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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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Image: Brett Kavanaugh

Public hearings do little to improve Kavanaugh's standing with public

09/12/18 09:20AM

Headed into last week's televised confirmation hearings, Brett Kavanaugh was an unusually unpopular Supreme Court nominee. Perhaps Donald Trump's pick for the high court would make a better public impression after Americans had a chance to hear him talk about his record and approach to the law?

Apparently not.

Americans are divided on whether or not senators should vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, with 38% who say yes and 39% who say no, according to a new CNN Poll conducted by SSRS and released on Tuesday.

Contentious hearings did not move the needle in either direction for Kavanaugh. The new numbers are similar to CNN's August poll, when 37% supported his confirmation and four in 10 did not.

The last Supreme Court nominee to have support this low was Robert Bork -- in a poll conducted exactly 31 years ago this week -- whose Reagan-era nomination ultimately failed in the face of bipartisan Senate opposition.

In mid-July, Trump boasted about the popularity of his Supreme Court nominee. "Brett Kavanaugh has gotten rave reviews -- rave reviews -- actually, from both sides," the president said. "And I think it's going to be a beautiful thing to watch over the next month. But he has gotten rave reviews."

That was two months ago. The public doesn't appear to see Kavanaugh's nomination as "a beautiful thing."

As for why Kavanaugh’s support is weak, and whether it’ll matter, the questions get a little tricky.

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The J. Edgar Hoover Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) building stands in Washington, D.C., Aug. 8, 2013. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

Trump's new FBI conspiracy theory unravels almost immediately

09/12/18 08:40AM

Donald Trump traveled to Pennsylvania early yesterday to honor the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, but before heading to Air Force One, the president thought it was necessary to whine on Twitter for a while and peddle a new conspiracy theory.

One of his missives read, "New Strzok-Page texts reveal 'Media Leak Strategy.' @FoxNews So terrible, and NOTHING is being done at DOJ or FBI - but the world is watching, and they get it completely."

As it turns out, someone "gets it completely," but it's not Donald Trump.

The president appeared to be echoing a new line of attack pushed by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), one of the White House's top allies in Congress, who's worked up about a text former FBI agent Peter Strzok sent Justice Department lawyer Lisa Page on April 10, 2017. According to Meadows, Strzok wrote, "I had literally just gone to find this phone to tell you I want to talk to you about media leak strategy with DOJ before you go."

This, according to Trump, is "terrible" and worthy of federal law enforcement scrutiny. There's reason to believe the president doesn't know what he's talking about.

Strzok's lawyer, Aitan Goelman, responded Tuesday that client was not referring to leaking to the media -- but a strategy to prevent leaks.

"The term 'media leak strategy' in Mr. Strzok's text refers to a Department-wide initiative to detect and stop leaks to the media. The president and his enablers are once again peddling unfounded conspiracy theories to mislead the American people," Goelman said.

The pushback to the conspiracy theory didn't just come from Strzok's lawyer; members of Congress were eager to highlight reality, too. Roll Call  added:

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A twenty dollar bill. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty)

New deficit numbers shred Republican talking points on tax breaks

09/12/18 08:00AM

It's been a few months since Larry Kudlow, the director of the Trump White House's National Economic Council, boasted that the U.S. budget deficit "is coming down, and it's coming down rapidly." This was, as regular readers know, spectacularly wrong. Though the deficit shrank during Barack Obama's presidency, it's grown considerably larger since Donald Trump took office.

How much larger? Thanks in large part to Republican tax breaks for the wealthy and big corporations, the latest tallies are jaw-dropping.

The U.S. budget deficit is reaching levels that are abnormally high for a robust economy, and lawmakers from both parties are proposing ideas that would make the deficit swell even further.

The government spent $895 billion more than it brought in from taxes and other revenue sources during the past 11 months, the Congressional Budget Office said this week, a 33 percent increase from one year before.

As the Washington Post's report on this makes clear, the last time the unemployment rate was as low as it is now, the deficit literally did not exist -- it was 2000, the end of the Clinton presidency, and the federal government ran a surplus -- which stands in stark contrast to the fiscal landscape Americans currently see.

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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