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Monday's Mini-Report, 2.4.19

02/04/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Usually, it's innocent people who try to clear their names: "In an emotional meeting with his Cabinet Monday morning, [Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam] asked for time to clear his name. Cabinet members said they'd give it to him, though some wanted to know how much time - a question that wasn't answered, according to two people with knowledge of the discussion. Some members questioned how he could go forward effectively, but the majority said they were willing to stick with him."

* Speaking of the commonwealth: "Virginia's state government was thrown into further chaos on Monday as Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax emphatically denied a sexual assault allegation more than a decade old."

* Trump sure does like this guy: "President Donald Trump on Saturday named Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson as chief medical adviser and assistant to the president. Jackson, the president's former physician and once his nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs ... was also nominated for a promotion to a two-star admiral on Friday."

* In case you missed this one over the weekend: "Deutsche Bank AG rebuffed a request from the Trump Organization in March 2016 to increase a loan for the Trump National Doral, a Florida golf resort, because of concerns about expanding the bank's relationship with then-candidate Donald Trump or his company, according to people familiar with the matter."

* Depending on how next year's elections go, ideas like these may become quite important: "After years of Republican-led debate over how to pare back Social Security's rising costs, Democrats are flipping the script with an ambitious plan to expand the New Deal-era social insurance program while making gradual changes to keep it solvent for the rest of the century."

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The White House grounds are covered in snow after a winter storm hit Washington, DC on Feb. 17, 2015. (Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty)

Trump taps former oil industry lobbyist to lead Interior Dept

02/04/19 04:02PM

It's become a stale punch-line, but there was a time when Donald Trump's vow to "drain the swamp" was one of his signature campaign promises. He was always a little vague about the meaning of the phrase, though it was widely seen as an outsider's vow to clean up the nation's capital.

To that end, as regular readers know, Trump told voters how tired he was of everyone in D.C. "being controlled by the special interests and the lobbyists." At one point, he went so far as to say he'd have "no problem" banning lobbyists from his administration altogether.

So much for that idea.

President Donald Trump will nominate David Bernhardt to be the new Interior secretary, ending the search for a permanent replacement for Ryan Zinke.

Zinke exited the agency in December amid multiple scandals and ethics investigations. Bernhardt will still have to woo support from senators who oppose the Trump Interior Department's policies, including its attempts to expand oil and gas drilling in coastal waters and parts of the Arctic that had long been off the table.

As the Politico report noted, Bernhardt is a former oil lobbyist.

In fact, while serving as a deputy to Ryan Zinke, Bernhardt had so many conflicts of interest, the Washington Post  reported last year that he had to "carry a small card listing them all," because he "worked for years as a lobbyist representing many of the very businesses he now regulates."

Bernhardt will join the former lobbyist Trump tapped to oversee the White House Domestic Policy Council, the former coal lobbyist whom Trump nominated to lead the EPA, and the former executive at a major defense contractor who's currently leading the Pentagon.

And those are just some of the recent employment moves, and doesn't include the months of related personnel decisions. Remember this New York Times report from April 2017?

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Image: U.S. President Trump holds a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington

Trump claims cabinet 'flexibility' he's not supposed to have

02/04/19 12:46PM

The Constitution spells out a fairly straightforward process for a White House cabinet: a president nominates someone for a position, the Senate considers the nominee, and members vote on whether to confirm the selection or not. It's a model that's served the United States well for quite a while.

Donald Trump's approach is a little different. As things stand, this president has an acting attorney general and an acting Defense secretary, neither of whom has been confirmed. Trump also has an acting Interior secretary, an acting United Nations ambassador, an acting budget director, an acting EPA administrator, and an acting White House chief of staff.

"I sort of like 'acting,'" he told reporters a month ago. "It gives me more flexibility." In his interview with "Face the Nation," the president told CBS News' Margaret Brennan something similar.

BRENNAN: You have an acting AG until you get [William] Barr confirmed--


BRENNAN: An acting defense secretary. An acting chief of staff. An acting interior secretary.

TRUMP. It's OK. It's easier to make moves when they're acting.... Really, I like acting because I can move so quickly. It gives me more flexibility.

He went to pretend that he asked retired Gen. James Mattis to resign, which is wholly at odds with everything we know about the former Pentagon chief's departure.

Regardless, it's curious to see Trump suggest there are two equally legitimate approaches to cabinet secretaries -- the one described by the Constitution, and the "flexible" one that works better for him -- as if it's up to him to pick the model he likes.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.4.19

02/04/19 12:00PM

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

* The latest Emerson poll of Iowa Democrats found former Vice President Joe Biden leading the Democratic pack with 29% support. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) was second with 19%, while Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) weren't far behind.

* Speaking of Warren, the Massachusetts senator reportedly made a private apology to Cherokee Nation for her decision to release the results of a DNA test on her ancestry.

* A story out of Michigan to keep an eye on: "A lawsuit alleging partisan gerrymandering by Michigan's Republican-led Legislature is heading toward trial next week after a three-judge panel rejected a settlement proposed by Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and plaintiffs."

* Donald Trump's re-election campaign managed to spend more in the fourth quarter of 2018 than it took in, but the president's busy travel schedule ahead of the midterm elections probably had a lot to do with the shortfall.

* Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) formally kicked off her 2020 presidential campaign over the weekend. Though the congresswoman is generally seen as a longshot, NBC News reported that Gabbard is receiving support from the "Russian propaganda machine that tried to influence the 2016 U.S. election."

* It's no secret that Senate Republican leaders are encouraging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to give up his current post and run for Kansas' open U.S. Senate seat next year. Trump told CBS News he believes Pompeo won't leave his current post.

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Convinced of his own greatness, Trump rejects possibility of impeachment

02/04/19 11:23AM

A month ago today, during one of only a few conversations with Democratic congressional leaders about the government shutdown, Donald Trump began the meeting with "a 15-minute profanity-laced rant about impeachment."

No one could say with confidence what prompted the tirade -- the threat of impeachment wasn't the point of the meeting, and no one had brought up the subject before the president did -- but Trump's harangue was emblematic of his preoccupation with the subject.

The Republican's argument against impeachment, however, still needs some work.

President Trump says that the "only way" Democrats could possibly win in 2020 is to "bring out the artificial way of impeachment." But in an exclusive interview with "Face the Nation" moderator Margaret Brennan, the president defended his leadership of the country, saying "you can't impeach somebody for doing the best job of any president, in the history of our country, for the first two years."

There are quite a few problems with this, but let's focus on the two most obvious concerns.

The first is Trump's apparent confusion about the nature of the process. In his mind, if a president is doing a great job, he or she "can't" be impeached. In other words, he's convinced that impeachment is reserved for bad and unaccomplished presidents.

That's not how any of this works. Successful presidents can commit high crimes; woeful presidents can be innocent of any wrongdoing. We're talking about two tracks that do not intersect.

The second is that Trump has an oddly misplaced confidence about how awesome his awesomeness has been.

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Leaked schedules help prove that Trump isn't working hard

02/04/19 10:47AM

When Donald Trump sat down with the New York Times last week, Maggie Haberman asked the president whether he might walk away from politics rather than seek a second term. Trump's answer meandered a bit, before concluding, "I love doing it. I don't know if I should love doing it, but I love doing it."

It seems very easy to believe that he loves being president. Whether Trump loves doing the work that presidents are supposed to do is an altogether separate question.

With this in mind, Axios published an interesting scoop over the weekend.

A White House source has leaked nearly every day of President Trump's private schedule for the past three months.

This unusually voluminous leak gives us unprecedented visibility into how this president spends his days. The schedules, which cover nearly every working day since the midterms, show that Trump has spent around 60% of his scheduled time over the past 3 months in unstructured "Executive Time."

We've known for a while that "executive time" is the euphemism of choice in this White House to describe Trump's many hours of down time, leaving the president to do as he pleases, including watching an inordinate amount of television.

Note, these private schedules don't necessarily reflect a quiet part of the year, such as the time the Republican spends at a resort in August. Rather, they point to a three-month period in which Trump has experienced a significant cabinet shake-up, announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, and shut down much of the federal government for five weeks.

Whether this dynamic is encouraging or discouraging -- would Trump do more damage if he took his job more seriously? -- is a matter of perspective. Either way, as we discussed a few months ago, presidential descriptions of all the "hard work" he does are very difficult to take seriously.

But while it's important for the public to realize that this president just doesn't seem to work especially hard, let's not miss the forest for the trees: these disclosures are themselves emblematic of the deep dysfunction that continues to plague this White House.

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Image: Senate Judiciary Committee

To defend against scandal, Trump points to non-existent 'Mueller report'

02/04/19 10:05AM

In the "Face the Nation" interview that aired yesterday, CBS News' Margaret Brennan asked Donald Trump about Roger Stone's recent arrest and the prospect of a pardon. The president, not surprisingly, pretended Stone was a meaningless figure in his political operation and said he hasn't considered the prospect of a pardon.

It led to this exchange about a possible report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller:

BRENNAN: Would you make the Mueller report public because you say there's nothing in there? Congress can subpoena it anyway, though.

TRUMP: Totally up to the attorney general.

BRENNAN: But what do you want them to do?

TRUMP: Even the Mueller report said it had nothing to do with the campaign.

The back and forth continued a while longer, culminating in the president saying, in reference to public disclosure of a Mueller report, "It depends. I have no idea what it's going to say."

From there, viewers heard the usual palaver about "witch hunts" and the absence of "collusion."

But while Trump's rhetoric about the issue was itself notable, it might be worth pausing on the president's reference to "the Mueller report" and what Trump believes it says -- because, as far we know, there is no such thing as a Mueller report, and if there were, there's no reason to think the president would know what it says.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Does Trump's 'willful ignorance' on national security create new risks?

02/04/19 09:20AM

In a "Face the Nation" interview that aired yesterday, CBS News' Margaret Brennan asked Donald Trump if he's prepared to "trust the intelligence" he receives from his own national security team. In a normal administration, the question might've seemed bizarre. In this president's administration, no one could be sure of the answer.

Trump said in response, "I am going to trust the intelligence that I'm putting there." I haven't the foggiest idea what that is supposed to mean.

Soon after, in the same interview, the host noted that the administration's intelligence chiefs have concluded that Iran is abiding by the terms of the international nuclear agreement. "I disagree with them," Trump replied, indifferent to the fact that his team's assessment was based on facts, and his disagreement was based on his preferred version of reality.

The Republican went on to argue, "I have intel people, but that doesn't mean I have to agree. President Bush had intel people that said Saddam Hussein in Iraq had nuclear weapons, had all sorts of weapons of mass destruction. Guess what? Those intel people didn't know what the hell they were doing, and they got us tied up in a war that we should have never been in."

Trump, however, learned the wrong lesson from George W. Bush's presidency. To the current president, Iraq offers proof that American intelligence professionals are unreliable. In reality, Iraq offers proof of what happens when a White House pressures intelligence agencies to produce results intended to bolster preconceived ideas and political agendas.

Or put another way, what went wrong in the Bush/Cheney era is eerily similar to what's happening now. Time magazine published a brutal report along these lines over the weekend.

In the wake of President Donald Trump's renewed attacks on the U.S. intelligence community this week, senior intelligence briefers are breaking two years of silence to warn that the President is endangering American security with what they say is a stubborn disregard for their assessments.

Citing multiple in-person episodes, these intelligence officials say Trump displays what one called "willful ignorance" when presented with analyses generated by America's $81 billion-a-year intelligence services. The officials, who include analysts who prepare Trump's briefs and the briefers themselves, describe futile attempts to keep his attention by using visual aids, confining some briefing points to two or three sentences, and repeating his name and title as frequently as possible.

Wait, it gets worse.

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For now, Virginia's Northam defies calls for his resignation

02/04/19 08:40AM

In the field of political crisis management, there's a school of thought that says, simply, "Never resign." The intensity of scandals fade, attention shifts, and coverage that first appeared on the front page slowly works its way to the middle of the A section. Those who ignore the pressure have a non-zero chance of surviving, and plenty of consultants will encourage politicians to take full advantage of those odds.

As of this morning, this appears to reflect how Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is approaching his current circumstances. That said, as the Washington Post  reported overnight, that posture may yet change.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) called an unscheduled senior staff meeting Sunday night just before the start of the Super Bowl, as the governor considered resigning after two days of defiance amid a controversy over a racist photo in his medical school yearbook.

People familiar with the meeting said the governor had not reached a decision. It was unclear who was present, but the group included senior staffers of color. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), who would become governor if Northam resigned, was not there, the people said.

The meeting came at the end of a dizzying 48-hour period. On Friday afternoon, the public learned of the instantly infamous racist photograph in Northam's medical-school yearbook. On Friday night, the governor apologized for the photo. On Saturday afternoon, the Virginia Democrat hosted a press conference in which he denied being in the picture, acknowledged a different incident in which he wore blackface, complained about the challenge of removing shoe polish, and briefly considered dancing.

Northam nevertheless said he intended to remain in office.

That was not a popular position. The list of Democratic officials, leaders, and organizations calling for his ouster is overwhelming, creating conditions that the governor is very likely to find unsurvivable.

Indeed, the core challenge facing Northam as he weighs his future is the simple fact that there is no compelling defense.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump participates in a roundtable discussion with African American business and civic leaders, Sept. 2, 2016, in Philadelphia, Pa. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

Asked about his unpopular record on race, Trump points to wrong metric

02/04/19 08:00AM

CBS News recently conducted a national poll asking Americans if they approve of the way Donald Trump is handling race issues. It wasn't close: 63% of the country disapproves.

Perhaps the only surprise is that the total wasn't higher. Even if we put aside Trump having championed a racist conspiracy theory before launching his political career, and even if we briefly overlook his racist antics during his 2016 campaign, the Republican's record on the issue since becoming president has been tough to defend.

It was against this backdrop that "Face the Nation" host Margaret Brennan asked Trump for his reaction to the network's poll during an interview that aired yesterday.

TRUMP: What has happened is very interesting. The economy is so good right now. You saw the jobs report just came out. Three hundred and four thousand added jobs, which is a shocker, for the month. A shocker to a lot of people. They thought it was going to be half that number. The African Americans have the best employment numbers in the history of our country.... So I think I've been given a lot of credit for that. And in terms of race, a lot of people are saying, "Well, this is something very special what's happening."

BRENNAN: So -- because when colleagues of yours, even like Republican Senator Tim Scott. He said Donald Trump is not racist. But he said you're racially insensitive.

TRUMP: I have a great relationship with Tim and certainly with his state, South Carolina, and -- where we do very well. And I think if you look at the numbers for African-American unemployment, best numbers they've had -- literally the best numbers they've had in history. And I think they like me a lot and I like them a lot.

Why the president referred to African Americans as "the African Americans" wasn't altogether clear.

Regardless, there were a couple of problems with the exchange, starting with the disconnect between the question and the answer.

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