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Image: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks on the protests in Charlottesville Virginia from his golf estate in Bedminster New Jersey

Donald Trump can't stop failing tests of moral leadership

08/14/17 08:00AM

The American presidency, Franklin Roosevelt once said, is "preeminently a place of moral leadership." It helps explain why Donald Trump is failing so spectacularly: the current occupant of the Oval Office has no real interest in providing moral leadership, or even learning how.

The president was already scheduled to speak on Saturday afternoon -- his remarks were supposed to focus on veterans' issues -- and interest in his remarks grew in the wake of the deadly violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia. This was a unique opportunity for Trump to speak out clearly and forcefully against a societal scourge.

But instead of being the president America needed, Donald Trump was Donald Trump

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence -- on many sides, on many sides."

After referencing low unemployment and other economic developments he's eager to take credit for, the president added, "We must love each other, respect each other, and cherish our history." Trump then transitioned back to his original remarks, explaining how pleased he with a new law that makes it easier for him to fire people who work at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The president made no specific reference to the white supremacists responsible for Saturday's violence. Trump, preferring to remain maddeningly vague, could've condemned neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and terrorists -- when someone deliberately uses a car as a weapon, driving into a crowd, no other word is appropriate -- but he chose not to.

Instead, Trump turned his attention to hatred, bigotry, and violence "on many sides," as if white supremacists and their opponents are equally culpable for the unrest in Charlottesville.

In the face of bipartisan rebukes, the White House eventually condemned white supremacists in a written statement, but it was not only too late, it was also attributed to an unnamed White House official -- not the president. The attempt at damage control did little to stem the tide of public revulsion. On the contrary, phrases such as "cherish our history" were seen as possible dog-whistle comments, intended to pander to the same people he should've been denouncing.

Faced with yet another test of presidential leadership, Trump flunked -- again.

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Friday's Mini-Report, 8.11.17

08/11/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* He won't stop talking: "President Donald Trump on Friday warned North Korea's leader that he 'will not get away with' it if he does anything against the U.S. or its allies."

* China "won't come to North Korea's help if it launches missiles threatening U.S. soil and there is retaliation, a state-owned newspaper warned Friday, but it would intervene if Washington strikes first."

* Where GOP loyalties lie: "Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's colleagues are largely rallying around him amid the ongoing attacks from President Donald Trump."

* In case you missed last night's coverage, Paul Manafort now has a new legal team.

* In related news: "Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's son-in-law, Jeffrey Yohai, met with Department of Justice investigators in recent months, according to two sources familiar with the matter."

* Did he forget what he's already said on this? "President Trump said on Thursday that he had not considered firing Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the election, contradicting private statements the president has made to his aides and friends about his desire to dismiss Mr. Mueller."

* The guy clearly has a paperwork problem: "Jared Kushner, who has spent months divesting pieces of his vast business empire to serve in the White House, was slapped with a fine by the Office of Government Ethics for late reporting of a financial transaction, according to a newly released document."

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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

'Crazy' memo emerges from member of Trump's national security team

08/11/17 05:02PM

After H.R. McMaster replaced Michael Flynn as the White House National Security Advisor, McMaster had the unenviable task of forcing out some of the outlandish officials Flynn had placed on the National Security Council. That may not sound difficult, but Flynn brought some truly bizarre figures to the NSC, they had allies, and getting rid of them proved challenging.

Slowly but surely, however, McMaster made progress, and last week, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who ran the NSC's intelligence division, was ousted, following on the heels of Tera Dahl, the NSC's deputy chief of staff, and Rich Higgins, the director of strategic planning.

It's that last one that's proving to be extra interesting.

Higgins' departure was reportedly prompted by a conspiratorial memo he wrote, describing mysterious forces that were plotting against Donald Trump, including globalists, Marxists, bankers, the media, the "deep state," academicians, Islamists, and even the Republican establishment. Foreign Policy magazine published the memo yesterday, and it's hard to overstate how utterly bizarre it is -- especially for someone who served on the White House National Security Council.

Indeed, reading Higgins' memo, it's hard not to wonder how he was even let in the building.

But that's not the most salient question. For that, consider this excerpt from the Foreign Policy article:

Among those who received the memo, according to two sources, was Donald Trump Jr.

Trump Jr., at that time in the glare of media scrutiny around his meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower during the presidential campaign, gave the memo to his father, who gushed over it, according to sources.

In a comedy of errors, Trump later learned from Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and close friend of the president, that the memo's author had been fired. Trump was "furious," the senior administration official said. "He is still furious."

Even for this White House, this story is completely bonkers.

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Paul Manafort of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's staff listens during a round table discussion on security at Trump Tower in the Manhattan borough of New York, Aug. 17, 2016. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Trump says Manafort was on his team 'for a very short period'

08/11/17 04:14PM

Donald Trump was asked yesterday about his opinion on the FBI raiding the home of Paul Manafort, the president's former campaign chairman. Trump replied:

"I thought it was a very, very strong signal, or whatever. I know Mr. Manafort -- I haven't spoken to him in a long time, but I know him. He was with the campaign, as you know, for a very short period of time, relatively short period of time."

This is clearly the line Trump World has embraced with both arms. Then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer described Manafort in March as someone "who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time." Soon after, Spicer told reporters that Manafort was only part of the campaign operation "for five months."

The point is hardly subtle: as the seriousness of the Trump-Russia scandal intensifies, and Manafort's potential legal jeopardy comes into focus, it stands to reason the president and his team are going to respond to questions with answers like, "Paul who?"

But there's no reason to take the defense, such as it is, seriously. Manafort effectively ran the campaign when Trump secured and accepted the Republican Party's presidential nomination. By their own admission, members of Team Trump touted Manafort for being "in charge" of Trump's political operation, "leading" the campaign team.

Without the benefit of a time machine, it's a little late to put distance between the president and his former campaign chairman.

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Image: Donald Trump, Andrzej Duda

Trump offers a timely reminder: he's not going to get better

08/11/17 01:07PM

For reasons that still aren't entirely clear, Donald Trump interrupted his vacation this week to announce that he'd respond to North Korean threats with "fire and fury like the world has never seen." Soon after, White House aides quietly tried to walk back the president's saber-rattling, throwing water on the simmering fire.

Which apparently led Trump to reach for the lighter fluid. Speaking yesterday from one his golf resorts, the president said -- three times -- that his "fire and fury" comments perhaps "wasn't tough enough." Asked what would be tougher than "fire and fury," he responded, "Well, you'll see. You'll see."

Determined to escalate matters a little more, Trump turned to Twitter this morning.

"Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely," Trump tweeted Friday morning. "Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!"

Moments later, he retweeted a message from the U.S. Pacific Command's official Twitter account, stating that "#USAF B-1B Lancer #bombers on Guam stand ready to fulfill USFK's #FightTonight mission if called upon to do so."

Obviously, there's nothing helpful about provocative posturing like this, but it's not altogether clear what the president is saying. Trump wants everyone to believe "military solutions" are "fully in place, locked and loaded," but what exactly does that mean? Which "solution" to which problem? Because if the president is suggesting the United States military is "fully in place" in preparation for a conflict with a nuclear-armed enemy, that's not entirely true.

We certainly have extensive military resources in the region, but it'd take time and resources to get "fully in place" for a war, and that hasn't happened -- at least not yet -- and this is an inopportune moment for another round of hapless Trump bluffing.

But putting this in the larger context, the president's dangerous morning messages served as a reminder that Trump really isn't getting any better at doing this job.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.11.17

08/11/17 12:00PM

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

* Democratic leaders hoped to convince Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) to take on Sen. Jeff Flake (R) in Arizona next year, and the NBC affiliate in Phoenix reports today that she is now planning to do exactly that.

* On a related note, the same report said Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton (D), who's been rumored as a possible Senate candidate, has signaled an interest in running for Sinema's U.S. House seat.

* In the latest national CNN poll, Democrats now lead Republicans on the generic congressional ballot, 51% to 40%. The midterms are over a year away, but that's a pretty significant advantage.

* Former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who also served as Obama's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has reportedly formed a new PAC "as he steps up his political activity and considers a possible run for president in 2020."

* Former Vice President Joe Biden continues to show an interest in electoral matters, throwing his support behind former U.S. attorney Doug Jones in his Senate primary in Alabama.

* RNC Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel had an interesting quote this week about her party's messaging: "It is hard to go and make the case, 'give us the majority again,' when we haven't accomplished the things that we ran on."

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United Nations Headquarters' General Assembly Building and Secretariat Building in New York City, USA, Sept. 24, 2015. (Photo by Matt Campbell/EPA)

Why Trump sees routine accomplishments as unique triumphs

08/11/17 11:26AM

In response to the latest North Korean missile tests, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved new sanctions against the dictatorship last weekend. Yesterday, Donald Trump said all the credit for the developments at the United Nations should go to him personally.

"I will say getting the 15–0 vote at the United Nations from the Security Council the other day, that's something that very few presidents would have been able to get."

Look, I was glad to see Saturday's vote at the U.N. It would have been possible for Trump's team to have messed this up in some way, but fortunately that didn't happen. Everything went smoothly, just as it should have.

This was not, however, an especially heavy lift. North Korea has been isolated for many years, and its latest antics have no defenders on the international stage. The appeal for sanctions passed unanimously, not because Trump is a master of diplomacy, persuading foreign nations to go along with a plan they were skeptical of, but because members of the U.N. Security Council were already inclined to support such a resolution.

Also note Trump's self-aggrandizing boast that "very few presidents" would have been able to shepherd such a resolution through the Security Council. That's not even close to being true.

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Image: Trump speaks to reporters after a security briefing at his golf estate in Bedminster, New Jersey

Does the US military actually want Donald Trump's 'great favor'?

08/11/17 10:55AM

It's been a couple of weeks since Donald Trump, without warning, announced via Twitter that transgender Americans would no longer be welcome in the United States military. As is often the case with this president, the policy decision stood at the intersection of discrimination and incompetence: Trump hadn't told any of the relevant agencies he was poised to do this, and the White House struggled to defend the change.

Worse, no one in the military knew how to implement Trump's odd tweets, leaving the Pentagon and the service chiefs unsure how to proceed. In fact, since the president's announcement, the military has largely ignored Trump's announcement, pending some kind of policy review.

It's against this backdrop that a reporter asked Trump yesterday why he banned transgender Americans from serving, and why he betrayed a community he pledged to support.

"Look, I have great respect for the community. I think I have great support, or have had great support from that community. I got a lot of votes. But the transgender -- the military is working on it now. They're doing the work. It's been a very difficult situation. And I think I'm doing a lot of people a favor by coming out and just saying it.

"As you know, it's been a very complicated issue for the military. It's been a very confusing issue for the military. And I think I'm doing the military a great favor."

I'm aware of the fact that saying, "Trump's comments don't make sense" is a phrase that gets a lot of use, but the truth is, the president's defense yesterday was bizarre.

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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)

Alabama's Moore suggests US may be 'the focus of evil' in the world

08/11/17 10:12AM

Republican voters in Alabama will head to the polls on Tuesday to vote in a U.S. Senate primary, and it's proving to be a tough race to predict. Sen. Luther Strange (R) has the baggage that comes with having been appointed by a disgraced former governor who had to resign, but Strange has the benefit of support from Donald Trump, the NRA, and the Republican establishment.

Rep. Mo Brooks, meanwhile, is in contention, running on an anti-establishment, pro-border-wall platform, but recent polling suggests it's former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, twice removed from the bench for ethics violations, who may be the candidate to watch next week.

It's against this backdrop that Moore sat down with The Guardian, where the Alabama Republican suggested he isn't impressed with America's moral standing.

In an interview with the Guardian's Anywhere But Washington series, Moore also said that Ronald Reagan's famous declaration about the Soviet Union being "the focus of evil in the modern world" might today be applied to the US.

"You could say that very well about America, couldn't you?" he said. "We promote a lot of bad things."

Asked for an example of the United States promoting "bad things," Moore said, "Same-sex marriage."

The Guardian reminded Moore that Russian President Vladimir Putin has said effectively the same thing. "Well, maybe Putin is right," Moore replied. "Maybe he's more akin to me than I know."

It's a fascinating perspective. For years, Republicans claimed ownership of American patriotism as if it were their birthright. The idea that a popular GOP candidate in a ruby-red state would suggest that the United States may be "the focus of evil in the modern world" would've been unthinkable in the not-too-distant past.

If a Republican were to say such a thing, he or she could expect to face immediate public rebukes. In theory, it would end his or her career instantly.

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Rep. Mike Pompeo listens during the House Select Committee on the Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi hearing, Sep. 17, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

Trump believes his CIA director, but only to a point

08/11/17 09:20AM

Even before he became president, Donald Trump went out of his way to dismiss U.S. intelligence assessments he found politically inconvenient. That's continued throughout 2017: the more intelligence professionals tell him Russia attacked the American election to help put him in office, the more Trump tells the public he's more inclined to believe Vladimir Putin.

All of which led to a good question for the president yesterday: if Trump has so many doubts about the findings of the U.S. intelligence agencies, how reliable is the intelligence now as it relates to North Korea? The president responded:

"Well, you know, it's different intelligence. I have Mike Pompeo. I have great confidence in him. That doesn't mean I had confidence in his predecessor. OK? Which I didn't, actually, although -- although he did say good things about me. He did say he had no information or know anything on collusion. So I shouldn't maybe say that, but I will say it.

"But I have tremendous confidence in Mike Pompeo, Dan Coats -- fantastic. I mean, we have -- we have people."

If we cut through the strange nonsense, what Trump was apparently trying to say was that things are different now. He didn't believe intelligence assessments before, but now that Mike Pompeo is the director of the CIA, Trump can finally have confidence in the information presented to him.

In other words, if Mike Pompeo gives the president information about the North Korean threat, Trump is going to believe it.

And that's fine, although it raises a related question: if Pompeo gives the president information about Russia, Trump is going to believe that, too?

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Campaign signs are seen before a rally for Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump in Charleston, W. Va., on May 5, 2016. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)

West Virginia's governor pitches Trump on a coal bailout

08/11/17 08:40AM

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice was a Republican, then became a Democrat, only to reverse course again last week to become a Republican again -- though the timing of his decision seemed odd. At face value, he didn't appear to have a reason to switch to the GOP so soon after winning statewide office as a Dem.

This week, however, the motivation seems a little clearer. The Washington Post reported:

Jim Justice, the born-again Republican governor of West Virginia, is floating a federal proposal to bail out the struggling Appalachian coal industry at a cost to taxpayers of up to $4.5 billion a year.

As Justice described it to the Wall Street Journal, under the proposal, the federal government would pay out $15 to eastern power companies for each ton of Appalachian coal they purchase.

The coal industry has been struggling for quite a while, but it's been especially difficult for companies and their employees in Appalachia: companies in recent years have found it easier and cheaper to produce coal in Western states, which has left coal mining in Appalachia with a shrinking percentage of the market.

Faced with these circumstances, which aren't likely to improve, West Virginia's governor -- who stood alongside Donald Trump last week, at an event in which Justice became a Republican again, who also happens to have made his fortunes as a coal magnate -- believes the White House should give coal companies in Eastern states several billion dollars.

This is not a good idea.

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