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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.8.19

03/08/19 12:00PM

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

* Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper formally kicked off his Democratic presidential campaign last night, defending his approach to politics. "Being a pragmatist doesn't mean saying no to bold ideas," he told a crowd of more than a thousand people in his hometown of Denver. "It means knowing how to make them happen."

* The Washington Post uncovered some intemperate remarks former Vice President Joe Biden made about race in 1975, which may be difficult to simply ignore more than four decades later.

* Though Donald Trump somehow managed to eke out a narrow victory in Michigan in 2016, a new EPIC-MRA poll in the Wolverine State found only 31% of voters definitely plan to vote for the Republican, while 49% say they'll definitely vote against him.

* Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was among the earliest Democratic presidential candidates to kick off a national campaign, but two months later, the senator does not yet have any endorsements from New York's 21-member congressional delegation.

* The Dems' 2020 field only has two governors, but that number may yet grow: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) has reportedly hired a veteran Democratic operative to oversee his Big Sky Values PAC, which suggests a national campaign is likely.

* As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) moves forward with her presidential ambitions, she'll reportedly unveil a new proposal today that will call for "breaking up some of America's largest tech companies, including Amazon, Google, and Facebook."

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump hosts former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

Trump finds a new way to falsely claim exoneration in Russia scandal

03/08/19 11:20AM

If Donald Trump is an innocent in the Russia scandal as he claims, it's odd that he keeps lying about the ways in which he's been exonerated.

On Twitter this morning, for example, the president wrote that the judge in the Paul Manafort trial "stated loudly and for the world to hear that there was NO COLLUSION with Russia." Soon after, during a brief Q&A on the White House's South Lawn, Trump repeated the claim, insisting that the "judge said there was no collusion with Russia."

That's plainly false.

Before announcing Manafort's sentence Thursday, Judge T.S. Ellis reminded the court that the longtime political operative's crimes were not related to special counsel Robert Mueller's chief mandate -- Russian election interference and whether Trump campaign officials colluded with the Kremlin.

In Trump's mind, there's no difference between a judge saying, "This case is unrelated to Russian collusion," and, "This case proves there was no Russian collusion."

It's as if the president hears a sentence and then mentally edits it, adding and subtracting words, so that the comments reinforce what he wants to believe.

And while that's unsettling, what makes it significantly worse is that it keeps happening.

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Image: FILE PHOTO --  U.S. President Trump and German Chancellor Merkel give a joint news conference in Washington

On security clearances, the leaks are coming from inside the (White) House

03/08/19 10:45AM

When it comes to handing out security clearances, giving White House officials access to highly sensitive, classified information, Donald Trump has a real mess on his hands. To hear the president tell it, he never overruled national security officials' concerns and was "never involved" in the process.

That now appears to have been a lie. When U.S. officials balked at giving Jared Kushner a security clearance, for example, the president ordered John Kelly, the White House chief of staff at the time, to help Trump's son-in-law anyway. What's more, Kushner may not have been the only one to benefit from the president's intervention in the process.

Not surprisingly, the House Oversight Committee requested information from the White House about possible security-clearance abuses. Team Trump promptly refused to cooperate with the inquiry -- and the president himself peddled another lie on the subject.

But it now appears that Congress has at least some of the information Trump wanted to keep secret, not because the president had a change of heart, but because someone on his team went behind his back. Axios reported this morning:

From a White House source, the House Oversight Committee has obtained documents related to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump's security clearances that the Trump administration refused to provide, according to a senior Democratic aide involved in handling the documents.

The Trump administration's problems with leaks will now benefit Congress, making it harder for the White House to withhold information from Democratic investigators.

Though we haven't yet seen the materials, according to Axios report, the leaked documents offer a detailed timeline of how Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump obtained security clearances.

But that's not the only part of this that matters.

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Republican Presidential hopeful and U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) speaks at an event at the National Press Club on Sept. 8, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

Ignoring Trump scandals, Graham eyes Republican conspiracy theory

03/08/19 10:10AM

Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) talked openly about how much he was looking forward to becoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In fact, the GOP senator made no secret of how he intended to use his gavel, telling reporters about his questions about Hillary Clinton's emails and Republican conspiracy theories about Carter Page.

Evidently, Graham wasn't kidding. The Senate Judiciary Committee issued a press statement yesterday, alerting reporters to the fact that Graham has now written a letter to Attorney General William Barr, "requesting documents related to potential abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant process."

"... the Committee is concerned that the Woods procedures and a full presentment of material and relevant facts may not have occurred with regard to the applications for FISA warrants for (and the opening of the underlying investigations on) Carter Page and other individuals associated with the presidential campaign of Donald Trump," wrote Graham.

He continued, "Accordingly, the Committee will continue to examine this Congress, as this Committee and several other congressional committees did last Congress, potential abuse of the FISA and investigation initiation processes with regard to Carter Page and others associated with the Trump campaign."

Broadly speaking, I think there are a couple of angles to keep in mind in response to a story like this. The first is that Graham, who has considerable power in one of Capitol Hill's most important committee roles, is showing strange judgment.

There is, after all, credible evidence that the sitting president of the United States financed an illegal hush-money scheme, which in a normal political era, might be of interest to the Senate Judiciary Committee. In 2019, however, its chairman is far more interested in conspiracy theories related to Carter Page.

The second angle of interest is the simple fact that conspiracy theories related to Carter Page have always been difficult to take seriously.

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For border barriers, Trump eyes funds from military pay and pensions

03/08/19 09:22AM

When Donald Trump decided last month that he would circumvent Congress and build a border barrier through an emergency declaration, it wasn't at all clear where, exactly, he'd get the money. As regular readers know, it's not as if the Treasury can just cut the president a check for $8 billion. The funds would have to come from somewhere.

And so, administration officials identified some pots of money from which to divert funds. The Washington Post reported a few weeks ago that the plan involved taking $600 million from the Treasury Department's forfeiture funds account, $3.6 billion from military construction, and $2.5 billion from a Pentagon program for countering drug activities.

That plan quickly fell apart: the Pentagon program for countering drug activities apparently has $85 million in unspent funds. Trump intended to take $2.5 billion from it. Complicating matters, members of Congress -- including many Republicans -- have told the White House that military construction funds should be off limits.

It's against this backdrop that administration officials are apparently eyeing an entirely pot of military funds.

The Pentagon is planning to tap $1 billion in leftover funds from military pay and pension accounts to help President Donald Trump pay for his long-sought border wall, a top Senate Democrat said Thursday.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told The Associated Press, "It's coming out of military pay and pensions. $1 billion. That's the plan."

Durbin said the funds are available because Army recruitment is down and a voluntary early military retirement program is being underutilized.

According to the Illinois Democrat, lawmakers learned about this latest plan during a briefing with Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

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Job growth came to an unexpected halt in February

03/08/19 09:01AM

Ahead of this morning's jobs report, most projections pointed to growth in February of roughly 180,000 jobs. Regrettably, that's not even close to the actual results.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this morning that the economy added a surprisingly paltry 20,000 jobs last month, while the unemployment rate inched a little lower, falling to 3.8%.

Though the revisions from the previous two months added about 12,000 previously unreported jobs, there's no denying the fact that this is the worst jobs report we've seen in over a year. It may be a fluke -- outliers happen from time to time -- or it may be cause for concern about the health of the job market. We'll know more in the coming months.

As for the political implications, Donald Trump has now been in office for 25 full months – February 2017 through February 2019 -- and in that time, the economy has created 4.91 million jobs. In the 25 full months preceding Trump's presidency -- January 2015 to January 2017 -- the economy created 5.3 million jobs.

The White House has not yet offered an explanation for why job growth has slowed since Trump took office.

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Image: FILE PHOTO: Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort departs from U.S. District Court

Team Trump makes history with Manafort's prison sentence

03/08/19 08:00AM

Paul Manafort, who led Donald Trump's political operation in 2016, was sentenced to 47 months in prison late yesterday, after having been convicted of a variety of felonies, including tax crimes and bank fraud. The sentence was immediately controversial for reasons that have little to do with the president.

Manafort, who expressed little remorse for his crimes and failed to accept responsibility for his misdeeds, could've been sentenced to spend the next couple of decades behind bars. Instead, Judge T.S. Ellis of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia criticized federal sentencing guidelines, after having already criticized federal prosecutors for bringing these charges, and let Trump's former campaign off relatively easy.

There are, not surprisingly, a few ways to look at these developments. As NBC News' report noted, many observers "highlighted the disparity between punishments for white-collar crime like Manafort's and street crime, and between the sentences for wealthy people and everyone else." Or as former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, who was in the courtroom for much of Manafort's trial, told Rachel on the show last night:

"To drop down from 19 years to 24 years all the way down to four years, I think suggests that the wealthy and the powerful do better in court than many other defendants do, and I think it is an attack on the legitimacy of the criminal justice system.

"If you are someone who is indigent or lacking in power, I think you look at a sentence like this and it causes people to have less trust in the criminal justice system."

In terms of the legal proceedings, it's worth emphasizing that yesterday was the first of a one-two punch for Manafort. Next week, he'll appear in a D.C. court, where he'll receive a sentence for an entirely different set of felonies -- including obstruction of justice -- for which he's also been convicted. Trump's former campaign chairman could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison, though we don't yet know whether that sentence would run consecutively or concurrently.

But as difficult as Ellis' sentence is to defend, there's another angle that the White House's allies should probably find more discouraging.

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Former Trump campaign chair sentenced to 47 months in prison

Former Trump campaign chair sentenced to 47 months in prison

03/07/19 09:00PM

Rachel Maddow looks back at the course of Paul Manafort's trial in the Eastern District of Virginia, and talks with Josh Gerstein, senior legal affairs contributor for Politico, about how the sentencing hearing played out, with Judge T.S. Ellis III disregarding sentencing guidelines to give Manafort a much more lenient 47 months in federal... watch

Thursday's Mini-Report, 3.7.19

03/07/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* What we're waiting for: "Paul Manafort, the political consultant and Trump presidential campaign chairman whose lucrative work in Ukraine and ties to well-connected Russians made him a target of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, faces sentencing on Thursday in the financial fraud case that left his grand lifestyle and power-broker reputation in ruins."

* Cohen said he's owed $1.9 million: "Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former lawyer and fixer, filed a lawsuit Thursday in New York City against his one-time boss's real estate business over unpaid legal bills."

* This story out of San Diego warrants some additional attention: "Documents obtained by NBC 7 Investigates show the U.S. government created a secret database of activists, journalists, and social media influencers tied to the migrant caravan and in some cases, placed alerts on their passports."

* White House planning seems wise: "The White House made a quiet but notable personnel change a few weeks ago, moving a veteran staff attorney to a press office that is preparing a response to the much-anticipated final report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — whatever it says, whenever it comes."

* So very disappointing: "The Senate confirmed President Donald Trump's controversial judicial nominee on Wednesday who supported a lawsuit challenging Obamacare. In a 52-47 vote, the Senate approved Chad Readler's nomination to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine joined Democrats to vote against the nominee."

* A worthwhile line of inquiry: "The House Oversight and Reform Committee is investigating allegations of voter suppression in Georgia under Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who has since become governor."

* Remember this guy? "Charges against former Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock are set to be dropped in a stunning agreement reached Wednesday with federal prosecutors."

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Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) poses for a portrait in his offices on Capitol Hill on Jan. 27, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/The Washington Post/Getty)

The 2020 presidential race is capable of surprises

03/07/19 03:05PM

As Democratic presidential candidates go, Sen. Sherrod Brown brought a lot to the table. He has many years of experience fighting successfully for progressive causes; the senator has a proven track record of earning the support of swing voters without compromising on his principles; Brown appeals to multiple Democratic constituencies; and he's popular in the Rust Belt, where the party came up critically short in the 2016 election.

And did I mention that he's from Ohio -- and that the candidate who carried the Buckeye State went on to win the presidency in 14 of the last 14 election cycles?

It was very easy to imagine the Democratic senator becoming a top-tier contender, and perhaps even the 2020 nominee. But in the end, Brown decided he didn't want the job.

Sen. Sherrod Brown announced Thursday he will not run for president.

The surprise announcement comes after a two-month tour through early voting states, which many believed was the building blocks of a presidential campaign.

"I will keep calling out Donald Trump and his phony populism. I will keep fighting for all workers across the country. And I will do everything I can to elect a Democratic President and a Democratic Senate in 2020. The best place for me to make that fight is in the United States Senate," Brown said in a statement.

To my mind, this is the biggest surprise of the 2020 cycle to date. For other prospective candidates who ultimately didn't run, there's a simple explanation: they couldn't line up supporters, they couldn't put together a competitive staff and operation, they were significantly out of step with the party's base and orthodoxy, etc.

Brown, however, is in an entirely different category. For all intents and purposes, he was running, he looked like he'd seriously compete, but he stepped aside anyway.

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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)

The Senate Republican majority takes a pass on oversight (again)

03/07/19 12:51PM

For the first two years of the Donald Trump presidency, congressional Republicans made a conscious choice to ignore practically every controversy, forfeiting the institution's oversight responsibilities. Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders effectively conceded the point.

"[T]he first two years were not about oversight," the president's spokesperson told Fox News. "They were about success."

Sanders didn't elaborate -- I'm not sure if one unpopular package of tax cuts for the wealthy constitutes "success" -- though it was reassuring to hear her acknowledge that the GOP-led Congress largely ignored its checks-and-balances duties for the first half of Trump's term.

Capitol Hill is obviously very different in the wake of the 2018 midterms, and the new House Democratic majority is scrutinizing the White House, holding oversight hearings, and asking some challenging questions of the president and his team. But there is a whole other half of Congress that, in theory, could be doing the same thing.

With this in mind, CNN ran a report this week that stood out for me.

President Donald Trump may have committed crimes over a scheme to pay off women alleging extramarital affairs -- but Senate Republicans say they have no reason to look into it.

GOP leaders and key committee chairmen are making clear that they believe there is no reason to probe whether the President broke the law in engaging in a scheme to hide payments made to two women to keep their stories quiet in the days running up to the 2016 elections.

The Senate equivalent to the House Oversight Committee is the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which, under Republican leadership, took a keen interest in Benghazi conspiracy theories and Hillary Clinton's emails in recent years. When CNN asked Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) whether his panel might examine questions surrounding the president personally financing an illegal cover-up, the senator said he's content to let Special Counsel Robert Mueller continue his work.

Mueller, of course, isn't investigating the hush-money scandal.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.7.19

03/07/19 12:00PM

* With the Democratic presidential debate season just a few months away, the DNC announced yesterday that Fox News will not be among the networks hosting the party-sanctioned events.

* On a related note, Donald Trump, closely allied with Fox News, said via Twitter that he might try to block independent networks in the general-election debates. (I'm not at all sure what he thinks that would mean in practical terms.)

* Barack Obama published a Facebook piece yesterday on the Democratic presidential primaries, noting, among other things, "As this contest heats up, I'm hopeful that all our candidates and their supporters will honor the difference between a healthy competition among allies and the deployment of misinformation and baseless attacks that we've seen too much of in our politics. Such slash-and-burn tactics will not just divide Democrats and make it potentially harder to win in November. They also are corrosive to our democracy and will add to a cynicism that prevents us from tackling big problems."

* In related news, Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) campaign said yesterday that the senator will not air "personal attack ads" against his Democratic rivals, though voters may see ads highlighting policy "differences."

* With Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) poised to vote for a resolution blocking Donald Trump's emergency declaration, there's suddenly some grumbling about a possible primary challenge to the incumbent senator next year.

* With House Democrats poised to pass their expansive voting-rights overhaul, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters yesterday he will not allow the upper chamber to consider the legislation. Asked why, the GOP leader said with a grin, "Because I get to decide what we vote on."

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