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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 11.28.18

11/28/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Saudi lobbying didn't work this time: "Following a contentious administration briefing about the war in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Senate voted to advance a measure that would tie the hands of President Donald Trump's foreign policy as it relates to Saudi Arabia."

* They weren't persuasive, either: "Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Wednesday that there was no definitive proof that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was linked to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, backing up President Donald Trump who has defended the Saudi kingdom as a critical ally."

* Inviting a crisis: "Senate Republicans blocked a vote on a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller on Wednesday, despite a threat from a GOP senator to hold up judicial nominees until action is taken on the measure."

* The Fed: "Stocks surged on Wednesday after investors took comments by the Federal Reserve chairman, Jerome H. Powell, to mean that the central bank could be closer than expected to ending its current push to lift interest rates. But some analysts warned that markets were overreacting to Mr. Powell's remarks."

* I'm always fascinated by acts of self-sabotage: "The UK would be significantly worse off under all possible Brexit scenarios in 15 years' time, according to a benchmark economic analysis produced by a range of government departments including the Treasury."

* Irresponsible: "The Trump administration has put the safety of thousands of teens at a migrant detention camp at risk by waiving FBI fingerprint checks for their caregivers and short-staffing mental health workers, according to an Associated Press investigation and a new federal watchdog report."

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Image: FILE PHOTO: Manafort departs U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia

Trump refuses to rule out the possibility of a pardon for Manafort

11/28/18 04:06PM

In one corner, we see Special Counsel Robert Mueller pressuring Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's felonious former campaign chairman. In the other corner, we see the president himself, who seemed to send his former aide a not-so-subtle signal during an interview today with the New York Post.

He's never discussed a pardon for Paul Manafort, President Trump said Wednesday — but it's "not off the table."

"It was never discussed, but I wouldn't take it off the table. Why would I take it off the table?" the president said during an Oval Office interview on Wednesday.

Trump added, "You know, this flipping stuff is terrible." It remains deeply odd to see a president repeatedly condemn a common and effective law-enforcement tool.

In the same interview, Trump went on to say, "I'm telling you, this is McCarthyism. We are in the McCarthy era. This is no better than McCarthy. And that was a bad situation for the country. But this is where we are. And it's a terrible thing,"

Every time the president tries to talk about McCarthyism, which is often, it's worth noting that Trump doesn't understand the issue nearly as well as he thinks he does.

Regardless, these new comments are brazen -- and by some measures, scandalous -- for a specific reason.

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Image: US House of Representatives passes short-term measure to fund the government

Senate GOP advances one of Trump's most controversial judicial nominees

11/28/18 02:23PM

To defeat Thomas Farr's judicial nomination, Senate Democrats needed just two Republicans to break ranks and oppose one of Donald Trump's most controversial picks for the federal bench. In the end, they fell one vote short.

Raleigh attorney Thomas Farr moved one step closer to final confirmation to become a district judge in the Eastern District of North Carolina. With Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote, the Senate agreed to limit debate on Farr's nomination, setting up a final vote Thursday.

President Donald Trump nominated the 64-year-old Farr to be a U.S. District Court Judge in the Eastern District of North Carolina in 2017 and again earlier this year. Though Farr cleared a Senate committee in January, his nomination has languished in the Senate -- as Democrats and civil rights groups hammered him as hostile to voting rights for blacks.

The entire Democratic caucus opposed Farr, as did Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who's vowed to oppose all nominees until the Senate votes on his bipartisan bill to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), seemed to struggle with the vote, and paused the process for quite a while, before eventually voting the way his party wanted him to.

The result was a 50-50 tie, which Pence broke.

It's important to emphasize that this was a procedural vote to end the floor debate, not a final confirmation vote. But to defeat Farr's nomination, one of the 50 Republicans who voted "aye" this afternoon would have to change his or her mind before tomorrow. Since that appears unlikely, he'll almost certainly be confirmed.

And for Farr's many critics, that's a bit of a disaster. Trump has sent some offensive nominees to the Senate for lifetime positions on the federal bench, but few district court nominees have faced this kind of criticism.

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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 inconsistencies and contradictions leave China 'confused'

11/28/18 12:42PM

Donald Trump is scheduled to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit on Saturday in Buenos Aires, and a reporter asked the American president how he's preparing for the talks in the midst of an escalating trade dispute.

"I'm very prepared," the famously unprepared president declared. "I've been preparing for it all my life. You know, it's not like, 'Oh, gee, I'm going to sit down and study.' I know every ingredient. I know every stat. I know it better than anybody knows it.... It's not a question of preparing."

One starts to get the impression that Trump isn't a homework kind of guy.

Regardless, the New York Times reports that the Republican has begun rethinking his negotiating position.

President Trump is projecting a steely facade as he prepares for a critical meeting on trade this weekend with President Xi Jinping of China. But behind his tough talk and threats of higher tariffs is a creeping anxiety about the costs of a prolonged trade war on the financial markets and the broader economy.

That could set the stage for a truce between the United States and China, several American officials said, in the form of an agreement that would delay new tariffs for several months while the world's two largest economies try to work out the issues dividing them.

That would almost certainly be a positive development for all involved, though working out "the issues dividing them" is tougher than it sounds -- in part because there's no meaningful agreement about what those issues are.

In an interview this week with the Wall Street Journal, Trump was asked what, specifically, he'd like to see Beijing do. The American president said, over and over again, that he wants a "fair deal," but when pressed to explain what that might look like, Trump said effectively nothing.

The problem is not limited to the president. Annie Lowery recently wrote for The Atlantic that Chinese trade negotiators are "confused" by the Trump administration and its position: "American officials raise issues only to later drop them. They contradict one another. The ideological warfare within the White House, as well as the lack of experience on the international economic team, has left China and others unsure of U.S. policy, or even its goals."

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.28.18

11/28/18 12:00PM

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

* In Mississippi's U.S. Senate runoff, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) ended up defeating Mike Espy (D), 53% to 46%. The seven-point margin means this is another key contest in which Democrats over-performed relative to recent cycles.

* House Democrats will meet today for a closed-door caucus meeting at which members will nominate a leadership team. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is expected to fare well, with the more significant challenge slated for Jan. 3, when the new Congress officially elects a new House Speaker.

* The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reason to be pleased with this year's election results, but they came at a cost: the DCCC is now facing $18 million in debt. Their Republican counterparts, meanwhile, have a $12 million debt.

* Donald Trump retweeted four anti-Hillary Clinton messages this morning, including one from a fake Mike Pence account. For those keeping score, Election Day 2016 was 750 days ago.

* The Washington Post reports that appointed Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) isn't expected to remain on Capitol Hill much longer, though there's some debate in Republican circles over who should replace him. GOP leaders reportedly prefer former Rep. Martha McSally (R), who lost her Senate bid earlier this month, though Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) isn't so sure.

* Though I'm not sure I'd go this far, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told Hugh Hewitt yesterday, "Texas is no longer, I believe, a reliably red state. We are on the precipice of turning purple." Cornyn is up for re-election in two years.

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Image: FILE PHOTO: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein speaks at a news conference

Trump promotes tweet targeting Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein

11/28/18 11:20AM

Donald Trump has long been a little too fond of throwing around the word "treason," though he took his interest in the subject in an unsettling direction.

This seemed to start in January, when he falsely accused a pair of FBI officials of having committed treason. A month later, while whining that Democrats failed to applaud his State of the Union address to his satisfaction, the president said "they certainly didn't seem to love our country very much" -- and then raised the prospect of Democratic "treason."

In the months that followed, Trump suggested -- over and over and over again -- that news organizations may be guilty of "treason" by covering the news in a way he disapproves of.

All of which brings us to the president's Twitter use this morning.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday morning retweeted a meme calling for a number of prominent Democrats and law enforcement and intelligence officials to be imprisoned.

Behind text that reads, "NOW THAT RUSSIA COLLUSION IS A PROVEN LIE, WHEN DO THE TRIALS FOR TREASON BEGIN?" the meme features images of special counsel Robert Mueller, Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Hillary Clinton, former Attorney General Eric Holder, Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former President Bill Clinton, former FBI Director James Comey, and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, all behind bars.

The president's interest in incarcerating Hillary Clinton has never been subtle -- "lock her up" remains a staple of Trump's rallies -- but his promotion of this tweet suggests his list of prosecutorial targets is quite long.

There's obviously no point in trying to fact-check this nonsense, but of all the images included in the message the president retweeted, one stood out as particularly important.

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Trump says his 'gut' is more reliable than everyone else's 'brains'

11/28/18 10:47AM

The Washington Post yesterday asked Donald Trump why he's "skeptical" of his own administration's National Climate Assessment. "One of the problems that a lot of people like myself -- we have very high levels of intelligence, but we're not necessarily such believers," the president said. "You look at our air and our water, and it's right now at a record clean."

This, of course, didn't make any sense -- I'm not at all sure what "a record clean" even means -- though Trump couldn't have cared less. In fact, in the same interview, the Republican offered a peek into his broader perspective. While complaining about the Federal Reserve raising interest rates, Trump added:

"I'm doing deals, and I'm not being accommodated by the Fed. I'm not happy with the Fed. They're making a mistake because I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else's brain can ever tell me."

When looking for Trump quotes that help define who he is and how he operates, one could do worse than focusing on this gem.

The president seems convinced that his instincts and intuition are more valuable than evidence and reason. Indeed, he hasn't been subtle on this point.

In July 2016, for example, Trump conceded that he doesn't often read because he doesn't think he has to. The then-candidate told the Washington Post at the time that he believes he reaches the right decisions "with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words 'common sense,' because I have a lot of common sense."

The arrogance is less a problem than the willful ignorance. Genuine experts can make sensible snap judgments by leaning on their scholarship and experience, but Donald Trump is a hapless amateur whose "gut" instincts are based on little more than Fox News segments he sometimes struggles to understand.

It'd be one thing if the president, realizing that he's in over his head, turned to subject-matter experts to help guide him through incredibly difficult challenges, but Trump does the opposite. He's convinced himself that his "gut" tells him more than "anybody else's brain" could ever tell him.

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As shutdown deadline looms, Trump sees border wall as a 'total winner'

11/28/18 10:04AM

It's one of those developments that sits on the calendar like an unpleasant dental procedure. You know it's coming, but all things considered, you'd prefer not to think too much about it.

I'm referring, of course, to the next government shutdown deadline, which is just nine days away. There are 12 spending bills that fund the federal government, and five have already passed. But if the other seven -- which cover everything from the State Department to federal law enforcement to the Department of Homeland Security -- aren't addressed by a week from Friday, much of the government will shut down (again).

So, what's the sticking point? As Donald Trump told Politico, he's still expecting Congress to fund his proposed border wall.

Nine days ahead of a deadline that could trigger a partial government shutdown, with no solution in sight, the president told POLITICO in a Tuesday Oval Office interview that he is unflinchingly firm Congress must send him a bill approving $5 billion for his wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, and said he would "totally be willing" to shut down the government if he doesn't get it. Democratic leaders -- including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) -- have said they would approve $1.6 billion for the wall, placing the two sides billions of dollars apart as the lame-duck session begins.

Raising the stakes even higher for the GOP, Trump said the $5 billion would only cover the physical border. "The number is larger for border security," he said.

"I don't do anything ... just for political gain," Trump told Politico. "But I will tell you, politically speaking, that issue is a total winner. People look at the border, they look at the rush to the police, they look at the rock throwers and really hurting three people, three very brave border patrol folks -- I think that it's a tremendous issue, but much more importantly, is really needed. So we have to have border security."

Let's unpack this a bit because the prospect of another shutdown is quite real.

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The Arizona-Mexico border fence near Naco, Ariz., March 29, 2013.

Data on undocumented immigrants shreds Trump's talking points

11/28/18 09:21AM

Ask Republican voters whether the deficit got bigger or smaller during Barack Obama's presidency, and they'll say it grew. Ask them if the unemployment rate was lower or higher when Obama left office compared to when he started, and they'll again point to the worse result. And ask them if illegal border crossings went up or down during Obama's tenure, and Republicans would no doubt say the number went up.

In reality, after eight years of Obama's presidency, the deficit shrank, the jobless rate vastly improved, and the number of undocumented immigrants fell to its lowest point in over a decade.

The number of people living in the United States without legal permission fell to 10.7 million in 2016, the lowest number in more than a decade, according to the non-partisan Pew Research Center.

The drop from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007 is almost entirely attributable to a sharp drop in the number of Mexicans entering the country without legal authorization, according to Pew's report released Tuesday.

The last time the number of people in the country illegally was that low was 2004.

The full report from the Pew Research Center is online here. It covers data through 2016, which is the most recent year for which all of the figures are available.

Given that 2016 was two years ago, some might suggest that reports like these are of limited political utility during a debate over immigration policy. I disagree.

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The General Motors logo is displayed. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Why Trump's threats of retaliation against GM ring hollow

11/28/18 08:40AM

Donald Trump's assurances about growth in the auto industry looked quite foolish this week when General Motors announced plans to shutter three assembly plants and two other facilities, while eliminating an estimated 14,700 jobs. The president has decided to respond with a series of threats.

In one interview this week, Trump said he told GM's Mary Barra, "You're playing around with the wrong person." Referring to a plant in Ohio, the president claims to have added, "It's not going to be closed for long, I hope, Mary, because if it is you've got a problem."

Yesterday, the oblique threats became more explicit.

"Very disappointed with General Motors and their CEO, Mary Barra, for closing plants in Ohio, Michigan and Maryland," the president tweeted.

"Nothing being closed in Mexico & China. The U.S. saved General Motors, and this is the THANKS we get! We are now looking at cutting all @GM subsidies, including for electric cars. General Motors made a big China bet years ago when they built plants there (and in Mexico) -- don't think that bet is going to pay off. I am here to protect America's Workers!"

The presidential attempts at intimidation took a quick toll on General Motors' stock price, though the company itself did not respond publicly.

To be sure, there is a relevant policy at issue: current federal tax law allows electric-vehicle consumers to receive a $7,500 tax credit. In theory, every auto manufacturer can benefit from this, but GM in particular has been among the biggest beneficiaries.

But whether Trump knows this or not, his threat comes with a big asterisk.

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