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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke delivers a speech billed as "A Vision for American Energy Dominance" at the Heritage Foundation on September 29, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Interior Secretary claims to be a geologist, despite the evidence

04/17/18 10:44AM

It's been challenging trying to keep up with all of the various controversies surrounding Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, but CNN uncovered a new one that's surprising, even for one of the most scandal-plagued members of Donald Trump's cabinet.

If you've heard Zinke speak on his work at Interior, you've probably heard him talk about being a geologist. He's made the boast dozens of times since joining the president's cabinet, including during congressional testimony while under oath, often as a way of bolstering the weight of his policy decisions. As the argument goes, Zinke must be right about everything from climate change to endangered species to oil drilling -- because he's a geologist.

But what if he's used the label about his professional background in a misleading way?

Zinke, however, has never held a job as a geologist. In his autobiography, Zinke wrote that he majored in geology at the University of Oregon, which he attended on a football scholarship, and chose his major at random.

"I studied geology as a result of closing my eyes and randomly pointing to a major from the academic catalog, and I never looked back. I am just glad I did not find electronics," he wrote, adding that he was focused and a good student, and earned an outstanding academic achievement award his senior year.

After getting his degree 34 years ago, Zinke considered a career in geology, but instead chose a military path before entering politics.

Or put another way, despite his frequent claims to being a geologist, Zinke doesn't appear to have ever done any real work in geology, at least not since randomly choosing to be a geology major a few decades ago as an undergraduate.

This is a pretty remarkable thing for a cabinet secretary to make dubious claims about, but it's not the only embarrassing story Zinke is dealing with right now.

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Image: Donald Trump

On China, Trump tries and fails to keep his story straight

04/17/18 10:00AM

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump seemed quite animated on the issue of China and its alleged currency manipulation. He vowed to label China a currency manipulator literally on his first day in office.

The president quickly broke that promise, but the Republican nevertheless railed against Beijing after taking office. In March 2017, Trump blasted China as the "grand champions" of currency manipulation. Soon after, he called China the "world champion" of currency manipulation. It was therefore kind of amusing when Trump declared a year ago that China actually isn't manipulating its currency.

It was around this time that China's state-run media published headlines such as, "Trump slaps self in face, again."

Six months later, it was again time for the American president to make a designation on China, and again, Trump said China wasn't manipulating its currency. The pattern continued late last week.

The Trump administration, which has been on the verge of a trade war with China, opted on Friday not to label the country a currency manipulator, breaking a key campaign promise by President Trump to punish a government he has called the "greatest currency manipulators ever."

The Treasury Department, in its biannual currency exchange report, scolded China for its lack of progress in reducing the bilateral trade deficit with the United States, but did not find that it was improperly devaluing its currency, known as the renminbi.

At face value, the disconnect is jarring. Before and after the 2016 election, Trump went after Beijing aggressively on currency manipulation, only to quietly slink away when it came time to put his policies where his mouth was.

But complicating matters further is the president's willingness to ignore his own administration.

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Image: U.S. President Trump celebrates with Republican House members after healthcare bill vote at the White House in Washington

Republicans expected their tax plan to be popular by now (but it's not)

04/17/18 09:20AM

Pointing to nothing in particular, Donald Trump declared this morning, "So many people are seeing the benefits of the Tax Cut Bill. Everyone is talking, really nice to see!"

In reality, of course, everyone isn't talking about the Republican tax plan, and there's nothing especially "nice" about public attitudes on the subject. Perhaps someone should show the president the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal  poll.

The new poll found that 27% of respondents thought the law was a good idea, while 36% thought it was a bad idea. Opinion split largely along party lines, but even among Republicans support was far from unanimous: 56% of Republicans thought the law was a good idea.

"If this is a signature accomplishment Republicans are hoping to run on in November, this is obviously not a good starting point,'' said Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster who helped conduct the survey with Republican Bill McInturff.

It's not the only evidence to consider. Gallup also released a new report yesterday that pointed in a similar direction: "The poll finds no change in Americans' reaction to the law since the last update in February, with 39% saying they approve of it, and little improved over Gallup's initial post-passage reading in January, when 33% approved. The majority, 52%, disapprove of the law."

So where does that leave the law's GOP proponents? Nowhere good.

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An election worker checks a voter's drivers license at a polling place in Charlotte, N.C. March 15, 2016. (Photo by Chris Keane/Reuters)

Wisconsin Republican connects voter ID, GOP wins

04/17/18 08:40AM

It's not exactly a secret that many Republican officials have pushed voting restrictions in recent years as part of a sustained partisan campaign. The most common voter-suppression tactic, of course, are voter-ID laws.

To hear proponents tell it, these measures are simply intended to prevent fraud, and are completely unrelated to helping one party's candidates over another. Once in a while, though, someone will slip up and offer some accidental candor. Mother Jones' Ari Berman reported yesterday afternoon:

Election officials and Democrats in Wisconsin have repeatedly argued that the state's strict voter ID law allowed Donald Trump to win the state in 2016 by keeping thousands of voters -- predominantly in Democratic-leaning areas -- from the polls. Now a top Republican official in the state is saying the same thing.

"We battled to get voter ID on the ballot for the November '16 election," Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, who defended the law in court, told conservative radio host Vicki McKenna on April 12. "How many of your listeners really honestly are sure that Sen. [Ron] Johnson was going to win re-election or President Trump was going to win Wisconsin if we didn't have voter ID to keep Wisconsin's elections clean and honest and have integrity?"

To the extent that reality matters, there was nothing wrong with Wisconsin's elections before Republicans imposed their voter-ID law on the state. The "problem" GOP lawmakers set out to "fix" didn't exist.

And with this in mind, there's no reason to accept that part of Brad Schimel's boast at face value. The state's voter-suppression measure didn't keep Wisconsin's elections any more "clean and honest" than they otherwise would've been, but they did help keep tens of thousands of voters in traditionally Democratic areas from participating in the 2016 election -- a cycle where Donald Trump won the state by 22,000 votes, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate in more than three decades to win Wisconsin.

What's more interesting, of course, is the state attorney general's willingness to connect the voter-ID law with the partisan outcome he wanted to see. This doesn't happen often, but it's not unprecedented, either.

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Image: U.S. President Donald Trump signs a presidential proclamation placing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports while surrounded by workers from the steel and aluminum industries at the White House in Washington

Trump halts his own team's plans for sanctions on Russia

04/17/18 08:00AM

On CBS's "Face the Nation," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley didn't just defend the airstrikes in Syria that Donald Trump had approved two days earlier; she also made some news about the Assad regime's allies.

Asked if Syria's patrons would face any new consequences, Haley replied, "Absolutely. So you will see that Russian sanctions will be coming down. [Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin] will be announcing those on Monday, if he hasn't already."

The Putin government, not surprisingly, condemned the administration's plans. Soon after, as the Washington Post reported, Trump decided to "put the brakes on" the whole idea.

... Trump conferred with his national security advisers later Sunday and told them he was upset the sanctions were being officially rolled out because he was not yet comfortable executing them, according to several people familiar with the plan.

Administration officials said the economic sanctions were under serious consideration, along with other measures that could be taken against Russia, but said Trump had not given final authorization to implement them. Administration officials said Monday it was unlikely Trump would approve any additional sanctions without another triggering event by Russia, describing the strategy as being in a holding pattern.

The article added that after Haley's on-air comments, "the Trump administration notified the Russian Embassy in Washington that the sanctions were not in fact coming, a Russian Foreign Ministry official said Monday."

This is, of course, a pretty dramatic reversal. As of Sunday morning, one of the Trump administration's top voices on foreign policy told the world -- in no uncertain terms -- that Russia would soon face a new round of economic sanctions. By the time the new sanctions were supposed to be announced, the president had decided to halt the entire plan and notify Russian officials to effectively disregard what Nikki Haley had said.

There are two broad takeaways from a story like this. The first is that the American president sure does seem cautious when it comes to taking actions that Moscow won't like. I wonder why that is.

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Monday's Mini-Report, 4.16.18

04/16/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* AUMF: "Two senators are set to unveil an updated war authorization as early as Monday that would allow the president to extend the war on terror in places such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen where the U.S. is fighting terrorism groups, but it is also an effort to place new checks on the president in what has been an open-ended, multi-faceted conflict."

* A case worth watching: "Consumers nationwide would pay more for what they buy online if South Dakota gets its way before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case to be argued Tuesday."

* The right call: "A federal judge late Friday barred the federal government from implementing President Donald Trump's ban on transgender members of the military, finding that the ban had to be subject to a careful court review before implementation because of the history of discrimination against transgender individuals."

* I wonder what Candidate Trump would think: "The Trump administration, which has been on the verge of a trade war with China, opted on Friday not to label the country a currency manipulator, breaking a key campaign promise by President Trump to punish a government he has called the 'greatest currency manipulators ever.'"

* Sitting while black: "Two black men who were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks last week for allegedly trespassing are now going to the front of the line -- they'll be meeting with the CEO, a company spokesperson said on Monday."

* Lawmakers should take note: "Hundreds of former Justice Department employees are now urging Congress to 'swiftly and forcefully respond' should President Trump fire Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, or Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who is overseeing the federal probe."

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In this March 4, 2016, file photo, Sean Hannity of Fox News arrives in National Harbor, Md.

Michael Cohen surprises with third client announcement: Sean Hannity

04/16/18 05:00PM

Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's personal attorney, has suddenly found himself in a difficult legal position.  Last week, FBI agents raided his office and hotel room; a variety of Cohen's materials are now in the hands of federal law enforcement; and by some accounts, the New York attorney is currently under a criminal investigation.

It's against this backdrop that Cohen has said he only has three clients. One is the president, whom Cohen has tried to help by, among other things, paying hush money to a former Trump mistress. One is Elliott Broidy, the former deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, whom Cohen helped when Broidy wanted to pay off a former Playboy playmate mistress he impregnated.

The third is someone Cohen did not want to identify. Today in court, he wasn't given a choice.

Sean Hannity, the Fox News host who has been waging war on the air against special counsel Robert Mueller and is an outspoken advocate for President Donald Trump, was revealed Monday as one of only three clients that Michael Cohen, the president's personal attorney, had during 2017 and 2018.

By some accounts, "a gasp was heard in the courtroom" when Cohen's lawyer disclosed Hannity's name.

The Fox News personality soon after confirmed receiving legal guidance Cohen, though Hannity tried to emphasize a degree of informality in the arrangement.

Hannity, of course, has been a prominent voice in conservative media condemning the FBI's raid on Cohen's office, though he failed to disclose that he's one of Cohen's three clients.

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U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement from the Roosevelt Room next to the empty chairs of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (L), D-New York, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (R), D-California, after they cancelled their meeting at the Whi

The list of lawyers who don't want Trump as a client keeps growing

04/16/18 02:49PM

As far as Donald Trump is concerned, "many lawyers and top law firms" want to represent him in the Russia case. Given what we now know, that's demonstrably untrue.

CNN reported earlier today that yet another white-collar lawyer has turned down the opportunity to serve on the president's private legal defense team, "citing an unidentified conflict."

People close to Trump contacted New York attorney Steven Molo, a former prosecutor who specializes in white collar defense and court room litigation, in recent weeks following the departure of attorney John Dowd from Trump's personal legal team.

Molo is only the latest attorney to receive an invitation to help Trump during special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the 2016 campaign and any possible dealings with Russia.

It's worth noting that the Molo news hasn't been independently confirmed by NBC News or other major outlets.

That said, if the CNN report is accurate, what's the new total of lawyers who've turned Trump down? I'm glad you asked.

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Image: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks during President Trump's infrastructure meeting at the White House in Washington

The soundproof phone booth for the EPA's Pruitt wasn't legal

04/16/18 12:50PM

Despite the apparent lack of threats, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has apparently been preoccupied with his personal safety throughout much of his tenure. The New York Times  reported two weeks ago, for example, that a bulletproof vehicle and a bulletproof desk were among the items discussed for the far-right Oklahoman.

This fit into an amazing pattern. Pruitt, for example, has a massive, around-the-clock security detail. He's spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on a professional sweep of his office searching for possible surveillance devices. He's spent thousands more on first-class air travel, apparently afraid of the riff raff who fly coach. CNN reported that the EPA's custodial staff is not allowed to enter Pruitt's office on their own, and in the hallway around Pruitt's office, "security employees check government IDs against a list of employees who are approved for access."

But one purchase in particular has come to symbolize Pruitt's paranoid excesses: he spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on a soundproof phone booth for reasons that have never made any sense. The Washington Post  reported this morning that the purchase wasn't quite legal.

The $43,000 soundproof phone booth that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt had installed in his office last year violated federal spending laws, the Government Accountability Office said Monday.

In an eight-page letter to lawmakers, GAO general counsel Thomas H. Armstrong said the agency failed to notify lawmakers that it was exceeding the $5,000 limit for agency heads to furnish, redecorate or otherwise make improvements to their offices. In addition, Armstrong wrote, the agency also violated the federal Antideficiency Act, "because EPA obligated appropriated funds in a manner specifically prohibited by law."

If the $43,000 price tag sounds higher than initial estimates, it's because the original price didn't include additional costs associated with making the booth fit in the closet where Pruitt wanted it.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.16.18

04/16/18 12:00PM

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

* In the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal  poll, the Democratic advantage over Republicans on the generic congressional ballot is seven points, 47% to 40%, down from 10 points in March. That said, among high-interest voters, the Democratic lead swells to 21 points.

* The same poll showed Donald Trump's approval rating slipping to 39% from 43% in March.

* In the new Washington Post/ABC News poll, Dems are up by 10 on the generic congressional ballot among all U.S. adults, 50% to 40%. But among registered voters who say they're certain to vote, the Democratic lead is 49% to 44%.

* The same poll found the president's approval rating inching a little higher to 40%.

* In the race to replace him, outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has now officially thrown his support behind House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

* Increasingly worried about coal baron Don Blankenship's possible victory in a Republican Senate primary in West Virginia, Republican insiders have created a new super PAC, the "Mountain Families PAC," to help undermine his candidacy.

* The pro-Trump America First Action Super PAC accepted $500,000 from disgraced former RNC Finance Chairman Steve Wynn. The group is now refusing to give back the money, despite Wynn's scandals.

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