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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.3.18

12/03/18 12:00PM

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

* In a bit of a surprise, Sen. John Kennedy (R) announced this morning that he will not take on Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) in Louisiana's gubernatorial race next year.

* In what may be the final big race of 2018, voters in Georgia will pick their next secretary of state tomorrow. Among the issues on the line: the voter-suppression tactics imposed by Brian Kemp (R) during his tenure in this position.

* Less than a month after getting elected to Congress for the first time, Rep.-elect Ross Spano (R) from Florida's 15th district has acknowledged that his campaign financing "may have been in violation" of federal law. As the Tampa Bay Times reported, at issue are two $180,000 loans the Republican received, which were very likely illegal.

* If you enjoyed this year's U.S. Senate race in Mississippi, I have good news: you're about to see it again. Former Rep. Mike Espy (D) has filed the paperwork to run against Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) once more in 2020. Though Espy lost by six points in last week's runoff, he was the most competitive Democratic candidate in Mississippi in three decades.

* Election officials in Alaska agreed on Friday to reject a mysterious ballot that could break the tie in the undecided state House race, concluding that it belonged to someone who made a mistake and submitted a corrected ballot that was included in the final tally.

* Last month, voters in Missouri easily approved a major new ethics reforms for state government. Republicans in the state legislature are reportedly exploring possible avenues to negate the voter-approved reforms.

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Image: FINLAND-US-RUSSIA-POLITICS-DIPLOMACY-SUMMIT

Trump met with Putin at the G-20 summit after all

12/03/18 11:20AM

The drama surrounding a possible Trump-Putin discussion at the G-20 summit became needlessly confusing. There was a resolution, though it wasn't an entirely satisfying one.

To recap, on Thursday morning, the Kremlin announced that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin would have a one-on-one meeting in Argentina. Russian officials said that U.S. officials had "confirmed" that the presidential encounter would happen, and the American leader told reporters soon after, "I think it's a very good time to have the meeting."

An hour later, Trump reversed course, announcing by way of a tweet that he'd canceled the meeting, blaming "the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia." Russian officials and media publicly mocked the explanation, largely because it was literally unbelievable.

As the summit got underway, a Kremlin spokesperson claimed the two leaders would have an impromptu meeting in Argentina, though a White House official denied it. So, what ended up happening? If you guessed that the two would have a private chat despite all the drama, give yourself a prize. USA Today  reported:

"As is typical at multilateral events, President Trump and the first lady had a number of informal conversations with world leaders at the dinner last night, including President Putin," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

Sanders did not provide additional detail about the extent of the meeting, or what was discussed. Trump drew fire for a similar encounter over dinner at the G-20 summit in Hamburg last year when the White House disclosed days later that the two presidents met without any U.S. aides present.

Though Trump hasn't commented on the conversation, Putin told reporters that the two leaders discussed Russia's confrontation with Ukrainian ships in the Kerch straight.

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Michigan Republicans scramble to rig the game before they lose power

12/03/18 10:40AM

We talked earlier about Wisconsin Republicans, after suffering a series of losses, scrambling to overhaul state government, rigging the game in their favor, before they're forced to relinquish power in the new year. As it happens, an eerily similar situation is unfolding in a state next door.

For the first time in nearly three decades, voters in Michigan elected a Democratic governor, attorney general, and secretary of state. As the Detroit Free Press  reported the other day, GOP state legislators don't appear to be taking it well:

As Democratic candidates prepare to take three statewide offices on Jan. 1 -- governor, attorney general and secretary of state -- Republican lawmakers introduced bills Thursday to challenge their authority.

State Rep. Robert VerHeulen, R-Walker, introduced a bill that would allow the state House of Representatives and Senate to intervene in any legal proceedings involving the state, which has traditionally been the purview of the state attorney general or the governor's office.

In addition, state Sen. David Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, introduced a bill that would shift oversight of campaign finance law from the secretary of state to a six-person commission appointed by the governor. The panel members would be nominated by the state Republican and Democratic parties.

And that's really just the start. The GOP-led state legislature -- where Republicans rule thanks to one of the nation's most egregiously gerrymandered maps -- immediately got to work "substantially" scaling back minimum wage and paid-sick-leave laws approved by Michigan voters.

The Detroit Free Press' Brian Dickerson called this what it is: a partisan "smash-and-grab."

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Protesters gather outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011.

Wisconsin Republicans scramble to rig the game before they lose power

12/03/18 10:00AM

In 2016, only one incumbent Republican governor lost: North Carolina's Pat McCrory. After the race was called, the GOP-led state legislature gathered for a special session, ostensibly to work on disaster relief for hurricane victims, but instead launched a "legislative coup" to undermine the new Democratic governor's powers before he could take office.

It was banana-republic style governance. It was also, evidently, a model for other Republicans willing to exercise maximalist partisanship.

Last month, after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) narrowly lost his bid for a third term, his Republican allies in the state legislature immediately started talking about stripping Gov.-elect Tony Evers (D) of some of his authority.

It was not just idle chatter. After an election in which Wisconsin voters elected a Democratic governor, re-elected a Democratic U.S. senator, re-elected a Democratic secretary of state, and elected a Democratic state attorney general, Republicans are suddenly scrambling to overhaul the state government in the GOP's favor. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported:

Republican lawmakers are seeking to limit voter turnout and want to take away key powers from the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general before GOP Gov. Scott Walker leaves office in January.

The sweeping plan -- to be taken up Tuesday -- would remove Gov.-elect Tony Evers' power to approve major actions by Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul and give that authority to Republican lawmakers.

That could mean the campaign promise made by Evers and Kaul to immediately withdraw Wisconsin from a federal lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act would likely be blocked.

That lawsuit -- which seeks to gut the Affordable Care Act and strip protections from Americans with pre-existing conditions -- was a major issue in Wisconsin elections, and voters' will appeared unmistakable in the elections' results. The GOP-led state legislature doesn't seem to care.

We've seen plenty of partisan power-grabs over the years, but they're not usually quite this ugly and brazen. What's more, the fact that Wisconsin Republicans unveiled their proposals late on a Friday afternoon was probably not accidental.

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An election worker checks a voter's drivers license as North Carolina's controversial "Voter ID" law goes into effect for the state's presidential primary election at a polling place, March 15, 2016,  in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo by Chris Keane/Reuters)

Fraud allegations jolt election results in key North Carolina race

12/03/18 09:20AM

Up and down the Atlantic coast, this year's midterm elections brought up significant changes in nearly every state. The exception was North Carolina, where, thanks to Republican gerrymandering, Republicans received roughly 50% the vote, but ended up with roughly 77% of the power.

The rigged electoral system in the Tar Heel State all but guaranteed that North Carolinians wouldn't have any interesting U.S. House races at all -- or so we thought.

The only contest that appeared even remotely competitive was in the state's 9th congressional district, where former far-right pastor Mark Harris (R) managed to pull off an upset over an incumbent congressman in a Republican May primary, and where Harris apparently won a very close contest on Election Day over Dan McCready (D). The Republican's record of highly provocative rhetoric, especially about women and religious minorities, made his candidacy one of the nation's most controversial, but local voters, by a 905-vote margin, elected him anyway.

Except, maybe they didn't.

The first sign of trouble emerged last week, when the state board of elections unanimously agreed not to certify the results, citing what one board member described as "unfortunate activities." As the Washington Post  reported, we're starting to understand what those "activities" allegedly entailed.

The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has collected at least six sworn statements from voters in rural Bladen County, near the South Carolina border, who described people coming to their doors and urging them to hand over their absentee ballots, sometimes without filling them out. Others described receiving absentee ballots by mail that they had not requested.

Among the allegations is that an individual who worked for the Harris campaign coordinated an effort to collect and fill in, or discard, the ballots of Democratic voters who might have otherwise voted for McCready. Several of the affidavits come from elderly African American voters. It is illegal to take someone else's ballot, whether to turn it in or discard it.

Officials are also examining unusually high numbers of absentee ballots cast in some precincts in the 9th District -- and unusually high numbers of ballots requested but never returned.

The Raleigh News & Observer had a related report on Friday, closely examining the data, including the unusually high number of requested mail-in ballots that went unreturned in minority communities.

Wait, it gets worse.

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(L to R) President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with retired United States Marine Corps general James Mattis after their meeting at Trump International Golf Club, Nov. 19, 2016 in Bedminster Township, N.J. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Mattis breaks new ground, claims Russian interference in midterms

12/03/18 08:40AM

Defense Secretary James Mattis spoke over the weekend at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California, where the Pentagon chief conceded that the relationship between the United States and Russia has deteriorated over the last two years. As the Associated Press reported, however, that's not all Mattis said.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Saturday took aim at Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing him of trying to "muck around" in the U.S. midterm elections, of duplicity in arms control and of acting irresponsibly in last weekend's naval confrontation with Ukraine. [...]

"We are dealing with someone that we simply cannot trust," he said. "There is no doubt the relationship has worsened." Mattis did not elaborate on his claim that Russia tried to interfere in last month's elections, adding only, "We are seeing a continued effort along those lines."

Moscow's interest in this year's U.S. elections is neither new nor surprising. On the contrary, this is exactly what intelligence officials and agencies warned us about for months.

There are, however, a couple of important angles to Mattis' public comments. For one thing, they appear to be the first time since Election Day that a high-ranking official in the Trump administration has confirmed the Kremlin's attempts to interfere not only with the 2016 cycle, but also the 2018 cycle.

For another, the remarks from the retired four-star general put the onus on his boss to respond.

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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)

Leading Dems highlight how Trump was compromised by the Kremlin

12/03/18 08:00AM

On "Meet the Press" yesterday, NBC News' Chuck Todd did a nice job summarizing the latest revelations about Donald Trump and Russia, posing a pointed question to Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who'll soon become the #3 Republican in the U.S. Senate.

"I want to ask you, quickly, on the revelation from the Kremlin over the weekend confirming Michael Cohen's account, essentially, that yes, there were some interactions between Donald Trump's organization and the Kremlin. We don't find out about it until now.... Basically, we now know they might have had leverage over this president. They knew information that we, in the public, did not know. They confirmed it over the weekend. Is that not cause for concern?"

Barrasso, sadly but predictably, largely sidestepped the question, instead saying of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, "We need to come to completion on that. And it should be done quickly."

The GOP senator didn't elaborate as to why the Mueller probe should wrap up -- a common position among Republican lawmakers -- but in this case, the question was probably more interesting that the answer.

The Russia scandal has always been a multi-faceted controversy, but one of the core questions has always been whether, and to what degree, Donald Trump was compromised by his Russian benefactors. The Kremlin's efforts to help put the Republican in power are well documented and no longer in dispute, but coming to terms with Moscow's possible hold over Trump has long been a separate piece of the puzzle.

Which is one of the reason's last week's revelations from Michael Cohen are so important. Indeed, Chuck Todd's question dovetailed nicely with Rachel's segment on this from Friday night: Trump lied during his campaign about business dealings with Putin's government, Putin's government knew at the time that Trump was lying, so the resulting dynamic gave the Kremlin leverage over the then-candidate.

In case this isn't obvious, it created circumstances in which officials in Moscow were in a position to tell Trump, "Follow our instructions or we'll tell everyone what you've been lying about."

It's an element of the scandal some members of Congress are starting to take quite seriously, as we saw yesterday.

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Friday's Mini-Report, 11.30.18

11/30/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The latest from Alaska: "A 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Alaska on Friday, the United States Geological Survey said, prompting authorities to declare a tsunami warning, which was later canceled. The quake hit about eight miles north of Anchorage."

* This is a very significant breach: "Marriott International said Friday that the private information of up to 500 million guests may have been accessed as part of a breach of its Starwood guest reservation database, potentially one of the largest breaches of consumer data ever."

* The latest from California: "Search teams that rushed to Northern California after fire leveled entire towns have completed their work, having checked every burned building in the fire zone for human remains, the authorities said Thursday. But the search of nearly 18,000 fire-ravaged structures -- everything from homes, churches, stores and garden sheds -- has not resolved the question of why nearly 200 people remain on the list of the missing."

* Sanity prevailed: "After a day of pressure from members of Congress, the Department of Veterans Affairs reversed course on Thursday and announced that it would pay veterans the full amount of benefits they are due under the Forever GI Bill."

* Hatch Act violations: "A government watchdog agency on Friday ruled that six Trump administration officials violated the Hatch Act after they tweeted support for Republicans or President Donald Trump on their government Twitter accounts, but declined to take disciplinary action."

* Foreign policy: "For two years, the Trump administration has unabashedly slashed U.S. aid to the Palestinians. Now, amid signs it may finally roll out its long-awaited Middle East peace plan, the administration is scrambling to save what little remaining Palestinian assistance it provides."

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Image: APEC Summit 2017 in Vietnam

The contradiction on Russia that Trump just can't explain

11/30/18 04:46PM

NBC News put together a good video today, highlighting multiple instances in which Donald Trump insisted, publicly and repeatedly, that he had "nothing to do with" Russia and had "no deals" in the country. It's contrasted with the president's claim yesterday that "everybody knew about" the Trump Tower Moscow project he pursued, even during his 2016 candidacy.

Those two arguments are plainly in conflict. In fact, for months, whenever Trump would insist he's had "no dealings" with Russia, I wrote over and over and over again that this was, at a minimum, wildly misleading.

In some instances, if we're overly generous about past vs present tense, we could make the case that some of Trump's rhetoric wasn't entirely false, but consider the language he used in a pre-inaugural press conference last year:

"I tweeted out that I have no dealings with Russia. I have no deals that could happen in Russia, because we've stayed away. And I have no loans with Russia... I thought that was important to put out. I certified that. So I have no deals, I have no loans and I have no dealings. We could make deals in Russia very easily if we wanted to, I just don't want to because I think that would be a conflict. So I have no loans, no dealings, and no current pending deals."

The assertion that Trump deliberately "stayed away" from possible deals with Russia was plainly untrue. He said it anyway and asked Americans to believe it.

That is, until yesterday, when the president effectively declared that his previous rhetoric came with an asterisk that only he could see. He "stayed away" from possible deals with Russia except for the one he and top members of his inner circle worked on for months -- which, according to Trump, as of yesterday, "everybody knew about," in part because he "talked about it on the campaign trail."

Except, everyone didn't know about it and he didn't discuss it on the campaign trail. On the contrary, Trump World did its best to keep it under wraps, up to and including lying about it, in the case of Michael Cohen.

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