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Ahead of North Korea talks, Trump 'doesn't think he needs to' prepare

05/17/18 10:00AM

It's difficult to say with confidence whether Donald Trump's scheduled meeting with North Korea's Kim Jong Un will happen next month. The dictator halted the diplomatic process this week in response to U.S./South Korean military exercises; the White House's "Libya model" rhetoric, as expected, isn't going over well; and by some measures, National Security Advisor John Bolton is undermining the entire endeavor.

Trump World, meanwhile, can't seem to make up its mind about whether they expected this diplomatic turbulence or were caught off-guard by it.

The Associated Press, meanwhile, reports that U.S. officials are scrambling to address the logistical issues surrounding the upcoming summit in Singapore, "gaming out policy plans, negotiating tactics, even menu items."

The only person who doesn't appear to be working hard on this is their boss. Time magazine reported yesterday:

With just one month until a scheduled sit-down with North Korea's leader, President Donald Trump hasn't set aside much time to prepare for meeting with Kim Jong Un, a stark contrast to the approach of past presidents.

"He doesn't think he needs to," said a senior administration official familiar with the President's preparation.

Aides plan to squeeze in time for Trump to learn more about Kim's psychology and strategize on ways to respond to offers Kim may make in person, but so far a detailed plan hasn't been laid out for getting Trump ready for the summit.

This is very easy to believe.

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

Overwhelmed by scandal, EPA's Pruitt finds a defense lawyer

05/17/18 09:20AM

There's some question as to exactly how many federal investigations Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is currently facing. My tally puts the number at 14. Dana Milbank, however, counts 15.

Either way, let's all agree that the far-right EPA chief is in a fair amount of trouble, facing all kinds of allegations, including corruption, abuses of power, and misuse of public resources. I made the argument in March that the question shouldn't be whether Scott Pruitt will keep his job, but rather, whether or not he should be looking for a good defense attorney.

As it turns out, Pruitt was thinking along similar lines. Politico  reported yesterday:

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has tapped a white-collar defense lawyer to advise him as he grapples with a dozen federal investigations into his activity, according to two people familiar with the situation.

Paul Rauser, co-founder of the firm Aegis Law Group, has been assisting Pruitt for several weeks as the Environmental Protection Agency chief faces fierce scrutiny on everything from his international travel and his lavish spending to his $50-per-night lease in a Capitol Hill condo owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist, these people said. Rauser has recently been spotted at EPA headquarters, according to the people.

On a related note, the New York Times  reported a couple of weeks ago that the EPA administrator has created a legal defense fund, and yesterday, Pruitt confirmed that the report is accurate.

And while that may seem understandable given the avalanche of scandals falling on the Oklahoma Republican, Pruitt's legal defense fund is not without complications, as a recent Mother Jones  report explained:

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Image: President Trump hosts the California Sanctuary State Roundtable

Trump calls some immigrants 'animals,' adds, 'We have to break up families'

05/17/18 08:40AM

Fearing adverse political consequences, Donald Trump occasionally likes to argue that he, unlike those rascally Democrats, is the true champion of undocumented immigrants. It's the Republicans, the president insists, who are on their side.

The rhetoric has long been at odds with reality, and yesterday, Trump hosted an immigration roundtable at the White House, where he dropped the facade.

"We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we're stopping a lot of them — but we're taking people out of the country. You wouldn't believe how bad these people are. These aren't people. These are animals. And we're taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that's never happened before. And because of the weak laws, they come in fast, we get them, we release them, we get them again, we bring them out. It's crazy."

This was not, alas, the first time this president referred to immigrants as "animals."  [Update: see below.]

But the fact that Trump's rhetoric is increasingly common doesn't make it any less offensive. Indeed, when a leader with authoritarian instincts start describing those he considers undesirable as less than human, there's cause for concern.

A Washington Post  report added, "There's important historical context here, too, that many social media users pointed out: Referring to marginalized groups as subhuman has been a way dictators have justified the abuse of those groups."

All of this comes less than a week after White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, echoing anti-immigration rhetoric from generations past, said undocumented immigrants are unskilled and uneducated people who can't "easily assimilate" and "don't integrate well."

It's almost as if Trump's assurances about treating immigrants with great "heart" were insincere.

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Image: Donald Trump

Why Trump's new disclosure on Stormy Daniels payment matters

05/17/18 08:00AM

It was just last month when Donald Trump chatted briefly with reporters on Air Force One, and in response to a reporter's question, the president said he did not know about the $130,000 hush-money payment to Stormy Daniels shortly before Election Day 2016. The Republican added that he also didn't know where his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, received the money to pay the porn star.

A month later, Rudy Giuliani told a national television audience that Trump's original version of events wasn't altogether true, and yesterday, the president disclosed the truth in black and white.

President Donald Trump reported that he reimbursed personal attorney Michael Cohen for costs apparently incurred in paying adult film star Stormy Daniels for a nondisclosure agreement, according to a federally required annual financial disclosure form released by the Office of Government Ethics on Wednesday.

"In the interest of transparency, while not required to be disclosed as 'reportable liabilities' ... in 2016 expenses were incurred by one of Donald J. Trump's attorneys, Michael Cohen," a note at the bottom of Page 45 of the 92-page report states. "Mr. Cohen sought reimbursement of those expenses and Mr. Trump fully reimbursed Cohen in 2017. The category of value would be $100,001 to $250,000 and the interest rate would be zero."

The acknowledgement appeared in a footnote.

At face value, I imagine some might see this acknowledgement as underwhelming. Sure, it's newsworthy when a sitting president discloses a previously secret six-figure payment to a porn star -- the sort of development that would probably destroy any of Trump's predecessors -- but yesterday's filing is entirely consistent with what we knew.

And sure, it's important that the president appears to have brazenly lied to the public about all of this, but it's fair to say most observers knew this, too.

What makes Trump's financial disclosure filing so striking, however, is the letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein from David Apol, the acting director of the Office of Government Ethics, that accompanied the president's paperwork. Apol noted, for example, that despite Trump's assertion, the disclosure of the reimbursement payment to Cohen wasn't optional.

And that's no small detail.

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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 5.16.18

05/16/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Look for more on this on tonight's show: "President Donald Trump reported that he reimbursed personal attorney Michael Cohen for costs apparently incurred in paying adult film star Stormy Daniels for a nondisclosure agreement, according to a federally required annual financial disclosure form released by the Office of Government Ethics on Wednesday."

* North Korea "canceled high-level talks with South Korea on Wednesday and threatened to walk away from a historic summit with President Donald Trump to protest ongoing military exercises involving the U.S."

* More fallout: "Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis said Wednesday that its top lawyer is retiring over a deal to hire U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, as a consultant."

* The final vote was 52 to 47: "The U.S. Senate voted on Wednesday to save net neutrality, marking only the second time Congress has taken any significant legislative stance on the contentious topic."

* In case you missed last night's show: "A federal judge in Washington refused Tuesday to throw out criminal charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort."

* The latest investigation: "The Justice Department and the F.B.I. are investigating Cambridge Analytica, the now-defunct political data firm, and have sought to question former employees and banks that handled its business, according to an American official and other people familiar with the inquiry."

* Not surprising: "The Trump administration disbanded a federal advisory committee on climate change last year because of concerns that it did not have enough industry representatives, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act."

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Image: US Secretary of State Tillerson rebukes resignation reports

Tillerson appears to send a not-so-subtle shot across Trump's bow

05/16/18 03:02PM

At a distance, Rex Tillerson did not appear to enjoy his 13-month tenure as Donald Trump's secretary of state. Not to put too fine a point on this, but the nation's former chief diplomat found himself marginalized and ignored by a president he considered to be a "f***ing moron."

Two months after his departure from Trump's cabinet, there's reason to believe Tillerson harbors some ill will toward his former boss.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took an apparent jab at President Donald Trump Wednesday during a commencement speech to graduates at the Virginia Military Institute, in which he deplored the nation's "growing crisis in ethics and integrity" and leaders who "conceal the truth."

Tillerson, who was fired by a Trump tweet as the country's top diplomat in March and replaced with then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, called on the graduates to maintain a "fierce defense of the truth."

"As I reflect upon the state of our American democracy, I observe a growing crisis in ethics and integrity," he said at the VMI commencement ceremony. "If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom."

Tillerson went on to say, "When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth, even on what may seem the most trivial of matters, we go wobbly on America."

Now, it's certainly possible that this is just a remarkable coincidence. Maybe Tillerson is concerned about our "growing crisis in ethics and integrity," leaders who "conceal the truth," and people who "become accepting of alternative realities," and none of this had anything to do with Donald Trump and his team.

But I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the former secretary of state was thinking of someone very specific when he made these comments, and he chose his words carefully so that we'd appreciate his meaning.

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Image: APEC Summit 2017 in Vietnam

Senate Intel acknowledges what the GOP denies: Russia backed Trump

05/16/18 02:09PM

Two months ago, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee abruptly ended their absurd investigation into the Russia scandal and released a document that echoed the White House's talking points. One of their conclusions was especially jarring.

While U.S. intelligence professionals concluded that Russian operatives launched their 2016 intelligence operation in order to help put Donald Trump in power, these House GOP lawmakers decided to reject this politically inconvenient conclusion. To hear them tell it, the evidence showed that Vladimir Putin simply wanted to sow discord, and didn't prefer the Republican ticket over the Democratic one.

Fortunately, their Senate counterparts were more responsible. The Washington Post  reported this afternoon:

The Senate Intelligence Committee has determined that the intelligence community was correct in assessing that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. election with the aim of helping then-candidate Donald Trump, contradicting findings House Republicans reached last month.

"Our staff concluded that the [intelligence community's] conclusions were accurate and on point," the panel's vice chairman, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), said Wednesday in a joint statement with Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), its chairman. "The Russian effort was extensive, sophisticated, and ordered by President Putin himself for the purpose of helping Donald Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton," Warner continued.

The Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation is ongoing, and today's determination does not address the collusion question. It does, however, acknowledge the reality that Putin specifically backed the Republican ticket during Trump's 2016 campaign.

Which isn't going to please Trump. Indeed, he's invested considerable energy in trying to convince people not to believe their lying eyes -- because in the president's mind, Russia actually wanted Clinton to win, notwithstanding the Russian efforts to make sure she lost.

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Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful, Mass. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Malden, smiles as he asks commuters for their vote while campaigning at North Station in Boston, Monday, April 29, 2013. Markey and U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Boston, vying for their party's...

Senate Democrats to force a vote on net neutrality

05/16/18 12:56PM

In December, the Federal Communications Commission's Republican members officially killed Obama-era net neutrality rules. It was the completion of a plan shaped by Donald Trump, who appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to his current post last year.

The specific regulations, however, are still in place, though not for much longer: effective June 11, service providers will no longer have to treat all online content equally. Democratic proponents of net neutrality still act as if they have a shot at rescuing the policy before that deadline, and as the Washington Post  reports, the first key step will happen on the Senate floor this afternoon.

The Senate is expected to vote Wednesday on a resolution that aims to undo a sweeping act of deregulation undertaken last year by the Federal Communications Commission -- and issue a rebuke to the Trump administration, which supported the FCC's move. [...]

If successful, the legislative gambit could restore the agency's regulations and hand a victory to tech companies, activists and consumer advocacy groups.

As a rule, the Senate's Democratic minority has very little power over what measures reach the chamber's floor for a vote, but in this case, the party is effectively executing a careful strategy.

To save net neutrality, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) filed something called a discharge petition, which skips the committee process, and which enjoys the support of 50 senators. In this case, net neutrality is backed by all 49 members of the Senate Democratic conference, plus Maine's Susan Collins (R).

When the resolution, which would block the FCC's decision through the Congressional Review Act, reaches the floor, it cannot be filibustered. If it gets a simple majority, it passes. Barring any last-minutes changes of heart or unexpected absences, it's likely today's vote will succeed.

So is that it? Will net neutrality survive after all? Not so fast.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.16.18

05/16/18 12:00PM

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

* In Pennsylvania, Democrat Helen Tai won a state House special election yesterday, flipping a "red" seat that Donald Trump and Mitt Romney narrowly carried. It's the 41st state legislative seat Democrats have flipped since Trump took office.

* Elsewhere in the Keystone State, four women -- Madeleine Dean, Chrissy Houlahan, Mary Gay Scanlon and Susan Wild -- won Democratic congressional primaries in a state that currently has an all-male congressional delegation. In light of Pennsylvania's new district map, some of these women are very likely to win in November. (Note, Wild narrowly defeated John Morganelli, who recently made headlines for his pro-Trump, anti-progressive record.)

* Losing hurts, but losing twice in three months hurts more: Pennsylvania's Rick Saccone (R), who lost a congressional special election to Rep. Conor Lamb (D) in March, also lost a congressional primary yesterday.

* Pennsylvania Republicans' statewide ticket will apparently be led by two Trump-like candidates: Rep. Lou Barletta won the GOP's Senate primary, while state lawmaker Scott Wagner, won the party's gubernatorial primary. Both are immigration hard-liners.

* In one of yesterday's bigger upsets, former Rep. Brad Ashford's (D) comeback bid in Nebraska's 2nd congressional district was derailed by progressive Kara Eastman, who narrowly defeated him in a Democratic primary. She'll face Rep. Don Bacon (R) in the fall.

* In Idaho's very competitive Republican gubernatorial primary, Lt. Gov. Brad Little defeated Rep. Raul Labrador, perhaps best known for his role in the House Freedom Caucus. Come January, it looks like Labrador will no longer hold elected office.

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Trump provides billionaire donor with key intelligence post

05/16/18 11:20AM

Immediately after taking office, Donald Trump made a series of controversial moves, but one that was never fully explained involved a billionaire donor named Steve Feinberg.

In mid-February 2017, the new Republican president invited Feinberg, a Republican contributor and the founder of a successful investment firm called Cerberus Capital Management, to "conduct a review of U.S. intelligence agencies." Feinberg had no experience in this area, though his firm owns a defense contractor.

A controversy ensued -- the Director of National Intelligence reportedly wasn't pleased with the idea -- and as best as I can tell, Feinberg's audit never actually happened. Indeed, he needed to be cleared by the Office of Government Ethics, and given Feinberg's work in the private sector, that would've been more than a little complicated.

But the billionaire, who contributed generously to a pro-Trump PAC shortly before the 2016 election, remained in the president's orbit. In March 2017, for reasons that weren't altogether clear, Feinberg joined Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis on a trip to Virginia to see a new aircraft carrier. A few months later, the White House invited Feinberg and Blackwater founder Erik Price to propose "alternatives to the Pentagon's plan to send thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan."

Feinberg was also reportedly under consideration for a role at the Pentagon or the Department of Homeland Security, though he was, by one account, "blocked by senior officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis."

All of which led to late last week, when the president finally found a formal position for his pal. Vox explained:

The White House on Friday announced Trump's plans to appoint Feinberg, 58, to become chairman of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, a group that reviews the intelligence community. [...]

Under Trump, the board hasn't had any members. Feinberg, however, doesn't have any experience in the intelligence field.

The news doesn't come as a complete surprise, but it's curious nevertheless.

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