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Trump waited for the Baghdadi bounce that never arrived

11/12/19 11:30AM

After Saddam Hussein was captured by U.S. forces, George W. Bush saw a boost in his popularity. After Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces, Barack Obama also enjoyed a bump in support. Polls showed the increases were temporary but, at least for a while, quite real.

And with this in mind, it stood to reason that Donald Trump's standing might improve at least a little in the wake of U.S. forces killing ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. So, let's take stock. The day before the Baghdadi announcement, according to FiveThirtyEight, the Republican president's approval rating stood at 42.8%.

Two weeks later, as of this morning, Trump's rating is 41.2%. There have been some minor fluctuations over the 17 days since the Baghdadi announcement, but nothing that anyone could plausibly characterize as a "bump" in the polls.

All of which suggests the developments didn't affect the president's public standing at all. It's worth considering why.

It's obviously speculative, but much of this probably stems from the public's unfamiliarity with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Americans were very familiar with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden for many years, but for the most part, the ISIS founder was not a household name.

Second, it's a rather crowded news environment. While the Baghdadi news generated considerable national coverage, it was announced on a weekend morning, and it wasn't long before attention shifted back to the impeachment crisis dogging Trump and his team.

But part of me also wonders whether the president might have seen a different public reaction if he'd handled the announcement more responsibly.

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

GOP arms members with (unpersuasive) impeachment talking points

11/12/19 10:46AM

It was two weeks ago when Donald Trump turned to Twitter to offer some strategic advise to his GOP allies on Capitol Hill. "Rupublicans [sic], go with Substance and close it out!" the president declared with his own unique brand of spelling and capitalization.

By "close it out," Trump seemed to suggest that he and his allies had already won the procedural argument over impeachment; all Republicans -- or "Rupublicans" -- had to do to finish this off was build on this imagined success and knock down the substantive elements of the scandal, too.

With this in mind, Axios and NBC News ran separate reports on a staff memo, circulated among House Republicans on the relevant investigative committees, with four points GOP members are supposed to emphasize as part of the effort to "go with substance."

* The July 25 call summary -- the best evidence of the conversation -- shows no conditionality or evidence of pressure, the memo claims.

* Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and President Trump have both said there was no pressure on the call, it says.

* The Ukrainian government was not aware of a hold on U.S. security assistance at the time of the July 25 call.

* Trump met with Zelenskiy and U.S. security assistance flowed to Ukraine in September 2019 -- both of which occurred without Ukraine investigating Trump's political rivals, the memo says.

The first point is wrong, rejected by many Republicans, and oblivious to the fact that the scandal is about more than just Trump's July 25 phone meeting with Zelensky. The second point has never made any sense. The third point has been debunked, as has the fourth.

But other than that, it's a great list of talking points.

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DREAMers (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) listen to speakers during a "United we Dream," rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 10, 2013.  (Photo by Alex Brandon/AP)

Trump adds Dreamers to his 'no angels' club

11/12/19 10:10AM

When it comes to Dreamers and the young immigrants' fate, Donald Trump has long struggled to maintain some semblance of coherence. At various times, the Republican president has both assured Dreamers that they need not worry about deportation and taken steps to destroy the DACA program that protects them from deportation.

It's against this backdrop that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments this morning in a case that will likely determine whether the administration can tear down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The president marked the occasion by publishing a very odd tweet this morning:

"Many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from 'angels.' Some are very tough, hardened criminals. President Obama said he had no legal right to sign order, but would anyway. If Supreme Court remedies with overturn, a deal will be made with Dems for them to stay!"

It was last month when Trump first admonished our Kurdish allies, arguing that they're "no angels." Evidently, as of this morning, he's adding Dreamers to the same club.

Putting that aside, let's do a little fact checking. Are some of the Dreamers "hardened criminals"? No. As Trump really ought to know, immigrants with significant criminal records are not eligible for the DACA program. Did Barack Obama say he had no legal right to create DACA? No. Trump's peddled this one before, and it's plainly ridiculous.

What I found especially entertaining, though, was what happens when we connect Trump's second sentence with his fourth: the president seemed to argue this morning that some Dreamers are dangerous criminals, whom he'll allow to remain in the United States if Democrats agree to give him what he wants.

As for the terms of the "deal" Trump is eager to make, it's worth remembering how important this detail is to the larger debate. He's spent much of his presidency looking desperately for leverage over Democrats, whom Trump wants to force into giving him deep cuts to legal immigration, among other things.

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Why did so many Trump allies benefit from a lucrative HHS contract?

11/12/19 09:24AM

For much of the country, I imagine Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma is a relatively obscure figure in the Trump administration. She occasionally enters the fray -- pushing Medicaid work requirements, blasting "Obamacare," and making underwhelming political arguments -- but for the most part, Verma is only known to public officials, industry stakeholders, health care wonks, and journalists who follow health care issues closely.

It's against this backdrop that Politico has a new report on eight former members of Donald Trump's operation -- from his campaign, presidential transition team, or White House -- who were paid quite a bit to reportedly work as outside public-relations consultants on Verma's behalf.

They were among at least 40 consultants who worked on a one-year, $2.25 million contract directed by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma. The contractors were hired to burnish Verma's personal brand and provide "strategic communications" support. They charged up to $380 per hour for work traditionally handled by dozens of career civil servants in CMS's communications department.

The arrangement allowed the Trump allies to cycle through the federal government's opaque contracting system, charging hefty fees with little public oversight or accountability.

If this sounds at all familiar, it's because the story has been percolating for much of the year. In March, for example, Politico first reported on Verma's agency using federal funds to hire communications consultants who were tasked with writing her speeches and improving her "brand" -- despite the objections of career staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The Department of Health and Human Services halted the contracts less than a week after they came to public light.

But the more details emerge, the more significant the controversy appears. Broadly speaking, there are three angles to consider with the story.

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Emissions from a coal-fired power plant drift skyward in Ghent, Ky.

On public health rules, Trump's EPA seeks to limit scientific evidence

11/12/19 08:40AM

Since Donald Trump took office, the Republican's Environmental Protection Agency has repeatedly downplayed the role of science and evidence in the decision-making process, even on matters of public health. The New York Times reported overnight, however, on the administration's plan to go quite a bit further.

The Trump administration is preparing to significantly limit the scientific and medical research that the government can use to determine public health regulations, overriding protests from scientists and physicians who say the new rule would undermine the scientific underpinnings of government policymaking.

A new draft of the Environmental Protection Agency proposal, titled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, would require that scientists disclose all of their raw data, including confidential medical records, before the agency could consider an academic study's conclusions.

Andrew Wheeler, who worked as a coal lobbyist before Trump and Senate Republicans agreed to put him in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, recently told lawmakers his office's efforts are all about promoting "the highest quality science."

That's certainly one way of looking at it. The other way is to consider the practical implications of what Trump's EPA's is up to. As the Times' report explained, "The measure would make it more difficult to enact new clean air and water rules because many studies detailing the links between pollution and disease rely on personal health information gathered under confidentiality agreements. And, unlike a version of the proposal that surfaced in early 2018, this one could apply retroactively to public health regulations already in place."

The American Lung Association's Paul Billings told the newspaper, "This means the E.P.A. can justify rolling back rules or failing to update rules based on the best information to protect public health and the environment, which means more dirty air and more premature deaths."

Or as Emily Atkin put it, "The EPA's new science policy means the agency will no longer be able to create public health regulations based on the scientific consensus that air pollution kills people. I know that sounds like it can't be true, but it extremely is."

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As scandal intensifies, Trump resorts to shell game with transcripts

11/12/19 08:00AM

Over the weekend, Donald Trump spoke with reporters for a few minutes on the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews, and he brought up a phone meeting he had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in April -- three months before the Republican's controversial "I would like you to do us a favor, though" conversation. The president told reporters:

"Now, they want to have a transcript of the other call, the second call. And I'm willing to provide that. We'll probably give it to you on Tuesday. Monday being a holiday, we'll probably give it to you on Tuesday. But we have another transcript coming out, which is very important. They asked for it, and I gladly give it. [...]

"You'll see the call. Now I'll give you a second transcript, because I actually had two calls with the President of Ukraine. So you'll read the second call and you'll tell me if you think there's anything wrong with it."

Trump echoed the message last night on Twitter, writing, "In order to continue being the most Transparent President in history, I will be releasing sometime this week the Transcript of the first, and therefore most important, phone call I had with the President of Ukraine. I am sure you will find it tantalizing!"

He added this morning, "I will be releasing the transcript of the first, and therefore more important, phone call with the Ukrainian President before week's end!"

Let's take a minute to unpack this, because it's more amusing than Trump seems to realize.

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Donsenia Teel, Deborah Brooks and Vershumn "Shawn" Hawkins

Seeking inclusivity, small town makes history

11/12/19 02:01AM

High stakes and high turnout marked last Tuesday’s elections in Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. The election in the Plymouth, North Carolina, a small town near the Roanoke River, was significant in its own right.

Vershumn “Shawn” Hawkins was elected mayor of Plymouth, North Carolina capturing 55.7% of the vote. Hawkins is the town’s first black mayor. The national census estimates about 3,599 people lived in Plymouth as of last summer, with 69.5% of the residents self-identifying as black.

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Monday's Mini-Report, 11.11.19

11/11/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Quite a story: "Two political supporters of U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry secured a potentially lucrative oil and gas exploration deal from the Ukrainian government soon after Perry proposed one of the men as an adviser to the country's new president."

* Trump's lawyers fail again in a tax-return case: "A federal judge on Monday dismissed President Donald Trump's lawsuit to prevent the House Ways and Means Committee from utilizing a recently passed New York law providing the panel an avenue to pursue his state tax returns."

* The protests worked: "Bolivian President Evo Morales said Sunday that he would resign after the military called on him to step down and allies tumbled away amid a fierce backlash over a disputed election that has roiled the South American nation."

* Deadly violence in Baghdad: "At least 319 people have been killed in Iraq since the start of anti-government protests in October, according to the Iraqi Parliamentary Human Rights Committee."

* Hong Kong: "A man was set on fire outside a subway station in Hong Kong and in a separate incident, police shot and critically wounded a protester, marking a dramatic escalation in the unrest in the former British territory."

* Jeffrey Yohai: "Paul Manafort's former son-in-law was sentenced to more than nine years in prison Friday for a wide-ranging series of fraud schemes the court said bilked victims out of more than $6 million."

* Fees for asylum-seekers? "The Trump administration on Friday proposed an unprecedented series of new fees for asylum-seekers and immigrants hoping to stay in the US, aiming to become one of just four countries in the world to charge for an asylum application."

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Image: President Trump Holds Make America Great Again Rally In Pennsylvania

Trump peddles baseless claims that even GOP lawmakers won't touch

11/11/19 04:02PM

As the next phase of the congressional impeachment inquiry, including public hearings, advances on Capitol Hill, Donald Trump has been reduced to publishing arguments like these on Twitter:

"Shifty Adam Schiff will only release doctored transcripts.... Republicans should put out their own transcripts!"

The president first started pursuing this line last week, arguing that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) "will change the transcripts" from the impeachment proceedings ahead of their release. Trump kept this going a day later, suggesting Schiff shouldn't be "allowed" to release transcripts, in part because the Californian "will change the words" and "manipulate" the materials.

Trump added that he considers Schiff a "freak" -- a word he hasn't previously tweeted since taking office.

In the days that followed, transcripts from the impeachment proceedings were, in fact, released to the public with minimal redactions.

Literally no one -- no Republicans, no Democrats, no witnesses, no attorneys -- has disputed the accuracy of the transcripts. In fact, the witnesses had an opportunity to review the transcripts for accuracy before their release, and there were no objections.

Or put another way, Trump's pre-emptive conspiracy theory was wrong, discredited by reality. Confronted with these facts, the president decided to ... repeat the ridiculous line.

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The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stands in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

Alleged document destruction sparks investigation at the EPA

11/11/19 01:00PM

Almost immediately after Donald Trump was inaugurated, the "Inhofe Brigade" became an influential center of power in the new administration. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of the nation's preeminent climate deniers, saw a sizable contingent of former aides make the transition from his office to the new Republican president's team -- most notably at the Environmental Protection Agency.

The "brigade" was led in large part by Ryan Jackson, the far-right senator's former chief of staff, who became then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's chief of staff and proceeded to bring his former colleagues in Inhofe's office into the administration.

Pruitt's tenure proved to be a fiasco -- corruption allegations forced his resignation in July 2018 -- but Jackson remained at the EPA, where he's now reportedly facing an investigation worth watching. Politico reported late last week:

The Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general is investigating whether chief of staff Ryan Jackson was involved in destroying internal documents that should have been retained, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The IG's office is asking witnesses whether Jackson has routinely destroyed politically sensitive documents, including schedules and letters from people like lobbyist Richard Smotkin, who helped arrange a trip for then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to Morocco when he was in office, according to one of the sources, a former administration official who told investigators he has seen Jackson do that firsthand.

It's worth noting for context that one of the many controversies that dogged Pruitt during his tenure was the allegation that he maintained a secret calendar that hid events that might make him look bad. That matter was reviewed by the National Archives, which pointed to no evidence of wrongdoing.

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