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Richard Cordray, nominee for director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, testifies at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs on March 12, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick...

Why Richard Cordray is still on the job at the CFPB

04/20/17 11:22AM

In an era of Republican dominance, the future of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is very much in doubt. Ask congressional Republicans which federal offices they'd most like to eliminate, and it's a safe bet the CFPB would be the first agency most of them mention.

But at least for now, the CFPB still exists, and its director, Richard Cordray, is still on the job -- a dynamic a Wall Street Journal piece recently described as "the greatest mystery in Washington."

Why hasn't Donald Trump kicked him to the curb? Let's unwrap this mystery.

The way the CFPB is structured, its director is not just another member of an administration. Instead, when President Obama chose Cordray for the post in 2013, it was for a five-year appointment, which doesn't end until 2018.

Trump, of course, would love to replace Cordray with someone who'd be far friendlier with the financial industry and less aggressive on protecting consumers, but as USA Today recently reported, "the law says the director may be removed by the president only for 'inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.'"

The estimable David Dayen explained the White House's dilemma this week.
[I]f Trump did try to fire Cordray, the director could sue for wrongful termination, arguing that Trump was pursuing a policy goal instead of following the for-cause language in the statute. As Georgetown law professor Adam Levitin explains, that would lead to a public lawsuit in which Cordray could seek, and possibly get, discovery, including a deposition of the president and maybe a peek at his tax returns, to see if Trump was benefiting himself personally by tossing out a consumer watchdog that affects his personal business interests.

Clearly the White House wants to steer clear of anything like that.
Team Trump does, however, have a back-up plan of sorts.
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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

White House solicits public input on eliminating agencies

04/20/17 10:49AM

Seven years ago, House Republicans unveiled an online gimmick they were excited about, which was called "YouCut." The way the system was set up, GOP lawmakers would offer the public five options for cutting government spending; Americans would vote online; and then the House would force a vote on the top vote-getter the following week.

In practice, the whole endeavor was rather silly. The public wasn't given any real information about the spending or the associated programs; the Democratic-led Senate didn't much care about the House's stunt; and the whole initiative was forgotten soon after.

It appears, however, that the concept behind "YouCut" is making something of a comeback. New York magazine reported the other day:
The White House moved forward with its effort to drastically reduce the size of the federal government [last week], directing agencies to produce a plan to reduce their personnel.... The changes outlined in a 14-page memo issued by [OMB Director Mick Mulvaney] were based on the budget outline President Trump released last month, which called for sharp cuts to many agencies to finance large increases in military and Homeland Security spending.

Many were taken aback by Trump's proposal to slash funding for agencies like the EPA, State Department, and Health and Human Services, and eliminate many smaller programs like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts.

But if anyone has even more radical ideas, the White House is all ears.
And to that end, the White House has created an online tool in which -- you guessed it -- Americans can vote on which federal agencies should be scrapped.

Visitors are asked, "What agency would you like to reform?" and are presented with dozens of options. That's followed by the second question, "What agency would you like to eliminate?"
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A laptop in use. (Photo by TEK/Science Photo Library/Corbis)

Despite his promises, Trump's cybersecurity plan doesn't exist

04/20/17 10:09AM

Two weeks before his presidential inauguration, Donald Trump met with leaders of the U.S. intelligence community, who briefed him on the Russian hacking scandal. Almost immediately after the private discussion, Trump straight-up lied about what he'd learned, insisting in a statement that intelligence professionals told him Russia's operation had "absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election."

The intelligence community hadn't said that at all. Trump just made it up.

But in the same written statement, the Republican added that the nation's cyber infrastructure is at risk and he announced that his team would produce a new cybersecurity plan "within 90 days " of his inauguration. A week later, he had a related tweet pointing to the same deadline.

Politico published an interesting status-check today.
Thursday, Trump hits his 90-day mark. There is no team, there is no plan, and there is no clear answer from the White House on who would even be working on what.
It's quite a fine-tuned machine, isn't it?

There was some talk of Rudy Giuliani having a cybersecurity role on Team Trump, but Politico reports that the former mayor is not working on the White House's plan. Neither is the National Security Council.
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Image: President Trump Meets With The National Association of Manufacturers

Debate over pesticides enters Donald Trump's 'swamp'

04/20/17 09:20AM

At first blush, it may seem like an obscure, technical debate. The Associated Press reports that a four-year review conducted by government scientists of three pesticides -- chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion -- found that they "pose a risk to nearly every endangered species they studied." Federal agencies are poised to issue findings on how to limit use of these pesticides.

The story takes on a broader political significance, however, when we consider what one of the pesticide manufacturers is up to. The AP explained:
Dow Chemical is pushing the Trump administration to scrap the findings of federal scientists who point to a family of widely used pesticides as harmful to about 1,800 critically threatened or endangered species.

Lawyers representing Dow, whose CEO also heads a White House manufacturing working group, and two other makers of organophosphates sent letters last week to the heads of three Cabinet agencies. The companies asked them "to set aside" the results of government studies the companies contend are fundamentally flawed.
As one might imagine, Dow is pointing to its own research, which is in conflict with the information compiled by government scientists.

If this sounds familiar, there's a good reason. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump's controversial far-right choice to lead the agency, decided two weeks ago to side with Dow Chemical – against the advice of the EPA's researchers – on the use of chlorpyrifos, one of the insecticides in question.

Now, apparently, Dow Chemical wants Team Trump to side with the company once more.

And while I'm not privy to the administration's deliberations, it seems Dow Chemical has reason to be optimistic about its chances. Not only is the Trump administration ideologically predisposed to agree with corporate interests over environmental interests, but in this case the ties between the company and the president run deep.
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Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore speaks to the congregation of Kimberly Church of God, June 28, 2015, in Kimberley, Ala. (Photo by Butch Dill/AP)

Roy Moore becomes the latest Alabama Republican to fall

04/20/17 08:41AM

When it comes to the state's elected leaders, it's been a rough 10 months for Alabama. In June, Mike Hubbard (R), the state's former House Speaker, was forced to resign in disgrace after being convicted of multiple felonies. Last month, Robert Bentley (R), the state's then current governor, was forced to resign as part of a plea agreement in the wake of his sex/corruption scandal.

And then there's state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore (R). The Alabama Media Group reported yesterday:
The Alabama Supreme Court today upheld the decision that removed Roy Moore from his position as chief justice. [...]

Moore can't appeal the ruling to the federal courts because there are no federal issues. "This is it," he said.
Moore's term on the state bench wasn't up until 2019, but the suspension is effective immediately, and it has the effect of ending his judicial career. Because of his age,'s report added, "he cannot run for the office again."

In case anyone needs a refresher on how we reached this point, let's recap. Last year, Moore, in his official capacity, ordered Alabama’s probate judges to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality. The federal courts, not surprisingly, were not amused by Moore’s “creative” approach to American jurisprudence.

And neither was Alabama’s Judicial Inquiry Commission, which accused Moore of having “flagrantly disregarded and abused his authority” – a charge that appears to coincide nicely with reality. Moore responded to the accusations by continuing to argue that Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriages is still state law, because as far as he’s concerned, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t count.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because Moore, a cause celebre for many on the far-right fringe, has been kicked off the bench once before for official misconduct.
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Image: US President Donald J. Trump and Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel joint press conference

Following aircraft carrier fiasco, Trump alienates another ally

04/20/17 08:00AM

Vice President Mike Pence has visited several Asia-Pacific countries in recent days, hoping to solidify U.S. relationships in the region, and his trip included some time at the demilitarized zone between South Korea and North Korea. The Washington Post reported that the vice president wasn't scheduled to go outside a South Korean building at the DMZ, but he said he wanted to make a point.

"I thought it was important that we went outside," Pence told the Post. "I thought it was important that people on the other side of the DMZ see our resolve in my face."

I'm not at all sure what that's supposed to mean. Does the vice president seriously believe that North Koreans, looking through binoculars and telescopes, would see his steely gaze and adopt a new posture, intimidated by Pence's face?

As a rule, that's not how foreign policy works. On the contrary, foreign countries recognize "resolve" when they see the United States following through on its commitments -- which is why it's a bit of a problem that Donald Trump and top members of his team told the world an aircraft carrier and its support ships -- the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group -- were headed towards the Korean peninsula, when in reality, they were not.

The New York Times reports that U.S. allies in South Korea, who assumed the White House was telling the truth, are not pleased.
When news broke less than two weeks ago that the Trump administration was sending the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson to the Korean Peninsula, many South Koreans feared a war with North Korea. Others cheered for Washington, calling the deployment a powerful symbol of its commitment to deterring the North.

On Wednesday, after it was revealed that the carrier strike group was actually thousands of miles away and had been heading in the opposite direction, toward the Indian Ocean, South Koreans felt bewildered, cheated and manipulated by the United States, their country's most important ally. [...]

Compounding their anger over the Carl Vinson episode, many South Koreans were also riled at Mr. Trump for his assertion in a Wall Street Journal interview last week that the Korean Peninsula "used to be a part of China." Although Korea was often invaded by China and forced to pay tributes to its giant neighbor, many Koreans say the notion that they were once Chinese subjects is egregiously insulting.
An Associated Press report added this morning, "Unpredictable. Unhinged. Dangerous. Many South Koreans are using those words to describe the president of their most important ally, rather than the leader of their archrival to the North."
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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 4.19.17

04/19/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Prepare a back-up plan: "Top generals have been insisting for years that if North Korea launched a missile at the United States, the U.S. military would be able to shoot it down. But that is a highly questionable assertion, according to independent scientists and government investigators."

* The story at the intersection of other stories: "Exxon Mobil is pursuing a waiver from Treasury Department sanctions on Russia so it may drill in the Black Sea in a venture with the Russian state oil company Rosneft, a former State Department official said Wednesday. An oil industry official confirmed the account."

* He was rewarded with a seat on the dais, which is unheard of for a donor: "Sheldon G. Adelson, the casino magnate and stalwart Republican donor, gave $5 million to support the festivities surrounding President Trump's inauguration, according to federal election filings."

Interesting case: "Supreme Court justices on Wednesday seemed sympathetic to a Missouri church that claimed its exclusion from a state playground improvement program was a violation of constitutional rights."

* Occasional criticism shouldn't bother him quite this much: "Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly offered a sharp rebuttal to critics of his department on Tuesday, challenging lawmakers who dislike its approach to immigration enforcement to change the law or 'shut up.'"

This guys later said he meant "no disrespect," which only made this more ridiculous: "Miami Republican Sen. Frank Artiles dropped the n-word to a pair of African-American colleagues in private conversation Monday night -- after calling one of them a 'f**king a**hole,' a 'b***h' and a 'girl,' the two senators said."
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White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivers his first statement in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017.

Sean Spicer's newest trick: debating the meaning of the word 'is'

04/19/17 04:42PM

Donald Trump's White House has already struggled with tough questions about its credibility, but yesterday brought a rather brutal turn of events. Press Secretary Sean Spicer's efforts to clean up the mess aren't going well.

Let's quickly review. Last week, Donald Trump said he's "sending an armada" to the Korean peninsula, in response to rising tensions with North Korea. He wasn't alone: Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Sean Spicer all said publicly, over the course of a few days, that the United States had dispatched an aircraft carrier and its support ships -- the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group -- to head towards the Korean peninsula.

That didn't happen. The USS Carl Vinson was actually 3,000 miles away, headed in the opposite direction. This raised a variety of questions, including some obvious ones: did the Trump administration simply lie? Was the aircraft carrier supposed to head towards North Korea but fail to do so? Did the Trump administration lose track of this aircraft carrier strike group?

Today, after having a chance to think about it, Spicer rolled out his best defense. The Huffington Post reported:
Spicer ... denied that Trump misspoke when he talked about the ships. "The president said that we have an armada going towards the peninsula. That's a fact, it happened," Spicer said.

But then Spicer corrected himself, noting that it had not in fact happened. "It is happening, rather," he said.
Oh dear, we're headed into a debate over the meaning of "is."
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