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Image: Donald Trump, Andrzej Duda

To circumvent Congress on wall, Trump readies emergency declaration

01/10/19 12:56PM

Donald Trump's effort to get Congress to pony up billions of taxpayer dollars for a border wall is failing spectacularly. Last week, however, the president, for the first time publicly, raised the prospect of going around Congress and declaring "a national emergency."

Under this plan, Trump would grant himself emergency powers, borrow the "power of the purse" from legislators, redirect funds away from the Pentagon, and build a border wall in defiance of Congress' wishes.

How likely is the president to pull the trigger on this? As of this morning, Trump made it sound as if he'd effectively made up his mind.

"I have the absolute right to declare a national emergency. The lawyers have so advised me. I'm not prepared to do that yet, but if I have to I will. I have no doubt about it. I will. I have the absolute right to declare. [...]

"I have the absolute right to declare a national emergency. I haven't done it yet. I may do it. If this doesn't work out, probably I will do that. I would almost say definitely.... This is a national emergency."

Asked why he hasn't already made such a declaration, the Republican added, "I would like to do the deal through Congress and because it makes sense to do it through Congress but the easy route for me would have been to call a national emergency and do it."

When a reporter followed up, asking about the degree to which he's serious about this, Trump replied, "If we don't make a deal, I mean, I would say 100 percent but I don't want to say 100 percent because maybe something else comes up. But if we don't make a deal, I would say it would be very surprising to me that I would not declare a national emergency."

Of course, the president's argument seems to be that pursuing this route is more of a fallback plan in response to legislative failure than a genuine belief that there's an actual emergency that necessitates extraordinary action. Don't be surprised if his quotes are used against him in the event of a court case. (It wouldn't be the first time.)

It's important to emphasize that Trump is an unreliable narrator when it comes to his own presidency, and just because he says he's going to make a declaration is no way evidence that he intends to follow through. That said, facing the prospect of a historic legal dispute, it's worth considering the scope of the seriousness of what may soon unfold.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.10.19

01/10/19 12:00PM

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

* In a bit of a surprise, Tom Steyer, a progressive billionaire philanthropist and environmentalist, announced yesterday that he won't run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. This will probably help prevent the field from reaching 30 people.

* We don't yet know whether Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will launch another presidential campaign, but if he does, the senator's team will not be led by Jeff Weaver, his longtime staffer who oversaw Sanders' 2016 operation.

* In Iowa, where Rep. Steve King (R) won a competitive re-election fight a couple of months ago, the far-right congressman has a new electoral challenge: state Sen. Randy Feenstra (R) will launch a primary challenge against the incumbent next year.

* Speaking of primary challenges, we don't yet know whether Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) will seek a second term later this year, but if he does, he'll face an opponent for the Republican nomination: state Rep. Robert Goforth (R) kicked off his gubernatorial candidacy this week.

* The latest polling report from Gallup shows that none of Congress' leaders are especially popular, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) enjoys a higher favorability rating than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

* With Sen. Pat Roberts (R) retiring in Kansas this year, there's likely to be a crowded GOP field to replace him. This week, State Treasurer Jake LaTurner (R) -- who's only 30 years old -- announced he's running to succeed Roberts in the U.S. Senate.

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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (L), R-KY, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-WI, look on during a meeting with congressional leadership in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on November 28,

As shutdown lingers, Trump focuses on GOP unity, but to what end?

01/10/19 11:24AM

Over the last 24 hours, Donald Trump has echoed a fairly specific observation, which he clearly expects people to believe. Here, for example, was the president before his meeting with Senate Republicans yesterday, after being asked about keeping his party unified during the government shutdown.

"We have great Republican support, as you know. You know, you're just making that up. But we have tremendous Republican support.... There is tremendous Republican support -- unwavering."

And here he was after the meeting.

"I would say that we have a very, very unified party.... I just left an hour meeting. We had a great time, actually. There was no discussion about anything other than solidarity. I just want to tell you that the Republicans are totally unified.... The Republicans are unified.... They're with us all the way. They're with us all the way."

And here he was this morning.

"The Republicans are extremely united.... I don't think I've ever seen unity like this in the Republican Party."

As a rule, when Trump repeats phrases like these over and over again, it reflects anxiety-driven dishonesty. In this case, the president probably realizes that Republicans are increasingly divided over his shutdown strategy -- the number of House GOP defections grew a bit yesterday, and Senate Republican divisions are increasingly hard to overlook -- which is why he feels compelled to say the opposite.

But let's say for the sake of conversation that he's right. Let's say the White House has invested considerable energy into preventing intra-party defections, and those efforts have paid off.

Then what?

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President Donald Trump talks with reporters as he reviews border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego.

On Mexico paying for a wall, Trump forgets the details of his promise

01/10/19 10:43AM

Whatever happened to Donald Trump's infamous promise that Mexico would pay for a giant border wall? This morning, the president spent a minute explaining what he meant when he made that commitment.

"When during the campaign, I would say Mexico is going to pay for it, obviously, I never said this and never meant they're gonna write out a check. I said they're gonna pay for it. They are. They are paying for it with the incredible deal we made.... Mexico is paying for the wall indirectly.... Obviously, they're not gonna write a check."

There are two problems with this, one of which is more obvious than the other.

On the surface, the idea that a slightly tweaked NAFTA is going to pay for a border wall continues to be ridiculously wrong. Not only is it an open question as to whether or not Congress will approve the agreement -- if the deal is not currently in place, the idea that Mexico is already paying for the wall is literally impossible -- but the trade deal will not be, and wasn’t even designed to be, a significant source of new revenue.

At a conceptual level, the president's argument is difficult to take seriously.

But then there's the other problem: he insisted this morning, as if it were an obvious point, that Mexico would never send the United States a check. The trouble is, Trump more or less put this in writing before getting elected.

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White House Press Briefing Canceled Due To Snow

As scandals percolate, White House hires small army of lawyers

01/10/19 10:14AM

Donald Trump hasn't exactly had a lot of luck when hiring attorneys since taking office. He does, however, need the best possible legal representation: this president is at the center of some of the most serious White House scandals in American history, and some of them may soon put Trump in new legal jeopardy.

With that in mind, as Rachel noted on last night's show, the Washington Post published an interesting report on the White House's newly expanded legal team.

A beefed-up White House legal team is gearing up to prevent President Trump's confidential discussions with top advisers from being disclosed to House Democratic investigators and revealed in the special counsel's long-awaited report, setting the stage for a potential clash between the branches of government.

The strategy to strongly assert the president's executive privilege on both fronts is being developed under newly arrived White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who has hired 17 lawyers in recent weeks to help in the effort.

We don't yet know who the 17 new lawyers are, or anything about their backgrounds, but just on the surface, it's a striking tally. Team Trump wouldn't hire a small army of attorneys unless it had reason to believe they'd have quite a bit of work to do.

The same article added that the White House counsel's office is likely to expand its staff even more "in the coming weeks."

In the coming weeks, of course, the new House Democratic majority will be asking a series of difficult questions the president and his team will probably be reluctant to answer, and there's also a possible report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller to consider.

In the meantime, the legal team will apparently be preparing for some dramatic legal circumstances.

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Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Mike Pence

What is Trump prepared to offer in exchange for a border wall?

01/10/19 09:23AM

One need not be an expert in negotiations to understand the basic elements of a deal. At its core, one side tells another, "I'll give you x, if you give me y." If the parties agree to the terms, an agreement is reached, and the transaction goes forward.

In the dominant political fight in D.C., Donald Trump wants a giant wall along the U.S./Mexico border. In order to reach his goal, the Republican president is prepared to offer congressional Democrats ... nothing. The purported author of the ghost-written "Art of the Deal" -- a man who routinely pretends to be a world-class authority on negotiations -- is trying to reach an agreement in which his White House makes no concessions.

Trump simply wants Democratic lawmakers to give him more than $5 billion for a vanity project -- as if he's entitled to it. The wall should be a reward for how awesome the president's awesomeness is. For some reason, this hasn't worked.

Of course, Trump could try a more conventional approach to negotiating, in which he offered something tangible that Democrats want in exchange for what he wants. In fact, some on the right are concerned the president may eventually do exactly that. The New York Times published a quote the other day that stood out for me:

"I've always thought it created a danger that he would trade almost anything in order to get the wall -- I think that's still a potential danger," said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that argues for less immigration. "I'm still worried about that now."

From a conservative perspective, those concerns are well grounded. Democrats really don't want to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on a giant, ineffective border wall, so if Trump were try to come up with an offer designed to entice them, he'd have to propose something that would be (a) enormous; and (b) wildly unpopular among Republicans.

And this got me thinking: what exactly would it take? What would a borderline-desperate president put on the table to sway Democrats?

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Government shutdown halts most FDA food safety inspections

01/10/19 08:40AM

Following a series of major food-safety controversies in the Bush/Cheney era, Democrats approved a sweeping overhaul of the nation's food-safety system in 2010, expanding the FDA's ability to recall tainted foods and increasing inspections. It was the biggest effort on food safety in more than 70 years, all in the hopes of preventing unsafe food from reaching consumers' tables.

Shortly before getting elected, Donald Trump and his team made clear they had no use for the improved safeguards. As regular readers may recall, when the Trump campaign pointed to some of the "regulations" the Republican opposed, it specifically complained about the "FDA Food Police."

In other words, there were already concerns about how this administration would protect the safety of Americans' food. Trump's government shutdown, however, has made matters quite a bit more serious.

The ongoing federal government shutdown has stopped most food safety inspections, but the Food and Drug Administration is planning to resume at least some of them. To do it, the agency will have to force furloughed workers to come back without pay. [...]

... FDA inspectors are not looking for salmonella in breakfast cereal, E. coli in romaine lettuce, or listeria in ice cream. Companies can still make their own checks, of course, and the FDA is still announcing those recalls.

Foreign food inspections are also continuing, almost as normal, because they're considered so important. But the FDA has virtually stopped inspecting domestic food production facilities, which could mean threats to the public are going undetected.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb conceded to NBC News, in reference to the agency he leads, "There are important things we are not doing."

He later added on Twitter that the FDA is "working to continue" high-risk inspections, which didn't exactly set minds at ease.

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In this July 19, 2015 photo released by the U.S. Coast Guard, a Coast Guard Cutter Stratton boarding team investigates a self-propelled semi-submersible. (Photo by LaNola Stone/U.S. Coast Guard/ AP)

During shutdown, unpaid Coast Guard officials receive depressing advice

01/10/19 08:00AM

The current government shutdown, poised to become the longest in American history, doesn't affect every federal department and agency. Appropriations for the Department of Defense, for example, were approved before Donald Trump's stunt began a few weeks ago.

But that's cold comfort to the Coast Guard, which is a branch of the U.S. military, but which falls inside the Department of Homeland Security. As a result, thousands of Coast Guard officials are currently on indefinite furlough, and many of them are deemed "essential" -- which means they have to work without pay.

What are they supposed to do about paying their bills? As the Washington Post  reported overnight, these officials have received some depressing advice.

Employees of the U.S. Coast Guard who are facing a long U.S. government shutdown just received a suggestion: To get by without pay, consider holding a garage sale, babysitting, dog-walking or serving as a "mystery shopper."

The suggestions were part of a five-page tip sheet published by the Coast Guard Support Program, an employee-assistance arm of the service often known as CG SUPRT. It is designated to offer Coast Guard members help with mental-health issues or other concerns about their lives, including financial wellness.

"Bankruptcy is a last option," the document said.

As regular readers know, the president has been preoccupied to an almost creepy degree with the Coast Guard's "brand," gushing for months about how much it's "improved" in recent years.

Of course, Coast Guard officials can't pay the rent with Trump's impressions of their "brand."

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