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Why Trump believes his national security advisers 'don't have to work'

09/13/19 12:52PM

As things stand, Donald Trump does not currently have a White House national security adviser, which is an incredibly important and influential job. The NSA -- or technically, the assistant to the president for national security affairs (APNSA) -- is responsible for coordinating the White House policy process on matters related to national security and international affairs. The person in the job has a considerable reach, involving the White House National Security Council and a variety of departments and agencies across the executive branch.

Trump has gone through three national security advisers in 32 months. One of them, Michael Flynn, is now a convicted felon awaiting sentencing.

The president said on Wednesday he had five leading contenders to replace John Bolton at the post. He upped that number yesterday, telling reporters during a brief Q&A there are now 15 people on his list.

"A lot of people want the job. And we -- it's a great job. It's great because it's a lot of fun to work with Donald Trump. And it's very easy, actually, to work with me. You know why it's easy? Because I make all the decisions. They don't have to work."

This struck me as a surprisingly interesting comment, which is worth unpacking a bit.

First, when Trump said "a lot of people" want to serve as the next national security adviser, that's almost certainly not true. He used nearly identical language after firing Defense Secretary James Mattis, and that was because the White House was struggling to find a new Pentagon chief at the time. He felt the need to lie to obscure the embarrassment.

It's far easier to believe that real candidates for the job don't want it because they've seen what's happened to those who've held the job under Trump. As Eliot Cohen, a veteran of the Bush/Cheney administration, said this week, no matter who replaces Bolton, "it's not going to be an important position anymore -- there really isn't going to be much of a process under Trump."

Second, the fact that Trump described the White House national security adviser as basically a do-nothing gig in which someone simply watches the president make decisions says a great deal about how things work -- or fail to work -- in the current West Wing.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.13.19

09/13/19 12:00PM

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

* Last year, after the Tennessee Black Voter Project kicked off an initiative to register new voters in a state with one of the lowest registration rates in the country, Tennessee's Republican-led legislature passed a new law to make voter-registration drives far more difficult. Yesterday, a federal judge blocked that law.

* Following a provocative exchange in last night's Democratic presidential primary debate, Julián Castro argued this morning that he wasn't targeting Joe Biden over his age. In the same interview, however, the former HUD secretary went on to refer to Biden "as someone who's 'been around for a long time' and had trouble hearing him."

* Andrew Yang, a Democratic presidential candidate, announced at last night's debate that he wants to create a test model for his universal-basic-income idea by paying 10 people $1,000 a month for a year. That's probably not something a presidential hopeful can do legally.

* If you enjoyed Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) 2016 presidential campaign, you can look forward to a sequel. "Look, I hope to run again," he told reporters yesterday. "We came very, very close in 2016. And it's the most fun I've ever had in my life." The Texas Republican won 11 primaries in his race, second only to Donald Trump's 41.

* Speaking of former presidential candidates, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said yesterday he won't endorse anyone in the 2020 presidential primaries or the presidential general election. Given Romney's history, however, don't be too surprised if he changes his mind.

* In Colorado, the massive field of Democratic U.S. Senate candidates is starting to get a little smaller. Former U.S. Attorney John Walsh became the second Senate hopeful to end his candidacy, announcing yesterday that he's supporting former Gov. John Hickenlooper. Former state Sen. Mike Johnston ended his campaign last week.

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Homeless women sit amid their belongings on a street in downtown Los Angeles, California, on January 8, 2014.

Trump admin on homeless: 'We're not rounding people up or anything yet'

09/13/19 11:20AM

During his remarks to the House Republican Conference last night, Donald Trump suggested Los Angeles and San Francisco are in need of a presidential rescue. "We are going to have to step in and do something about it," he said, adding, "We can't allow it. And in the not too distant future, you are going to see we are going to step in."

Though the president didn't explicitly use the word "homeless," that seemed to be what he was referring to last night when he went on to say, "We are going to give them notice. In fact, we gave them notice today. Clean it up. You got to do something. Can't have it. These are our great American cities and they're an embarrassment."

The fact that Trump has taken an interest in homelessness in some of the nation's largest cities isn't necessarily a bad thing. There is, however, an obvious follow-up question: what exactly does the president have in mind?

The Washington Post reported yesterday that Trump, according to one senior administration official, has asked aides to figure out "how the hell we can get these people off the streets." With those vague directions in mind, officials took a look at a specific facility.

A team of Trump administration officials toured a California facility once used by the Federal Aviation Administration this week as they searched for a potential site to relocate homeless people, according to three government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private tour. [...]

The FAA facility toured by administration officials is located in or near Los Angeles, but its precise name or whereabouts -- or whether it is a current or former government facility -- were not immediately known.

It also remains unclear how the federal government could accomplish getting homeless people off the streets of Los Angeles, or what legal authority officials would use to do so.

I have so many questions. Let's say the reporting is right, there's a big FAA facility in Los Angeles, and some Trump administration officials believe it could serve as a place to put homeless people. How is this supposed to work? Would the homeless simply be dropped off at a giant warehouse turned into a makeshift shelter? How would they get there? Which federal agency would enforce such a policy? Would the homeless be forced to stay? Does the administration have the legal authority to do any of this?

One senior administration official told the Post, "We're not rounding people up or anything yet."

What exactly did this person mean by "yet"?

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Why two of Trump's judicial nominees are suddenly in trouble

09/13/19 10:40AM

As a rule, the Republicans' judicial pipeline works with remarkable efficiency. Partisan operatives tell Donald Trump who to nominate; the White House sends the nominees to Capitol Hill, and the Republican-led Senate serves as a rubber stamp. The result is a largely successful initiative to move the entire federal judiciary to the right.

As regular readers know, however, there are occasional exceptions. A small handful of Trump nominees have been derailed by intra-party divisions, racial controversies, or humiliating incompetence exposed during the confirmation process.

Will the list of failed nominees grow longer? It's a distinct possibility.

We talked earlier this week about Steven Menashi, one of the president's far-right lawyers, who's been nominated for the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, despite a tough-to-defend record of radicalism that includes an argument about democratic countries working better when everyone is of the same ethnicity.

As Rachel noted on the show the other day, Menashi's confirmation hearing this week could've gone better. Politico reported on the bipartisan disappointment with him:

Republicans and Democrats on Wednesday castigated President Donald Trump's nominee to the powerful Second Circuit Court of Appeals for dodging their questions as well as his prior controversial writings.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in particular chided Steven Menashi for not being more forthcoming during his confirmation hearing after the nominee wouldn't provide specifics on how or if he helped shape Trump's immigration policy. Menashi is currently associate counsel to the president.

At one point, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) added, "Counsel, you're a really smart guy but I wish you'd be more forthcoming."

Whether this will be enough to derail Menashi's nomination -- which, under the blue-slip rule, shouldn't really exist since both of New York's Democratic senators oppose him -- remains to be seen, but he didn't do himself any favors during his confirmation hearing.

Meanwhile, an entirely different Trump judicial nominee is in trouble for a very different reason. Politico reported late yesterday:

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Image: Rep. Chris Collins

Indicted House Republican pleads not guilty to felony charges

09/13/19 10:06AM

One of the oddities of the 2018 election cycle was that two incumbent congressmen ran for re-election while under felony indictment. One of the other oddities is that most of their constituents didn't seem to mind.

Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) won despite a fairly long list of charges, accused by prosecutors of misusing campaign contributions to pay for luxurious personal expenses. Last week, the Republican's lawyers argued that the case against him is built on evidence from his campaign-finance forms, and according to Hunter's legal team, those materials were filed as part of a legislative act and therefore should be immune from prosecutorial scrutiny.

I have a hunch this won't work out especially well for the GOP lawmaker, but time will tell. Hunter's trial is scheduled to begin in January. Several months later, he'll likely face a primary challenge from former Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who retired from a nearby district, and who's apparently interested in a comeback.

And while there's no doubt that Hunter's scandal features all kinds of interesting drama, let's not forget the other indicted congressman, who was in court yesterday. Roll Call reported:

Rep. Chris Collins pleaded not guilty to a revised indictment on Thursday in New York, where he, his son Cameron Collins and Stephen Zarsky, the father of Cameron Collins' onetime fiancee, were initially indicted in August 2018 on insider trading charges and lying to the FBI.

Prosecutors have dropped three of the original eight securities fraud charges against Collins and two against his son and Zarsky in order to speed up the pretrial process in time for the trial slated for Feb. 3, 2020.... The defense team for Collins, a longtime Republican from New York's 27th District, could delay that trial date for the congressman through a potentially lengthy pretrial appeals process.

For those who might need a refresher, the case against the New York Republican paints an unsettling picture.

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Image: Beto O'Rourke

Texas GOP rep tells Beto O'Rourke: 'My AR is ready for you'

09/13/19 09:20AM

Presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) recently endorsed a mandatory-buyback program for assault weapons: not only would consumers no longer be allowed to buy AR-15s and AK-47s, but Americans who currently own them would be legally required to sell them to the government in exchange for compensation.

It's a fairly new and controversial proposal for a national candidate, though an independent poll last week found 46% support for the idea.

When the issue came up during last night's debate, the Texan said, "[I]n Odessa, I met the mother of a 15-year-old girl who was shot by an AR-15, and that mother watched her bleed to death over the course of an hour because so many other people were shot by that AR-15 in Odessa and Midland, there weren't enough ambulances to get to them in time. Hell, yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47."

One viewer registered a specific kind of objection via Twitter.

A Texas state representative had a menacing response to Beto O'Rourke's statement in Thursday's debate that "hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15."

"My AR is ready for you Robert Francis," Republican Representative Briscoe Cain tweeted about O'Rourke, using the presidential candidate's legal first and middle name.

Cain later deleted the tweet. Nevertheless, I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest those who threaten to shoot presidential candidates probably shouldn't own military-style assault weapons.

O'Rourke told CNN this morning that his campaign contacted the FBI about the Texas Republican's missive. "I mean, anytime you have somebody threatening to use violence against somebody in this country to resolve a political issue -- or really for any reason -- that's a matter for law enforcement," the Texas Democrat said.

Time will tell whether Briscoe Cain faces any legal troubles for his not-so-subtle threat, but it's worth contextualizing this incident because it's part of a larger story.

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Despite his promises, Trump pushes deficit past $1 trillion mark

09/13/19 08:41AM

After the Great Recession ended, it seemed as if trillion-dollar deficits were a thing of the past. As the Wall Street Journal reported late yesterday, pointing to new data from the Treasury Department, we've again passed the threshold -- and it's worth understanding why.

A strong economy typically leads to narrower deficits, as rising household income and corporate profits help boost tax collections, while spending on safety-net programs such as unemployment insurance tends to decline.

The U.S. economy has been growing for 10 years as of July, the longest economic expansion on record. Yet annual U.S. deficits are on track to exceed $1 trillion starting this year, due in part to the 2017 tax law, which constrained federal revenue collection last year, and a 2018 budget deal that busted spending caps enacted in 2011.

I should emphasize that there's still another month remaining in the fiscal year, which will likely affect the overall deficit for the 12-month period. That said, it's a safe bet that the deficit will still exceed $1 trillion.

These aren't exactly the fiscal results Donald Trump promised the electorate before his election. As regular readers may recall, in February 2016, the future president appeared on Fox News and assured viewers that, if he were president, he could start paying off the national debt “so easily.” The Republican argued at the time that it would simply be a matter of looking at the country as “a profit-making corporation” instead of “a losing corporation.”

A month later, in March 2016, Trump declared at a debate that he could cut trillions of dollars in spending by eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse.” Asked for a specific example, he said, “We’re cutting Common Core.” (Common Core is an education curriculum. It costs the federal government almost nothing.)

A month after that, in April 2016, Trump declared that he was confident that he could “get rid of” the entire multi-trillion-dollar debt “fairly quickly.” Pressed to be more specific, the future president replied, “Well, I would say over a period of eight years.”

By July 2016, he boasted that once his economic agenda was in place, “we’ll start paying off that debt like water.”

As Catherine Rampbell recently explained, "Federal deficits have widened immensely under Trump's leadership. This is striking not only because he promised fiscal responsibility – at one time even pledging to eliminate the national debt within eight years – but also because it's a historical anomaly.... Trump's own policies are to blame for this aberration."

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a press conference at Turnberry Golf course in Turnberry, Scotland, June 24, 2016. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Questions about military stops at Trump's Scottish resort grow louder

09/13/19 08:00AM

Toward the end of last night's Democratic presidential primary debate, Pete Buttigieg reminded the audience that Americans currently have a president "who seems to treat troops as props, or worse, tools for his own enrichment. We saw what's going on with flights apparently being routed through Scotland just so people can stay at his hotels? I'll tell you, as a military officer, the very first thing that goes through your mind, the first time you ever make eye contact with somebody that you are responsible for in uniform, is do not let these men and women down. This president is doing exactly that."

The comments were well timed: just as the Democratic debate was getting underway, Politico published an interesting new report on the simmering controversy:

The U.S. Air Force has lodged crews at President Donald Trump's Scotland resort up to 40 times since 2015, a figure that is far higher than previously known.

The tally represents the preliminary results of an Air Force review launched after POLITICO reported last week that an Air National Guard crew stayed at Turnberry in March. Congressional Democrats have also been investigating military stays at the property, but have yet to receive any information from the Pentagon.

While this advances the story, there are some elements to this that we do not yet know. For example, we learned this week that some of the U.S. military stops at the Prestwick Airport -- about 20 miles away from Trump's struggling business -- predated the Republican's presidency. That didn't negate the burgeoning controversy, since the flights to the airport Trump is eager to prop up went up considerably after he took office, but it's a relevant detail.

And with this in mind, if U.S. servicemen and women stayed at the Trump-owned Turnberry Luxury Collection Resort 40 times, and all or nearly all of the visits occurred during the Obama era, there'd be fewer questions about possible abuses.

But if all or nearly all of the visits occurred after Trump became president -- or if the total jumped from one administration to the next -- we're right back where we started, wondering about a possible scheme to put money in the sitting president's pocket, while bolstering an airport the president's business needs to survive.

Of course, if the lines between Trump the president and Trump the businessman were clearer, and there weren't so many concerns about the Republican trying to profit from his office, unprecedented controversies like these wouldn't even come up.

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