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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 5.15.18

05/15/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* North Korea "is calling off high-level talks with South Korea because of ongoing military exercises between South Korea and the United States, South Korean media reported Wednesday local time."

* On a related note, let's note for context that now-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boasted in March that Kim Jung-un "has allowed [us] to continue our [military] exercises on the peninsula."

* Breaking late this afternoon: "A federal judge on Tuesday denied former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's motion to dismiss the indictment returned against him by a grand jury in Washington, DC -- rejecting Manafort's challenge to special counsel Robert Mueller's appointment."

* Following dozens of Palestinian deaths yesterday: "U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley walked out of a Security Council meeting on Tuesday when the Palestinian envoy began to speak, just hours after she praised Israel for acting with 'restraint' in handling the protests in Gaza."

* Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R) "declared victory as prosecutors abruptly dropped a felony invasion-of-privacy charge alleging he had taken a revealing photo of a woman with whom he has acknowledged having an affair. The St. Louis circuit attorney's office said it still plans to pursue the case, either through a special prosecutor or an appointed assistant."

* With Democratic Sens. Mark Warner (Va.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), and Bill Nelson (Fla.) announcing their support for CIA director-nominee Gina Haspel, her confirmation is staring to look like a foregone conclusion.

* Iraq: "Moktada al-Sadr, a firebrand militia leader whose forces once battled American troops in Iraq and were implicated in widespread atrocities against civilians, has emerged as the surprise front-runner in the Iraqi national elections, according to Iraqi election officials."

* What's the defense? "Scott Pruitt began receiving round-the-clock security from the moment he stepped foot inside the Environmental Protection Agency in February 2017, at the behest of a Trump administration political appointee, according to emails obtained by The Washington Post."

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

White House, EPA reportedly blocked embarrassing pollution report

05/15/18 02:22PM

It's not the nation's most recognizable federal office: the Department of Health and Human Services' Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Nevertheless, earlier this year, the agency put together a report of great significance -- which you didn't hear about for a reason.

Federal officials uncovered a water-contamination crisis affecting several areas, with toxic chemicals reaching water supplies near military bases, chemical plants, and other sites in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest.

Common sense suggests officials would learn of these finding and think, "Quick, let's take action to address the problem." Trump administration officials, however, apparently thought, "Quick, let's make sure people don't hear about this."

Politico reported yesterday on Scott Pruitt's EPA and the Trump White House taking steps in January to effectively cover up a federal health study.

The study would show that the chemicals endanger human health at a far lower level than EPA has previously called safe, according to the emails.

"The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge," one unidentified White House aide said in an email forwarded on Jan. 30 by James Herz, a political appointee who oversees environmental issues at the OMB. The email added: "The impact to EPA and [the Defense Department] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be."

This, of course, helps explain why some knowledgeable officials were apparently motivated to reach out to Politico.

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Image: US-GERMANY-TRUMP-MERKEL

Trump drives a deeper wedge between the US and its European allies

05/15/18 12:48PM

The latest cover of Der Spiegel, a leading German news magazine, is not subtle. It shows an orange hand with an extended middle finger, wearing an angry Donald Trump finger puppet. The text reads, "Goodbye, Europe!"

The American president and his backers frequently insist that, thanks to Trump's leadership, the United States is held in high regard across the globe. The evidence to the contrary is overwhelming, and when it comes to America's closest European allies, the Republican has actually created a rift unlike anything the world has seen in modern times. The Washington Post  reported overnight:

America's three closest friends in Europe — Britain, France and Germany — are near-bursting with anger and exasperation at the United States. In a frenzy of meetings and phone calls among them over the past week, their leaders have tried to figure out what they can do about President Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran and his plans to impose sanctions on their companies that continue doing business there. [...]

Trump's continuing effort to circumvent global rules has thrown the multilateral order into "real crisis," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday in a speech to a religious conference.

The same day, Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign policy chief, appeared at a conference, and while she didn't mention Trump by name, there were no doubts about her intended rhetorical target. "It seems that screaming, shouting, insulting and bullying, systematically destroying and dismantling everything that is already in place, is the mood of our times," Mogherini said, adding, "This impulse to destroy is not leading us anywhere good. It is not solving any of our problems."

She went on to argue that even the United States needs global partners, explaining, "No country is big enough to face this world alone."

None of this stopped White House National Security Advisor John Bolton two days later from threatening our European allies with sanctions if they do business with Iran -- which came on the heels of his boss from threatening our European allies with trade tariffs.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.15.18

05/15/18 12:00PM

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

* Remember, today is Primary Day in four states: Idaho, Nebraska, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. There are plenty of interesting races to watch, most notably in the Keystone State, which is dealing with a newly drawn congressional map.

* A new statewide poll in Missouri shows incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) with a four-point lead over state Attorney General Josh Hawley (R), 48% to 44%.

* On a related note, Hawley has two Republican rivals ahead of Missouri's Aug. 7 primary, but they appear to be arguing with one another about which one should drop out.

* This will seem hard to believe, but in Florida's U.S. Senate race, Gov. Rick Scott (R) and his allies are outspending incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and his allies by roughly 48 to 1.

* In South Dakota's congressional race, Republican state Sen. Neal Tapio, Donald Trump's former state director and one of three GOP candidates, recently said a terrorist attack would help propel his candidacy.

* Disgraced former Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), who still owes taxpayers $84,000, appears to have landed on his feet. Just a month after resigning from Congress, the Texas Republican will return to Capitol Hill as a lobbyist.

* In Montana, where Trump and his allies are trying to destroy Sen. Jon Tester (D) over his handling of Ronny Jackson's VA nomination, VoteVets is spending over $350,000 to defend the senator.

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Image: CIA director nominee Haspel is sworn in to testify at her Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing in Washington

Haspel takes new steps to distance herself from Bush-era torture

05/15/18 11:20AM

Gina Haspel's nomination to lead the Central Intelligence Agency is likely to succeed, but it hasn't been without hurdles. During a confirmation hearing last week, for example, Donald Trump's choice to lead the agency struggled with questions about her role in Bush-era torture programs, vowing not to re-embrace those tactics, but also refusing to condemn the torture as immoral.

Soon after Haspel's testimony, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was himself tortured during his time as a Vietnamese prisoner of war, announced his opposition to her nomination and urged his Senate colleagues to reject her.

That seems unlikely to happen. Two conservative Senate Democrats -- West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Indiana's Joe Donnelly -- have already endorsed Haspel's nomination, significantly improving her chances of success. That said, the CIA nominee appears to be taking fresh steps to distance herself from her Bush-era work.

[Haspel] says in a new letter that the CIA should not have conducted then-President George W. Bush's interrogation and detention program where waterboarding and other brutal interrogation tactics were used on detainees.

In the letter to Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Haspel takes a position she wasn't willing to state publicly last week, writing that the interrogation program "is not one the CIA should have undertaken."

In the letter, obtained by several news organizations, including NBC News, Haspel wrote, "While I won't condemn those that made these hard calls, and I have noted the valuable intelligence collected, the program ultimately did damage to our officers and our standing in the world. With the benefit of hindsight and my experience as a senior agency leader, the enhanced interrogation program is not one the CIA should have undertaken."

For those concerned about her torture background, Haspel appears to be trying to find some kind of middle ground. Trump's nominee apparently isn't prepared to condemn the abuses, the abusers, or concede that torture is morally reprehensible, but she's now willing to say the CIA shouldn't have implemented the brutal program.

I suppose that's marginally closer to what Haspel should've said last week -- the fact that this new letter exists at all suggests she doesn't believe her nomination is already a slam-dunk -- but on a substantive level, I'm not sure this new posture should reassure senators concerned with her record.

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A registered nurse demonstrates putting on personal protective equipment (PPE) during an Ebola educational session for healthcare workers in New York in 2014. (Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters)

As Ebola reemerges in central Africa, Team Trump appears unprepared

05/15/18 10:44AM

The latest public-health news out of central Africa is clearly cause for concern.

The World Health Organization is planning to try using an experimental Ebola vaccine to fight an outbreak of the virus in a remote area of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The global health agency says 39 people have been reported or confirmed infected with the virus, which kills between 20 percent and 90 percent of victims, depending on the strain and the care they get.

WHO said Monday that the country's government had okayed the used of vaccines to try and stop the spread of the virus.

While everyone can hope that the World Health Organization's ongoing efforts are successful, closer to home, there are questions about the Trump administration's preparedness.

It was a week ago, today, for example, that the new Ebola outbreak was declared in Congo, and as the Washington Post  reported, on the exact same day, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, the top White House official responsible for leading the U.S. response in the event of a deadly pandemic, abruptly left his post.

The article added that there is currently no senior administration official "focused solely on global health security." What's more, the Post noted that Ziemer's team has been broken up, and thanks to John Bolton's reorganization plan, the admiral will not be replaced on the White House National Security Council.

Wait, this story gets just a little worse.

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The US State Department is seen in Washington, DC.

Who's working on Iranian nuclear proliferation in the Trump administration?

05/15/18 10:00AM

Since Donald Trump took office, the State Department has been marginalized and ignored in ways without modern precedent, and many prominent officials have parted ways with the diplomatic agency. Foreign Policy, however, reported the other day on an especially notable departure.

One of the State Department's top experts on nuclear proliferation resigned this week after President Donald Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, in what officials and analysts say is part of a worrying brain drain from public service generally over the past 18 months.

Richard Johnson, a career civil servant who served as acting assistant coordinator in State's Office of Iran Nuclear Implementation, had been involved in talks with countries that sought to salvage the deal in recent weeks, including Britain, France, and Germany -- an effort that ultimately failed.

The article didn't explicitly say that Johnson resigned in protest, but there doesn't appear to be much of a mystery about what happened here. The acting assistant coordinator in State's Office of Iran Nuclear Implementation intended to continue his service in the Trump administration, right up until the president withdrew from an international agreement Johnson knew was working effectively.

At which point, he stepped down. The timing was not coincidental.

And while Richard Johnson is not a household name or even a high-profile figure in D.C., his resignation is emblematic of a larger issue. While the talent drain from Team Trump has been well documented, the Foreign Policy  article added that his departure leaves "a growing void" in the State Department, which is suddenly lacking in experts on Iran's nuclear program.

The piece went on to note, "The office Johnson led has gone from seven full-time staffers to none since Trump's inauguration."

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Image: BELGIUM-NATO-DEFENCE-POLITICS-DIPLOMACY-MEETING

When Trump refuses to take 'yes' for an answer

05/15/18 09:20AM

Donald Trump made no secret of his opposition to the international nuclear agreement with Iran -- before and after his 2016 election -- but he generally seemed reluctant to close the door altogether. In fact, the American president at times seemed to be engaged in some kind of clumsy negotiations, calling for "fixes" to the Iran deal that would make it "tougher."

What we didn't know until very recently is that many of our partners and allies were grudgingly prepared to go along with Trump's demands. The Associated Press reported last week that the United States' closest European allies "agreed in principle to the toughest of Trump's demands." The American leader, the article added, "walked away from the deal anyway."

The New York Times published a related report over the weekend.

Five days before President Trump pulled out of what he called the "horrible" Iran nuclear deal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told diplomats from Britain, France and Germany that he believed the pact could still be saved.

If Mr. Pompeo could win a few more days for negotiations, he told the Europeans in a conference call on May 4, there was a chance -- however small -- that the two sides could bridge a gap over the agreement's "sunset provisions," under which restrictions on Iran's nuclear program expire in anywhere from seven to 13 years.

Our allies were prepared to accept Trump's proposed changes, but in the end, the American president wasn't willing to take "yes" for an answer.

A Washington Post  report added overnight that European officials invested "months" of effort into negotiations with Trump administration officials, and as late April, an agreement was taking shape. A five-page document outlining supplemental additions to the Iran deal was embraced by our allies.

But in the run-up to Trump's decision, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson each made separate visits to the White House to discuss the effective international agreement, and each came away with "the feeling Trump had not read the five-page document they had prepared and perhaps was even unaware of the effort."

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Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-ELECTIONS-TRUMP

Trump determined to punish the leakers he doesn't think exist

05/15/18 08:40AM

Almost immediately after Donald Trump's inauguration, newly installed White House officials seemed eager to share their bizarre experiences with the press. The president's outrage about the leaks from his own team was obvious.

He did not, however, know quite what to say about them. In February 2017, during an appearance at CPAC, Trump told conservative activists that the leaks aren't real; they're just made-up quotes from unethical and dishonest journalists. In the same speech, the president went on to say that he was furious that officials from his own team leaked real, sensitive information.

How did Trump reconcile the contradiction? By all appearances, he didn't seem to understand that the contradiction existed.

More than a year later, the president is still struggling, as a tweet from yesterday afternoon helped prove.

"The so-called leaks coming out of the White House are a massive over exaggeration put out by the Fake News Media in order to make us look as bad as possible. With that being said, leakers are traitors and cowards, and we will find out who they are!"

So, the leaks are not a problem, and they are a problem. They are invented, and they are real. The leakers don't really exist, and they very much exist.

Trump's had a year and a half to figure this out, and as of yesterday afternoon, those efforts don't appear to be going well.

Of course, we know the impetus for this latest Trump World anxiety. Last week, during a meeting on Gina Haspel's nomination to lead the CIA, a White House official mocked Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) failing health, deeming his concerns about Haspel irrelevant because "he's dying anyway." Kelly Sadler, the White House's director of surrogate and coalitions outreach, has not yet issued any kind of public apology.

But as the controversy grew over the incident, Trump World decided the real problem wasn't Sadler's comment, but rather, the fact that the public learned about Sadler's comment. What was leaked, the president's aides said, was less important than the fact that the quote was leaked at all.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump departs the White House

Trump takes steps to remind Pence who's boss

05/15/18 08:00AM

About a month ago, following a months-long search, Vice President Mike Pence hired Jon Lerner to serve as his national security adviser. The move, however, was short lived: Donald Trump discovered that Lerner had criticized him during the Republican presidential primaries two years ago, so the president told White House Chief of Staff John Kelly "to get rid of Lerner."

Three weeks later, Pence lost his physician, Dr. Jennifer Pena, reportedly because she'd raised concerned about Ronny Jackson, Trump's failed nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.

With this in mind, it appears Trump may be asserting some dominance over his vice president by installing his allies on Pence's team: NBC News reported yesterday that Trump's first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, has agreed to join the vice president's political action committee.

The decision to bring in Lewandowski comes against the backdrop of a New York Times article that reported on tension between the president's team and the vice president's political aides over the emergence of Pence as a political force in his own right.

It was Trump who asked Lewandowski to sign up with the vice president's team, according to a Republican source. Lewandowski's arrival sends a signal that, while Trump and Pence are aligned, Trump is the boss, said a second source, a GOP donor who had been informed of Lewandoski's plans.

At a distance, this appears to be a dynamic in which Trump wasn't satisfied with some of the members of Pence's team, so the president helped choose a new aide for the vice president.

Or put another way, Trump suddenly seems eager to remind Pence who's in charge.

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