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Friday's Mini-Report, 9.6.19

09/06/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Landfall: "Hurricane Dorian, packing powerful winds and dangerous storm surges, made its first landfall in the United States over North Carolina's Outer Banks on Friday morning."

* I have all kinds of concerns about this: "The Justice Department has launched an antitrust investigation into four auto makers that forged an independent agreement with California on vehicle-emissions standards."

* The NRA mess continues: "A past president of the National Rifle Association has taken out loans totaling more than $250,000, at an interest rate as low as 2 percent, from the NRA's Florida affiliate, a nonprofit that she has led for decades and that employs only her, according to the organization's tax filings."

* A dreadful idea: "The White House is considering a plan that would effectively bar refugees from most parts of the world from resettling in the United States by cutting back the decades-old program that admits tens of thousands of people each year who are fleeing war, persecution and famine, according to current and former administration officials."

* A step in the right direction: "Google on Friday announced a new health care and medicines policy that bans advertising for 'unproven or experimental medical techniques.' ... A blog post from Google policy adviser Adrienne Biddings said the company will prohibit ads selling treatments 'that have no established biomedical or scientific basis.'"

* A story worth watching: "The Trump administration on Friday asked for more time to decide whether to shield documents concerning allegations of official Saudi involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a sign that top Justice Department officials are struggling with how to handle demands from victims' families to release the information."

* I can't think of a defense for this: "Just as the Trump administration has sought to limit both legal and illegal immigration generally, it has tried to make it harder to gain U.S. citizenship by serving in the military. That's a sharp break from the past."

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Presidential contender Donald Trump gestures to the media on the 17th fairway on the first day of the Women's British Open golf championship on the Turnberry golf course in Turnberry, Scotland, July 30, 2015. (Photo by Scott Heppell/AP)

Dems launch probe following Trump's self-dealing controversies

09/06/19 12:48PM

For those troubled by corruption allegations surrounding the White House, recent events have been especially discouraging. Last week, Donald Trump announced a new effort to have the next G7 summit held at one of his Florida properties, which seemed to represent an unprecedented abuse of a president trying to use his office to boost one of his struggling businesses.

As the Washington Post reported, "If Trump does choose Doral, he would be directing six world leaders, hundreds of hangers-on and massive amounts of money to a resort he owns personally -- and which, according to his company's representatives, has been 'severely underperforming.'"

Meanwhile, this week, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Ireland for meetings in Dublin, but he stayed three hours away at a Trump-owned property on the other side of the country. According to Pence's chief of staff, it was the president who personally "suggested" that the vice president and his traveling companions book rooms at Trump's business.

The one-two punch seems like the sort of thing that should receive all kinds of congressional oversight scrutiny. Fortunately, as CNBC reported, there's now an investigation underway.

House Democrats are investigating Vice President Mike Pence's stay at President Donald Trump's golf resort in Ireland, as well as Trump's recent promotion of another property he owns as a possible venue for the next G-7 summit.

In letters made public Friday, leaders of two Democrat-led House committees requested documents and other information from the White House, the Secret Service and the Trump Organization about the two matters.

To their credit, House Dems appear to be taking the matter fairly seriously, with two separate committees -- Judiciary and Oversight -- launching investigations of the back-to-back abuses.

"The Committee does not believe that U.S. taxpayer funds should be used to personally enrich President Trump, his family, and his companies," Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) wrote -- articulating a principle that should be obvious, but isn't in the Trump era.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.6.19

09/06/19 12:00PM

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

* Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced the end of his independent presidential campaign this morning, explaining in a three-page letter to supporters that he didn't have a path to victory. His decision comes as a relief to Democrats who believed Schultz would split the center-left mainstream and help re-elect Donald Trump.

* Mayor Pete Buttigieg has raised quite a bit of money for his presidential race, and he's now investing those resources into a new television ad campaign. This 30-second spot is the first of his candidacy.

* Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who's up for re-election next year, caused a bit of stir this past weekend, telling a group of voters that she'd like to see a discussion about reforming Social Security happen "behind closed doors."

* With Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) stepping down for health reasons, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) reportedly hopes to be appointed to fill the vacancy ahead of the 2020 special election. Collins is currently the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, where he's earned a reputation as a sycophantic ally of Donald Trump.

* Who might be the next Democratic presidential candidate to drop out? New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters this week, "I'm going to go and try to get into the October debates, and if I can, I think that's a good reason to keep going forward. And if I can't, I think it's really tough to conceive of continuing."

* On a related note, the next Democratic presidential primary debate will be in Houston on Thursday. The fourth, which will be a little easier to qualify for, will be in mid-October in Ohio.

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File Photo: Rhino 500 handguns are on display at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Annual Meetings and Exhibits on April 14, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images, File)

White House reviews 'politically problematic' polling on guns

09/06/19 11:24AM

In February 2018, Donald Trump hosted a fairly long meeting with congressional leaders over gun policy, and the president told attendees how he viewed the political landscape.

"The background checks are so important," Trump said. "People are afraid to do background checks because you're afraid of somebody. And you know what? You're going to be more popular if you do -- if you have a strong, good -- but I don't care who's endorsing you or not endorsing you, you're going to be more popular if that's what you're into."

He added, "I don't understand why this hasn't happened -- for the last 20 years, nothing has happened."

Perhaps he understands a little better now.

Trump met at the White House yesterday with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of the lead sponsors of a federal background-check bill, and as the New York Times reported, White House officials reminded the policymakers of polling data that's "politically problematic for the president."

Mr. Trump's aides were on hand for the meeting, and the president told Mr. Manchin that a background checks bill that the senator had pushed for with a Republican counterpart, Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, was still on the table, according to the people briefed on the discussion.

But the polling data, White House aides said, indicated that the issue does not help the president with his core base of supporters, according to the people briefed on the meeting.

So much for "you're going to be more popular if that's what you're into."

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Donald Trump, Jerry West

Trump accidentally speaks his mind at Medal of Freedom presentation

09/06/19 10:46AM

On the surface, this seemed like one of the least controversial parts of Donald Trump's week.

President Donald Trump on Thursday awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to basketball legend Jerry West.

At a White House ceremony, Trump praised West -- whose iconic dribble can be seen on the logo for the National Basketball Association -- as an "extraordinary American" for his achievements on and off the court, saying the nation's highest civilian honor was a "richly deserved" award.

So far, so good. It's tough for a president to screw up a Medal of Freedom presentation, since it generally involves saying nice things about a prominent American. Even for Trump, this should be a piece of cake.

But it wasn't. After welcoming people to the event, the president started reading Jerry West's biographical information, including the fact that he was born and raised in West Virginia. At that point, Trump strayed from his prepared remarks and turned to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who was also in attendance.

"I shouldn't say this, Joe, but I won it by 43 points," Trump told the senator, referring to West Virginia. "That's a lot."

Turning back to Jerry West, the president added, "We love West Virginia. Probably helped you getting this award today."

Trump was almost certainly kidding, though the joke was rooted in the idea that if West had been born and raised in a blue state, he'd be less likely to receive the Medal of Freedom.

Even at an award ceremony intended to honor someone else, Trump's thoughts turned to Trump -- and how impressed he is with himself.

The larger point to this is a point we last kicked around a year ago: this president isn't just inept when it comes to governing; Trump flubs his ceremonial duties, too.

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The Republican National Committee headquarters, Sept. 9, 2014. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

To shield Trump from embarrassments, GOP prepares to scrap primaries

09/06/19 10:12AM

In the primary era, only three incumbent presidents have lost re-election campaigns: Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992, Each of them had something important in common: they were the only modern incumbent presidents to face primary challengers.

With this in mind, Donald Trump and his political operation have spent months, not only keeping an eye on possible intra-party rivals, but also on taking deliberate steps to control state GOP operations to ensure a smooth re-nomination process in 2020.

Politico reports today that those efforts are starting to pay off in the form of canceled Republican nominating contests.

Four states are poised to cancel their 2020 GOP presidential primaries and caucuses, a move that would cut off oxygen to Donald Trump's long-shot primary challengers.

Republican parties in South Carolina, Nevada, Arizona and Kansas are expected to finalize the cancellations in meetings this weekend, according to three GOP officials who are familiar with the plans.

The moves are the latest illustration of Trump's takeover of the entire Republican Party apparatus. They underscore the extent to which his allies are determined to snuff out any potential nuisance en route to his renomination -- or even to deny Republican critics a platform to embarrass him.

In fairness, it's worth emphasizing the fact that both major parties have, on multiple occasions, scrapped presidential primaries and caucuses in years in which there's an incumbent president running for a second term. Democratic officials in plenty of states, for example, canceled nominating contests in 2012 during Barack Obama's re-election campaign. GOP officials in several states did the same thing in 2004 for George W. Bush.

There wasn't anything especially untoward about any of this: it's expensive to administer primaries and caucuses, and when there's an incumbent president running effectively unopposed within his or her party, it stands to reason state officials would balk at wasting scarce resources.

But therein lies the rub: when an incumbent president isn't running unopposed, it's a different story.

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Trump's Middle East peace initiative gets just a little worse

09/06/19 09:20AM

It was just three months into his presidency when Donald Trump declared with confidence, "I want to see peace with Israel and the Palestinians. There is no reason there's not peace between Israel and the Palestinians – none whatsoever." There are, of course, all kinds of things standing in the way of peace, though the president didn't appear to recognize them.

Nevertheless, as regular readers know, he was quite serious about this. A month later, Trump boasted there's a "very, very good chance" his administration would help strike a deal for Middle East peace. "It's something, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years," the president added.

It's against this backdrop that Trump's point man on the issue quit -- before the White House's Middle East peace plan is even unveiled.

Jason Greenblatt is leaving as President Donald Trump's envoy for brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, senior officials told NBC News on Thursday.

His departure, confirmed by the president on Twitter, is the latest sign that optimism within the Trump administration for the long-awaited plan's prospects may be fading. Release of the plan, under development since the start of administration, has already been delayed several times, most recently until sometime after the Israeli elections on Sept. 17.

Avi Berkowitz, a longtime aide to Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, will replace Greenblatt in his role as special adviser for international negotiations, the administration officials said.

I suspect these names aren't too familiar to most Americans, so it's worth taking a moment to unpack these borderline-comical personnel shifts.

Jason Greenblatt, the president's first envoy for negotiating a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, was a curious choice from the outset. After all, Greenblatt wasn't a diplomat or an expert in international affairs; he's Trump's former real-estate lawyer and a former longtime employee of the Trump Organization.

Sure, this president prioritizes personal ties over "traditional qualifications" -- he tapped a Trump family wedding planner for a key post at HUD, for example, and he considered his pilot to lead the FAA -- but no one seriously believed Greenblatt was the best person for the job.

His successor, however, is worse.

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Despite Trump's boasts, job growth falls short of expectations

09/06/19 08:42AM

Yesterday morning, Donald Trump published a curious tweet, declaring, "Really Good Jobs Numbers!" The actual job numbers hadn't been released, and he hadn't yet received an advanced look, but the president was apparently referring to an ADP report on private-sector hiring, which often differs from the actual, official data.

He probably should've showed some caution. Ahead of this morning's jobs report, most projections pointed to growth in August of 160,000 jobs. Those expectations were a bit too rosy.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this morning that the economy added 130,000 jobs last month, while the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 3.7%. And while that's not an awful monthly total, the revisions from the previous two months were also a little disappointing: job totals from June and July were both revised down, subtracting 20,000 from previous reporting.

As for the political implications, Donald Trump has now been in office for 31 full months -- February 2017 through August 2019 -- and in that time, the economy has created 5.85 million jobs. In the 31 months preceding Trump's presidency -- July 2014 to January 2017 -- the economy created 6.84 million jobs.

I recently heard from some readers who asked what would happen if we looked at the same numbers, but assigned the job totals from January 2017 to Trump, even though Obama was president for most of the month. On balance, I think that paints a misleading picture, but it doesn't change the underlying dynamic: if we applied jobs from January 2017 to Trump and compared the last 32 months to the previous 32 months, job totals still slowed from 7.13 million to 6.10 million.

The White House, meanwhile, believes we should actually start the clock for Trump at November 2016 -- the month of the Republican's election -- and apply the jobs created during the final months of the Obama era to the current Republican president. But that still doesn't help: if we compare the last 34 months to the previous 34 months, job totals slowed from 7.67 million to 6.48 million.

Trump continues to tell the world that he's overseeing the strongest domestic job growth in American history, which is plainly false. What's more, the White House has not yet offered an explanation for why job growth has slowed since Trump took office.

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Trump tries to bully the truth into submission

09/06/19 08:00AM

There was a point a few months ago at which Donald Trump began arguing that China was paying the United States billions of dollars as a result of the administration's trade tariffs. This wasn't true: the tariffs are a tax on American importers, and the penalty is ultimately imposed on American consumers. Everyone involved in the policy debate noted that the president was mistaken.

Left with no choice, Trump changed his talking points, unwilling to embarrass himself by basing a national trade policy on a basic detail he struggled to understand.

No, I'm just kidding. What Trump actually did was cling to his bogus claim with all his might, repeating it on a nearly daily basis, and rejecting those who had the audacity to highlight the truth.

After a while, there was a general understanding that this was something the president simply would not stop saying and believing. Nothing would dissuade him. Evidence would not matter. It was, according to some around him, a belief toward which he had a nearly theological commitment. Fact-checkers eventually got tired of pointing out the falsehood, over and over again, which only seemed to encourage Trump to keep saying it.

From the Republican's perspective, he'd bullied the truth into submission through a combination of persistence and indifference toward reality. As the Washington Post reported overnight, Trump has spent this week doing the same thing.

He posted nine tweets and five maps about Alabama and the big storm. He defended a doctored hurricane map that had been altered with a black Sharpie to include the state.

And he had his White House release a 225-word statement defending his erroneous warnings that Alabama was "going to get a piece" of the storm.

As Hurricane Dorian battered the Carolinas with torrential rain and wind Thursday, President Trump remained fixated on sunny Alabama -- a state he falsely claimed was in the storm's crosshairs long after it was in the clear.

The president's original false claim wasn't all that interesting, and it likely would've been a one-day story, mixed in with related coverage of a hurricane threat.

But unable to get out of his own way, Trump could neither admit error nor allow others to get away with pointing out his mistake. It was time for President Bully to get to work.

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Trump dismantling US response to Russian annexation of Crimea

Trump dismantling US response to Russian annexation of Crimea

09/05/19 09:29PM

Rachel Maddow looks at the four columns of the U.S. response to Russia's annexation of Crimea, sanctions, removal from the G8, military aid to Ukraine, and support to NATO, and notes that the Trump administration has worked to remove all four, most recently by seeking to take money from the European Deterrence Initiative to pay for Trump&... watch

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