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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. to the chamber to vote at the Capitol in Washington, Feb. 10, 2016. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Some Trump allies aren't impressed with more progressive NAFTA 2.0

12/11/19 12:50PM

House Democratic leaders announced yesterday morning that they're now on board with the revised NAFTA proposal, called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). The White House, not surprisingly, is delighted, and Donald Trump is celebrating.

Some of the president's allies, however, aren't nearly as pleased. Politico noted Sen. Pat Toomey's (R-Pa.) dissatisfaction, for example.

The conservative Pennsylvanian lambasted the deal on Tuesday as a potential drag on the economy and a capitulation to Democratic labor demands, becoming by far its most outspoken GOP opponent. Toomey's criticism comes right as President Donald Trump prepares for an event in Hershey, Pa., on Tuesday night where he's sure to tout the deal.

"There are serious problems with this agreement," Toomey told reporters, adding that it would be a "big mistake" to pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement in the coming weeks.

The GOP senator added that the trade deal has "clearly moved way to the left."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was diplomatic about his concerns, though he conceded, "From my perspective, it's not as good as I had hoped." Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) added that he feared the Trump administration may have given "away the store" in order to secure Democratic support.

As it happens, Democratic leaders are thinking along the same lines. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reportedly boasted to her conference at a closed-door caucus meeting yesterday, "We ate their lunch."

It's worth appreciating why. The Washington Post raised a point that stood out for me:

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.11.19

12/11/19 12:00PM

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

* The latest Monmouth University poll found Joe Biden leading the Democratic presidential primary field at the national level with 26% support, followed by Bernie Sanders at 21%. Elizabeth Warren is third with 17%, followed by Pete Buttigieg at 8% and Michael Bloomberg at 5%. The only other candidate to top 3% was Amy Klobuchar, who had 4% support in the poll.

* The Monmouth results also found 43% of voters supporting Trump's re-election, while 54% want a new president. Those numbers were largely unchanged from last month.

* The latest national Quinnipiac poll also found Biden in the lead with 29%, followed by Sanders at 17% and Warren at 15%. Buttigieg was fourth in the results with 9%, followed by Bloomberg at 5% and Andrew Yang at 4%.

* In hypothetical general-election match-ups, Quinnipiac also found Donald Trump trailing Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg, in margins ranging from four to nine points.

* On a related note, Yang's 4% showing qualifies him to participate in next week's Democratic primary debate. He's the seventh candidate to meet the necessary thresholds, and there will probably not be a eighth. [Update: I'd originally said eight candidates had qualified, because I was counting Kamala Harris. Since she ended her campaign, I've corrected this text.]

* In New Hampshire, a new MassInc poll for WBUR found Buttigieg narrowly leading Biden in the nation's first primary contest, 18% to 17%. Sanders was close behind at 15%, followed by Warren at 12%.

* Speaking of Warren, Trump lashed out at the Massachusetts senator in rather personal ways during a campaign rally last night. The president said, among other things, that Warren's recent polling drop happened because "she opened that fresh mouth of hers." Trump added that he doesn't believe the senator has seen her husband "in 10 years."

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Mulvaney: Trump eyeing another corporate tax cut in a second term

12/11/19 11:20AM

We know Donald Trump wants a second term. We don't know what he intends to do if he gets one.

The president doesn't have much of a policy agenda, per se, and in those rare instances in which Trump looks ahead to 2021 and beyond, he tends to keep things vague. There have been reports, for example, about massive and unpopular budgets cuts Trump might pursue if re-elected, and the president occasionally promises to someday come up with a "great" health care plan, but in general, the electorate currently has no real idea what the Republican would do with four more years.

That said, there are some hints. MarketWatch had this report yesterday:

President Donald Trump wants to go beyond the corporate tax cuts put in place by the 2017 law, his acting chief of staff said Tuesday when asked about plans if Trump gets re-elected. Mick Mulvaney made the comments at the Wall Street Journal's CEO Council meeting in Washington.

The tax bill Trump signed lowered the corporate rate to 21% from 35%, but said Mulvaney, the president has been "disappointed" it wasn't cut farther.

If you watch the clip, note that Mulvaney, who's kept a relatively low profile since acknowledging serious White House misdeeds at a disastrous press conference two months ago, said the president has long believed the Republican tax breaks didn't go far enough to lower corporate rates.

Mulvaney suggested Trump's push for more tax cuts will be easier "now that we've proven they can work."

In reality, we know that the Republicans' tax plan didn't work at all, Mulvaney's boasts notwithstanding. In fact, it's failed in practically every measurable way.

But putting that aside, if Mulvaney sees this as a winning electoral message, he and his boss are likely to be disappointed. There was no public appetite for massive corporate tax breaks when Trump signed them into law two years ago -- polls showed Americans actually wanted the opposite -- and there's no evidence of public support for even more corporate tax breaks now.

But Team Trump has nevertheless positioned tax cuts as a top priority. In fact, it's unnerving how frequently this comes up.

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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP

Trump helps prove he's an unreliable narrator about his own presidency

12/11/19 10:09AM

Last week, Donald Trump appeared to make some important news via Twitter. "Brazil and Argentina have been presiding over a massive devaluation of their currencies. which is not good for our farmers," the American president wrote. "Therefore, effective immediately, I will restore the Tariffs on all Steel & Aluminum that is shipped into the U.S. from those countries."

The declaration, predictably, jolted international markets, and caused a stir in the relevant industries. What was not clear at the time, however, was that Trump's words were effectively meaningless.

Bloomberg News reported yesterday that Larry Kudlow, the top voice on economic policy in the Republican White House, conceded that the administration hasn't yet made a decision regarding Brazilian and Argentinian tariffs.

Reinstating such tariffs has been discussed but there's no decision yet, Larry Kudlow, the director of the White House's National Economic Council, said at the Wall Street Journal's CEO Council in Washington.

The Brazilian government has yet to be notified by the U.S. about the intention to impose more duties on the country's steel, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter. Brazil plans to wait until it has official communication from the U.S. to make any decisions, the person said, asking not to be identified because discussions aren't public.

In other words, when Trump said his policy would take effect "immediately," he actually meant his new policy may not take effect at all.

It's possible the president was lying. It's equally possible Trump genuinely believed he was unveiling a new policy, but simply didn't know what was going on around him. There are plenty of examples of both dynamics from recent years.

Either way, however, it offers fresh evidence of why it's generally wise for those interested in the truth to watch what Trump does, not what he says.

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The J. Edgar Hoover Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) building stands in Washington, D.C., Aug. 8, 2013. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

Trump escalates FBI fight with conspiracy theories, attacks on 'scum'

12/11/19 09:20AM

Donald Trump's antagonistic relationship with FBI Director Christopher Wray -- whom the president personally chose for the job -- has been simmering for months, though it appeared to reach a striking new level yesterday. After Wray had the audacity to say accurate things about Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz's findings about the investigation into the Russia scandal, the president made little effort to hide his disgust.

Complaining about the bureau director saying true things, Trump complained on Twitter, "With that kind of attitude, he will never be able to fix the FBI, which is badly broken."

Hours later, during a campaign rally in Pennsylvania last night, the president escalated his offensive against federal law enforcement, telling his followers:

"You have great people in the FBI, but not in leadership. You have not good people in leadership, you haven't had. When the FBI uncovered evidence showing that we did absolutely nothing wrong -- which was right at the beginning -- hey hid that exonerating [evidence]. You know that, they hid it. They hid it so nobody could see it, so they could keep this hoax going on for two years."

Trump didn't specify who, exactly, these "not good people" in the FBI leadership are, though it's worth noting for context that the bureau is currently led by a director, deputy director, associate deputy director, and chief of staff, each of whom were elevated to their current posts during the Trump era.

As for the president's bizarre conspiracy theory about the FBI deliberately hiding exonerating evidence, there is no evidence of such a conspiracy; the Justice Department's inspector general determined that there was no such conspiracy; and if there's evidence exonerating Trump, it's hiding well.

The Republican went on to say FBI officials "destroyed the lives" of "good people." The president added, "Their lives have been destroyed by scum."

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At the Supreme Court, ACA provision finds support from justices

12/11/19 08:41AM

In previous instances in which the Affordable Care Act received Supreme Court scrutiny, "Obamacare" was facing existential questions. The law, we now know, survived those challenges, though others remain.

Yesterday, however, the high court heard oral arguments in a lower-profile case involving a fairly obscure provision of the reform law, dealing with something called "risk corridors," which involve funds the ACA committed to shield insurance companies from risks. The New York Times helped set the stage:

Paul D. Clement, a lawyer for the insurance companies, said his clients had been the victims of "a massive government bait-and-switch."

But Edwin S. Kneedler, a lawyer for the federal government, said a statutory promise to cover the companies' losses was ineffective without a separate congressional appropriation of money. "The appropriations clause of the Constitution is central to this case," he said, referring to a provision that says, "No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law."

Let's back up and review how we reached this point.

When the ACA was created nearly a decade ago, there was a broad understanding that private insurers would benefit from millions of new customers, but they'd also take on new risks, since the law required insurance companies to treat all customers equally, regardless of pre-existing conditions. That raised the prospect, of course, of some insurers taking on hard-to-predict numbers of unhealthy consumers whose coverage would cost more.

The law's architects added "risk corridors" -- an idea Republicans liked in the not-too-distant past -- to help reimburse insurers who took a hit, at least for the first few years as the new marketplace took shape. The same provision also required insurance companies that didn't take a hit to pay into a risk corridor fund to help the rest of the industry.

As longtime readers may recall, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), for reasons that were never altogether clear, helped lead the charge to destroy the risk corridors. (It almost certainly had something to do with the Floridian's ill-fated presidential campaign, and the senator's eagerness to falsely claim he "killed Obamacare.") Rubio and his Republican brethren succeeded, which led to some very unhappy insurers: companies that worked within the system in good faith were suddenly told the money they were promised would never arrive.

Litigation soon followed, and the justices heard the case yesterday.

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A 'hatchet man for Trump'? Barr interview generates new concerns

12/11/19 08:00AM

Donald Trump's presidential cabinet features a variety of controversial figures, from the incompetent to the unqualified, from the hapless to the ethically challenged.

But all things considered, there's arguably no one quite as scary in Trump's cabinet as Attorney General Bill Barr. His exclusive interview with NBC News' Pete Williams brought into sharp focus why there's reason to be concerned about the nation's chief law enforcement official's efforts.

Attorney General William Barr said he still believes the FBI may have operated out of "bad faith" when it investigated whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, and he contends the FBI acted improperly by continuing the investigation after Donald Trump took office.

In an exclusive interview with NBC News, Barr essentially dismissed the findings of the Justice Department's inspector general that there was no evidence of political bias in the launching of the Russia probe, saying that his hand-picked prosecutor, John Durham, will have the last word on the matter.

NBC News' report added that the attorney general's latest offensive against the FBI's investigation into the Russia scandal is "bound to stoke further debate about whether the attorney general is acting in good faith, or as a political hatchet man for Trump."

Quite right. In fact, that debate intensified almost immediately after the public was able to see Barr's latest comments. The attorney general argued during the interview, for example, "From a civil liberties standpoint, the greatest danger to our free system is that the incumbent government used the apparatus of the state, principally the law enforcement agencies and the intelligence agencies, both to spy on political opponents, but also to use them in a way that could affect the outcome of the election."

Except, as Barr knows, the Justice Department's inspector general just determined that none of those things happened. The Republican attorney may find this disappointing, but the evidence showed that the Obama administration did not, in reality, "spy on political opponents" and never used the levers of governmental power as part of a scheme to affect the election's outcome.

And yet, the attorney general appears to have no qualms about peddling these bogus claims to a national television audience as if they were true.

Indeed, if we're going to talk about the dangers posed by an incumbent administration to "use the apparatus of the state" in ways that "could affect the outcome of the election," perhaps Barr might be interested in his boss. We recently learned, for example, about Donald Trump withholding congressionally approved military aid to a vulnerable foreign ally as part of an extortion scheme that the president intended to use to cheat in his 2020 re-election campaign.

Perhaps the attorney general has heard a thing or two about this?

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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 12.10.19

12/10/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Today's mass shooting: "A police officer, three civilians and two suspects were killed Tuesday afternoon during a shootout and standoff in Jersey City, New Jersey, authorities said."

* Fallout from last week's shooting in north Florida: "The Navy has grounded Saudi military trainees in Florida, suspending their flight instruction indefinitely in the wake of a shooting last week at Naval Air Station Pensacola by a member of the Saudi Royal Air Force."

* This seemed inevitable: "Former FBI lawyer Lisa Page sued her old employers on Tuesday, charging they unlawfully released inflammatory text messages between her and FBI agent Peter Strzok in order to redirect Republican anger from top officials at the Department of Justice."

* Delicate negotiations: "Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky agreed to a renewed cease-fire and to exchange all known prisoners when they met for the first time in Paris on Monday, making modest gains in peace talks designed to end a deadly war in eastern Ukraine."

* Why would anyone find it suspicious that Bill Barr doesn't want to say when the Justice Department's holiday party is? "Attorney General William P. Barr had planned to hold a 200-person holiday party at the Trump hotel in Washington Sunday night, but the event was rescheduled, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman. The spokeswoman declined to say when the event would take place but said it would still be at the Trump International Hotel."

* This seems like a reasonable suggestion: "Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) Monday became the first lawmaker to call on the official overseeing Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare to resign over POLITICO reports he said reveal 'a gross misuse of public funds.'"

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Image: Donald Trump

Trump pays $2 million to resolve case over his fraudulent foundation

12/10/19 03:06PM

As a presidential candidate in 2016, Donald Trump took great pride in boasting to the public that he doesn’t settle lawsuits. “I don’t settle cases,” the Republican bragged during a primary debate in March 2016. “I don’t do it because that’s why I don’t get sued very often, because I don’t settle, unlike a lot of other people.”

Indeed, in June 2018, when the president’s fraudulent charitable foundation was taken to court, Trump made a specific vow via Twitter: “I won’t settle this case!”

As we discussed last month, Trump settled the case. The Washington Post reported this afternoon on the president cutting the $2 million check.

President Trump has paid $2 million in court-ordered damages for misusing funds in a tax-exempt charity he controlled, the New York Attorney General said Tuesday.

The payment was ordered last month by a New York state judge, in an extraordinary rebuke to a sitting president. [...] Now, the foundation will be shuttered. But the consequences of this case will linger for Trump. Under the terms of the settlement, he has agreed to special supervision if he ever returns to charity work in New York.

The Washington Post had a related report last month on the developments, which added, “In a statement signed by Trump’s attorney, the president admitted to poor oversight of the charity.”

And while I’m sure the president isn’t pleased with the $2 million judgment, this case could’ve been much worse for Trump. We are, after all, talking about an entity that was supposed to be a charitable foundation, which Trump repeatedly misused for his own interests.

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