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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 11.7.17

11/07/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Devin Kelley: "The gunman accused of the worst mass murder in Texas history escaped from a mental health hospital during his stint in the Air Force, according to a 2012 police report."

* Congress gets a reminder: "An economic crisis already present in Puerto Rico before Hurricane Maria devastated the island more than 50 days ago could get much worse as officials estimate they will need as much as a staggering $21 billion over the next two years to cover operating costs and help the island rebuild its infrastructure."

* Now that's  a good question to ask Donald Trump: "Would you consider extreme vetting on people trying to buy a gun?"

* It's extraordinary to me that this wasn't resolved sooner: "Justice Department prosecutors have dropped their case against a woman who laughed at now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearing. Desiree Fairooz was scheduled to face trial for a second time next week, but a DOJ prosecutor entered a nolle prosequi filing in the case on Monday indicating the department is dismissing the charges."

* The Rand Paul assault story continues to be odd: "A U.S. senator was allegedly assaulted three days ago, and the more we learn about it, the stranger it becomes."

* The future of the Endangered Species Act: "The congressman who said he 'would love to invalidate' the Endangered Species Act is closing in on his goal. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) recently shepherded five bills out of the Natural Resources Committee he chairs that would dismantle the law piece by piece."

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Voters line up in voting booths to cast their ballots at Robious Elementary School in Chesterfield, Va. on Nov. 8, 2016. (Photo by Shelby Lum/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP)

Races to watch on Election Day 2017

11/07/17 02:26PM

As a rule, off-year election cycles tend to generate quite a bit less attention, but for campaign watchers, today is shaping up to be a day worth watching closely.

The marquee contest is clearly the gubernatorial race in Virginia, where polls show a very tight race between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie (R). Believe the hype: the outcome of this election will reverberate nationwide, and have a meaningful effect on everything from health care to voting rights to the GOP relying on nativism to win elections nationwide.

But it's not the only race of consequence today. Here are a few of the other elections I'm keeping an eye on:

* New Jersey's gubernatorial race: Former Ambassador Phil Murphy (D) looks like the clear favorite over Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R), and if the polls are right, it creates a unique opportunity for Dems. A Murphy victory would put Dems in control of New Jersey's state government, making it one of only seven states where Democrats have the governor's office, the state House, and the state Senate.

* Medicaid in Maine: Thanks to Gov. Paul LePage (R), Maine is the only state in the Northeast that hasn't adopted Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act. Voters today can change that and bring coverage to roughly 80,000 low-income Mainers. (Locally, the race is known as "Question 2.")

* Washington's state Senate: While state Senate elections tend not to generate much national interest, both parties are closely watching the race in Washington's 45th district today. If Democrat Manka Dhingra prevails, Democrats will take control of the chamber, and in turn, dominate state government in Washington. It would also complete a trifecta of sorts: a Dhingra win would mean Dems control state political power across the Pacific coast in California, Oregon, and Washington.

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Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., leaves the House Republican Conference meeting at the Capitol Hill Club on Nov. 3, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP)

House Republican: Donors are helping driving push for tax breaks

11/07/17 12:40PM

At first blush, the Republicans' push for massive tax breaks, disproportionately benefiting the wealthy, seems politically unwise. The American mainstream isn't exactly clamoring for the GOP tax plan -- polls show broad public opposition to the Republican proposal -- and no party ever became more popular by doing something unpopular.

What's more, the country can't afford the Republican plan; there's no reason to believe it'd make a significant difference on the economy; and it's having the unintended effect of dividing the GOP at a difficult time.

So why focus so much time, energy, and resources in the idea? Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) spoke to The Hill this morning and gave away the game.

A House Republican lawmaker acknowledged on Tuesday that he's facing pressure from donors to ensure the GOP tax-reform proposal gets done.

Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) had been describing the flurry of lobbying from special interests seeking to protect favored tax provisions when a reporter asked if donors are happy with the tax-reform proposal.

"My donors are basically saying, 'Get it done or don't ever call me again,' " Collins replied.

I suppose Collins deserves some credit for being so publicly candid. Traditionally, members of Congress have been more restrained when talking about using their offices to pursue political donors' goals, but Collins, a prominent Donald Trump ally, is taking a refreshing approach. He's admitting that he's concerned about the pressure he's under from campaign contributors.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.7.17

11/07/17 12:00PM

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

* A new poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found that a plurality of Americans who live in "Trump Counties" believe the country is worse off now that it was a year ago.

* Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), the Senate's most vulnerable Republican incumbent in 2018, has launched his first television ad of the cycle, focusing on, among other things, filling judicial vacancies with Donald Trump's far-right nominees.

* Reflecting on Ed Gillespie's (R) right-wing messaging in Virginia's gubernatorial race, his former extremist primary rival, Corey Stewart, said yesterday, "It feels like my campaign, doesn't it?"

* Tom Steyer's television ads in support of Donald Trump's impeachment have been airing quite a bit on cable news networks, including MSNBC, but they're poised to reach a narrower audience now: Fox News has decided to stop airing the commercial.

* In a bit of a surprise, Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer will no longer have the Republican field to themselves in Indiana's U.S. Senate race: former state Rep. Mike Braun, who's independently wealthy, kicked off his race this week.

* In a new book, former President George H.W. Bush concedes he voted for Hillary Clinton last year.

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An employee at a money changer counts $100 bills.

Is Trump's billionaire Commerce Secretary an actual billionaire?

11/07/17 11:20AM

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross' finances may seem like an exceedingly dry topic, but they've become surprisingly interesting of late. As we discussed yesterday, his leadership role at the Bank of Cyprus is a matter of ongoing controversy, but so are his previously undisclosed financial holdings, and his investment in Navigator Holdings, which has exclusive business deals with Russian oligarchs and a member of Vladimir Putin's family.

But Forbes magazine has a different kind of report today, asking whether Donald Trump's billionaire commerce secretary is actually a billionaire.

Fresh off a tour through Thailand, Laos and China, United States Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross Jr. picked up the phone on a Sunday afternoon in October to discuss something deeply personal: how much money he has. A year earlier, Forbes had listed his net worth at $2.9 billion on The Forbes 400, a number Ross claimed was far too low: He maintained he was closer to $3.7 billion. Now, after examining the financial-disclosure forms he filed after his nomination to President Donald Trump's Cabinet, which showed less than $700 million in assets, Forbes was intent on removing him entirely.

Ross protested, citing trusts for his family that he said he did not have to disclose in federal filings. "You're apparently not counting those, which are more than $2 billion," he said. When asked for documentation, the 79-year-old demurred, citing "privacy issues." Told that Forbes nonetheless planned to remove him from the list for the first time in 13 years, he responded: "As long as you explain that the reason is that assets were put into trust, I'm fine with that." And when did he make the transfer that allowed him to not disclose over $2 billion? "Between the election and the nomination."

So began the mystery of Wilbur Ross' missing $2 billion. And after one month of digging, Forbes is confident it has found the answer: That money never existed.

The article added, in unusual candor, that Forbes believes that "Ross lied" to the magazine, and the "fibs, exaggerations, omissions, fabrications and whoppers" have been ongoing for over a decade.

Making matters worse, Forbes further reported that Trump's commerce secretary has also misled "colleagues and investors" about his personal wealth.

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Carter Page transcript sheds new light on Trump-Russia scandal

11/07/17 10:40AM

It was just last year when Donald Trump personally singled out Carter Page, by name, as one of only a handful of people who were advising him on matters of foreign policy. As regular readers know, this has become highly problematic: the FBI has investigated Page as a possible agent of Russia.

Last night, Page's role in the Trump-Russia scandal took on new salience with the release of a 243-page transcript of his recent discussion with the House Intelligence Committee. NBC News reported:

Former Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page, who has come under scrutiny in the investigation of Russian election interference, told a House committee that he sought permission for a July 2016 trip to Moscow from senior Trump campaign officials, and reported to other Trump officials about the trip when he returned.

It's long been known that Page traveled to Moscow in July 2016, but he has said it was in his private capacity, unrelated to his role with the Trump campaign.

Page, whose sworn testimony was released Monday night, told the House Intelligence Committee last week that he sought permission to make the trip from campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, and also notified Hope Hicks, who is now the White House communications director.

This is no small revelation. We'd known about Page traveling to Moscow during the campaign -- which is itself a rather extraordinary step -- when he met with prominent Russian officials. What's new and important here is the fact that Page told his colleagues on the Trump campaign about his trip, including top members of the Republican candidate's team.

Indeed, as the NBC News report makes clear, Page "served on a campaign foreign policy advisory committee under the supervision of Jeff Sessions, who was then a senator and is now the attorney general." Sessions was also among those on Team Trump who was notified of Page's July 2016 Moscow trip.

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Syria backs climate accord, further isolating the United States

11/07/17 10:00AM

Today's news is as embarrassing as it is dangerous.

Syria announced during United Nations climate talks on Tuesday that it would sign the Paris agreement on climate change. The move, which comes on the heels of Nicaragua signing the accord last month, will leave the United States as the only country that has rejected the global pact.

According to several people who were in a plenary session at the climate talks in Bonn, Germany, a Syrian delegate announced that the country was poised to send its ratification of the Paris agreement to the United Nations.

In case anyone needs a refresher, it was just two years ago when representatives of 195 countries met in Paris and reached a historic international agreement to combat the climate crisis. Only two countries -- Syria and Nicaragua -- rejected the accord. At the time, Nicaragua insisted the agreement didn't go far enough, while Syria, in the midst of a devastating civil war, didn't participate in the talks, in large part because of sanctions imposed on the Assad government.

Over the summer, Donald Trump announced that the United States, which used to try to lead internationally on climate, was withdrawing from the accord, joining Syria and Nicaragua.

But two weeks ago, Nicaragua announced its support for the Paris climate policy, and today Syria has reportedly done the same. The resulting dynamic is extraordinary: literally every country on the planet supports the agreement, except us, thanks to Donald Trump.

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A sign at an Affordable Care Act outreach event in Los Angeles, California, September 28, 2013.

So far, ACA enrollment numbers are 'a big surprise'

11/07/17 09:20AM

For American health care consumers, last week was the start of the Affordable Care Act's open-enrollment period, which was notable in part because of the Trump-era changes. The White House hasn't made much of an effort to hide the fact that the Trump administration hopes to sabotage the health care system, and to that end, officials have taken unmistakable steps to discourage participation.

As the Washington Post noted, those efforts don't appear to be working.

In the first few days of open enrollment under the Affordable Care Act, the numbers of participants has surged compared with the past, according to federal officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the administration has yet to release official numbers.

More than 200,000 Americans chose a plan on Nov. 1, the day open enrollment began, according to one administration official. That's more than double the number of consumers who signed up on the first day of enrollment last year. More than 1 million people visited HeathCare.gov, the official federal website, the official said, which amounts to roughly a 33 percent increase in traffic compared with 2016.

Note, this only offers a piece of a larger image, since roughly a quarter of the states have their own exchange marketplaces that operate independently from HeathCare.gov, and we don't yet have a sense of how their first week of enrollments went.

But the evidence that is available at the national level looks like great news for the health care system -- even if it's bad news for Donald Trump's political agenda. The president seemed to personally take it upon himself to depress enrollment totals -- it's difficult to count just how many times Trump declared the ACA "dead" -- and it appears he can't even do that properly.

The Post's article quoted one state official who said this year's numbers may even set a record, and it's "a big surprise."

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers remarks while campaigning at Regent University on Oct. 22, 2016 in Virginia Beach, Va.

To win elections, Trump likes to create alternate universes

11/07/17 08:40AM

Throughout much of 2016, Donald Trump had an important challenge to overcome. Among his troubles was the fact that Barack Obama was a popular president, leading in a time of low unemployment and low crime, making it difficult for a Republican to make the case for a radical change in the nation's direction.

And so, Trump created an alternate universe that better suited his purposes. How did the GOP candidate respond to low unemployment? By insisting that jobless rate was politically-motivated fiction, cooked up by corrupt officials hiding the truth. At different points in the campaign, Trump publicly argued that the unemployment rate was 20% – or possibly 42% – even as reality pointed to a rate below 5%.

Trump did the same thing when talking about crime rates. The Republican insisted repeatedly that the U.S. murder rate was at a 45-year high, despite the evidence that showed it near a 50-year low. (The Trump campaign ultimately said the FBI might be lying in its crime statistics.)

Watching Trump replace our reality with an alternate universe was, of course, disorienting, which was very likely the point. What we didn't realize at the time, however, is that would become the first page in his playbook on how to win elections.

Virginians will go to the polls today to elect a new governor, and the president desperately hopes former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie prevails. Republicans, however, face a familiar dynamic: the Democratic incumbent enjoys fairly broad support, and Virginia has thrived in recent years.

Naturally, Trump's solution is to once again create an alternate reality. "The state of Virginia economy, under Democrat rule, has been terrible," the president said yesterday. He added this morning that the commonwealth is plagued by "high crime and poor economic performance."

Whether the president understands this or not, he's completely wrong.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump hosts former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

A year after his election, Trump faces historically weak support

11/07/17 08:00AM

Donald Trump told reporters the other day that he considered hosting a celebration to honor the one-year anniversary of his surprise election victory, before ultimately deciding against it.

Given the latest evidence, 364 days after Trump stunned the world, that was probably one of his smartest decisions to date. Because at this point, as Americans take stock of this bizarre presidency, much of the country doesn't appear to be in a celebrating mood.

A majority of Americans say President Trump has not accomplished much during his first nine months in office and they have delivered a report card that is far harsher even than the tepid expectations they set for his tenure when he was sworn into office, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News survey.

Approaching the first anniversary of his victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, Trump has an approval rating demonstrably lower than any previous chief executive at this point in his presidency over seven decades of polling. Fewer than 4 in 10 Americans -- 37 percent -- say they approve of the way he is handling his job.

The historical context matters: since the advent on modern polling, no president has struggled this severely to earn public support one year after his election. Indeed, several modern presidents never saw their support drop to Trump-like depths, even after years in office.

And it's not just the Washington Post-ABC News survey. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found Trump's public standing dropping to an all-time low last week. The same is true of the latest Fox News poll. The same is also true of a new CNN poll released yesterday.

The president told the New York Times last week that the Republican National Committee recently conducted polling in swing states, and he was pleased with the results. "I just got fantastic poll numbers," Trump boasted, declining to offer any evidence.

What we're left with is a dynamic in which we can believe secret data that Trump claims exists or public data, all of which is pointing in the opposite direction.

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