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Protesters gather outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011.

Why it matters that a judge blocked the Wisconsin GOP's power grab

03/22/19 09:20AM

After struggling in recent elections cycles, Wisconsin Democrats scored major victories up and down the ballot in 2018. As regular readers may recall, voters in the Badger State elected a Democratic governor, re-elected a Democratic U.S. senator, re-elected a Democratic secretary of state, and elected a Democratic state attorney general. Even in the state legislature, Democratic candidates easily won the most votes.

Republicans didn't exactly take their electoral setback gracefully. On the contrary, GOP officials scrambled to approve a power-grab, stripping offices Democrats had won of key powers, before the newly elected officials were even sworn in.

The Republicans' posture was based on a staggering arrogance that democracy is an annoyance that must occasionally be ignored. It's a sentiment that effectively asked, "Who are the voters to tell us what to do with state government?"

Not surprisingly, the scheme is now the subject of an important lawsuit -- which, as of yesterday, isn't going the GOP's way.

A judge on Thursday temporarily blocked Wisconsin Republicans' contentious lame-duck laws limiting the powers of new Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who immediately used his restored authority to pull the state out of a multistate challenge to the Affordable Care Act.

Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess brushed aside GOP concerns that the move would leave thousands of statutes passed in so-called extraordinary sessions susceptible to challenge. Republican legislative leaders vowed to appeal.

In terms of the practical implications, it's tempting to think the resolution of the fight will have to wait until various appeals are exhausted, but in one especially important area, that's not quite right.

Before losing his re-election bid, then-Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed on to a ridiculous legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act, intended to, among other things, gut protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions. In 2018, the Democratic candidates for governor and attorney general -- Tony Evers and Josh Kaul, respectively -- told voters they'd withdraw Wisconsin from the lawsuit if voters elected them.

Evers and Kaul won, but the Republican power-grab blocked their ability to keep their promise -- at least until yesterday.

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Desks in a classroom. (Photo by Bob O'Connor/Gallery Stock)

Trump's new order on campus speech does much less than he thinks

03/22/19 08:40AM

During a long, rambling appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Donald Trump made a curious announcement. "Today I'm proud to announce that I will be very soon signing an executive order requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research dollars," the president declared.

Yesterday, we learned what he was talking about.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday that would withhold federal research and education funds from colleges if they don't certify that they will protect free-speech rights on campus.

"We're here to take historic actions to defend American students and American values," Trump said at the White House. "They've been under siege." [...]

Public colleges and universities are already required to abide by the First Amendment.

It's that last sentence that stands out for a reason.

As the NBC News report on this makes clear, American colleges and universities do receive billions of dollars in federal funds every year, and while the White House said Trump's policy wouldn't affect tuition assistance, it could affect research and development funding for schools that fail to protect First Amendment rights.

There are, of course, a couple of problems with this. The first is the disconnect between the message and the messenger: maybe the guy who discusses official retribution against comedy shows that hurt his feelings, and uses Stalin-esque rhetoric to condemn the free press, should pause before presenting himself as a champion of the First Amendment.

The second is that Trump's new "policy" does far less than the president suggested.

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The Arizona-Mexico border fence near Naco, Ariz., March 29, 2013.

Marine Corps leader sees 'unacceptable risks' in Trump's border agenda

03/22/19 08:00AM

Donald Trump has bragged for months about deploying U.S. troops to the country's southern border, though at times, it seems the president has been confused about their mission and the kind of work the troops can do on American soil. What Trump has not addressed, however, are the concerns of military leaders who disapprove of his efforts.

The L.A. Times reported yesterday:

The commandant of the Marines has warned the Pentagon that deployments to the southwest border and funding transfers under the president's emergency declaration, among other unexpected demands, have posed "unacceptable risk to Marine Corps combat readiness and solvency."

In two internal memos, Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller said the "unplanned/unbudgeted" deployment along the border that President Trump ordered last fall, and shifts of other funds to support border security, had forced him to cancel or reduce planned military training in at least five countries, and delay urgent repairs at bases.

The Times spoke with experts who were struck by the four-star general's candor in the memos, which were dated earlier this week, and which were rather explicit in making the case that the White House's agenda is adversely affecting military readiness.

Mandy Smithberger, a defense expert at the Project for Government Oversight, told the newspaper, "It's pretty unusual for the commandant to be raising concerns that ... a top political priority for the president is undermining the ability of the Marine Corps to do the training they need."

If the Marine Corps commandant were alone in his concerns, they'd still be notable, but the significance of Neller's memos are amplified by a larger pattern.

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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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