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Image: Democratic Congressional Candidate Conor Lamb Holds Election Night Event

Dem appears to pull an upset in district Trump won by 20 points

03/14/18 08:00AM

Republican officials had reason to worry about the 2018 election cycle before yesterday, but it's safe to say their anxiety levels reached new heights overnight.

Democrat Conor Lamb is the apparent winner over Republican Rick Saccone in Tuesday's special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, according to an NBC News projection.

With 99 percent of the votes counted, Lamb was leading by 641 votes in a district long held by the GOP and one that President Donald Trump -- who backed Saccone -- carried by 20 points in 2016.

Lamb declared victory early Wednesday morning. Saccone has not conceded and his campaign is in touch with legal counsel.

I can appreciate why the "apparent" caveat is unsatisfying, but that's where things stand. Given the best information available right now, it looks like Lamb has narrowly won this race.

And that's not an outcome many would've predicted when the special-election campaign started. As we discussed yesterday, Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district, south of Pittsburgh in the Keystone State's southwest corner, can safely be described as a Republican stronghold. John McCain won here by 11 points in his presidential campaign in 2008; Mitt Romney fared even better four years later, winning by 17 points; and Donald Trump carried the district by a 20-point margin.

The area's former congressman, Republican Tim Murphy, ran unopposed in the last two election cycles – because no local Democrats saw any point in going up against him.

When a sex scandal led to Murphy's resignation, GOP officials assumed the party would have little trouble holding onto the seat. After all, a Democrat winning here would be like a Democrat winning a U.S. Senate campaign in Alabama.

Wait, that recently happened, too.

As the dust settles, it's worth keeping a few things in mind:

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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 3.13.18

03/13/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A noticeable omission: Rex Tillerson "thanked his colleagues in the State Department. He thanked Defense Secretary James Mattis. He thanked the '300 million-plus' Americans. He thanked just about everyone. Except President Donald Trump."

* U.K.: "British Prime Minister Theresa May ... gave Russia until midnight Tuesday to explain why a Soviet-developed nerve agent was used in Britain."

* I guess he's not quitting anytime soon: "U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Afghanistan's capital on an unannounced visit as coalition forces, bolstered by more than 3,500 additional American forces, prepare for spring fighting season against the Taliban and Islamic State fighters."

* California: "The future of President Donald Trump's promised border wall with Mexico lies in massive pieces in the California desert and he inspected the prototypes Tuesday in his first visit to the state as president."

* Texas: "Investigators in Austin searched Tuesday for answers behind the string of explosive packages that detonated recently at homes around the city, describing the devices as sophisticated while struggling to identify who had sent them out or why."

* Do deficit hawks still exist? "The U.S. government had a $215 billion budget shortfall in February as revenues into the government's coffers fell and outlays increased, the Treasury Department said on Monday. That compared with a budget deficit of $192 billion in the same month last year, according to Treasury's monthly budget statement."

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A man crosses the Central Intelligence A

Trump's CIA choice burdened by Bush-era torture scandal

03/13/18 12:40PM

A little more than a year ago, the New York Times published a no-nonsense lede about a key personnel decision that Donald Trump had just announced.

As a clandestine officer at the Central Intelligence Agency in 2002, Gina Haspel oversaw the torture of two terrorism suspects and later took part in an order to destroy videotapes documenting their brutal interrogations at a secret prison in Thailand.

On Thursday, Ms. Haspel was named the deputy director of the C.I.A.

The elevation of Ms. Haspel, a veteran widely respected among her colleagues, to the No. 2 job at the C.I.A. was a rare public signal of how, under the Trump administration, the agency is being led by officials who appear to take a far kinder view of one of its darker chapters than their immediate predecessors.

A year later, Donald Trump has gone a step further, moving CIA Director Mike Pompeo to the State Department and elevating Haspel to the intelligence agency's top job.

In the Obama era, there was a reluctance on the part of the Democratic White House to dwell on Bush-era scandals. The then-president spoke frequently in 2009 about "turning the page" on the previous administration's alleged crimes, including its embrace of torture.

But as the Trump era got underway, a New Yorker  piece noted, "[T]he past, as Obama well knows, never goes away. With the prospect of American torture looming again, I wonder if Obama regrets his decision. After all, people like Haspel, quite plausibly, could have gone to prison."

And now Haspel is the president's choice to be the director of the CIA.

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A voter steps into voting booth, Nov. 5, 2013, in Philadelphia, Pa.

Political world's focus turns to Pennsylvania's special election

03/13/18 12:00PM

Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district, south of Pittsburgh in the Keystone State's southwest corner, can safely be described as a Republican stronghold. John McCain won here by 11 points in his presidential campaign in 2008; Mitt Romney fared even better four years later, winning by 17 points; and Donald Trump carried the district by a 20-point margin.

The area's former congressman, Republican Tim Murphy, ran unopposed in the last two election cycles -- because no local Democrats saw any point in going up against him.

With this recent history in mind, it was a bit jarring to see this  Politico piece yesterday.

The chairman of Pennsylvania's Republican Party said Monday the special election in which Democrat Conor Lamb is running neck-and-neck with Republican Rick Saccone is in a "Democrat district," even though it was represented by a Republican for more than a decade and President Donald Trump won it handily in 2016.

"The other reason it's so tight is, you have to remember, this is a Democrat district, notwithstanding the fact that the president won this by 20 points," Pennsylvania GOP chairman Val DiGiorgio told Fox News on Monday.

Putting aside grammatical concerns -- I'll assume the state GOP chairman meant "Democratic" district -- it's a tough sell.

That said, there's no great mystery as to why Republicans are saying things like this. When Tim Murphy resigned in the wake of a sex scandal, GOP officials assumed the seat would remain in Republican hands. But the more Conor Lamb (D) proved to be an excellent candidate, and the more Rick Saccone proved to be an inept candidate, the more competitive the race became, to an extent few expected.

In fact, a Monmouth University poll released yesterday showed Lamb with a modest lead.

The result has been an awkward dynamic: Republican officials are pulling out all the stops, investing an enormous amount of resources in this decidedly "red" district, while simultaneously trying to lower expectations, trashing Saccone's skills as a candidate, and preparing for the possibility of defeat.

Indeed, the pressure seems to be getting to Saccone: at his final pre-election rally last night, the Republican told supporters that "the other side" hates the United States and God. Confident candidates don't usually fly off the handle like this.

So, why should voters outside of Southwest Pennsylvania care?

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Roger Stone Addresses Women's Republican Club Of Miami

Roger Stone faces new questions about alleged WikiLeaks connections

03/13/18 11:07AM

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative and informal adviser to Donald Trump, seemed to have unique insights into developments that had not yet occurred. Stone, for example, on more than one occasion, teased anti-Clinton revelations from Wikleaks and its founder, Julian Assange, before the public saw them.

As the Russia scandal intensified, Stone backed off those claims, insisting that his insights were speculative and that he hadn't actually been in communications with Assange. The Washington Post  reports today that there's reason to question the veracity of those denials.

[Stone told someone over the phone in the spring of 2016 that] he had learned from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that his organization had obtained emails that would torment senior Democrats such as John Podesta, then campaign chairman for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The conversation occurred before it was publicly known that hackers had obtained the emails of Podesta and of the Democratic National Committee, documents that WikiLeaks released in late July and October. The U.S. intelligence community later concluded the hackers were working for Russia.

The Post has two sources. One is Sam Numberg, a former Trump aide, who told the newspaper on the record that he heard from Stone directly about the contacts with Assange. Just as importantly, Numberg said he conveyed all of this to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team.

The Post's second source is someone the paper has not identified by name.

Stone stands by his denial, though it's worth noting that when the GOP operative testified before the House Intelligence Committee in the fall, he reportedly did not directly answer questions under oath about his suspected Assange contacts.

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Maybe the last one out of Trump's White House can turn off the lights

03/13/18 10:18AM

We know Donald Trump has ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from the cabinet. There's still some question, however, about how and why.

According to the White House, Tillerson was notified late last week about his fate. According to the State Department, that's not true. Indeed, NBC News' Andrea Mitchell reports that Tillerson didn't learn about his firing until he saw Donald Trump's tweet this morning.

It's enough to make one wonder if yesterday's disagreement between Tillerson and the White House over Russia had something to do with the developments.

Complicating matters, this may not be the most unusual personnel news out of Trump World today. The Wall Street Journal reports:

President Donald Trump's personal assistant, John McEntee, was escorted out of the White House on Monday, two senior administration officials said. The cause of the firing was an unspecified security issue, said a third White House official with knowledge of the situation. [...]

Mr. McEntee wasn't as well known as the others, but had been a constant presence at Mr. Trump's side for the past three years. He made sure Mr. Trump had markers to sign autographs, delivered messages to him in the White House residence and, over the weekend, ensured that the clocks in the White House residence were adjusted for daylight-saving time.

In other words, McEntee was Trump's "body man." If you watched "The West Wing" television show, McEntee was Charlie. (Or, for "Veep" fans, he was Gary.)

According to the WSJ's piece, McEntee was removed from the White House grounds yesterday "without being allowed to collect his belongings." Indeed, he "left without his jacket."

Well, that certainly sounds serious. But CNN reported that almost immediately after McEntee was removed from the White House, he joined Trump's re-election campaign team "as a senior adviser for campaign operations."

So let me get this straight. McEntee's "security issue" was serious enough that he had to be escorted from the White House complex without his belongings, but he could still get a good job on the president's campaign team?

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Image: Trump Designates North Korea as State Sponsor of Terror During Cabinet Meeting

Trump ousts Tillerson, taps Pompeo to move from CIA to State

03/13/18 09:27AM

Throughout his tenure, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been on the periphery of the Trump administration's foreign policy apparatus, routinely contradicting the White House line. At times, it's seemed as if Donald Trump and his chief diplomat have had entirely different visions of the United States' role in the world.

How would the administration reconcile the conflict? Apparently, by replacing Tillerson.

President Donald Trump asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to step aside, the White House confirmed Tuesday, replacing him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

In a tweet, Trump thanked Tillerson for his service and said Pompeo "will do a fantastic job."

Gina Hapsel, the deputy director at the CIA, will reportedly succeed Pompeo at the intelligence agency. That's rather alarming given her background in Bush-era torture policies.

Tillerson is the second cabinet secretary to leave the Trump administration, following former HHS Secretary Tom Price, who resigned last year in the wake of a controversy over his use of private jets.

While we didn't know when this shake-up might happen, it doesn't come as a complete surprise. Axios reported way back in October that the White House had roughly this plan in mind: Pompeo would move from the CIA to the State Department, while Tillerson would exit the administration. The New York Times had a related report around Thanksgiving.

But that forewarning doesn't make the news any less dramatic.

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White House pressed to respond after spy's poisoning in the UK

03/13/18 08:42AM

This was among the biggest stories in the world yesterday.

British Prime Minister Theresa May says her government has concluded it is "highly likely" Russia is responsible for the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent.

May told British lawmakers on Monday that Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were exposed to a nerve agent known as Novichok, a weapon developed in the Soviet Union in the end of the Cold War.

By some estimates, hundreds of local people may have been exposed to the dangerous nerve agent.

In case this isn't obvious, the United Kingdom, a pillar of NATO and a nuclear-armed state, came awfully close to saying Russia launched an attack on their sovereign soil. Indeed, the British prime minister specifically declared yesterday, "Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others."

And so, naturally, attention then turned to the United States. Would Donald Trump's White House stand arm-in-arm with one of America's closest allies after an apparent Russian attack?

A reporter yesterday asked the president's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, if there will be "any repercussions for Russia from the United States, in coordination with its British allies." Sanders replied that the United States condemns the attack, adding, "We stand by our closest ally and the special relationship that we have."

Pressed further, however, Sanders refused to say that Russia was behind the incident. The White House spokesperson also wouldn't endorse Theresa May's conclusions.


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