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Friday's Mini-Report, 7.12.19

07/12/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* NDAA: "The House on Friday voted for a measure that would block President Donald Trump from initiating military action against Iran without congressional approval. Lawmakers adopted the amendment from Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., in a 251-170 vote with more than two dozen Republicans in support."

* The final vote on this was 402 to 12: "The House on Friday overwhelmingly approved a bill ensuring that a victims compensation fund for the Sept. 11 attacks never runs out of money."

* This story probably won't get a lot of attention today, but it's one of the most important stories in the world: "Turkey took its first shipment of an advanced Russian missile defense system Friday, ignoring repeated warnings from Washington and fueling concerns about where the country's loyalties lie between the West and Moscow."

* Mueller: "Testimony by former special counsel Robert Mueller may be delayed one week as a longer Capitol Hill appearance is negotiated, sources said Friday."

* What a weird series of events: "Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has decided to just do it: Change his mind and welcome Nike with open arms."

* A story to keep an eye on: "An ethics complaint has been filed against Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, over what may be nearly 20 impermissible reimbursements made over the years from his campaign account to some of his House staffers for expenditures they made. At issue isn't what the few thousand dollars in reimbursements bought: food, office supplies and other legitimate campaign-related expenditures."

* My favorite headline of the week: "A Trump tweet complimenting his own tweets is on display at the White House social media summit."

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump departs the White House

Trump tends to assume his critics are on someone's payroll

07/12/19 04:36PM

Asked about former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) this morning, Donald Trump launched into a rather long tirade, which culminated in a curious claim:

"[F]or him to be going out and opening his mouth is pretty incredible. But maybe he gets paid for that. Who knows? Maybe he gets paid for that."

Even for this president, this was strange. Ryan spoke to Tim Alberta for the reporter's new book, "American Carnage." The idea that the former House Speaker was perhaps bribed by a journalist to say unflattering things about Trump is absurd.

But the claim is nevertheless familiar because the president makes it fairly regularly. Almost immediately after taking office, for example, Trump was confronted with progressive protests, causing the Republican to lash out at those he condemned as "paid protesters."

Because in his mind, if people didn't like him, it couldn't have been the result of genuine disgust.

In October 2018, as Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination sparked protests, Trump again argued that progressive activists were part of a corrupt ruse. "[L]ook at all of the professionally made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others," the president wrote on Twitter. "These are not signs made in the basement from love!"

In March 2019, after Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney and fixer, testified to Congress about his former boss, the president suggested Cohen was "being paid" by Hillary Clinton.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump departs the White House

Why Team Pence balked at a White House choice for the judiciary

07/12/19 12:40PM

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

But once in a great while, a wrench ends up in the machine.

In a small handful of instances, for example, some GOP senators have balked at Trump nominees -- in one recent case, because Republicans were concerned the jurist wasn't far enough to the right.

Politico reports today, however, on an entirely different dynamic, which would've been tough to predict: Vice President Mike Pence and his team derailed one of the White House's own selections.

The backstory seemed pretty straightforward: the White House carefully nudged aside Judge Michael Kanne, an older conservative on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, telling him that one of his former clerks, Indiana Solicitor General Tom Fisher, would replace him. The judge agreed, took senior status, and created a vacancy for Donald Trump to fill.

Everything went according to plan, right up until Pence's office balked and scuttled Fisher's nomination.

As solicitor general of Indiana, Fisher had defended Gov. Mike Pence's policies in court, and aides to the now-vice president feared his nomination would dredge up events and information politically damaging to Pence.

In a series of tense conversations with the White House counsel's office, Pence's lawyers, Matt Morgan and Mark Paoletta, and his then chief of staff, Nick Ayers, objected to Fisher's nomination, which died before it ever became a reality. Pence himself was kept apprised of the conversations.

As best as I can tell, this was the first time the vice president's office thwarted a Trump judicial nominee.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.12.19

07/12/19 12:00PM

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

* As Rachel noted at the top of last night's show, the first national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of the 2020 cycle is out, and former Vice President Joe Biden (D) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) lead the field with 26% to 19%, respectively. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are tied for third with 13% each, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg rounds out the top tier with 7% support.

* Harris yesterday unveiled a plan to end a national rape-kit backlog with new financial assistance to states, which would be required to improve their testing procedures.

* Warren yesterday unveiled her immigration-reform plan, which includes, among other things, the creation of an "Office of New Americans" that would help facilitate integration, including English lessons.

* Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) today unveiled her plan for senior citizens. I believe she's the first of the 2020 Democrats to do so.

* In South Carolina, home to an early primary contest, Fox News' new poll found Biden leading Sanders, 35% to 14%. Harris is a close third with 12%, and Warren was the only other candidate to reach 5%.

* While many Republicans would be delighted if Jeff Sessions (R) ran in 2020 to reclaim his old Senate seat, Donald Trump, harboring ill will toward his former attorney general, has signaled his opposition to the idea.

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Billionaire Tom Steyer discusses climate change at a symposium in Sacramento, Calif., Aug. 20, 2015. (Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Term limits are a bad idea when Democrats push for them, too

07/12/19 11:20AM

Progressive billionaire Tom Steyer is the latest candidate to enter the Democratic presidential primary, and yesterday, he unveiled a political-reform plan with some worthwhile ideas, including independent redistricting commissions and allowing more Americans to vote by mail.

But Steyer's blueprint also included this:

"There's a widespread perception that the longer an elected official serves in Congress, the less connected they are to their constituents -- and the more beholden they become to corporate interests and lobbyists. We propose a term limit of 12 total years that would allow our elected officials in both the House and Senate to focus less on getting re-elected and more on doing what's right."

He's not the only Democratic candidate endorsing term limits. Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) unveiled a related plan last month, which called for a constitutional amendment that would impose 12-year limits on members of Congress.

This happens to be the same idea Donald Trump touted in the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign -- reversing his previous position -- arguing that term limits would help undermine "special-interest dealing" on Capitol Hill.

Trump was wrong at the time, just as Steyer and O'Rourke are now.

I imagine most term-limit proponents mean well, but whether they appreciate the details or not, forcing experienced policymakers out of office, even if their constituents want to re-elect them, has an unintended consequence: inexperienced officials inevitably find themselves more dependent on outside groups and lobbyists, who are only too pleased to lend their expertise developed over the course of decades.

In other words, the policy intended to weaken "special-interest dealing" has the opposite effect in practice.

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U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hugs a U.S. flag as he takes the stage for a campaign town hall meeting in Derry, N.H., Aug. 19, 2015. (Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Trump tries (and fails) to define 'free speech'

07/12/19 10:52AM

There was a degree of irony to the circumstances. Donald Trump hosted a White House event yesterday for a group of right-wing media gadflies, and while the intended purpose was to whine about a social-media conspiracy theory, the stated purpose was to celebrate the free-speech rights of online, far-right reactionaries.

The problem -- well, one of the problems -- is that the Republican likes to talk about the constitutional principle without knowing what it means.

The president gave them a unique definition of the Constitution's First Amendment free speech protections. "To me free speech is not when you see something good and then you purposefully write bad. To me that's very dangerous speech and you become angry at it. But that's not free speech."

Actually, that is free speech. The only thing "dangerous" here is an amateur president with authoritarian instincts trying to define free-speech rights in a way that's wholly at odds with his own country's civil liberties.

Indeed, I'd love to hear Trump elaborate on his perspective. He believes those who "see something good" shouldn't "purposefully write bad." Is it safe to assume he's referring to his own presidency as the "good" thing about which critics shouldn't publish "bad" commentary?

Is this what the Republican refuses to consider "free speech"?

Jon Chait added yesterday, "Trump's invocation of 'free speech' is consistent: His entire goal is to promote supportive views and suppress hostile ones. And the willingness of virtually the entire conservative movement to support or tolerate his cynical conscription of free speech to intimidate the media reveals how little it, too, cares about freedom."

Complicating matters, this wasn't the only recent example of Trump needing a First Amendment refresher course.

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R. Alexander Acosta

Labor Secretary Alex Acosta resigns under a cloud of scandal

07/12/19 10:07AM

The Jeffrey Epstein scandal raised incredibly difficult questions for Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, who oversaw the case several years ago as a federal prosecutor. The cabinet secretary tried to answer those questions with a press conference on Wednesday, and it was clear that the attempt at damage control was his way of trying to save his job.

It didn't work.

Embattled Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta is resigning, President Donald Trump said Friday.

Acosta had faced mounting criticism in recent days for his role years ago in cutting a deal for sex offender Jeffrey Epstein more than a decade ago that critics have called too lenient.

The president reportedly accepted Acosta's resignation, not because the cabinet secretary approved a sweetheart deal for a suspected sexual predator who targeted children, but because Acosta believed he'd "become a distraction" in the wake of the Epstein controversy.

Given the circumstances, the question among Acosta's many critics wasn't whether he should resign, but why in the world the Labor secretary was able to remain at his post for so long.

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Image: U.S. President Trump listens to  Speaker Ryan as he gathers with Republican House members after healthcare bill vote at the White House in Washington

Ryan on Trump: 'He didn't know anything about government'

07/12/19 09:20AM

Shortly before Election Day 2016, when then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) tried to put some distance between his conference and his party's presidential nominee, Donald Trump lashed out at the congressman, calling him, among other things, "very weak and ineffective."

Two years later, as Ryan left Capitol Hill, the president was more gracious, lauding the Wisconsin Republican's "legacy of achievement that nobody can question."

Last night, Trump switched back, publishing a series of furious tweets attacking Ryan as a "poor leader" and a "failure."

There's no great mystery as to why. The former House Speaker shared some candid comments with Politico's Tim Alberta for his new book, "American Carnage," and according to excerpts and reviews, Ryan's take on Trump isn't at all flattering.

And at a certain level, I don't much care. Their feud, for lack of a better word, is dramatic grist for the mill, but it doesn't amount to much. Ryan spent years enabling a president he knew was unfit for office, so it's of limited interest to see Trump and the former congressman trading rhetorical shots now.

That said, I am interested in one of the things the former House Speaker told Alberta about Trump.

Ryan depicts Trump as uneducated about the government.

"I told myself I gotta have a relationship with this guy to help him get his mind right," Ryan recalls. "Because, I'm telling you, he didn't know anything about government.... I wanted to scold him all the time."

This is very easy to believe. It's also worth appreciating how striking the observation is.

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Image: Trump speaks during an event in the East Room of the White House

Is Trump prepared to act on his social-media conspiracy theories?

07/12/19 08:40AM

It's a difficult dynamic to wrap one's head around. Yesterday afternoon, the sitting American president -- ostensibly the "leader of the free world" and the chief executive of the world's preeminent superpower -- hosted an official White House event with a group of right-wing media gadflies. The purpose of the gathering was to whine for hours about a perceived conspiracy that, they believe, prevents their social-media content from becoming even more popular.

It was the sort of event that suggested Donald Trump is leading the United States toward something new, and the new destination is far from "great."

As the Washington Post put it in an analysis yesterday morning, "Trump's inviting some buds over to complain about how Twitter is mean to them."

If Twitter really were mean to them, such a White House event would still be a rather pitiful display. But the fact that there is no actual conspiracy made yesterday's so-called "summit" that much more ridiculous.

President Trump assailed Facebook, Google and Twitter on Thursday -- accusing them of exhibiting "terrible bias" and silencing his supporters -- at a White House "Social Media Summit" that critics chastised for giving a prominent stage to some of the Internet's most controversial, incendiary voices.

For Trump, the conference represented his highest-profile broadside against Silicon Valley after months of accusations that tech giants censor conservative users and websites. With it, the president also rallied his widely followed online allies -- whom he described as "journalists and influencers" and who together can reach roughly half a billion people -- entering the 2020 presidential election.

"Some of you are extraordinary. The crap you think of is unbelievable," Trump said.

Oddly enough, there was a degree of truth to that. The "crap" the president's right-wing media supporters come up with is, in a literal sense, unbelievable.

To a meaningful degree, it's not terribly important that Trump is confused. Sure, it's annoying to see a president whine incessantly about a conspiracy that exists only in Republicans' minds, but Trump engages in pointless whining about a great many things, and it's become the background noise of our political lives.

What's more important is the president's eagerness to act on his absurd conspiracy theories.

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Image: Donald Trump, William Barr, Wilbur Ross

Why Trump's census surrender is such a 'humiliating defeat'

07/12/19 08:00AM

During yesterday's White House event in the Rose Garden, Attorney General Bill Barr began his brief remarks by congratulating Donald Trump on his new executive order on the census. It was an odd thing to hear: presidents aren't usually congratulated after retreating in the face of failure.

President Donald Trump announced Thursday that he is backing off his effort to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census and is instead issuing an executive order directing departments and agencies to better share data related to the number of citizens and noncitizens in the country.

Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, who argued the U.S. Supreme Court case in this fight, said in a statement late yesterday, "Trump's attempt to weaponize the census ends not with a bang but a whimper.... Trump may claim victory today, but this is nothing short of a total, humiliating defeat for him and his administration."

That assessment is plainly true. Team Trump spent months trying to rig the 2020 census in such a way as to undermine Latino communities, and in the process, administration officials -- including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross -- were caught lying about the purpose of the scheme.

Their rampant incompetence contributed to Trump's legal defeat, though the president went out of his way to make matters considerably worse. After losing at the high court, the administration surrendered, only to un-surrender soon after when Trump reacted badly to unfavorable press coverage of his defeat.

The White House spent several days scrambling, raising the prospect of the president possibly defying a Supreme Court ruling, only to have Trump surrender again yesterday afternoon.

The Republican specifically declared yesterday afternoon that he and his team were "not backing down," which was amusing, because the president was obviously backing down.

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