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Stumbling on trade with China, Trump turns to Jared Kushner (again)

12/05/19 10:18AM

Nearly two months ago, Donald Trump delivered a speech in which he touted his ability to do "great things." As proof, the president said, "Look at what we did yesterday with China."

The comments came about 24 hours after Trump told reporters, "So, we just made what, I guess, is one of the biggest deals that's been made in a long time, with China." The president went on to say, "[I]f you look at the deal, the deal is so incredible. The deal is a great deal."

In reality, there was no deal. Trump had already abandoned plans for a comprehensive trade agreement with Beijing, choosing instead to pursue a more modest "phase one" trade deal that he hoped would lead to additional progress. In October, the Republican bragged as if that initial "phase" was complete, but no such agreement was reached.

Indeed, Trump was forced to concede this week that the trade deal he said was finished in October may not come until after next year's U.S. elections.

It's against this backdrop that the American president is turning to a familiar figure to help with negotiations with Beijing. Reuters reported yesterday:

President Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner has added another role to his long list of White House duties - U.S.-China trade negotiator - as Washington and Beijing try to reach an initial agreement to avoid new U.S. tariffs on Dec. 15.

People familiar with the talks said Kushner ... has increased his direct involvement in the negotiations with China over the past two weeks.... A White House official confirmed Kushner's involvement, but declined to provide specific details on the influence he has had on the negotiations. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said Kushner has recently met with Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States.

This report comes just a week after Trump's young son-in-law also became the "de facto project manager" for constructing a border wall ahead of the president's re-election bid.

At the start of Trump's presidency, Kushner's comically expansive policy portfolio became a running joke. In time, as the White House team gradually expanded, the joke faded, though it's apparently made a startling comeback.

That said, the scope of the problem goes quite a bit further.

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Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., participates in a news conference.

When will Congress' newest criminal resign his seat?

12/05/19 09:24AM

When then-Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) agreed to plead guilty to charges relating to insider trading, he issued a letter of resignation the same day, and it took effect one day later. It seemed like an obvious thing to do: there's no requirement that forces convicted criminals to resign from Congress, but common sense suggests it's the appropriate next step.

Indeed, it's the pattern others have also followed. When then-Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) was convicted of corruption charges, he resigned two days later, in part because Democratic leaders told him he didn't have a choice. A year earlier, then-Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) stated publicly that he intended to keep his seat, even after pleading guilty to tax fraud, though he too soon realized that resignation was his only credible option.

All of which leads us to Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who's been caught up in an ugly corruption scandal, and who agreed this week to plead guilty to misusing campaign funds. As the California Republican awaits sentencing -- prison time is a distinct possibility -- his resignation is a foregone conclusion, right?

Not necessarily. Politico reported yesterday:

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) is showing no signs of stepping down from office despite his guilty plea Tuesday on a felony campaign finance charge in federal court.

When asked Wednesday about whether and when he intended to resign, Hunter blew off the question. "Good talk," Hunter told a POLITICO reporter.

The article added that both parties' leaders want to see Hunter step down, though he has not yet met with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) about his future.

And what happens if Hunter refuses to quit? There are a couple of angles to keep in mind.

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An electronic benefit card for Georgia's food stamp program sits on the counter of Shinholster Grocery & Meat in Irwinton, Ga., Nov. 21, 2013.

After cutting taxes for the wealthy, Team Trump targets food stamps

12/05/19 08:40AM

Donald Trump has exactly one major legislative accomplishment: he signed an unpopular and regressive package of tax cuts approved by congressional Republicans two years ago. Apparently eager to create a modern-day Dickensian story, the Trump administration is now taking the next step, making it more difficult for many Americans to access the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.

The USDA rule change affects people between the ages of 18 and 49 who are childless and not disabled. Under current rules, this group is required to work at least 20 hours a week for more than three months over a 36-month period to qualify for food stamps, but states have been able to create waivers for areas that face high unemployment.

The new rule would limit states from waiving those standards, instead restricting their use to those areas that have a 6 percent unemployment rate or higher.

An analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities fleshed this out further, noting that the "draconian rule" adversely affects "the poorest of the poor": Americans whose average income "is just 18 percent of the poverty line." Currently, their average monthly SNAP benefits total about $165 per month.

And now, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis added, the Republican administration is ending "basic food assistance for nearly 700,000 of the nation's poorest and most destitute people."

In case this weren't Dickensian enough, let's also note for context that the news is reaching the public just a few weeks before Christmas.

What's more, as New York's Sarah Jones explained, this isn't the only element of the Trump administration's plans to restrict low-income Americans' access to food assistance:

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Biden hits Trump where it hurts, labels him a global 'laughing stock'

12/05/19 08:00AM

At a Buckingham Palace reception on Tuesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson were recorded sharing a few candid thoughts as the latest NATO summit neared its conclusion. Not surprisingly, they appeared to have some concerns about Donald Trump.

The recorded rhetoric could've been far worse, though there was one obvious takeaway from the incident: the leaders of some of the United States' closest allies clearly don't have much respect for the current American president.

And as the Washington Post reported, that simple fact has become the basis for a striking new campaign ad.

Former vice president Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate, released a new campaign ad late Wednesday highlighting the NATO video in a blistering critique of Trump's ability to lead on the global stage. Biden's campaign also mocked Trump's repeated insistence that the U.S. requires a president who isn't a "laughing stock," ending the ad with a graphic that read, "We need a leader the world respects." By early Thursday, the roughly minute-long video had been watched more than 4 million times.

"The world is laughing at President Trump," Biden tweeted. "They see him for what he really is: dangerously incompetent and incapable of world leadership."

In the latter half of the ad, the Democratic candidate describes the president as "insincere, ill-informed, corrupt, dangerously incompetent, and incapable, in my view, of world leadership."

Biden added, "And if we give Donald Trump four more years, we'll have a great deal of difficulty of ever being able to recover America's standing in the world, and our capacity to bring nations together."

If you watch the clip, note that this week's exchange in London isn't the only featured example of Trump facing ridicule on the international stage. The Biden campaign's ad also shows the Republican being laughed at during remarks at the United Nations, among other embarrassing moments. (My personal favorite remains Trump's decision to push aside Montenegro Prime Minister Dusko Markovic at a 2017 NATO gathering in preparation for a group photo.)

Why is it that this ad has struck a chord so quickly? I think there are a few angles to keep in mind.

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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 12.4.19

12/04/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Quite a day: "Three prominent legal scholars testified Wednesday at the House Judiciary Committee that President Donald Trump committed impeachable offenses when he attempted to condition a White House visit by the Ukrainian president and aid to the country on the launching of political investigations."

* Adding to the list of Trump's foreign failures: "President Donald Trump barreled out of the NATO gathering here ever more the global outsider, passing up a high-profile presidential moment as impeachment bore down on him back home."

* In related news: "President Donald Trump blasted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as 'two-faced' on Wednesday after Trudeau was caught on an open mic with other world leaders discussing the NATO meeting in London and referencing Trump's lengthy press conferences."

* As part of that same story, let's also note that Trump was overheard saying earlier today, "That was funny when I said the guy's two-faced." (The president's definition of "funny" is odd.)

* One more NATO-related item, since the Trump/Erdogan relationship has become so controversial: "President Donald Trump on Wednesday morning participated in an unannounced meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, following months of scrutiny over the administration's posture toward Ankara and controversial shifts in Syria policy."

* A rare example of bipartisanship: "Robocalls have seemingly done the impossible: Unite a toxically divided Washington. A sweeping 417-3 House vote Wednesday left Congress on the verge of passing legislation aimed at knocking back the billions of unwanted automated phone calls that torment Americans each month, amid hopes the Senate can send the measure to President Donald Trump by Christmas."

* I think he's trying to kill irony: "Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee ... argued Democrats are crafting 'conspiracy theories' in an attempt to control the narrative on impeachment."

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GOP confirms fierce opponent of reproductive rights to federal bench

12/04/19 03:44PM

It's not just the quantity of Donald Trump's judicial nominees who've been confirmed by Senate Republicans; as regular readers know, it's also the quality that's striking.

Sarah Pitlyk, for example, received a "not qualified" rating from the American Bar Association, and the ABA's rationale is quite persuasive: "Ms. Pitlyk has never tried a case as lead or co-counsel, whether civil or criminal. She has never examined a witness. Though Ms. Pitlyk has argued one case in a court of appeals, she has not taken a deposition. She has not argued any motion in a state or federal trial court. She has never picked a jury. She has never participated at any stage of a criminal matter."

So why in the world did she get a judicial nomination from Donald Trump? It probably has something to do with Pitlyk being a Federalist Society member, a former Brett Kavanaugh clerk, and a fierce opponent of reproductive rights who's argued that fertility treatments and surrogacy have "grave" adverse effects on society. Jennifer Bendery explained this week:

In private practice and as special counsel at Thomas More Society, Pitlyk established a clear record of attacking reproductive rights. She defended anti-abortion activist David Daleiden, who broke federal and state laws by secretly recording and deceptively editing videos that falsely claimed to expose Planned Parenthood's illegal sale of fetal tissue. She defended Iowa's six-week abortion ban that was later struck down as unconstitutional. In another case, Pitlyk argued that it is "scientific fact" that "human life begins at the moment when a human sperm fertilizes a human egg." (It is not scientific fact.)

After losing that case, Pitlyk lamented that "the trial court's judgment treated the embryonic children as inanimate objects, not human beings with the same interests as other unborn children."

It's against this backdrop that the Trump White House chose Pitlyk for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. This afternoon, the 42-year-old conservative was confirmed by the Republican-led Senate on a 49-44 vote.

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Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York, speaks during a campaign event for Donald Trump, 2016 Republican presidential nominee, in Phoenix, Ariz., Aug. 31, 2016. (Photo by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty)

Despite scrutiny, Giuliani heads abroad to advance pro-Trump gambit

12/04/19 12:54PM

Common sense suggests Rudy Giuliani should probably take it easy for a while, and perhaps consider a lower profile. After all, Donald Trump's personal attorney is reportedly facing a possible criminal investigation, and as the presidential impeachment process moves forward, the former New York City mayor is at the center of a highly scandalous scheme.

But Giuliani isn't laying low at all. The New York Times reported today on his latest trip abroad and the extension of his misguided mission in eastern Europe.

Even as Democrats intensified their scrutiny this week of Rudolph W. Giuliani's role in the pressure campaign against the Ukrainian government that is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry, Mr. Giuliani has been in Europe continuing his efforts to shift the focus to purported wrongdoing by President Trump's political rivals.

Mr. Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, met in Budapest on Tuesday with a former Ukrainian prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, who has become a key figure in the impeachment inquiry. He then traveled to Kyiv on Wednesday seeking to meet with other former Ukrainian prosecutors whose claims have been embraced by Republicans, including Viktor Shokin and Kostiantyn H. Kulyk, according to people familiar with the effort.

To provide some context to this, note that Giuliani published a tweet this week, announcing that he'd begun work on "an important project" with the One America News Network (OANN), which is effectively a media outlet for those who see Fox News as a bit too moderate.

The Republican lawyer added that the project intends to "bring before the American people" information that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and his recent proceedings "covered up."

If this is starting to sound a little kooky, it gets much worse.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.4.19

12/04/19 12:00PM

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

* According to a report in the Topeka Capital-Journal, freshman Rep. Steve Watkins (R-Kan.) listed a UPS Store on his election documents and voter-registration form as his residential address. The article added that the Kansas Republican is facing allegations of "voter fraud under federal law and election perjury under state statute."

* Speaking of Kansas, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, despite being tarnished by the Ukraine scandal, has reportedly taken steps to line up financial support for a possible U.S. Senate campaign. The Republican's efforts have reportedly included outreach to Sheldon Adelson and Charles Koch, the latter of whom is a Kansan who's supported Pompeo's elections in the past.

* VoteVets, the nation's largest progressive group of veterans, announced its endorsement this morning for Pete Buttigieg's Democratic presidential campaign. The mayor is one of only two military veterans running in 2020.

* In Texas, state Rep. Rick Miller (R) lost his party's support after making controversial comments about his Asian-American primary rivals, and this morning, the Republican state lawmaker ended his re-election bid altogether.

* And speaking of the Lone Star State, a Beacon Research poll in Texas showed Sen. John Cornyn (R) with a narrow lead in a hypothetical match-up against former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D), 46% to 42%. The same poll, however, found the Republican incumbent with double-digit leads over the Democrats who are actually in the race.

* After Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) exited the presidential race yesterday, Donald Trump taunted her on Twitter. The Democratic senator responded soon after, "Don't worry, Mr. President. I'll see you at your trial."

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Republican gubernatorial candidate for Georgia Brian Kemp speaks as Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams looks on during a debate in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S, October 23, 2018. Picture taken on October 23, 2018.

Georgia's Kemp ignores Trump, appoints new Republican senator

12/04/19 11:20AM

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who is bringing his political career to a premature end for health reasons, delivered his farewell remarks yesterday, clearing the way for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) to announce his choice to fill the senator's vacancy until the next election.

As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, the first-year governor introduced his choice this morning, though there was some controversy surrounding the process.

Gov. Brian Kemp appointed financial executive Kelly Loeffler to the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, selecting the co-owner of Atlanta's WNBA franchise over a congressman that President Donald Trump repeatedly urged the Republican to pick. In remarks in Kemp's ceremonial office, Loeffler presented herself as a lifelong conservative who is "pro-Second Amendment, pro-military, pro-wall and pro-Trump" to counter criticism pitting her as a closet liberal.

"I make no apologies for my conservative values," she said, "and will proudly support President Trump's conservative judges."

At first blush, this may seem straightforward to the point of being boring: a conservative Republican senator resigned; a conservative Republican governor had the responsibility of choosing someone to fill the vacancy; and the conservative Republican governor appointed a conservative Republican senator. No muss, no fuss, right?

Wrong. In fact, this has proven to be an unexpectedly messy intra-party fight.

At the heart of the conflict, not surprisingly, is Donald Trump, who wanted Kemp to choose Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), a loyal White House ally, for the Senate seat. In fact, the president recently met with the governor and urged Kemp to follow his direction.

The governor resisted the presidential pressure, which only made matters worse.

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Devin Nunes faces new questions about previously unreported calls

12/04/19 10:23AM

For those who've followed the impeachment process closely, many of the elements in the House Intelligence Committee's report were familiar. We knew, for example, about Donald Trump's Ukraine extortion scheme, his efforts to secure foreign assistance for his re-election campaign, the degree to which the Republican undermined national security, and the president's efforts to obstruct the investigation.

There were, however, quite a few revelations that we did not know -- including, as the New York Times reported, new details about previously unreported phone calls.

The report ... indicated that Democrats have collected more raw evidence than previously known, including call records produced by AT&T and Verizon showing a series of phone calls between Mr. Trump's personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and his associates and several government officials.

The calls came as Mr. Giuliani was executing a smear campaign against the American ambassador to Ukraine at the time, Marie L. Yovanovitch, and pressing Ukraine to begin investigations that would benefit Mr. Trump. The records show calls between Mr. Giuliani and others, including Representative Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee.

As Rachel noted on the show last night, the Giuliani calls are rather extraordinary in their own right, especially the unexplained calls between the president's attorney and the White House Office of Management and Budget, which was in turmoil as Trump tried to exploit a vulnerable ally by withholding congressionally approved military aid.

But the role of Devin Nunes, the Intelligence Committee's ranking member, was every bit as surprising. The controversial California Republican's name appears in the 300-page report dozens of times, and not just because of his official role on the congressional panel.

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