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File photo taken in November 2017 shows U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Trump's 'incredible deal' with China doesn't appear to exist

12/04/18 08:00AM

For those concerned about the effects of Donald Trump's trade war, the developments at the G-20 summit offered at least some relief. The American president was prepared to impose a sweeping new round of tariffs on China on Jan. 1, but after talks with President Xi Jinping, both countries agreed to a pause, allowing negotiations to continue.

It was, for all intents and purposes, a temporary cease fire. And yet, Trump quickly hailed the developments as "an incredible deal."

Indeed, the Republican continued to gush about a trade breakthrough that only he could see. "Farmers will be a a [sic] very BIG and FAST beneficiary of our deal with China," Trump wrote on Twitter, adding, "China has agreed to reduce and remove tariffs on cars coming into China from the U.S. Currently the tariff is 40%."

As the New York Times  reported, no one seems to have any idea what the American president was talking about.

The disclosure took trade watchers and auto industry figures in both countries by surprise. The issue of auto tariffs had not appeared in either government's public statement after the trade war truce.

Even White House officials who were in the meeting with Mr. Xi were not sure what Mr. Trump meant. Peter Navarro, one of Mr. Trump's top trade advisers, said on NPR that the subject came up, but he could offer no details. Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, acknowledged to reporters in a briefing that he was uncertain what Mr. Trump was referring to but said he hoped all the tariffs will eventually reach zero.

"We don't have a specific agreement on that," he said.

So when the president announced publicly that China "has agreed to reduce and remove tariffs on cars coming into China from the U.S.," Trump was either badly confused about a policy he really ought to understand or he was lying.

The "incredible deal" the Republican is so proud of doesn't appear to exist in reality.

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Accusers of sex offender Epstein to get new chance at justice

Accusers of sex offender Epstein to get new chance at justice

12/03/18 09:21PM

Rachel Maddow reports on the dozens of women who say they were sexually abused as under-aged girls by Jeffrey Epstein and his powerful friends, and the outrage over the gentle treatment and weak sentence Epstein was given as a result of a plea deal approved by then-prosecutor Alex Acosta, who now serves as Donald Trump's Labor secretary. watch

Monday's Mini-Report, 12.3.18

12/03/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Unrest in Paris: "'Yellow Jacket' protesters blocking access to 11 fuel depots belonging to one of the world's biggest oil companies have left gas stations running dry in France.... For more than two weeks, protesters angry over gas taxes and the high cost of living have been blocking roads across France, impeding access to fuel depots, shopping malls and some airports."

* Afghanistan: "A top Taliban leader was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan, officials from the Taliban, the Afghan government and the U.S.-led military coalition said, just as Washington is in delicate peace talks with the insurgent movement."

* This should be interesting: "Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel will brief Senate leaders Tuesday morning on what the spy agency knows about Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi's death at the hands of Saudi operatives, people familiar with the matter said."

* In related news: "Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent at least 11 messages to his closest adviser, who oversaw the team that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in the hours before and after the journalist's death in October, according to a highly classified CIA assessment."

* Comey's deal: "Former FBI Director James Comey on Sunday withdrew his effort to quash a congressional subpoena to compel his closed-door congressional testimony after reaching an agreement with the House Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight Committee that he would be provided a transcript of his testimony that he can release to the public."

* G-20: "It is telling that on two of the most contentious topics at the Buenos Aires Group of 20 meeting, the United States eventually joined 19 other world leaders on trade, but when it comes to climate change, President Donald Trump remained firmly alone in his belief it is a hoax."

* Another court defeat for the administration on immigration: "A federal judge in New York on Friday barred the Justice Department from withholding law-enforcement grants from states and cities that don't cooperate with federal immigration authorities."

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File photo taken in November 2017 shows U.S. President Donald Trump (and Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a welcome ceremony in Beijing.

When discussing China, Trump should avoid 'leap forward' references

12/03/18 04:53PM

In the second season of "The West Wing," originally aired way back in 2000, Sam Seaborn was writing a speech in which he wanted to call for a "permanent revolution" in education. Toby Ziegler balked, noting that it seemed like a bad idea for an American president to quote Chairman Mao. "I think we'll stay away from quoting Communists," the fictional White House communications director said in the episode.

Still, Seaborn brought the line to Jed Bartlet, and the fictional president recognized the "permanent revolution" line from Mao's "Little Red Book."

Eighteen years later, it'd be nice to have a real-world president with a similar understanding of recent history.

Donald Trump this morning published a series of tweets, several of which touted illusory progress on trade with his counterparts in Beijing. "My meeting in Argentina with President Xi of China was an extraordinary one," the Republican wrote. "Relations with China have taken a BIG leap forward!

But as the Washington Post's Aaron Blake noted, when discussing China, Trump would've been better off avoiding phrases such as "leap forward."

But "leap forward" is a hugely fraught phrase when it comes to China. The Communist Party's "Great Leap Forward" was an economic and social program of the late 1950s and early 1960s that aimed to modernize the country's economy but has been linked to crippling famine and tens of millions of deaths.

The "Great Leap Forward" involved forcing villagers to live in communes. This disrupted China's agriculture and, when combined with serious weather problems, led to the "Great Famine" -- sometimes referred to as the largest man-made disaster in history.

Estimates vary, but by any fair measure, tens of millions of people died during China's "Great Leap Forward." The initiative was abandoned a few years into the experiment.

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Trump's latest Twitter tantrum raises awkward legal questions

12/03/18 12:58PM

When Donald Trump throws a tantrum, it's often helpful to review it in hindsight when it's easier to contextualize. Last week, for example, the president published a series of enraged missives attacking Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, lashing out at investigators, and condemning the probe as "illegal."

What we didn't know at the time was that Trump had been briefed on Michael Cohen's latest plea deal with the special counsel's office. This tidbit of information cast the presidential tantrum in a whole new light: Trump was publishing furious messages to Twitter because he, unlike the rest of us, knew about a major development that was poised to unfold, which would make things worse for him.

It's against this backdrop that the president had another very busy morning on his favorite social-media platform.

"'Michael Cohen asks judge for no Prison Time.' You mean he can do all of the TERRIBLE, unrelated to Trump, things having to do with fraud, big loans, Taxis, etc., and not serve a long prison term? He makes up stories to get a GREAT & ALREADY reduced deal for himself, and get his wife and father-in-law (who has the money?) off Scott Free. He lied for this outcome and should, in my opinion, serve a full and complete sentence.

"'I will never testify against Trump.' This statement was recently made by Roger Stone, essentially stating that he will not be forced by a rogue and out of control prosecutor to make up lies and stories about 'President Trump.' Nice to know that some people still have 'guts!'

"Bob Mueller (who is a much different man than people think) and his out of control band of Angry Democrats, don't want the truth, they only want lies. The truth is very bad for their mission!"

My first thought after seeing tweets like these was that the president may have seen something that upset him on "Fox & Friends," but Media Matters' Matthew Gertz noted, "You can tell these aren't tweets about Fox & Friends because Fox & Friends did not mention Michael Cohen today."

All of which suggests Trump launched this tirade for some other reason.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.3.18

12/03/18 12:00PM

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

* In a bit of a surprise, Sen. John Kennedy (R) announced this morning that he will not take on Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) in Louisiana's gubernatorial race next year.

* In what may be the final big race of 2018, voters in Georgia will pick their next secretary of state tomorrow. Among the issues on the line: the voter-suppression tactics imposed by Brian Kemp (R) during his tenure in this position.

* Less than a month after getting elected to Congress for the first time, Rep.-elect Ross Spano (R) from Florida's 15th district has acknowledged that his campaign financing "may have been in violation" of federal law. As the Tampa Bay Times reported, at issue are two $180,000 loans the Republican received, which were very likely illegal.

* If you enjoyed this year's U.S. Senate race in Mississippi, I have good news: you're about to see it again. Former Rep. Mike Espy (D) has filed the paperwork to run against Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) once more in 2020. Though Espy lost by six points in last week's runoff, he was the most competitive Democratic candidate in Mississippi in three decades.

* Election officials in Alaska agreed on Friday to reject a mysterious ballot that could break the tie in the undecided state House race, concluding that it belonged to someone who made a mistake and submitted a corrected ballot that was included in the final tally.

* Last month, voters in Missouri easily approved a major new ethics reforms for state government. Republicans in the state legislature are reportedly exploring possible avenues to negate the voter-approved reforms.

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Trump met with Putin at the G-20 summit after all

12/03/18 11:20AM

The drama surrounding a possible Trump-Putin discussion at the G-20 summit became needlessly confusing. There was a resolution, though it wasn't an entirely satisfying one.

To recap, on Thursday morning, the Kremlin announced that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin would have a one-on-one meeting in Argentina. Russian officials said that U.S. officials had "confirmed" that the presidential encounter would happen, and the American leader told reporters soon after, "I think it's a very good time to have the meeting."

An hour later, Trump reversed course, announcing by way of a tweet that he'd canceled the meeting, blaming "the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia." Russian officials and media publicly mocked the explanation, largely because it was literally unbelievable.

As the summit got underway, a Kremlin spokesperson claimed the two leaders would have an impromptu meeting in Argentina, though a White House official denied it. So, what ended up happening? If you guessed that the two would have a private chat despite all the drama, give yourself a prize. USA Today  reported:

"As is typical at multilateral events, President Trump and the first lady had a number of informal conversations with world leaders at the dinner last night, including President Putin," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

Sanders did not provide additional detail about the extent of the meeting, or what was discussed. Trump drew fire for a similar encounter over dinner at the G-20 summit in Hamburg last year when the White House disclosed days later that the two presidents met without any U.S. aides present.

Though Trump hasn't commented on the conversation, Putin told reporters that the two leaders discussed Russia's confrontation with Ukrainian ships in the Kerch straight.

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Michigan Republicans scramble to rig the game before they lose power

12/03/18 10:40AM

We talked earlier about Wisconsin Republicans, after suffering a series of losses, scrambling to overhaul state government, rigging the game in their favor, before they're forced to relinquish power in the new year. As it happens, an eerily similar situation is unfolding in a state next door.

For the first time in nearly three decades, voters in Michigan elected a Democratic governor, attorney general, and secretary of state. As the Detroit Free Press  reported the other day, GOP state legislators don't appear to be taking it well:

As Democratic candidates prepare to take three statewide offices on Jan. 1 -- governor, attorney general and secretary of state -- Republican lawmakers introduced bills Thursday to challenge their authority.

State Rep. Robert VerHeulen, R-Walker, introduced a bill that would allow the state House of Representatives and Senate to intervene in any legal proceedings involving the state, which has traditionally been the purview of the state attorney general or the governor's office.

In addition, state Sen. David Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, introduced a bill that would shift oversight of campaign finance law from the secretary of state to a six-person commission appointed by the governor. The panel members would be nominated by the state Republican and Democratic parties.

And that's really just the start. The GOP-led state legislature -- where Republicans rule thanks to one of the nation's most egregiously gerrymandered maps -- immediately got to work "substantially" scaling back minimum wage and paid-sick-leave laws approved by Michigan voters.

The Detroit Free Press' Brian Dickerson called this what it is: a partisan "smash-and-grab."

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

Wisconsin Republicans scramble to rig the game before they lose power

12/03/18 10:00AM

In 2016, only one incumbent Republican governor lost: North Carolina's Pat McCrory. After the race was called, the GOP-led state legislature gathered for a special session, ostensibly to work on disaster relief for hurricane victims, but instead launched a "legislative coup" to undermine the new Democratic governor's powers before he could take office.

It was banana-republic style governance. It was also, evidently, a model for other Republicans willing to exercise maximalist partisanship.

Last month, after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) narrowly lost his bid for a third term, his Republican allies in the state legislature immediately started talking about stripping Gov.-elect Tony Evers (D) of some of his authority.

It was not just idle chatter. After an election in which Wisconsin voters elected a Democratic governor, re-elected a Democratic U.S. senator, re-elected a Democratic secretary of state, and elected a Democratic state attorney general, Republicans are suddenly scrambling to overhaul the state government in the GOP's favor. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported:

Republican lawmakers are seeking to limit voter turnout and want to take away key powers from the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general before GOP Gov. Scott Walker leaves office in January.

The sweeping plan -- to be taken up Tuesday -- would remove Gov.-elect Tony Evers' power to approve major actions by Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul and give that authority to Republican lawmakers.

That could mean the campaign promise made by Evers and Kaul to immediately withdraw Wisconsin from a federal lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act would likely be blocked.

That lawsuit -- which seeks to gut the Affordable Care Act and strip protections from Americans with pre-existing conditions -- was a major issue in Wisconsin elections, and voters' will appeared unmistakable in the elections' results. The GOP-led state legislature doesn't seem to care.

We've seen plenty of partisan power-grabs over the years, but they're not usually quite this ugly and brazen. What's more, the fact that Wisconsin Republicans unveiled their proposals late on a Friday afternoon was probably not accidental.

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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)

Fraud allegations jolt election results in key North Carolina race

12/03/18 09:20AM

Up and down the Atlantic coast, this year's midterm elections brought up significant changes in nearly every state. The exception was North Carolina, where, thanks to Republican gerrymandering, Republicans received roughly 50% the vote, but ended up with roughly 77% of the power.

The rigged electoral system in the Tar Heel State all but guaranteed that North Carolinians wouldn't have any interesting U.S. House races at all -- or so we thought.

The only contest that appeared even remotely competitive was in the state's 9th congressional district, where former far-right pastor Mark Harris (R) managed to pull off an upset over an incumbent congressman in a Republican May primary, and where Harris apparently won a very close contest on Election Day over Dan McCready (D). The Republican's record of highly provocative rhetoric, especially about women and religious minorities, made his candidacy one of the nation's most controversial, but local voters, by a 905-vote margin, elected him anyway.

Except, maybe they didn't.

The first sign of trouble emerged last week, when the state board of elections unanimously agreed not to certify the results, citing what one board member described as "unfortunate activities." As the Washington Post  reported, we're starting to understand what those "activities" allegedly entailed.

The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has collected at least six sworn statements from voters in rural Bladen County, near the South Carolina border, who described people coming to their doors and urging them to hand over their absentee ballots, sometimes without filling them out. Others described receiving absentee ballots by mail that they had not requested.

Among the allegations is that an individual who worked for the Harris campaign coordinated an effort to collect and fill in, or discard, the ballots of Democratic voters who might have otherwise voted for McCready. Several of the affidavits come from elderly African American voters. It is illegal to take someone else's ballot, whether to turn it in or discard it.

Officials are also examining unusually high numbers of absentee ballots cast in some precincts in the 9th District -- and unusually high numbers of ballots requested but never returned.

The Raleigh News & Observer had a related report on Friday, closely examining the data, including the unusually high number of requested mail-in ballots that went unreturned in minority communities.

Wait, it gets worse.

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