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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 5.16.18

05/16/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Look for more on this on tonight's show: "President Donald Trump reported that he reimbursed personal attorney Michael Cohen for costs apparently incurred in paying adult film star Stormy Daniels for a nondisclosure agreement, according to a federally required annual financial disclosure form released by the Office of Government Ethics on Wednesday."

* North Korea "canceled high-level talks with South Korea on Wednesday and threatened to walk away from a historic summit with President Donald Trump to protest ongoing military exercises involving the U.S."

* More fallout: "Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis said Wednesday that its top lawyer is retiring over a deal to hire U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, as a consultant."

* The final vote was 52 to 47: "The U.S. Senate voted on Wednesday to save net neutrality, marking only the second time Congress has taken any significant legislative stance on the contentious topic."

* In case you missed last night's show: "A federal judge in Washington refused Tuesday to throw out criminal charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort."

* The latest investigation: "The Justice Department and the F.B.I. are investigating Cambridge Analytica, the now-defunct political data firm, and have sought to question former employees and banks that handled its business, according to an American official and other people familiar with the inquiry."

* Not surprising: "The Trump administration disbanded a federal advisory committee on climate change last year because of concerns that it did not have enough industry representatives, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act."

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Image: US Secretary of State Tillerson rebukes resignation reports

Tillerson appears to send a not-so-subtle shot across Trump's bow

05/16/18 03:02PM

At a distance, Rex Tillerson did not appear to enjoy his 13-month tenure as Donald Trump's secretary of state. Not to put too fine a point on this, but the nation's former chief diplomat found himself marginalized and ignored by a president he considered to be a "f***ing moron."

Two months after his departure from Trump's cabinet, there's reason to believe Tillerson harbors some ill will toward his former boss.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took an apparent jab at President Donald Trump Wednesday during a commencement speech to graduates at the Virginia Military Institute, in which he deplored the nation's "growing crisis in ethics and integrity" and leaders who "conceal the truth."

Tillerson, who was fired by a Trump tweet as the country's top diplomat in March and replaced with then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, called on the graduates to maintain a "fierce defense of the truth."

"As I reflect upon the state of our American democracy, I observe a growing crisis in ethics and integrity," he said at the VMI commencement ceremony. "If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom."

Tillerson went on to say, "When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth, even on what may seem the most trivial of matters, we go wobbly on America."

Now, it's certainly possible that this is just a remarkable coincidence. Maybe Tillerson is concerned about our "growing crisis in ethics and integrity," leaders who "conceal the truth," and people who "become accepting of alternative realities," and none of this had anything to do with Donald Trump and his team.

But I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the former secretary of state was thinking of someone very specific when he made these comments, and he chose his words carefully so that we'd appreciate his meaning.

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Image: APEC Summit 2017 in Vietnam

Senate Intel acknowledges what the GOP denies: Russia backed Trump

05/16/18 02:09PM

Two months ago, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee abruptly ended their absurd investigation into the Russia scandal and released a document that echoed the White House's talking points. One of their conclusions was especially jarring.

While U.S. intelligence professionals concluded that Russian operatives launched their 2016 intelligence operation in order to help put Donald Trump in power, these House GOP lawmakers decided to reject this politically inconvenient conclusion. To hear them tell it, the evidence showed that Vladimir Putin simply wanted to sow discord, and didn't prefer the Republican ticket over the Democratic one.

Fortunately, their Senate counterparts were more responsible. The Washington Post  reported this afternoon:

The Senate Intelligence Committee has determined that the intelligence community was correct in assessing that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. election with the aim of helping then-candidate Donald Trump, contradicting findings House Republicans reached last month.

"Our staff concluded that the [intelligence community's] conclusions were accurate and on point," the panel's vice chairman, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), said Wednesday in a joint statement with Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), its chairman. "The Russian effort was extensive, sophisticated, and ordered by President Putin himself for the purpose of helping Donald Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton," Warner continued.

The Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation is ongoing, and today's determination does not address the collusion question. It does, however, acknowledge the reality that Putin specifically backed the Republican ticket during Trump's 2016 campaign.

Which isn't going to please Trump. Indeed, he's invested considerable energy in trying to convince people not to believe their lying eyes -- because in the president's mind, Russia actually wanted Clinton to win, notwithstanding the Russian efforts to make sure she lost.

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Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful, Mass. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Malden, smiles as he asks commuters for their vote while campaigning at North Station in Boston, Monday, April 29, 2013. Markey and U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Boston, vying for their party's...

Senate Democrats to force a vote on net neutrality

05/16/18 12:56PM

In December, the Federal Communications Commission's Republican members officially killed Obama-era net neutrality rules. It was the completion of a plan shaped by Donald Trump, who appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to his current post last year.

The specific regulations, however, are still in place, though not for much longer: effective June 11, service providers will no longer have to treat all online content equally. Democratic proponents of net neutrality still act as if they have a shot at rescuing the policy before that deadline, and as the Washington Post  reports, the first key step will happen on the Senate floor this afternoon.

The Senate is expected to vote Wednesday on a resolution that aims to undo a sweeping act of deregulation undertaken last year by the Federal Communications Commission -- and issue a rebuke to the Trump administration, which supported the FCC's move. [...]

If successful, the legislative gambit could restore the agency's regulations and hand a victory to tech companies, activists and consumer advocacy groups.

As a rule, the Senate's Democratic minority has very little power over what measures reach the chamber's floor for a vote, but in this case, the party is effectively executing a careful strategy.

To save net neutrality, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) filed something called a discharge petition, which skips the committee process, and which enjoys the support of 50 senators. In this case, net neutrality is backed by all 49 members of the Senate Democratic conference, plus Maine's Susan Collins (R).

When the resolution, which would block the FCC's decision through the Congressional Review Act, reaches the floor, it cannot be filibustered. If it gets a simple majority, it passes. Barring any last-minutes changes of heart or unexpected absences, it's likely today's vote will succeed.

So is that it? Will net neutrality survive after all? Not so fast.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.16.18

05/16/18 12:00PM

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

* In Pennsylvania, Democrat Helen Tai won a state House special election yesterday, flipping a "red" seat that Donald Trump and Mitt Romney narrowly carried. It's the 41st state legislative seat Democrats have flipped since Trump took office.

* Elsewhere in the Keystone State, four women -- Madeleine Dean, Chrissy Houlahan, Mary Gay Scanlon and Susan Wild -- won Democratic congressional primaries in a state that currently has an all-male congressional delegation. In light of Pennsylvania's new district map, some of these women are very likely to win in November. (Note, Wild narrowly defeated John Morganelli, who recently made headlines for his pro-Trump, anti-progressive record.)

* Losing hurts, but losing twice in three months hurts more: Pennsylvania's Rick Saccone (R), who lost a congressional special election to Rep. Conor Lamb (D) in March, also lost a congressional primary yesterday.

* Pennsylvania Republicans' statewide ticket will apparently be led by two Trump-like candidates: Rep. Lou Barletta won the GOP's Senate primary, while state lawmaker Scott Wagner, won the party's gubernatorial primary. Both are immigration hard-liners.

* In one of yesterday's bigger upsets, former Rep. Brad Ashford's (D) comeback bid in Nebraska's 2nd congressional district was derailed by progressive Kara Eastman, who narrowly defeated him in a Democratic primary. She'll face Rep. Don Bacon (R) in the fall.

* In Idaho's very competitive Republican gubernatorial primary, Lt. Gov. Brad Little defeated Rep. Raul Labrador, perhaps best known for his role in the House Freedom Caucus. Come January, it looks like Labrador will no longer hold elected office.

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Trump provides billionaire donor with key intelligence post

05/16/18 11:20AM

Immediately after taking office, Donald Trump made a series of controversial moves, but one that was never fully explained involved a billionaire donor named Steve Feinberg.

In mid-February 2017, the new Republican president invited Feinberg, a Republican contributor and the founder of a successful investment firm called Cerberus Capital Management, to "conduct a review of U.S. intelligence agencies." Feinberg had no experience in this area, though his firm owns a defense contractor.

A controversy ensued -- the Director of National Intelligence reportedly wasn't pleased with the idea -- and as best as I can tell, Feinberg's audit never actually happened. Indeed, he needed to be cleared by the Office of Government Ethics, and given Feinberg's work in the private sector, that would've been more than a little complicated.

But the billionaire, who contributed generously to a pro-Trump PAC shortly before the 2016 election, remained in the president's orbit. In March 2017, for reasons that weren't altogether clear, Feinberg joined Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis on a trip to Virginia to see a new aircraft carrier. A few months later, the White House invited Feinberg and Blackwater founder Erik Price to propose "alternatives to the Pentagon's plan to send thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan."

Feinberg was also reportedly under consideration for a role at the Pentagon or the Department of Homeland Security, though he was, by one account, "blocked by senior officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis."

All of which led to late last week, when the president finally found a formal position for his pal. Vox explained:

The White House on Friday announced Trump's plans to appoint Feinberg, 58, to become chairman of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, a group that reviews the intelligence community. [...]

Under Trump, the board hasn't had any members. Feinberg, however, doesn't have any experience in the intelligence field.

The news doesn't come as a complete surprise, but it's curious nevertheless.

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House Homeland Security Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., speaks during a news conference with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 10, 2018.

Arizona's McSally offers a case study in GOP primary politics

05/16/18 10:40AM

Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) represents Arizona's 2nd congressional district, which is one of the most competitive in the Southwest. Indeed, when she first won her seat in 2014, the Arizona Republican eked out a 167-vote victory -- a margin of 0.08% of the vote.

And with this in mind, McSally has been eager to present herself as a relative moderate in Republican politics, even co-sponsoring a center-right Republican bill called the "Recognizing America's Children Act," designed to create a pathway to citizenship for many young undocumented immigrants popularly known as Dreamers. She spent much of 2017 championing the bill.

McSally then became a Senate candidate, running in a statewide Republican primary. HuffPost noted what happened next.

Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) withdrew her co-sponsorship of immigration legislation that would help young undocumented immigrants, as she fends off challenges from the right in her bid for her party's Senate nomination.

McSally is in a tight race for her party's Senate nomination for the open seat being vacated by GOP Sen. Jeff Flake. The congresswoman has the backing of party leaders, but her opponents in the primary include conservative favorite Kelli Ward, who has the support of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), former White House aide Steve Bannon and right-wing pundits Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, another right-wing darling for his harsh opposition to undocumented immigration, is also in the race.

In theory, McSally could've used her less-reactionary position on immigration to differentiate herself from her rival GOP candidates, but aware of Arizona Republicans' attitudes on this subject, she instead went to the House floor late last week to formally end her support for the moderate immigration legislation she backed for more than a year.

This is how Republican primaries work in 2018.

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Law enforcement officers, including a sniper perched atop an armored vehicle, watch as demonstrators protest the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo.

Trump badly flubs facts on militarizing local police

05/16/18 10:00AM

Donald Trump spoke at the annual National Peace Officers' Memorial event in D.C. yesterday, and managed to say several things that weren't true, though one claim in particular stood out for me.

For example. the president focused some attention on deceased border patrol agent, Rogelio Martinez, but he echoed several dubious claims that are popular in conservative media, which aren't necessarily bolstered by the evidence. Trump also spoke about law-enforcement fatalities in a way that painted a misleading picture.

But what struck me as especially notable was the Republican's assertion that his administration is "allowing local police to access the surplus military equipment they need to protect our officers and law enforcement agents and save their lives." He added, "And they are taking equipment at a record clip."

Is that true? Actually, no. USA Today had an interesting report on this about a month ago, pointing to data that shows the opposite of what the president claimed yesterday.

The amount of surplus military equipment sent to local police departments across the nation has sharply declined in recent months despite an executive order President Trump signed that was intended to increase those transfers, a USA TODAY analysis has found.

Shipments of military gear in the first three months of 2018 fell by half compared with the same period last year, Department of Defense data show. The amount of armored vehicles, high-caliber rifles and other equipment measured by dollar value also slid.

A New York Times  report, relying data from the Defense Logistics Agency, which oversees the transfers, added, "[S]o far in the 2018 fiscal year, law enforcement agencies received a monthly average of $14 million worth of military supplies. In the 2017 fiscal year -- which included several months of the Obama presidency -- that number was about $42 million worth of supplies per month. The monthly average was even higher in the 2016 fiscal year at $43 million, and peaked at $82 million in the 2014 fiscal year."

The broader question, though, is why Trump made the claim that's not true.

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Image: FILE PHOTO: EPA Administrator Pruitt testifies before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington

But his emails: EPA's Pruitt faces yet another investigation

05/16/18 09:20AM

Before Scott Pruitt became the scandal-plagued administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, he was a scandal-plagued Republican official in Oklahoma. In fact, as regular readers may recall, before Pruitt joined Donald Trump's cabinet, he faced questions about hiding official emails that documented his cooperation with the oil and gas industries.

He also used multiple email accounts, including conducting official business on a private account, despite telling Congress the opposite.

Once Pruitt took the reins at the EPA, he returned to his old ways, utilizing four separate email accounts, and as of yesterday, the agency's inspector general has decided this is worthy of closer scrutiny. The Associated Press reported:

Inspector General Arthur Elkins said in a letter released Tuesday that his office will review the matter, the latest in a series of federal investigations of Pruitt's travel, security and spending and other issues.

The request for the email investigation came from Democratic Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware and Jeffrey Merkley of Oregon. Carper released a copy of the IG's response.

The senators asked the IG to review whether Pruitt was complying with federal law and EPA policy when using multiple email accounts and whether all accounts are searched when responding to Freedom of Information Act requests.

I can't help but wonder how much attention a story like this will generate. Remind me, does the political mainstream care about cabinet secretaries and their email practices?

Putting that aside, some of you might be thinking right about now, "Wait, wasn't this already the subject of an investigation?" I'm glad you asked.

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A person man uses a laptop. (Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa/AP)

Team Trump picks an odd time to scrap top cyber-security position

05/16/18 08:41AM

At a congressional hearing in February, the top intelligence and law enforcement officials from the Trump administration expressed serious concerns about Russian intentions to once again attack U.S. elections, likely through cyber attacks. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) then pressed the officials on whether Donald Trump had directed any of them to take "specific actions to confront and to blunt" Russian interference activities.

As regular readers may recall, the administration officials hemmed and hawed, but none pointed to any specific presidential directives.

Two weeks later, something similar happened: the head of the National Security Agency said he had not been authorized by Trump to disrupt Russian cyber-attacks targeting our elections.

And yesterday, the Trump White House went just a little further, eliminating the job of the nation's cyber-security czar.

Trump signed an executive order rearranging the federal information technology infrastructure that includes no mention of the White House cybersecurity coordinator or of a replacement for Rob Joyce, who said last month that he is leaving the position to return to the National Security Agency, where he previously directed cyber-defense programs. [...]

John Bolton, Trump's new national security adviser, has widely been reported to have sought to eliminate the job as part of a top-to-bottom reorganization of the National Security Council. Joyce and his predecessors reported to the president; the senior NSC directors report to Bolton.

The outgoing White House cyber-security coordinator's responsibilities will now shift to two other members of the NSC's team -- one of whom has little background in this area.

Politico, which first raised the prospect of this happening, broke the story yesterday.

A New York Times  report added, "Cybersecurity experts and members of Congress said they were mystified by the move.... It was the latest in a series of steps that appeared to run counter to the prevailing view in Washington of cybersecurity's importance."

The cynical among us might be tempted to note that Trump, the beneficiary of a foreign adversary's cyber-attacks on our elections, doesn't seem altogether eager to defend the United States against the next expected offensive.

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Image: President Trump attends Republican policy luncheon at the US Capitol

In face-to-face meeting, Senate GOP fails to confront Trump

05/16/18 08:00AM

When Barack Obama would make annual trips to Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Democrats, the then-president routinely got an earful from his allies. As Adam Jentleson, a top aide to former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, noted yesterday, members routinely "confronted" Obama -- in a forceful but respectful manner -- "with disagreements on many issues."

With this in mind, when Donald Trump went to the Hill to meet with Senate Republicans yesterday, there was an opportunity for real fireworks. GOP senators have voiced quite a few concerns lately about, among other things, the White House's criticisms of John McCain, Trump's eagerness to help China's ZTE, the president's trade tariffs, and a variety of ongoing Trump-related scandals.

But given an opportunity to confront their party's president, Senate Republicans balked. As NBC News' report put it, "[T]he elephants in the room didn't want to talk about the elephants in the room."

Instead, after Trump spoke of shared legislative accomplishments, his confidence that Republicans can win in the upcoming midterm elections and the foreign policy victories he expects in the near future, there were just two questions -- statements, really, according to Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. -- about immigration and about how well Republicans have done with power in Washington.

What about the questions on McCain, China, trade, and Trump's scandals? There weren't any.

What's more, while these meetings traditionally include some version of marching orders from a president to his legislative allies, Trump evidently didn't have any meaningful instructions for the Senate Republican majority, either. The GOP officials appear to have spent an hour reflecting on how impressed they are with their own awesomeness.

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