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Trump admin: More US troops may be headed for Middle East

12/06/19 09:23AM

The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday night that the Trump administration is considering a plan to significantly expand "the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East," including the deployment of "as many as 14,000 additional troops." The pushback from Donald Trump and the Pentagon, however, was categorical: the reporting, they said, was "wrong."

Yesterday, however, a top Pentagon official, Undersecretary of Defense John Rood, was on Capitol Hill, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that 14,000 additional troops have already been deployed to the region this year, and more may be on the way.

"We haven't made a decision yet," Mr. Rood said under questioning by Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.). "Based on what we are seeing ... it is possible we would need to adjust our force posture. I think that would be a prudent step, depending on what we observe, because our objective is to deter Iranian aggression." [...]

Ms. Blackburn then asked Mr. Rood whether additional forces were being considered, or whether the Pentagon might send fewer than 14,000. "Yes," he responded.

"We are evaluating the threat situations," he said. "We will need to make dynamic adjustments to our posture."

Also yesterday afternoon, a reporter asked the president about the possibility of increased troop deployments to the Middle East. "We'll announce -- whatever we do, we'll announce," Trump replied. "But certainly, there might be a threat. And if there is a threat, it will be met very strongly."

Of course, these possible deployments would follow the additional deployments from earlier this year. The Associated Press added in a report yesterday, "President Donald Trump has approved those increases, even though he also routinely insists that he is pulling U.S. troops out of the Middle East and withdrawing from what he calls 'endless wars' against extremists."

The New York Times had a related report along these lines in October, noting that there are more American troops in the Middle East now than when Trump took office nearly three years ago.

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Job numbers bounce back in November (but there's a small asterisk)

12/06/19 08:44AM

Ahead of this morning's jobs report, most projections pointed to growth in November in the ballpark of 180,000, in part because of the effects of the General Motors strike. It looks like those expectations understated matters.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this morning that the economy added 266,000 jobs last month, while the unemployment rate inched down a little to 3.5%. Fortunately, the revisions from September and October were also revised up, adding 41,000 jobs from previous reporting.

These are, to be sure, very encouraging figures, though as the New York Times noted this morning, ahead of the report's release, the jump in hiring "will not be as big as the report's totals might suggest. Nearly 50,000 striking workers at General Motors returned to their jobs last month. Their six-week walkout meant that they were not included in the government's October surveys. Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton, said the job creation numbers could be further inflated by another 12,000 workers at auto suppliers and related businesses, who were also not working because of the G.M. strike and have now been rehired."

Still, even accounting for the GM angle, November's job report is very encouraging and points to a healthy, stable job market.

As for the political implications, Donald Trump has now been in office for 34 full months -- February 2017 through November 2019 -- and in that time, the economy has created 6.56 million jobs. In the 34 months preceding Trump's presidency -- April 2014 to January 2017 -- the economy created 7.71 million jobs.

As regular readers know, some have asked what would happen if we looked at the same numbers, but assigned the job totals from January 2017 to Trump, even though Obama was president for most of the month. On balance, I think that paints a misleading picture, but it doesn't change the underlying dynamic: if we applied jobs from January 2017 to Trump and compared the last 35 months to the previous 35 months, job totals still slowed from 7.88 million to 6.81 million.

The White House, meanwhile, believes we should actually start the clock for Trump at November 2016 -- the month of the Republican's election -- and apply the jobs created during the final months of the Obama era to the current Republican president. But that still doesn't help: if we compare the last 37 months to the previous 37 months, job totals slowed from 8.23 million to 7.19 million.

Trump continues to tell the world that he's overseeing the strongest domestic job growth in American history, which is plainly false. What's more, the White House has not yet offered an explanation for why job growth has slowed since Trump took office.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

Trump again accused of mishandling info, creating security threat

12/06/19 08:00AM

The House Intelligence Committee this week released a new report on Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal, which included phone records that pointed to a familiar concern: the president continues to use unsecured telephones. That includes frequent communications with Rudy Giuliani -- while the former mayor was abroad -- that the Washington Post reported were "vulnerable to monitoring by Russian and other foreign intelligence services."

The revelations raise the possibility that Moscow was able to learn about aspects of Trump's attempt to get Ukraine to investigate a political rival months before that effort was exposed by a whistleblower report and the impeachment inquiry, officials said. [...]

The disclosures provide fresh evidence suggesting that the president continues to defy the security guidance urged by his aides and followed by previous incumbents -- a stance that is particularly remarkable given Trump's attacks on Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign for her use of a private email account while serving as secretary of state.

The problem, of course, extends beyond breathtaking hypocrisy. By willfully ignoring security guidance, Trump has created a vulnerability that Russia could exploit to advance its interests over ours.

The Post spoke to John Sipher, former deputy chief of Russia operations at the CIA, who said the Republican president and his lawyer have effectively "given the Russians ammunition they can use in an overt fashion, a covert fashion or in the twisting of information." He added that it's so likely that Russia tracked these calls that the Kremlin probably knows more now about those conversations than impeachment investigators.

The same article noted that Trump has "absolutely" created a security issue by using lines vulnerable to interception and blowing off aides who've tried to steer the president in more responsible directions.

And in case that weren't quite enough, the Post reported that after White House officials made "a concerted attempt" in 2017 to have Trump use secure White House lines, the president came to realize this meant officials such as then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly would know to whom Trump was speaking.

The president considered this unacceptable and "reverted to using his cellphone."

And with that in mind, this seems like a good time to update my entirely subjective rundown of the most egregious examples of Trump mishandling sensitive information and creating security risks.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 12.5.19

12/05/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* North Korea's latest line included a "dotard" reference, suggesting conditions are regressing: "U.S. President Donald Trump's comments on military force and the North's leader, Kim Jong Un, would represent 'a very dangerous challenge' if they were intended to provoke Pyongyang, a top North Korean diplomat said on Thursday."

* The latest on the Hawaii shooting: "A U.S. sailor fatally shot two civilian Defense Department employees and wounded a third at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in Hawaii on Wednesday before killing himself, military officials said. Rear Adm. Robert Chadwick said the civilian shipyard worker who was wounded is stable."

* Protecting natural resources: "A Texas judge granted a temporary restraining order this week to the opponents of a crowdfunded project to build part of President Trump's border wall, siding with a butterfly conservancy that sued over its projected environmental impact."

* Brutal images: "Drawings done in captivity by the first prisoner known to undergo 'enhanced interrogation' portray his account of what happened to him in vivid and disturbing ways."

* A case worth watching: "The nation's hospital groups sued the Trump administration on Wednesday over a new federal rule that would require them to disclose the discounted prices they give insurers for all sorts of procedures."

* Trump says a great many things that aren't true: "President Donald Trump has claimed that he does not know Prince Andrew, but a recently resurfaced interview with People from 2000 says otherwise, showing Trump describing Andrew as 'a lot of fun to be with.'"

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Trump tries new defense for 'I would like you to do us a favor, though'

12/05/19 01:08PM

It was September when the White House first released a call summary of Donald Trump's July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Last night on Twitter, the Republican came up with a brand new defense:

"When I said, in my phone call to the President of Ukraine, 'I would like you to do US a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.' With the word 'us' I am referring to the United States, our Country.

"I then went on to say that 'I would like to have the Attorney General (of the United States) call you or your people.....' This, based on what I have seen, is their big point - and it is no point at a all (except for a big win for me!). The Democrats should apologize to the American people!"

If we lower the bar for merit to embarrassing levels, one could generously make the argument that the president's tweets are a refreshing change of pace. This is, in a way, Trump's way of trying to address the substance of part of the scandal -- and given that he usually avoids engaging in this sort of exploration, I was glad to see him at least make an effort.

The problem, of course, is that it's a failed effort.

According to the White House's own call summary, the Ukrainian president brought up the possibility of purchasing additional U.S. military equipment, which Trump responded to by asking Zelensky to "do us a favor, though." The Republican now wants people to believe "us" referred to the United States' interests, not Trump's interests.

Unfortunately, that's ridiculous. Immediately after bringing up the "favor," Trump turned his attention to the crackpot conspiracy theory about CrowdStrike and Ukraine possibly having a DNC server. He soon after added, "The other thing, there's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it ... It sounds horrible to me."

Throughout this part of the conversation, Trump referenced Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Barr as individuals the Ukrainian was supposed to speak to.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.5.19

12/05/19 12:00PM

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

* In a bit of a surprise, Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, announced he'll retire at the end of this Congress. So far this year, however, Republican congressional retirements heavily outnumber Democratic retirements.

* In California, the latest poll from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found Bernie Sanders leading the Democrats' 2020 field with 24%, followed closely by Elizabeth Warren with 22%. The survey shows Joe Biden third in the Golden State with 14%, followed by Pete Buttigieg at 12%. (Note, the poll, which showed Kamala Harris with 7%, was conducted before the senator's withdrawal from the race.)

* The National Republican Congressional Committee is cutting aid to George Buck Jr. (R), Rep. Charlie Crist's (D-Fla.) rival, following a recent email in which Buck appears to have made death threats toward Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. Buck denied having written the email, which was sent along with his signature.

* Apparently trying to make up for lost time, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg is investing "tens of millions of more dollars" in a new television ad campaign in support of his Democratic presidential bid that will air in all 50 states.

* Norm Sterzenbach, an Iowa political veteran who served as the state director for Beto O'Rourke's ill-fated presidential campaign, this week joined Sen. Amy Klobuchar's operation in the Hawkeye State.

* Outgoing Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) yesterday offered a new explanation for his recent defeat. "The left, those who think of a different ideological bent, they are getting so good at harvesting votes in the urban communities," the Republican told 55KRC in Cincinnati. "They were able to go into urban communities where people are densely populated on college campuses and public housing projects."

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At Pelosi's direction, House to proceed with impeachment articles

12/05/19 11:10AM

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) held a closed-door caucus meeting with Democrats yesterday, and while there's no recording of her remarks, the Speaker reportedly asked her party's conference, "Are you ready?"

Pelosi was referring, of course, to the party's preparations to draw articles of impeachment against Donald Trump. Evidently, she was satisfied with her members' response to the question. After several months in which the House Speaker resisted calls for an impeachment inquiry, Pelosi delivered these remarks this morning:

"Our democracy is what is at stake. The president leaves us no choice but to act, because he is trying to corrupt, once again, the election for his own benefit.

"The president has engaged in abuse of power undermining our national security and jeopardizing the integrity of our elections. His actions are in defiance of the vision of our Founders and the oath of office that he takes 'to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.'

"Sadly, but with confidence and humility, with allegiance to our founders and our hearts full of love for America, today, I am asking our chairmen to proceed with articles of impeachment."

As NBC News' report added, Pelosi's announcement came "one day after the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing in the inquiry in which three of the four witnesses argued that Trump committed impeachable offenses, including in his campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens."

So, what happens now? Members of the Judiciary Committee will proceed with writing some articles of impeachment -- we don't yet know exactly how many -- though Pelosi's reference to "chairmen" suggests it's likely that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) will be involved in the process.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) announced this morning that his panel will convene again on Monday morning for a hearing "to receive presentations from counsels to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and House Judiciary Committee." The press notice added, "Counsels for the Majority and the Minority will present for their respective Committees."

In effect, both parties' counsels will present their findings, clearing the way for the Judiciary Committee to begin the markup phase -- debating and voting on articles of impeachment -- as early as late next week. (Remember, White House officials were offered an opportunity to present evidence in defense of the president, but so far, they've refused to participate in the process.)

If we assume the committee advances articles -- which seems like a safe bet under the circumstances -- we appear to be on track for a floor vote on impeachment the week before Christmas.

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Stumbling on trade with China, Trump turns to Jared Kushner (again)

12/05/19 10:18AM

Nearly two months ago, Donald Trump delivered a speech in which he touted his ability to do "great things." As proof, the president said, "Look at what we did yesterday with China."

The comments came about 24 hours after Trump told reporters, "So, we just made what, I guess, is one of the biggest deals that's been made in a long time, with China." The president went on to say, "[I]f you look at the deal, the deal is so incredible. The deal is a great deal."

In reality, there was no deal. Trump had already abandoned plans for a comprehensive trade agreement with Beijing, choosing instead to pursue a more modest "phase one" trade deal that he hoped would lead to additional progress. In October, the Republican bragged as if that initial "phase" was complete, but no such agreement was reached.

Indeed, Trump was forced to concede this week that the trade deal he said was finished in October may not come until after next year's U.S. elections.

It's against this backdrop that the American president is turning to a familiar figure to help with negotiations with Beijing. Reuters reported yesterday:

President Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner has added another role to his long list of White House duties - U.S.-China trade negotiator - as Washington and Beijing try to reach an initial agreement to avoid new U.S. tariffs on Dec. 15.

People familiar with the talks said Kushner ... has increased his direct involvement in the negotiations with China over the past two weeks.... A White House official confirmed Kushner's involvement, but declined to provide specific details on the influence he has had on the negotiations. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said Kushner has recently met with Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States.

This report comes just a week after Trump's young son-in-law also became the "de facto project manager" for constructing a border wall ahead of the president's re-election bid.

At the start of Trump's presidency, Kushner's comically expansive policy portfolio became a running joke. In time, as the White House team gradually expanded, the joke faded, though it's apparently made a startling comeback.

That said, the scope of the problem goes quite a bit further.

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Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., participates in a news conference.

When will Congress' newest criminal resign his seat?

12/05/19 09:24AM

When then-Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) agreed to plead guilty to charges relating to insider trading, he issued a letter of resignation the same day, and it took effect one day later. It seemed like an obvious thing to do: there's no requirement that forces convicted criminals to resign from Congress, but common sense suggests it's the appropriate next step.

Indeed, it's the pattern others have also followed. When then-Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) was convicted of corruption charges, he resigned two days later, in part because Democratic leaders told him he didn't have a choice. A year earlier, then-Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) stated publicly that he intended to keep his seat, even after pleading guilty to tax fraud, though he too soon realized that resignation was his only credible option.

All of which leads us to Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who's been caught up in an ugly corruption scandal, and who agreed this week to plead guilty to misusing campaign funds. As the California Republican awaits sentencing -- prison time is a distinct possibility -- his resignation is a foregone conclusion, right?

Not necessarily. Politico reported yesterday:

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) is showing no signs of stepping down from office despite his guilty plea Tuesday on a felony campaign finance charge in federal court.

When asked Wednesday about whether and when he intended to resign, Hunter blew off the question. "Good talk," Hunter told a POLITICO reporter.

The article added that both parties' leaders want to see Hunter step down, though he has not yet met with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) about his future.

And what happens if Hunter refuses to quit? There are a couple of angles to keep in mind.

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An electronic benefit card for Georgia's food stamp program sits on the counter of Shinholster Grocery & Meat in Irwinton, Ga., Nov. 21, 2013.

After cutting taxes for the wealthy, Team Trump targets food stamps

12/05/19 08:40AM

Donald Trump has exactly one major legislative accomplishment: he signed an unpopular and regressive package of tax cuts approved by congressional Republicans two years ago. Apparently eager to create a modern-day Dickensian story, the Trump administration is now taking the next step, making it more difficult for many Americans to access the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.

The USDA rule change affects people between the ages of 18 and 49 who are childless and not disabled. Under current rules, this group is required to work at least 20 hours a week for more than three months over a 36-month period to qualify for food stamps, but states have been able to create waivers for areas that face high unemployment.

The new rule would limit states from waiving those standards, instead restricting their use to those areas that have a 6 percent unemployment rate or higher.

An analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities fleshed this out further, noting that the "draconian rule" adversely affects "the poorest of the poor": Americans whose average income "is just 18 percent of the poverty line." Currently, their average monthly SNAP benefits total about $165 per month.

And now, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis added, the Republican administration is ending "basic food assistance for nearly 700,000 of the nation's poorest and most destitute people."

In case this weren't Dickensian enough, let's also note for context that the news is reaching the public just a few weeks before Christmas.

What's more, as New York's Sarah Jones explained, this isn't the only element of the Trump administration's plans to restrict low-income Americans' access to food assistance:

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Biden hits Trump where it hurts, labels him a global 'laughing stock'

12/05/19 08:00AM

At a Buckingham Palace reception on Tuesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson were recorded sharing a few candid thoughts as the latest NATO summit neared its conclusion. Not surprisingly, they appeared to have some concerns about Donald Trump.

The recorded rhetoric could've been far worse, though there was one obvious takeaway from the incident: the leaders of some of the United States' closest allies clearly don't have much respect for the current American president.

And as the Washington Post reported, that simple fact has become the basis for a striking new campaign ad.

Former vice president Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate, released a new campaign ad late Wednesday highlighting the NATO video in a blistering critique of Trump's ability to lead on the global stage. Biden's campaign also mocked Trump's repeated insistence that the U.S. requires a president who isn't a "laughing stock," ending the ad with a graphic that read, "We need a leader the world respects." By early Thursday, the roughly minute-long video had been watched more than 4 million times.

"The world is laughing at President Trump," Biden tweeted. "They see him for what he really is: dangerously incompetent and incapable of world leadership."

In the latter half of the ad, the Democratic candidate describes the president as "insincere, ill-informed, corrupt, dangerously incompetent, and incapable, in my view, of world leadership."

Biden added, "And if we give Donald Trump four more years, we'll have a great deal of difficulty of ever being able to recover America's standing in the world, and our capacity to bring nations together."

If you watch the clip, note that this week's exchange in London isn't the only featured example of Trump facing ridicule on the international stage. The Biden campaign's ad also shows the Republican being laughed at during remarks at the United Nations, among other embarrassing moments. (My personal favorite remains Trump's decision to push aside Montenegro Prime Minister Dusko Markovic at a 2017 NATO gathering in preparation for a group photo.)

Why is it that this ad has struck a chord so quickly? I think there are a few angles to keep in mind.

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