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Friday's Mini-Report, 5.11.18

05/11/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Unexpected: "The investigation of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and the domestic-violence scandal that toppled former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman collided Friday when a colorful attorney not representing either man asked that certain court records be sealed."

* Necessary scrutiny: "A day after Gina Haspel, President Trump's nominee to lead the C.I.A., refused during her confirmation hearing on Wednesday to condemn the agency's torture of Qaeda suspects, several lawmakers and human-rights advocates said aspects of her testimony merited greater scrutiny."

* Middle East: "Iran's supreme leader revealed on Wednesday an unpublicized letter sent recently by President Trump to countries in the Middle East, raising questions about how Ayatollah Ali Khamenei came to know about private correspondence between the U.S. leader and his allies in the region."

* Sign of the times: "Michigan Republicans' plan to require some recipients of government health insurance to work would disproportionately affect black people, a Washington Post analysis of new data from state health officials reveals."

* Maybe Rudy should've kept a lower public profile: "President Trump's personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, abruptly resigned from his law firm, which then promptly undercut his recent statements defending the president."

* Taking the whole "strange bedfellows" dynamic in a new direction: "[T]he United States military is taking a risk: training, sharing intelligence and planning missions with former members of Iranian-backed militias that once fought and killed Americans."

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A pharmacy employee dumps pills into a pill counting machine as she fills a prescription while working at a pharmacy in New York

Trump abandons key campaign promise on prescription medications

05/11/18 04:36PM

One of the few key areas on which Donald Trump broke with Republican Party orthodoxy was lowering prices on prescription drugs. In fact, as regular readers know, he complained bitterly shortly before taking office about the pharmaceutical industry’s powerful lobbyists, and said drug companies are “getting away with murder.”

The president has even accused the drug industry of corruption, arguing that pharmaceutical companies contribute “massive amounts of money” to politicians as part of a scheme to keep the cost of medicines higher.

He even had a bold idea: if elected, Trump told voters, he'd leverage Medicare's buying power to lower the cost of prescription medication. Shortly after the Republican's inauguration, the White House said the new president "absolutely" stood by that position.

And then, his posture changed, to the point that Trump put a pharmaceutical company executive in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services. And if that wasn't enough to cement this president's role as a key ally of drug makers, today did the trick.

President Donald Trump on Friday vowed to lower drug prices for American consumers, outlining a strategy that focuses on private-sector incentives but would not allow Medicare to use its leverage as the biggest player in the market to directly negotiate better bargains for its subscribers. [...]

While Trump said his proposal would give Medicare "new tools to negotiate lower prices" — such as allowing Medicare to change its formularies or benefit designs to respond to spikes in generic-drug prices — senior administration officials acknowledged in a briefing prior to his remarks that there is no plan to allow the program to directly barter with drug companies.

Or put another way, just days after Trump boasted, "When I make promises, I keep them," he audaciously broke one of his most populist promises.

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New fallout from Michael Cohen's shady deals

05/11/18 04:04PM

At a campaign rally last night, Donald Trump wasn't kidding when he declared, "Under my administration, we're fighting against the lobbyists, the special interests, and the corrupt Washington politics."

The president's timing could've been better. Trump, for example, has tapped a small army of lobbyists to work in his administration, many of whom help implement policy in the same areas in which they used to lobby. One of the president's cabinet officials, meanwhile, recently told a room full of wealthy bankers that the key to lobbying success in the Trump era is writing big checks to buy influence with policymakers.

And, of course, much of Trump World is the subject of ongoing investigations, raising the specter of Trump's presidency being the most corrupt in a generation.

But the comments were especially ill-timed because while Trump was taking a rhetorical stand against corrupt Washington politics, we were learning new details about the president's personal lawyer receiving undisclosed lobbying payments -- through a shell company used to pay hush money to a porn star -- from corporate giants hoping to influence his client in the Oval Office.

The fallout from the controversy continues to unfold. NBC News reported today:

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said hiring President Donald Trump's personal lawyer as a consultant was "a big mistake," according to a company memo sent on Friday.

The telecom giant hired attorney Michael Cohen, who has worked for Trump in a personal role for years, for advice on its pending merger with Time Warner. The company has said it paid Cohen $600,000 to gain "insights" into the president's thinking. The memo was first reported by Reuters.

The company, which changed its story more than once this week, described the Cohen contract as "a big mistake" and "a serious misjudgment."

The telecom giant added that its top lobbyist, who was responsible for hiring Cohen, is stepping down from his position.

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Image: Senate Judiciary Committee

Despite indictments, White House says Mueller probe lacks 'meat on the bone'

05/11/18 12:33PM

Vice President Mike Pence, who already has an unfortunate rhetorical record when it comes to the Russian scandal, sat down with NBC News' Andrea Mitchell yesterday and went a little further with some thoughts about the investigation.

"In the interests of the country, I think it's time to wrap it up." Pence said in reference to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe. The Indiana Republican went on to say that the Trump administration has "fully cooperated" with the investigation, adding, "I would very respectfully encourage the special counsel and his team to bring their work to completion."

It was a weak pitch. Not only has the White House failed to fully cooperate -- Donald Trump, for example, has so far refused to answer Mueller's questions -- but the suggestion that it's time to "wrap up" the investigation appears to be based on nothing but some vague assertions about the calendar, as if a year-long probe into a scandal of this significance is somehow inappropriate.

Indeed, let's note for context that the Republicans' years-long investigation into Benghazi conspiracy theories was among the longest probes in American history, and when it comes to congressional scrutiny of specific individual events -- Pearl Harbor, 9/11, the Kennedy Assassination, Watergate, etc. -- the Benghazi investigation was the longest ever. Pence never seemed to mind.

But implicit in Pence's appeal is the idea that the special counsel's investigation isn't amounting to much, so it might as well end. In a new NPR interview, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was more explicit on this point. Asked whether he believes the Russia investigation is a "witch hunt," as the president routinely calls it, Kelly said:

"Something that has gone on this long without any real meat on the bone, it suggests to me that there is nothing there, relative to our president."

Maybe Kelly isn't paying close enough attention to current events.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.11.18

05/11/18 12:00PM

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

* Just days after finishing third in a Republican Senate primary in West Virginia, Don Blankenship (R) now says he's prepared to work against state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), who won the GOP nomination.

* In Arizona's U.S. Senate race, Rep. Martha McSally (R) is so eager to satisfy far-right voters, she's officially ended her co-sponsorship of a bipartisan bill to help Dreamers.

* Eighteen months after the 2016 presidential election, attendees at last night's Trump/Pence rally in Indiana broke out in a spontaneous "lock her up" chant, in apparent reference to Hillary Clinton.

* Now that the primaries are over in Ohio's gubernatorial race, a new survey from Public Policy Polling shows former CFPB Director Richard Corday (D) with a modest lead over state Attorney General Mike DeWine (R), 44% to 39%. It's worth noting for context that a Republican has been Ohio's governor for 23 of the last 27 years.

* In an unexpected development, the Federal Election Commission announced yesterday that candidates for public office "can use campaign funds to pay for child care in certain cases." The ruling follows a petition from first-time congressional candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley, a New York Democrat.

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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP

White House's Kelly questions immigrants' ability to 'assimilate'

05/11/18 11:20AM

It might be easy to think of John Kelly as the hapless White House chief of staff whom Donald Trump prefers to ignore and circumvent, but from time to time, the retired general reminds the public of his own controversial worldview. Consider this excerpt from Kelly's new interview with NPR:

"Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into United States are not bad people. They're not criminals. They're not MS13. ... But they're also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society. They're overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don't speak English; obviously that's a big thing. ... They don't integrate well; they don't have skills...."

I was all set to respond to this with a rant about the historical parallels between Kelly's perspective and anti-immigrant rhetoric from generations past, but it looks like ThinkProgress beat me to the punch:

Concerns about immigrants' ability to assimilate with American society have been used repeatedly throughout the country's history to justify barring different groups from immigrating. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act, a law that prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers from 1882 until 1943, was passed because Chinese immigrants were blamed for the depressed wages that followed the Gold Rush and Civil War. In 1890, the New York Times printed an article that explained that while "the red and black assimilate… not so the Chinaman."

Similar arguments have been used since to justify xenophobia against Italian, Irish, Jewish, and -- most recently -- Muslim immigrants over the past century. As Splinter News points out, the Library of Congress still characterizes Kelly's Irish ancestors as having "left a rural lifestyle"; these "destitute" immigrants were "unprepared for the industrialized, urban centers in the United States."

One wonders why Kelly, the former Department of Homeland Security secretary, apparently isn't aware of all of this.

What's more, this is hardly the first controversy the White House chief of staff has found himself in the middle of.

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Image: BELGIUM-NATO-DEFENCE-POLITICS-DIPLOMACY-MEETING

Trump insists he's boosted our international standing (he hasn't)

05/11/18 10:40AM

As part of Donald Trump's pitch at a Republican campaign rally last night, the president turned his attention to the United States' international standing.

...Mr. Trump appeared before an excited crowd to share his administration's track record: North Korea had freed three American prisoners. The United States had withdrawn from the nuclear agreement with Iran. And the American Embassy would soon open in Jerusalem.

The president's message to his voters was clear -- because of his efforts, "America is respected again."

Wouldn't it be great if that were true? Wouldn't it be nice if, during tumultuous times, the United States enjoyed broad international respect and credibility, thanks in part to an American president people around the world admired?

Alas, it's simply not the case. Even Trump's evidence is difficult to take seriously. Yes, some American hostages returned home this week from North Korea, but that's happened plenty of times before. And yes, the president withdrew from an effective international nuclear agreement with Iran, but by doing so, Trump infuriated many of our closest allies, many of whom begged him to be more responsible.

And yes, the U.S. embassy in Israel is moving, but that outraged Palestinian leaders and pushed them further away from any kind of peace agreement.

But there's no reason to stop there. Earlier this year, Gallup published a report that found, "One year into Donald Trump's presidency, the image of U.S. leadership is weaker worldwide than it was under his two predecessors." Consider the results in chart form:

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Image: Donald Trump, Mike Pence

In a city Obama helped rescue, Trump blasts Dems on economy

05/11/18 10:00AM

Donald Trump headlined yet another campaign rally last night, this time in Elkhart, Indiana, where the president hopes to rally Republican support to defeat Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.). And while Trump covered quite a bit of ground at the event, his economic message stood out as ... odd.

Embracing the role of party leader, President Donald Trump issued a stern warning Thursday that Democrats would disrupt the economic progress of his administration as he implored fellow Republicans to mobilize behind a slate of Indiana candidates.

Trump used one of his signature rallies in northern Indiana to paint a rosy picture of his presidency, pointing to low unemployment, "booming" job growth and optimism under his watch.

Democrats, he said, will "destroy your jobs."

To be sure, this is standard political rhetoric that wouldn't be especially notable -- were it not for the location in which Trump made the comments, which turned out to be more interesting than the comments themselves.

As regular readers may recall, Elkhart took on special political significance in recent years, thanks in large part to multiple visits from Barack Obama. In 2009, the president spoke to NBC's Chuck Todd before an event in the community, and Todd asked if it'd be "fair" to use the city as a case study -- if what happened to Elkhart in the Obama era could credibly represent the success or failure of the White House's economic agenda.

"Absolutely," the president replied.

In the months that followed, MSNBC created an online venture called "The Elkhart Project," monitoring the city's progress as Obama's policies started to take effect. In the years that followed, the area's unemployment rate went from one of the nation's worst to one of the nation's best.

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An attendee handles a revolver in the Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc. booth on the exhibition floor of the 144th National Rifle Association (NRA) Annual Meetings and Exhibits in Nashville, Tenn. on April 11, 2015. (Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty)

NRA's Oliver North compares gun owners to Jim Crow victims

05/11/18 09:20AM

The National Rifle Association announced earlier this week that Oliver North, of all people, would soon take the reins at the right-wing advocacy group as its new president. The news prompted no shortage of commentary about the irony surrounding the NRA being led by a man who faced criminal charges for illegal weapons sales.

Nevertheless, it seems North is settling into his new gig by adopting the group's usual posture.

On Wednesday, the Washington Times published an exclusive interview with the incoming president of the National Rifle Association, Oliver North, in which he claimed that the NRA's leaders are the victims of "civil terrorism" at the hands of gun safety advocates. He referenced unspecified "threats" and noted that vandals splashed fake blood on a NRA official's Virginia home. He likened this treatment to that of black Americans during the era of legally sanctioned racial segregation.

"They call them activists. That's what they're calling themselves. They're not activists -- this is civil terrorism. This is the kind of thing that's never been seen against a civil rights organization in America," he said. "You go back to the terrible days of Jim Crow and those kinds of things -- even there you didn't have this kind of thing."

Yes, there's the incoming NRA president saying -- out loud and on the record -- that the NRA currently has it worse than the victims of Jim Crow.

There was no indication that North was kidding.

I'll leave it to others to provide the new NRA chief with a detailed history lesson, but there are a couple of angles to his whining that are worth keeping in mind.

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In this April 28, 2016 file photo, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

As McCain becomes a GOP target, White House aide mocks senator's health

05/11/18 08:40AM

The first sign of trouble came on Monday. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), facing serious ailments that are keeping him from Capitol Hill, reportedly made clear that he doesn't want Donald Trump at his funeral. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) called McCain's position "ridiculous," inexplicably touted the president as "a very good man," and urged the Arizonan to reconsider.

Hatch later apologized for his bizarre recommendations, but it now appears to have been the first in a series of dominoes.

Yesterday, for example, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a "Fox News Insider," mocked McCain's concerns about Gina Haspel's torture background, insisting that torture "worked" on McCain when he was a North Vietnamese prisoner of war.

A few hours later, it was apparently a White House staffer's turn.

A top White House communications aide made fun of Sen. John McCain's brain cancer diagnosis on Thursday, sources with direct knowledge said -- comments that enraged the senator's wife.

The comments, which were first reported by The Hill, a Washington political newspaper, came during a meeting a day after McCain, R-Ariz., announced that he was opposing the nomination of Gina Haspel to be permanent director of the CIA.

"He's dying anyway," said Kelly Sadler the White House's director of surrogate and coalitions outreach, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the meeting.

The White House didn't deny any of this, and Sadler reportedly reached out to the senator's family to apologize.

Whatever my concerns about McCain's record as a lawmaker -- and as regular readers know, I have many -- it's tough to defend these offensive outbursts as the Arizona Republican struggles with a health crisis. It's all the more reason to wonder what it is, exactly, that made McCain such a target.

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Image: Donald Trump

Trump tirade pushes DHS chief toward possible resignation

05/11/18 08:00AM

Donald Trump hosted a cabinet meeting at the White House on Wednesday, and if the latest New York Times reporting is any indication, the president didn't enjoy the behind-closed-doors discussion.

Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, told colleagues she was close to resigning after President Trump berated her on Wednesday in front of the entire cabinet for what he said was her failure to adequately secure the nation's borders, according to several current and former officials familiar with the episode.

Ms. Nielsen, who is a protégée of John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, has drafted a resignation letter but has not submitted it, according to two of the people. As the head of the Department of Homeland Security, Ms. Nielsen is in charge of the 20,000 employees who work for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The White House didn't exactly deny the details of the report. Indeed, the DHS chief herself didn't deny the report, either, though her spokesperson insisted she had not drafted a resignation letter.

It's difficult to say for sure what prompted the president's latest tirade. From a distance, it seems Trump has some kind of vision in mind as to what border security should look like, and since he believes the status quo is falling short, the president is lashing out wildly, in this case humiliating the Homeland Security secretary with a scolding in front of her cabinet colleagues.

But given how little Trump understands about the underlying policies, in some ways, the rationale for his tantrum is less interesting than the fact that these tantrums keep happening.

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