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Thursday's Mini-Report, 7.12.18

07/12/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Peter Strzok had quite a day on Capitol Hill: "Deepening tension between congressional Republicans and the Justice Department erupted in full public view Thursday, as a senior FBI agent sparred with lawmakers who suggested his bias against President Trump tainted the department's Russia investigation."

* Family separations: "The Trump administration has reunited 57 migrant children under age 5 with their parents as of Thursday morning, one day after the court-ordered deadline, but 12 parents who have been deported remain separated from their young children."

* Before the NATO story starts to fade from public view, Donald Trump was asked this morning whether he has the authority to abandon the alliance without congressional support. "I think I probably can, but that's unnecessary," the president responded.

* At the same press conference, a reporter asked him whether he'll say one thing to the press, and then tweet something else once he's on Air Force One? "No, that's other people that do that," Trump replied. "I don't. I'm very consistent. I'm a very stable genius."

* Unexpected: "The Justice Department will appeal the AT&T-Time Warner merger approval, according to a court document filed Thursday."

* Papa John's founder John Schnatter "resigned as chairman of the company Wednesday amid growing backlash over his use of the n-word during a conference call in May."

* Is Trump trying to gaslight the soybean farmers? It sure looks like it.

* On this, Gov. Kay Ivey (R) made the right call: "Alabama's governor has begun to cut off a gravy train for the state's sheriffs: the unspent money for prisoners' meals that the sheriffs have long been allowed to keep for themselves."

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Image: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington

Facing test on legislative arithmetic, Paul Ryan flunks

07/12/18 04:40PM

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is generally very careful about publicly disagreeing with Donald Trump, and this morning was no exception. While not specifically condemning the president trade tariffs by name, the outgoing Republican Speaker was willing to say, "New tariffs are not the solution."

So why not pass a bill rejecting the White House's policy? Ryan also said today there's simply no point.

"You would have to pass a law saying 'don't raise those tariffs' and the president would have to sign that law. That's not going to happen."

This comes the day after most Senate Republicans supported a measure expressing vague opposition to Trump's tariffs -- in a non-binding resolution that had no force of law.

Circling back to our coverage from several weeks ago, let's put aside the oddity of hearing Ryan insist Congress should only tackle legislation the White House is inclined to support. He had a very different approach in the Obama era – how many dozens of votes did Ryan's House Republican conference hold on repealing the Affordable Care Act? -- but for now, let's not dwell on recent history.

Instead, let's remind Congress' most powerful Republican that the legislative branch has a remedy for dealing with a president who vetoes popular and worthwhile bills: lawmakers have the constitutional authority to override a veto.

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President Barack Obama laughs with former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, April 25, 2013.

Americans point to the best president of their lifetimes in new poll

07/12/18 02:40PM

Earlier this year, members of the American Political Science Association's Presidents and Executive Politics section -- 170 scholars, in total -- ranked each of the American presidents from best to worst. Barack Obama did quite well, ranking 8th overall, and 1st among presidents over the last half-century.

As it turns out, public attitudes are largely in line with scholars' attitudes. The Pew Research Center published an interesting report on this yesterday:

When asked which president has done the best job in their lifetimes, more Americans name Barack Obama than any other president. More than four-in-ten (44%) say Obama is the best or second best president of their lifetimes, compared with about a third who mention Bill Clinton (33%) or Ronald Reagan (32%).

When it comes to first-place votes -- presidents who were picked as the very best president of respondents' lifetimes -- Obama was the clear winner with 31%, followed by Reagan with 21%, and Clinton with 13%.

There was, however, a significant age gap: Obama dominated among younger Americans, while Reagan fared better among older Americans.

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Trump boasts about NATO commitments that don't appear to exist

07/12/18 12:48PM

Before leaving the NATO summit in Brussels, Donald Trump held an unusually subdued press conference, where he seemed to make some news: according to the American president, he demanded that other NATO members increase their defense spending, and they agreed to do as he requested.

"We really accomplished a lot with respect to NATO. For years presidents have been coming to these meetings and talked about the expense, the tremendous expense, for the United States, and tremendous progress has been made.

"Everyone's agreed to substantially up their commitment. They're going to up it at levels that they've never thought of before.

"Prior to last year where I attended my first meeting, it was going down, the amount of money being spent by countries was going down -- and down very substantially -- and now it's going up very substantially."

Under the blueprint adopted in 2014, after Russia invaded Crimea and Barack Obama made it clear that it was time for NATO members to invest more in national security, each member nation committed to spend at least 2% of its GDP on defense by 2024.

This morning, however, the American president declared, "Ultimately, that'll be going up quite a bit higher than that." Trump added, more than once, that NATO allies "substantially upped their commitment."

There are a couple of things to keep in mind. For example, when Trump said defense spending among NATO members was "going down ... very substantially" at the time of last year's summit, that's ridiculously untrue. Obama pressed member nations to increase defense spending four years ago, and that's precisely what they did, long before Trump took office.

As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent explained in a very good piece yesterday, everyone involved was willing to let Trump take credit for the increases in recent years, though the Republican president has been reluctant to take yes for an answer.

This morning, his posture seemed to shift a bit, with Trump suggesting that NATO members bent to his will, agreeing to defense spending "at levels that they've never thought of before."

Which leads to the other problem: the commitments the American president bragged about appear to exist only in his imagination.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.12.18

07/12/18 12:00PM

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

* If there were questions about Rep. Beto O'Rourke's (D) ability to compete with Sen. Ted Cruz (R) in Texas this year, he's answering them: the Dallas Morning News  reports that the challenger raised "an eye-popping $10.4 million" in the second quarter of 2018. Making it all the more impressive, O'Rourke has "sworn off political action committee support."

* The Washington Examiner  reports that the Congressional Leadership Fund, a leading super PAC backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, raised $51 million over the last three months, all of which will go toward helping Republicans keep their House majority. Most of the haul came from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.

* And as long as we're on the topic of fundraising, Donald Trump's re-election campaign sent out a new fundraising pitch, asking donors to contribute in response to progressive calls to eliminate Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

* The National Democratic Redistricting Committee released a new three-minute video yesterday, featuring former President Barack Obama touting the importance of the NDRC's work.

* In Pennsylvania's gubernatorial race, Republican Scott Wagner is trying to distance himself from the Rev. Hyung Jin Sean Moon after appearing with the controversial pastor this past weekend. Moon's church is best known for incorporating AR-15 rifles into its services.

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Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, talks with reporters after a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on June 26, 2018.

Dismissing scandal, GOP leaders circle the wagons, defend Jim Jordan

07/12/18 11:29AM

As of earlier this week, seven former Ohio State University student athletes alleged Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), during his tenure as a coach at the school, knew about a team physician's sexual misconduct, but he turned a blind eye. On Tuesday, CNN ran another report, quoting an unnamed former OSU wrestler, who said, "Jim Jordan knew. He didn't do anything about it."

Given the number of witnesses, one might assume the far-right congressman would face real political peril right now. However, as this NBC News report makes clear, Jordan's support among his Republican colleagues appears to be resilient.

Speaker Paul Ryan on Wednesday joined a unified GOP front supporting Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio in the face of allegations from some former wrestlers at Ohio State University that Jordan turned a blind eye to sexual abuse by the team's doctor.

"Jim Jordan is a friend of mine," Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters. "We haven't always agreed with each other over the years. ... I've also known Jim Jordan to be a man of honesty and a man of integrity."

The House Speaker added that the House Ethics Committee will not review the case, and as of yesterday, every member of the House GOP leadership has expressed his or her support for Jordan against the allegations, as has Donald Trump.

The Washington Post  reports that Jordan is also being backed by a conservative crisis communications firm, "known for representing conservative figures," which has circulated testimonials from students defending the congressman. The article added, "It is unclear who is paying for the effort."

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North Koreans didn't show up for latest round of diplomatic talks

07/12/18 11:00AM

Donald Trump has already made a series of extraordinary concessions to North Korea, confident that his gifts to the rogue dictatorship will lead to its denuclearization. That fantasy appears to be unraveling, leaving the American president with nothing to show for his efforts.

The White House, naturally, doesn't quite see it that way. Indeed, as far as Trump is concerned, he's already delivered a major breakthrough: the president has said "thousands" of American parents who lost loved ones during the Korean War have asked him to bring home the remains of fallen troops, and Trump insists he's doing exactly that.

"They have already done 200 people, which is so great," the president boasted at a recent rally in Nevada.

That wasn't entirely true. The State Department conceded soon after that we "have not yet physically received" the remains, though there was a meeting today to discuss the issue. How'd that go?

North Korean officials did not show up on Thursday for a meeting with Americans at the inter-Korean border to discuss the return of remains of United States soldiers killed in the Korean War, officials said. [...]

Though American military officials went to Panmunjom for the meeting on Thursday, their North Korean counterparts did not, according to a United States defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. A South Korean government official, who also asked for anonymity, confirmed that the North Koreans had not shown up at Panmunjom.

So let's recap what we've seen since Trump's summit with Kim Jong-un. First, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that North Korea has recently increased its production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites. Second, formal talks between the countries went nowhere, culminating in North Korea's foreign ministry accusing the Trump administration of making "unilateral and gangster-like" demands.

And third, North Koreans were a no-show at a meeting to discuss the return of American soldiers' remains.

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The 'worst-run White House of modern times' loses another prominent official

07/12/18 10:08AM

The White House's legislative affairs director is usually a low-profile position. Traditionally, directors prefer to work behind the scenes, quietly twisting arms on Capitol Hill, hoping lawmakers consider a president's wishes.

Marc Short, however, Donald Trump's legislative affairs director, has put the job in the spotlight. For example, Short has made 15 Sunday-show appearances since this president took office, which is unheard of for someone in his position.

Nevertheless, next week, he's leaving his post. Politico  reported this morning:

President Donald Trump's legislative affairs director is heading for the exits just as the White House gears up for a major Supreme Court nomination battle and approaches a daunting midterm election landscape. [...]

Short, who declined to comment on the record, is taking a position at Guidepost Strategies consulting firm and will teach at the University of Virginia's business school, where he received his MBA, and will also serve as a senior fellow at the university's Miller Center.

A Washington Post  report added, "His departure ... was confirmed by a White House official who requested anonymity to discuss a personnel move that has not been formally announced."

Short's departure comes on the heels of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's resignation, among other major departures from Trump World.

And while I'm not inclined to update the absurdly long master list, I am reminded of a New Yorker piece from last week, in which Susan Glasser described this as possibly "the worst-run White House of modern times," in which "no one is really in charge."

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Image: APEC Summit 2017 in Vietnam

Trump on Russian election interference: 'What am I going to do?'

07/12/18 09:26AM

It was exactly one year ago today that Donald Trump suggested he was prepared to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin's denials about attacking American elections.

Trump said he'd spoken directly with Putin about the scandal, telling Reuters, "I said, 'Did you do it?' And he said, 'No, I did not. Absolutely not.' I then asked him a second time in a totally different way. He said, 'Absolutely not.'"

This, evidently, helped convince the American president that he should trust his Russian counterpart's word over that of U.S. intelligence agencies.

That was July 12, 2017. On July 12, 2018, as this week's NATO summit wrapped up, Trump hosted a press conference and addressed the issue anew. The Washington Post  reported:

President Trump pledged Thursday that will "of course" raise the issue of Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election at his summit next week with the country's leader, Vladimir Putin, but insisted that there was little he could do if -- as expected -- Putin denies that Russia interfered.

"Look, he may. What am I going to do? He may deny it," Trump said. "All I can do is say, 'Did you?' And, 'Don't do it again.' But he may deny it. You'll be the first to know."

The American president doesn't appear to appreciate how pathetic a line this is. From Trump's perspective, confronted with overwhelming evidence that Putin's government launched an unprecedented attack on the United States' democracy, the president can ask the Russian leader for an explanation. If Putin denies responsibility, Trump can ask again. As the Republican put it this morning, it's "all" he can do.

He'd make quite a police interrogator, wouldn't he? "Did you commit the crime? No, really, did you commit the crime? No? Well, I guess that's that. I gave it my best shot."

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FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2017, file photo, from left, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, confer before a news conference at the Capitol in Washington.

On the same day, GOP lawmaker approved tax cuts, bought yacht

07/12/18 08:40AM

The Institute on Taxation and Economic and Policy, a progressive think tank, published a new report this week on the Republicans' tax plan, and the degree to which it will benefit the wealthiest of the wealthy.

"If you look at the richest 1 percent, they're getting more than the bottom 60 percent of Americans," Steve Wamhoff, director of federal tax policy at the institute and one of the report's authors, told Vox this week.

And some of those wealthy folks are apparently taking advantage of the windfall. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Rep. Vern Buchanan's (R-Fla.) hometown newspaper, reported overnight:

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan is drawing criticism for purchasing an expensive yacht on the same day he voted in favor of a major tax cut package that could save him a substantial amount of money.

A recent financial disclosure form shows Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, bought an Ocean Alexander yacht last year on Nov. 16. The boat cost between $1 million and $5 million according to the form.

That same day the GOP-controlled House pushed through a major tax cut that critics deride as disproportionately benefiting wealthy individuals such as Buchanan, whose minimum net worth the Associated Press recently estimated at $80 million.

The yacht purchase was first reported by the Florida Politics website.

The timing is less than ideal for the Republican congressman: on Nov. 16, 2017, Buchanan joined his GOP colleagues in supporting a regressive package of tax cuts that disproportionately benefits the wealthy. Also on Nov. 16, 2017, Buchanan bought his new yacht.

And while we're at it, on the exact same day, Nov. 16, 2017, Buchanan issued a press release insisting that the Republican tax package he'd just voted for would benefit "middle-class families," all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

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U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) arrives at a news conference Nov. 4, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

Trump's GOP detractors placated by hollow, symbolic gesture

07/12/18 08:00AM

Donald Trump's controversial trade policies have plenty of Republican critics on Capitol Hill, and a few weeks ago, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) decided he'd do something about it. In a seemingly bold move, the retiring Arizona senator said he'd use his leverage to block the president's judicial nominees until he was satisfied that Congress was addressing his concerns.

The trouble is, Flake is too easily satisfied. The Wall Street Journal  reported overnight:

With the Trump administration announcing a new round of tariffs on China, the Senate took a symbolic step Wednesday toward asserting its power over levies that President Donald Trump has already imposed. [...]

Senators voted Wednesday, 88-11, to instruct the lawmakers appointed to iron out differences with the House over a spending bill to also insert a provision giving a role to Congress when the executive branch decides to impose tariffs on the basis of national-security concerns. The measure doesn't offer any specifics about that role.

In other words, the Senate passed a non-binding resolution, with no force of law, that effectively says it'd be nice if Congress limited some of Trump's abuses on tariffs in an upcoming spending bill.

And with that complete, Flake said the Senate can once again start confirming the White House's far-right judicial nominees.

It's at least mildly refreshing when some of Trump's GOP detractors show a willingness to stand up to their party's president, but I don't think these folks fully appreciate how leverage works.

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