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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 1.16.19

01/16/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* An explosion this morning in Syria left four Americans dead: "Two American service members, a U.S. Defense Department civilian employee and a contractor supporting the department were killed while 'conducting a routine patrol,' according to a spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, and a statement from U.S. Central Command."

* The attack in Kenya: "Dozens of people remain missing one day after a deadly attack on a popular hotel complex in Nairobi, according to the Kenya Red Cross Society. Tuesday's attack started with car bombs before armed men invaded the DusitD2 hotel complex, which includes bars, restaurants, offices and banks."

* May survives the no-confidence vote: "Theresa May narrowly survived another bid to oust her as prime minister on Wednesday -- the second attempt in five weeks -- leaving Britain with a leader but without a plan as it barrels toward a March 29 deadline to leave the European Union."

* A vote we were watching closely: "Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer came up just short in his effort to get legislation through the chamber blocking the Treasury Department from easing sanctions on a trio of Russian companies."

* I'm still not entirely sure how this is legal: "The Internal Revenue Service is recalling about 46,000 of its employees furloughed by the government shutdown -- nearly 60 percent of its workforce -- to handle tax returns and pay out refunds. The employees won't be paid during the shutdown."

* The West Wing has cause for concern: "House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff is sinking panel resources into a robust investigative staff to revive the probe into President Donald Trump's ties to Russia with roughly seven committee staffers directing their energy full-time."

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Image: Donald Trump

As shutdown lingers, Dems question Trump's State of the Union address

01/16/19 12:45PM

The political climate in early 1999 was unprecedented. The sitting Democratic president, Bill Clinton, had just been impeached by a Republican-led House, and the Republican-led Senate was weighing whether to remove him from office. Clinton, meanwhile, wanted to deliver a State of the Union address.

Some on the right suggested at the time that Congress refuse to extend an invitation, noting, among other things, that it's a fairly modern tradition, not a requirement, that a president deliver the remarks on television from the House floor, and the president could instead issue his statement in written form. GOP leaders, realizing that their impeachment gambit was already unpopular, ultimately welcomed the impeached Democrat anyway.

In late 2014, several far-right voices launched a similar push, urging Republicans not to allow Barack Obama to deliver a televised State of the Union address in early 2015, ostensibly as punishment for the Democrat's DACA policy for Dreamers. GOP leaders were well aware of the chatter, but they nevertheless invited the Democratic president.

Four years later, there's no organized progressive effort to scrap Donald Trump's State of the Union address, but as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted this morning, there are some logistical concerns.

President Donald Trump should either delay his State of the Union address or submit it in writing, Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote Wednesday in a letter citing the security burdens that the annual address to a joint session of Congress would place on a partially shuttered federal government.

"Sadly, given the security concerns and unless government re-opens this week, I suggest that we work together to determine another suitable date after government has re-opened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to the Congress on January 29th," Pelosi wrote in the letter to Trump.

So, has Trump's invitation been pulled? There's apparently some confusion on this point.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.16.19

01/16/19 12:00PM

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

* Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is the latest Democratic to enter the 2020 presidential race, and she'll be on with Rachel tonight to discuss her candidacy in detail.

* She may soon be joined by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who told MSNBC's Chris Hayes last night that he'll soon launch a "Dignity of Work" listening tour, which will begin in Cleveland, but which will also make stops in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.

* The editorial pages of the Des Moines Register and the Sioux City Journal have both called on Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) to resign in the wake of his latest racist controversy.

* On a related note, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the #3 official in the House GOP leadership, has also called on the far-right Iowan to give up his seat in Congress.

* Donald Trump this morning suggested he sees the shutdown and the related immigration fight as an important part of his re-election campaign, adding a "#2020" hashtag to one of his tweets on the subject this morning. Of course, the president made a similar pitch in the 2018 elections, which clearly didn't go his party's way.

* Rep. Seth Moulton's (D-Mass.) efforts to derail Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as House Speaker didn't go especially well, but the experience didn't necessarily undermine the congressman's ambitions: Moulton has scheduled an appearance in New Hampshire for Feb. 2.

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Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Mike Pence

Why Democrats refuse to pay Trump's ransom in the shutdown fight

01/16/19 11:04AM

To hear Donald Trump tell it, resolving the government shutdown would be incredibly easy. All Democrats have to do is give the president what he wants, at which point the Republican will agree to end the standoff. Indeed, to the extent that Trump has a "plan," it's based on the most basic of tactics: he's simply waiting for his opponents to quit and meet his demands.

As the longest shutdown in American history drags on, that's not happening. Slate's Ben Mathis-Lilley expressed some amazement yesterday that congressional Democratic leaders "have not caved like a bunch of weenies."

The border wall-shutdown standoff is exactly the kind of situation in which another Democratic fold would seem to be, er, in the cards. And yet not only have [Senate Minority Leader Chuck] Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi not folded, it doesn't seem like they've even thought about folding, despite some grumbling by new House members from swing districts.

It's gotten to the point where Donald Trump invited several centrist-ish rank-and-file Democrats to have lunch with him Tuesday without caucus leaders, ostensibly to woo and seduce them, but it didn't work; none of them went.

And this got me thinking: why haven't Dems given in?

The president seems to be driven by some twisted version of Richard Nixon's "madman theory." As the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne explained the other day, "The idea is that if one party to a negotiation behaves in a particularly crazy and dangerous way, the more reasonable people at the table will give in simply to end the lunacy and avoid catastrophe."

It seems likely that Trump expected this to work. So far, it hasn't, and it's worth appreciating why.

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After meeting Putin, Trump peddled Russian's claims to US media

01/16/19 10:11AM

In the summer of 2017, Americans first learned of a secret meeting between Russian operatives and top members of Donald Trump's campaign team. The discussion -- held in Trump Tower on June 9, 2016 -- was intended to help the Republican obtain information from Moscow to help put Trump in the White House.

Soon after the story broke, Donald Trump Jr. -- a participant in the meeting -- issued a highly misleading press statement about what transpired. We later learned that the president personally dictated that statement while aboard Air Force One, during a return trip from a G-20 summit in Germany. This appeared to directly implicate the president in a cover-up.

But in an interesting twist, that apparently wasn't the only notable thing that happened on Trump's return flight from Germany on July 8, 2017.

The New York Times  reported today on each of the meetings the American president has had with Russian President Vladimir Putin -- discussions even U.S. officials know little about -- including their interactions at that G-20 gathering. The article included this tidbit:

Mr. Trump sought out Mr. Putin again during a dinner for all the leaders. Videotape later made public showed Mr. Trump pointing at Mr. Putin, who was seated across and down a long table, then pointing at himself and then making a pumping motion with his fist.

Mr. Trump later told The Times that he went over to see his wife, Melania Trump, who was sitting next to Mr. Putin, and the two leaders then talked, with Mr. Putin's interpreter translating. No American officials were present, and the White House did not confirm the encounter until more than 10 days later, after it was independently reported.

The day after the two meetings, as Mr. Trump was on Air Force One taking off from Germany heading back to Washington, he telephoned a Times reporter and argued that the Russians were falsely accused of election interference.

I think it's safe to say this doesn't look great for the White House.

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Emissions from a coal power plant

Trump's 'law and order' rhetoric comes with some fine print

01/16/19 09:20AM

In a brief Q&A with reporters late last week, Donald Trump repeated some familiar talking points while attacking his political opponents. "The Democrats, which I've been saying all along, they don't give a damn about crime. They don't care about crime," he said. The president added, "But I care about crime."

In reality, Trump clearly cares about some crimes -- those committed by immigrants, for example -- but he and his administration seem far less concerned about other offenses.

Take environmental crimes, for example.

The Environmental Protection Agency hit a 30-year low in 2018 in the number of pollution cases it referred for criminal prosecution, Justice Department data show.

EPA said in a statement that it is directing "its resources to the most significant and impactful cases." But the 166 cases referred for prosecution in the last fiscal year is the lowest number since 1988, when Ronald Reagan was president and 151 cases were referred, according to Justice Department data obtained by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility advocacy group and released Tuesday. [...]

EPA referrals resulted in 62 federal convictions in fiscal year 2018, the fewest since 1995.

This isn't the only agency that's seen a significant drop in enforcing existing protections. The New York Times  reported in November, "Across the corporate landscape, the Trump administration has presided over a sharp decline in financial penalties against banks and big companies accused of malfeasance."

The Times' report highlighted a 62% drop in penalties from the Securities and Exchange Commission, and a 72% decline in corporate penalties from the Justice Department's criminal prosecutions.

Trump's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, meanwhile, has dramatically curtailed its enforcement efforts, and the administration's enforcement of antitrust laws has reached a level unseen since the Nixon era.

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Needing Trump's backing, telecom giant books rooms at his hotel

01/16/19 08:41AM

About a month ago, the Associated Press published a good report on the degree to which Donald Trump's presidency has "changed Washington," and it touched on a provocative detail. Toward the end of the piece, the article noted that international leaders have learned that "some business at a Trump-owned hotel" can contribute to "a good relationship with the president."

As we discussed at the time, it's very easy to believe world leaders think this way, but it speaks to circumstances that aren't supposed to exist: foreign officials shouldn't be able to curry favor with an American president by doing business with his hotel. It's one of the reasons the pending Emoluments Clause cases are so important.

But it's not just international leaders who take this dynamic seriously. The Washington Post  reported this morning:

Last April, telecom giant T-Mobile announced a megadeal: a $26 billion merger with rival Sprint, which would more than double T-Mobile's value and give it a huge new chunk of the cellphone market.

But for T-Mobile, one hurdle remained: Its deal needed approval from the Trump administration.

The next day, in Washington, staffers at the Trump International Hotel were handed a list of incoming "VIP Arrivals." That day's list included nine of T-Mobile's top executives -- including its chief operating officer, chief technology officer, chief strategy officer, chief financial officer and its outspoken celebrity chief executive, John Legere.

It's quite a coincidence, isn't it? On April 29, T-Mobile and Sprint announced a multi-billion-dollar merger. On April 30, T-Mobile's top executives started booking rooms in the president's hotel.

Perhaps, you're thinking, the company's executives simply needed a place to stay in the nation's capital for a couple of days. Maybe they just picked a hotel with a good location.

The trouble is, as the merger deal was pending, these same executives kept returning to the Trump International Hotel. The article added, "By mid-June, seven weeks after the announcement of the merger, hotel records indicated that one T-Mobile executive was making his 10th visit to the hotel. Legere appears to have made at least four visits to the Trump hotel, walking the lobby in his T-Mobile gear."

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William Barr testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination to be attorney general of the United States on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 15, 2019.

Would Trump's AG nominee bury a Russia scandal report from Mueller?

01/16/19 08:00AM

The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday took up William Barr's nomination to serve as attorney general, but as the hearing unfolded, it was clear one topic would dominate the others.

Attorney General nominee William Barr spent nearly nine hours Tuesday answering questions about Robert Mueller's investigation at his Senate confirmation hearing, seeking to assuage Democratic concerns about his views of the Russia probe.

Democrats on the panel spent Tuesday's hearing probing his views on Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference.

On the surface, Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Justice Department delivered answers that seemed vaguely reassuring: Barr expressed a deep admiration for Mueller; the Republican lawyer dismissed the president's assertions that the investigation into the Russia scandal is a "witch hunt"; and Barr made clear that he believes the Mueller investigation must be allowed to continue until its completion, and would have the resources necessary to do so.

To a very real extent, each of these positions puts the attorney general nominee at odds with the White House.

But it's the caveats that matter. For example, Barr wouldn't commit to releasing a Mueller report at the end of the investigation. In fact, at one point, he seemed to raise the prospect of receiving a possible report from Mueller, which Barr would then summarize for Congress.

What's more, if career ethics officials at the Justice Department advised Barr to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation, Barr said he'd be comfortable ignoring the guidance -- and keeping their advice hidden.

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