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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 12.4.18

12/04/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Removing all doubt: "Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on Tuesday that the evidence connecting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was so strong, it amounted to 'a smoking saw.'"

* Jeffrey Epstein: "A politically connected multi-millionaire sex offender accused of sexually abusing dozens of teenage girls struck a last-minute deal to avoid a civil trial that would have allowed some of his victims to finally testify against him in open court."

* Republicans may find it tough to blame Dems for this one: "The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by almost 800 points Tuesday, to close at 25,027, continuing a shaky start to the week prompted by confusion over a thaw in U.S.-China trade relations. The Dow finished the day down 3.06 percent. The S&P 500 lost 3.2 percent of its value, and the Nasdaq fell by 3.8 percent."

* France takes a step back: "Trying to quell its most serious political crisis, the government of President Emmanuel Macron announced on Tuesday that it would suspend the gasoline tax increase that had set off three weeks of increasingly violent protests in Paris and around France by the so-called Yellow Vest movement."

* November was reportedly the deadliest month for American servicemen and women in Afghanistan since December 2015.

* It had to be Florida, didn't it? "A Florida sheriff's sergeant who wore a QAnon conspiracy theory patch on his uniform while greeting Vice President Mike Pence last week has been reprimanded and removed from special assignments for 'conduct unbecoming an employee.'"

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel walk along a section of the recently-constructed fence at the U.S.-Mexico border on Feb. 26, 2013 in Nogales, Ariz. (Photo by John Moore/Getty)

Trump claims a border wall would 'pay for itself' (but it really wouldn't)

12/04/18 04:14PM

There's still a chance that Donald Trump isn't bluffing and he'll shut down the federal government later this month over funding for a giant wall along the U.S./Mexico border. In fact, the issue was on the president's mind yesterday when Trump wrote on Twitter, with his usual habit of capitalizing assorted words he finds important, "We would save Billions of Dollars if the Democrats would give us the votes to build the Wall."

It wasn't altogether clear what he was talking about. American taxpayers would save billions of dollars by spending billions of dollars on a pointless vanity project?

Today, Trump went into a little more detail, tweeting, "Could somebody please explain to the Democrats (we need their votes) that our Country losses 250 Billion Dollars a year on illegal immigration, not including the terrible drug flow. Top Border Security, including a Wall, is $25 Billion. Pays for itself in two months."

Jane Coaston made a compelling case that someone needs to have the details explained to them, but it's not congressional Democrats. Indeed, in her Vox piece, Coaston tried to figure out the origins of the $250 billion figure, which the president appears to have made up out of whole cloth.

President Trump's use of numbers in his public statements and tweets has always been somewhat arbitrary. As Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale, who fact-checks every single one of Trump's public statements, put it in November, "If Trump cites any number at all, the real number is usually smaller."

The $250 billion referenced in his tweet is a prime example, because in August 2016, Trump said during an Arizona speech that "illegal immigration costs our country more than $113 billion a year." In Trump's Tuesday tweet, he has somehow more than doubled that number in two years, despite an overall downward trend in undocumented immigrants crossing the border.

(For the record, I reached out to the White House and to the Department of Homeland Security for a source for the $250 billion number, but have not yet heard back.)

Coaston did find a conservative group that published a report that put a $115.8 billion price tag on illegal immigration, but that figure is (a) a contested total released by an advocacy organization that wants new restrictions on immigration; and (b) still less than half the number Trump used this morning.

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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.

House Dems may balk at seating North Carolina's Harris

12/04/18 12:54PM

The controversy surrounding the U.S. House race in North Carolina's 9th district is turning into one of the year's most important electoral scandals. As the dust settled on Election Day, it appeared last month that former far-right pastor Mark Harris (R) had narrowly defeated Dan McCready (D), but credible accusations of election fraud have put those results in doubt.

The latest revelations about alleged wrongdoing from Harris' aides have led state election officials to hold off before certifying the results, and those same officials have reportedly begun issuing subpoenas in the hopes of getting to the bottom of what transpired.

But this morning, as the Washington Post  reported, a leading House Democrat raised the prospect of an additional wrinkle.

The incoming House majority leader said Democrats might refuse to seat a North Carolina Republican next year unless and until "substantial" questions about the integrity of his election are resolved.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the current minority whip, made the comments to reporters Tuesday as North Carolina election officials investigate whether an operative hired by Republican candidate Mark Harris illegally collected incomplete ballots from voters.

Hoyer said this morning,. "If there is what appears to be a very substantial question on the integrity of the election, clearly we would oppose Mr. Harris being seated until that is resolved."

In nearly every instance, there is no question about the legitimacy of a congressional election. One candidate prevails, his or her victory is certified, and he or she is welcomed on Capitol Hill.

But in the face of serious allegations, Congress has the authority to launch its own investigations of election results. To that end, it can also try to block apparent winners from taking office and call for a "do-over" election.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.4.18

12/04/18 12:00PM

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

* As the controversy surrounding the U.S. House race in North Carolina's 9th district continues, the Charlotte Observer published a report on Leslie McCrae Dowless, an "independent contractor" for Republican Mark Harris' campaign, who is a convicted felon who faced jail time for felony fraud and perjury.

* On a related note, the ABC affiliate in Charlotte ran a report on what appears to have been an illegal system of picking up ballots in the district. WSOC spoke to one woman who collected ballots and gave them to Dowless, and she conceded she can't say whether those ballots were counted.

* Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that state elections board yesterday subpoenaed Mark Harris' campaign. Election officials are also expected to issue another subpoena to the Republican consulting firm, Red Dome Group, which hired Dowless.

* It's Election Day in Georgia again today, and voters will elect a new secretary of state. The runoff race pits state Rep. Brad Raffensperger (R) against former U.S. Rep. John Barrow (D). Though neither candidate reached 50% last month, Raffensperger narrowly led Barrow in the first round of balloting.

* Speaking of Georgia, Stacey Abrams (D) narrowly lost a highly controversial gubernatorial race last month, but she's already eyeing her next election. Abrams told Politico she's considering a U.S. Senate race against Sen. David Perdue (R) in 2020.

* In Wisconsin, state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) defended his party's power-grab yesterday by saying Republicans "don't trust" Gov.-elect Tony Evers "right now." What Fitzgerald doesn't appear to appreciate is that he needs to trust the state's voters, too.

* A month after Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) was re-elected despite being under federal criminal indictment, a judge yesterday set a trial date of Sept. 10 for the Republican congressman.

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The Republican National Committee headquarters, Sept. 9, 2014. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

In the wake of defeat, Republicans see no reason to change

12/04/18 11:05AM

As things stand, House Democrats won at least 40 seats in this year's midterm elections. They flipped seven governors' offices. Democrats lost a little ground in the U.S. Senate, but even here, Republicans fell short of their own expectations. There's ample public polling that shows the GOP agenda, such as it is, features a series of woefully unpopular ideas.

Ron Brownstein had an interesting conversation with Bill Kristol the other day in which Brownstein said, 'I am stunned by how little debate and discussion there has been by Republicans about the extent of their suburban wipeout.... I think they should be more alarmed than they are."

That would require some introspection. The New York Times reported yesterday, however, that Republicans leaders have shown little interest in "self-examination ... about why a midterm that had seemed at least competitive became a rout."

President Trump has brushed aside questions about the loss of the chamber entirely, ridiculing losing incumbents by name, while continuing to demand Congress fund a border wall despite his party losing many of their most diverse districts. Unlike their Democratic counterparts, Republicans swiftly elevated their existing slate of leaders with little debate, signaling a continuation of their existing political strategy.

And neither Speaker Paul D. Ryan nor Representative Kevin McCarthy, the incoming minority leader, have stepped forward to confront why the party's once-loyal base of suburban supporters abandoned it -- and what can be done to win them back.

New York's Elise Stefanik, one of only six U.S. House Republicans still serving in states north of Pennsylvania, told the Times, "There has been close to no introspection in the G.O.P. conference and really no coming to grips with the shifting demographics that get to why we lost those seats."

All of this suggests Republicans are content to look at the 2018 results as a fluke, if not a triumph. The intra-party goal isn't to fix what ails the GOP, bur rather, to simply ignore the party's problems and wait for the political winds to change direction.

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The Pentagon, the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, Arlington County, Virginia.

Since when does Trump believe current military spending is 'crazy'?

12/04/18 10:06AM

A few months ago, when Bob Woodward's latest book was published, Donald Trump's White House team seemed eager to push back against the book's damaging revelations. To that end, officials in the West Wing tried to prove that the president is mentally stable by pointing to a lengthy list of Trump's "accomplishments."

It was an underwhelming inventory of developments, some of which the president had little to do with, but it included a memorable boast: Trump, the document said, "secured record $700 billion dollars in military funding; $716 billion next year."

As far as the White House is concerned, defense spending counts as an "accomplishment." It made yesterday's rhetorical turn quite odd.

President Donald Trump on Monday said that the U.S., China and Russia would "at some time in the future" begin talks to end what he described as an uncontrollable arms race, and declared U.S. defense spending "crazy!"

The statement marks a dramatic reversal for the president, who has championed increased spending on the military and in August signed a colossal defense spending bill.

Even by this president's standards, yesterday's rhetoric was weird. I read the transcript of pretty much every Trump speech in the run-up to the midterm elections, and he was routinely eager to tout defense spending -- usually in dishonest ways -- as evidence of his greatness.

Now the president believes this same spending is "crazy"? Since when?

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Protesters gather outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011.

Wisconsin Republicans want to 'maximize their control and minimize yours'

12/04/18 09:20AM

After years in which Republicans dominated Wisconsin politics, including Donald Trump narrowly winning the state in 2016, Wisconsin turned pretty "blue" this year. Voters elected a Democratic governor, re-elected a Democratic U.S. senator, re-elected a Democratic secretary of state, and elected a Democratic state attorney general. Even in the state legislature, Democratic candidates easily won the most votes.

As we discussed yesterday, Wisconsin Republicans have responded to the election results with truly radical tactics, scrambling to approve a new power-grab before Dems take office in the new year. The agenda is as brazen as it is aggressive, targeting voting rights, election results, and the powers of state offices the GOP will no longer control.

But as important as the details are, there are principles at stake that have to matter in a healthy political system. The editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel tends to be rather conservative, but it published an editorial this morning condemning the Republicans' over-the-top tactics, describing the GOP's gambit as a "private power play, engineered in secret, to maximize their control and minimize yours."

This is about keeping the citizens in charge of their government.

It doesn't matter which party is coming in and going out of office — we would say the exact same thing. In fact, we would shout it -- just as we are now.

Let them know who's boss. Tell them you are.

The problem with the Wisconsin Republicans' power-grab is not that it's anti-Democratic; the tragedy is that it's anti-democratic.

To hear GOP leaders in Madison tell it, the will of the people matters, unless it conflicts with Republicans' quest for power, at which point it becomes subservient to GOP demands.

The message has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer: the people of Wisconsin are not in charge, Republicans are. If that means defying election results and rigging state laws, so be it.

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Trump's emoluments headache is poised to get a whole lot worse

12/04/18 08:40AM

The U.S. Constitution includes a once-obscure provision known as the "Emoluments Clause." As regular readers know, the law is pretty straightforward: U.S. officials are prohibited from receiving payments from foreign governments. Traditionally, this hasn't been much of a problem for sitting American presidents -- but with Donald Trump things are a little different.

After all, this president has refused to divest from his private-sector enterprises, which means he continues to personally profit from businesses that receive payments from foreign governments.

The problem isn't theoretical: Saudi Arabia, for example, spent roughly $270,000 at Trump's Washington hotel during one of the country's lobbying campaigns last year. Some of that money directly benefited the president.

This legally dubious dynamic has been the target of multiple lawsuits, one of which is poised to become even more interesting. The Associated Press reported late yesterday:

The attorneys general of the District of Columbia and Maryland said Monday that they are moving forward with subpoenas for records in their case accusing President Donald Trump of profiting off the presidency.

U.S. District Court Judge Peter J. Messitte approved the legal discovery schedule in an order Monday. Such information would likely provide the first clear picture of the finances of Trump's Washington, D.C., hotel.

When the attorneys general of Maryland and D.C. filed suit, they had to clear some hurdles that could've scuttled their case. For example, a judge had to agree they had the necessary standing to even file the case, and they cleared that hurdle in March.

The plaintiffs then had to prove that the Emoluments Clause applied to this kind of presidential private-sector venture. The judge sided in their favor on this, too.

And now, as part of the discovery process, the plaintiffs want to "interview Trump Organization employees and search company records to determine which foreign countries have spent money at Trump's hotel in downtown Washington."

Whether that'll happen, however, is still the subject of some controversy.

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File photo taken in November 2017 shows U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Trump's 'incredible deal' with China doesn't appear to exist

12/04/18 08:00AM

For those concerned about the effects of Donald Trump's trade war, the developments at the G-20 summit offered at least some relief. The American president was prepared to impose a sweeping new round of tariffs on China on Jan. 1, but after talks with President Xi Jinping, both countries agreed to a pause, allowing negotiations to continue.

It was, for all intents and purposes, a temporary cease fire. And yet, Trump quickly hailed the developments as "an incredible deal."

Indeed, the Republican continued to gush about a trade breakthrough that only he could see. "Farmers will be a a [sic] very BIG and FAST beneficiary of our deal with China," Trump wrote on Twitter, adding, "China has agreed to reduce and remove tariffs on cars coming into China from the U.S. Currently the tariff is 40%."

As the New York Times  reported, no one seems to have any idea what the American president was talking about.

The disclosure took trade watchers and auto industry figures in both countries by surprise. The issue of auto tariffs had not appeared in either government's public statement after the trade war truce.

Even White House officials who were in the meeting with Mr. Xi were not sure what Mr. Trump meant. Peter Navarro, one of Mr. Trump's top trade advisers, said on NPR that the subject came up, but he could offer no details. Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, acknowledged to reporters in a briefing that he was uncertain what Mr. Trump was referring to but said he hoped all the tariffs will eventually reach zero.

"We don't have a specific agreement on that," he said.

So when the president announced publicly that China "has agreed to reduce and remove tariffs on cars coming into China from the U.S.," Trump was either badly confused about a policy he really ought to understand or he was lying.

The "incredible deal" the Republican is so proud of doesn't appear to exist in reality.

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