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Surveying hurricane damage, Trump struggles with his latest empathy test

09/20/18 08:00AM

Donald Trump traveled to North Carolina yesterday, visiting an area hard hit by Hurricane Florence and the flooding that followed the storm. At one point, he spoke to a homeowner with a yacht in his backyard.

As the Washington Post  reported, the president appeared to take a keen interest in the boat.

"Is this your boat? Or ... did it become your boat?" Trump asked the man who lived in the house where the boat was now inadvertently and incongruously docked.

No, it was not his boat, the homeowner replied, according to the pool report, which didn't identify residents by name.

Trump returned his gaze to the vessel, which was white with brown accents and balanced at a precarious angle.

"At least you got a nice boat out of the deal," he said, with a smile.

Later, a reporter asked the president to reflect on what he'd seen in the affected area. "I think it's incredible, I think it's incredible," Trump said. "To see what we're seeing -- this boat, I don't know what happened, but this boat just came here. And do you know whose boat that is? They don't know whose boat that it."

He reportedly added, "What's the law? Maybe it becomes theirs."

It's entirely possible the president takes the "finders keepers" maxim a bit too literally.

Whether Trump was kidding or not is unclear, but either way, this was an opportunity for the president to console a community that's suffered a great ordeal. To do so effectively would've required a degree of empathy.

And that's not exactly a key element of Donald Trump's skill-set.

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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 9.19.18

09/19/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Today's mass shooting: "At least three people were injured in a shooting at an office building in Middleton, Wisconsin, authorities said. Police shot and killed the gunman, who hadn't been identified. University of Wisconsin Health University Hospital received four patients from the shooting, said a spokeswoman, Lisa Brunette."

* Today's other mass shooting: "At least five people were shot inside a magisterial district judge's office in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The shooting took place around 2 p.m. Wednesday afternoon in Masontown, which is about 65 miles south of Pittsburgh."

* Korean talks: "Kim Jong-un, North Korea's leader, finally committed on Wednesday to some concrete steps toward denuclearization -- most notably an offer to 'permanently dismantle' facilities that are central to the production of fuel for nuclear warheads -- but they fell far short of what American officials have demanded."

* Migrant kids: "The Trump administration is unable to account for the whereabouts of nearly 1,500 migrant children who illegally entered the United States alone this year and were placed with sponsors after leaving federal shelters, according to congressional findings released on Tuesday."

* New information: "A former schoolmate of Brett Kavanaugh's accuser wrote a Facebook post saying she recalls hearing about the alleged assault incident involving the future Supreme Court nominee, though she says she has no first-hand information to corroborate the accuser's claims."

* The shutdown decision will rest solely with Trump: "The Senate on Tuesday passed a short-term spending bill that would keep the government running through Dec. 7, aiming to avert a government shutdown and put off a fight over funding for President Trump's border wall until after the midterm elections."

* FEMA's John Veatch: "A senior FEMA official has been suspended without pay in connection with a Department of Homeland Security inspector general investigation into the improper use of government vehicles by FEMA administrator Brock Long, according to two current government officials."

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In odd White House video, Trump reflects on the wetness of water

09/19/18 03:36PM

Over the last several weeks, Donald Trump has recorded a series of video messages, each of which he promotes via social media, featuring the president speaking extemporaneously on topics of the day. They're nearly always odd, largely because they require Trump to speak with some eloquence for a couple of minutes in a solo monologue -- and as he's probably realizing, that's tougher than it looks.

Yesterday afternoon, for example, the president recorded an 82-second video on Hurricane Florence, in which he thanked first-responders and other emergency officials. If he'd left it at that, the message would've been largely unremarkable.

But Trump being Trump, he felt the need to keep the stream-of-consciousness message going.

"This is a tough hurricane, one of the wettest we've ever seen from the standpoint of water."

As opposed to some other standpoint? The video came a week after the president had a related message on preparations ahead of the storm, when he said:

"Bad things can happen when you're talking about a storm this size. It's called Mother Nature. You never know, but we know."

I still don't know what that means. Who's "we"? What is it that they know about nature that the rest of don't?

Perhaps my favorite was the very first video message, released about a month ago, when Trump declared, "'Made in America' is back. Now, some people would say 'Made in the USA.' I personally don't care."

In response to yesterday's installment, Jon Chait noted, "Watching this video is very much like the common experience of making small talk about the weather with a stranger, except rather than ending the conversation after the normal ten seconds or so, the stranger believes his job and stature require him to elaborate with words that are not at his disposal."

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There's a reason Trump's rhetoric about 'transparency' rings hollow

09/19/18 12:43PM

For the most part, Donald Trump has been quite candid about his motivations for ordering the public release of highly classified materials related to the Russia investigation, ignoring the advice of officials in his own administration. The president has said he's willing to tolerate the potential dangers to the country in order to undermine the ongoing federal probe.

Indeed, in his interview with The Hill, Trump said he wants the cherry-picked documents to be released in the hopes of showing that the investigation is based on a "hoax." The fact that the president hasn't read the materials, and has no idea what they say, apparently wasn't a deterrent.

But there was something else he said about his rationale that stood out for me.

"I have had many people ask me to release them. Not that I didn't like the idea but I wanted to wait, I wanted to see where it was all going," he said.

In the end, he said, his goal was to let the public decide by seeing the documents that have been kept secret for more than two years. "All I want to do is be transparent," he said.

Ah yes, there's that word again. In May, when Trump ordered a highly sensitive intelligence briefing for some members of Congress, in which law enforcement officials were instructed to share information on a confidential human source, the president defended the move by saying, "What I want is I want total transparency.... You have to have transparency."

A few months earlier, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a sycophantic ally of the White House, prepared a "memo" with classified information he wanted to release in order to help Trump. Ignoring the concerns of his own FBI director, the president endorsed the release of the document.

Team Trump insisted at the time, too, that this was all about "transparency."

Now, evidently, the president has re-discovered the rhetorical convenience of the word, which is a shame given the circumstances.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.19.18

09/19/18 12:00PM

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

* In Wisconsin, a Marquette Law School poll, released yesterday, suggests incumbent Gov. Scott Walker (R) may not get the third term he's seeking: the survey found Tony Evers (D) with a five-point lead, 49% to 44%.

* On a related note, the same poll found incumbent Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) well positioned against Leah Vukmir (R) in Wisconsin's U.S. Senate race, leading 53% to 42%.

* Though several recent polls have shows Sen. Ted Cruz (R) with narrow leads over Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D) in Texas, a Quinnipiac poll released yesterday found the incumbent with a more comfortable 54% to 45% advantage.

* As for Texas' gubernatorial race, the same Quinnipiac findings suggest incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is a safe bet to win re-election: he leads former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez in the poll, 58% to 39%.

* In Kansas, the Republican's far-right gubernatorial nominee, Kris Kobach, continues to repel support from key party leaders. Yesterday, former three-term Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) announced her support for the Democratic nominee, state Sen. Laura Kelly. This comes on the heels of former Gov. Bill Graves (R) doing the same thing, backing a Democrat for the first time in his career.

* Though Dems have fared well in dozens of recent state legislative special elections, Republicans yesterday flipped a state Senate seat in Texas from "blue" to "red."

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Trump: Page surveillance 'one of the great scandals' in US history

09/19/18 11:20AM

Donald Trump's allies have invested a considerable amount of time and energy into a curious idea: U.S. surveillance of Carter Page, a Trump foreign policy adviser in 2016, was an outrageous abuse. As regular readers know, the argument has never really made any sense, but it was nevertheless the motivation behind the laughable "Nunes memo," prepared by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and his team.

In his interview with The Hill, the president made clear that he's still deeply confused about the entire episode.

He criticizing [sic] the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court's approval of the warrant that authorized surveillance of Carter Page, a low-level Trump campaign aide, toward the end of the 2016 election, suggesting the FBI misled the court.

"They know this is one of the great scandals in the history of our country because basically what they did is, they used Carter Page, who nobody even knew, who I feel very badly for, I think he's been treated very badly. They used Carter Page as a foil in order to surveil a candidate for the presidency of the United States."

No, "they" didn't. Trump's conspiracy theory is ridiculous, and this is probably the last hill Republicans should be willing to die on.

In case anyone has forgotten the backstory on Carter Page, we're talking about a man who described himself in writing as an “advisor to the staff of the Kremlin.” Indeed, as we discussed in January, the same year in which Page talked up his Kremlin ties, he was also targeted by a Russian spy ring, drawing FBI scrutiny.

Six months after the spy ring was broken up -- resulting in multiple criminal convictions -- Page joined the Trump campaign as a foreign policy adviser, despite having no apparent qualifications for the job. A few months into his tenure, Page, newly identified by Trump as someone who had the Republican candidate's ear on matters related to international affairs, traveled to Russia, met with prominent foreign officials, and denounced U.S. sanctions against the Putin government.

It was the sort of thing that was likely to capture the interest of U.S. counter-intelligence officials -- and that's exactly what happened. In fact, Page was suspected as a possible agent of a foreign adversary.

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Trump suggests a 'credible showing' from accuser may derail Kavanaugh

09/19/18 10:40AM

Asked at a White House event yesterday about the sexual assault allegation against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump said, "We should go through a process, because there shouldn't even be a little doubt." That probably isn't what Republicans wanted the president to say -- because that's a pretty low standard to clear.

To hear the president tell it, senators should consider the sexual assault allegation raised by Christine Blasey Ford, and when weighing whether to give Kavanaugh a lifetime position on the Supreme Court, there "shouldn't even be a little doubt."

By that reasoning, if there is a little doubt about whether Kavanaugh committed the crime, he shouldn't be confirmed?

This morning, during a brief Q&A with reporters on the White House's South Lawn, Trump went a little further. Referring to Blasey Ford and her possible testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the president said:

"Look, if she shows up and makes a credible showing, that'll be very interesting, and we'll have to make a decision, but I can only say this: he is such an outstanding man [it's] very hard for me to imagine that anything happened."

The second part of that sentence suggests Kavanaugh enjoys the president's strong support. The first part suggests the opposite.

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Trump declares, 'I don't have an Attorney General'

09/19/18 10:00AM

As of a few weeks ago, Donald Trump said he wouldn't fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions before the midterm elections. In the interim, however, the president is also making clear that he holds Sessions in such contempt, he effectively sees the office of the attorney general as empty.

President Trump in an Oval Office interview with Hill.TV launched one of his most ferocious broadsides to date against Jeff Sessions, suggesting the attorney general was essentially AWOL and performing badly on a variety of issues,

"I don't have an Attorney General. It's very sad," Trump told Hill.TV in an extensive and free-wheeling interview Tuesday from the Oval Office.

Way back in 1991, there was an episode of "The Simpsons" in which Bart and Lisa tried to reconcile Krusty the Clown and his estranged father, Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky, who disapproved of his son's line of work. When the kids went to talk to the rabbi about his son, Krustofsky bellowed, "I have no son!" and slammed the door in their face.

"Oh great," Bart said. "We came all this way and it's the wrong guy." Krustofsky then briefly opened the door to explain, "I didn't mean that literally."

Similarly, Trump doesn't literally believe he doesn't have an attorney general; the president just rejects Sessions' tenure with such intensity that he apparently believes Sessions might as well not be there.

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Image: President Trump Hosts The Inaugural Law Enforcement Officers And First Responders Reception At The White House

Trump sees his FBI conflict as one of his 'crowning achievements'

09/19/18 09:20AM

Late Monday afternoon, Donald Trump took the extraordinary step of interfering with an ongoing federal investigation, ordering the public release of highly classified materials related to the Russia investigation. More than a few current and former officials have said the president's political gambit could prove dangerous to U.S. security interests.

Yesterday, the Republican published related tweets on the subject, again falsely claiming that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign, adding, "Really bad things were happening, but they are now being exposed. Big stuff!"

In a new interview with The Hill, Trump went a little further.

President Trump in an exclusive interview with Hill.TV said Tuesday he ordered the release of classified documents in the Russia collusion case to show the public the FBI probe started as a "hoax," and that exposing it could become one of the "crowning achievements" of his presidency.

"What we've done is a great service to the country, really," Trump said in a 45-minute, wide-ranging interview in the Oval Office.

"I hope to be able to call this, along with tax cuts and regulation and all the things I've done ... in its own way this might be the most important thing because this was corrupt," he said.  [...]

Asked what he thought the outcome of his long-running fight with the FBI, the president said: "I hope to be able put this up as one of my crowning achievements that I was able to ... expose something that is truly a cancer in our country."

By all appearances, the corruption at the FBI exists only in Trump's strange imagination. The Conspiracy Theorist in Chief has peddled related claims for months, and waged an unusually aggressively campaign against federal law enforcement, but none of the president's odd claims have stood up to any meaningful scrutiny.

The idea that Trump's war against the FBI would be one of his "crowning achievements" is quite pitiful, and as the Washington Post's Greg Sargent explained very well yesterday, the most likely outcome of the president's latest gambit is that this abuse of power will backfire and make his claims appear even more absurd.

The report added, "Trump said he had not read the documents he ordered declassified but said he expected to show they would prove the FBI case started as a political 'hoax.'"

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Trump feels 'terribly' for Kavanaugh as his accuser flees her home

09/19/18 08:40AM

A reporter asked Donald Trump yesterday whether the FBI should re-open its background investigation into Judge Brett Kavanaugh, in light of the sexual assault allegation raised by Christine Blasey Ford. After the president falsely claimed "that not what they do," referring to FBI officials, he expressed his sympathy -- for his Supreme Court nominee.

"I feel so badly for him that he's going through this, to be honest with you. I feel so badly for him," Trump said. "This is not a man that deserves this.... Honestly, I feel terribly for him, for his wife, who is an incredible, lovely woman, and for his beautiful young daughters. I feel terribly for them."

Under the circumstances, perhaps Kavanaugh isn't the one who deserves the president's compassion.

At 10:28 Tuesday morning, a Twitter account with a white ­nationalist talking point for its handle posted Christine Blasey Ford's personal address.

The account called for "peaceful protests" at Ford's home in Northern California over her accusation that Judge Brett M. ­Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party in the early 1980s when they were teenagers. The allegation was a "hoax" orchestrated by the "deranged left," the account tweeted.

This was at least the third time a Twitter user had "doxed" Ford -- posted her personal information online -- since she revealed her identity to The Washington Post and accused President Trump's Supreme Court nominee of sexual assault.

The Washington Post's report added that Ford and her family "have moved out of their home as a security precaution, and she and her husband are staying apart from their two children."

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