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Friday's Mini-Report, 3.22.19

03/22/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* This is not a drill: "Special counsel Robert Mueller on Friday wrapped up his nearly two-year investigation into Donald Trump and Russia and sent his report to Attorney General Barr."

* Afghanistan: "Two U.S. service members were killed on Friday while conducting an operation in Afghanistan, according to a statement from the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Kabul."

* Brexit: "British Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday won approval of her request for an extension to the deadline for the U.K. to exit the European Union, delaying the departure until either early April or late May."

* Moving backwards:" North Korea staff members said they were pulling out due to instructions from 'the superior authority,' according to South Korea, which expressed its regret for the decision and hoped the North would soon return. The office opened last year amid detente between the two Koreas to facilitate close communication for joint projects."

* It's as if everything that was said about Hillary Clinton's emails in 2016 meant nothing: "The chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee revealed information on Thursday that he said showed Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner used private messaging services for official White House business in a way that may have violated federal records laws."

* Expect litigation: "Phil Bryant, the Republican governor of Mississippi, on Thursday signed a bill largely banning abortions once doctors can detect a trace of a fetal heartbeat with an ultrasound, a milestone that can come as early as six weeks into pregnancy."

* Guilty plea: "A Florida man has pleaded guilty to sending a wave of pipe bombs to CNN and prominent critics of President Donald Trump. Cesar Sayoc entered the plea Thursday before a federal judge in New York."

* Virginia: "Schools in Charlottesville, Virginia, remained closed for a second consecutive day on Friday as police investigated a threat of racist violence against non-white students that had been posted online, officials said."

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Amidst foreign policy chaos, Trump halts his own North Korea sanctions

03/22/19 03:24PM

Yesterday afternoon, White House National Security Advisor John Bolton touted new economic sanctions that United States was imposing on North Korea. Bolton met with reporters at the White House complex to walk journalists through the details of the policy, and soon after, he published a tweet describing the Trump administration's sanctions as "important actions."Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stressed their significance, too.

One day later, Donald Trump rejected his own administration's policy.

President Trump undercut his own Treasury Department on Friday by announcing that he was rolling back North Korea sanctions that it imposed just a day ago.

The move, announced on Twitter, was a remarkable display of dissension within the Trump administration and showed how actively the White House is intervening in policies that are traditionally handled by career officials in the Treasury and State Departments. Mr. Trump appeared to confuse the day that the North Korea sanctions were announced, saying that it occurred on Friday rather than on Thursday.

Specifically, the American president declared by way of Twitter, "It was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea. I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!"

All of this comes the same week as Trump reportedly decided to take personal control of negotiations over North Korea's nuclear weapons program, sidelining his own top diplomats working on the issue.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed to reporters that the tweet was not a mistake. "President Trump likes Chairman Kim, and he doesn't think these sanctions will be necessary," she said.

In the not-too-distant past, accusing an American politician of "liking" a ruthless communist dictator would've been seen as an ugly insult. In the Trump era, it's the official White House response to defend the American president's bizarre behavior.

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Image: FILE PHOTO -  U.S. Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-AZ) listens during rally in Denver

Trump's latest attack on McCain rests on a fuzzy memory

03/22/19 12:50PM

I've lost count of how many times Donald Trump has gone after the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) this week, and though congressional Republicans have reportedly begged the president to back off, he clearly doesn't care.

In fact, in an interview with the Fox Business Network's Maria Bartiromo that aired this morning, Trump took yet another shot at the senator who's no longer able to defend himself. After a back and forth that lasted a while, the president eventually concluded:

"He was horrible, what he did with 'repeal and replace,' it was -- what he did to the Republican Party, and to the nation, and to sick people that could've had great health care, was not good. So I'm not a fan of John McCain, and that's fine."

There's no shortage of angles to Trump's preoccupation with McCain, some of which matter more than others, but what struck me as interesting about these latest comments is the fact that Trump doesn't seem to remember his own presidency especially well.

For a man who's boasted that he has "one of the great memories of all time," it's curious that he doesn't recall major events from a year and a half ago.

Let's take a brief stroll down memory lane.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.22.19

03/22/19 12:00PM

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

* Donald Trump's re-election campaign launched a new fundraising campaign last night, trying to raise money off the possible release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report. In the president's new appeal, the subject line told prospective donors, "Witch Hunt Report Attached." In an apparent attempt at cleverness, the body of the email read, "[SORRY THIS DOCUMENT IS BLANK]."

* In response to pressure from the left, several Democratic presidential candidates have decided to skip this year's American Israel Public Affairs Committee's (AIPAC) policy conference.

* As presidential hopefuls scramble to secure the services of top-tier staffers, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) has reportedly hired Jen O'Malley Dillon, a deputy campaign manager for Barack Obama's re-election effort in 2012.

* According to a new survey from the Pew Research Center, a majority of Republican voters believe increased racial and ethnic diversity in the United States will weaken the nation's cultural fabric.

* The Nevada State Democratic Party has overhauled the rules of its presidential nominating contest, to be held in February 2020. Expecting large turnout, Nevada Dems have expanded the number of days voters can participate.

* Interesting tidbit: as a result of the 2018 midterm elections, the number of pro-choice House Republicans is now down to zero.

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School Classroom.

Why it's so hard to believe Trump's new promises about student loan debt

03/22/19 11:20AM

Before signing a largely meaningless executive order regarding free-speech rights in higher education, Donald Trump spent a little time focusing on student loan debt, which he apparently intends to "fix."

"I'm going to work to fix it because it's outrageous what's happening. You're not given that fair start. You're too far down. It's not right. And we're going to work very, very hard to get it fixed.

"But we're going to start with 43 million people in the United States who are currently working to pay off student loans. And we'll be talking about that very soon. We're going to work on that very soon. I've always been very good with loans and -- I love loans. I love other people's money."

For the record, the president has never been "very good with loans." On the contrary, he's generally been horrible with loans, as evidenced by his multiple bankruptcies, and the fact that most major lending institutions eventually reached the point at which they wanted nothing to do with him.

Regardless, Trump went on to highlight the brutal debt many young people face after getting their diplomas, which is a real issue in need of policymakers' attention.

What the president may not appreciate is just how little credibility he has on the subject.

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Snow slows down traffic on Interstate 40, Jan. 22, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. A blizzard menacing the Eastern United States started dumping snow in Virginia, Tennessee and other parts of the South. (Photo by Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean/AP)

The problem with Trump trying to shift attention to infrastructure

03/22/19 10:41AM

Before leaving for another trip to his private Florida club, Donald Trump held a brief Q&A with reporters this morning, and was asked about the White House's refusal to cooperate with congressional inquiries. The president replied:

"It's just a continuation of the same witch hunt. They know it, and behind closed doors, they laugh at it. It's just a continuation of the same nonsense. Everybody knows it. They ought to go to work, get infrastructure done...."

It matters, of course, that the congressional inquiries are not, in reality, a "witch hunt." It also matters that federal policymakers are more than capable of investigating scandals and advancing legislation at the same time.

But I was especially intrigued by Trump's reference to infrastructure.

Something similar came up a month ago, after the House Judiciary Committee began an expansive investigation into Trump World abuses. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded with an over-the-top written statement that -- after accusing Democrats of being socialists who "kill babies" -- said Congress should work to "address serious issues" such as infrastructure.

Evidently, at the White House, it really is always "Infrastructure Week."

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Not only does the country have pressing infrastructure needs, but this is an issue that, in theory, could garner bipartisan backing.

What Trump neglected to mention, however, is that his White House hasn't actually come up with an infrastructure plan -- and the White House's Republican allies on the Hill aren't eager to come up with one.

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Under Trump, US is 'losing its position as the global arbiter'

03/22/19 10:06AM

The Trump administration has taken a hard line against using telecommunications equipment from Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, and on this issue, there's a compelling reason to believe administration officials are correct.

But a funny thing happened when Team Trump launched an aggressive diplomatic lobbying campaign, urging U.S. partners to follow our lead: they ignored us. The New York Times reported this week, "Over the past several months, American officials have tried to pressure, scold and, increasingly, threaten other nations that are considering using Huawei in building fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless networks."

In response, a variety of countries -- including some of our close European allies -- effectively blew off American concerns.

In isolation, a story like that reinforces doubts about the efficacy of Trump administration diplomacy, but there's also a larger context. Axios had a good piece this morning noting the degree to which the United States has lost its role as a global leader -- a dynamic that's "accelerated" since Donald Trump took office.

The United States is no longer driving the conversation on some of the biggest issues facing the world, both short- and long-term. Instead, foreign nations are making the decisions.

America is losing its position as the global arbiter for international norms — from airline safety to online privacy to the response to climate change.

The controversy over the Boeing 737 MAX helped drive the point home. Whereas the United States has long been the dominant world power in air-travel standards, it was the Trump administration that followed others' lead earlier this month.

Axios' report added, "So on some of most consequential issues that will shape the world this century, the U.S. is taking a back seat, like privacy, foreign investment, climate and finance." It spoke to one international observer who noted that when countries took major actions, their first thought used to be, "What will Washington think?"

That's no longer the case.

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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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