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President Donald Trump reviews border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego.

Trump struggles to keep up with his own bogus border wall claims

02/22/19 09:20AM

What exactly is the White House's current position on the state of the "wall" along the U.S./Mexico border? What should be an easy question to answer is clearly not.

To hear Donald Trump tell it, wall construction needs to happen, has already happened, is in the process of happening, and will definitely happen sometime soon. Which of those is true? I don't think he knows for sure; it apparently varies by day.

Similarly, the president has told Americans that the border is secure, is completely unsecure, is partially secure, should be more secure, and is in the process of being secured.

It can get a little confusing. Blizzards of lies are, by design, disorienting.

Certain core truths are inescapable. We know, for example, that the original White House plan -- a 1,000-mile concrete wall, to be paid for by Mexico -- is dead. We know that before Trump took office, there were already 654 miles of barriers along the border, and as things stand, there are still 654 miles of barriers along the border. We know that the administration has replaced some old fencing with new fencing, which the president likes to pretend is proof of wall construction, despite (a) reality; and (b) his previous position that walls and fences are not the same thing.

And we know each of these pesky details is proving to be quite annoying for the man in the Oval Office. The Washington Post published this memorable paragraph earlier in the week:

The president has complained repeatedly about news coverage depicting the wall as not being built and has told his campaign and communications officials they have to convince people that more of the wall is being built.

In other words, news organizations keep pointing out the truth, which has led the president to believe his operation will need to take their lying to a new level.

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An election worker checks a voter's drivers license as North Carolina's controversial "Voter ID" law goes into effect for the state's presidential primary election at a polling place, March 15, 2016,  in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo by Chris Keane/Reuters)

Following election fraud, North Carolina to hold do-over election

02/22/19 08:40AM

The day after the midterm elections last fall, it looked like former far-right pastor Mark Harris (R) had narrowly prevailed over Dan McCready (D) in North Carolina's 9th congressional district. McCready conceded and Harris was named the representative-elect.

It wasn't long, however, before evidence of widespread election fraud tainted those election results. Following a series of dramatic developments, local voters will now have a second chance to elect their member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The North Carolina Board of Elections on Thursday ordered a new election in the 9th Congressional District after allegations of illegal activity in the handling of mail-in ballots.

The five-member board's unanimous action came after several days of hearings into Republican ballot-collecting practices in the 2018 general election.

Their decision was made after the GOP candidate, Mark Harris, surprisingly suggested Thursday that there should be a new election because the public had lost confidence in the results.

Do-over elections in the United States are extraordinarily unusual, but a do-over election stemming from allegations of fraud is practically unheard of. The Washington Post went digging, looking for a comparable set of circumstances, and the best it could do was an obscure congressional special election in Kentucky in 1827.

In other words, when voters in North Carolina's 9th participate in their re-vote, it'll be a modern first.

If you've heard about this story over the last day or so, you've probably come across a familiar set of questions. Will Harris run again, despite the scandal? Will local Republicans see him as too toxic to support? Can McCready flip the seat from "red" to "blue"?

And while these are certainly relevant details, I have a very different kind of question: why hasn't anyone been arrested?

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R. Alexander Acosta

The scandal that could force out another Trump cabinet secretary

02/22/19 08:00AM

Alex Acosta has been Donald Trump's Secretary of Labor for 22 months. In light of yesterday's developments, I'm hard pressed to imagine how he'll remain at his post for a 23rd.

The Miami Herald, which has done amazing work on the Jeffrey Epstein story, reported yesterday:

Federal prosecutors, under former Miami U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta, broke the law when they concealed a plea agreement from more than 30 underage victims who had been sexually abused by wealthy New York hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

While the decision marks a victory for crime victims, the federal judge, Kenneth A. Marra, stopped short of overturning Epstein's plea deal, or issuing an order resolving the case. He instead gave federal prosecutors 15 days to confer with Epstein's victims and their attorneys to come up with a settlement. The victims did not seek money or damages as part of the suit. [...]

Marra, in a 33-page opinion, said prosecutors not only violated the Crime Victims' Rights Act by not informing the victims, they also misled the girls into believing that the FBI's sex trafficking case against Epstein was still ongoing -- when in fact, prosecutors had secretly closed it after sealing the plea bargain from the public record.

For those who might need a refresher, Epstein, a politically connected multi-millionaire, was accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls in the early 2000s. A federal criminal investigation into his alleged activities raised the prospect of Epstein spending the rest of his life behind bars, but his high-profile legal team -- which featured Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr -- were able to strike a plea deal.

And what a deal it was. Epstein ended up pleading guilty to a state charge of soliciting sex from a minor in 2008, which led to an 18-month sentence. He was released after 13 months -- during which time he had been permitted to leave the prison and go to work during much of the day -- and then went back to living the high life.

How in the world did Epstein get such a deal given the number of his alleged underage victims? It's a question many have asked of late, and the best answers could probably come from the U.S. Attorney who signed off on the deal.

His name is Alex Acosta, the Labor secretary who, according to a federal judge, handled the case so poorly that he broke the law.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 2.21.19

02/21/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A terrifying story: "A U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant working in the nation's capital lived a secret life as a 'domestic terrorist' who aspired to mass murder and compiled a target list of prominent politicians and journalists, federal prosecutors allege in court papers."

* This controversy is just getting started: "In the weeks before his inauguration, top officials on President Trump's inaugural committee repeatedly sounded alarms about the budgets submitted by several vendors, according to correspondence, committee records and draft budgets reviewed by The Wall Street Journal."

* It sounds like the White House never really tried: "The Trump administration has broken off talks with the California Air Resources Board over vehicle fuel-efficiency standards and is on track to roll back standards set by President Barack Obama, the White House said Thursday."

* Another successful strike: "West Virginia teachers said they would return to their schools Thursday after two days out on strike. Their announcement came late Wednesday when a bill pushing charter schools and education savings accounts died in the state legislature."

* Israeli politics, Part I: "After two weeks of efforts, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded in forming a united ultra right-wing party that will run in the April 9 elections, paving the way for Jewish supremacists from the 'Jewish Power' party to make it into the next Knesset."

* Israeli politics, Part II: "Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's two main rivals are joining forces for April's elections, a move that poses a serious challenge to the right-wing leader's bid for a record fifth term."

* Mark your calendars: "Michael D. Cohen has agreed to testify in public next Wednesday before Congress about his work as President Trump's personal lawyer and longtime fixer, but lawmakers said they would limit the scope of their questioning in deference to the special counsel."

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Image: Trump Confidant Roger Stone Testifies Before House Intelligence Committee

Judge imposes sweeping gag order on Roger Stone

02/21/19 04:31PM

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson released Roger Stone from federal custody, but imposed a limited gag order on the longtime Republican operative. Stone, facing federal obstruction, giving false statements, and witness tampering charges, was told he couldn't comment on his case from the courthouse.

In other words, the judge didn't want Stone creating a circus while entering or exiting the judicial building.

This week, however, Donald Trump's longtime associate thought it'd be a good idea to publish a photo of the judge in his case to one of his social-media accounts, alongside what appeared to be crosshairs near her head. It prompted a new court hearing and new restrictions on the defendant.

A federal judge ordered that longtime Republican operative and Trump confidant Roger Stone may not speak publicly about the investigation or case against him.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington said it would be "foolhardy" to wait for Stone to transgress again in the wake of an Instagram post that appeared to show her photo near crosshairs and suggested both she and the special counsel were biased.

"I'm not giving you another chance," she said. "I have serious doubts whether you've learned any lesson at all."

There was a very real possibility that Stone could've been sent to jail today. With this in mind, the GOP operative has to be delighted that he's going home this afternoon.

Indeed, while Jackson was critical of Stone during today's court proceedings -- the judge specifically said his apologies rang "hollow" -- she also refrained from taking more serious steps against the defendant. Stone can continue to raise money for his defense fund, he can continue to speak on issues unrelated to his pending criminal charges, and he won't be stuck in jail ahead of his trial.

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US allies ignore Trump's appeal for troops in Syria

02/21/19 12:51PM

When Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria late last year, the president apparently didn't feel the need to talk about his new policy with key officials and policymakers. Key members of Congress, for example, were blindsided by the news.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was reportedly "in the dark" until after Trump had made his decision, and Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. military's Central Command, recently conceded during congressional testimony, "I was not consulted."

Given these circumstances, it's not surprising that the Republican president didn't consult with U.S. allies, either, though he may now realize that was unwise. The Washington Post reported overnight:

As the deadline approaches for the withdrawal of U.S. forces fighting the Islamic State in Syria, America's closest European allies have turned down a Trump administration request to fill the gap with their own troops, according to U.S. and foreign officials.

Allies have "unanimously" told the United States that they "won't stay if you pull out," a senior administration official said. France and Britain are the only other countries with troops on the ground in the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State. [...]

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said last week that he was mystified by Trump's policy. On Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that "there is no prospect of British forces replacing the Americans" in Syria.

There are a few angles to this that are worth keeping in mind, aside from the fact that Trump obviously should've had a conversation or two with our coalition partners before announcing his withdrawal plans.

First and foremost, if the reporting is correct and the Trump administration requested that European allies keep and deploy troops to Syria, it necessarily means the White House expects Trump's policy to produce adverse consequences. Otherwise, the appeal for European troops wouldn't have been made.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.21.19

02/21/19 12:00PM

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

* In North Carolina's 9th congressional district, the State Board of Elections heard testimony from Mark Harris' (R) son, John Harris, who said he'd warned his father about the candidate's consultants and their history of illegal tactics. The son testified that his father ignored the warnings.

* Dashing the hopes of Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told NBC News this morning that he's ruled out running for the U.S. Senate in Kansas next year.

* As Rachel noted on the show last night, Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) presidential campaign raised nearly $6 million, mostly through small donors, in its first 24 hours, which is extraordinarily impressive.

* In related news, the senator is reportedly poised to sign a DNC pledge, in which the Vermont independent will agree to "run for president as a Democrat in 2020 and serve as one if elected." This would apparently rule out the possibility of a third-party campaign in the event Sanders fails to earn the Democratic nomination.

* Rep. Bradley Byrne (R) has launched a U.S. Senate bid in Alabama, which means incumbent Sen. Doug Jones (D) is likely to have a tough re-election bid in 2020. That said, Byrne will probably not run unopposed in a GOP primary.

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Spotlight turns to the White House's dubious non-disclosure agreements

02/21/19 11:05AM

About a year ago, when White House press briefings still occasionally occurred, a reporter asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders whether officials on Donald Trump's team are asked to sign non-disclosure agreements. "There's an ethics agreement," she replied. "Beyond that, I can't get into any additional details."

As regular readers may recall, it was several months later when Kellyanne Conway seemed to confirm what Sanders would not. "We've all signed them in the West Wing," Conway told ABC News. We have confidentiality agreements in the West Wing, absolutely we do. And why wouldn't we? ... Everybody signs an NDA."

That may not have been an exaggeration. The Daily Beast reports today that when White House interns got to work last month, the orientation process included a specific kind of "ethics training."

Soon enough, according to three sources familiar with the process, a representative from the White House counsel's office materialized to greet the newcomers, and to demand what the Trump White House has required of so many other interns and senior officials.

Upon orientation, the interns signed their very own non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), with the envoy of the counsel's office warning them that a breach of the NDA -- blabbing to the media, for instance -- could result in legal, and thus financial, consequences for them. Interns were also told that they would not receive their own copies, these sources said.

In case this isn't obvious, the idea of having White House interns sign NDAs is kind of bizarre. I can say from my personal experience -- I interned in the White House in 1995 -- that such a practice would've seemed ridiculous in the not-too-distant past.

But the oddity of the practice is only part of the problem.

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U.S.  President Obama meets with President-elect Trump in the White House Oval Office in Washington

Trump convinces himself other countries wouldn't talk to Obama

02/21/19 10:23AM

At a brief Q&A with reporters yesterday in the Oval Office, Donald Trump was asked about possibly imposing new tariffs on his European allies. The American president, sitting alongside Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, meandered for a while, before sharing a familiar argument:

"[T]he bottom-line result is whether or not we can make a deal with the EU that's fair. We you we lose about $151 billion trading with the EU. That's a lot of money. And this is been going on for many years.

"They wouldn't meet with the Obama administration and they're meeting with us. So we'll see what happens. We'll see what happens."

Right off the bat, Trump made clear that he's still badly confused about the most basic trade details. He not only exaggerated the size of the U.S. trade deficit with the European Union -- the $151 billion figure ignores services trade -- the Republican also characterized the trade imbalance as proof of the United States "losing" money. That continues to be both wrong and bizarre.

But it's that other point that stood out for me: in Trump's mind, E.U. trade officials "wouldn't meet with the Obama administration." That's true, just so long as one overlooks all of the meetings E.U. trade officials had with the Obama administration.

I wish I knew where Trump came up with this stuff. As the Toronto Star's Daniel Dale has noted more than once, the European Union engaged in "full-scale trade negotiations, on a proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, for three years with Obama."

Circling back to our previous coverage, while "Trump lies about his predecessor" isn't exactly an unfamiliar story, this is a very specific kind of lie, which Trump seems to turn to with unsettling frequency.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump seems unaware of his plan to end criminalization of homosexuality

02/21/19 09:20AM

U.S. officials told NBC News this week that the Trump administration is launching "a global campaign to end the criminalization of homosexuality in dozens of nations where it's still illegal to be gay." The effort will be led by Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, who is also the highest-profile openly gay person in the administration.

Wouldn't a progressive goal like this face pushback from the White House's far-right base? Grenell told NBC News that the initiative has broad, bipartisan support. Asked specifically whether Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Trump himself were on board with his efforts, Grenell added that "decriminalizing homosexuality is something that people absolutely agree is a policy that we have to move forward on."

It was against this backdrop that the president fielded a question on the subject during a brief Q&A with reporters in the Oval Office yesterday.

Q: Mr. President, on your push to decriminalize homosexuality, are you doing that? And why?

TRUMP: Say it?

Q: Your push to decriminalize homosexuality around the world.

TRUMP: I don't know which report you're talking about. We have many reports. Anybody else?

Occasionally, the president will try to be coy on a subject he's reluctant to talk about, but watching the clip, Trump seemed genuinely confused. He didn't appear to have any idea what the reporter was referring to.

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