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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks with reporters reporters after the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Aug. 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

McConnell eyes cuts to Medicare, Social Security to address deficit

10/16/18 12:41PM

Nearly a year ago, as the debate over Republican tax breaks for the wealthy was near its end, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) insisted that the tax cuts didn't need to be paid for -- because they'd pay for themselves.

"I not only don't think it will increase the deficit, I think it will be beyond revenue neutral," McConnell said in December 2017. "In other words, I think it will produce more than enough to fill that gap."

Whether the GOP leader actually believed his own rhetoric is an open question, but either way, we now know the Kentucky senator's claim was spectacularly wrong. The Republican tax breaks have, as Democrats and those familiar with arithmetic predicted, sent the nation's budget deficit soaring.

Take a wild guess what McConnell told Bloomberg News he wants to do about it.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday blamed rising federal deficits and debt on a bipartisan unwillingness to contain spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and said he sees little chance of a major deficit reduction deal while Republicans control Congress and the White House.

"It's disappointing but it's not a Republican problem," McConnell said in an interview with Bloomberg News when asked about the rising deficits and debt. "It's a bipartisan problem: Unwillingness to address the real drivers of the debt by doing anything to adjust those programs to the demographics of America in the future."

He added that he believes "Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid" funding constitutes "the real driver of the debt."

Before we get into the broader implications of McConnell's argument, it's important to understand that we already know it's the Republicans' tax breaks for the rich that have made the deficit vastly larger. When McConnell calls the increased federal borrowing "very disturbing," as he did this morning, it's like watching an arsonist wring his hands over the ashes he created.

The Senate GOP leader helped create this mess; he hasn't earned the right to complain about it.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.16.18

10/16/18 12:00PM

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

* With only three weeks remaining before Election Day, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) has reportedly invested another $18 million of his own money into his Senate campaign against Sen. Bill Nelson (D).

* On a related note, Mike Braun (R), a Senate hopeful in Indiana, has loaned his campaign nearly $2.4 million, despite having promised voters he wouldn't self-fund his candidacy.

* Despite Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) providing proof that her claims about her ancestry were accurate, Donald Trump condemned her again anyway this morning as a "fraud."

* In New York's 27th, a new Siena poll shows indicted Rep. Chris Collins (R), who represents the most Republican district in the Northeast, leading Nate McMurray (D) by just a few points, 46% to 43%.

* In West Virginia's 3rd congressional district, a district Donald Trump carried by 50 points, a new Monmouth University poll found Carol Miller (R) with a narrow lead over Richard Ojeda (D), 48% to 45%. (Also of interest: voters in this district prefer Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin to his Republican challenger, Patrick Morrisey, 56% to 36%.)

* In Utah's 4th district, a new Salt Lake Tribune/Hinckley Institute poll found incumbent Rep. Mia Love (R) tied with Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams (D), 46% to 46%.

* Donald Trump promised to headline a rally in support of Sen. Ted Cruz (R) in "the biggest stadium in Texas we can find." That apparently didn't work out well: the president will instead hold an event in Houston next week at an arena that holds 8,000 people.

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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks at the American Action Forum, Jan. 30, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

Wisconsin's Scott Walker plays a risky game on health care

10/16/18 11:20AM

"My wife is Type 1 diabetic," Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) wrote in a tweet over the weekend. "My mother is a cancer survivor. My brother has a heart condition. Covering pre-existing conditions is personal to me. And it's the right thing to do."

There's nothing wrong with the message, but it's tough to take the messenger seriously. Walker, currently running for a third term as governor, has long been a fierce opponent of the Affordable Care Act, and he even ran on a presidential platform of destroying the health care reform law.

More recently, the Wisconsin Republican officially threw his support behind a dangerous lawsuit that would -- you guessed it -- gut protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions. The governor could end his support for the litigation at any time, but he hasn't.

In other words, Walker's re-election pitch asks voters to believe he's secretly quite liberal on health care coverage, while also asking them to overlook most of what he's said and done on the issue over the last decade.

What's more, this is only part of a broader, dubious message. Politico  reported this morning:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker sought for years to put Medicaid recipients to work. Now federal officials have given him most of what he wanted, but he's delaying the process for fear the changes will doom his flailing reelection bid, say three federal officials familiar with the deliberations. [...]

Walker's formal request to the Trump administration last year to overhaul Medicaid included provisions that were more aggressive than those sought by other GOP states -- part of the governor's effort to roll back Wisconsin's safety-net programs.

The Trump administration, by and large, gave Walker a green light, at which point he took his foot off the gas.

Politico quoted one official saying Wisconsin has been "stalling" on implementing regressive new Medicaid policies. "It's ended up being a lot of hurry-up-and-wait."

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A stethoscope sits on an examination table in an exam room at a Community Clinic Inc. health center in Takoma Park, Maryland, April 8, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

The trouble with Trump's controversial choice to oversee Medicaid

10/16/18 10:40AM

One of the unsettling staples of Donald Trump's presidency is his habit of tapping officials to lead agencies whose work they fundamentally oppose. As regular readers know, prominent cabinet-level officials like Rick Perry, Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt, Mick Mulvaney, and others have been asked to oversee departments that, in their minds, shouldn't even exist.

We appear to have a new addition to the list. The Associated Press reported late yesterday:

President Donald Trump has tapped a Maine official who battled Medicaid expansion for a position that puts her in charge of the national program, the federal agency confirmed Monday.

Mary Mayhew's role of deputy administrator and director of the U.S. Center for Medicaid and the CHIP Services will place her in charge of the federal health care program for low-income people.

Seema Verma, the head of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, confirmed the hire and cited Mayhew's work as commissioner of Maine's Department of Health and Human Services under Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

Mayhew's tenure on Paul LePage's team impressed health care opponents, but for everyone else, it was cause for concern. She spent several years condemning the Affordable Care Act, rejecting Medicaid expansion -- despite the policy's strong, bipartisan backing in Maine -- and taking steps to impose new eligibility restrictions on the existing Medicaid program.

She also used her position in Maine to lobby other states not to implement Medicaid expansion through the ACA. It wasn't part of Mayhew's job description to advise other states, but she took it upon herself to urge policymakers elsewhere not to expand coverage to millions of low-income families far from Maine's borders.

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Image: Donald Trump,Melania Trump

Trump picks a misplaced fight over his Saudi Arabian business ties

10/16/18 10:00AM

The more the Russia scandal intensified, the more Donald Trump went out of his way to insist he's had no business dealings with the foreign adversary. The problem with the president's rhetoric, of course, is that we've already seen quite a bit of evidence of his business dealings in Russia.

With this in mind, it was striking to see Trump push a related line this morning, insisting via Twitter that he has "no financial interests in Saudi Arabia." Reports to the contrary, the president added, are "fake news."

He's wrong again. I don't usually do this, but I'm just going to quote a Rachel Maddow Show segment from last week at length:

"In 2015, before he was president but around the time he started running, Donald Trump registered eight shell companies that all included the word 'Jeddah' in the company name... Jeddah is the second largest city in Saudi Arabia.

"Trump creating eight shell companies with that city name in the company name -- based on past Trump organization practices -- that would seem to indicate that the president was planning to build a hotel in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. He didn't build that hotel, at least he hasn't yet. Those companies were dissolved shortly after he was elected president.

"But then three days after Trump's inauguration, lobbyists working for the Saudi government went out of their way to make sure the American press reported that they were spending almost $300,000 to put up a gigantic Saudi entourage at the Trump Hotel in Washington.

The Trump Hotel in Manhattan has sort of been on hard times recently. Its revenues have declined for two straight years. But in the first few months of this year, that hotel turned its fortunes around, basically got bailed out. For the first time in years, revenue at the Trump Hotel in Manhattan increased thanks specifically to a very, very, very profligate and expensive visit from the Saudi crown prince -- and his entourage too.

"Donald Trump has a business history and a business present with Saudi Arabia, and that's the kind of thing we never have had to factor in before when considering why president was acting a specific way toward a specific country."

During his presidential campaign, Trump went so far as to boast, "Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much."

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Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., participates in a news conference.

How far Duncan Hunter is prepared to go to win

10/16/18 09:20AM

The federal criminal indictment against Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) paints a rather brutal picture. As we discussed over the summer, prosecutors have alleged that the Republican congressman and his wife stole more than $250,000 in campaign funds and used the money to pay for personal purchases, ranging from trips to school tuition to dental work.

A Washington Post report on this in August highlighted the Hunters' efforts to cover up their alleged misdeeds, often claiming their purchases were for charities -- including veterans' charities -- claims the indictment says were fraudulent. The Post's article added that the prosecutors' allegations "read like a caricature of a corrupt, greedy politician."

It's against this backdrop that the California Republican is running for re-election anyway. And as it turns out, Hunter probably likes his chances: his 50th congressional district is among the "reddest" on the West Coast. In fact, Donald Trump may have lost California by 30 points, but he won Hunter's district by 15 points.

But if the conservative incumbent is confident, he has a funny way of showing it. Indeed, if Hunter liked his chances, the GOP incumbent wouldn't have to resort to tactics like these against Democratic rival, Ammar Campa-Najjar.

"He changed his name from Ammar Yasser Najjar to Ammar Campa-Najjar," said Hunter, "so he sounds Hispanic.... That is how hard, by the way, that the radical Muslims are trying to infiltrate the U.S. government."

Actually, Ammar Campa-Najjar is Christian. And Campa is his Hispanic mother's family name.

And he's not trying to "infiltrate" anything.

This comes on the heels of a Hunter ad suggesting his challenger is some kind of terrorist sympathizer as part of a commercial filled with demonstrably false claims.

There's no shortage of ugly races in 2018, but Hunter's message is almost certainly the most offensive of the year.

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GOP rhetoric about the deficit becomes a punch-line to an awkward joke

10/16/18 08:40AM

As recently as June, Larry Kudlow, the director of the Trump White House's National Economic Council, boasted to a national television audience the U.S. budget deficit "is coming down, and it's coming down rapidly."

Yeah, about that....

The U.S. government ran its largest budget deficit in six years during the fiscal year that ended last month, an unusual development in a fast-growing economy and a sign that -- so far at least -- tax cuts have restrained government revenue gains.

The deficit totaled $779 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up 17% from $666 billion in fiscal 2017, the Treasury Department said Monday. The deficit is headed toward $1 trillion in the current fiscal year, the White House and Congressional Budget Office said.

This deficit is the fifth largest in modern American history -- in non-inflation adjusted terms -- and it now stands at 3.9% of GDP, up from 3.5% a year ago.

To be sure, as a percentage of the economy, the deficit isn't necessarily at a level that should cause significant concern. The trouble is the broader context:

Circling back to our previous coverage, there are a few key angles to this to keep in mind. The first is that Donald Trump’s campaign assurances about balancing the budget and eliminating the national debt should be near the top of the list of his broken promises.

Second, it’s now painfully obvious that the Republican Party, which spent the Obama era pretending to care deeply about fiscal responsibility and the terrible burdens deficits place on future generations, operated in bad faith.

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During a campaign rally Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reads a statement made by Michelle Fields, on March 29, 2016 in Janesville, Wis. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)

Trump wants to test Elizabeth Warren's DNA 'personally'

10/16/18 08:00AM

Just to close the circle on yesterday's story, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) released the results of a DNA test to the Boston Globe, proving that she was telling the truth about her ancestry. She also shifted the burden back to Donald Trump, who's spent months attacking her, accusing the senator of lying about having a Native American ancestor.

The president said he'd pay $1 million if Warren verified her claim with a DNA test, and yesterday, Trump balked when asked if he'd pay up.

Later in the day, the president was in Georgia for a briefing on the damage done by Hurricane Michael, and during a Q&A with reporters, Trump insisted that Warren "owes the country an apology." He didn't say why, and I haven't the foggiest idea what he was talking about.

Moment later, the Republican added this gem.

Trump said later Monday he would only pay the $1 million "if I can test her personally. That will not be something I would enjoy doing, either."

Perhaps the president is unclear about what a DNA test is. What, exactly, does he want to do "personally" that he would find unpleasant? Does Trump envision a process in which he draws blood from the senator and begins a detailed examination of genetic history?

Or is this some kind of attempt to question Stanford University's Carlos Bustamante, a renowned scholar and expert in the field, who did the research on Warren?

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Monday's Mini-Report, 10.15.18

10/15/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* DHS: "The Department of Homeland Security says it's working to identify who — or what — is behind an increasing number of attempted cyber attacks on U.S. election databases ahead of next month's midterms."

* This ought to be interesting: "President Trump said Monday that he is sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet with Saudi King Salman amid the mounting international backlash over missing Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi."

* The end of an era: "Sears has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, buckling under its massive debt load and staggering losses. Sears once dominated the American retail landscape. But the big question is whether the shrunken version of itself can be viable or will it be forced to go out of business, closing the final chapter for an iconic name that originated more than a century ago."

* It's quite a family: "Over the past decade, Jared Kushner's family company has spent billions of dollars buying real estate. His personal stock investments have soared. His net worth has quintupled to almost $324 million. And yet, for several years running, Mr. Kushner -- President Trump's son-in-law and a senior White House adviser -- appears to have paid almost no federal income taxes, according to confidential financial documents reviewed by The New York Times."

* An interesting scoop: "A company owned by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's in-laws won more than $7 million in no-bid and other federal contracts at U.S. military installations and other government properties in California based on a dubious claim of Native American identity by McCarthy's brother-in-law, [an L.A. Times] investigation has found."

* Needlessly dangerous: "A small but growing population of children are not getting vaccinated, according to federal health data. While most children are receiving recommended immunizations, the number of children who aren't being vaccinated by 24-months-old has been gradually increasing, a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says."

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Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is sworn in before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, September 27, 2018.

Justifying his mockery of Ford, Trump says winning is all that matters

10/15/18 03:06PM

Two weeks ago, at a campaign rally in Mississippi, Donald Trump didn't just defend Brett Kavanaugh, the president also publicly mocked Christine Blasey Ford. In a written statement, Dr. Ford's lawyer described Trump's remarks as "vicious, vile, and soulless," adding, "She is a remarkable profile in courage. He is a profile in cowardice."

The president's antics drew some bipartisan criticism -- even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) offered a mild rebuke -- but the mockery turned out to be inconsequential. The Republican Supreme Court nominee was confirmed a few days later.

When CBS News' Lesley Stahl asked Trump for "60 Minutes" about his ridicule of Kavanaugh's accuser, he said, "Had I not made that speech, we would not have won."

I haven't the foggiest idea why he'd believe this. How many on-the-fence senators were prepared to vote "no" on the Kavanaugh confirmation, but changed their minds as a result of Trump mocking the professor? By all appearances, the total is zero. The nominee "would have won" anyway.

Soon after, the "60 Minutes" interview had this exchange:

STAHL: Do you think you treated [Ford] with respect?

TRUMP: I think so, yeah. I did.

STAHL: But you seem to be saying that she lied.

TRUMP: You know what? I'm not gonna get into it because we won. It doesn't matter. We won.

Those five words -- "it doesn't matter, we won" -- tells us a great deal about the president's approach to ethics.

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The question Trump couldn't help but ask: 'Who did you vote for?'

10/15/18 12:45PM

Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical Christian preacher, was caught up in a Turkish crackdown two years ago following a failed coup attempt, and has been detained ever since, charged with associating with terrorists and harboring coup plotters. U.S. officials have pushed for his release, and last week, Turkey's government agreed to a deal.

The day after the North Carolinian's release, Brunson joined Donald Trump in the Oval Office, where the president welcomed him home. By any fair measure, it's tough to mess up an event like this: a president is expected to congratulate the freed prisoner, commend his family, and say a few kind words.

But on Saturday, Donald Trump's thoughts turned to ... Donald Trump.

Early on at the White House event, the president insisted that his handling of Brunson's ordeal was superior to what others in his job could've achieved. "We thought we had it done two months ago," Trump said of Brunson's release. "Sometimes it doesn't always work out, but that's -- I can only tell you that's better than anybody else could have done."

Soon after, the pastor prayed with Trump, who then asked a question.

After Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was detained in Turkey for more than two years, finished a prayer in the Oval Office for the president whose administration had brought him home, Donald Trump was curious about just one thing.

"Can I ask you one question," Trump asked. "Who did you vote for?"

Amid the awkward, forced laughter that ensued, Trump turned to his Cabinet and added in a faux whisper, "I knew the answer."

Watching the clip, I think Trump directed the question at Brunson's wife, which would only make sense given the fact that the pastor was literally incarcerated in a Turkish prison on Election Day 2016.

But either way, what exactly was it about that moment that led the president to think, "You know, this seems like a good time to ask whether the Brunson family supported my political candidacy"? Why was that an important detail to bring up to the roomful of people?

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