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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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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 8.8.18

08/08/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Sanctions: "The Trump administration is hitting Russia with new sanctions punishing President Vladimir Putin's government for using a chemical weapon against an ex-spy in Britain, U.S. officials told NBC News Wednesday."

* Trade war: "China struck back Wednesday at the U.S. with $16 billion in retaliatory tariffs, exactly matching President Donald Trump's latest escalation in the ongoing international trade war. The Chinese Ministry of Commerce declared a 25 percent levy on certain U.S. goods, including coal, crude oil, automobiles, motorcycles and scrap metal."

* The deterrent didn't work: "The number of migrant families taken into custody along the U.S. border with Mexico remained nearly unchanged from June to July, according to government data released Wednesday, an indication the Trump administration's controversial move to separate thousands of parents and children did little to deter others from attempting the journey."

* So I guess this story is about to get weird: "Multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation tell The Daily Beast that Omarosa Manigault-Newman, the infamous former Apprentice star who followed Trump to the White House, secretly recorded conversations with the president—conversations she has since leveraged while shopping her forthcoming "tell-all" book, bluntly titled UNHINGED."

* California "went on the offensive Tuesday against the Trump administration's plan to weaken fuel-efficiency rules for cars, laying out a scathing rebuttal that the state's clean-air regulator said would shape the battle with Washington in the coming months and years."

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Image: U.S. President Trump listens to  Speaker Ryan as he gathers with Republican House members after healthcare bill vote at the White House in Washington

Ryan suggests he's helped thwart Trump 'tragedies' behind the scenes

08/08/18 12:47PM

Reading the feature piece in the New York Times Magazine on House Speaker Paul Ryan, it's hard to miss the fact that the Wisconsin Republican doesn't seem to care for questions about Donald Trump. That's not especially surprising; if I were Ryan, I wouldn't want to field a bunch of questions about the president, either.

But the Speaker, as he wraps up his congressional career, suggested he's made a difference with Trump behind the scenes, taking steps to prevent what Ryan described as "tragedies."

Ryan prefers to tell Trump how he feels in private. He joins a large group of Trump's putative allies, many of whom have worked in the administration, who insist that they have shaped Trump's thinking and behavior in private: the "Trust me, I've stopped this from being much worse" approach.

"I can look myself in the mirror at the end of the day and say I avoided that tragedy, I avoided that tragedy, I avoided that tragedy," Ryan tells me. "I advanced this goal, I advanced this goal, I advanced this goal."

I locked in on the word "tragedy." It sets the mind reeling to whatever thwarted "tragedies" Ryan might be talking about. I asked for an example. "No, I don't want to do that," Ryan replied. "That's more than I usually say."

Perhaps we're supposed to be reassured by the idea that Paul Ryan intervened -- in ways that the public doesn't know about -- to prevent Trump from making even more spectacular missteps than the ones we're all familiar with.

But it's nevertheless unsettling how often this seems to come up.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.8.18

08/08/18 12:00PM

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

* As of right now, in Kansas' closely watched Republican gubernatorial primary, Secretary of State Kris Kobach leads Gov. Jeff Colyer by just 191 votes. A local report added, "The razor-thin margin could change in the days ahead as provisional ballots are counted and mail-in ballots continue to arrive. A recount appears possible."

* Following last night's results across several states, there will be more women candidates for the U.S. House this year than in any election cycle in American history.

* By a 2-to-1 margin, voters in Missouri easily rejected a so-called "right to work" measure approved by the state's Republican legislature.

* Also in Missouri, Rep. William Lacy Clay faced a spirited Democratic primary challenge from Cori Bush, but the incumbent prevailed by about 23 points.

* In the race to replace former Rep. John Conyers (D) in Michigan, former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib won yesterday's Democratic primary. Because there are no Republicans or third-party candidates running in the general election, we know that Tlaib will become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress in November.

* House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers advanced yesterday in Washington's top-two primary, but her underwhelming vote totals reinforced the impression that she may be vulnerable in the fall.

* Despite recent claims of financial difficulties, the National Rifle Association has launched a seven-figure ad campaign in support of Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination.

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Two men stand on the plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building as storm clouds fill the sky, June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.

'Culture of corruption' case against the GOP gets a little easier

08/08/18 11:19AM

The last time Republicans controlled all of the levers of federal power was 2006, which was not an especially good year for the GOP. After Republicans struggled to address a series of scandals -- names like Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney, and Mark Foley may sound familiar to those who were engaged at the time -- Democrats used the "culture of corruption" label to great effect.

It was the year -- the most recent midterm election cycle for a Republican president -- that Democrats rode a wave to reclaiming the majority in the House and Senate.

The question is whether we may soon see a similar dynamic unfold. Over the weekend, the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne Jr. made a compelling case that concerns over corruption may very well be what defines the 2018 elections.

Politics is regularly described in terms of "left" vs. "right." But other binaries can be more relevant. "Forward" vs. "backward" often define a choice facing an electorate better than the standard ideological categories. And the most powerful faceoff of all may be "reform" vs. "corruption."

Much commentary on the 2018 midterm campaign has focused on a drift or a lurch left in the Democratic Party, the measurement of the port-side tilt varying from analyst to analyst. In fact, more moderate progressives have done very well in the primaries so far, but Democrats are certainly less enamored of centrism than they were during the 1990s.

What is missed in this sort of analysis is that many, maybe most, of us don't think in simple left/right terms, and countless issues are not cleanly identified this way. The same is true of elections. When the returns are tallied in November, the results may be better explained by the reform/corruption dynamic than any other.

Republicans are certainly making it easier for their opponents to frame the debate this way. This morning, for example, Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) surrendered to the FBI after being indicted on insider-trading charges. His colleague, Rep. Scott Taylor (R-Va.), learned yesterday that a Virginal special prosecutor is examining an electoral scheme launched by his campaign.

This comes the day after Forbes published a rather brutal piece that raised the allegation that Donald Trump's Commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, "could rank among the biggest grifters in American history."

Meanwhile, the man who led Donald Trump's political operation in 2016, Paul Manaforrt, is currently on trial for a wide variety of alleged felonies. The star witness is Rick Gates -- the deputy chairman of Trump's campaign -- who's testified about all the crimes he and Manafort committed together.

And that's just this week. Worse, it's only Wednesday.

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