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Thursday's Mini-Report, 8.9.18

08/09/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A dramatic move: "In a federal courtroom in Washington on Thursday, a judge heard about something the Trump administration had just done that clearly angered him. The government, he learned, had deported an immigrant mother and daughter who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit the judge was hearing over asylum restrictions. So the judge did something highly unusual: He demanded the administration turn around the plane carrying the plaintiffs to Central America and bring them back to the United States."

* Puerto Rico: "Nearly a year after Hurricane Maria, the government of Puerto Rico stated in a report released Thursday that more than 1,400 people died in the four months after the storm -- a significantly higher death toll than the government has claimed."

* My experience covering cases from courtrooms is limited, but I tend to think Judge T.S. Ellis' antics are tough to defend: "The federal judge overseeing the Paul Manafort trial conceded Thursday morning that he made a mistake in chastising special counsel Robert Mueller's prosecutors a day earlier in front of the jury."

* The proposed media merger went so badly, Sinclair is now facing a lawsuit: "Tribune Media has filed a lawsuit against Sinclair Broadcast Group over their failed merger and is seeking $1 billion in damages."

* California: "A $119.5-million settlement announced Wednesday of claims stemming from the Aliso Canyon gas leak marks the biggest action yet to deal with the health effects and climate damage of the largest release of methane in U.S. history."

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Image: Republicans the House Intelligence Committee vote to release controversial memo on Russia investigation

What Devin Nunes says when he thinks the public isn't listening

08/09/18 02:54PM

As most of you probably know by now, The Rachel Maddow Show obtained a recording of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) speaking at a closed-door fundraiser last week. The California Republican, one of Donald Trump's most important allies on Capitol Hill, had quite a bit to say to GOP donors, and in the audience was someone who works with Fuse Washington, a progressive group in the Northwest that made the recording available to us.

I won't review every detail, but I do want to take a moment to highlight what I considered the most important revelation from Nunes' event. About halfway through the event, the congressman reflected on his role in the Russia scandal investigation and what he sees as the importance of the GOP majority in Congress.

"So therein lies, so it's like your classic Catch-22 situation, where we were at a -- this puts us in such a tough spot. If [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions won't un-recuse and [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller won't clear the president, we're the only ones, which is really the danger. That's why I keep -- thank you for saying that, by the way -- we have to keep all these seats, we have to keep the majority. If we do not keep the majority, all of this goes away."

As Rachel noted on the show last night, "So behind closed doors, when they don't think there's any recording of what they're saying ... the case they're making is that they either need to stop the investigation of the president, they need to stop the Russia investigation, or they need to keep using the power of Congress to impede that investigation, or else, right? Or 'all of this goes away.'

"That's why they want to 'keep the majority.' Those are the stakes for them keeping the majority. They're using the majority to impede the investigation. If they lose the majority the investigation might go forward, and then 'all of this goes away.'"

It's one thing to assume Nunes thinks this way; it's something else to hear Nunes tell an audience that he sees the Republican majority in Congress as some kind of emergency life-preserver for his White House allies, rescuing Trump if no one else will.

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Flowers on a tree bloom near the Treasury Department building in Washington, DC on March 10, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty)

Trump admin reportedly takes aim at financial watchdog office

08/09/18 12:45PM

In the wake of the economic crash a decade ago, Congress and the Obama White House created a series of new safeguards, layers of accountability, and agencies intended to prevent future crises. One of them was something called the Office of Financial Research (OFR), which has been described as the Treasury Department's "eyes and ears," studying financial markets looking for emerging vulnerabilities.

Last year, Donald Trump announced plans to slash the office's budget and make significant changes to its structure. Reuters reported yesterday on the nature of those changes.

The Trump administration moved on Wednesday to shrink a government agency tasked with identifying looming financial risks, notifying around 40 staff members they would be laid off, according to a person familiar with the changes.

The employees at the Office of Financial Research (OFR) were formally told on Wednesday they will lose their jobs as part of a broader reorganization of the agency that was created in the wake of the 2007-2009 global financial crisis, the source said. [...]

Consumer advocates say the bureau provides a critical function by gathering data on areas such as banking, lending and trading from the country's complex web of federal and state regulators to provide a bird's-eye view of system-wide risks.

The trouble is, if OFR officials identified emerging risks, that would likely lead to calls for some kind of regulatory action in financial markets. The Trump administration has given every indication that it opposes such intervention -- making those who might ring the alarm expendable.

This comes on the heels of the Trump administration slashing the budget and staff of the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which was also created in the wake of the Great Recession, and neutering the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.9.18

08/09/18 12:00PM

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

* In Ohio's 12th congressional district, Danny O'Connor (D) picked up a net gain of 190 votes yesterday, but he still trails Troy Balderson (R) by 1,564 votes.

* Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) told the Tampa Bay Times yesterday that Russian operatives have "already penetrated" the voter-registration systems in "certain counties" in Florida. State officials discounted the claims.

* Soon after, the Senate Leadership Fund, a prominent Republican super PAC led by Mitch McConnell's former chief of staff, seemed to attack the Florida senator's age. "It's time for Bill Nelson's caretakers to keep better tabs on the senator's whereabouts," the super PAC said. For the record, Bill Nelson is younger than Mitch McConnell.

* As recently as last year, Corey Stewart, the Republican Party's U.S. Senate candidate in Virginia, delivered public remarks in which he praised Virginia's decision to secede in 1861.

* On a related note, a new statewide poll from Virginia Commonwealth University shows Sen. Tim Kaine (D) leading Stewart (R) by 23 points.

* Voter turnout in Michigan's primaries this week was the highest seen in the state since 1978.

* On a related note, as the Associated Press noted, Michigan's Democrats are currently set to field an all-female ticket for statewide offices this year. That said, the party's gubernatorial nominee, Gretchen Whitmer, still has to choose a running mate.

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Giuliani points to the questions he doesn't want Trump to answer

08/09/18 11:34AM

It's probably best not to pay too close attention to the day-to-day haggling over Special Counsel Robert Mueller's interest in talking to Donald Trump. Sometime soon, either the president's lawyers will agree to an interview or they won't.

But once in a while, it's hard not to marvel at the sort of things Rudy Giuliani is willing to say out loud.

Giuliani told Axios that there are two topics the president's lawyers want to rule out in order to agree to a Trump sit-down with Mueller:

1. Why Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.

2. What Trump said to Comey about the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Giuliani mentioned those as if they were minor details -- totally reasonable areas for Mueller to agree to avoid.

Two weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal  reported that Giuliani hoped to exclude the general topic of obstruction from any Mueller-Trump interview, but this latest report suggests the former mayor is now narrowing the focus a bit, pointing to two specific areas of inquiry that he'd like to keep off-limits.

Or put another way, the special counsel is investigating possible presidential obstruction of justice, and the Trump's lawyer's plan involves a deal in which the special counsel agrees in advance not to ask the president about the times he probably obstructed justice.

Giuliani seems indifferent to how this makes his client look. As we recently joked, imagine a hypothetical scenario in which law enforcement wanted to search a suspect's home, and the person responded, "OK, you're welcome to look around, but only if you agree in advance not to look in my shed." It's the sort of thing that might lead one to suspect there's something incriminating in that guy's shed.

Giuliani's pitch is similar: federal investigators can ask Trump questions, but only if they agree in advance not to explore certain crimes the president may have committed.

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Image: US House of Representatives passes short-term measure to fund the government

Does the GOP's 'zero tolerance' policy on ethical lapses still exist?

08/09/18 10:56AM

It was eight years ago this week that House Republican leaders, confident about reclaiming the majority in the 2010 midterms, started making promises about maintaining the highest ethical standards. Virginia Republican Eric Cantor, who'd become House Majority Leader a few months later, acknowledged the GOP congressional scandals of the past, but said they wouldn't be tolerated going forward.

"I think that as Republicans emerge as a new governing majority, it is incumbent upon us to institute a zero-tolerance policy," Cantor said at the time, adding that when it comes to ethical transgressions, Republicans have "learned our lesson."

So, in the wake of Rep. Chris Collins' (R-N.Y.) arrest, is the zero-tolerance policy still in effect? In fairness, it'd be an overstatement to say House Republicans have done literally nothing in the wake of yesterday's developments. Roll Call  reported yesterday afternoon:

Speaker Paul D. Ryan has removed Rep. Chris Collins from the House Energy and Commerce Committee, following Collins indictment Wednesday on charges of insider trading and lying to authorities.

"Insider trading is a clear violation of the public trust. Until this matter is settled, Rep. Collins will no longer be serving on the House Energy and Commerce Committee," Ryan said in a statement.

That's not nothing, and I'm glad the House Speaker took fairly quick action, but the developments suggest there are perhaps some nuances to "zero tolerance."

For example, despite the seriousness of the allegations, and despite the evidence of alleged wrongdoing, no one from the Republican leadership has called on Collins to resign or retire. What's more, the party's campaign arm has not made any kind of official announcement about ending its support for the New York Republican's re-election campaign.

In other words, while Collins is out on bail, he remains a House Republican lawmaker in good standing, his loss of a committee seat notwithstanding.

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Trump admin accused of 'corruption and cronyism' on veterans' policies

08/09/18 10:06AM

One of the first signs of trouble emerged in April. Politico  reported that the Department of Veterans Affairs was moving forward with a multi-billion-dollar transformation of its digital records system -- before it ran into some behind-the-scenes trouble.

According to the report, Dr. Bruce Moskowitz, a West Palm Beach doctor, raised concerns about the software at the heart of the VA project. He shared those concerns with Ike Perlmutter, the head of Marvel Entertainment, whom Politico described as someone who "advises the president" on issues related to veterans. Before long, Politico reported, with the White House's approval, Moskowitz and Perlmutter were participating in conference calls with "the contracting team responsible for implementing the 10-year project."

Then-VA Secretary David Shulkin reportedly said of Moskowitz. "Who the hell is this person who practices medicine in Florida and has never run a health care system?"

The answer, it turns out, is that he's a member of the "the Mar-a-Lago Crowd." Pro Publica had a stunning report on this the other day.

[Moskowitz] is one-third of an informal council that is exerting sweeping influence on the VA from Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump's private club in Palm Beach, Florida. The troika is led by Ike Perlmutter, the reclusive chairman of Marvel Entertainment, who is a longtime acquaintance of President Trump's. The third member is a lawyer named Marc Sherman. None of them has ever served in the U.S. military or government.

Yet from a thousand miles away, they have leaned on VA officials and steered policies affecting millions of Americans. They have remained hidden except to a few VA insiders, who have come to call them "the Mar-a-Lago Crowd."

At times, the report added, the trio have done more than just create headaches for VA officials by ignoring government rules and processes. In some cases, Pro Publica added, "they used their influence in ways that could benefit their private interests."

The report went on to note that the triumvirate "hovered over public servants without any transparency, accountability or oversight." Moskowitz. Perlmutter, and Sherman reviewed policy and personnel decisions, and officials even "travelled to Mar-a-Lago at taxpayer expense to hear their views."

It sounds like the plot to a bad movie. Three wealthy members of a Florida resort have effectively overseen a federal cabinet agency for months, despite having no relevant experience, and despite no oversight or accountability of any kind, basically because they're pals with the president through the club he still owns and profits from.

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A firefighter sprays water as a wildfire races along Lytle Creek Road near Keenbrook, Calif., Aug. 17, 2016. (Photo by Noah Berger/AP)

Trump's ignorance on wildfires leads to new administration policy

08/09/18 09:23AM

While officials in northern California tackled a deadly wildfire, Donald Trump took the opportunity to peddle gibberish on the subject. Earlier this week, the president blasted Gov. Jerry Brown (D), falsely blamed "bad environmental laws" for exacerbating the crisis, and argued that firefighters didn't have necessary amount of water to address the problem.

None of what Trump said made sense. The Washington Post  reported, for example, that the president seemed confused about every relevant detail. CNN added that even some White House officials "admitted to being slightly perplexed" at Trump's obvious nonsense.

All of which laid the groundwork for this unexpected Axios report.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to "facilitate access to the water" needed to fight ongoing wildfires, rather than continue to provide some of it for protecting endangered species, such as chinook salmon.

The policy directive follows tweets President Trump sent that were met with confusion by California officials, including firefighters, who said the state has more than enough water to combat the blazes.

So, the Trump administration wants to provide additional water to officials who've already made clear that they don't need more water, in response to confused tweets from an amateur president.

This is how the world's preeminent superpower is being governed in 2018.

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Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach talks about the Kansas voter ID law in his Topeka, Kan., office May 12, 2016. (Photo by Dave Kaup/Reuters)

Kansas' Kobach prepared to oversee the recount of his own election

08/09/18 08:40AM

One of the most closely watched Republican primaries of the year was held in Kansas this week, where incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer faced off against Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Everyone expected it to be a close contest, and the results didn't disappoint: Kobach currently leads by 191 votes out of over 311,000 cast.

It's not over just yet, though, and in the coming days, officials will still have to count provisional and mail-in ballots. The prospect of a recount is very real.

And that's where this is likely to get tricky. The New York Times  captured the dynamic nicely:

Kris W. Kobach, the hard-charging Kansas secretary of state, has long raised concerns about the integrity of America's elections. He has warned the president that there is rampant voter fraud, crusaded for stringent voter identification laws and tried unsuccessfully to convince a federal judge that the handful of Kansans he caught voting illegally were merely "the tip of the iceberg."

Now Mr. Kobach, who oversees the state's elections, finds himself in charge of a closely watched Republican gubernatorial primary that is far too close to call.... The candidate holding the razor-thin lead? Mr. Kobach himself.

Yes, the person who would oversee the recount process is the same person who stands to benefit if the votes go his way.

The Kansas City Star  reported yesterday, "No law requires Kobach to recuse himself, but legal and political experts said that he should do so to maintain trust in the election."

And yet, as of yesterday, Kobach -- the state's top elections official -- said he has no plans to recuse himself from the process, despite the apparent conflict of interest. The far-right Republican said his office "serves as a coordinating entity overseeing it all," but since his team wouldn't literally count ballots, Kobach is satisfied that he's detached enough.

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Image: Rep. Chris Collins Holds Press conference After Being Charged With Insider Trading

Despite arrest, Republican congressman expects to win re-election

08/09/18 08:00AM

Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) wasn't just a major investor in Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotech company, he also encouraged others to follow his lead, including members of his family and his congressional colleagues. With that in mind, consider what the New York Republican did when the company's CEO emailed him last summer to let him know about an unsuccessful clinical trial, which would inevitably push the company's stock lower.

[W]ithin six minutes came a flurry of phone calls to reach his son, who owned more than 2 percent of Innate stock, prosecutors said. He finally reached Cameron Collins, who allegedly passed the information from his father to [Stephen Zarsky, the father of Cameron Collins' fiancée], and other unnamed co-conspirators, who then engaged in "timely trades" of the stock.

Cameron Collins unloaded his Innate shares, as did his fiancée and Zarsky, in the days that followed. Zarsky's wife and a friend also benefited from the move, prosecutors said.

On June 26, news of the failed drug trial was made public and the stock took a nosedive. The defendants managed to avoid more than $768,000 in losses, prosecutors allege.

Given these details, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Chris Collins has been charged with, among other things, insider trading. What is surprising is that the New York Republican insists he's innocent and expects to be re-elected in three months, while out on bail.

Indeed, watching Collins yesterday was a dizzying experience. In the morning, he surrendered to the FBI. In the afternoon, the congressman pleaded not guilty and issued a statement that read, "Because my focus is to defeat these charges in Court, after today, I will not address any issues related to Innate Immunotherapeutics outside of the courtroom." Soon after, Collins announced he'd host a press conference, at which he said he looked forward "to being fully vindicated and exonerated."

Time will tell whether the GOP lawmaker avoids conviction, but in the meantime, it's hard not to wonder whether someone like Collins can win re-election under circumstances like these.

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