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The wrong messenger: Trump targets those who 'speak badly' of the US

07/15/19 08:40AM

Several hours after his racist criticisms of four Democratic congresswomen sparked outrage, Donald Trump returned to the subject last night, insisting that the representatives are worthy of his contempt.

"So sad to see the Democrats sticking up for people who speak so badly of our Country.... Their disgusting language and the many terrible things they say about the United States must not be allowed to go unchallenged."

Note the use of the phrase "our country," as opposed to "their country" -- as if Trump can claim allegiance to the United States in ways his domestic critics cannot. It's an extension of the Republican's eagerness to define his opponents as The Other.

But that's hardly the only problem.

Stripped of context or relevant details, Trump's pushback might seem vaguely compelling to those who haven't paid much attention: it's hardly ridiculous to think an American president would defend his or her country against those who say "terrible things" about it.

Two fairly obvious problems quickly emerge, however. The first is the dubious premise: Trump is going after Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) for allegedly speaking "badly" of the United States, but there's no reason to accept the premise at face value.

These Democratic lawmakers have had plenty of criticisms for the Trump administration and its agenda, but that's not the same thing as criticizing the country itself.

The second is the disconnect between the message and the messenger. Indeed, if Trump wants to talk about American politicians who "speak badly" of the U.S., perhaps we should start the conversation with the president's criticisms of his own country.

Because if anyone lacks the patriotic high ground in this debate, it's Donald J. Trump.

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Democratic representative from New York Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during an event with Democratic members of Congress and national organization members to reintroduce the Paycheck Fairness Act, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., January 30, 2019.

Why it matters that Trump urged reps to 'go back' where they came from

07/15/19 08:00AM

About a month ago, House Democratic leaders brought a border bill to the floor for a vote, with the hopes that their members would rally behind it. For the most part, Dems backed the proposal and it passed with relative ease. There were, however, a handful of exceptions.

Four first-year progressives -- Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) -- balked at their party's bill, signaling a fissure between the left and the Democratic leadership.

Yesterday morning, "Fox & Friends" aired a segment on the four women lawmakers. Just minutes later, Donald Trump thought it'd be a good idea to share some thoughts on the subject.

"So interesting to see 'Progressive' Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.

"Why don't they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can't leave fast enough.

"I'm sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!"

For many years, "go back to where you came from" was the kind of ugly rhetoric one might expect to hear from the angry drunk at the end of the bar. Now the overt racism has been embraced by the sitting president of the United States.

Indeed, for Trump, it's performative racism. This president's cringe-worthy record on race is not new, but occasionally, the Republican chooses to flaunt it. Subtext becomes text. Dog whistles become bullhorns. His tolerance for subtleties sometimes disappears and his bigotry becomes plain and unapologetic.

From Trump's perspective, hateful and divisive rhetoric helped elevate him to the nation's office, so he sees value in sticking to the same script, confident in his ability to stoke racial divisions in order to hold onto power.

But as demoralizing as it was to see such a display from a sitting American president, it's important to emphasize that the moral rot of Trump's message runs deep.

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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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