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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 9.4.19

09/04/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The latest on the storm: "Hurricane Dorian beat a steady path north on Wednesday, as residents of coastal South Carolina braced for the region's worst flooding in 30 years, authorities and forecasters said."

* The ongoing Brexit fiasco: "British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has had two epically bad days. Parliament on Wednesday voted to block fresh elections, after voting to stop the country from leaving the European Union without an agreement -- two heavy blows to Johnson's plans to exit the 28-nation bloc by Oct. 31, 'do or die.'"

* The people spoke; the people won: "A controversial extradition bill that sparked months of protests in Hong Kong will be fully withdrawn, the territory's chief executive announced on Wednesday, submitting to one of the demonstrators' core demands."

* Greg Craig's acquittal: "A prominent Washington lawyer was found not guilty Wednesday of lying to the Justice Department about work he did for the government of Ukraine in a case that arose from the special counsel's Russia investigation and focus on the lucrative world of foreign lobbying."

* The swamp is not being drained: "Last summer, Scott Pruitt left his job heading the Environmental Protection Agency and within a few months had started consulting for coal magnate Joseph W. Craft III. Three weeks after leaving the Interior Department, energy counselor Vincent DeVito joined Cox Oil Offshore, which operates in the Gulf of Mexico, as its executive vice president and general counsel. Now, Joe Balash -- who oversaw oil and gas drilling on federal lands before resigning from Interior on Friday -- is joining a foreign oil company that's expanding operations on Alaska's North Slope."

* An unnecessary tragedy: "Children separated during the Trump administration's "zero tolerance policy" last year, many already distressed in their home countries or by their journey, showed more fear, feelings of abandonment and post-traumatic stress symptoms than children who were not separated, according to a report Wednesday from the inspector general's office in the Department of Health and Human Services."

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President Donald Trump holds a chart as he talks with reporters after receiving a briefing on Hurricane Dorian in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019, in Washington.

On Hurricane Dorian, Trump gave reality a little touch-up

09/04/19 04:28PM

Over the weekend, Donald Trump published a tweet that included Alabama among the states "most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated" by Hurricane Dorian. Twenty minutes later, the National Weather Service, while not referencing the president specifically, published a tweet of its own, telling the public, "Alabama will NOT see any impacts from Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east."

When news organizations noted the president's error, the Republican was outraged, but the story soon faded -- which made sense, given that there was a deadly storm approaching, and Trump's focus was supposed to be on preparing for a disaster, not petty concerns over his personal pride.

And yet, the president can't let things go, even when it's in his interest to do so.

After days of claiming without evidence that Alabama was projected to be hit by Hurricane Dorian, President Donald Trump displayed an apparently doctored map in the Oval Office on Wednesday that showed Alabama to be within the storm's path.

The map Trump displayed was the same as a model produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week showing the hurricane's projected path cutting through central Florida-- with one key difference. Where the original projection ended, a smaller, black circle that appeared to be drawn in sharpie was produced to include Alabama in the model.

It's probably fair to say much of the country has grown accustomed to a certain degree of absurdity surrounding Trump's presidency, but once in a while, the Republican pushes the envelope in ways that raise concerns about his stability. Today was one of those days.

The Oval Office briefing started innocently enough, with Trump alerting reporters to the fact that he and his team wanted to give an update on storm preparations. But Trump then insisted on holding up a map from last week showing a trajectory of Hurricane Dorian that's no longer accurate.

Right off the bat, this seemed unwise. Anyone watching the president during the briefing would see the image and receive outdated information. But Trump apparently wanted to show everyone an old image, not to serve any public interest, but because he's still concerned about the pushback he received from his wrong tweet several days ago.

Indeed, the president didn't just hold up an outdated image; he showed everyone an old map that featured a drawn-in bulge. Why was that there? Because in this crudely manipulated image, Alabama was at risk.

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The U.S.-Mexico border fence stands on Dec. 8, 2015 near McAllen, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty)

Trump takes $3.6 billion from Pentagon to pay for border barriers

09/04/19 12:52PM

The Washington Post reported last week that Donald Trump is so desperate to expand border barriers ahead of his 2020 campaign that he's directed aides to "aggressively seize private land and disregard environmental rules." Those who were caught running afoul of the law, the president added, would also be rewarded with presidential pardons.

Confronted with questions about contracting procedures and the proper use of eminent domain, the Republican reportedly replied that he expected administration officials to simply "take the land."

The White House later seemed to confirm the crux of the story, though presidential aides said Trump was joking about the pardons. It wasn't much of a defense.

But the desperation campaign continues, and it now includes the administration diverting $3.6 billion away from the Pentagon to pay for border barriers.

The move, which was authorized by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, will impact 127 different construction projects, Department of Defense officials told reporters.

Officials said that half of the money -- $1.8 billion -- would come from planned international projects and the other half, if needed, would come from domestic projects.

So much for Mexico paying for the project.

The $3.6 billion will reportedly build about 175 miles' worth of border barriers, some of which will be new, some of which will replace older existing barriers.

There's some question as to which specific military construction projects are going to lose their funding, and Pentagon officials are reportedly going to brief lawmakers this week whose districts will be adversely affected.

It's a tough dynamic to defend. Even putting aside the president's ridiculous rhetoric about Mexican financing, the Trump administration originally said the Defense Department needed those funds. The White House is nevertheless redirecting the money, without congressional approval, to pay for fencing that won't make much of a difference.

Those funds were set to boost local economies. Now they're being redirected to satisfy Trump's political agenda.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.4.19

09/04/19 12:00PM

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

* Rep Bill Flores (R-Texas) announced this morning that he'll retire at the end of this Congress, becoming the fifth Texas Republican to step down this election cycle. Flores represents the 17th district, which is a heavily "red" area, and GOP leaders expect to keep the seat in party hands.

* Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) recently exited the 2020 presidential race, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) yesterday announced that she's incorporating much of the governor's climate plan into her own platform.

* On a related note, ahead of a CNN event on global warming, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) this morning released an ambitious new climate plan, while former HUD Secretary Julian Castro (D) unveiled new details of his climate plan yesterday.

* In Colorado, former state Sen. Mike Johnston (D) ended his U.S. Senate campaign yesterday, saying he was reluctant to go up against former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) in a primary. Johnston was seen as a top Senate contender, raising $3.4 million for his race -- a total that actually topped the $3.1 million Hickenlooper raised for his national campaign.

* Speaking of fundraising, former Vice President Joe Biden's (D) 2020 campaign had welcomed contributions from lobbyists, but the Democrat's team said yesterday it would return the donations.

* The Biden campaign also yesterday said it does not consider the Iowa caucuses a must-win contest, raising questions as to why the current Democratic frontrunner is trying to lower expectations.

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A poll worker prepares 'I Voted' stickers at Harrison United Methodist Church during the U.S. presidential election in Pineville, North Carolina November 6, 2012. (PHoto by Chris Keane/Reuters)

Why the demise of North Carolina's gerrymandered map is so important

09/04/19 11:20AM

North Carolina's state legislative map, heavily and carefully gerrymandered to protect the Republican majority, was rejected yesterday by a three-judge panel. It's a big win for advocates of voting rights, which will likely have an effect that extends beyond the Tar Heel State.

Lawmakers' partisan intent in drawing the maps, the "surgical precision" with which they were executed, and the distinct advantage the maps gave to Republicans violated the state's constitutional protections of free elections, free speech and assembly, and equal protection under the law, the judges wrote in a 357-page ruling that reads as a stinging condemnation of partisan gerrymandering.

"The 2017 Enacted Maps, as drawn, do not permit voters to freely choose their representative, but rather representatives are choosing voters based upon sophisticated partisan sorting," the judges wrote. "It is not the free will of the People that is ascertained through extreme partisan gerrymandering. Rather, it is the carefully crafted will of the map drawer that predominates."

The full ruling is online here (pdf). Slate's Mark Joseph Stern described it as "the most comprehensive judicial opinion about partisan gerrymandering ever written."

For reasons I don't fully understand, state GOP leaders indicated yesterday that they don't intend to appeal the ruling, though it's difficult to imagine North Carolina Republicans actually giving up and accepting a fair district map. Of course, even if it did appeal, the party faces long odds: the state Supreme Court has a progressive majority, and since the only issue here is North Carolina law, it's unlikely the U.S. Supreme Court would intervene.

All of which suggests voters will next year elect state representatives in North Carolina using a fair map featuring fair district boundaries, increasing the odds of Democratic gains. And why does that matter? Because a year later, state lawmakers in North Carolina will be responsible for drawing the district lines for legislative races based on 2020 census data.

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A Hanjin Shipping Co. ship is seen stranded outside the Port of Long Beach, Calif. on Sept. 8, 2016. (Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Trying to shrink the trade deficit, Trump ends up making it bigger

09/04/19 10:40AM

Last summer, as Donald Trump's trade war started to take shape, the Republican president told Fox News he believed he could cut the U.S. trade deficit in half. It came two years after Candidate Trump assured voters his agenda would be so successful, Americans would see a drop in the trade deficit "like you've never seen before."

How's that working out?

President Trump's trade war has led to even bigger trade deficits with China, even though it was intended to improve the trade balance. But it's not just China -- the deficit has increased with most of our other major trade partners, too.

While economists agree that trade deficits aren't a good way to measure a trade relationship, they are the metric Trump fixates on, made campaign promises about and uses to evaluate relationships with other countries.

Axios' report on this, published yesterday, added that the U.S. trade deficit covering the first six months of 2019 is "even bigger than in the last two years."

Ordinarily, I wouldn't consider a widening trade deficit especially notable. All things considered, it's just not that important.

But as regular readers know, Trump has long been obsessed with the trade deficit. It's never been altogether clear whether he fully understands what it is -- the president has occasionally talked about the trade deficit in a way that suggests he's badly confused -- but Trump has nevertheless labeled it an economic scourge that he's determined to address. In the Republican's mind, a trade deficit is evidence of "lost" money,

Indeed, the president has based much of his trade war on the idea that it would reduce the nation's trade deficit -- which means Trump's agenda isn't just failing in a general sense, it's also failing by the metric the Republican has told everyone to care about.

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Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty).

West Virginia's Manchin positioned to gain new political influence

09/04/19 10:06AM

While much of the political world focuses on the 2020 presidential race, the fate of the U.S. Senate is nearly as important. Republicans currently have a 53-seat majority, and while it's generally assumed Democrats will be able to chip away at the GOP's advantage, the question is just how much ground Dems can realistically expect to gain.

A net gain of three seats -- no easy task, to be sure -- would create an evenly split chamber, while a net gain of four would give Democrats a majority. It's a tall order given the 2020 map: even if Dems manage to flip seats in Arizona, Colorado, and Maine, they'd have to worry about keeping a seat in Alabama, and finding other possible pick-up opportunities, possibly in states such as Georgia.

Complicating matters, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) had left little doubt that he wasn't exactly enjoying his work on Capitol Hill and expressed interest in running for governor in West Virginia in 2020, returning him to a job he held and enjoyed. If Manchin did give up his seat, the odds of Democrats keeping it would be poor, and the chances of the party reclaiming a Senate majority would likely evaporate.

This made it all the more notable when the West Virginian announced yesterday that he'd remain in the Senate, explaining that his current job would give him the greatest opportunity to have the "most impact" and be the "most effective."

As it happens, those weren't throwaway phrases. As Slate's Jim Newell noted, Manchin, arguably Congress' most conservative Democrat is suddenly positioned to become the Senate's "most powerful member."

[I]f Democrats win the White House in 2020 while scratching out 50 Senate seats, the senior senator from West Virginia will hold a determinative vote, paired with a powerful committee chairmanship -- putting him in a position to ensure all legislative roads run through the party's rightward margin.

In light of this, it's a little silly that the presidential primary campaign spends so much time weighing the merits of Kamala Harris' health care plan versus Bernie Sanders', or Sanders' approach to climate change versus Joe Biden's. A much more efficient approach to gaming out hypothetical Democratic legislation in 2021 would be to ask Manchin what he's willing to accept on any given issue.

I might quibble a bit with some of the procedural considerations -- the legislative filibuster is likely to remain in place, for example, so senators will need to focus on 60-vote majorities, not 51-vote majorities -- but Newell's larger point is well taken. Even if Dems eke out a majority, it won't be a unified caucus on issues across the board. The party would need some kind of consensus in pursuit of every priority, and that would mean making Manchin happy ahead of every key vote.

That's a dynamic that would give the West Virginian considerable leverage. It's also a dynamic that any politician would be foolish to walk away from.

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Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence waits for the start of the third U.S. presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on Oct. 19, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nev. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

Pence's Irish trip becomes needlessly controversial (again)

09/04/19 09:20AM

Despite scheduled meetings in Dublin, Vice President Mike Pence is staying three hours away, on the other side of Ireland, at a golf course owned by Donald Trump. According to Pence's office, it was the president himself who "suggested" the arrangement.

This, naturally, generated quite a bit of chatter about fresh evidence of corruption and a president who's a little too eager to profit from his office, leading Pence and his team to criticize news reports that did little more than quote the vice president's chief of staff, and insist that the decision about the Irish accommodations was "solely" made by Pence's office.

It was against this backdrop that the White House managed to find an entirely different way to make Pence's Irish visit needlessly controversial.

A senior White House aide suggested Vice President Pence's lunch Tuesday with the prime minister of Ireland and his male partner shows Pence is not "anti-gay."

"For all of you who think our @VP is anti-gay, I point you to his and the @SecondLady's schedule tomorrow where they will join Taoiseach @LeoVaradkar and his partner Dr. Matthew Barrett for lunch in Ireland," deputy White House press secretary Judd Deere tweeted Monday night.

Oh. So, Mike Pence had lunch with the prime minister of Ireland; the prime minister of Ireland is gay, ergo, fair-minded observers should no longer think of Mike Pence as being anti-gay.

Can't anybody here play this game?

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Candidate for U.S. Senate Thom Tillis at an early voting location in Cornelius, N.C. on Nov. 1, 2014.

Trump connects NC emergency declaration, vulnerable GOP senator

09/04/19 08:40AM

As Hurricane Dorian continues to threaten the southeastern United States, Donald Trump announced via Twitter last night that he was "getting the North Carolina Emergency Declaration completed and signed." That made sense; the deadly storm isn't far from the state's coast.

But in the same tweet, the president also said that he was moving forward with the emergency declaration "at the request of" Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

And if that seemed odd, there was a good reason for that: it's not up to senators to request emergency declarations from the White House; it's up to governors. As the Washington Post noted overnight, that's just how the system works under federal law.

Tillis is a fellow Republican up for reelection next year and faces a GOP primary challenge. Trump endorsed Tillis in June, telling his nearly 64 million Twitter followers that the first-term senator had "really stepped up to the plate."

North Carolina's governor, Roy Cooper, is a Democrat. His office requested the federal disaster declaration Monday after issuing a state emergency declaration Friday.

Trump wants the public to credit the senator for the president's willingness to sign an emergency declaration, requested by North Carolina's Democratic governor, that Trump was going to have to sign anyway.

Why? It probably has something to do with Thom Tillis being up for re-election next year, coupled with the fact that his success is hardly assured.

As a deadly storm approaches, the president decided it would be a good time to introduce some partisan election-season politics into the hurricane-preparation process.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump points at supporters after speaking at rally at the Verizon Wireless Center in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 8, 2016. (Photo by Justin Lane/EPA)

With the economy looking shaky, Trump scrambles to blame others

09/04/19 08:00AM

As economic indicators go, U.S. manufacturing data tends to draw a lot of attention, which is why no one was pleased yesterday when a new report pointed to a contracting manufacturing sector, defying rosier expectations.

The widely watched Manufacturing Business Survey from the Institute for Supply Management reported Tuesday that manufacturing unexpectedly dropped to 49.1 in August. Any number below 50 indicate the manufacturing economy is generally shrinking.

Economists agreed that the Trump administration's trade war with China is the biggest factor dragging down the index.

"Manufacturing is on the front line of the trade war, and it's getting creamed," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. "The dark irony is the trade war was supposed to help manufacturing, but instead it's pushed them under water."

Chris Rupkey, the chief financial economist at MUFG Union Bank, added, "The U.S. trade war with the world has blown open a great big hole in manufacturers' confidence. The manufacturing sector has officially turned down and is falling for the first time this year as the China tariffs and slowdown in exports has really started to bite."

This news came on the heels of a related report on falling economic confidence among small businesses, as well as a report from last week on sagging consumer confidence.

It's entirely possible that these will prove to be inconsequential blips on the radar and that the economic recovery that began at the start of the decade will continue. It's also possible that we're seeing the initial indicators of an economic slowdown and a possible recession.

Donald Trump seems to realize that the latter would create a political crisis for him, which is why he's taking swift action -- not to alter his policies that aren't working, but to lay the groundwork to blame others for the shaky economy.

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