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Trump pretends his search for a chief of staff is going well (it's not)

12/12/18 08:40AM

At the end of the bizarre photo-op with Democratic leaders in the Oval Office yesterday, a reporter asked Donald Trump about his search for a new chief of staff. "A lot of people want the job," the president replied. "And I have some great people. A lot of friends of mine want it."

Soon after, in an interview with Reuters, the Republican added, "I have at least 10, 12 -- 12 people that want it badly. Everybody wants it." Trump went on to say he could announce a new chief of staff "immediately" if he wanted to.

The phrase "doth protest too much" keeps coming to mind.

Trump clearly wants the political world to believe the process is well in hand, and there's no reason anyone should see this fiasco as fresh evidence of this president's inability to complete basic tasks. But reality keeps getting in the way.

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly will remain in the job through at least Jan. 2 to ensure "a very peaceful and pragmatic transition" for his successor, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Tuesday. [...]

"He will stay on the job through January 2 at least, and I think there will be a very peaceful and pragmatic transition to the next chief of staff," she said.

So to recap, a few days ago, Trump said John Kelly would step down at the end of December. The president added that he would announce the new chief of staff in the "next day or two."

As of yesterday, Kelly is no longer stepping down at the end of December, and we should look for some kind of presidential announcement about his successor in "a week or two."

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To address the impeachment threat, Trump will first need to understand it

12/12/18 08:00AM

The scope and scale of Donald Trump's scandals are amazing. The sitting president is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation; he's already been implicated by federal prosecutors in a felony; there's speculation about the prospect of a criminal indictment once he leaves office; and leading members of Congress have already begun addressing the prospect of an impeachment process.

Trump told Reuters yesterday, however, that he's not concerned.

"It's hard to impeach somebody who hasn't done anything wrong and who's created the greatest economy in the history of our country," Trump told Reuters in an Oval Office interview.

"I'm not concerned, no. I think that the people would revolt if that happened," he said.

It's the kind of quote that deserves to be unpacked.

"It's hard to impeach somebody who hasn't done anything wrong." At face value, that's true, though Trump's alleged misdeeds haven't yet come into sharp focus. There's reason to believe the president has done all kinds of things wrong -- again, see Friday's court filing from federal prosecutors in New York -- though time will tell what Special Counsel Robert Mueller uncovers.

Trump believes he's "created the greatest economy in the history of our country." That's not even close to being true -- an economic historian he is not -- and the point suggests Trump may not fully appreciate what impeachment is all about. It's not, for example, reserved for bad and unaccomplished presidents.

The nation was in the midst of a genuine economic boom in 1998, with job growth that was considerably stronger than anything we've seen under Trump, but the Republican-led Congress impeached a Democratic president anyway. Bill Clinton wasn't in a position to present a "but things are going well" defense.

"I think that the people would revolt if that happened." The Republican president remains convinced of his broad popularity, but reality tells a very different story. Trump's national support remains quite weak, with some polls pointing to an approval rating below 40%.

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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 12.11.18

12/11/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The death toll in France: is likely to rise "Two people are dead and at least 11 injured in a shooting Tuesday night in the French city of Strasbourg, with police searching for a suspect who is on a terrorist watch list. The shooting took place around 8 p.m. near a Christmas market in the French-German border city of Strasbourg that attracts millions of tourists every year."

* The Butina case offers some surprises: "Maria Butina, the accused Russian agent of influence who built ties to the National Rifle Association and influential Republicans, has agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with federal prosecutors, according to a plea agreement obtained by NBC News."

* You've all been following the fight over the farm bill, right? "The Senate on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly [87 to 13] to approve an $867 billion farm bill, as Congress appeared poised to pass legislation that will help an agriculture industry battered by President Trump’s trade war."

* The Epstein case we've been following: "Lawyers for two of politically connected sex offender Jeffrey Epstein's victims are pushing a federal judge in Florida to finally rule on their request to void the moneyman's controversial non-prosecution deal with the feds."

* This was literally the first 51-50 judicial confirmation vote in American history, with the vice president breaking the tie: "The Senate narrowly confirmed Jonathan Kobes as a federal appeals court judge on Tuesday, brushing aside the conclusion of the American Bar Association that he was unqualified for the position. The association had cited his inability to provide sufficient writing samples that were 'reflective of complex legal analysis' or sophisticated 'knowledge of the law.'"

* Charlottesville: "A jury on Tuesday recommended life in prison plus 419 years for James Alex Fields Jr., convicted of killing Heather Heyer when he plowed his car into a group of counter-protesters last year at a 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville, Virginia."

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Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Mike Pence

After publicly bickering with Dems, Trump moves toward shutdown

12/11/18 02:24PM

Donald Trump this morning published a series of tweets about immigration, boasting that the United States' Southern border is "now secure and will stay that way." The president added that if Congress fails to finance his proposed border wall, he'll use the military to achieve his goals.

Putting aside Trump's confusion, the missives seemed to send an important signal: with 10 days remaining before the next government shutdown deadline, the president seemed to be backing away from his hardline stance. Since Trump doesn't have the votes in Congress to get what he wants, the retreat made sense.

It was, however, temporary.

President Donald Trump and Democrats Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi bickered at length on Tuesday in an explosive public meeting at the White House over the president's promised border wall and threat to shut down the government if Congress doesn't fund it.

"If we don't get what we want one way or the other...I will shut down the government," Trump said during a highly unusual fight that played out in front of the press before the official meeting began. "I am proud to shut down the government for border security.... I will take the mantle of shutting it down."

For those who haven't seen footage of similar meetings, what usually happens in normal administrations is that a president will welcome a party's congressional leaders to the Oval Office, they'll exchange some pleasantries, they'll briefly tell reporters about the topic of the day's negotiations, and then the talks will begin in earnest after journalists leave the room.

In other words, these are usually polite photo-ops. The fireworks begin once elected policymakers are alone.

As we saw this morning, however, in Trump's White House, we don't always have to wait for the drama.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Dec. 12, 2016. (Photo by Susan Walsh/AP)

GOP's McConnell switches gears on criminal justice reform bill

12/11/18 12:47PM

About a month ago, Donald Trump endorsed a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill and encouraged the Senate to advance the legislation during the lame-duck session. And then ... nothing happened.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of the leading opponents of the measure, continued to lobby aggressively against it, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) generally ignored political pressure and said there wasn't time to take up the legislation. By all appearances, that wasn't altogether true, and proponents of the bill kept trying to nudge the GOP leader into allowing a vote.

As of this morning, those efforts apparently paid off.

In a surprising move Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that he plans to bring a criminal justice reform bill to the Senate floor this month for a vote.

The Kentucky Republican made the announcement in remarks on the Senate floor, saying, "[A]t the request of the president and following improvements to the legislation that have been secured by several members, the Senate will take up the recently revised criminal justice bill this month. I intend to turn to the new text as early as the end of this week."

At issue is a measure known as the First Step Act, which is a pretty good reform proposal that easily passed the House in May. The bill is fairly modest in scope -- Vox explained that it would affect only about a tenth of the nation's prison population, targeting federal facilities exclusively -- but it includes provisions that would expand eligibility in the Fair Sentencing Act, ease mandatory-minimum sentences, and increase "credit" programs that would enable some federal inmates to earn early release.

Why would Donald "tough on crime" Trump endorse such a package? It's hard to say for sure, but my best guess is that the president has no idea what's in the bill, but he likes the idea of signing bipartisan legislation on an important national issue.

Because after nearly two years in office, Trump hasn't had many opportunities like these.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.11.18

12/11/18 12:00PM

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

* Given how close many of Florida's major statewide contests were this year, this AP report stands out: "Florida officials say thousands of mailed ballots were not counted because they were delivered too late to state election offices."

* A month after the midterm elections, a new national CNN poll shows Donald Trump's approval rating down to 39%. When respondents were asked about the president's handling of the investigation into the Russia scandal, only 29% approved.

* It's not yet clear if there will be a new election in North Carolina's 9th congressional district, but Dan McCready (D) said yesterday that he and his team are "gearing up right now" for that possibility.

* BuzzFeed reported yesterday that a former Trump campaign staffer, Jessica Denson, is "fighting an order to pay nearly $25,000 for violating a nondisclosure agreement." Denson sued the Trump campaign last year, accusing the Republican operation of discrimination and bullying; the Trump campaign responded by arguing that her lawsuit violated her nondisclosure agreement.

* Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft (R) announced last week that he's investigating Sen.-elect Josh Hawley (R) over his alleged misuse of public resources to advance his political ambitions. This week, Ashcroft formally requested that Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway (D) assist in the endeavor. (Galloway's office has subpoena power; Ashcroft's does not.)

* With the "overwhelming" support of state party activists, Nebraska's Democratic Party abandoned its presidential nominating caucuses and agreed to hold primaries instead.

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Image: James Comey Testifies At Senate Hearing On Russian Interference In US Election

Comey points to GOP leaders' 'everlasting shame' over 2016 inaction

12/11/18 11:20AM

Former FBI Director James Comey sat down for a long, rather candid interview with MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace on Sunday night, and the two covered quite a bit of ground. The Twitter thread from NBC News' Mike Memoli is well worth your time if you missed the event.

That said, there was one exchange in particular that stood out for me.

Speaking about the period before the 2016 election, Comey was unsparing of Republican congressional leaders who he said opposed making public intelligence community concerns over Russian interference.

"To their everlasting shame, the leaders -- (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell, (House Speaker Paul) Ryan -- refused," Comey said. "I think they're going to have a hard time explaining that to history."

I'm glad this comes up from time to time, because the GOP leaders' role in this fiasco is too often overlooked.

Perhaps this is a good time for a refresher. As regular readers know, the Obama White House, swayed by the evidence compiled by U.S. intelligence agencies, wanted bipartisan support to push back against Russian intrusion, and in mid-September 2016, the then-president dispatched counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco, then-FBI Director James Comey, and then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to brief top members of Congress.

Obama didn’t want to be seen as using intelligence for partisan or electoral ends, so he sought a “show of solidarity and bipartisan unity” against foreign manipulation of our democracy.

That didn’t happen – because McConnel refused.

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Image: President Trump Speaks On Infrastructure Meeting Held At Trump Tower

Trump reportedly hoped someone else would fire Kelly for him

12/11/18 10:46AM

I've lost count of how many times I've seen reports in recent months about John Kelly's imminent ouster as White House chief of staff, but in each instance, the retired general stuck around. That changed over the weekend, when Donald Trump announced that Kelly is stepping down at the end of the month.

Finding his successor is proving to be a little tricky -- the president claimed this morning that more than 10 contenders are vying for the post, though no one seriously believes that -- after Nick Ayers, Vice President Pence's outgoing chief of staff, turned Trump down. There was no Plan B.

While the drama continues to unfold, the New York Times included a detail I hadn't seen elsewhere:

To make room for Mr. Ayers, Mr. Trump, who famously avoids one-on-one interpersonal conflict, had been trying for awhile to pull the trigger on firing Mr. Kelly. Famous for the "You're fired!" catchphrase and also for hating confrontation, Mr. Trump had looked for others to do the work for him last week -- even attempting to arrange for Mr. Ayers to fire Mr. Kelly -- according to three people familiar with the events.

The anecdote hasn't been confirmed by MSNBC or NBC News, but it's also very easy to believe given this president's track record.

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In this Nov. 27, 2017, file photo, Mick Mulvaney speaks during a news conference after his first day as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, in Washington.

A 'suppressed' report from Trump's CFPB finally reaches the public

12/11/18 10:10AM

Republicans have spent much of the last decade trying to undermine the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and with Donald Trump in office, the party is succeeding. As regular readers know, the CFPB's mission has effectively been turned on its head, and as the Washington Post  reported last week, enforcement actions against abusive corporations "have dropped by about 75% despite rising number of consumer complaints."

In August, Seth Frotman, the top government official overseeing the $1.5 trillion student loan market, announced his resignation in a rather brutal letter to Mick Mulvaney, Trump's budget director who also controls the CFPB, despite (because of?) his belief that the agency shouldn't exist.

Towards the bottom of the letter, Frotman alleged that the CFPB had uncovered evidence "showing that the nation's largest banks were ripping off students on campuses across the country by saddling them with legally dubious account fees." Frotman added that the agency's current leaders, appointed by Trump, "suppressed" the publication of a report on the findings.

What was that all about? Politico has the story:

The Trump administration for months concealed a report that showed Wells Fargo charged college students fees that were on average several times higher than some of its competitors. [...]

The previously unseen analysis examined the fees associated with debit cards and other financial products provided by 14 companies through agreements with more than 500 colleges across the country.

Wells Fargo provided roughly one-quarter of those accounts but the bank collected more than half of all fees paid by students, according to the report data. The bank's average annual fee per account was nearly $50, the highest of any provider.

The issue apparently extends well beyond Wells Fargo: the CFPB report documented a series of dubious fees a variety of financial institutions have charged college students, despite regulations intended to prevent the practice.

This would ordinarily be the sort of thing the CFPB would take steps to address. Indeed, it's one of the reasons Democrats created the agency in the first place. Mulvaney's CFPB, however, decided not to even disclose the findings to the public. (It was recently released to Politico in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.)

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Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chair of the Senate Republican Caucus, speaks with reporters at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, July 24, 2013. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Leading GOP senator suggests Trump's misdeeds were rookie mistakes

12/11/18 09:20AM

Ordinarily, when a modern White House is facing serious scandals, a president's team will take proactive steps to prepare its allies. Officials in the West Wing realize that the media -- and the public at large -- will ask questions about ongoing controversies, so the White House will prepare talking points, host messaging calls, and brief lawmakers and like-minded pundits so that everyone is on the same page.

Except, that's not what's happening now. As Donald Trump faces fire on multiple fronts, including being directly implicated by federal prosecutors in a felony, his team isn't doing much of anything. Officials in the president's orbit don't see much of a point.

"A war room? You serious?" one former White House official told the Washington Post when asked about internal preparations. "They've never had one, will never have one. They don't know how to do one."

The result is an awkward dynamic: a bunch of Republicans are running around trying to defend Trump, but they're not at all sure what they're supposed to say. The result is a cringe-worthy mess: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), for example, is equating the president's alleged misdeeds with misfiled paperwork, while Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is arguing that he simply doesn't care whether Trump broke the law or not.

This defense wasn't much better.

"These guys were all new to this at the time," Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican, said of the Trump campaign team. "Most of us have made mistakes when it comes to campaign finance issues. In many cases, campaigns end up paying fines and penalties."

Oh. So, Donald Trump directed his personal attorney to silence alleged former mistresses shortly before the election, and the lawyer created a shell company to make illegal hush-money payments to a porn star. Everyone involved then lied about it in the hopes of covering up what had transpired.

This unfolded, the incoming Senate majority whip believes, because "these guys were all new to this at the time" -- as if they had no idea their actions were wrong.

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House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy prepares to speak to the media after unexpectedly dropping out of consideration to be the next Speaker of the House on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 8, 2015. (Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

Investigation-loving House leader urges Dems to leave Trump alone

12/11/18 08:40AM

As Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) prepares to make the transition from House majority leader to House minority leader, he has some advice for the Democrats who'll soon run the chamber: don't investigate Donald Trump.

"Well, it's a challenge," McCarthy told Fox News Channel's Bill Hemmer when asked about Democrats' return to the majority in January. "It looks like what they're going to focus on is just more investigations. I think America's too great of a nation to have such a small agenda."

He added that there are "other problems out there that we really should be focused upon" and that "both sides have come up with nothing" in investigating Trump.

The surface-level hypocrisy is hard to overlook. The House Republican conference that McCarthy helps lead is still examining Hillary Clinton's email server protocols -- a topic GOP lawmakers have investigated endlessly for years -- and she hasn't held public office since 2012.

For that matter, McCarthy was delighted when House Republicans scrutinized Benghazi conspiracy theories in ways no other single event has ever been investigated in congressional history. Indeed, it was the California Republican who effectively admitted on national television that the House GOP's Benghazi committee was a taxpayer-funded political operation intended to undermine Hillary Clinton.

As for McCarthy's belief that "both sides have come up with nothing" in investigating Trump, I'd remind the Republican leader that Democrats haven't had subpoena power -- and the GOP investigation from the House Intelligence Committee was a pathetic joke.

But stepping back and looking at McCarthy's comments at a distance, there's a related concern that comes into focus: Republican leaders sure do seem worried about House Democrats conducting oversight of Donald Trump's White House.

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