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Image: U.S. President Trump tosses rolls of paper towels to people at a hurricane relief distribution center at Calvary Chapel in San Juan

Trump concocts conspiracy theory to explain Puerto Rico death toll

09/13/18 10:00AM

As Hurricane Florence approached the east coast, Donald Trump spoke from the Oval Office on Tuesday about preparations for the storm. But it wasn't long before the president tried to turn one of his highest-profile failures into a success story.

"I think Puerto Rico was incredibly successful," Trump said about his administration's response to last year's devastation. He added, "I actually think it was one of the best jobs that's ever been done with respect to what this is all about.... I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible unsung success."

He echoed the sentiment yesterday, insisting his administration "did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico," before blaming a "totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan."

All of this was quite jarring for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Puerto Rico recently increased its death toll from Hurricane Maria to 2,975 people. This morning, however, the president rejected that total in a pair of tweets, declaring the figure the result of a Democratic conspiracy.

"3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000.

"This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!"

It's hard to even know where to start, but let's unpack this a bit.

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U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) arrives at a news conference Nov. 4, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

GOP senator: Congress has a duty to curb Trump's 'reckless behavior'

09/13/18 09:20AM

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) generated a few headlines yesterday, delivering another speech criticizing Donald Trump from the Senate floor. The Associated Press reported:

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona is condemning President Donald Trump's attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, calling them a "travesty."

Flake, a vocal Trump critic, said Wednesday from the Senate floor that Trump has been "relentlessly slandering" Sessions. He warned that Trump seems headed for "some future assault" on the justice system, perhaps by firing Sessions or special counsel Robert Mueller. He urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to hold a vote on legislation to protect Mueller's investigation.

The retiring Republican senator added that Congress has "the responsibility to curb such reckless behavior" from Trump and appealed to lawmakers to speak out.

Of course, speaking out and lawmakers taking steps to curb reckless presidential behavior are not the same thing.

Flake has become quite adept at delivering remarks like these, and for Trump detractors, the Arizonan's speeches tend to be powerful and eloquent. I was especially impressed with the message he delivered at Harvard Law School in May, when Flake said, "Our presidency has been debased by a figure who has a seemingly bottomless appetite for destruction and division -- and only a passing familiarity with how the Constitution works."

But as compelling as Flake's criticisms are, there's still something important missing: follow through.

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Image: A taxi goes past Trump Tower in New York City

Trump's orders were ignored in the private sector, too

09/13/18 08:40AM

Between Bob Woodward's new book and the anonymous New York Times op-ed last week from a senior administration official, it's clear that many in Donald Trump's orbit disregard his orders. It's not how the presidency is supposed to work, but in this White House, some officials reportedly see the insubordination as a necessity.

Indeed, the Washington Post  noted the other day that when Reince Priebus was Trump's chief of staff, the president would direct him to fire someone or implement a specific policy. Priebus would pretend to go along, but tell Trump it would happen "next week." By that point, "Trump often would have forgotten" about the instructions.

What's less understood is how long people in Trump's orbit have been doing the same thing. The New York Daily News published an op-ed yesterday from Barbara Res, who was a Trump Organization executive for nearly two decades, and who admitted that she learned to ignore some of his worst orders.

He would say whatever came into his head. Ordering an underling to do something that was impossible gave Trump the opportunity to castigate a subordinate and also blame him for anything that "went wrong" in connection with the unperformed order later. A Trump-style win-win.

Trump did this with outrageous or just plain stupid ideas, both legal and illegal. Sometimes those lines were blurred.

When he asked me to do something that could not be done, I often fought back, but always at a cost. Sometimes, I just did what he asked, planning for the necessary fix or damage control later.

But many times, I played along with him and then didn't carry out his order.

Res shared an especially striking anecdote about an architect who showed him plans for an elevator's interior -- and the future president's opposition to braille being included alongside the buttons.

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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.  (AP Photo/ Evan...

As pressure over Kavanaugh mounts, Collins sees 'bribery' attempt

09/13/18 08:00AM

The combination of technology and changes to campaign-finance laws has led to quite a bit of creativity in the field of pressuring members of Congress. Occasionally, however, the legal lines get a little blurry.

Last year, for example, when Betsy DeVos' nomination to become Education secretary was pending, activists in Pennsylvania hoped to convince Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to vote against her. Because DeVos had contributed $55,000 to the Republican senator, one of Toomey's constituents launched a crowd-funding campaign, hoping to raise at least $55,000 in order to "buy" the lawmaker's opposition to the nominee.

The folks behind the campaign, concerned about bribery laws, quickly labeled the endeavor "satire," and Toomey confirmed his former donor to Donald Trump's cabinet.

With Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) facing similar pressure to oppose Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation, a related controversy is unfolding, though the differences matter. The Washington Post  reported:

For liberals concerned about what a seat for Kavanaugh would do to the court, Collins has been both a source of limited hope and frustration, expressing concerns about threats to Roe vs. Wade, while consulting with the Trump administration through the selection process.

So a group of liberal activists in Maine created an unusual crowdfunding campaign that encapsulated both of these emotions: they raised money in the form of pledges that they said they would give to whoever decided to challenge Collins in 2020 if she voted for Kavanaugh's confirmation. If she votes no, the money will never be withdrawn from donors.

The effort has been fairly successful -- organizers have already raised over $1 million, which would go to Collins' next rival -- though the senator has condemned the "quid-pro-quo fundraising" project, equating it with attempted "bribery."

Is she right?

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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 9.12.18

09/12/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Hurricane Florence: "The storm was expected to make landfall late Thursday or Friday in coastal North Carolina and then potentially stall churning its way slowly down the coast, FEMA's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration liaison Steve Goldstein said at a news conference. 'This could mean that parts of North and South Carolina near the coast will experience hurricane-force winds and hurricane conditions for 24 hours or more,' he said."

* The latest executive order: "President Trump issued a new order Wednesday authorizing additional sanctions against countries or individuals for interfering in upcoming U.S. elections, but lawmakers of both parties immediately said the effort does not go far enough."

* Four different news organizations have similar reports on this: "Days before in-person jury ­selection is set to begin in his second trial, President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort is in talks with the special counsel's office about a possible plea deal, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions."

* A case we've been keeping an eye on: "A federal appeals court on Tuesday shot down a lawsuit against President Donald Trump over alleged abuse protesters say they received at a campaign rally in 2016 after he repeatedly urged the crowd to 'get 'em out of here.'"

* The White House's campaign against the book isn't having the intended effect: "Bob Woodward's 'Fear' is spreading quickly. Woodward's account of a dysfunctional Trump White House has already sold more than 750,000 copies, Simon & Schuster announced Wednesday, the day after the book arrived in stores."

* Puerto Rico: "FEMA approved just 3% of applications for funeral assistance from more than 2,000 Puerto Rican families who lost loved ones after Hurricane Maria, according to a letter the agency head wrote to Sen. Elizabeth Warren."

* This seems unlikely to go well: "NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has directed the space agency to look at boosting its brand by selling naming rights to rockets and spacecraft and allowing its astronauts to appear in commercials and on cereal boxes, as if they were celebrity athletes."

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A magnifying glass is posed over a monitor displaying a Facebook page in Munich on Oct. 10, 2011. (Photo by Joerg Koch/AP)

When a fact-checking experiment goes horribly awry

09/12/18 12:54PM

ThinkProgress' Ian Millhiser wrote a compelling piece over the weekend, making the argument that Judge Brett Kavanaugh, if confirmed to the Supreme Court, would vote to reverse Roe v. Wade. As he always does, Millhiser fleshed out his position with quite a bit of evidence and links to relevant support materials, bolstering his speculative point about Kavanaugh's likely intentions.

But if you saw the opinion piece on Facebook, you were confronted with an unexpected warning: the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, labeled Millhiser's piece "false." The social media giant effectively urged its users who saw the article to consider it "factually inaccurate."

If this were simply a routine dispute between two political outlets -- one on the left, the other on the right -- it wouldn't be the least bit notable. Practically every day, the Weekly Standard and outlets like it take issue with progressive arguments, just as ThinkProgress and outlets like it take issue with conservative arguments. I found Millhiser's piece persuasive; the Weekly Standard didn't; news consumers are welcome to read the evidence and reach their own conclusions.

But it's Facebook's role that changes the nature of the game. Slate's Mark Joseph Stern had a good piece yesterday explaining the broader dynamic:

In the wake of the 2016 election, to combat the rampant dissemination of disinformation, Facebook brought on five third-party fact-checkers to referee stories posted to the website. If any one fact-checker contests the accuracy of a story, it is flagged by Facebook as potential "false news," and this "false rating" has a dire chilling effect on readership. This system thus gives a handful of outlets immense power over the articles that show up in your news feed.

Four of Facebook's chosen fact-checkers -- the Associated Press, Factcheck.org, PolitiFact, and Snopes -- are widely trusted and nonpartisan. The fifth, the Weekly Standard, has generally high-quality editorial content with a conservative ideological bent.

The phrase "one of these things is not like the other" comes to mind. The Associated Press, of course, is one of the world's largest independent news organizations. Factcheck.org, PolitiFact, and Snopes are arguably the three highest-profile fact-checking websites online, and none of them have a reputation for being especially partisan or ideological.

The Weekly Standard, however, is a conservative magazine, featuring conservative editors and conservative content. For Facebook to give it fact-checking authority is, to put it charitably, curious.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.12.18

09/12/18 12:00PM

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

* The new national Quinnipiac poll is likely to cause some heartburn in Republican circles: it shows Democrats expanding their lead over the GOP on the generic congressional ballot to 14 points, 52% to 38%. That's up from a nine-point Democratic advantage in the same poll last month.

* The results of the new NPR/Marist poll aren't much better for Republicans: it shows Dems ahead on the generic ballot by 12 points, 50% to 38%. In July, the same poll found Democrats ahead by seven points.

* The NPR/Marist poll also found Donald Trump with a 39% approval rating. It's the third, independent national poll released this week that shows the president's support below 40%.

* New Hampshire held its primaries yesterday, and initial estimates suggest Democrats broke the record for voter turnout in a midterm cycle.

* On a related note, only two states remain in the primary season, and Rhode Island's contests are today. The race to keep an eye on is Gov. Gina Raimondo (D), who's facing a primary challenge from Matt Brown, a former Rhode Island secretary of state.

* In Florida's gubernatorial race, a SurveyUSA poll for Spectrum News found Andrew Gillum (D) with a modest lead over Ron DeSantis (R), 47% to 43%.

* In Nevada, a Suffolk University/Reno Gazette Journal  poll released yesterday found Rep. Jacky Rosen (D) effectively tied with incumbent Sen. Dean Heller (R), with the Democrat ahead in the poll by a fraction of a percentage point. The same poll showed Heller narrowly ahead a couple of months ago.

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Image: Ron DeSantis

As Election Day nears, Florida's DeSantis still needs a platform

09/12/18 11:22AM

The Tampa Bay Times  reports today that Rep. Ron DeSantis, the Republicans' gubernatorial candidate in Florida, has made plenty of time in recent months for Fox News, discussing national issues, but he's been more reluctant to make himself available for local media interviews. It led to this interesting tidbit:

His campaign confirmed several days ago would sit down with the Tampa Bay Times to discuss his position on issues facing Florida between campaign stops in Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties Tuesday. The campaign cancelled Tuesday morning, saying they wanted to give him time to flesh out his platform before taking questions.

Election Day is in eight weeks. The sitting congressman has been running for governor since January. He's still fleshing out his platform?

That got me thinking about DeSantis' agenda, so I went to his official campaign website, which has an issues page. It features six areas of interest, each with a few bullet points. The six areas, explaining the congressman's positions, range in length from 8 to 39 words.

And then I swung by the issues page for his opponent, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D), which has 10 areas of interest, each of which leads to fairly lengthy individual pages -- several hundred words long -- detailing the candidate's positions.

Gillum's issue paper on Puerto Rico, for example, is longer than DeSantis' entire campaign platform covering every issue.

If this sounds at all familiar, it's because we saw something very similar two years ago -- at the presidential level.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump meets with members of the House Ways and Means Committee

The new package of Republican tax breaks gets a price tag

09/12/18 10:49AM

A couple of weeks ago, Donald Trump announced the cancellation of scheduled pay raises for roughly 1.8 million federal employees. The president justified the move by arguing, "We must maintain efforts to put our nation on a fiscally sustainable course."

The move would hurt those workers, obviously, but it would save the federal government $25 billion -- all in the name of fiscal sustainability.

It's against this backdrop that House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) and his Republican brethren have unveiled a new package of tax breaks -- they're calling it "tax reform 2.0," which is silly given that neither this nor the previous tax plan constituted meaningful "reform" -- which now has a price tag. The Washington Post  reported:

Brady's plan would add about $630 billion to the federal deficit by 2029, on top of the $1.9 trillion the law is already expected to cost when factoring for higher interest payments, Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation said on Tuesday.

Beyond those three years, the costs would continue to pile up. Starting in 2026, the cuts could cost the federal government about $165 billion annually in today's dollars, according to projections by the Tax Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank. That annual cut would add up to a roughly $2.4 trillion additional to the federal deficit over a 10-year period, the Tax Foundation found.

So let me get this straight. Two weeks ago, the nation couldn't afford $25 billion in pay raises for federal workers, but we now afford $630 billion in new tax breaks for the wealthy?

The timing of the new Republican tax plan could be better. After all, the Congressional Budget Office said this week the federal budget deficit is quickly approaching $900 billion, and the party of "fiscal sustainability" is apparently eager to make it vastly larger with more tax breaks.

But that's not the only relevant angle here.

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Former US President George W. Bush speaks during "Investing in Our Future" at the US-Africa Leaders Summit at the Kennedy Center on Aug. 6, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)

Bush hits the road to help the GOP (and indirectly, Donald Trump)

09/12/18 10:01AM

Despite his presidency's many failures, George W. Bush has seen his public standing improve to a surprising degree in recent years. Whereas Republicans used to be reluctant to even utter the 43rd president's name out loud in the wake of his two terms, Bush is becoming a welcome figure in GOP politics again.

Politico  reports that the former president is "hitting the fundraising circuit" in the hopes of helping the Republican Party keep control of Congress.

Bush's tour will begin Wednesday morning, when he holds a closed-door event in Fort Worth, Texas, for GOP Rep. Will Hurd, a second-term congressman who faces the hurdle of seeking reelection in a West Texas district that President Donald Trump lost in 2016.

Then, on Friday, Bush will travel to Florida to hold a pair of events for Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who is in a pitched battle for a Senate seat. One of the fundraisers will benefit New Republican, a pro-Scott super PAC.

Bush will return to the circuit next week, when he headlines a Sept. 19 fundraiser in Fort Worth for North Dakota Senate hopeful Kevin Cramer. The following day, Bush will hold a Dallas fundraiser for Texas Rep. Pete Sessions.... Then, next month, Bush will host fundraisers for two Senate hopefuls -- Josh Hawley of Missouri and Mike Braun of Indiana.

And why is it that the former president will maintain such an ambitious and peripatetic schedule? A Bush spokesperson told  Politico, "While he prefers to consider himself retired from politics, President Bush recognizes how important it is to keep the Senate and decided to help a few key candidates."

What I'm eager to hear, however, is the sentence that comes next in that quote. Why, exactly, does Bush believe it's "important" for the GOP to maintain control?

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