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Friday's Mini-Report, 10.13.17

10/13/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* U.S. allies are outraged by this, while Iranian hardliners are thrilled: "President Donald Trump on Friday threatened to terminate the Iran nuclear deal if Congress doesn't strengthen it, warning the agreement was merely a 'temporary delay' in Tehran's quest to obtain nuclear weapons."

* Wildfires: "Some of the worst wildfires ever to tear through California have killed 31 people and torched a vast area of the state's north this week, but the reach of the blazes is spreading dramatically further by the day, as thick plumes of smoke blow through population centers across the Bay Area."

* I get the feeling the picture out of Las Vegas is growing murkier, not clearer: "The chronology of events in the Las Vegas music festival shooting shifted again Friday when authorities said a hotel security guard injured by the gunman was struck just as the massacre unfolded, and not minutes earlier."

* It's Trump's party now: "A state lawmaker in Indiana has drafted a measure to require licenses for journalists akin to those that pertain to handgun owners, a proposal legal experts says directly violates the First Amendment."

* Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin "has no plans to fill the No. 2 slot in his department after two candidates for the job dropped out of the running. The department made the surprising announcement after Brian Brooks withdrew from consideration for deputy Treasury secretary, according to several people familiar with his decision. In May, Goldman Sachs executive Jim Donovan dropped out due to family concerns."

* Keep an eye on this one: "Republicans are worried about Thad Cochran. The Mississippi senator has been recovering the past several weeks from a urological procedure. And concern is growing on and off Capitol Hill over whether the 79-year-old lawmaker will return to work on Monday when the Senate comes back from recess -- not to mention how long he'll be able to continue leading a high-profile committee or even remain in the Senate."

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen during a press conference at Los Pinos on Aug. 31, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/LatinContent/Getty)

Trump loves to hate the Iran deal, despite not knowing what it is

10/13/17 12:56PM

There's never been any ambiguity about Donald Trump's disgust for the international nuclear agreement with Iran -- to my mind, perhaps the most impressive U.S. diplomatic achievement since the end of the Cold War. There's quite a bit of uncertainty, however, as to whether he knows what the Iran deal actually is.

The Republican has called the deal “terrible” and “horrible.” As a candidate, Trump declared, “My number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” Just one month into his candidacy, he said the Iran deal “poses a direct national security threat.” Two weeks later, Trump added that the international agreement “will go down as one of the dumbest [and] most dangerous misjudgments ever entered into in [the] history of our country.” After wrapping up the GOP nomination, he went so far as to say the deal is likely to “lead to nuclear holocaust.”

As president, Trump has gone into "meltdown" mode when his own team has told him that the policy is actually working as intended, because the facts were simply inconceivable to him. He knows the policy is a disaster, so when reality points in a different direction, Trump finds it necessary to reject reality.

I can't help but wonder, though, if maybe Trump would like the policy if he took the time to get to know it better.

This week, for example, the president made his case to Fox News, explaining why he hates the international agreement so much.

"It's no secret, I think it was one of the most incompetently drawn deals we've ever seen. $150 billion given, we got nothing. They got past the nuclear weapons very quickly.

"Think of this, $1.7 billion in cash. This is cash out of your pocket. I do know how many airplane loads that must be? For they have $1 million? This is $1.7 billion. Who would be authorized to do it and who are the people to deliver it? You may never see them again. Right? This is the worst deal. We got nothing."

This is not something a knowledgeable person who understands the basics of the debate would say out loud.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.13.17

10/13/17 12:01PM

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

* In a bit of a surprise, Sen. Susan Collins (R) announced this morning that she's remaining in the Senate and will not run for governor in Maine next year. All things considered, this makes sense: she'd probably struggle in a GOP primary, and is likely to have more power and influence on Capitol Hill.

* In California, on the heels of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) announcing she'll seek another term in California next year, state Senate President Kevin de Leon (D) is reportedly launching a campaign of his own. (Note, California has a jungle primary with all of the candidates from different parties competing on the same ballot, not a traditional intra-party primary.)

* In Alabama's Senate special election, the latest statewide poll shows Roy Moore (R) with an eight-point advantage over Doug Jones (D), 49% to 41%. This is very much in line with the other recent surveys in the state.

* On a related note, Moore's campaign isn't pleased with reports about the generous salaries he accepted from the non-profit group he helped create, but his aides aren't denying the accuracy of the reports.

* In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) will apparently face a Republican primary rival ahead of next year's election. This week, gun-range owner Jan Morgan, a Fox News contributor, formed an exploratory committee, and denounced the GOP incumbent as insufficiently right-wing.

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during a news briefing at the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017.

White House's boasts about preventing 'chaos' completely unravel

10/13/17 11:20AM

After Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) offered some pointed criticism of Donald Trump last week, reporters asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders for a reaction. This exchange from last Friday's press briefing was especially memorable:

REPORTER: I asked you about Senator Corker and some of the comments he made a few weeks back. Earlier this week, he said that Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis, and General Kelly are basically what's keeping the country separated from chaos. And he said there are other people in the White House that aren't putting forth policies in a coherent fashion. Do you have any response to Senator Corker's statement?

SANDERS: Look, I think that the president is the one that's keeping the world from chaos.

I really wish that were true. It's not.

Today, to the exasperation of American allies, Trump is putting the future of an international nuclear agreement with Iran at great risk -- which has the effect of creating more "chaos," not less. It comes on the heels of the American president withdrawing from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), threatening the future of NAFTA, balking at implementing congressional approved Russia sanctions, and rejecting diplomatic solutions with North Korea.

The New Republic's Jeet Heer explained yesterday, "America's longtime allies and negotiating partners are facing a new status quo -- one in which they can never be certain where the United States stands on international agreements."

This chaotic environment isn't speculative. The Washington Post reported this week that some foreign diplomats now see the United States as an unreliable mystery.

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Why Trump's confusion about missile defense is so dangerous

10/13/17 10:40AM

During his latest Fox News interview, Donald Trump briefly addressed the burgeoning crisis with North Korea, and expressed confidence in the United States' position. "We have missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97% of the time," the president boasted on Wednesday, "and if you send two of them, it's going to get knocked down."

As the Washington Post explained this morning, this is plainly wrong.

The president speaks with confidence but descends into hyperbole. No single interceptor for ICBMs has demonstrated a 97-percent success rate, and there is no guarantee using two interceptors has a 100-percent success rate. Moreover, the military's suggestion that it could achieve a 97-percent success rate with four interceptors appears based on faulty assumptions and overenthusiastic math.

The odds of success under the most ideal conditions are no better than 50-50, and likely worse, as documented in detailed government assessments.

This is not, however, one of those "let's all laugh at the foolish man in the Oval Office" moments. Because if the president actually believes what he told a national television audience about the efficacy of the existing missile-defense system, his confusion may carry serious consequences.

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Image: Donald Trump, Andrzej Duda

The sudden demise of the 'Trump is an independent' meme

10/13/17 10:05AM

In early September, Donald Trump surprised much of the political world by agreeing to a three-month fiscal deal with Democratic leaders, extending the debt ceiling, and irritating congressional Republicans. For many in the media, the long-awaited presidential "pivot" had finally arrived.

The New York Times published an especially memorable piece with a striking headline: "Bound to No Party, Trump Upends 150 Years of Two-Party Rule."

Now in the White House, President Trump demonstrated this past week that he still imagines himself a solitary cowboy as he abandoned Republican congressional leaders to forge a short-term fiscal deal with Democrats. Although elected as a Republican last year, Mr. Trump has shown in the nearly eight months in office that he is, in many ways, the first independent to hold the presidency since the advent of the current two-party system around the time of the Civil War.

A day later, the Associated Press ran a similar assessment, heralding the emergence of "Trump the independent." The piece added, "A president who spent months catering to the Republican conservative wing now appears unbound by ideology and untethered by party allegiances."

A few days later, Trump appeared to reach a tacit agreement with Democratic leaders on immigration policy, prompting another round of coverage about the president and his willingness to challenge Republican orthodoxy.

Even at the time, it was difficult to take the chatter seriously. A three-month extension of the fiscal status quo and a vague commitment on immigration did not a pivot make. For that matter, while Trump has repeatedly clashed with Republicans over process and personality disputes, this president has been pretty consistent since Inauguration Day about his partisan instincts on practically every issue under the sun.

But a month later, the "Trump the independent" meme looks even more misguided.

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Image: Trump Hosts Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi At The White House

An inside look at how foreign policy is made in Trump World

10/13/17 09:20AM

The White House has not yet released the details of Donald Trump's new policy on the international nuclear agreement with Iran, but the Washington Post had a striking report yesterday on how that policy came together behind the scenes.

President Trump was livid. Why, he asked his advisers in mid-July, should he go along with what he considered the failed Obama-era policy toward Iran and prop up an international nuclear deal he saw as disastrous?

He was incensed by the arguments of Secretary of State Rex ­Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and others that the landmark 2015 deal, while flawed, offered stability and other benefits. He did not want to certify to Congress that the agreement remained in the vital U.S. national security interest and that Iran was meeting its obligations. He did not think either was true.

A Post source added that the president "threw a fit" and was "really furious." And that alone offers an important insight into Trump's temperament: reality conflicted with his expectations for what reality should be, so he threw a tantrum. He was "livid," not because Barack Obama's policy was failing, but because his own team told him it was working.

The result, however, was a new process in which West Wing officials, including White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, set out to prevent the policy's outright demise, while also accommodating Trump's disgust for the policy he's never actually understood.

All available evidence suggests the result will be a policy in which Trump falls short of killing the international agreement. He'll instead declare his odd belief that the nuclear deal is not in the United States' interest, and then leave questions over sanctions in Congress' hands.

And while we'll be able to examine that policy in more detail once it's available, let's not brush past how remarkable the behind-the-scenes process has been.

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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.

A new frontrunner in the 'Trump's Oddest Cabinet Member' contest

10/13/17 08:40AM

Donald Trump has assembled quite a motley crew for his cabinet, and choosing its strangest member is challenging. But Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is clearly making a name for himself -- and not necessarily in a good way.

As regular readers know, the Republican's troubles have been steadily intensifying. It looked bad, for example, when Zinke gave a motivational speech to a Republican donor's hockey team, before taking a $12,000 flight home. It didn't help when we learned the private plane belongs to "the executives of a Wyoming oil-and-gas exploration firm."

As Rachel noted last week, Zinke has also taken private jet flights to a GOP fundraiser and to the U.S. Virgin Islands – long before the islands faced any hurricane damage -- where he enjoyed "an official snorkeling tour." The story took another turn this week when we learned Zinke also charged taxpayers to fly him to a ski resort and to fly him to an awesome sounding steakhouse in Alaska.

Late yesterday, the Washington Post highlighted a brand new Zinke story, which has nothing to do with his controversial travel schedule, but which casts the cabinet secretary in a very odd light.

At the Interior Department's headquarters in downtown Washington, Secretary Ryan Zinke has revived an arcane military ritual that no one can remember ever happening in the federal government.

A security staffer takes the elevator to the seventh floor, climbs the stairs to the roof and hoists a special secretarial flag whenever Zinke enters the building. When the secretary goes home for the day or travels, the flag -- a blue banner emblazoned with the agency's bison seal flanked by seven white stars representing the Interior bureaus -- comes down.

When a cabinet secretary and the Queen of England have a flag practice in common, that's weird.

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Trump goes to war against his own country's health care system

10/13/17 08:00AM

Donald Trump's executive order yesterday on health care policy threatens to do real harm to the individual marketplace, pushing costs higher on those who need care most. Last night, however, the second shoe dropped, and it's vastly worse.

The White House announced late Thursday that it would no longer reimburse insurers for lowering costs for customers under the Affordable Care Act, a decision Democrats condemned as "spiteful."

President Donald Trump had indicated he was considering cutting off the payments in order to increase pressure on lawmakers to repeal the ACA, also known as Obamacare.

Note, for months, people involved in the health care debate have played a game of "will he or won't he?" when it comes to the president and cost-sharing-reduction payments (CSRs). That question is no longer speculative: Trump is actually stopping the payments.

Indeed, he said as much this morning on Twitter: "The Democrats [sic] ObamaCare is imploding. Massive subsidy payments to their pet insurance companies has stopped. Dems should call me to fix!"

In other words, the president, who is effectively going to war against his own country's health care system, is moving forward with a plan that's likely to hurt many Americans in order to gain some kind of political leverage.

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