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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 2.13.19

02/13/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A rare use of the War Powers Act: "The House of Representatives Wednesday passed a measure aimed at withdrawing all U.S. support of the Saudi Arabia-backed war in Yemen, the latest in a series of rebukes to President Trump's foreign policy from Congress."

* You might remember Patten as the guy who contributed to the Trump's Inaugural Committee through a straw donor: "Lobbyist Sam Patten, who pleaded guilty in August to failing to register as a foreign agent, will be sentenced on April 12."

* Trump's pal in the Philippines: "The award-winning head of a Philippine online news site that has aggressively covered President Rodrigo Duterte's policies was arrested Wednesday by government agents in a libel case."

Good for them: "The U.S. Conference of Mayors is defending El Paso, Texas, Mayor Dee Margo (R) as he faces attacks from President Trump for his comments about the border fence's impact on crime."

Predictable: "Lindsey Graham has long pushed for legislation to shield special counsel Robert Mueller from President Donald Trump. But now that he's got the power to do something about it, he's holding off."

* How conservative politics tends to work: "The wife of Donald Trump confidant Roger Stone is using the email distribution list of former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich to request contributions for her husband's legal defense."

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Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Brock Long delivers update on federal actions to support Hurricane Irma response in Washington, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017.

FEMA's controversial chief, Brock Long, announces his resignation

02/13/19 04:04PM

Brock Long's tenure as the head of FEMA has been surprisingly controversial. Today, it came to an end.

FEMA Administrator Brock Long announced Wednesday that he would resign from his post. Peter Gaynor will serve as acting administrator.

Long had been criticized and investigated by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general for allegedly misusing government vehicles to travel to his home in North Carolina. However, he will be leaving on his own accord, per Bloomberg's Jennifer Jacobs.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, the Trump administration has been burdened by a series of controversies over top officials misusing public funds for personal travel, though Brock Long appeared to offer a rather extreme example of the problem.

According to a Wall Street Journal report last year, the FEMA chief often left his agency's office in D.C. on Thursdays, using public resources to drive 400 miles -- each way -- to his home in North Carolina.

Long reportedly traveled "with a caravan of federal workers, who stayed in nearby hotels for the long weekend," all at taxpayer expense. In all, after his first full year on the job, he reportedly spent "about 150 days" in North Carolina.

The Washington Post added that the FEMA chief also used government resources "during a family vacation in Hawaii, despite official warnings the practice was unauthorized, an internal investigation found."

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Fireworks light up the sky over the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and the U.S. Capitol on July 4, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Trump announces plan for 4th of July festivities that already exist

02/13/19 12:39PM

Donald Trump originally wanted a military parade, though the idea quickly became a fiasco. As of yesterday, the president has apparently come up with an alternative, which he sketched out at a White House cabinet meeting:

"We're thinking about doing, on the 4th of July or thereabouts, a parade. A 'Salute to America' parade. It will be a -- really, a gathering, as opposed to a parade, I'd guess you'd have to say. Perhaps at the Lincoln Memorial. We're looking at sites. But we're thinking about doing something, which would become, perhaps, a tradition. 'Salute to America' on July 4th or July 4th weekend. Somewhere around that area.

"And, [acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt], you're taking charge of that and you'll see how it works out with schedules and everything else. And I think it could be a very exciting day."

A spokesperson for the Interior Department, perhaps concerned about getting fired, told CNN the president's plan is "a great idea." The White House added in a statement, "President Trump loves America and wants to help all Americans celebrate our nation's independence on July 4."

OK, but does he not realize that Americans already celebrate our nation's independence on July 4?

Pretty much everything Trump proposed yesterday has existed for years. D.C. already has an annual 4th of July parade. D.C. also already hosts an enormous event with people -- many of whom gather around the Lincoln Memorial -- celebrating the national holiday.

This could "become, perhaps, a tradition"? It's already a tradition. Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt is responsible for executing the idea? I have good news for you, Dave, you can already check this off the to-do list.

When I talk about the president being an amateur, I'm not just referring to his incompetence and inexperience. It's also striking to see Trump's unfamiliarity with basic elements of civic life.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.13.19

02/13/19 12:00PM

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

* Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and former Democratic National Committee chair, has a new role with the party. Dean told the Associated Press he's "signed on to lead a planned data exchange hammered out by DNC officials, state party leaders and Democratic consultants."

* Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) isn't necessarily known as a prolific fundraiser, but her presidential campaign is off to a strong financial start: the AP reported that the Minnesotan "raised more than $1 million in the 48 hours after launching" her bid for national office.

* If you missed Rachel's interview with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) last night, toward the end of his appearance, the Democratic senator said that when looking for a running mate, he would "be looking to women first."

* Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is up for re-election again next year, and Democratic leaders have already reached out to retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath (D) about the race. McGrath ran an unsuccessful U.S. House race last year, but impressed many with her strengths as a candidate.

* The Democratic field of presidential candidates is already large, but it doesn't yet have any current or former governors. That may soon change: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) will be in Iowa later this week.

* That same 2020 field already has a couple of U.S. House members, and it may soon have more: Rep. Tim Ryan (R-Ohio), perhaps best known for having launched an unsuccessful challenge to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has scheduled trips to Iowa and New Hampshire.

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Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Mike Pence

Deal to avoid shutdown leaves Trump even worse off than before

02/13/19 11:20AM

Earlier this week, bipartisan negotiators reached an agreement in principle to fund the government and prevent another shutdown ahead of Friday's deadline. We haven't yet seen all of the details, but NBC News highlighted some of the details of the deal, as described by multiple sources:

* $1.375 billion for border barrier enhancements like steel slats and other "existing technologies," but no concrete wall;

* The money would fund about 55 miles of new barrier;

* Geographic restrictions on where the new fencing could built, likely limited to the Rio Grand Valley sector of the border.

It's worth pausing at this point to take a stroll down memory lane.

In 2017, the White House put together a budget request seeking $25 billion for a border wall project. In early 2018, Democrats were prepared to meet the president's demands -- Trump had taken DACA protections for Dreamers hostage, and Dems felt like they had to pay the ransom -- but the president turned down the deal because it didn't include cuts to legal immigration.

In the months that followed, Trump's dreams ... evolved. The original White House vision was for a 1,000-mile concrete wall, to be paid for by Mexico. By late last year, the president wanted $5.6 billion for steel slats, to be paid for by Americans.

The bipartisan deal that Trump rejected in mid-December, after originally having endorsed it, included $1.6 billion for border security measures. The deal Vice President Mike Pence offered Democratic leaders around the same time was for $2.5 billion, though Trump rejected that, too, demanding more.

It now appears Trump will end up with $1.375 billion, which leaves him further away from his goal than if he'd accepted the bipartisan package two months ago and failed to launch the longest government shutdown in American history.

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Image: Rep. Devin Nunes Briefs Press On House Intelligence Cmte Russia Investigation

GOP eyes payback if Democrats obtain Trump's tax returns

02/13/19 10:41AM

Republican efforts to help keep Donald Trump's tax returns hidden from the public have evolved over time. In the last Congress, for example, when Democrats would try to advance efforts to force disclosure of the secret presidential materials, GOP lawmakers would simply dismiss the appeals out of hand.

In the wake of the 2018 midterms, as Democrats begin to slowly lay the foundation for disclosure, Republicans argued that presidents are already "subject to a background check by the Federal Bureau of Investigations [sic]," so examining presidential tax returns is unnecessary. As best as I can tell, presidents and presidential candidates are not the subjects of FBI background checks.

This week, Trump's GOP allies have taken a more aggressive posture on the issue. From a Washington Examiner piece published this week:

[A] choice by the Ways & Means committee to force the release of the president's returns could have serious consequences. For one, it will set a precedent for the House majority, in this case the Democrats, to go after the tax returns of individuals. It is not hard to imagine that coming around to bite Democrats in the future.

"Once you go down this road, it's a lot like using the intelligence agencies to look into political campaigns," Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California, ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, said last month. "Once you go down the road, there's no turning back, because then it ratchets up. Because at some point, Republicans will be back in power. There are lots of people we could have subpoenaed their tax returns the last few years that would be very interesting."

It is not hard to foresee the tax return fight setting off an ugly escalation of partisan warfare on the Hill.

Some of the initial reactions to this from Trump critics was indifference: Democratic presidents and presidential candidates already release their tax returns. If Republicans want to play a "what's good for the goose..." game, so be it. Dems wouldn't care since those efforts wouldn't change anything.

But I don't think that's what Nunes meant. His quote suggested he envisions a very different dynamic: if Democrats hold Trump to the same standard as other modern presidents, Republicans may very well start holding all kinds of people to presidential standards.

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Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott responds to a question during a gubernatorial debate against Democrat Charlie Crist on Oct. 10, 2014, in Miramar, Fla. (Photo by Lynne Sladky/AP)

Rick Scott's new 'reform' measure comes with an unintended consequence

02/13/19 10:08AM

I have good news for voters who see pensions for retired members of Congress as a problem in need of a solution. The Washington Times  reported yesterday:

Two Republican senators on Tuesday introduced legislation that would eliminate pensions for retiring members of Congress.

Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana and Sen. Rick Scott of Florida introduced their "End Pensions in Congress Act" in the hopes that it will make Washington more efficient. [...]

Currently, pensions are calculated by averaging a member's three highest paying salaries, their years in office, and the set accrual rate.

I don't seriously expect this legislation to pass, but the fact that the two new Republican senators -- Braun and Scott both reached Capitol Hill for the first time last month -- would even propose such a "reform" measure is rather amazing.

For those unfamiliar with the GOP duo, Rick Scott and Mike Braun are both very wealthy, with each senator enjoying a net worth of tens of millions of dollars. I wouldn't ordinarily draw attention to this, but in this case it's directly relevant: if federal lawmakers can no longer receive pensions, it's likely to discourage less-wealthy people from running in the first place.

Or put another way, we'd likely see a whole lot more members like Mike Braun and Rick Scott.

But ThinkProgress' Ian Millhiser raised an equally important observation. Referring to the Florida Republican, Millhiser wrote, "This is a man with a nine-figure net worth bragging about how he's going to force his colleagues to become corporate lobbyists when they leave Congress if they want to eat."

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President Donald Trump talks with reporters as he reviews border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego.

Trump balks at Drug Enforcement Administration findings, too

02/13/19 09:20AM

When making the case for a border wall, Donald Trump has a handful of core talking points, including his steadfast belief that a giant barrier would end the drug trade. As the president sees it, illegal drugs pour into the United States via Mexico, but if there were a wall in place, the problem would effectively disappear.

The problem, of course, is the overwhelming evidence that drugs reach American soil by way of ports of entry, which are already heavily guarded. A wall obviously wouldn't make any difference.

Trump, however, has decided not to believe the evidence. Here's what he said at a White House cabinet meeting yesterday:

"We could save billions and billions of dollars in cost and hundreds of billions of dollars in drugs and what they're doing to us with drugs. And so much of it comes through. And don't believe people when they say it all comes through the portals; it doesn't -- the ports of entry. It comes through -- the big loads come through the border, where you don't have wall, where they can drive a truck, a big truck, loaded up with drugs or loaded up with this thing called a 'human cargo.' Human cargo.

"These are traffickers. These are the worst people on Earth. And they don't come through the ports of entry with people in the back of a car tied up. Could never do that. They come through areas where there's no barrier."

For now, let's put aside the fact that the president still doesn't understand the basics of human trafficking. Let's instead turn our attention to Trump's assertion that the evidence about drugs coming through "the portals" is not to be believed.

The Republican made a similar comment during his recent interview with the New York Times, insisting, "[U]nlike what the Democrats say, they don't, you don't bring trucks of drugs through the checkpoints. You bring trucks of drugs by making a right 20 miles, and a left into the country."

The trouble is, it's not just what "the Democrats" say; it's what the Drug Enforcement Administration says.

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Virginia Senator Mark Warner as he addresses an election night rally in Arlington, Va. on Nov. 4, 2014. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)

Key Dem senator pushes back against GOP claims on collusion

02/13/19 08:45AM

Last week, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a White House ally, gave CBS News an update on his panel's investigation into the Russia scandal. "If we write a report based upon the facts that we have," the GOP senator said, "then we don't have anything that would suggest there was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia."

For Donald Trump, his allies, and other critics of the scandal, it was effectively a case-closed moment. Indeed, the president has published a series of excited tweets on the subject -- including one this morning -- pointing to Burr's quote as if it were an official finding of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

There are, however, others on the panel, who've seen the same intelligence, and who haven't reached the same conclusion. Yesterday, for example, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was asked about Burr's comments, and he told reporters, "Respectfully, I disagree." NBC News' report added:

Sen. Mark Warner, D.-Va., ranking member of the committee, told reporters in the Capitol Tuesday that he disagrees with the way Burr characterized the evidence about collusion, but he declined to offer his own assessment.

"I'm not going to get into any conclusions I have," he said, before adding that "there's never been a campaign in American history ... that people affiliated with the campaign had as many ties with Russia as the Trump campaign did."

Given the circumstances -- including the fact that the investigation is ongoing, members are dealing with highly sensitive information, and the committee is still months away from completing its work -- it's not surprising that Warner would be circumspect, especially when speaking with the press.

The Virginia Democrat was, however, willing to make clear that he's seen the same information as Burr, and he's not prepared to endorse Burr's assertion.

What's more, Warner isn't alone on this front. Mother Jones had a related report yesterday, quoting other members of the same intelligence panel.

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A twenty dollar bill. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty)

As the national debt hits $22 trillion, Trump's vows appear incoherent

02/13/19 08:00AM

For those concerned with the national debt, yesterday brought some discouraging news: the debt officially topped $22 trillion. The Associated Press reported:

The Treasury Department's daily statement showed Tuesday that total outstanding public debt stands at $22.01 trillion. It stood at $19.95 trillion when President Donald Trump took office on Jan. 20, 2017.

The debt figure has been accelerating since the passage of Trump's $1.5 trillion tax cut in December 2017 and action by Congress last year to increase spending on domestic and military programs.

It was three years ago last week when Donald Trump appeared on Fox News and assured viewers that, if he were president, he could start paying off the national debt "so easily." The Republican argued at the time that it would simply be a matter of looking at the country as "a profit-making corporation" instead of "a losing corporation."

A month later, in March 2016, Trump declared at a debate that he could cut trillions of dollars in spending by eliminating "waste, fraud, and abuse." Asked for a specific example, he said, "We're cutting Common Core." (Common Core is an education curriculum. It costs the federal government almost nothing.)

A month after that, in April 2016, Trump declared that he was confident that he could "get rid of" the entire multi-trillion-dollar debt "fairly quickly." Pressed to be more specific, the future president replied, "Well, I would say over a period of eight years."

By July 2016, he boasted that once his economic agenda was in place, "we'll start paying off that debt like water."

When making a list of Donald Trump's most audacious broken promises, this one belongs near the top.

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