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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 12.5.17

12/05/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Cabinet: "The Senate has confirmed Kirstjen Nielsen as President Donald Trump's choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security. Senators approved Nielsen's nomination, 62-37, on Tuesday. Nielsen, 45, is a former DHS official who now serves as deputy White House chief of staff."

* More on this on tonight's show: "Special prosecutor Robert Mueller zeroed in on President Donald Trump's business dealings with Deutsche Bank AG as his investigation into alleged Russian meddling in U.S. elections widens."

* The consequences of cheating: "Russia's Olympic team has been barred from the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The country's government officials are forbidden to attend, its flag will not be displayed at the opening ceremony and its anthem will not sound. Any athletes from Russia who receive special dispensation to compete will do so as individuals wearing a neutral uniform, and the official record books will forever show that Russia won zero medals."

* Really, FEMA? "Federal disaster workers who plugged in long overtime hours during back-to-back emergencies this year may have some of their pay clawed back, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has told staffers."

* I think K. T. McFarland has a problem: "A leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee questioned on Monday whether a high-ranking official in Donald J. Trump's transition team had been deceptive over the summer about her knowledge of discussions between Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser, and a former Russian ambassador."

* It's tough to deny Dems have a point: "Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are raising fresh concerns about the GOP-led panel's appetite for digging into the Russian ties forged by multiple advisers to President Donald Trump."

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Image: President Trump Holds Joint Press Conference With Japanese PM Shinzo Abe

The problem with Mike Pence's ignorance defense

12/05/17 02:16PM

When it comes to the Trump-Russia scandal, Mike Pence is often seen as someone on the periphery. The trouble is, the vice president has repeatedly made public comments about the scandal that were later found to be completely untrue.

The defense from Pence's allies has long been that he didn't mean to lie, but rather, repeated the information he'd been given. This is especially important as it relates to former White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty last week to lying to the FBI about his communications with Russia, and about whom Pence gave the public false information.

Politico reported last night, however, that the vice president's office continues to go with the out-of-the-loop defense.

As the White House contends with questions about who knew about former national security adviser Michael Flynn lying to the FBI, people close to Vice President Mike Pence are trying to make clear that President Donald Trump's No. 2 knew nothing at all. [...]

Pence's aides have maintained for months that their man was out of the loop, blissfully ignorant of contacts between the Trump campaign and various foreign actors, from the Russian ambassador to WikiLeaks.

Their story has been consistent, even as it has left outside observers wondering how Trump's running mate and transition head could have known so little.

I don't doubt Team Pence will stick with this line, but it shouldn't be accepted at face value. Indeed, as Rachel explained on last night's show, the vice president's line has been consistent, but it's also in need of a revision.

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Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee walks to a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, for a meeting with UN Ambassador Susan Rice. Rice continued...

The awkward search for economists who support the GOP tax plan

12/05/17 12:50PM

The University of Chicago's Initiative on Global Markets recently conducted a survey of academic economists to ask if the Republican tax plan would exacerbate America's debt-to-GDP ratio. Of the 38 experts who responded, 37 said Republicans were wrong that the plan would pay for itself.

The 38th said he misunderstood the question.

The University of Chicago's Booth School of Business also asked the economists if the GOP proposal would significantly improve the economy. Only one said it would.

It's not exactly a secret that the Republican legislation is unpopular with the American public, but American economists tend to agree that the GOP plan isn't a good idea. Indeed, when Republicans tried to assemble a group of economists who endorsed the party's proposal, they ended up including a variety of people who aren't economists.

But GOP officials nevertheless want to believe their assumptions about trickle-down tax cuts are not only correct, but also bolstered by experts. On "Meet the Press" this past weekend, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) made the bizarre argument that tax cuts lead to growth, which leads to revenue, which "actually lowers the debt." When NBC's Chuck Todd pressed her to point to any evidence to support her assumptions, she eventually replied:

"Well, talk to economists like Glenn Hubbard and Larry Lindsey and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who used to be head of the [Congressional Budget Office]."

That was probably not the right thing to say.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.5.17

12/05/17 12:00PM

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

* Facing accusations of sexual harassment from several women, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) announced this morning that he's resigning from Congress, giving up a seat he's held since 1965. There will be a special election to fill the vacancy and the outgoing congressman this morning endorsed his son, John Conyers III, for the seat.

* Now that Donald Trump and the RNC are backing Roy Moore's (R) Senate candidacy in Alabama, America First Action, the pro-Trump super PAC, is reportedly investing $1.1 million in the race. The special election is a week from today.

* Moore's opponent, Doug Jones (D), launched two new television ads this week, one arguing that Moore's radicalism threatens Alabama's business climate, and another that emphasizes Sen. Richard Shelby's (R) opposition to Moore's candidacy.

* Interesting piece of trivia: Alabama's Senate special election will be only the third U.S. Senate election ever held in the month of December.

* To the surprise of no one, former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray (D) is kicking off his gubernatorial campaign in Ohio today. Cordray has previously served as the state's attorney general, treasurer, and solicitor general, and served in the state legislature.

* In Colorado, Steve Curtis, the former chairman of the state Republican Party, said Democrats were responsible for "virtually every case of voter fraud" he could think of. Curtis is now facing a criminal charge for voter fraud, accused of forging his ex-wife's signature on a mail-in ballot.

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Image: Embattled GOP Senate Candidate In Alabama Judge Roy Moore Continues Campaigning Throughout The State

Roy Moore spokesperson points to his many 'non-accusers'

12/05/17 11:20AM

I remember the rhetorical trick taking hold in the Bush/Cheney era as part of the Republican defense of the war in Iraq. As the country descended into chaos, the Bush administration tried to focus on the positives, effectively arguing, "What about the areas in Iraq that aren't on fire?"

A few years later, during Herman Cain's presidential campaign, the Republican was confronted with allegations of sexual harassment. Cain responded at the time by effectively asking, "What about the women I knew who haven't accused me of misconduct?"

Earlier this year, CNN's Jake Tapper reminded Kellyanne Conway that Donald Trump says quite a few things that are demonstrably untrue. Instead of defending those claims, Conway responded by insisting there are "many things" that the president says "that are true."

This morning, Janet Porter, a spokesperson for Roy Moore's (R) Senate campaign in Alabama, added the latest installment to the list. Porter appeared on CNN and was asked about the women who've accused Roy Moore of sexual misconduct when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. Porter responded:

"We need to make it clear that there's a group of non-accusers, that have not accused the judge of any sexual misconduct or anything illegal."

Or put another way, "What about the women in Alabama whom Moore didn't target when they were teenagers?"

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

Reality-based governing keeps getting in Republicans' way

12/05/17 10:44AM

The Joint Committee on Taxation, Congress' official scorekeeper on tax proposals, reviewed the Senate Republicans' tax plan and told GOP lawmakers what they didn't want to hear. According to the data, the Republican proposal wouldn't pay for itself, wouldn't create enormous economic growth, but would add over a $1 trillion to deficits over the next decade.

In theory, it was the kind of analysis that could've derailed the entire legislative initiative. That didn't happen, at least in part because Republicans "went on the offensive to discredit the agency performing the analysis." The New York Times reported late yesterday that GOP lawmakers "opened an assault" on Congress' own office so lawmakers would be more inclined to ignore the Joint Committee on Taxation's findings.

Public statements and messaging documents obtained by The New York Times show a concerted push by Republican lawmakers to discredit a nonpartisan agency they had long praised. Party leaders circulated two pages of "response points" that declared "the substance, timing and growth assumptions of J.C.T.'s 'dynamic' score are suspect." Among their arguments was that the joint committee was using "consistently wrong" growth models to assess the effect the tax cuts would have on hiring, wages and investment.

The Republican response points go after revenue analyses by the committee and by the Congressional Budget Office, which scores other legislation, saying their findings "can be off to the tune of more than $1.5 trillion over ten years."

The swift backlash helped defuse concerns about the deficit impact long enough for the bill to pass by a vote of 51 to 49..

It's worth emphasizing that Republicans didn't identify any specific flaws or mistakes in the Joint Committee on Taxation's analysis. GOP lawmakers simply decided to believe that the findings weren't reliable and understated the growth rates that Republicans expect to materialize, based on little more than their own hopes and evidence-free assumptions.

Making matters worse is the degree to which this is part of a larger pattern.

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The Republican National Committee headquarters, Sept. 9, 2014. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Seeing the Republican tax plan as a tool to punish Democrats

12/05/17 10:01AM

As the Republican tax plan took shape, and its "winners" and "losers" came into focus, a pattern started to emerge. As a Bloomberg Politics report explained today, some of those who stand to fare the worst under the GOP tax overhaul are graduate students, government workers, school teachers, and blue-state residents.

It's easy to get the impression that Republican policymakers aren't just trying to cut taxes for the wealthy and big corporations; they're also doing so in a way to punish Democratic voters.

President Donald Trump and GOP leaders have promised that the two main goals of a tax code revamp are to benefit middle-class families and to slash the corporate tax rate. But paying for those changes has come in large part at the expense of breaks that are important to residents of high-tax states, which tend to be Democratic.

Benefits used by universities and graduate students are also on the chopping block. And the repeal of the Obamacare individual mandate to buy insurance -- a centerpiece of Democrats' biggest achievement in a generation -- is estimated to generate some $300 billion to pay for tax cuts.

The Heritage Foundation's Stephen Moore, a conservative economist who worked with the Trump campaign last year, told Bloomberg Politics the GOP tax policy is "death to Democrats."

"They go after state and local taxes, which weakens public employee unions," Moore said. "They go after university endowments, and universities have become play pens of the left. And getting rid of the mandate is to eventually dismantle Obamacare."

I suppose Moore is to be thanked for his unusual level of candor. Ordinarily, one might expect proponents of the regressive Republican plan to at least pretend it's the result of serious and deliberate policymaking from elected officials motivated by nothing but the public's best interests.

Moore isn't bothering with the pretense. He describes the GOP proposal as a political weapon to be wielded against Democrats and their allies -- which Moore sees as a feature of the Republican plan, not a bug.

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke delivers a speech billed as "A Vision for American Energy Dominance" at the Heritage Foundation on September 29, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Trump Admin makes an odd argument while giving away federal land

12/05/17 09:20AM

Presidents have quite a bit of federal authority when it comes to creating national monuments, and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama put that power to use in Utah, creating federal protections for millions of acres of public land.

Donald Trump announced yesterday he's undoing some of those protections, shrinking the Bears Ears monument in Utah from 1.3 million acres to about 220,000 acres of federally protected land, and reducing Grand Staircase-Escalante from 1.9 million acres to a little over 1 million acres.

That's nearly 2 million acres of protected public land that the Republican president decided to give away yesterday. One of Trump's cabinet secretaries defended the move with a curious talking point.

Before the ceremony, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told The Salt Lake Tribune "The president is delivering on his campaign promise to give the state and local communities a voice, which I think is absolutely important. Public lands are for public use and not for special interests."

It seemed possible that Zinke misspoke, but he used identical language yesterday in a separate interview: "Public land is for public use and not special interests."

I realize when it comes to the Trump administration, some up-is-down rhetoric is to be expected, but even by 2017 standards, this is disorienting.

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In this Oct. 24, 2012 file photo, former Chief Justice Roy Moore poses for a photo in his Montgomery, Ala., office. (Photo by Dave Martin/AP)

As Roy Moore faces new accuser, he receives new GOP support

12/05/17 08:40AM

The number of Roy Moore's accusers in Alabama went up yesterday, when the Washington Post published a new report on Debbie Wesson Gibson, who dated the right-wing Republican when she was 17 and he was 34. The article highlighted a written note she received from Moore upon her high-school graduation, and the handwriting appears to be quite similar to the inscription in one of his other accuser's yearbooks.

The new report not only reinforces allegations that Moore pursued teenagers while he was an adult, it also undermines the Senate candidate's denials about his conduct.

It's against this backdrop that Republicans have decided to give Roy Moore's Senate candidacy a new round of support.

The Republican National Committee resumed supporting Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore on Monday after President Donald Trump earlier endorsed Moore, a Republican official said.

The RNC dropped out of a joint fundraising agreement with Moore three weeks ago as Moore was hit with multiple accusations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls decades ago. NBC News reported at the time that it had also ended its field operations in the state, where it deployed 11 operatives.

Now, however, the Republican establishment has reversed course, deciding Moore deserves the party's support after all.

What changed? By all appearances, now that Donald Trump officially supports the accused child molester, Trump's party has decided to support him, too.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen during a press conference at Los Pinos on Aug. 31, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/LatinContent/Getty)

Trump lawyers not done suggesting the president is above the law

12/05/17 08:00AM

Donald Trump's legal defense team have responded to the Russia scandal in recent months by arguing, repeatedly and in public, that the president and his campaign didn't collude with Putin's government during last year's attack, and that the president didn't obstruct justice as the investigation has unfolded.

The new line from Trump World is that collusion isn't a big deal and the president is, as a matter of law, incapable of obstructing justice.

On the first point, Jay Sekulow, one of the president's prominent private attorneys, told the New Yorker that collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, if it happened, would be legally permissible. "For something to be a crime, there has to be a statute that you claim is being violated," Sekulow said. "There is not a statute that refers to criminal collusion. There is no crime of collusion."

On the show last night, former White House Counsel Bob Bauer described this argument as a "fantasy," adding, "There certainly is a statute that prohibits an American political campaign from essentially establishing a political alliance with a foreign government to win a presidential election, and the suggestion that that's not a crime I think is simply, flatly wrong."

As for obstruction-of-justice allegations, John Dowd, who's helping lead Trump's legal defense, told Axios that a president "cannot obstruct justice" by virtue of the fact that he's the nation's chief law-enforcement official. I thought Dowd might try to walk that back, but in an interview with USA Today, he doubled down.

Trump has denied that he asked Comey to drop the investigation. But his chief lawyer, John Dowd, suggested Monday it wouldn't even matter if he had -- because a president cannot obstruct justice by telling the FBI how he hopes a criminal investigation will be resolved.

"He is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States," Dowd said in an email to USA TODAY. "He has more power and discretion on that matter that DOJ and FBI put together. He cannot obstruct himself!"

There are three angles to this that are worth keeping in mind.

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