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Image: U.S. first lady Melania Trump announces the launch of her "Be Best" initiative at the White House in Washington

First Lady's latest gambit emblematic of White House dysfunction

11/14/18 08:40AM

A week out from Election Day, and on the heels of Donald Trump's latest failed overseas trip, there's ample evidence that all is not well in the White House.

The Los Angeles Times  reports that Trump "has retreated into a cocoon of bitterness and resentment," and much of his staff is "trying to avoid him." A former Trump aide told  Politico of conditions in the White House, "It's like an episode of 'Maury.' The only thing that's missing is a paternity test."

Trump is picking fights with the president of France and haranguing the British prime minister. He's threatening to fire much of his team. He's whining about the Secret Service. Some members of his team are publicly denouncing remarks from their own colleagues. After skipping a ceremony honoring fallen American soldiers who served in World War I, he blamed his aides "for not counseling him that skipping the cemetery visit would be a public-relations nightmare."

But to fully appreciate the level of dysfunction in this White House, consider the fact that First Lady Melania Trump is getting involved in national security personnel decisions.

In an extraordinary move for a first lady, Melania Trump's office on Tuesday publicly called for the firing of a senior National Security Council official.

Stephanie Grisham, the first lady's communications director issued a statement around 2:30 p.m. saying the official, Mira Ricardel, should no longer serve as the NSC's No. 2.

"It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House," Grisham said.

That was weird, though the story got a little weirder.

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WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 04: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks with reporters reporters after the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol August 4, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

In non-satirical piece, McConnell stresses virtues of bipartisanship

11/14/18 08:00AM

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), reflecting on the results of the midterm elections, apparently thought it'd be a good idea to write an op-ed on his perspective. Naturally, he turned to Fox News, which published a piece under a rather extraordinary headline: "Will Dems work with us, or simply put partisan politics ahead of the country?"

Much of the Republican leader's pitch was predictable -- McConnell believes his party has been "prolific" in its triumphs over the last two years -- but it was the GOP senator's references to bipartisanship that made the op-ed seem as if it were intended to be satirical.

I have good news: reports of the death of bipartisanship in Washington have been wildly exaggerated. [...] And looking ahead to the coming year, there will be no shortage of opportunities to continue this impressive record of cooperation across the aisle and across the Capitol.

What we can make of those opportunities will depend on our Democratic colleagues. Will they choose to go it alone and simply make political points? Or will they choose to work together and actually make a difference? [...]

After years of rhetoric, it's hardly news that some are more interested in fanning the flames of division than reaching across the aisle.

For the record, McConnell didn't appear to be kidding.

Taken at face value, stripped of any context or history, the Senate majority leader's rhetoric may seem like an olive branch of sorts. The week after Americans elected a Democratic-led House and a Republican-led Senate, there was Mitch McConnell stressing the virtues of "bipartisanship," "working together," and "reaching across the aisle." What could possibly be wrong with that?

The answer lies in everything we know about the senior senator from Kentucky.

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Bruce Poliquin, Jared Golden

Nervous GOP rep sues over Maine's new ranked-choice voting system

11/13/18 06:23PM

Mainers still don't know who their state's 2nd congressional district will send to Congress in January, and a week after the election, things are getting more complicated, not less.
The race between the Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Jared Golden remains close, with Poliquin ahead by roughly 2,000 votes, which is 0.7% of the votes cast.

Golden may be trailing, but he nevertheless appears to be on track to succeed. On Friday, Maine election officials started processing ballots for the state's first federal race to employ its new ranked-choice voting system, which goes into effect when no candidate receives a majority of votes.

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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 11.13.18

11/13/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* California: "Thirteen bodies have been found in Northern California in the wake of the deadly Camp Fire, bringing the death toll in the blaze to 42, authorities said Monday. The grim discovery makes the wildfire the deadliest in the state's history, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told reporters, replacing the record held by a Los Angeles brush fire in 1933 that killed 29."

* A major case: "Maryland's attorney general on Tuesday challenged the appointment of what he called an 'unqualified' partisan as acting attorney general and charged the president did it to protect himself from any accusations of wrongdoing."

* Another case worth watching: "CNN has filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration for revoking correspondent Jim Acosta's press credentials, the network said in a statement on Tuesday."

* Sadly predictable: "President Donald Trump lashed out over his recent trip to Paris in a series of tweets Tuesday, blaming the Secret Service for his cancelled visit to a cemetery for fallen U.S. soldiers in France on Saturday."

* Guantanamo: "The Trump administration closed a diplomatic office designed to keep track of released Guantanamo inmates and make sure they didn't return to their insurgencies. And now the U.S. government has lost track of several of them, including one who has returned to a terrorist-held part of Syria, a McClatchy investigation has found."

* A discouraging trend: "The number of international students entering U.S. colleges and universities has fallen for the second year in a row, a nonprofit group said on Tuesday, amid efforts by the Trump administration to tighten restrictions on foreigners studying in the United States."

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A crest of the Federal Bureau of Investi

Hate crimes increased in the first year of Trump's presidency

11/13/18 12:45PM

The FBI released new data this morning on hate crimes, and as the Washington Post  reported, the United States saw a 17% increase last year, the third consecutive year in which the number of reported hate crimes grew.

Law enforcement agencies reported 7,175 hate crimes occurred in 2017, up from 6,121 in 2016. That increase was fueled in part by more police departments reporting hate crime data to the FBI, but overall there is still a large number of departments that report no hate crimes to the federal database.

The sharp increase in hate crimes in 2017 came even as overall violent crime in America fell slightly, by 0.2 percent, after increases in 2015 and 2016.

More than half of hate crimes, about 3 out of every 5, targeted a person's race or ethnicity, while about 1 out of 5 targeted their religion.

The trajectory is especially discouraging. After the number of hate-crime incidents spiked in 2001 -- the year of the 9/11 attacks -- the United States saw a relatively steady decline in the annual totals, reaching a new low in 2014.

The trend reversed course soon after, climbing in 2015, and then again in 2016 and 2017.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.13.18

11/13/18 12:00PM

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

* In Georgia's gubernatorial race, a federal judge last night ordered election officials to "review thousands of provisional ballots that haven't been counted in Georgia's close election for governor." The same order directed officials to create "a hotline for voters to check if their provisional ballots were counted, a review of voter registrations, and updated reports from the state government about why many voters were required to use provisional ballots."

* In Maine, incumbent Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R), who appears likely to lose under the state's ranked-choice voting system, this morning filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of that system. I don't know whether his litigation will succeed, but it doesn't look great when a member of Congress challenges the rules of an election after voters have already cast their ballots.

* In Mississippi, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) refused yesterday to answer reporters' questions about her "public hanging" joke. The state's U.S. Senate runoff election is two weeks from today.

* As of this morning, the Democratic lead in the U.S. House popular vote stood at 6.8%, though it's still expected to inch higher. For comparison purposes, note that in 2010 -- which was widely seen as a GOP "wave" cycle -- Republicans won the U.S. House popular vote by 6.6%.

* There is a small contingent of House Democrats who'd like to prevent Nancy Pelosi from reclaiming her post as Speaker of the House. However, these Dems do not have, and seem unlikely to get, a rival to challenge Pelosi for the gavel.

* Before his re-election in Ohio last week, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) said he had no interest in a 2020 presidential campaign. Yesterday, however, he told the Columbus Dispatch that he's heard "sort of a crescendo" of interest in the idea, so he's "thinking about it."

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Early Voting Starts In Florida

Florida officials bent the rules for voters in Republican county

11/13/18 11:20AM

Voters in Bay County in Florida's panhandle, as expected, heavily supported Republican candidates, with more than 72% of locals supporting Ron DeSantis' (R) gubernatorial campaign and nearly 74% backing Rick Scott's (R) U.S. Senate campaign.

There is some question, however, about whether some of those votes were consistent with Florida's election laws. Politico  reported yesterday:

The election supervisor in hurricane-wracked Bay County allowed some voters to illegally cast ballots by email -- an act specifically prohibited by Gov. Rick Scott when he issued an emergency order to expand voting opportunities there after the storm.

Despite the prohibition, Bay County Election Supervisor Mark Andersen says he stands by his decision in the Republican-rich county after Hurricane Michael. In all, he said, 147 voters returned ballots through email but only 10 were purely email-to-email interactions. In the other cases, voters used fax machines to email their ballots in, which is currently permitted by state law for overseas voters.

Obviously, circumstances matter. Bay County was hit hard by Hurricane Michael, and local communities are still struggling to recover. Officials in the area made a conscious choice to -- let's be charitable -- bend the rules, allowing some voters in the country to cast ballots in ways that fall outside state election laws.

My point is not that those voters should be punished or that their votes should be discounted. I am curious, though, about Republicans' apparent disinterest in how Bay County administered the election.

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People walk down Wall Street in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty)

Trump looks for new ways to blame Democrats for Wall Street drops

11/13/18 10:40AM

It was a rather unpleasant day on Wall Street yesterday, with all of the major indexes off sharply, including a 600-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Donald Trump, who sees himself as something of an expert in matters of finance, was only too pleased to offer his assessment of the day's trading.

"The prospect of Presidential Harassment by the Dems is causing the Stock Market big headaches!" the Republican wrote on Twitter.

Ah, yes. The president wants Americans to believe that investors, six days after Democrats won a House majority, suddenly realized that at some point next year, Congress may examine some of Donald Trump's scandals, and this led to a significant Wall Street selloff, months ahead of the first House hearing.

No, seriously, that's the president's argument. As the Washington Post  noted, however, it's clearly not a good argument.

[I]t's pretty silly to blame any single event for stock-market jitters. The technology sector fell after a key Apple supplier, Lumentum Holdings, cut its earnings and revenue outlook after it said a major customer -- believed to be Apple -- significantly reduced its orders for laser diodes. The announcement sent Lumentum down 33 percent, and many other tech stocks fell as well.

This is just the latest warning sign in the once-sizzling tech sector. The tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 is down more than 10 percent since the beginning of October.

Meanwhile, investors were also reacting to the news that Saudi Arabia said it would cut its oil production. (Perhaps recognizing this connection, Trump later tweeted that the Saudis should not do that.) Another thing hanging over the market: Trump's trade war with China.

It's amusing, of course, to see Trump adopt a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose posture toward Wall Street: when stocks go up, the president demands credit; when stocks go down, he insists Democrats get the blame.

But let's not miss the forest for the trees: Trump sure does seem nervous about congressional oversight.

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Trump's boasts about 'progress' in North Korea start to look even worse

11/13/18 10:00AM

"We're very happy how it's going with North Korea," Donald Trump told reporters six days ago. "We think it's going fine." In the same press conference, the Republican president added, "Nobody else could have done what I've done."

Trump didn't specify what, exactly, he thinks he's "done" with regards to North Korea, which was probably for the best. Because despite the president's limitless confidence about his perceived triumph, reality keeps getting in the way. The New York Times  reported yesterday:

North Korea is moving ahead with its ballistic missile program at 16 hidden bases that have been identified in new commercial satellite images, a network long known to American intelligence agencies but left undiscussed as President Trump claims to have neutralized the North's nuclear threat.

The satellite images suggest that the North has been engaged in a great deception: It has offered to dismantle a major launching site -- a step it began, then halted -- while continuing to make improvements at more than a dozen others that would bolster launches of conventional and nuclear warheads.

The existence of the ballistic missile bases, which North Korea has never acknowledged, contradicts Mr. Trump's assertion that his landmark diplomacy is leading to the elimination of a nuclear and missile program that the North had warned could devastate the United States.

NBC News published a similar report soon after, noting North Korea's ongoing work on its ballistic missile program, and highlighting a separate analysis by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, provided exclusively to NBC News, which described "a secret military base deep in North Korea's interior that analysts believe could house missiles capable of reaching the United States."

All of this comes about a month after Trump describes his relationship with North Korea's Kim Jong-un, and the recent negotiations he's had with the brutal dictator.

"I was really being tough -- and so was he," the Republican told a West Virginia audience. "And we would go back and forth. And then we fell in love, okay? No, really. He wrote me beautiful letters, and they're great letters. We fell in love."

Evidently, those great letters left out a few things.

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Image: Donald Trump, Melania Trump, Emmanuel Macron, Brigitte Macron

Trump's confusion leads to unnecessary quarrel with France's Macron

11/13/18 09:20AM

Donald Trump's trip to France to honor the 100th anniversary of World War I was not a success. In fact, as we discussed yesterday, the American president seemed to go out of his way to pick a fight before the international gathering even began in earnest, publishing a tweet on Friday accusing French President Emmanuel Macron of suggesting "that Europe build its own military in order to protect itself from the U.S., China and Russia."

Macron's remarks, Trump added, were "very insulting."

This morning, the Republican took steps to keep the fight going with this tweet.

"Emmanuel Macron suggests building its own army to protect Europe against the U.S., China and Russia. But it was Germany in World Wars One & Two - How did that work out for France? They were starting to learn German in Paris before the U.S. came along. Pay for NATO or not!"

Trump soon followed with a series of related tweets, slamming France on trade and criticizing Macron's approval rating. For reasons that I won't even try to explain, the Republican wrapped up his little tantrum by declaring, in an all-caps missive, "Make France Great Again!"

Let's note for context that France today is recognizing the three-year anniversary of an ISIS terrorist attack in Paris that killed 130 people. Whether or not the American president is aware of this is unclear, but Trump picked an unusually ill-timed day to squabble with our French friends.

While it's generally wise to look past Trump's borderline-incoherent tweets, when an American president tries to initiate a feud with one of the United States' closest allies, it's worth taking a moment to understand why.

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Las Vegas Sands Corporation Chairman Sheldon Adelson speaks to students at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada in Las Vegas, April 26, 2012.

Trump to give Medal of Freedom to Republican megadonor's wife

11/13/18 08:40AM

Donald Trump's election two years ago was a stunning development for countless reasons, but I remember thinking to myself a few days after Election Day 2016 that his Medal of Freedom recipients were bound to be notable.

After all, who would this president deem worthy of the nation's highest civilian honor? My imagination conjured images of Trump in the White House, placing the medal around the necks of Ted Nugent, Alex Jones, and Roseanne Barr.

I'm not sure whether reality is better or worse than what I imagined.

President Donald Trump is set to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the nation's highest civilian honor -- to the wife of one of the Republican Party's most prominent patrons, the White House announced Saturday.

Miriam Adelson will receive the medal along with six other "distinguished individuals" at a ceremony on Friday, the White House said. She is married to billionaire Las Vegas casino magnate and GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, who joined Trump for a watch party at the White House residence on Tuesday evening to monitor the incoming returns from the 2018 midterm elections.

As Politico's report added, the other 2018 honorees include Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), former football player and retired Minnesota Supreme Court justice Alan Page, Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach, and, posthumously, singer Elvis Presley, baseball great Babe Ruth, and former Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia.

But it's Adelson whose name stands out.

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