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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks with reporters reporters after the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Aug. 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

As irony weeps, McConnell warns against politicizing election security

07/11/19 08:00AM

Several administration officials, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and FBI Director Christopher Wray, went to Capitol Hill yesterday to brief lawmakers on election-security issues, including unspecified "active threats" ahead of the 2020 cycle.

As Politico reported soon after, House Democrats and Senate Republicans "may have attended similar classified briefings on election security Wednesday, but they left with opposite conclusions."

Imagine that.

Evidently, Democratic lawmakers believed the briefing pointed to a serious threat that Congress should address with new election safeguards, while Republicans left the briefing satisfied that Donald Trump's team has everything under control -- so lawmakers can safely focus their attention elsewhere.

But of particular interest was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) taking the time to defend his passivity on the issue.

In a floor speech earlier Wednesday, McConnell (R-Ky.) said that while Congress will continue to "assess whether future legislative steps might be needed," he accused Democrats of making election security a political issue.

"We need to make sure this conversation is clear-eyed and sober and serious," he said. "It's interesting that some of our colleagues across the aisle seem to have already made up their minds before we hear from the experts later today. Their brand-new sweeping Washington intervention is just what the doctor ordered."

In the same remarks, McConnell went on to complain about "the election interference that happened on the Obama administration's watch."

The Republican leader's posture wasn't exactly surprising. By all appearances, McConnell is less concerned with what "the experts" have to say about election security and more concerned with blocking any and all federal efforts to protect elections from interference. This is, after all, the same senator who condemned a proposal to end partisan gerrymandering and create a system of automatic voter registration as a "half-baked socialist proposal."

But surprising or not, what amazed me was the irony of watching McConnell, of all people, whine on the subject.

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Sanders: No more never-ending wars

Sanders: No more never-ending wars

07/10/19 09:48PM

Senator Bernie Sanders, 2020 Democratic candidate for president, talks with Rachel Maddow about getting the U.S. military out of conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East and making it clear to Saudi Arabia and Iran that the U.S. will not get sucked into another never-ending war. watch

Wednesday's Mini-Report, 7.10.19

07/10/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Damage control: "Labor Secretary Alex Acosta on Wednesday defended his role in cutting what critics have called a lenient plea deal for Jeffrey Epstein more than a decade ago and signaled that he has no intention to resign his post."

* Epstein's newest accuser: "Jennifer Araoz says she was 14 years old when a young woman approached her outside her New York City high school in the fall of 2001. The woman was friendly and curious, asking Araoz personal questions about her family, her upbringing, their finances. Soon she began talking to Araoz about a man she knew who was kind and wealthy and lived nearby. His name, the woman said, was Jeffrey Epstein."

* The unfortunate resolution: "The British ambassador to the United States resigned Wednesday following leaked memos that showed he had called President Donald Trump 'insecure' and 'incompetent.' Sir Kim Darroch said in a statement that the fallout from the leaked communications ... was 'making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like.'"

* D.C.: "President Donald Trump's military-style July Fourth parade drained a special Washington, D.C., city fund designed to help pay for extra security and anti-terrorism measures during large events in the nation's capital, the mayor said in a letter to the White House."

* A big development from last night: "A federal judge late Tuesday refused to let Justice Department lawyers withdraw from a dispute over the citizenship question on the 2020 census form, in a case that continues after the Supreme Court's ruling in late June." 

* I hope you saw Rachel's coverage on this last night: "The poor treatment of migrant children at the hands of U.S. border agents in recent months extends beyond Texas to include allegations of sexual assault and retaliation for protests, according to dozens of accounts by children held in Arizona collected by government case managers and obtained by NBC News."

* Team Mueller, Part I: "House Democrats are seeking to hear from two senior deputies to former special counsel Robert Mueller in closed-door testimony on Capitol Hill next week, the latest attempt to learn more about the Russia investigation in the face of Mr. Mueller's vow to only discuss the facts laid out in his report."

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Trump's executive order on kidneys piggybacks on the ACA

07/10/19 02:52PM

As a rule, when Donald Trump signs an executive order, there's reason for concern about abuses and regressive steps backward. Today, however, the president appears to have done something worthwhile -- though he neglected to mention an important detail.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing the government to revamp the nation's care for kidney disease so that more people whose kidneys fail have a chance at early transplants and home dialysis.

Trump said his order was intended to increase the supply of donated kidneys, make it easier for patients to undergo dialysis in the comfort of their own homes and prioritize the development of an artificial kidney.

This is the first of several steps, though as Vox's piece noted, the administration's new policy "would make it easier for living donors to give kidneys and other organs, promote the donation of organs from deceased people, and restructure payment for health care providers to reduce the rate of kidney failure in the first place."

On balance, it looks like this executive order is a genuinely good idea. I guess Trump is helping prove the broken-clock theory.

In fact, the president's policy has so much merit, I'm not even going to mention his odd remarks about the executive order, including his assertion, "The kidney has a very special place in the heart." It'd be easy to have a little fun with that, but I won't.

I am, however, inclined to shine a light on a relevant detail Trump neglected to mention: he's piggybacking on the Affordable Care Act.

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Part of Trump's emoluments problem goes away (but only part)

07/10/19 02:08PM

The U.S. Constitution includes a once-obscure provision known as the "Emoluments Clause." As regular readers know, the provision is pretty straightforward: U.S. officials are prohibited from receiving payments from foreign governments. Traditionally, this hasn't been much of a problem for sitting American presidents -- but with Donald Trump things are a little different.

After all, this president has refused to divest from his private-sector enterprises, which means he continues to personally profit from businesses that receive payments from foreign governments.

The problem isn't just theoretical: plenty of foreign officials and representatives of foreign governments have spent money at Trump's properties.

Naturally, this dynamic has prompted a series of lawsuits, one of which went the president's way today.

A federal appeals court Wednesday threw out a lawsuit challenging President Donald Trump's ownership of a luxury hotel five blocks from the White House. It was a defeat for Maryland and the District of Columbia, who claimed that his vast holdings presented a conflict between his business profits and the nation's interest.

Wednesday's ruling said the lawsuit failed to make a clear showing that Trump's ownership of the hotel was creating competition with local convention centers. And the court said the local governments couldn't show how any such competition, if it existed, could be legally prevented.

The 4th Circuit's unanimous ruling is online here (pdf). Each of the judges who heard the case were appointed by Republican presidents: George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Trump.

Speaking of Trump, he took a predictable victory lap this morning on Twitter, describing the case as "a big part of the Deep State and Democrat induced Witch Hunt." I'm not at all sure what that's supposed to mean in this context, and the president has previously said he's uncomfortable with the conspiratorial "deep state" phrase.

Regardless, it's not surprising that Trump is pleased that conservative judges ruled his way, though if he thinks his emoluments-clause headache has completely gone away, he's mistaken.

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The Pentagon, the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, Arlington County, Virginia.

Pentagon deals with leadership upheaval in the Trump era

07/10/19 12:49PM

Nearly three months ago, Politico reported on the "power vacuum" at the Pentagon, where a "large number of acting officials has slowed decisions, handicapped the department in policy disputes, and unduly empowered the White House."

What we didn't know when the article was published is the degree to which matters were poised to get worse.

After Patrick Shanahan, the acting secretary of Defense, exited the stage in June under difficult circumstances, a series of personnel moves unfolded, leaving the Pentagon with its third acting secretary of 2019. The Washington Post reported on the new succession plan made public yesterday.

Mark Esper, who became acting defense secretary on June 24 after his predecessor, then-acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, abruptly stepped aside, is expected to hand over to a third acting secretary, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, when the White House formally submits Esper's nomination to the Senate for confirmation.

Under a federal law known as the Vacancies Act, Esper, who has been serving as Army secretary since 2017, is required to step aside while the Senate considers his nomination for the top Pentagon job. When he will do so is not clear, as the requirement will be activated only when the White House officially transmits his nomination to the Senate.

Let's pause to consider how we reached this point. As regular readers may recall, the original plan was for James Mattis to serve as the secretary of Defense through the end of February, giving the White House time to search for his successor, choose a nominee, and create the conditions for a smooth transition from one Pentagon chief to the next.

The president blew up that plan when someone told him what Mattis said in the resignation letter Trump hadn't bothered to read.

In the months that followed, the Defense Department has been forced to deal with the kind of leadership upheaval it's traditionally avoided. Indeed, the mess is poised to get worse before it gets better.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.10.19

07/10/19 12:00PM

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

* Former Vice President Joe Biden released his state and federal tax returns from the last three years yesterday. The materials show the Delaware Democrat making millions from book sales and speaking engagements since leaving office in 2017.

* In North Carolina's 3rd congressional district, state Rep. Greg Murphy (R) won a Republican primary runoff and is now a heavy favorite to replace the late Rep. Walter Jones (R) in Congress.

* Retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath (D) raised more than $2.5 million in the first 24 hours of her U.S. campaign against Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) in Kentucky. That's a presidential-campaign-level haul.

* Billionaire activist Tom Steyer, the latest candidate to launch a Democratic presidential campaign, has a lot of ground to make up, which is why his day-old campaign has launched a $1.4 million ad buy. (His ads will appear on MSNBC, among other outlets.) As Politico noted, this is "the largest single television ad buy in the Democratic presidential primary."

* Former Rep. Bobby Schilling (R) served one term in Congress representing Illinois' 17th congressional district before losing his re-election bid in 2012. His comeback bid in 2014 also fell short. Now, however, Schilling has moved to the other side of the Mississippi River and yesterday kicked off a new congressional campaign in Iowa's 2nd district.

* As Democrats prepare for the possibility of a competitive Senate race in Kansas, former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) announced she won't run for the seat, while former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom (D) said he is running. Party leaders have also spoken to state Sen. Barbara Bollier (D), a former Republican who switched parties last year, about the race.

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Larry Kudlow

White House's Kudlow: $22.5 trillion debt is not 'a huge problem'

07/10/19 10:50AM

At roughly this point last year, Larry Kudlow, the director of the Trump White House's National Economic Council, expressed his delight with the nation's fiscal landscape. Federal revenues, he insisted, are "rolling in," while the budget deficit "is coming down."

Kudlow had reality backwards. Revenues were (and are) declining, while the budget deficit was (and is) growing rapidly. The top economic voice on Donald Trump's team shared a vision that was the polar opposite of the truth.

Yesterday, Kudlow appeared on CNBC and returned to the issue in unhelpful ways.

President Donald Trump's top economic adviser Larry Kudlow downplayed the US record national debt of $22.5 trillion on Tuesday, claiming that it's not a cause of concern and the federal government is prepared to manage it.

"I don't see this as a huge problem right now at all," Kudlow said at CNBC's Capital Exchange event. "[It's] quite manageable."

He also claimed that revenue analysis of Trump's tax cuts is "coming in very well" and expressed optimism their cost has already been covered. "I would argue strongly that the corporate tax cut has already been paid for and that roughly two-thirds of the overall tax cut has been paid for," Kudlow said.

Oh my.

There are three basic elements of this that are worth keeping in mind. First and foremost, the idea massive corporate tax breaks have "already been paid for" is quite nutty. The deficit is soaring, CEOs are focused on stock buybacks, and revenues are so poor that officials are starting to worry about how quickly they'll have to raise the debt ceiling. If there's any evidence to support Kudlow's claim, it's hiding well.

Second, when Barack Obama was president and the national debt was considerably smaller, Kudlow was eager to express alarm about "humongous deficits and the doubling of the debt and so forth." A decade later, with a Republican in the Oval Office, he's apparently overhauled his entire fiscal perspective. What a coincidence.

And finally, the problem isn't limited to Kudlow.

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Two men stand on the plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building as storm clouds fill the sky, June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.

At the intersection of a debt-ceiling mess and a shutdown threat

07/10/19 10:06AM

I've long thought of debt-ceiling fights like a scheduled root canal on the calendar: it's one of those unpleasant things you know is coming, but you'd prefer not to think too much about it until it's absolutely necessary.

Earlier this week, the Bipartisan Policy Center insisted it's absolutely necessary. The think tank concluded that federal tax revenue is falling short of projections, so the time we thought we had in advance of the next debt-ceiling increase is evaporating. In fact, the group said the borrowing limit would probably have to be addressed by early September -- not October or November, as previously estimated.

As it turns out, the Bipartisan Policy Center isn't alone in its concerns. The Hill reported this morning that lawmakers are "growing anxious that they might have to vote to raise the nation's debt ceiling in a matter of weeks."

Lawmakers had hoped they would be able to avoid the politically painful vote to raise the debt ceiling until the fall -- and that it could be packaged with other legislation to fund the government and set budget caps on spending.

But that could be much more difficult if Treasury's ability to prevent the government from going over its borrowing limit ends in mid-September -- just days after lawmakers would be set to return from their summer recess.

At some point, we should all probably have a conversation about why federal tax revenue is proving to be a problem -- have I mentioned lately that the Republican tax plan was a bad idea? -- but in the short term, the prospect of an ugly train wreck is coming into sharper focus.

Because increasing the debt ceiling isn't the only related challenge on Congress' late-summer to-do list.

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