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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 5.14.19

05/14/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Not too surprising: "A federal judge suggested Tuesday he is skeptical of President Donald Trump's efforts to block Congress from obtaining some of his financial records."

* Climate crisis: "In the latest bit of bad news for a planet beset by climate change, the concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere has climbed to a level last seen more than 3 million years ago -- before humans even appeared on the rocky ball we call home."

* Puerto Rico: "President Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed that his administration has given Puerto Rico $91 billion in relief funds after Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the island in 2017. But a new report maintains that the island has received only $12.6 billion."

* DHS: "In the weeks before they were ousted last month, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and top immigration enforcement official Ronald Vitiello challenged a secret White House plan to arrest thousands of parents and children in a blitz operation against migrants in 10 major U.S. cities."

* Trump isn't saving the coal industry: "The nation's third-largest coal company by production volume filed for bankruptcy Friday as utility companies increasingly turn to gas-fired generation and renewable energy for electricity."

* The right clearly overreached on this one: "Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) has said some controversial things. But despite what you hear her Republican critics say, one thing she hasn't publicly said is that the Holocaust is 'calming.'"

* Targeting good Samaritans: "As the Trump administration moves on multiple fronts to shut down illegal border crossings, it has also stepped up punitive measures targeting private citizens who provide compassionate help to migrants -- 'good Samaritan' aid that is often intended to save lives along a border that runs through hundreds of miles of remote terrain that can be brutally unforgiving."

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Does Trump genuinely believe his own trade war rhetoric?

05/14/19 04:48PM

Lately, Donald Trump has falsely claimed -- on a nearly daily basis -- that China is paying the United States massive amounts of money as a result of the White House's tariffs policy. In fact, the president repeated the boast during an event in the Oval Office yesterday.

"[W]e're taking in, right now, hundreds of billions of dollars. We're taking in billions of dollars of tariffs. And those tariffs are going to be tremendously -- if you look at what we've done thus far with China, we've never taken in 10 cents until I got elected. Now we're taking in billions and billions."

No, we're really not. As officials have no doubt tried to explain to the president, China is not paying us anything as a result of Trump's tariffs. The Republican keeps saying this, day after day, in tweet after tweet, but his claim continues to be plainly and demonstrably wrong.

On some level, Trump seems to realize his falsehood is at least controversial. At a White House event last week, he said "a lot of people" have tried to "steer" the debate "in a different direction" -- an apparent reference to those who've pointed out reality in ways he finds annoying. He quickly added, however that Americans aren't paying more as a result of his tariffs, which, of course, is wrong.

In fact, Larry Kudlow, the top voice on economic policy in Trump's White House, admitted over the weekend that the president's claims are at odds with reality. On Sunday, the National Economic Council directly made the concession in a diplomatic way, but while Trump insists his trade policies have fueled economic growth and brought in billions to the Treasury, Kudlow conceded that the opposite is true.

To be sure, Kudlow contradicted his boss carefully -- to avoid being fired, of course -- but he nevertheless acknowledged that the president's claims are false.

All of which leads to a relevant question with a murky answer: does Trump genuinely believe his own nonsense?

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Trump puts the FBI's Chris Wray in the hot seat

05/14/19 02:02PM

Last fall, NBC News reported that Donald Trump has been known to privately complain about his FBI chief, believing that Wray is "not protecting his interests." The president's concerns are suddenly a lot less private.

Donald Trump told reporters Tuesday he "didn't understand" FBI Director Christopher Wray's "ridiculous" answer that the FBI didn't spy when looking into then-candidate Trump's ties to Russia during the 2016 election.

"I didn't understand [Wray's] answer," Trump told reporters on the White House lawn. "I thought the attorney general answered it perfectly. So I certainly didn't understand that answer. I thought it was a ridiculous answer."

Circling back to our previous coverage, the story began in earnest about a month ago when Attorney General Bill Barr told a Senate committee "spying did occur" by the government on Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. Barr added, "I think spying on a political campaign – it's a big deal, it's a big deal."

Despite the dubious and needlessly provocative nature of the attorney general's comments – which he's refused to retract – Republicans seized on Barr's assessment, with the president's re-election campaign even using his "spying" talk as the basis for political fundraising.

The FBI's Chris Wray, however, took a more responsible stand during congressional testimony last week, making clear he was uncomfortable with the attorney general's rhetoric.

For his trouble, the bureau's director quickly found himself in the president's crosshairs: Trump tweeted over the weekend that the FBI "has no leadership," which was a rather pointed shot given that Trump was the one who handpicked Wray for the job. This morning, the president took another swing, despite the fact that there was nothing "ridiculous" about Wray's testimony.

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The problem with Trump's latest pitch for a moon mission

05/14/19 12:52PM

Donald Trump's latest White House budget, unveiled two months ago, urged Congress to strip the Special Olympics of all of its federal funding and nearly all of the money going toward the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Both of those efforts soon after became controversial, and lawmakers were prepared to ignore the recommendations.

Nevertheless, the president, eager to once again claim credit for cleaning up a mess he made, boasted on Twitter yesterday that he's "officially updated" his budget blueprint to reflect his newfound support for the programs that he tried to gut in March.

But it was Trump's other budget move that struck me as even more notable.

The White House is asking Congress for an additional $1.6 billion for NASA's budget next year as the space agency attempts to return humans to the moon by 2024.

The announcement comes about six weeks after Vice President Pence called for an accelerated program to return humans to the lunar surface for the first time since the last Apollo lunar landing in 1972. But since the White House issued that bold mandate, NASA has released few details about how it would achieve it or what the program would cost.

The president wrote -- again via Twitter -- that he's updating the White House budget "to include an additional $1.6 billion so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY!"

Trump wants the $1.6 billion to come from surplus funds in the Pell Grant program, which is used to help low-income students pay college tuition. The Office of Management and Budget claimed the shift would not cut student aid.

All of this is a point of continuing interest because the president seems determined to send Americans to the surface of the moon while he's in office, though he doesn't necessarily know why. Or how. Or at what cost.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.14.19

05/14/19 12:00PM

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

* Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) launched his presidential bid this morning, becoming the 22nd Democrat in the party's presidential field. He can, however, make a boast his rivals can't: Bullock is the only candidate who's won statewide races in a red state. (Donald Trump won Montana by 20 points -- on the same day the state's Democratic governor won re-election.)

* On a related note, this morning's news means the Democratic presidential field now includes Biden, Bernie, Booker, Buttigieg, Beto, Bennet, and Bullock.

* Speaking of Montana, Bullock apparently doesn't want to run against Sen. Steve Daines (R) in Big Sky Country next year, but Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins (D), two years into his term, kicked off his Senate campaign yesterday.

* Today is Election Day in North Carolina's 9th congressional district, where Republicans will choose a rival for Dan McCready (D) in the district's do-over race. State Sen. Dan Bishop (R), the principal author of North Carolina's so-called "bathroom bill," is generally seen as the top GOP contender.

* Presidential hopeful Julian Castro unveiled an ambitious education plan yesterday, featuring, among other elements, a universal pre-K proposal.

* Last fall, Rep Will Hurd (R-Texas) narrowly defeated Gina Ortiz Jones (D) in one of the nation's closest congressional contests. This morning, Ortiz Jones delighted the DCCC by announcing a rematch.

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APTOPIX Mideast Iran Election

Trump's posture toward Iran takes an alarming, bellicose turn

05/14/19 11:01AM

The year before Barack Obama's presidential re-election campaign, Donald Trump turned to Twitter with a prediction: "In order to get elected," the Republican television personality wrote, Obama "will start a war with Iran."

We now know, of course, that the Democratic president won a second term without an armed confrontation with Iran. In fact, the opposite proved true: Obama helped secure a historic international nuclear agreement with Iran, marking one of the most impressive diplomatic achievements in a generation.

Eight years later after Trump's failed prediction, he's now in the White House preparing for his own re-election bid. I thought of the Republican's 2011 tweet while reading this report from the New York Times overnight:

At a meeting of President Trump's top national security aides last Thursday, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented an updated military plan that envisions sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons, administration officials said.

The revisions were ordered by hard-liners led by John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump's national security adviser. They do not call for a land invasion of Iran, which would require vastly more troops, officials said.

Colin Kahl, an Obama administration veteran, wrote in response, "I oversaw Iran policy and planning at the Pentagon from 2009-2011, at the height of concerns over Iran's nuclear progress, and no plausible contingency except invasion and regime change would require sending 120,000 US forces to the Middle East."

All of this comes against a backdrop in which a reporter asked Donald Trump yesterday about the prospect of war with Iran. The president could've hedged -- or better yet, lowered the temperature -- but he seemed more eager to thump his chest a bit. "We'll see what happens with Iran. If they do anything, it would be a very bad mistake," the Republican said. "If they do anything. I'm hearing little stories about Iran. If they do anything, they will suffer greatly. We'll see what happens with Iran."

Around the same time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo showed up at a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels -- an event to which Pompeo was not invited -- where he reportedly pushed an anti-Iran line.

A Washington Post report added that Trump's chief diplomat "failed to bend attitudes among leaders who fear that the United States and Iran are inching toward war."

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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.

Satisfying Trump, AG Barr investigates the investigation

05/14/19 10:19AM

It wasn't long after the release of the Mueller report that the Republican message featured an important contradiction. Donald Trump, for example, declared that there should be "no more costly and time-consuming investigations," a message echoed by other Republicans who've insisted that Congress should "legislate not investigate."

At the same time, however, the president and his allies have also demanded an aggressive probe into the origins -- or as Trump calls it, the "oranges" -- into how the probe into the Russia scandal began in the first place. It created an awkward political dynamic: Republicans want an end to investigations -- except for the investigation into the investigators.

Attorney General Bill Barr appears to care far more about the latter position than the former. Indeed, the New York Times reported that Barr has assigned a federal prosecutor to "examine the origins of the Russia investigation."

John H. Durham, the United States attorney in Connecticut, has a history of serving as a special prosecutor investigating potential wrongdoing among national security officials, including the F.B.I.'s ties to a crime boss in Boston and accusations of C.I.A. abuses of detainees.

His inquiry is the third known investigation focused on the opening of an F.B.I. counterintelligence investigation during the 2016 presidential campaign into possible ties between Russia's election interference and Trump associates.

The president's attorneys are delighted, but the rest of us probably shouldn't be. As Rachel noted at the end of last night's show, we still don't know what happened to the counter-intelligence investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, but the attorney general is nevertheless moving forward with another examination of the probe itself.

If the Times' report is correct, it suggests John Durham's probe will run concurrently with the Senate Judiciary Committee's investigation into the investigation, the John Huber investigation initiated by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and the probe launched by the inspector general of the Justice Department.

It's against this backdrop that Barr effectively said, "Let's launch another one."

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Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., heads to the Senate subway following a vote in the Capitol on Jan. 8, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

As farmers struggle, Cotton offers odd defense of Trump's trade agenda

05/14/19 09:19AM

It's no secret that most congressional Republicans are uncomfortable with Donald Trump's trade agenda, and are especially concerned about the adverse effects it's having on American farmers, but they don't appear eager to do anything about it.

As Politico noted in a new article, GOP senators are lamenting the state of affairs, "but after trying, unsuccessfully, to get the president to remove his year-old tariffs on U.S. allies, there’s little appetite for opening a new front with Trump when it comes to China."

It's a discouraging policy dynamic. More than a few Senate Republicans seem to realize the White House's gambit is hurting their own constituents. But because the president is a member of their party, and the GOP base stands with Trump, these lawmakers are prepared to remain on the sidelines, doing nothing.

Well, maybe not nothing. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), for example, yesterday found a new way to downplay the difficulties facing domestic farmers. TPM reported:

"There will be some sacrifices on the part of Americans, I grant you that, but I also would say that sacrifice is pretty minimal compared to the sacrifices that our soldiers make overseas that are fallen heroes that are laid to rest in Arlington make," he told "CBS This Morning" as Gayle King pushed back, saying "you can't compare those two sacrifices."

"When I'm at home in Arkansas, I hear from farmers who are worried about opening up new markets and getting their products to market, but they also understand that China is a serious competitor to the United States and wants to displace us around the world," he said. "And they look at the sacrifices that soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines make around the world and they're willing to bear some of the sacrifices in the short term, to hopefully in the long term to ensure our long-term prosperity and security."

I suppose there's an element of literal truth to the far-right senator's argument: it is, in fact, better to be a farmer with a failing business than it is to be a soldier who's died in the line of duty.

But I'm not sure Cotton has fully thought this one through. Is the Arkansas Republican really prepared to tell a struggling family, "Sure, your farm may be failing as a result of Trump's trade agenda, but your sacrifice is pretty minimal compared to Americans who've died on the battlefield"?

Wouldn't it be easier to simply encourage the administration to pursue a different course?

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Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) speaks at the Growth and Opportunity Party, at the Iowa State Fair Oct. 31, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Steve Pope/Getty)

Graham has advice for Trump Jr on undercutting congressional probe

05/14/19 08:40AM

The Senate Intelligence Committee jolted the political world a bit last week, issuing a subpoena to Donald Trump Jr. It was not only the first known congressional subpoena of a member of the president's immediate family, it was also a subpoena issued by a Republican-led panel.

The Associated Press reports that Senate Intelligence Committee Richard Burr (R-N.C.) had tried to work with Trump Jr. about two previously scheduled interviews, but after the president's adult son backed out of both sessions, the committee wasn't left with much of a choice.

Not surprisingly, Trump Jr. doesn't seem eager to cooperate. What is surprising, however, is some of the advice he's received.

"You just show up and plead the Fifth and it's over with," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters Monday, adding that Trump Jr.'s lawyer would "have to be an idiot" to let him testify again.

"This whole thing is nuts," Graham continued. "To me, it's over."

Graham also told Fox News that he believes the president's son should simply ignore the subpoena.

So to recap, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee has offered public guidance to a witness -- who may have offered false congressional testimony -- about how to undermine an ongoing congressional investigation being overseen by a member of his own party.

Or put another way, Lindsey Graham -- who presumably has some loyalties to the institution in which he serves -- is advising the president's son to defy a lawful order issued by a Republican-led Senate panel.

The South Carolina senator, up for re-election next year, justifies this posture by saying the broader investigation is "over" -- a contention Democrats on the Judiciary Committee debunked just last week.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump

Trump says he'll reject foreign campaign dirt (but there's a catch)

05/14/19 08:00AM

In recent weeks, Democratic leaders and officials have made clear that they will not use materials hacked or stolen by foreign entities in the 2020 elections. The goal, of course, is to discourage the kind of intelligence operations Russia launched against the United States in 2016.

As part of the same Democratic announcement, the party has challenged Republicans to make the same commitment, but those appeals have generally been met with awkward silence. This seemed to open the door to additional foreign intervention in our electoral process.

Yesterday, however, Donald Trump sent a slightly different signal.

President Donald Trump said Monday that he would agree not to use any information hacked or stolen by foreign adversaries in his 2020 re-election campaign.

"I would certainly agree to that," Trump told reporters during an event with the Hungarian prime minister at the White House, when asked if he would make that commitment. "I don't need it. All I need is the opponents that I'm looking at. I'm liking what I see."

So far, so good. The Republican said he's prepared to forswear campaign dirt stolen by foreign entities for the simple reason that Trump believes -- or at least says he believes -- that he can win in 2020 without the assistance of his benefactors abroad.

But as part of the same Oval Office exchange, the president added, "Well, I never did use [information stolen from a foreign adversary], as you probably know. That's what the Mueller report was all about. They said, 'No collusion.'"

And the problems with this part of Trump's position clearly overshadowed the more encouraging aspects of yesterday's answer.

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