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Image: FILE PHOTO: EPA Administrator Pruitt testifies before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington

Billionaire's support for EPA's Pruitt was 'believed to be in cash'

12/07/18 11:20AM

When EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was forced to resign in disgrace over the summer, he left under unusually ugly circumstances. As regular readers may recall, the Oklahoma Republican, tapped to lead an agency whose mission he opposed, was the subject of 15 federal investigations and stood accused of being one of the most corrupt cabinet officials in modern history.

Pruitt may no longer be a member of Donald Trump's cabinet, but Pruitt's controversies are ongoing. E&E News, which covers the energy sector, reported yesterday on a new Pruitt disclosure: billionaire Republican donor Diane Hendricks apparently gave the former EPA chief $50,000 for his legal defense fund.

Pruitt set up the fund as he battled with ethics allegations that eventually led to his resignation from EPA. The report, also known as his termination report, covers Pruitt's finances for the 2018 calendar year up to his departure from the agency in early July.

Included on the report is a note from Justina Fugh, a senior EPA ethics official, saying Pruitt did not seek ethics advice from EPA before accepting the contribution from Hendricks. In addition, "EPA ethics officials did not know of this contribution -- believed to be in cash -- until they received the termination report."

It's worth emphasizing that "cash" can have different meanings depending on context. In corporate mergers, for example, we'll often see references to "cash," but it doesn't refer to literal paper currency.

That said, if the scandal-plagued EPA administrator received $50,000 "in cash" from a billionaire Republican donor, that seems like the sort of thing the authorities should examine in some detail.

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Tillerson: Trump's instructions were often at odds with the law

12/07/18 10:48AM

Nine months after his departure from Donald Trump's cabinet, there's been an evolution to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's criticisms of his former boss. Initially, Tillerson expressed his frustrations in private, telling colleagues after a Pentagon briefing that he considers Trump a "f**king moron."

In May, the nation's former chief diplomat hinted at his concerns publicly, though obliquely. In a commencement speech at the Virginia Military Institute, Tillerson condemned the nation's "growing crisis in ethics and integrity" and leaders who "conceal the truth." Observers had a hunch to whom he was referring, though the president's name wasn't used explicitly.

Last night at an event in Houston, Tillerson went a little further still in explaining why he and Trump didn't see eye to eye. The Houston Chronicle reported:

Tillerson said the two had starkly different styles and did not share a common value system.

"So often, the president would say here's what I want to do and here's how I want to do it and I would have to say to him, Mr. President I understand what you want to do but you can't do it that way. It violates the law," Tillerson said.

Oh. So, according to the former secretary of state, the president "often" asked him to pursue a foreign policy that was at odds with American law.

Trump's indifference to legal constraints is unsettling, of course, though it's likely an outgrowth of his inexperience and ignorance. Trump is, after all, the nation's first amateur president, taking office despite never having served in the public sector in any way for any amount of time. The presidency was a job he never even tried to understand, and by all appearances, Trump's familiarity with governmental institutions and constraints was, at best, child-like.

The president vowed to govern like a business leader, which very likely contributed to the dynamic Tillerson described: Trump was accustomed to simply barking orders from his private-sector perch and expecting his team to follow his instructions. When he took office and tried to do the same thing from the Oval Office, it fell to his secretary of state to explain that some of his orders simply couldn't be followed under the American system of government.

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Heather Nauert

Trump to nominate former Fox personality for United Nations post

12/07/18 10:09AM

It's been two months since Nikki Haley unexpectedly announced her resignation as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and by all appearances, the process of finding her successor has been a challenging one. There was some chatter about State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, but a week ago, Politico reported she was "out of contention."

Of course, when it comes to Donald Trump's team, the winds can change direction quickly.

President Trump on Friday said that he was nominating State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert to be his next United Nations ambassador.

"Heather Nauert will be nominated for the ambassador to the United Nations," he told reporters. She replaces Nikki Haley, who is set to leave the post at the end of the year.

If Nauert seems familiar, it's not just because of her State Department briefings. It was, after all, just last year when Nauert was a Fox News personality, using her "Fox and Friends" platform to, among other things, endorse Ivanka Trump's branded merchandise.

Soon after, Nauert became the chief spokesperson for the State Department -- because if there's one thing this president values, it's a team with television experience.

Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported that Nauert felt "sidelined" and was prepared to quit, before the White House promoted her to a position with "responsibilities far beyond the regular news conferences she held in the briefing room."

Now, evidently, Trump is prepared to promote her again to one of the nation's highest profile diplomatic posts, despite Nauert's total lack of relevant experience in diplomacy.

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

Wisconsin and the 'If Only Those People Weren't Here' phenomenon

12/07/18 09:20AM

The national electoral trend -- major population centers tend to vote Democratic, more rural areas tend to vote Republican -- was certainly true in this year's elections, especially in Wisconsin, where Dems swept all of the major races, fueled by high turnout in cities like Milwaukee and Madison.

Some GOP leaders in the state have pointed to this dynamic as a rationale to defend their ridiculous power-grab.

Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin Statehouse, drew this distinction even more explicitly after the midterm election.

"If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority," he said. "We would have all five constitutional officers and we would probably have many more seats in the Legislature."

It's a jarring perspective. One of the most powerful officials in Wisconsin's state government suggested that Republicans would maintain their grip on power, if only certain parts of his home state didn't count.

The underlying sentiment pops up with unsettling frequency in contemporary GOP politics. After Hillary Clinton won the presidential election's popular vote two years ago, for example, several on the right acknowledged the result, but said the totals were skewed by the results from populous blue states.

All Americans count, the argument went, but maybe Americans in California and New York shouldn't.

In 2009, Byron York wrote a piece for the Washington Examiner in which he argued that Barack Obama's popularity at the president's 100-day mark should be taken with a grain of salt. York argued at the time that the Democrat's "sky-high ratings among African-Americans make some of his positions appear a bit more popular overall than they actually are."

In other words, to appreciate Obama's "actual" public standing, one would have to exclude African Americans from the national picture.

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Job growth falls short of expectations in November

12/07/18 08:42AM

Ahead of this morning's jobs report, the New York Times  reported that economists expected gains of 190,000. Given recent Wall Street volatility, and chatter about a possible recession on the horizon, a weaker number, the report added, "would do little to soothe anxieties."

With this in mind, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this morning that the economy added 155,000 jobs in November, while the unemployment rate remained steady at 3.7%.

On a related note, the revisions for the two previous months -- September and October -- pointed to a net loss of 12,000.

In terms of the larger context, this morning's data points to 2.27 million jobs created so far in 2018, which is quite good, and which is an improvement on the totals from the first 11 months of 2017 (2.01 million). It's also up over the comparable period from 2016 (2.16 million). That said, this year's tally is still short of the totals from the first 11 months of 2014 (2.75 million) and 2015 (2.46 million).

When the White House says this is the best growth "ever," it apparently means "since a few years ago."

As for the political implications, Donald Trump has now been in office for 22 full months -- February 2017 through November 2018 -- and in that time, the economy has created 4.2 million jobs. In the 22 full months preceding Trump's presidency -- April 2015 to January 2017 -- the economy created 4.74 million jobs.

The White House has not yet offered an explanation for why job growth has slowed since Trump took office.

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US President Donald Trump is greeted by US senatorial candidate Attorney General Josh Hawley upon arrival at Springfield-Branson National Airport in Springfield, Missouri on September 21, 2018.

A month after election, new GOP senator already faces investigation

12/07/18 08:00AM

In one of this year's most closely watched U.S. Senate races, Missouri's Josh Hawley (R) stood out for a candidacy chased by dark clouds. The Republican promised voters, for example, not to use his office as a springboard to a higher office, but then broke that commitment within months of becoming state attorney general. Hawley also lied repeatedly about the anti-health care lawsuit he helped file.

Both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York Times took separate looks at Hawley's tenure as state attorney general, and both painted deeply unflattering portraits, including criticisms from state judges over his office's work.

But he's a Republican in a red state, so voters last month elected Hawley to the U.S. Senate anyway. A month after the election, however, Hawley's most serious controversy is already coming back to haunt him. Usually, senators have to wait a while before they find themselves under investigation, but as the Kansas City Star  reported, the Missouri Republican is already facing a probe -- and he won't even be sworn in for several weeks.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has launched an investigation into a complaint that Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley used public resources in his successful bid for the U.S. Senate.

The American Democracy Legal Fund on Nov. 2 filed a complaint with Ashcroft, claiming that Hawley used out-of-state political consultants to direct the activities of public employees in the attorney general's office to raise Hawley's political profile as he prepared to mount a campaign for U.S. Senate.

"Josh Hawley's flagrant abuse of his taxpayer funded office for his own political gain deserves immediate investigation," said Brad Woodhouse, ADLF president, in a statement. "We're heartened to see Secretary of State Ashcroft give this racket further scrutiny."

Given what we know, "racket" seems like a fair choice of words.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 12.6.18

12/06/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The arrest of Meng Wanzhou carries real international consequences: "China demanded the release of a senior executive at tech giant Huawei Technologies after she was detained in Canada on extradition charges to the U.S."

* I guess we now know about one of the two redacted investigations Flynn is helping with: "Federal prosecutors in Virginia are investigating a secret Turkish lobbying effort that once involved Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser, even as Mr. Flynn's role in the special counsel's investigation winds down, according to people familiar with the inquiry."

* This is exactly the opposite of the result Trump promised: "The trade deficit rose in October to a 10-year high amid a record shortfall with China, keeping the U.S. on pace to record the largest annual gap in a decade."

* Quite a ride: "Wall Street had a rollercoaster ride on Thursday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average swinging from a session low where it was down 784 points, to end the day with a decline of just 77 points."

* Not how democracy is supposed to work: "Republicans in the Wisconsin state Senate rushed to approve 82 of Gov. Scott Walker's appointees, a month after voters chose not to reelect the Republican."

* A striking op-ed in the Miami Herald calling for Labor Secretary Alex Acosta to resign "immediately."

* A striking portrait in the New York Times about an undocumented immigrant, who works at Donald Trump's New Jersey golf course, who's taking a great risk by speaking up.

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An election worker checks a voter's drivers license as North Carolina's controversial "Voter ID" law goes into effect for the state's presidential primary election at a polling place, March 15, 2016,  in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo by Chris Keane/Reuters)

Despite election-fraud scandal, North Carolina advances voter-ID bill

12/06/18 12:49PM

The Republican-majority in North Carolina's General Assembly isn't addressing the election fraud that does exist, but it is addressing the threat of voter fraud that doesn't exist. The News & Observer in Raleigh reports:

The North Carolina General Assembly has finalized legislation implementing the voter photo identification mandate approved in a statewide referendum last month.

The Senate voted 25-7 on Thursday to accept House changes to the measure and sent it to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, a voter ID opponent. Republicans in charge of the legislature can override a Cooper veto if they stay united.

If you're thinking that this sounds vaguely familiar, that's probably because GOP policymakers in the Tar Heel State approved a different voter-ID law in 2013 as part of a package of new voting restrictions. That package was later rejected by the courts, with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2016 that the measure's provisions targeted African Americans "with almost surgical precision."

Donald Trump later nominated the architect of that plan, Thomas Farr, to a lifetime position as a federal judge.

This latest effort isn't quite as offensive -- it allows the use of student-IDs, for example, while the previous iterations did not -- but it will nevertheless almost certainly face resistance from North Carolina's Democratic governor. That said, given the size of the GOP majority in the legislature, the new bill is very likely to become law anyway.

That will be a step backwards for voting rights in the state, but it's especially jarring given the larger context: North Carolina is dealing with the most serious example of election fraud in recent American history.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.6.18

12/06/18 12:00PM

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

* Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the House Oversight Committee, has called for an emergency hearing to examine allegations of election fraud in North Carolina's 9th congressional district. "Real election fraud is playing out right before us," the Virginia Dem told the Washington Post.

* In the Alaska state House race we've been watching, the latest recount found the Republican candidate ahead by a single vote, and the Democrat in the race appears poised to take the issue to the courts.

* Nancy Pelosi moved a little closer to reclaiming the House Speaker's gavel yesterday when Rep.-elect Haley Stevens (D-Mich.), who voted against Pelosi in last week's caucus meeting, announced plans to vote for her on the House floor next month.

* It was extremely close, but state lawmakers in New Hampshire yesterday re-elected Bill Gardner (D) to serve as secretary of state for another term. It's a position Gardner has held for 42 years.

* Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser became the latest Republican to say he won't run for governor in Louisiana next year, though incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) isn't going to run unopposed. Rep. Ralph Abraham (R), a relatively low-profile two-term congressman, announced this morning that he's going to take on Edwards in 2019.

* Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions could try to reclaim his old Senate seat next year, but the Alabama Republican spoke to Politico yesterday and didn't sound especially interested.

* Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) seemed to suggest at an event this week that Gov. Steve Bullock (D) would take on Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) in 2020, but yesterday, Tester walked it back, explaining that he misheard the question.

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