind-the-scenes report over the weekend, and it left little doubt that the author of the resolution was right.

The White House vote-counters initially feared as many as 50 Republicans might defect to support the resolution, and Trump ordered an all-hands White House effort to keep the GOP caucus together. White House aides told allies on the Hill that it was okay to criticize Trump, as long as they didn't vote with Democrats.

Trump was obsessed with the vote tally and received regular briefings. Aides fed him a constant stream of lawmaker reactions and put him on the phone with several lawmakers. He told his team to tell any wafflers that he loves America and that they needed to pick sides. Trump called McCarthy to cancel an immigration meeting planned at the White House on Tuesday.

"Stay there and fight," he told McCarthy.

Remember, Trump invested this time and effort in opposition to a symbolic measure that he knew would pass anyway. In the process, he made a few things abundantly clear.

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Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) emerges from a closed-door weekly policy meeting with Senate Republicans, at the U.S. Capitol, May 10, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Why Rand Paul probably won't be able to clean up Trump's Iran mess

07/22/19 08:41AM

At a cabinet meeting last week, Donald Trump made the case that his policy toward Iran is on the right track. "You know, a lot of progress has been made," the president claimed, pointing to nothing in particular. For good measure, he added, "A lot of progress has been made."

Reality suggests otherwise. Iran has recently been accused of shooting down an American drone, seizing a British oil tanker, and expanding its uranium enrichment. As of this morning, as NBC News reported, Iranian officials have also claimed to have captured 17 people who were allegedly spies working for the CIA.

Those looking for "a lot progress" will be searching for a very long time.

It's against this backdrop that Politico reported last week that the president played a round of golf with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who volunteered for a diplomatic mission. According to the article, the Kentucky Republican, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested that he sit down privately with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during his trip to New York for U.N. meetings.

The day after the Politico piece ran, a reporter asked Trump whether the GOP senator would serve as his emissary to Iran. "No," the president replied. "I don't know anything about that."

And the day after that, Trump switched gears. A reporter asked the president what he expects Rand Paul to do for the administration with respect to Iran. Trump said:

"Well, Rand is a friend of mine, but I have, really, 53 very good friends, and they're in the Senate.

"I also have a lot friends -- you saw that the other day when they brought a ridiculous vote up, and only four Republicans out of hundreds voted against. So I have a lot of great friends. I'm 94 percent in the Republican Party approval rating.

"Rand is a friend of mine. And Rand asked me if he could [get] involved. The answer is yes.... We'll see what happens. But I have many people involved. And Iran is going to work out very nicely. Iran is showing their colors. It's going to work out very nicely."

It's difficult to understand where the president's optimism is coming from.

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Trump says congresswomen 'can't get away with' speech he doesn't like

07/22/19 08:00AM

In theory, if Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) were as awful as Donald Trump claims, he wouldn't have to lie about them. If the president were right, and the progressive congresswomen of color had extensive records of ugly rhetorical attacks against the United States, the Republican would go after them by pointing to things they actually said.

It's just not working out that way. The more Trump targets the members of "the squad," the more fact-checkers point out that his attacks are rooted in fiction.

Under the circumstances, shouldn't the truth be good enough? Doesn't the president's dishonesty fundamentally undermine the rationale behind his entire offensive?

Complicating matters, Trump added a new twist to his campaign during brief remarks to reporters on Friday afternoon.

"You can't speak about our country the way those four congressmen -- they said, 'garbage.' They say things about Israel that's so bad I'm not even going to repeat them right now.

"They can't get away with that act."

First, the "garbage" quote has obviously been wrenched from context and was never directed at the country or its people. Second, no American president has ever been as deeply critical of the United States as Donald J. Trump.

But what I got stuck on was the assertion that the president doesn't think members of Congress can "get away with" speech he disapproves of.

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