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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 3.20.19

03/20/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The right call: "A federal judge ruled late Tuesday that the Interior Department violated federal law by failing to take into account the climate impact of its oil and gas leasing in the West."

* Brexit: "Top officials of the European Union tossed Prime Minister Theresa May a life line on Wednesday, saying they would allow Britain to push back its departure date from the bloc, but only if Parliament endorsed her withdrawal plan."

* This is not a vote of confidence in the health of the recovery: "Not only did the Federal Reserve decide Wednesday not to raise interest rates, but it also indicated that no more hikes will be coming this year."

* Mueller probe: "Former Trump campaign adviser Rick Gates -- a central cooperating witness for special counsel Robert Mueller -- has been advised by prosecutors not to cooperate with the House Judiciary Committee's broad investigation of President Donald Trump, his lawyer told lawmakers in a recent letter obtained Wednesday by POLITICO. But Gates' lawyer, Thomas Green, left open the possibility of assisting the panel 'in the coming months.'"

* In related news: "Prosecutors with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's team on Tuesday cited the 'press of other work' in asking a judge to give them until April 1 to respond to the court about a request from The Washington Post to unseal records in Paul Manafort's criminal case."

* Keep an eye on this one: "A confidential government report has provided President Donald Trump with a legal rationale to impose heavy new tariffs on foreign cars as soon as this spring, a prospect fiercely opposed by White House officials and congressional Republicans alarmed by its enormous economic and political stakes."

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A twenty dollar bill. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty)

White House concedes Trump's economic promises come with fine print

03/20/19 12:55PM

Kevin Hassett, the White House's chief economist, insisted this week that the economy will grow at or above 3 percent for the next several years -- a highly dubious belief that undergirds Donald Trump's entire budget plan for the near future.

"Some folks have said, 'Oh, sure, we did have 3 percent growth [in 2018], but that was a sugar high,'" Hassett told reporters yesterday. "Our view is that's really not a sugar high at all."

The truth is a little more complicated. For one thing, we didn't quite reach 3 percent growth in 2018, at least if we measure GDP the way it's supposed to be measured.

For another, as the White House quietly conceded yesterday, Team Trump's growth projections come with some important fine print. The Washington Post explained:

President Trump has promised an economic boom that will last for years to come, but he's unlikely to get one without the help of Congress to pass major new legislation, according to estimates by Trump's own economic team.

To achieve about 3 percent growth for the next decade, Trump would need a big infrastructure bill, more tax cuts, additional deregulation, and policies that transition more people off government aid and into full-time jobs, according to the 2019 Economic Report of the President, released Tuesday by Trump's Council of Economic Advisers.

Oh. The original promise was that the Republicans' tax-cut package, approved in late 2017, would fuel economic growth for a long while. A little more than a year later, that promise apparently comes with a catch: the tax breaks will fuel economic growth just so long as policymakers approve a series of other economic measures -- including even more tax cuts.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.20.19

03/20/19 12:00PM

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

* Former Vice President Joe Biden is reportedly asking several key supporters for their help "lining up contributions from major donors so he can quickly raise several million dollars" after launching his likely 2020 presidential campaign.

* CNN yesterday released the results of new national poll of Democratic voters, which showed Biden leading the 2020 field with 28%, followed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) with 20%. Two other candidates reached double digits: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) with 12%, and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) with 11%.

* Though there was some chatter about former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D) possibly running for president, the 2018 gubernatorial nominee is actually launching a voter-registration group in his home state of Florida.

* In fundraising news, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee took in $11.6 million in February, which made it the best February ever for the DCCC -- including those in election years.

* In a special election that generated some national attention, Eric Giddens (D) prevailed in an Iowa state Senate race yesterday. The seat was previously held a Democrat in a district that leans in a "blue" direction.

* The news for Republicans was better in Minnesota yesterday, where Nathan Nelson (R) won a state House special election, keeping the seat in the GOP's hands.

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Image: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with President Donald Trump

Trump reportedly tries to take control of North Korea negotiations

03/20/19 11:20AM

For reasons that are difficult to understand from a distance, Donald Trump has extraordinary confidence in his presidential abilities. As a candidate, the Republican assured voters, "Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it."

Two years later, the Washington Post reported that Trump didn't care about the dearth of qualified staff around him, "because he considers himself to be his own diplomat, negotiator and strategist."

In the wake of his failed summit with North Korea's Kim Jong-un, the American president is apparently taking this posture to new levels. Time magazine reported overnight that Trump has taken "increased control" of negotiations over North Korea's nuclear weapons program, which has meant "sidelining his own top negotiator."

In recent days, Trump shut down an effort by Stephen Biegun, nominally the Administration's lead negotiator with Pyongyang, to reestablish a back channel through the North's United Nations mission in New York, according to four U.S. and South Korean officials.

At the same time, Trump continues to dismiss the conclusions of the CIA, State and Defense Departments and other agencies that North Korea will not abandon its nuclear weapons program, continuing to insist that he and Kim can negotiate a deal, according to two U.S. officials.

An unnamed U.S. official told Time that Trump's "constant refrain" is that the North Korean dictator is his "friend," which as far as the American president is concerned, creates an opportunity for a diplomatic breakthrough -- even if he's the only one who sees it.

The article added, "Trump's insistence on serving as his own lead negotiator, concentrating decision making at the White House, has rattled not only U.S. officials outside the White House, but also their counterparts in South Korea and Japan, all the officials said."

That's an understandable concern. The United States' first amateur president, who knows effectively nothing about nuclear weapons programs and/or international diplomacy, has convinced himself that his entire team is simply getting in the way of a deal with North Korea.

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President Elect Donald Trump arrives on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan.20, 2017 in Washington, DC. In today's inauguration ceremony Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On the electoral college, Trump dramatically changes direction

03/20/19 10:46AM

Around the time of Barack Obama's re-election campaign in 2012, which the incumbent president won with relative ease, one of his high-profile hecklers denounced the system that helped keep the Democrat in office. "The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy," Donald Trump declared on Nov. 6, 2012.

At the time, Trump thought that Obama had won a second term based on electoral votes, but would end up losing the popular vote. (Obama actually topped 51% of the popular vote, though that wasn't clear in the immediate aftermath of the election.) It was against this backdrop that Trump published a series of tweets about the need for a "revolution" to prevent the "disgusting injustice" of having an American president who only won thanks to the electoral college.

Trump added at the time that the electoral college is "phoney." (I assume he meant "phony," and was not trying to describing something related to phones.)

Oddly enough, the Republican continued to criticize the electoral college, even after he lost the popular vote in 2016. "I'm not going to change my mind [about the electoral college] just because I won," Trump said the week after his election.

As recently as last spring, he remained consistent on the issue, telling Fox News in April 2018 that he'd prefer a popular-vote system.

But as his own re-election campaign nears, and a variety of Democratic presidential candidates express their opposition to the electoral college -- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), for example, endorsed its demise this week -- Trump has apparently abandoned everything he's ever said on the subject. The president argued via Twitter:

"Campaigning for the Popular Vote is much easier & different than campaigning for the Electoral College. It's like training for the 100 yard dash vs. a marathon. The brilliance of the Electoral College is that you must go to many States to win.

"With the Popular Vote, you go to just the large States - the Cities would end up running the Country. Smaller States & the entire Midwest would end up losing all power - & we can't let that happen. I used to like the idea of the Popular Vote, but now realize the Electoral College is far better for the U.S.A."

So much for his "disaster for a democracy" assertion.

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Trump admin loses in court 'because they're not doing their homework'

03/20/19 10:07AM

The Trump administration has an extraordinary track record for failure in federal courts. One longtime career official at the Justice Department told the Washington Post that in his 30 years at the department, he never saw a presidential administration lose so often, so quickly.

The Post had a fascinating report yesterday explaining why Donald Trump's team has struggled so badly.

Federal judges have ruled against the Trump administration at least 63 times over the past two years, an extraordinary record of legal defeat that has stymied large parts of the president's agenda on the environment, immigration and other matters.

In case after case, judges have rebuked Trump officials for failing to follow the most basic rules of governance, including providing legitimate explanations for shifts in policy, supported by facts and, where required, public input. [...]

[T]he rulings so far paint a remarkable portrait of a government rushing to implement sweeping changes in policy without regard for longstanding rules against arbitrary and capricious behavior.

Georgetown Law School's William Buzbee told the newspaper that in regulatory cases, Trump administration officials are "making it very easy for the courts to reject them because they're not doing their homework."

The Post focused particular attention on the relatively obscure Administrative Procedure Act, approved in 1946 to limit the reach of various federal agencies. In recent years, administrations have won APA cases about 70% of the time.

The Trump administration has won about 6% of these cases.

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A guard stands on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, Oct. 5, 2015. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Some Republicans eye constitutional amendment to block court packing

03/20/19 09:20AM

The idea of "packing" the Supreme Court hasn't been a subject of real political debate in recent generations, but it's starting to gain traction among some Democratic presidential candidates, who've expressed some interest in dramatic judicial reforms.

Donald Trump publicly addressed the issue for the first time yesterday -- the president, not surprisingly, is against court packing, at least until he changes his mind -- and some congressional Republicans are eyeing a new measure to end the debate altogether.

Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.) on Tuesday announced he will introduce a constitutional amendment this week to limit the number of Supreme Court justices to nine after several Democratic presidential candidates have floated the idea of expanding the high court's bench.

"This Thursday, I will be introducing a constitutional amendment that would limit the number of Supreme Court justices to 9 -- the number of seats since 1869. The Supreme Court must remain a fair and impartial branch of government not beholden to party," Green said in a statement.

"Schemes to pack the court are dangerous to the Founders' vision of an independent judiciary that serves as a check on both the Executive and Legislative branches of government," he continued.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), warning of "further destabilization of essential institutions," announced yesterday that he too will introduce a constitutional amendment that would keep the high court at nine justices.

Amending the Constitution is extremely difficult, and the odds of Congress ratifying such a measure anytime soon are poor. But so long as some GOP lawmakers are eager to pick this fight, it's worth taking a moment to set the record straight about a couple of things.

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Image:  US House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes

Nunes' lawsuit predictably backfires, boosts 'Devin Nunes' Cow'

03/20/19 08:40AM

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) decided this week that it'd be a good idea to sue Twitter because it's allowed some of its users to publish content that hurts the congressman's feelings. Of particular interest, however, is "Devin Nunes' Cow."

The Republican congressman's lawsuit specifically points to "Devin Nunes' Cow" -- a Twitter account that mocks the lawmaker with bovine-related puns -- as an example of the sort of brutal mistreatment he's received on the social-media platform. (The account, for example, has described Nunes as "udder-ly worthless.")

I'll confess that I was unfamiliar with the parodic account before yesterday, but I'm well aware of it now -- which is one of the reasons Nunes' litigation is such a bad idea. New York Times noted yesterday:

The lawsuit by Mr. Nunes had the perhaps unintended effect of sharply increasing the reach of @DevinCow, the parody account that had around 1,200 followers before the lawsuit was filed. The account was up to 46,000 followers as of Tuesday morning and rapidly growing.

How rapidly? By last night, the "Devin Nunes' Cow" account had over 217,000 followers. As I type this morning, it has over 327,000 followers.

In fact, the comedic account, created to mock Devin Nunes, now has nearly as many Twitter followers as Devin Nunes. [Update: see below.]

All of this, of course, was quite predictable. In effect, the far-right congressman declared to the world, "Hey everyone, that funny Twitter account is ridiculing me! That one, right there! It exists to make me appear foolish, which is why I now feel entitled to $250 million!"

The question isn't why Nunes' lawsuit backfired; it's why he didn't see this coming.

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Trump takes pride in foreign embrace of 'fake news' label

03/20/19 08:00AM

Donald Trump stood side by side at the White House yesterday with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has earned a reputation as the "Trump of the Tropics." Bolsonaro's right-wing antics and authoritarian vision have positioned him as one of the world's closest analogues for the current American president.

With this in mind, in his opening remarks before a brief Rose Garden press conference yesterday, the new Brazilian leader said, "In conclusion, may I say that Brazil and the United States stand side by side in their efforts to ensure liberties and respect to traditional family lifestyles, respect to God, our Creator, against the gender ideology or the politically correct attitudes, and against fake news."

Soon after, Trump gushed with pride.

"You know, the incredible thing is that we can win an election and we have such a stacked deck. And that includes networks, frankly. You look at the networks, you look at the news, you look at the newscasts -- I call it 'fake news.'

"I'm very proud to hear the president use the term 'fake news.'"

The Republican's response may not have been surprising, but it was depressing.

In the not-too-distant past, a foundational goal of U.S. foreign policy was exporting American values. For generations, it's been the underpinning of our approach to everything from trade to diplomacy. The more we interact with other nations, the more opportunity we have to introduce the world to our ideals: civil liberties, human rights, the virtues of democracy, religious liberty, the institutional importance of a free press.

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