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Behind the bluster, Trump hints at his dubious strategy for Iran

05/16/19 09:20AM

The Trump administration's posture toward Iran has taken an alarming turn in recent weeks, though there's some question about the president's position. The Washington Post reported overnight that Donald Trump is "frustrated with some of his top advisers, who he thinks could rush the United States into a military confrontation with Iran and shatter his long-standing pledge to withdraw from costly foreign wars."

A senior administration official told the newspaper, "He is not comfortable with all this 'regime change' talk."

Of course, that raises the question of what the president would be comfortable with. Trump told reporters late last week, "What I'd like to see with Iran, I'd like to see them call me." He said something similar on Twitter last night:

"The Fake News Washington Post, and even more Fake News New York Times, are writing stories that there is infighting with respect to my strong policy in the Middle East," the president wrote on Twitter. "There is no infighting whatsoever."

"Different opinions are expressed and I make a decisive and final decision -- it is a very simple process," Trump continued. "All sides, views, and policies are covered. I'm sure that Iran will want to talk soon."

It's often difficult to know how (or whether) to interpret the president's many tweets, and as a rule, it's best not to take anything Trump says at face value.

That said, if we look past the usual presidential palaver, some hints of a strategy appear to be coming into focus.

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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

Team Trump pushes to make president immune from scrutiny

05/16/19 08:43AM

In a federal courtroom on Tuesday, some of Donald Trump's private attorneys, hired specifically to keep his personal finances secret, argued that practically all congressional oversight of presidential wrongdoing is illegal. Even if lawmakers were confronted with clear evidence of presidential corruption, Trump's lawyers argued, Congress would have no authority to launch an investigation.

At one point, the president's legal team suggested even the Watergate hearings on Capitol Hill may have been an illegal abuse.

Putting aside how absurd the argument was -- and how likely it is to fail in court -- there's an expectation that private attorneys will sometimes have to make audacious arguments in support of a client with a weak case. It's arguably more outrageous when the White House counsel's office peddles similarly bizarre claims.

The White House told the House Judiciary Committee in a letter Wednesday that it will not comply with a broad range of the panel's requests and called on it to "discontinue" its inquiry into President Donald Trump. [...]

[White House counsel Pat Cipollone] homed in on a rationale that the White House and Trump's business have made elsewhere: that Congress cannot conduct such oversight of the president unless it has a specific legislative purpose.

Cipollone's correspondence was not subtle: the White House intends to defy all subpoenas, deny Congress witnesses, reject all requests for documents, etc. His reasoning sounded familiar.

"Congressional investigations are intended to obtain information to aid in evaluating potential legislation," the White House counsel wrote, "not to harass political opponents or to pursue an unauthorized 'do-over' of exhaustive law enforcement investigations conducted by the Department of Justice."

The use of the word "unauthorized" was of particular interest: to hear Team Trump tell it, investigations launched by the legislative branch should apparently be approved by the executive branch in order to be legitimate.

So, where does that leave us?

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An exam room at the Whole Woman's Health clinic, in McAllen, Texas on March 4, 2014. (Photo by Jennifer Whitney/The New York Times/Redux)

Sponsor of Alabama abortion ban offers head-spinning defense

05/16/19 08:00AM

Before Alabama approved the most sweeping abortion ban in the country, one of the bill's chief sponsors, Republican Sen. Clyde Chambliss, fielded a question from a colleague. Why, a Democrat asked, should state law block rape victims from terminating an unwanted pregnancy?

The GOP lawmaker responded:

"[Under the new policy] anything that's available today is still available up until that woman knows she's pregnant. So there is a window of time, some say seven days, some say ten. There is a window of time that every option that's on the table now is still available. [...]

"So she has to take a pregnancy test, she has to do something to know whether she is pregnant or not. You can't know that immediately. It takes some time for all those chromosomes and all that that you mentioned. It doesn't happen immediately."

He wasn't kidding. As Rachel noted on last night's show, the architect of Alabama's new anti-abortion law defended his proposal by arguing that rape victims can still get abortions just so long as they don't know they're pregnant -- which is every bit as bewildering as it seems.

On a related note, Donald Trump's White House celebrated Alabama's new abortion ban in a statement, which said Democrats support "allowing a baby to be ripped from the mother's womb moments after birth."

Perhaps realizing that this doesn't make physiological sense, the statement was amended to say, "ripped from the mother's womb moments from birth."

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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 5.15.19

05/15/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Stonewalling: "The White House told the House Judiciary Committee in a letter Wednesday that it will not comply with a broad range of the panel's requests and called on it to 'discontinue' its inquiry into President Donald Trump."

* I wish he didn't consider this a laughing matter: "Attorney General William Barr kidded Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday about an impending vote to find him in contempt of Congress. Barr approached Pelosi, D-Calif., at a National Peace Officers' Memorial Day event outside the Capitol, shook her hand and said loudly, 'Madam Speaker, did you bring your handcuffs?' a bystander told NBC News."

* The latest escalation: "The State Department has ordered 'nonemergency U.S. government employees' in Iraq to leave its embassy in Baghdad and its consulate in Erbil amid tensions with neighboring Iran."

* Officials claimed there were First Amendment concerns with this: "The United States says it supports an international effort to find ways to stop social media from spreading hate -- but won't take part in it."

* In case you missed this news last night: "Donald Trump Jr. has agreed to testify next month before the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, a source close to the president's eldest son confirmed to NBC News on Tuesday.... [The testimony] will be limited to five to six topics and Trump Jr.'s appearance will last between two and four hours.

* Welcoming more immigrants would be a good idea: "The number of babies born in the U.S. in 2018 fell to the lowest level in 32 years, according to a government report released Wednesday. The numbers are part of a decades-long trend toward fewer and fewer babies being born each year -- which means we're getting further away from the possibility of having enough children to replace ourselves, according to the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, May 17, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Will the GOP-led Senate ever get back to legislating?

05/15/19 12:52PM

Michael Truncale is perhaps best known as a failed Republican congressional candidate who, in June 2011, condemned then-President Barack Obama as Obama an "un-American imposter." More recently, Donald Trump nominated Truncale to be a federal district court judge in Texas.

The Senate voted to confirm him yesterday, largely along party lines. The vast majority of Republican senators -- including the ostensible "moderates" -- voted for Truncale, though Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) balked.

There have been so many of these votes in 2019, they tend not to generate many headlines. Day after day, the Senate Republican majority, well aware of Democrats' inability to stop them, brings White House nominees to the floor. The chamber nearly always serves as a rubber stamp for Trump.

But David Bernstein raised an interesting observation this week that's worth considering: why doesn't the Senate try legislating?

Barring something unexpected, this Tuesday will mark two months since the U.S. Senate held a roll call vote on passage of any type of legislation. That was a joint resolution to nullify President Donald Trump's declaration of a national emergency at the Mexican border (which Trump later vetoed).

It's been three months, as of Sunday, since the Senate last took yeas and nays on a genuine, full-fledged bill.... The United States Senate, that great deliberative body, has effectively ceased legislating this year. It has shut down. Closed for business until 2021.

It may be tempting to cut Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other GOP leaders some slack because of the circumstances: there's a progressive Democratic majority in the House, which probably has no interest in the kind of bills that could clear the upper chamber.

But the House continues to tackle legislative priorities all the time, sending more than 100 bills to the Senate in the hopes that McConnell might try tackling an issue or two.

That doesn't happen. Pending legislation simply gathers dust.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.15.19

05/15/19 12:00PM

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

* In North Carolina's 9th congressional district, state Sen. Dan Bishop easily won the Republican nomination for the upcoming do-over election, and he'll face Dan McCready (D) on Sept. 10. Bishop is perhaps best known for authoring his state's so-called "bathroom bill."

* It looks like Democrats aren't the only ones having Senate recruiting difficulties: Republicans practically begged New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) to run against incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) next year, but the governor announced late yesterday that he'll instead seek a third term.

* Though some Democratic presidential hopefuls have agreed to participate in Fox News town-hall events, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) announced yesterday that she's rejecting the network's offers. The Democratic senator condemned Fox News as "a hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists."

* Following an FBI briefing, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) conceded that Russian hackers "gained access to voter databases in two Florida counties ahead of the 2016 presidential election." The Republican governor said he couldn't share information about which counties were compromised because of a non-disclosure agreement he signed with federal authorities. (I have no idea why DeSantis was asked to sign an NDA.)

* A new national Emerson poll found former Vice President Joe Biden (D) leading the Democrats' 2020 presidential field with 33% support, followed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who had 25%. In third place, Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren had 10% each, followed by Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 8%. No other candidate topped 3% in this poll.

* Speaking of polling, the New York Times reported the other day that the Trump campaign's internal polling of 17 competitive states found the president trailing Biden in a head-to-head match-up, but leading Sanders.

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A man holds a sign directing people to an insurance company where they can sign up for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare in Miami, Fla in 2015. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

Trump administration accused of 'censoring' online ACA info

05/15/19 11:20AM

Late last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report showing the number of Americans without health care coverage going up, following years of steady improvement throughout the Obama era. In all, according to the CDC, more than 1 million Americans lost coverage in 2018.

Making matters worse, as USA Today reported, the CDC's National Health Interview Survey pointed to Republican policies as likely contributing to the upswing in the uninsured rate.

That's hardly an unreasonable observation. The steps the Trump administration has taken to undermine the Affordable Care Act have been well documented, and adverse consequences were inevitable.

If officials wanted to make things better, they could start to by restoring some of the benefit information they took down.

In the largest report yet by researchers at the Web Integrity Project at the Sunlight Foundation, screen shot look-backs and tallies document removal of at least 85 pages of fact sheets, news releases and answers to frequently asked questions that HHS under the Obama administration posted to help users -- particularly minorities -- navigate the available health insurance benefits. The website monitors also documented 26 cases of what they deem censorship.

"The administration has censored a wide array of content aimed at a variety of audiences, including the general public, beneficiaries and those who serve beneficiaries," the report said. "HHS has surgically removed the term 'Affordable Care Act' from many webpages; taken down information on rights guaranteed under the ACA; eliminated statistics and data on the ACA's impact; and removed links to the federal government's main platform for enrolling in ACA coverage,"

The now-missing materials "read like a highlight reel of the law's benefits, both actual and projected," the report said.

The "Erasing the Affordable Care Act" report is available in its entirety here (pdf).

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Why Kushner's Capitol Hill pitch on immigration went so poorly

05/15/19 10:40AM

Immigration reform may seem like an issue that's moved away from the political world's radar, but some in the White House haven't given up just yet. In fact, the West Wing is apparently hopeful that there may still be a way to get a compromise package through the divided Congress.

To that end, Donald Trump has put the issue in the hands of his young son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who's quietly taken steps to craft a comprehensive solution. In fact, just last week, Kushner did a presentation for several Republican senators, sharing the broad strokes of his proposal.

How'd that go? Politico reported that the presidential son-in-law led the presentation "with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation, which detractors have derided as laughably simplistic." If senators were impressed, they kept those reactions to themselves.

Yesterday, Kushner tried again, and according to the Washington Post's report, Round II was worse than Round I.

President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, faced pointed questions about his plan to overhaul the immigration system in a closed-door meeting with Republican senators Tuesday -- and failed to offer solutions to some key concerns, according to GOP officials who cast doubt on the viability of the proposal.

Publicly, senators emerged from their weekly Capitol Hill luncheon applauding the White House senior adviser's pitch to move U.S. immigration toward a merit-based system that prioritizes highly skilled workers, a task he undertook at Trump's behest.

But privately, Republican officials said Kushner did not have clear answers to some questions from the friendly audience, prompting Trump's other senior adviser, Stephen Miller, to interrupt at times and take over the conversation.

If this reporting is correct, it suggests Kushner didn't exactly dazzle the GOP senators -- who are reflexively inclined to be sympathetic to this White House's proposals. It's worth appreciating why.

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Larry Kudlow

How dissent is addressed in the Trump White House

05/15/19 10:06AM

When it comes to the White House's trade policy, it's sometimes difficult to know whom to listen to. Donald Trump, for example, has repeatedly insisted that his tariffs have forced China to pay billions of dollars to the United States, while boosting domestic economic growth.

Larry Kudlow, the top voice on economic policy in Trump's White House, acknowledged during a nationally televised interview on Sunday that the president's claims are wrong.

I was curious whether this would be the source of some friction between the two Republicans, and according to a Washington Post report, Kudlow's comments did not go unnoticed by his boss.

Trump was irritated on Sunday after National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow acknowledged on "Fox News Sunday" that American consumers end up paying for the administration's tariffs on Chinese imports, contradicting Trump's claim that the Chinese foot the bill, officials said.

"Trump called Larry, and they had it out," according to one White House official who was not authorized to speak publicly.

In fairness, it's worth emphasizing that there's no official account of the conversation, and the Post spoke to others who claimed the post-interview conversation between Trump and Kudlow was far less contentious.

But if the White House official who said the two "had it out" was correct, it's emblematic of a larger problem.

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Winding Road, Turbines. Courtesy of GE.

Trump's speech on energy policy goes off the rails

05/15/19 09:20AM

When Donald Trump headlines a campaign rally or speaks at a fundraiser, there's an expectation that the president will deliver partisan remarks to partisan audiences. Politics, for all intents and purposes, is the point of these presidential appearances.

But when Trump speaks at an official policy event, however, there's an expectation that he'll put aside partisanship and address the substantive policy issues at hand.

The problem with this president -- one of them, anyway -- is that Trump doesn't have more than one speed. It's why, when the Republican traveled to Louisiana yesterday to deliver remarks on energy policy, he abandoned his script and started deriding many prominent Democratic presidential candidates.

Trump drew out the pronunciation of Pete Buttigieg's uncommon last name, saying: "We've got Boot-edge-edge." Using a derisive nickname for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the president mused: "Pocahontas, I think, is probably out."

Trump also said former vice president Joe Biden "doesn't look like the guy I knew" while taking aim at "crazy" Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has a "lot more energy than Biden . . . but it's energy to get rid of your jobs."

And Trump ridiculed former congressman Beto O'Rourke (D-Tex.) for a Vanity Fair interview in which O'Rourke claimed that he was "just born to be in" the presidential race.

"He was made to fall like a rock!" Trump said at an event designed to tout his energy policies at a liquefied-natural-gas plant in this southwestern Louisiana town. "What happened to him?"

At face value, the fact that the president enjoys taking rhetorical shots at some of his would-be rivals is uninteresting. But context matters: official policy speeches, paid for by taxpayers and intended to address all Americans, are supposed to be free of electoral cheerleading for ethical reasons.

Trump, evidently, doesn't much care.

But making matters slightly worse, the president's speech on energy policy also made clear that he still doesn't know much about energy policy.

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