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Thursday's Mini-Report, 5.16.19

05/16/19 05:29PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The national pattern isn't subtle: "Missouri's Senate has passed what its authors call one of the nation's most stringent anti-abortion bills, which would outlaw nearly all abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy. The Republican-led Senate passed the bill, dubbed Missouri Stands With the Unborn, 24-10 early Thursday morning."

* In related news: "The top House Republican said Thursday that Alabama's new state law banning almost all abortions goes too far. California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, told reporters that the law, which doesn't allow exceptions for abortions in cases of rape and incest, 'goes further than I believe.'"

* Oversight: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., blasted the White House on Thursday for asserting that it would not comply with a range of requests from the House Judiciary Committee, arguing that Congress needs certain information to perform its oversight duties and guide any moves toward impeachment."

* Presidential finances: "[T]he Trump presidency has been taking a modest economic toll on his businesses, according to annual financial disclosure forms released Thursday."

* Economic news: "The U.S. economy got off to a sluggish start in the second quarter, with both consumers and manufacturers pulling back in April amid trade tensions, a global slowdown and waning effects of the 2017 tax cuts."

* Maybe Trump ought to tune in: "Live, from a tiny parlor in the Capitol, House Democrats are reading aloud nearly 400 pages of special counsel Robert Mueller's report. The marathon is likely to stretch into the wee hours of Friday. The duty will be split among more than two dozen lawmakers."

* That's not something to brag about: "U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told a panel of U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday that he has not lost sleep over record amounts of carbon dioxide recorded in the Earth's atmosphere, which scientists warn are altering the global climate."

* Remember him? "Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and his staff spent nearly $124,000 on unnecessary first- and business-class air travel during 10 months in 2017, according to a new report from the EPA's Office of the Inspector General."

* Eric Blankenstein: "A senior Consumer Financial Protection Bureau employee whose racially charged blog posts sparked an uproar last year is leaving the agency at the end of the month."

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Author of pro-Trump book gets presidential pardon from Trump

05/16/19 02:57PM

In late 2015, Conrad Black wrote a piece for a conservative magazine, praising then-candidate Donald Trump. The future president proudly promoted the article via Twitter, adding at the time, "I won't forget!"

Yesterday, Trump followed through.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday pardoned former newspaper mogul Conrad Black, who was convicted in 2007 on charges that he swindled shareholders in his media empire out of $6 million, the White House announced.

Black was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison in 2007, and a federal judge at sentencing said the millionaire member of the British House of Lords violated his duty to Hollinger International shareholders, the Associated Press reported at the time. Black was found guilty of three counts of mail fraud and one count of obstruction of justice for spiriting documents out of his Toronto office in defiance of a court order.

The official White House statement on Trump's executive grant of clemency added that Black, an enthusiastic supporter of the president, is "the author of several notable biographies and works of history." What it neglected to mention is that one of Black's biographies was published last year. It was titled "Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other."

Around the same time, the White House also announced executive clemency for Patrick Nolan, a former Republican state lawmaker in California, who's a friend of Jared Kushner, and a critic of the Mueller investigation.

To be sure, Trump is not the first president to issue provocative pardons. Bill Clinton's Marc Rich pardon, for example, was the basis for a significant controversy in 2001. Nineteen years earlier, George H.W. Bush's Christmas Eve pardons for several officials at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal were among the most scandalous pardons in American history.

But the volume and brazenness of Trump's pardons -- for Dinesh D'Souza, Joe Arpaio, Scooter Libby, et al -- tell us a great deal about how the Republican approaches his responsibilities and the rule of law.

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Debate over Trump's new immigration plan is over before it starts

05/16/19 12:47PM

The broad contours of a bipartisan immigration package have been obvious for quite a while. Democrats want protections for undocumented immigrants already in the United States, while Republicans want increased funding for border security. A compromise deal would bring together both priorities, leaving both sides with what they want.

It's a solution Donald Trump continues to avoid.

President Donald Trump will roll out a two-pronged immigration proposal on Thursday that would make sweeping changes to the legal immigration system -- including requiring a civics test -- and enhance border security, senior administration officials said Wednesday.

The plan, which Trump is expected to announce during an afternoon speech, avoids some of the most hot-button immigration issues of the day -- including a growing backlog of asylum-seekers and the status of so-called Dreamers -- and is almost certainly doomed on Capitol Hill.

The White House's new plan is the result of months of work from Jared Kushner, the president's young son-in-law, who's twice presented his blueprint to unimpressed Republican senators.

Skepticism from GOP lawmakers, however, is just the start of Trump's troubles. As Trump and his team must understand by now, Democrats -- who have a significant House majority -- aren't interested in an immigration plan that ignores Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.

The White House took that knowledge and came up with a plan that ignores Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters this morning that DACA was omitted from the plan "on purpose" because, as far as the White House is concerned, it's divisive. Sanders added that previous reform bills that included protections for Dreamers failed in Congress, so this new effort is intended to be something new.

But that's a terrible argument: recent attempts at immigration reform failed because far-right lawmakers weren't willing to compromise. Ignoring DACA will make those Republicans happy, but it won't move the process forward in any kind of constructive way.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.16.19

05/16/19 12:00PM

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

* If you were hoping to see the largest field of presidential candidates get even bigger, I have some good news for you: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) kicked off his White House bid this morning.

* On a related note, it's worth noting for context that the Democratic mayor's constituents haven't exactly endorsed his ambitions: a Quinnipiac poll last month found a whopping 73% of Democrats in New York City said de Blasio should not run for president. Evidently, he disagrees.

* Montana Gov. Steve Bullock's Democratic presidential campaign raised $1 million in its first day, which is a pretty respectable haul for a late entrant with a modest national profile.

* We can apparently add Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) to the list of Democratic presidential hopefuls who will not participate in a town-hall forum on Fox News.

* Speaking of the California senator, Harris also announced plans yesterday to use executive action in 2021 to ban the importation of assault weapons, if Congress fails to act on the issue.

* Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) unveiled his "Evergreen Economy" plan this morning, focused on job creation and economic development through combating the climate crisis.

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Afghan former Taliban fighters are photographed holding weapons before they hand them over as part of a government peace and reconciliation process at a ceremony in Jalalabad on Feb. 8, 2015. (Photo by Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty)

Did the Trump admin seek taxpayer funds to reimburse the Taliban?

05/16/19 11:05AM

When American and Taliban negotiators began the latest round of negotiations a couple of weeks ago in Qatar, it was the latest step in a lengthy diplomatic process. There may have been a point in years past at which direct talks between U.S. officials and the Taliban would've been politically controversial, especially on the right, but that's clearly no longer the case.

What is new, however, is the idea that the United States would reimburse the Taliban for its travel expenses. Roll Call raised a few eyebrows with this report late yesterday:

The Trump administration asked Congress earlier this year for funds to reimburse Afghanistan's Taliban for expenses the insurgent group incurs attending peace talks, according to a spokesman for the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

The money would cover the Taliban's costs for expenses such as transportation, lodging, food and supplies, said Kevin Spicer, spokesman for Indiana Democrat Peter J. Visclosky, in a statement for CQ Roll Call.

"The Defense Department requested fiscal 2020 funding to support certain reconciliation activities, including logistic support for members of the Taliban and, in March 2019, they sent a notification letter to the Committee on using fiscal year 2019 funds for similar activities," Spicer said.

This reporting has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News.

That said, I think it's probably fair to say talking to the Taliban about how best to end an 18-year war is one thing, while using taxpayer funds to reimburse the Taliban for its travel expenses is something else.

Indeed, if the Roll Call report is correct, the Trump administration's request was not well received on Capitol Hill. In fact, the House Appropriations panel yesterday approved its Defense spending bill that did the opposite of what the Pentagon requested.

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A person man uses a laptop. (Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa/AP)

Touting conspiracy theory, Trump unveils provocative new site

05/16/19 10:21AM

Before social media became ubiquitous, far-right conspiracy theories often circulated by way of viral email chains. It may sound ridiculous to younger readers, but damaging misinformation often spread like wildfire through these emails.

With this in mind, the Obama White House in 2009 hoped to combat these tactics with the truth, but in order to do that effectively, officials needed to know what nonsense was making the rounds. So, Team Obama created an email address -- flag@whitehouse.gov -- that the public could use to alert officials to the kind of viral messages their weird uncle who watches Fox News all day liked to send around.

The right went from zero to apoplectic with amazing speed, insisting that the Democratic administration was collecting Americans' online contact information and building "enemies lists" based on conservatives who distributed deceptive political emails. By August 2009, the White House pulled the plug on the project.

History isn't repeating itself, but it is rhyming.

The Trump administration escalated its conflict with the tech industry on Wednesday, unveiling a website that asks people who think their viewpoints have been censored by social media platforms to share their stories -- and their contact information.

President Trump, who seems to relish little more than a tweet storm, has repeatedly attacked Google, Facebook and Twitter for what he alleges is their bias against and suppression of conservative users. The companies have repeatedly denied those accusations.

The website published by the White House on Wednesday took those complaints to a new level, marrying the president's online grievances to a data-gathering operation that could help him mobilize potential supporters during his re-election campaign.

Trump's bizarre conspiracy theories about tech platforms, alas, are not new. The president has never been able to substantiate any of his claims -- many of which appear to be based on confusion about how the platforms work -- but he and other Republican leaders have convinced many conservatives that they're victims of rascally liberals at Google, Facebook, and Twitter, who secretly want to keep the right down.

In fact, the president has at times suggested the White House is engaged in some kind of informal investigation into the social-media giants.

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Behind the bluster, Trump hints at his dubious strategy for Iran

05/16/19 09:20AM

The Trump administration's posture toward Iran has taken an alarming turn in recent weeks, though there's some question about the president's position. The Washington Post reported overnight that Donald Trump is "frustrated with some of his top advisers, who he thinks could rush the United States into a military confrontation with Iran and shatter his long-standing pledge to withdraw from costly foreign wars."

A senior administration official told the newspaper, "He is not comfortable with all this 'regime change' talk."

Of course, that raises the question of what the president would be comfortable with. Trump told reporters late last week, "What I'd like to see with Iran, I'd like to see them call me." He said something similar on Twitter last night:

"The Fake News Washington Post, and even more Fake News New York Times, are writing stories that there is infighting with respect to my strong policy in the Middle East," the president wrote on Twitter. "There is no infighting whatsoever."

"Different opinions are expressed and I make a decisive and final decision -- it is a very simple process," Trump continued. "All sides, views, and policies are covered. I'm sure that Iran will want to talk soon."

It's often difficult to know how (or whether) to interpret the president's many tweets, and as a rule, it's best not to take anything Trump says at face value.

That said, if we look past the usual presidential palaver, some hints of a strategy appear to be coming into focus.

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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

Team Trump pushes to make president immune from scrutiny

05/16/19 08:43AM

In a federal courtroom on Tuesday, some of Donald Trump's private attorneys, hired specifically to keep his personal finances secret, argued that practically all congressional oversight of presidential wrongdoing is illegal. Even if lawmakers were confronted with clear evidence of presidential corruption, Trump's lawyers argued, Congress would have no authority to launch an investigation.

At one point, the president's legal team suggested even the Watergate hearings on Capitol Hill may have been an illegal abuse.

Putting aside how absurd the argument was -- and how likely it is to fail in court -- there's an expectation that private attorneys will sometimes have to make audacious arguments in support of a client with a weak case. It's arguably more outrageous when the White House counsel's office peddles similarly bizarre claims.

The White House told the House Judiciary Committee in a letter Wednesday that it will not comply with a broad range of the panel's requests and called on it to "discontinue" its inquiry into President Donald Trump. [...]

[White House counsel Pat Cipollone] homed in on a rationale that the White House and Trump's business have made elsewhere: that Congress cannot conduct such oversight of the president unless it has a specific legislative purpose.

Cipollone's correspondence was not subtle: the White House intends to defy all subpoenas, deny Congress witnesses, reject all requests for documents, etc. His reasoning sounded familiar.

"Congressional investigations are intended to obtain information to aid in evaluating potential legislation," the White House counsel wrote, "not to harass political opponents or to pursue an unauthorized 'do-over' of exhaustive law enforcement investigations conducted by the Department of Justice."

The use of the word "unauthorized" was of particular interest: to hear Team Trump tell it, investigations launched by the legislative branch should apparently be approved by the executive branch in order to be legitimate.

So, where does that leave us?

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An exam room at the Whole Woman's Health clinic, in McAllen, Texas on March 4, 2014. (Photo by Jennifer Whitney/The New York Times/Redux)

Sponsor of Alabama abortion ban offers head-spinning defense

05/16/19 08:00AM

Before Alabama approved the most sweeping abortion ban in the country, one of the bill's chief sponsors, Republican Sen. Clyde Chambliss, fielded a question from a colleague. Why, a Democrat asked, should state law block rape victims from terminating an unwanted pregnancy?

The GOP lawmaker responded:

"[Under the new policy] anything that's available today is still available up until that woman knows she's pregnant. So there is a window of time, some say seven days, some say ten. There is a window of time that every option that's on the table now is still available. [...]

"So she has to take a pregnancy test, she has to do something to know whether she is pregnant or not. You can't know that immediately. It takes some time for all those chromosomes and all that that you mentioned. It doesn't happen immediately."

He wasn't kidding. As Rachel noted on last night's show, the architect of Alabama's new anti-abortion law defended his proposal by arguing that rape victims can still get abortions just so long as they don't know they're pregnant -- which is every bit as bewildering as it seems.

On a related note, Donald Trump's White House celebrated Alabama's new abortion ban in a statement, which said Democrats support "allowing a baby to be ripped from the mother's womb moments after birth."

Perhaps realizing that this doesn't make physiological sense, the statement was amended to say, "ripped from the mother's womb moments from birth."

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