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Thursday's Mini-Report, 1.2.20

01/02/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Conditions in Baghdad: "Iraqi protesters withdrew from the perimeter of the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on the second day of demonstrations against deadly U.S. airstrikes last weekend, U.S. officials said."

* A deadly nightmare in Australia: "A weeklong state of emergency has been called in the Australian state of New South Wales as deadly wildfires continue to ravage communities, forcing thousands from their homes."

* Hmm: "On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suddenly cancelled his trip to Ukraine that was scheduled for Friday."

* A ruling of note from earlier this week: "A judge on Monday dismissed a high-profile lawsuit by a former national security aide to President Trump who had asked a court to clarify whether he should obey a subpoena from Congress to testify in the impeachment inquiry, or defy it on the White House's instructions."

* Let's hope for the best: "Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., an icon of the civil rights movement, will undergo treatment for stage 4 pancreatic cancer, his office said Sunday. He learned of the diagnosis this month, after what Lewis, 79, described as a 'routine medical visit and subsequent tests.'"

* A big step from Gov. JB Pritzker (D): "Illinois' governor granted more than 11,000 pardons for low-level marijuana convictions on Tuesday, describing the step as a first wave of thousands of such expungements anticipated under the state's new marijuana legalization law."

* It's quite an operation: "Nearly a year after the Trump Organization pledged to root out undocumented workers at its properties, supervisors at the Trump Winery on Monday summoned at least seven employees and fired them because of their lack of legal immigration status, according to two of the dismissed workers."

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The bronze 'Charging Bull' sculpture that symbolizes Wall Street is photographed Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2006, in the financial district of New York.

The nagging detail undermining Trump's stock market boasts

01/02/20 01:05PM

In early November, Donald Trump published an exceedingly Trumpian tweet, declaring, "Stock Markets (all three) hit another ALL TIME & HISTORIC HIGH yesterday! You are sooo lucky to have me as your President (just kidding!)."

A month later, a reporter told Donald Trump that the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down more than 400 points for the day, and the losses were fueled in large part by his rhetoric about trade with China. "[I]f the stock market goes up or down -- I don't watch the stock market," he replied.

By any fair measure, it was one of his more laughable lies. In the weeks that followed, the president tweeted over and over again about the major indexes' closings, his intense interest in the stock market, and his insistence that he's "far outpacing" his presidential predecessors.

To be sure, investors have reason to be pleased with recent returns, but if Trump is eager to draw comparisons, he may not like where they lead. A CNBC report from last week noted, for example, "Trump's third year is above average, but not the best of any past president. In 2013, former President Barack Obama's stock market returned more than 32%, as the economy bounced back from the Great Recession."

A Washington Post analysis added:

While the stock market has performed well under Trump, it is not an unprecedented performance. Trump's stock market returns still lag behind Obama and Clinton at this point in their first terms.

The Dow Jones industrial average has gained about 45 percent since Trump was sworn in nearly three years ago. The Dow was up about 53 percent at this point in Obama's presidency and a whopping 57 percent in Clinton's early years in office.

Part of the problem with Trump's boasts is that he often sees the market as a real-time political barometer tied directly to developments in D.C. If the major indexes are on an upswing, the president sees it as proof of his genius. If they're declining, he insists his political opponents are to blame for the downturn.

The result is routine incoherence.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.2.20

01/02/20 12:00PM

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

* Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, the only Latino candidate seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, ended his campaign this morning. There are still 14 candidates vying for the party's nod.

* The end of the calendar year marked the end of the candidates' fourth-quarter fundraising push, and Donald Trump's re-election campaign raised $46 million in the last three months of 2019. Aides said the haul -- the best of the year -- was fueled by a Republican backlash to impeachment, but Barack Obama raised a comparable amount in the fourth quarter of 2011.

* Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also unveiled his quarterly fundraising, and it was extremely impressive: the Vermont senator raised $34.5 million, which is a significant increase over his third-quarter haul and the best quarter any Democratic candidate has seen all year.

* Two other 2020 Democratic candidates have announced their fourth-quarter fundraising tallies: former Mayor Pete Buttigieg raised an impressive $24.7 million, while Andrew Yang took in $16.5 million. (Expect candidates with unimpressive figures to release them late tomorrow.)

* Just a few months after a heart attack, Bernie Sanders' campaign this week released medical information from three physicians who agreed that the senator is "more than fit enough" for the presidency. A Washington Post report noted that the Sanders campaign had vowed to "release the candidate's health records by the end of the year. The letters are not raw medical data, but they contain specific information about his health."

* Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa) became the first Democratic member of Iowa's congressional delegation to endorse a presidential candidate, this morning throwing her support behind Joe Biden. The former vice president now has 24 endorsements from current U.S. House members, which is more than double his next closest competitors. (Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker have 11 each.)

* Corey Lewandowski, one of Trump's former campaign managers, announced on New Year's Eve that he would not run for the U.S. Senate in New Hampshire. The news disappointed Democrats, who saw him as a candidate likely to lose to incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D).

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Beakers are seen in a science laboratory. (Photo by Eliseo Miciu/Gallery Stock)

Even Trump's handpicked scientists balk at his approach to science

01/02/20 11:20AM

It wasn't long after Donald Trump and his team took office that they looked for ways to make things easier for polluters. Among the first steps was overhauling the EPA's Scientific Advisory Board: many scholars with academic backgrounds were out, scientists with industry ties were in.

In an unexpected twist, however, despite Team Trump moving the EPA's Scientific Advisory Board to the right, it's still not on board with the White House's agenda. The New York Times reported this week:

A top panel of government-appointed scientists, many of them hand-selected by the Trump administration, said on Tuesday that three of President Trump's most far-reaching and scrutinized proposals to weaken major environmental regulations are at odds with established science.

Draft letters posted online Tuesday by the Environmental Protection Agency's Scientific Advisory Board, which is responsible for evaluating the scientific integrity of the agency's regulations, took aim at the Trump administration's rewrite of an Obama-era regulation of waterways, an Obama-era effort to curb planet-warming vehicle tailpipe emissions and a plan to limit scientific data that can be used to draft health regulations.

A Washington Post report added, "While previous administrations have occasionally pushed back at findings from scientific advisers, or ignored them altogether, friction between the group and the EPA has escalated under Trump -- even though nearly two-thirds of its 44 members were appointed by him."

The practical implications of this are real, to the extent that the courts may take note of the advisory board's ignored guidance. Patrick Parenteau, a Vermont Law School professor, said, "The courts basically say if you're going to ignore the advice of your own experts you have to have really good reasons for that. And not just policy reasons but reasons that go to the merits of what the critiques are saying."

But the implications for the role of scientists in governmental decision making is just as significant -- and far more alarming.

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Image: FILES-US-POLITICS-TRUMP-GOLF-OFFBEAT

Spotlight returns to Trump's intense interest in playing golf

01/02/20 10:40AM

On Christmas Eve, Donald Trump set aside about a half-hour for a video teleconference with military servicemembers, during which the president fielded an easy question: how would he spend his holiday? After plugging Mar-a-Lago -- the private club he still owns and profits from -- Trump insisted, "I really, pretty much work -- that's what I like to do is work."

Soon after, the president went golfing. It was, by any fair measure, a rather normal day for him.

On Tuesday, Trump closed out the year with a visit to his Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach for the 12th time during his Florida vacation.

According to CNN's tally, he has spent at least 252 days at a Trump golf club and 333 days at a Trump property as President.

This year alone, he spent at least 86 days at a golf club, despite a late start due to the government shutdown. The golf excursions have included the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia; his Bedminister, New Jersey, golf club; Trump National Doral outside Miami; and Trump International Doonbeg in Ireland.

As a rule, I don't much care how any president spends his downtime. It's one of the world's most difficult jobs, and if a president wants to unwind on the links, so be it.

But with Trump, it's not quite that simple. For example, one of Trump's most common complaints about Barack Obama's tenure was the frequency with which the Democrat played golf. The Trump Twitter Archive shows the Republican whining about his predecessor’s golfing over and over and over and over and over again. The implication seemed to be that Americans should perceive Obama as lazy and easily distracted.

It led Candidate Trump to assure voters he'd govern far differently. At an event in New Hampshire in Feb. 2016, while again complaining about Obama golfing, Trump declared that if he were in office, "I'd want to stay in the White House and work my ass off." It's a vow he repeated several times.

Instead, Trump golfs more than Obama at comparable points in their terms.

But in the larger context, the hypocrisy is the least of the troubles. Complicating matters is the fact that Trump is playing at his own courses, creating a dynamic in which taxpayers end up subsidizing properties the president owns and profits from.

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Shipping container trucks sit in traffic at the seaport, Nov.  29, 2012 in Long Beach, Calif.

New evidence suggests Trump's tariff gambit backfired

01/02/20 10:00AM

After Donald Trump advanced his trade war with a series of tariffs, the president expressed great confidence that his gambit was as effective as it was wise. The Republican spent months arguing that his policy was pumping billions of dollars into the treasury, while shielding American jobs and boosting the domestic economy.

The first part of his pitch was obviously wrong -- assertions that tariffs generated government revenue suggest Trump has never fully undersood the basics of his own policy -- but the rest of the president's argument appears to have collapsed, too. Marketwatch reported:

President Donald Trump's strategy to use import tariffs to protect and boost U.S. manufacturers backfired and led to job losses and higher prices, according to a Federal Reserve study released this week.

"We find that the 2018 tariffs are associated with relative reductions in manufacturing employment and relative increases in producer prices," concluded Fed economists Aaron Flaaen and Justin Pierce, in an academic paper.

The same report added, "We find that U.S. manufacturing industries more exposed to tariff increases experience relative reductions in employment as a positive effect from import protection is offset by larger negative effects from rising input costs and retaliatory tariffs."

In other words, Trump embraced a tariff strategy to, among other things, boost the U.S. manufacturing sector. The evidence suggests this backfired, hurting those the president intended to help.

I imagine White House officials, if they acknowledge the Fed's report at all, will argue that the findings must be wrong because economic growth was healthy and steady in 2019, as was job growth. If Trump's tariff gambit had actually backfired, they'll argue, the economy would be in much worse shape.

This fails to acknowledge a few relevant details.

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Image: President Trump announces steep tarrifs on imported steel and aluminum

Targeting whistleblower, Trump intensifies retaliation campaign

01/02/20 09:20AM

Donald Trump has been away from the White House over the holidays, spending time at Mar-a-Lago, the private club he continues to own and profit from. Politico reported yesterday that the president "cuts loose" at the venue, where he's "comfortable" and feels "liberated."

In practical terms, that leads the Republican to tweet -- a lot -- without regard for limits or propriety.

There's no point in reviewing each of the 162 tweets Trump published since Christmas, though there were some doozies in there. The president retweeted all kinds of weird content from the crackpot fringe; he appeared to publish a picture of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's house; and he even promoted an item that suggested he, unlike Barack Obama, was siding with Jesus of Nazareth.

The Atlantic's David Frum published a piece this past weekend that argued, "Trump's tweeting in the past two days was so frenzied and the sources quoted were so bizarre -- including at least four accounts devoted to the Pizzagate-adjacent conspiracy theory QAnon, as well as one that describes former President Barack Obama as 'Satan's Muslim scum' -- as to renew doubts about the president's mental stability."

There was, however, one item of particular interest. The Washington Post reported:

President Trump retweeted a post naming the alleged whistleblower who filed the complaint that became the catalyst for the congressional inquiry that resulted in his impeachment by the House of Representatives.

On Friday night, Trump shared a Twitter post from @surfermom77, who describes herself as "100% Trump supporter," with his 68 million followers. That tweet prominently named the alleged whistleblower and suggested that he had committed perjury.

A day later, the tweet no longer appeared in the president's timeline, though it's unclear who removed the item and why. (Due to a technical glitch, the tweet was visible to some, but not all, Twitter users.)

Regardless, the damage was done. On Dec. 26, Trump used Twitter to promote a Washington Examiner report that included the name of the CIA official believed to be the intelligence community whistleblower, and two days later, he upped the ante.

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North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un walks to greet Donald Trump at the Military Demarcation Line that divides North and South Korea, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized zone (DMZ) on June 30, 2019.

North Korea talks up 'new strategic weapon' as Trump's policy fails

01/02/20 08:40AM

In the summer of 2018, Donald Trump was so confused about his engagement with North Korea that he started making boasts about having "solved" the problem posed by the rogue nuclear state. As the Republican put it after a summit with Kim Jung-un, "There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea."

Trump added in a tweet at the time, "President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer -- sleep well tonight!"

In the months that followed, as North Korea engaged in missile testing that Trump pretended didn't exist, the American president continued to pat his own back, telling Fox News what a "great job" he was doing with North Korea. Reflecting on the road ahead, the Republican added that there's "great progress being made."

Trump's boasts were difficult to take seriously at the time. They look even worse now.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he sees no reason to continue his self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, warning the world will soon see "a new strategic weapon" unveiled by his country in the near future. [...]

According to state-media's report of the four-day meeting [of his Workers' Party's Central Committee], Kim "confirmed that the world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by the DPRK in the near future," referring to North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It did not provide details about what this weapon might be.

Trump gambled on a curious strategy in which he'd make a series of bold concessions to the rogue nuclear state, in exchange for nothing. Indeed, as regular readers know, the Republican gave the North Korean leader the bilateral talks he wanted. And the international legitimacy he wanted. And the cessation of military exercises he wanted. And the public praise he wanted. And the propaganda opportunities he wanted.

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The Capitol building at dusk.

'Game changer' report jolts debate over Senate impeachment trial

01/02/20 08:00AM

The recent impeachment of Donald Trump ushered in a new phase of the president's scandal, but it did not mark the end of revelations about what transpired when the administration took steps to extort a vulnerable ally for domestic political gain. The New York Times published a report earlier this week that jolted the broader debate, highlighting new details about concerns within the White House regarding Trump's directive to withhold military aid to Ukraine.

Opposition to the order from his top national security advisers was more intense than previously known. In late August, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper joined Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser at the time, for a previously undisclosed Oval Office meeting with the president where they tried but failed to convince him that releasing the aid was in interests of the United States.

By late summer, top lawyers at the Office of Management and Budget who had spoken to lawyers at the White House and the Justice Department in the weeks beforehand, were developing an argument -- not previously divulged publicly -- that Mr. Trump's role as commander in chief would simply allow him to override Congress on the issue.

And [acting White House Chief of Staff Mick] Mulvaney is shown to have been deeply involved as a key conduit for transmitting Mr. Trump's demands for the freeze across the administration.

These are no small details. The Times' report, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, paints an exceedingly damning portrait of a White House operation that began hatching Trump's Ukraine scheme as early as June, with Mulvaney emailing an aide, Robert Blair, asking "whether we can hold [military aid] back" from Ukraine, despite congressional approval.

In the months that followed, top members of Team Trump directly urged the president to follow a more responsible course, only to find Trump ignoring their pleas. It led some in the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to make absurd assertions about the sweeping powers of presidential whims.

The article specifically referenced a pointed email from Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon's top budget official, to Michael Duffey, a political appointee at OMB who was directly involved in executing Trump's scheme. "You can't be serious," McCusker wrote on Sept. 10, after learning of Trump's plan. "I am speechless."

There's no shortage of relevant angles to the Times' report, but there's one overarching element that poses new challenges for Republicans: the revelations come against a backdrop in which lawmakers are debating whether to include key witnesses in the Senate's impeachment trial.

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The New Year's Eve 2014 Celebration in Times Square on Dec. 31, 2013 in New York, N.Y.

Happy New Year from TRMS

12/30/19 08:00AM

It's probably going to be pretty quiet here at MaddowBlog for the next few days, and readers should expect a light-to-nonexistent posting schedule. That said, I'll be around in case major news breaks.

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