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Friday's Mini-Report, 11.9.18

11/09/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* An intensifying disaster: "Wildfires from Malibu to rural lands nearly 500 miles to the north continued to rage Friday, as California authorities reported the first fatalities from the devastating blazes. Five people burned to death in their cars as they tried to get away from flames in the Camp Fire, according to the Butte County Sheriff's Office."

* RBG: "Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was released from the hospital Friday, a day after she was admitted and treated for three fractured ribs following a fall in her office. Ginsburg, 85, planned to work from home Friday."

* The White House was not pleased with the ruling: "A federal judge in Montana has blocked construction of the $8 billion Keystone XL Pipeline to allow more time to study the project's potential environmental impact."

* The litigation on this will be fierce: "The Trump administration, invoking national security powers meant to protect the United States against threats from abroad, announced new rules Thursday that give President Trump vast authority to deny asylum to virtually any migrant who crosses the border illegally."

* One last regressive step on his way out the door: "Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions has drastically limited the ability of federal law enforcement officials to use court-enforced agreements to overhaul local police departments accused of abuses and civil rights violations, the Justice Department announced on Thursday."

* Mitch McConnell has already said he's against this: "Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) plan to ask for a floor vote on legislation to shield Special Counsel Robert Mueller from a firing when the upper chamber returns to session next week, Flake said on Thursday."

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen in a television cameras view finder during a press conference at the Trump National Golf Club Jupiter on March 8, 2016 in Jupiter, Fla. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

Trump suggests the next Attorney General will be someone he saw on TV

11/09/18 04:49PM

Among the many problems with Matt Whitaker's role as acting attorney general is his background as a media pundit. The man who's now the nation's chief law enforcement official is suddenly in a position where he's overseeing federal investigations he's condemned as a television commentator -- including Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe of the Russia scandal.

During a Q&A with reporters this morning, someone asked the president about Whitaker's record of provocative public comments as a pundit. He responded by suggesting that "everybody" who'd be considered to lead the Justice Department has been an on-air commentator.

"I see everybody on television -- all these lawyers, all these law enforcement people making comment after comment. They never ask to get recused. They make comment. The fact that you go on Fox or CNN or MSNBC or anybody, and you make a comment, you'd have nobody left to choose. You would have absolutely nobody left.

"I see different people, at different times, going on shows. Am I supposed to say, 'Oh, now he's never qualified to serve in government?' So, all the time I'm watching many different people go on many different shows, saying many different things. That doesn't mean they're unqualified. [...]

"[Whitaker] did some shows; so did many of the people that you're talking about. So did everybody that -- you're talking about a permanent position. I think everybody looking at a permanent position, in any department, has done many shows. Does that mean we can't hire anybody?"

As Aaron Rupar joked, "Trump argues it's unfair to expect him to choose people for top [Justice Department] jobs who aren't TV pundits, because everybody is a TV pundit."

That's funny, but it's not really an exaggeration. The president's approach follows a certain logic:

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke delivers a speech billed as "A Vision for American Energy Dominance" at the Heritage Foundation on September 29, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Trump's most scandal-plagued secretary takes a lot of 'personal days'

11/09/18 04:08PM

The New York Times published a round-up last week of pending investigations into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and at last count, there were 15. Media Matters, meanwhile, put together a timeline of "the Interior secretary's questionable actions and controversies." As of yesterday, it has 28 installments. including revelations from just this week about new materials that suggest the Republican cabinet secretary violated an ethics pledge.

One of Zinke's scandals was recently referred to the Justice Department for a possible criminal investigation. We don't know which of the scandals, but there are apparently many to choose from.

It's against this backdrop that the Washington Post  reports that Zinke doesn't appear to be working especially hard, either.

Recently released public records show that Zinke has taken an unconventional approach to his job at times, including arranging meetings with multiple billionaires and taking 66 days of personal leave during his first year and-a-half on the job. [...[

Public records also show that Zinke took 66 "personal days" between March 2017 and August 2018, excluding weekends and federal holidays. That total exceeds the 39 annual days off federal senior executives would be given during that same period.

Center for Western Priorities spokesman Aaron Weiss, whose group is a sharp critic of Zinke, questioned why the secretary would take so much time off when Cabinet members usually only serve for a few years. "You don't have a lot of time to get stuff done," Weiss said. "What kind of message does that send if you're not even in the office approximately one week out of four?"

The same article added that White House officials consider Zinke "the Cabinet member most vulnerable to a congressional probe under a Democratic majority in January."

Which probably helps explain why he's reportedly working on an exit strategy.

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Image: Senate Judiciary Committee

Trump tries a new, misguided case against Special Counsel Mueller

11/09/18 12:47PM

A couple of months ago, Donald Trump sat down with writers from a far-right website and explained, as best he could, why he thinks Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation is "illegal." The president's case fell somewhere on the spectrum between unpersuasive and silly.

Among other things, Trump pointed to the significance of a "business dispute" between him and the special counsel in 2011 -- Mueller sought a refund on some dues at a Trump-owned golf club and never heard back from the club's management -- and claimed he could produce "100 pictures of [Mueller] and Comey hugging and kissing each other."

This morning, asked about the fact that his acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, wasn't confirmed by the Senate to a senior Justice Department post -- an unprecedented personnel move for someone serving as the nation's top law enforcement official -- Trump tried to change the subject by turning back to the special counsel.

"Look, Mueller -- a big complaint people have -- Mueller was not Senate-confirmed. So he's doing a report. He wasn't Senate-confirmed. Whitaker was Senate-confirmed. [...]

"Mueller was not Senate-confirmed. Why didn't they get him Senate-confirmed? He should have been Senate-confirmed... Don't tell me about Whitaker. Don't tell me about Whitaker, because Mueller was not Senate-confirmed."

Oh dear.

First, Robert Mueller was not confirmed by the Senate because special counsels are named by the Justice Department. Under current law, this is not a Senate-confirmed position. It's like asking why the White House chief of staff was never confirmed by senators; there is no process in place for such a move.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.9.18

11/09/18 12:00PM

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

* For the first time, Kyrsten Sinema (D) took a narrow lead over Martha McSally (R) in Arizona's U.S. Senate race, but the vote-counting process continues and there are still plenty of ballots to go.

* It may seem like a long shot, but Sen. Bill Nelson (D), though trailing Rick Scott (R) now, could still prevail in Florida's U.S. Senate race.

* It's gone largely under the radar, but there's still another U.S. Senate race to go: Mississippi will hold a runoff election on Nov. 27, pitting appointed incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith (R) against former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy (D). Yesterday, the two agreed to a debate scheduled for Nov. 20.

* NBC News reported yesterday that voter turnout in this year's midterm elections are on track to reach a level unseen since 1966.

* As things stand, the Democratic lead over Republicans in the U.S. House popular vote is 6%, but the consensus among election watchers is that it will grow to at least 7% when all of the votes are tallied.

* Interesting trivia: Minnesota is literally the only state in the nation with a state House controlled by one party and a state Senate controlled by another.

* In the race for House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) may not have the necessary votes locked up just yet, but no one should be surprised if she secures the support she needs.

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With Kavanaugh confirmed, Trump expects Supreme Court victories

11/09/18 11:20AM

More so than any modern president, Donald Trump has condemned the federal courts in no uncertain terms. Last year, the president went so far as to tell the public that the American judicial system "is broken."

Lately, however, Trump sounds as if he thinks he's "fixed" the courts.

Yesterday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court ruling, concluding that the president could not scrap the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. It was obviously not what the White House wanted to hear.

But note the president's posture on the issue from this morning's Q&A with reporters:

"DACA, that was actually good news yesterday because you never win in the 9th Circuit if you're on this half of the equation... The good news is, by rejecting DACA in the 9th Circuit yesterday, finally, we've been waiting for that, we get to the Supreme Court and we want to be in the Supreme Court on DACA. [...]

"So this whole thing, it's a terrible thing what's happening with the courts. The DACA will now hopefully go to the Supreme Court where it will be given a fair decision."

This comes less than two weeks after Trump went after the constitutional principle of birthright citizenship, arguing that he's comfortable taking the issue to the Supreme Court.

Yesterday, the president unveiled a rather brutal new policy on asylum seekers, which the administration assumes will be tested in the courts. But two senior administration officials told NBC News yesterday that "with Justice Brett Kavanaugh now on the Supreme Court," the White House "expects to win."

Before Kavanaugh, Trump and his team couldn't be sure the high court would allow the president to do as he pleases. Now, Republicans are beaming with confidence.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump claims he doesn't know the man he asked to lead the Justice Dept

11/09/18 10:42AM

Donald Trump has a fascinating habit of pretending not to know members of his team the moment they run into trouble. This morning, in response to questions about his new acting attorney general -- a man being dismissed as a "crackpot" in some circles -- the president told reporters he doesn't know Matthew Whitaker, either.

"Well, Matt Whitaker -- I don't know Matt Whitaker. Matt Whitaker worked for Jeff Sessions, and he was always extremely highly thought of, and he still is. But I didn't know Matt Whitaker. He worked for Attorney General Sessions."

I realize it's difficult to defend the decision to make Whitaker the nation's chief law enforcement official, but this posture is foolish, even by Trump standards.

For one thing, the president hand-picked Whitaker for the critically important post. If he doesn't know him, why did Trump select him?

For another, there's some evidence that Trump does know him. The New York Times  reported in September that Whitaker "has frequently visited the Oval Office and is said to have an easy chemistry with Mr. Trump. On Monday morning [Sept. 24], Mr. Trump himself called Mr. Whitaker, not with an explicit job offer but a reassurance that he has faith in him."

The same article added that West Wing officials consider Whitaker their "eyes and ears" in the Justice Department.

A few weeks later, the Washington Post  reported that Trump spoke to Whitaker about replacing Sessions as attorney general. "Even as Trump has fumed about Sessions, he has seemed to take a liking to the attorney general's chief of staff," the article said.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, May 17, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

GOP's McConnell signals surrender in health care crusade

11/09/18 10:05AM

Three weeks ago, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) raised a few eyebrows with some candid comments about his plans for the next session of Congress. Despite the Affordable Care Act's growing popularity, the Republican leader told Reuters that his party would likely try to repeal "Obamacare" if given the chance.

It would, McConnell added referring to the midterm elections, "depend on what happens in a couple weeks."

Exactly three weeks later, the Kentucky lawmaker looked at the election results and came to a very different conclusion about what's possible. The Washington Post reported:

For eight years, Republicans waged a war against Barack Obama's health-care law, holding dozens of repeal votes, filing lawsuits and branding it a dangerous government takeover.

On Wednesday, they effectively surrendered.

The day after crushing midterm election losses handed Democrats control of the House, GOP leaders signaled they had no appetite to make another go at shredding the signature accomplishment of Obama's presidency anytime soon.

McConnell specifically told reporters, "I think it's pretty obvious, the Democratic House is not going to be interested in that," referring to possible ACA repeal.

The Senate Republican leader added that lawmakers could tackle health care policy "on a bipartisan basis."

I know better than to expect such an outcome, but that's not crazy. Congress could, in theory, approve some fairly obvious and non-ideological fixes to the current system, which would help consumers, strengthen markets, and be politically popular.

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Trump's interest in the caravan 'invasion' has apparently waned

11/09/18 09:20AM

Ben Rhodes, a leading national security adviser in Barack Obama's White House, asked a good tongue-in-cheek question this morning: "Anyone seen any breathless television or front page updates on whether the Operation Formerly Known As Operation Faithful Patriot has repelled the invasion of the United States of America?"

For those unfamiliar with the "Operation Faithful Patriot" label, it was the name the Trump administration gave to Donald Trump's recently launched military mission at the U.S./Mexico border. The day after the midterm elections, however, military officials, without explanation, decided a name change was in order. A Pentagon spokesperson told NBC News that the operation will now simply be referred to as "border support."

The name-change is emblematic of a larger shift on what was a Republican obsession up until a few days ago. The Washington Post's Eugene Scott noted yesterday:

Before the midterm elections, President Trump crossed the nation warning those attending his rallies of the oncoming threat of about 7,000 Central American migrants who are traveling through Mexico to seek asylum in the United States.

While campaigning in Chattanooga, Tenn., for Republican Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn last Sunday, Trump suggested that the migrants were looking to come in and disrupt Americans' lives.

"That's an invasion. I don't care what they say. I don't care what the fake media says. That's an invasion of our country," he said before rally attendees began chanting "Build the wall."

The emphasis, however, seemed to shift just as soon as the voting stopped.

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A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)

Trump World didn't realize the acting AG would be seen as a 'crackpot'

11/09/18 08:41AM

It's not a sentence one ordinarily expects to see in one of the nation's largest and most important newspapers: "The acting attorney general of the United States is a crackpot." And yet, that was the first sentence in the latest column from Ruth Marcus, the Washington Post's deputy editorial page editor.

It's a provocative assessment rooted deeply in fact. Matt Whitaker, whom Trump appointed as the nation's chief law enforcement official this week, is a rather ridiculous choice. We are, after all, talking about a shamelessly partisan loyalist, with a strange, far-right worldview, and with close ties to a witness who's testified in an ongoing federal investigation.

Whitaker has bashed the federal courts. He's condemned an investigation he's now overseeing -- and won't recuse himself from, despite calls from 18 state attorneys general. He's already decided what the outcome of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe should be. He's perhaps best known for having advised suspected con artists.

Complicating matters, Matthew Whitaker is the first attorney general -- acting or permanent -- to ever hold the position without having been confirmed to the Justice Department by the Senate. Many experts have made a very credible case that the president's appointment of Whitaker is plainly illegal.

The bottom line is unavoidable: this "crackpot" has no business overseeing the Justice Department of a global superpower.

All of which raises the question of how the president chose Whitaker for the position in the first place.

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Florida Gov. Scott Visits Opening Of Advanced Pharma Facility- 09/25/13

It had to be Florida: Sunshine State election mess jolts landscape

11/09/18 08:00AM

As significant as Democratic gains were in the 2018 elections, Florida stood out as a bitter disappointment for the party. Despite late polling that showed Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Gillum (D) in the lead, as the returns came in on Tuesday night, it looked like both had come up short against far-right rivals.

Neither race was officially called, however, and as officials continued to work toward a final tally, Rick Scott's (R) and Ron DeSantis' (R) leads withered. By late yesterday, the margin in the gubernatorial race was down to just 0.4%, while the Republican advantage in the Senate was even smaller at 0.2%.

As officials continued to count vote-by-mail, provisional, and absentee ballots, hard-to-predict recounts beckoned. And just when it seemed the developments couldn't get messier, Rick Scott made sure that they did.

Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday evening filed suit and asked for an investigation into ongoing ballot counts that he accused of being a partisan attempt by "unethical liberals" to steal the state's Senate election.

Scott, who ran against incumbent Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson, alleged that the Broward County and Palm Beach County supervisors of elections were engaging in "rampant fraud."

The governor requested that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigate the new ballot counts, which have narrowed his Election Night-lead.

The controversial Republican lashed out publicly last night at "left-wing activists" and "unethical liberals," whom the governor/Senate hopeful insisted were trying to "steal" the election.

Much of the GOP ire has been directed at Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes -- a former school principal who was appointed to her position by Republican Jeb Bush.

At least so far, Scott and his allies haven't pointed to any evidence of actual "fraud," and it's not altogether clear what he's asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to do.

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