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A guard stands on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, Oct. 5, 2015. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Some Republicans eye constitutional amendment to block court packing

03/20/19 09:20AM

The idea of "packing" the Supreme Court hasn't been a subject of real political debate in recent generations, but it's starting to gain traction among some Democratic presidential candidates, who've expressed some interest in dramatic judicial reforms.

Donald Trump publicly addressed the issue for the first time yesterday -- the president, not surprisingly, is against court packing, at least until he changes his mind -- and some congressional Republicans are eyeing a new measure to end the debate altogether.

Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.) on Tuesday announced he will introduce a constitutional amendment this week to limit the number of Supreme Court justices to nine after several Democratic presidential candidates have floated the idea of expanding the high court's bench.

"This Thursday, I will be introducing a constitutional amendment that would limit the number of Supreme Court justices to 9 -- the number of seats since 1869. The Supreme Court must remain a fair and impartial branch of government not beholden to party," Green said in a statement.

"Schemes to pack the court are dangerous to the Founders' vision of an independent judiciary that serves as a check on both the Executive and Legislative branches of government," he continued.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), warning of "further destabilization of essential institutions," announced yesterday that he too will introduce a constitutional amendment that would keep the high court at nine justices.

Amending the Constitution is extremely difficult, and the odds of Congress ratifying such a measure anytime soon are poor. But so long as some GOP lawmakers are eager to pick this fight, it's worth taking a moment to set the record straight about a couple of things.

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Image:  US House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes

Nunes' lawsuit predictably backfires, boosts 'Devin Nunes' Cow'

03/20/19 08:40AM

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) decided this week that it'd be a good idea to sue Twitter because it's allowed some of its users to publish content that hurts the congressman's feelings. Of particular interest, however, is "Devin Nunes' Cow."

The Republican congressman's lawsuit specifically points to "Devin Nunes' Cow" -- a Twitter account that mocks the lawmaker with bovine-related puns -- as an example of the sort of brutal mistreatment he's received on the social-media platform. (The account, for example, has described Nunes as "udder-ly worthless.")

I'll confess that I was unfamiliar with the parodic account before yesterday, but I'm well aware of it now -- which is one of the reasons Nunes' litigation is such a bad idea. New York Times noted yesterday:

The lawsuit by Mr. Nunes had the perhaps unintended effect of sharply increasing the reach of @DevinCow, the parody account that had around 1,200 followers before the lawsuit was filed. The account was up to 46,000 followers as of Tuesday morning and rapidly growing.

How rapidly? By last night, the "Devin Nunes' Cow" account had over 217,000 followers. As I type this morning, it has over 327,000 followers.

In fact, the comedic account, created to mock Devin Nunes, now has nearly as many Twitter followers as Devin Nunes. [Update: see below.]

All of this, of course, was quite predictable. In effect, the far-right congressman declared to the world, "Hey everyone, that funny Twitter account is ridiculing me! That one, right there! It exists to make me appear foolish, which is why I now feel entitled to $250 million!"

The question isn't why Nunes' lawsuit backfired; it's why he didn't see this coming.

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Trump takes pride in foreign embrace of 'fake news' label

03/20/19 08:00AM

Donald Trump stood side by side at the White House yesterday with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has earned a reputation as the "Trump of the Tropics." Bolsonaro's right-wing antics and authoritarian vision have positioned him as one of the world's closest analogues for the current American president.

With this in mind, in his opening remarks before a brief Rose Garden press conference yesterday, the new Brazilian leader said, "In conclusion, may I say that Brazil and the United States stand side by side in their efforts to ensure liberties and respect to traditional family lifestyles, respect to God, our Creator, against the gender ideology or the politically correct attitudes, and against fake news."

Soon after, Trump gushed with pride.

"You know, the incredible thing is that we can win an election and we have such a stacked deck. And that includes networks, frankly. You look at the networks, you look at the news, you look at the newscasts -- I call it 'fake news.'

"I'm very proud to hear the president use the term 'fake news.'"

The Republican's response may not have been surprising, but it was depressing.

In the not-too-distant past, a foundational goal of U.S. foreign policy was exporting American values. For generations, it's been the underpinning of our approach to everything from trade to diplomacy. The more we interact with other nations, the more opportunity we have to introduce the world to our ideals: civil liberties, human rights, the virtues of democracy, religious liberty, the institutional importance of a free press.

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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 3.19.19

03/19/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A heartbreaking disaster: "More than 1,000 people were feared dead in Mozambique four days after a cyclone slammed into the country, submerging entire villages and leaving bodies floating in the floodwaters, the nation's president said."

* Overdue scrutiny: "The United States transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, on Tuesday asked her agency's internal watchdog to conduct an audit of the Federal Aviation Administration's certification of the Boeing 737 Max 8."

* The latest on Cohen: "The investigation of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former lawyer, began at least nine months before federal agents raided his home and office, according to search warrants made public Tuesday."

* The latest 5-4 decision: "The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday against a group of immigrants in a case about the government's power to detain them after they've committed crimes but finished their sentences."

* Filling in the blanks: " Inc. founder Jeff Bezos and his allies have publicly speculated about how the National Enquirer acquired racy texts he sent to his girlfriend.... The reality is simpler: Michael Sanchez, the brother of Mr. Bezos' lover, sold the billionaire's secrets for $200,000 to the Enquirer's publisher, said people familiar with the matter."

* Change of plans at the DOJ: "Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will stay at the Justice Department 'a little longer,' according to a senior department official."

* I hope this doesn't give Trump any ideas: "Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a new law which will allow the punishment of individuals and online media for spreading what Russia calls 'fake news' and information which 'disrespects' the state." 

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Image: Spokesperson Heather Nauert while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dialogues with reporters in his plane while flying from Panama to Mexico

Secrecy surrounding briefing for 'faith-based media' raises eyebrows

03/19/19 04:01PM

At face value, it may not seem especially notable that that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a briefing yesterday for "faith-based media," ostensibly to discuss issues related to international religious freedom. What's curious, however, is the apparent secrecy surrounding the briefing.

For example, the State Department said no transcript of the briefing would be available to the public, which is unusual. The State Department also wouldn't say who participated in the briefing.

Major independent news organizations that asked to be part of the briefing were reportedly excluded -- the invitations were limited exclusively to "faith-based media."

CNN spoke to a former State Department spokesperson, who found all of this difficult to defend.

Former State Department spokesperson John Kirby, who is a CNN Global Affairs analyst, said "it is typical practice that any on the record interview in which a Cabinet official participates is transcribed and published at the earliest appropriate opportunity."

"These officials are public servants. What they say -- in its entirety -- is inherently of public interest. It's inappropriate and irresponsible not to observe that obligation," he told CNN.

Kirby said he has "certainly seen times when particular journalists or columnists have been targeted for inclusion on given topics." However, "to exclude beat reporters from something as universally relevant as religious freedom in the Middle East strikes me as not only self-defeating but incredibly small-minded," he said.

"It's perfectly fine to ensure faith-based media have a seat at such a table. But it's PR malpractice to cut off access to the broader press corps. I wish I could say I expected more from this crowd," Kirby said.

MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell added yesterday that she couldn't recall a similar instance in which religion was used as "a test" for journalists who wanted to take part in an official State Department briefing.

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Image: Senate Judiciary Committee

The Mueller poll Trump is excited about deserves a closer look

03/19/19 12:51PM

Throughout the investigation into the Russia scandal, the polling has been fairly steady: the public has been generally skeptical of Donald Trump's claims, while maintaining confidence in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

Yesterday, however, poll watchers received a bit of a surprise.

Amid signs that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference may be near its conclusion, a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll finds that trust in Mueller has eroded and half of Americans agree with President Donald Trump's contention that he has been the victim of a "witch hunt."

The president, naturally, was thrilled with the results, which he eagerly touted on Twitter.

That may not have been a good idea. The same results, for example, found that 52% said "they have little or no trust in the president's denials that his 2016 campaign colluded with Moscow in the election that put him in the Oval Office." It would suggest that Trump's frequent rebukes of Mueller and hits team haven't improved the president's own credibility with the public.

But what explains the results that show roughly half the country endorsing the "witch hunt" line? Especially in the wake of another equally reliable recent poll that found only a third of the country agreed with Trump's "witch hunt" claim?

This is a good pollster that utilizes a sound methodology, though in this case, the wording of the specific question raised some red flags.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.19.19

03/19/19 12:00PM

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

* Emphasizing an issue of growing political significance, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a leading Democratic presidential hopeful, yesterday called for the end of the electoral college.

* On a related note, the Massachusetts Democrat was also asked during a town-hall forum about the prospect of reparations. "I love the idea of this congressional commission," she replied. "I believe it's time to start the national, full-blown conversation about reparations."

* Presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) has generally been reluctant to throw his support behind Medicare-for-All proposals, though yesterday the former congressman endorsed the Medicare-for-America plan outlined last by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

* At this stage in the 2020 cycle, Donald Trump's re-election campaign is reportedly spending "nearly twice as much as the entire Democratic field combined on Facebook and Google ads."

* The president also tweeted over the weekend that Democrats tried to "steal" the 2016 election. Ordinarily, such an accusation might be considered provocative news, but in the Trump era, this was largely ignored as random background nonsense.

* In the wake of allegations that Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) improperly used her state's voter registration system to access information about her rivals, the state legislature has passed a bill to "strip [Grimes] of her authority over the State Board of Elections."

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Trump's boasts about Air Force One start to look even worse

03/19/19 10:59AM

During his presidential transition process in 2016, Donald Trump published a tweet complaining about Boeing and the cost of a new Air Force One. The Republican, for reasons that have never been clear, insisted that "costs are out of control." With the price tag for the project likely to top $4 billion, Trump said via Twitter, "Cancel order!"

The order, of course, was not actually canceled. Two months later, before his presidency had even reached the one-month mark, Trump returned to the subject, bragging about cutting the cost of the new Air Force One, though his boasts weren't at all true.

Nevertheless, in July 2018, the president announced that he'd successfully negotiated "a good deal" on the project, saving taxpayers over a billion dollars on the new planes, which he said would now cost $3.9 billion.

Defense One reported yesterday that the figure Trump and the White House have touted for months isn't the same figure that appears in the Department of Defense's budget.

The cost of buying, equipping, and preparing to operate the two Boeing 747s that will become the next Air Force One presidential transport aircraft is now pegged at $5.3 billion, nearly one-third more than the figure routinely touted by the White House, according to Air Force officials and Pentagon budget documents.

The projected price tag -- included in the Pentagon's fiscal 2020 budget proposal -- marks the first time the Defense Department has provided a total cost estimate for the project. It includes not only the cost of the planes themselves, but also work to build a new hangar complex at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and other administrative, engineering, and development work.

"The total VC-25B acquisition cost ... is $5.3B and encompasses all costs associated with fielding the system," Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek wrote in an email Monday, referring to the new Air Force One by its military designation.

The article added that Air Force officials, at least in private, have long conceded that the White House's figures were wrong. The difference is, the actual numbers are now in writing.

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at the W.L. Zorn Arena Nov. 1, 2016 in Eau Claire, Wis. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Wisconsin focus group suggests Trump's dishonesty is a problem

03/19/19 10:06AM

Democrats suffered a series of bitter disappointments in the last presidential election cycle, but Donald Trump's narrow victory in Wisconsin was among the most severe. The Badger State had supported the Democratic ticket in each of the last seven presidential elections -- Barack Obama carried Wisconsin with relative ease in both of his national races -- but the state nevertheless backed Trump by about 0.7% of the statewide vote.

It's against this backdrop that Axios reported yesterday on a focus group conducted in Appleton, Wis., featuring a group of swing voters, most of whom voted for Obama in 2012, before switching to Trump in 2016. There were a variety of interesting takeaways, but one of the things that stood out for me was a common thread among some of the voters who backed the Republican, but who aren't sure about voting for him again.

"I think he's a dirty crook that lies, cheats, and steals when he can," said George Engelmann, a 49-year-old Obama/Trump voter. [...]

Adam K., a 47-year-old Obama/Trump voter, said he wishes Trump would own the things he's lied about. "He's been caught in a lot of lies. ... You know, just admit that you made a mistake and say 'I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that.'"

Amanda S., a 39-year-old Obama/Trump voter, said: "He's getting stuff done, but he lies. I don't think he's a very good person, but he's getting stuff done, so it's hard."

Obviously, the idea that Trump is "getting stuff done" is highly dubious, but let's not miss the forest for the trees: many of the swing voters who participated in this focus group have a problem with the president's incessant lying.

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U.S. Senators Roy Blunt and Debbie Stabenow speak during a news conference about the Excellence in Mental Health Act, February 7, 2013 in Washington, DC.

After standing on principle, GOP senator faces rebuke in his home state

03/19/19 09:20AM

After Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration, granting himself the powers to redirect funds in defiance of Congress' wishes, Republicans faced a choice: stand up for constitutional principles or side with the White House out of a sense of partisan loyalty. In both the House and Senate, the vast majority of GOP lawmakers prioritized the latter over the former.

But not all of them. In the Senate last week, 12 Republicans broke ranks and voted for a resolution to block the president's policy. One of them was Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the chair of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, and the only member of the GOP leadership to stand on principle on this vote.

Any chance his local allies would side with Blunt, a giant in Missouri Republican politics? Evidently not. The Kansas City Star reported yesterday that the senator has been disinvited from an upcoming GOP gathering in his home state, in response to last week's vote.

"I am so disappointed in you now that I can hardly speak," wrote Wanda Martens, a member of the Christian County Republican Central Committee, in an email to Blunt's office. "Why could you not support my president in the emergency declaration? President Trump tried every available means to work the Senate to resolve the border issue and build the much needed wall. He is well within his presidential powers to do this."

Martens serves as the local party committee's events chair. She told the senator in her email, which was obtained by The Kansas City Star, that she did not want to see him when the local party holds its Lincoln/Trump Day Dinner on April 6 in Ozark, Missouri, one of the most conservative areas in the state.

State and local Republican groups traditionally hold annual Lincoln Day events, but the event in Ozark includes Trump in the name and places a drawing of the president's face alongside Lincoln's on the invitation.

It's that last part that stood out most for me.

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