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Trump takes fresh aim at his own country's intelligence community

07/31/19 09:20AM

Donald Trump yesterday denied he clashed with Dan Coats, the outgoing director of national intelligence, insisting that the two are friends. The president added, however, "Dan made statements and they were a little confused."

Yes, Donald Trump, of all people, feels justified in complaining about those he deems "confused" about intelligence matters.

But as part of the same brief Q&A with reporters yesterday afternoon, the president also tried to defend Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), Trump's controversial choice to succeed Coats as DNI.

Returning to the White House from an appearance in Virginia, Trump on Tuesday said Ratcliffe "is going to do an incredible job, if he gets approved" by the Senate.

"I think we need somebody like that in there," he continued. "We need somebody strong that can rein it in. Because, as I think you've all learned, the intelligence agencies have run amok. They have run amok."

Keep in mind, Ratcliffe was on Fox News as recently as Sunday, making the case that there was a criminal conspiracy involving U.S. officials investigating the Russia scandal. "[I]t does appear that there were crimes committed during the Obama administration," the far-right congressman said, pointing to "crimes" that don't exist in reality. Ratcliffe, naturally, offered no proof and pointed to nothing in the public record that would bolster his provocative claims.

When Trump says "we need somebody like" the Texas Republican overseeing the entire United States intelligence community, this is likely what the president is referring to: "somebody" who'll make reckless allegations of criminal wrongdoing on Fox News without evidence.

But just as jarring is Trump's belief that his own country's intelligence agencies have "run amok."

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

Why so many Republican lawmakers are headed for the exits

07/31/19 08:38AM

While most of the political world's attention was focused on the Democratic presidential primary debate in Detroit last night, there was some fresh electoral news from Capitol Hill, where yet another U.S. House member said he's calling it quits at the end of this term. Roll Call reported:

Texas Republican Rep. K. Michael Conaway, ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, is planning to retire at the end of his current term, according to GOP sources.

Conaway's decision not to seek reelection in 2020, which he is not expected to formally announce until a press conference Wednesday, leaves an open seat in the deep red 11th District, a part of West central Texas that President Donald Trump won by 59 points in 2016.

If it seems as if you've been hearing a lot of retirement announcements lately, it's not your imagination. Conway's declaration came just one day after Utah's Rob Bishop (R) said he's not running in 2020, either. That came three days after Alabama's Martha Roby (R) said she won't seek another term, which came the day after Texas' Pete Olson (R) announced his retirement, which came the day after Michigan's Paul Mitchell (R) said the same thing.

In all, so far this year, nine U.S. House members -- seven Republicans and two Democrats -- have said they're leaving at the end of this term. That doesn't include former Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who'd announced his retirement before passing away in February, nor does it include a handful of House GOP members who are eyeing statewide campaigns in 2020, but who haven't yet won their respective primaries.

To be sure, there were even more retirement announcements at this point two years ago, but that's cold comfort for anxious House Republican leaders -- especially since they suffered their worst midterm cycle since the Watergate era in 2018.

The Hill added yesterday, "House Republicans plotting to win back their majority in Congress fear they are on the brink of a massive wave of retirements that could force them to play defense in a high-stakes presidential election year."

The larger question, however, is what's driving these retirement announcements.

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Democratic presidential candidates wave as they enter the stage for the second night of the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami.

Debate reinforces the fact that Dem voters are not without choices

07/31/19 08:00AM

When Republican presidential candidates debated in the 2012 and 2016 cycles, one of the unsatisfying things about the events was the degree to which the GOP contenders sounded eerily similar. This was not accidental: the White House hopefuls assumed, correctly, that the way to get ahead in the party's nominating contest was to impress the rabid Republican base.

The number of GOP voters principally concerned with "electability," broad electoral appeal, and finding a mainstream standard-bearer was vanishingly small, so Republican candidates made no real effort to reach them. Instead, their debates were often little more than contests to demonstrate ideological purity.

Sure, they clashed, but only to position themselves as the One True Conservative. Viewers were treated to claims of, "No, I'm the one who's most hostile to immigrants,' "No, I'm the one who hates Obama and the Clintons most," "No, I'm the one who'll dismantle the welfare state," "No, I'm the one who truly worships Reagan," and so on.

Watching last night's debate in Detroit, I was struck by how dissimilar the Democratic contest is this year. As the Washington Post's Dan Balz noted, viewers saw an "ideological brawl" on display.

In Miami, the presidential candidates collectively advocated for policies that highlighted the party's dramatic shift to the left, including government-run health care that would eliminate private insurance, the decriminalization of the southern border and health care for undocumented immigrants. On Tuesday, the moderates in the field pushed back.

The fault line that was exposed between left and center now fully defines the Democratic nomination contest and will continue to do so as the candidates move through the summer and fall and head toward the primaries and caucuses early next year. It ultimately will be up to Democratic voters to resolve the differences, but the choices have become clearer and will now become harder to paper over.

That's not a bad thing. On the contrary, it's what should happen under the circumstances.

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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 7.30.19

07/30/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Quite a breach: "A former software engineer from Seattle has been arrested in connection with a massive data breach that potentially puts more than 100 million Capital One credit card applicants at risk."

* Quite an oversight: "The Trump administration determined that more than 500,000 children would no longer be automatically eligible for free school meals under a proposed overhaul to the food stamp program, but left that figure out of its formal proposal, according to House Democrats."

* It's so difficult to have any confidence in his competence: "President Trump said Tuesday that a new trade deal with China might not come until after the 2020 elections, a significant departure from more than a year of trying to exert pressure on the world's second-largest economy."

* I think this is the infrastructure bill Trump was referring to this morning: "A bill that aims to increase funding by more than 25 percent for the repair and maintenance of roads and bridges, and expedite federal approvals of large infrastructure projects was released Monday by the Senate public works panel, which set a Tuesday markup for the legislation."

* Speaking of Capitol Hill: "The Senate has failed in a bid to override a series of vetoes issued by President Donald Trump, allowing the administration to move forward with plans to sell billions of dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates."

* Perry's tenure has not been without controversy: "Energy Secretary Rick Perry and DOE officials have met regularly with executives from a consulting firm with close ties to the Trump administration seeking to sell civil nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, according to a report released today by the House Oversight Committee."

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In this file photo taken on July 24, 2019 Representative John Ratcliffe, Republican of Texas, listens as former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testifies in Washington, D.C.

What Trump's choice for intel director says about his presidency

07/30/19 12:51PM

Time magazine had an interesting report today on the process Donald Trump followed in choosing an inexperienced far-right congressman to oversee the U.S. intelligence community:

In naming Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe to be Director of National Intelligence, Trump ignored a warning from Republican Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the intelligence committee, according to Congressional aides familiar with the matter. Burr told the White House last week that the move would inject more partisan politics into the work of the intelligence agencies, said the sources, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.

The 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) stipulates that the DNI must have "extensive national security experience".

It's plainly obvious that John Ratcliffe does not have "extensive national security experience." It's equally clear that the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee gave the president worthwhile advice about choosing someone better suited for the position.

But as is usually the case, Trump didn't much care. He'd seen Ratcliffe on television; he has confidence that Ratcliffe would be a knee-jerk partisan; and the president recognized Ratcliffe as an opponent of the Mueller investigation. There was little else to consider.

Stepping back, it's worth considering what this tells us about the state of Trump's presidency.

After Stephen Moore's Federal Reserve nomination collapsed, a former senior White House official told Politico, in reference to the president, "He's impatient and impulsive. When he makes a decision, he wants to move forward. There aren't any people around him urging caution."

That's very easy to believe. It's also an enormous problem.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.30.19

07/30/19 12:00PM

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

* The flurry of congressional retirements continued yesterday, with Republican Rep. Rob Bishop announcing he won't seek re-election in Utah's 1st congressional district. If it seems like there have been a lot of retirement announcements lately, it's not your imagination.

* The latest national Quinnipiac poll, released yesterday, found former Vice President Joe Biden (D) regaining some of the support he lost after the first round of debates. He leads the Democratic presidential primary field with 34% support, followed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren with 15%, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) with 12%, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) with 11%.

* As you've probably heard, the second round of Democratic presidential primary debates begins tonight in Detroit.

* Elizabeth Warren hasn't received many congressional endorsements this year, but she picked up several this morning, including one from Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the former chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who supported Bernie Sanders three years ago,

* As part of a significant shake-up at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Allison Jaslow stepped down yesterday as the DCCC's executive director. NBC News reported that five other top staffers are also leaving, stemming from a controversy over "the lack of diversity among the senior ranks of House Democrats' campaign arm."

* In Kentucky's gubernatorial race, which is just a few months away, state Attorney General Andy Beshear (D) picked up an endorsement from state Sen. Dan Seum, a longtime Republican state lawmaker and former member of the GOP leadership in his chamber.

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Why Trump's boasts about African Americans' calls are unbelievable

07/30/19 11:22AM

Donald Trump's offensive against Baltimore and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) reached its fourth day this morning, with some new, strange tweets. For reasons that appear to make sense only to him, the president seems to think antics like these work in his favor.

But the Republican also chatted with reporters at the White House this morning, where Trump made a series of claims about phone calls he's received from Americans who are delighted with his latest rhetoric.

He started by insisting, "What I've done for African Americans, no president, I would say, has done." Unfortunately, Abraham Lincoln was unavailable for comment. But Trump quickly added, according to CQ TranscriptsWire:

"Now, I'll say this. They are so happy, because I get the calls. They are so happy at what I've been able to do in Baltimore and other Democratic run corrupt cities. The money has been stolen. What they've done, it's been wasted and it's been stolen, billions and billions of dollars.

"And the African-American community is so thankful. They call me and they say, 'Finally, somebody is telling the truth.'"

At the same Q&A, Trump added, according to the transcript, "[T]he African-American people have been calling the White House. They have never been so happy."

He did not appear to be kidding. We're honestly supposed to believe that delighted African Americans, in large numbers, have reached the White House switchboard, at which point operators have directed their calls directly to the president, who basked in their praise.

This is, of course, the same president who recently denied the existence of "racial tension" in the United States, adding that he has "fantastic relationships with the African-American community" -- despite a 13% approval rating among black voters.

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Trump reportedly pays 'sporadic attention' to intelligence briefings

07/30/19 10:40AM

As the controversy builds over Donald Trump's choice of Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) to serve as the director of national intelligence, Time magazine published a discouraging report this morning:

In a sign of how dysfunctional President Trump's relationship with the intelligence community has become already, some senior spies and analysts say having a political ally as DNI may not make much of a difference at this point.

Trump, these senior officials point out, pays only sporadic attention to his daily briefings, routinely ignores analysis that contradicts his own views, and in many cases pursues policies that analysts have concluded are fruitless or misguided.

This, in a rather twisted way, is intended to suggest Ratcliffe wouldn't be all that important, at least when advising the president on matters related to intelligence and national security. Why? Because Trump makes his own assumptions and doesn't much care what his own country's intelligence community has to say.

Alas, this is very easy to believe. Circling back to our earlier coverage, the president sat down with CBS News' Margaret Brennan in February, and the host asked if he's prepared to “trust the intelligence” he receives from his own national security team. In a normal administration, the question might’ve seemed bizarre. In this president’s administration, no one could be sure of the answer.

Trump said in response, “I am going to trust the intelligence that I’m putting there.” I still haven’t the foggiest idea what that was supposed to mean.

Soon after, in the same interview, the host noted that the administration’s intelligence chiefs have concluded that Iran is abiding by the terms of the international nuclear agreement. “I disagree with them,” Trump replied, indifferent to the fact that his team’s assessment was based on facts, and his disagreement was based on his preferred version of reality.

The Republican went on to argue, “I have intel people, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree. President Bush had intel people that said Saddam Hussein in Iraq had nuclear weapons, had all sorts of weapons of mass destruction. Guess what? Those intel people didn’t know what the hell they were doing, and they got us tied up in a war that we should have never been in.”

Trump, however, learned the wrong lesson from George W. Bush’s presidency. To the current president, Iraq offers proof that American intelligence professionals are unreliable. In reality, Iraq offers proof of what happens when a White House pressures intelligence agencies to produce results intended to bolster preconceived ideas and political agendas.

Or put another way, what went wrong in the Bush/Cheney era is eerily similar to what’s happening now.

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Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas., asks questions to former special counsel Robert Mueller, as he testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on his report on Russian election interference, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Wednesday, July 24, 2019.

Did Trump's pick for intelligence director misrepresent his record?

07/30/19 10:05AM

It's alarmingly easy to come up with a list of reasons Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) is a misguided choice to serve as the director of national intelligence. Almost immediately after Donald Trump tapped the far-right congressman for the gig, it became obvious that Ratcliffe lacks the appropriate experience, temperament, judgment, and credibility needed to oversee the entire U.S. intelligence community.

But for now, let's focus on just one of those.

When the president announced his selection over the weekend, he specifically pointed to Ratcliffe having served as a former U.S. Attorney. It wasn't immediately obvious why serving as a federal prosecutor would help prepare someone to oversee 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, but in theory, there could be some relevant overlap.

If, for example, a former U.S. Attorney had extensive experience trying counter-terrorism cases, and it required detailed cooperation with intelligence officials and agencies, that could matter when evaluating candidates for a high-ranking intelligence position.

So, did Ratcliffe try counter-terrorism cases and engage in detailed cooperation with intelligence officials? The Republican congressman's website boasts that he "put terrorists in prison," but NBC News reported that there is "no evidence he ever prosecuted a terrorism case."

While he was U.S. attorney in East Texas, Ratcliffe was appointed as a special prosecutor in a terrorism funding case in Dallas, U.S. v. Holy Land Foundation, in which a Muslim charity was found guilty of funneling money to the Palestinian terror group.

A 2015 news release said, "He convicted individuals who were funneling money to Hamas behind the front of a charitable organization."

But Ratcliffe's name does not appear in the Holy Land trial record. Asked about that, his spokesman said Ratcliffe was appointed by the attorney general to investigate what went wrong in the first of two trials in the case, which ended in a mistrial.

A former Justice Department official said Ratcliffe was appointed by Attorney General Michael Mukasey as a special prosecutor to look into allegations, involving a juror and one of the defendants, that surfaced after the first prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation ended in a mistrial.

NBC News' report added that Ratcliffe "was not involved in the retrial that resulted in convictions."

ABC News ran a similar report, which concluded that the president's choice for national intelligence director "misrepresented" his record.

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Republicans don't remember the Obama era as well as they should

07/30/19 09:20AM

A couple of weeks ago, Donald Trump's Republican allies considered a variety of defenses to explain away the president's racist criticisms of four Democratic congresswomen of color. The one from House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) stood out as ... unique.

The Louisiana Republican suggested controversies like these wouldn't happen if Democrats were as polite to Trump as GOP lawmakers were to Barack Obama during his presidency. "[W]e had disagreements with a lot of Barack Obama's policies, but we never disrespected the office," Scalise said. "We expressed our disagreements in a respectful, respectful way."

The GOP congressman did not appear to be kidding. It led a variety of observers (including me) to point out a hearty list of instances in which Republicans registered their opposition to Obama in ways that were far short of "respectful."

But Scalise isn't the only one with a selective memory. Consider Donald Trump's reflections of the Obama era at a White House event the other day.

"Frankly, the Republicans were gentlemen and women. When we had the majority in the House, they didn't do subpoenas all day long. They didn't do what they -- what these people have done."

The president has bragged more than once about having "one of the great memories of all time," but partisan amnesia appears to be affecting him, too.

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