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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 7.9.19

07/09/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Flynn case: "Federal prosecutors have notified a judge that they no longer plan to put Michael Flynn on the stand when his former business partner goes on trial in Virginia next week -- not because they don't need his testimony but because they no longer believe he's telling the truth."

* Interesting case out of the 2nd Circuit: "President Trump has been violating the Constitution by blocking people from following his Twitter account because they criticized or mocked him, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday. The ruling could have broader implications for how the First Amendment applies to the social-media era."

* Virginia: "Barely more than 90 minutes after it convened a special session called by the Democratic governor to debate gun legislation, the GOP-controlled General Assembly abruptly adjourned without taking action, stunning hundreds of gun control activists and gun rights protesters who had packed the Capitol."

* Annie Donaldson: "The White House has blocked a third witness who provided crucial testimony to special counsel Robert Mueller from describing the chaos she witnessed in the West Wing as President Donald Trump sought to assert control over the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election."

* This one will be appealed: "A federal judge ruled on Monday that the Trump administration cannot force pharmaceutical companies to disclose the list price of their drugs in television ads, dealing a blow to one of the president's most visible efforts to pressure drug companies to lower their prices."

* Hong Kong protesters prevail: "Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced Tuesday that legislation to allow suspects to be sent to mainland China to face trial had failed after weeks of massive protests."

* Good advice: "Two dozen governors from across the country, including three Republicans and governors of four states that voted for President Trump in 2016, urged his administration on Tuesday to halt one of his biggest climate policy rollbacks: the weakening of federal clean car rules."

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Despite having praised Epstein, Trump now says he 'wasn't a fan'

07/09/19 02:23PM

The scandal surrounding Jeffrey Epstein, his criminal charges, and his many alleged underage victims is multifaceted, complicated by the fact that the defendant has socialized with some very powerful friends. The Associated Press reported yesterday:

Jeffrey Epstein has hobnobbed with some of the world's most powerful people during his jet-setting life. Future President Donald Trump called him a "terrific guy." Former President Bill Clinton praised his intellect and philanthropic efforts and was a frequent flyer aboard his private jet.

The arrest of the billionaire financier on child sex trafficking charges is raising questions about how much his high-powered associates knew about the hedge fund manager's interactions with underage girls, and whether they turned a blind eye to potentially illegal conduct.

A spokesperson for Bill Clinton said yesterday that the former president "knows nothing about the terrible crimes Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to in Florida some years ago, or those with which he has been recently charged in New York." The statement did, however, note a series of instances in which Clinton made use of Epstein's private plane.

For Trump, the story is made more difficult by an infamous quote he made in 2002.

"I've known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy," the future president said. "He's a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it -- Jeffrey enjoys his social life."

Given that Epstein is now facing sex-trafficking charges and allegations that he abused dozens of underage women, Trump's "on the younger side" quote is now seen in a more horrific light.

An attorney for the Trump Organization has said Trump had "no relationship" with Epstein. I suppose "relationship" is a word with some nuance, but there are photographs of the two men socializing 20 years ago.

Asked about his previous rhetoric about Epstein, Trump told reporters this afternoon, "Well, I knew him like everybody in Palm Beach knew him. I mean, people in Palm Beach knew him; he was a fixture in Palm Beach. I had a falling out with him a long time ago. I don't think I've spoken to him for 15 years. I wasn't a fan. I was not -- yeah, a long time ago. I'd say, maybe 15 years. I was not a fan of his, that I can tell you. I was not a fan of his."

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R. Alexander Acosta

Following Epstein's arrest, Trump cabinet sec faces resignation calls

07/09/19 12:53PM

The Washington Post reported this morning that there was "no substantial vetting" done on Labor Secretary Alex Acosta before Donald Trump chose him for his cabinet. That's not surprising given this president's record, but it also means the White House wasn't fully aware of Acosta's role in the Jeffrey Epstein scandal.

As many now know, Epstein was originally accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls in the early 2000s, but he benefited from a sweetheart deal that Acosta signed off on. Indeed, as we discussed in February, a federal judge ruled that prosecutors, under Acosta's leadership, actually broke the law in their handling of the case.

As Rachel summarized at the time, "So, a federal judge just ruled that the current Labor secretary gave a secret non-prosecution agreement to a prolific, serial child sex offender -- then broke the law by agreeing with the guy's defense team that they'd all keep it secret from the victims."

Five months later, prosecutors have gone after Epstein again, and as Politico reports, Democratic leaders have decided it's time for the Labor secretary to go.

Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that Acosta should go because of the "sweetheart" deal he cut with Epstein as U.S. attorney in 2008. It's an escalation from his comments on Monday that Acosta needed to "explain himself" for allowing Epstein to serve 13 months in prison and avoid a federal trial. [...]

Schumer joins House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in calling for Acosta's ouster... Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also said in an interview that Acosta's involvement with Epstein is "serious enough for him to resign." And Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the No. 3 Senate Democratic leader, said that the new charges against Epstein and more reporting on Acosta's handling of the case made "clear it is time for him to step aside."

The editorial board of the Miami Herald also called for Acosta's ouster today. "If Acosta had not shown himself to be ethically challenged 10 years ago, we wouldn't be calling for his resignation as U.S. secretary of Labor now," the editors wrote. "But we are -- again."

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.9.19

07/09/19 12:00PM

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

* Just two weeks after his first debate performance, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) ended his presidential candidacy yesterday, vowing instead to run for re-election to Congress. His national campaign only lasted three months.

* On a related note, those who were pleased to see the Democratic presidential field shrink yesterday from 25 candidates to 24 didn't have much time to celebrate: billionaire activist Tom Steyer kicked off his White House campaign this morning. Six months ago, Steyer announced he wouldn't run for president, though he appears to have changed his mind.

* Republican voters in North Carolina's 3rd congressional district today will choose their nominee for the upcoming special election. State Rep. Greg Murphy is facing pediatrician Joan Perry in today's runoff primary. The general election is Sept. 10.

* In Kentucky, retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath (D), who ran a strong-but-unsuccessful congressional campaign last year, announced this morning that she's running to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) in 2020. 

* On a related note, former Rep. Scott Taylor (R), who lost his re-election bid in Virginia last year after his campaign was rocked by a fraud scandal, kicked off his U.S. Senate campaign on Fox News yesterday.

* In an Emerson poll released this morning, former Vice President Joe Biden (D) leads the Democratic presidential field with 30%, while Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) were tied for second with 15% each. Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) was the only other candidate to reach 5%.

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Accused of 'radiating insecurity,' Trump proves Kim Darroch right

07/09/19 11:20AM

Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the United States, has spent his tenure doing what all foreign ambassadors do: he's reported back to his home country with honest and candid assessments about American developments and personnel. The trouble for Darroch, however, is that his private cables were leaked to the public.

And as we discussed yesterday, that's proven to be quite problematic given the British ambassador's conclusions that the current U.S. administration is "inept" and "incompetent," and Donald Trump "radiates insecurity."

Over the weekend, the American president briefly took a few rhetorical shots at Darroch, arguing that the ambassador "has not served the UK well." Trump added, "We're not big fans of that man."

To the extent that reality has any meaning, Darroch actually has a reputation as a respected ambassador who's worked fairly closely with the Trump administration despite difficult circumstances.

Nevertheless, the Republican president decided to publish a more spirited response via Twitter this morning:

"The wacky Ambassador that the U.K. foisted upon the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy. He should speak to his country, and Prime Minister May, about their failed Brexit negotiation, and not be upset with my criticism of how badly it was handled.

"I told [May] how to do that deal, but she went her own foolish way-was unable to get it done. A disaster! I don't know the Ambassador but have been told he is a pompous fool.

"Tell him the USA now has the best Economy & Military anywhere in the World, by far and they are both only getting bigger, better and stronger.....Thank you, Mr. President!"

So to recap, Kim Darroch privately told his colleagues in the U.K. that Donald Trump "radiates insecurity." After learning of the ambassador's private assessment, the American president went out of his way to prove Darroch right.

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Image: Senate Judiciary Committee

Striking number of lawmakers admit they haven't read the Mueller report

07/09/19 10:53AM

When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called for Donald Trump's impeachment, she suggested it was the obvious call after having read Robert Mueller's report. When Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) also endorsed the president's impeachment, he explained that reading the special counsel's findings is what led him to the fairly obvious conclusion.

The question, however, is how many of their colleagues have bothered to do the work.

Amash sat down with CNN's Jake Tapper over the weekend, and the two spent a minute on this specific point. "Most people don't have time to read a 448-page report," the congressman said. "They expect their members of Congress to do the work for them."

When the host asked how many congressional Republican have actually read the Mueller report, Amash replied, "I think it's probably less than 15 percent."

That's very easy to believe, though I can't help but wonder: how much less?

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) recently conceded he hadn't read it, despite his unique responsibilities. Soon after, Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) sat down with MSNBC's Kasie Hunt and admitted he hadn't read it, either, and he struggled to explain why not.

Politico published a new report this morning suggesting they have quite a bit of company.

Time for a Mueller report reality check: Only a small segment of America's most powerful have read it.

President Donald Trump can't give a straight answer about the subject. More than a dozen members of Congress readily admitted to POLITICO that they too have skipped around rather than studying every one of the special counsel report's 448 pages.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), for example, described the report as "tedious." Asked if he'd read it, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) replied, "What's the point?"

Perhaps it's a good thing Mueller will be on Capitol Hill next week, testifying about his findings. For many members of Congress, it'll be their first introduction to what his report actually says.

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Attorney General nominee William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019.

Barr offers a new reason to question his Russia scandal perspective

07/09/19 10:03AM

Attorney General William Barr complained to the Associated Press yesterday that House Democrats are trying to create a "public spectacle" by subpoenaing Robert Mueller to testify next week. Barr added that he'd support the former special counsel if Mueller decides he "doesn't want to subject himself" to congressional testimony.

Or put another way, the attorney general extended public support to a private citizen, offering to help him defy a congressional subpoena.

But Bill Barr's comments to the New York Times yesterday were arguably even more striking.

...Mr. Barr is pushing forward with his review of the origins of the Russia investigation. "What we're looking at is: What was the predicate for conducting a counterintelligence investigation on the Trump campaign?" Mr. Barr said. "How did the bogus narrative begin that Trump was essentially in cahoots with Russia to interfere with the U.S. election?"

The first question is less problematic than the second. Indeed, we already know what the predicate was for conducting a counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign. Just this morning, the Washington Post highlighted many of the reasons the FBI "might have legitimately suspected or at least wanted to investigate a potential Trump campaign conspiracy with Russians."

Why the attorney general is eager to ask a question that's already been answered is less than clear, but if that's what he and his team are "looking at," it's their time to waste.

The second question, however, stands out for a reason: "How did the bogus narrative begin that Trump was essentially in cahoots with Russia to interfere with the U.S. election?"

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Donald Trump, Kris Kobach

Why Republicans are going after Kansas' Kobach with a vengeance

07/09/19 09:20AM

When Sen. Pat Roberts (R) announced on Jan. 4 that he wouldn't seek a fourth term in Kansas in 2020, the conventional wisdom was that Republicans would have little trouble holding onto the seat. After all, Kansans haven't elected a Democratic U.S. senator since 1932.

But a slight chill ran through GOP spines a few hours after Roberts declared his intentions. Outgoing Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), fresh off his failed gubernatorial campaign, told the New York Times that he was "considering" running for the seat.

Yesterday, he made it official, though as the Wichita Eagle reported, the right-wing Kansan seemed to stumble into the contest, misspelling his own name in his campaign paperwork.

A campaign committee named Kobach for Senate filed with the Federal Election Commission Monday morning, hours before Kobach was scheduled to give a speech in Leavenworth, where he is expected to kick off his campaign.

But the FEC filing initially spelled the former Kansas secretary of state's name as "Chris," an inauspicious start to his campaign to replace retiring Republican Sen. Pat Roberts. The spelling was corrected about an hour later.

As amusing as this was, more important was the reaction from GOP officials to Kobach's candidacy. To put it mildly, they appeared to be terrified of the idea of Kobach winning the party's Senate nomination.

"Just last year Kris Kobach ran and lost to a Democrat. Now, he wants to do the same and simultaneously put President Trump's presidency and Senate majority at risk," the National Republican Senatorial Committee's Joanna Rodriguez said. "We know Kansans won't let that happen, and we look forward to watching the Republican candidate they do choose win next fall."

Bryan Lowry, the Washington correspondent for the Kansas City Star, added on Twitter, "I'm a little overstuffed with quotes from Republicans criticizing Kobach as a candidate, but Sam Brownback's former chief of staff David Kensinger sent me this one about his fellow Kansas Republican: 'L-O-S-E-R.'"

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On his environmental record, Trump turns to 'greenhouse gaslighting'

07/09/19 08:43AM

After the White House announced plans for a presidential speech on the environment, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement, "Donald Trump is resorting to greenhouse gaslighting the public to try and cover-up the fact that he is the worst president in history for the environment, climate and public health."

That's a good line. It also happens to be true.

Before we talk about what Trump said on the subject, part of what made yesterday interesting was the fact that the Republican delivered remarks on the subject at all. The New York Times had an interesting behind-the-scenes report:

Reviewing new polling data, consultants working for President Trump's 2020 campaign discovered an unsurprising obstacle to winning support from two key demographic groups, millennials and suburban women. And that was his record on the environment.

But they also saw an opportunity. While the numbers showed that Mr. Trump was "never going to get" the type of voter who feels passionately about tackling climate change, a senior administration official who reviewed the polling said, there were moderate voters who liked the president's economic policies and "just want to know that he's being responsible" on environmental issues.

So for nearly an hour in the East Room on Monday afternoon, Mr. Trump sought to recast his administration's record by describing what he called "America's environmental leadership" under his command.

It's easy to imagine an awkward conversation between the president and his political advisers who pressed him to give a speech on a subject he neither knows nor cares about. I can almost hear them telling Trump, "Just fake it for 46 minutes and it'll help with some key constituencies."

And so, he did.

The trouble, of course, is that it's awfully tough to pretend that the president has a laudable record on the environment. It's important that Team Trump considered this necessary -- it's emblematic of public attitudes shifting in a progressive direction -- but he failed to make a compelling pitch because Trump had so little to work with.

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A family practice provider uses a stethoscope to examine a patient in an exam room. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

ACA heads back to court, with health care for millions on the line

07/09/19 08:00AM

Health care hasn't been a front-burner issue for the political world in recent months, but today in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, the fight over the Affordable Care Act returns to the national spotlight.

A panel of federal judges in New Orleans takes up the future of Obamacare on Tuesday, hearing from states that say it's unconstitutional and from Justice Department lawyers directed by President Donald Trump to oppose the entire law, too.

The Texas v. United States case is as multifaceted as it is important, so let's dig in with some Q&A.

It's been a few months since I've thought about this and I'm feeling a little rusty. What are we talking about again?

The U.S. Supreme Court already sided with the ACA -- twice -- but the Republican tax plan changed the policy landscape a bit. As regular readers may recall, when GOP policymakers approved their regressive tax plan, they simultaneously zeroed out the health care law's individual mandate penalty. And that, in turn, gave several far-right attorneys general an idea: they could once again file suit against "Obamacare," arguing that the penalty-free mandate is unconstitutional, and given the mandate's importance to the system, the entire law should be torn down.

That sounds like a rather desperate ploy. Is anyone actually buying this argument?

Yes. Shortly after the 2018 midterm elections, U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor -- a Bush-appointed jurist in Texas -- agreed so enthusiastically with the Republican arguments that he struck down the entirety of the Affordable Care Act. That ruling, however, didn't go into effect, and it's currently on hold as the appeals process moves forward.

I've heard for months that this case was about Republicans trying to get rid of protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions, but it sounds like that ruling was even more sweeping.

Correct. The judge in the case could've ruled against the ACA in a narrower way, but he decided instead to take a sledgehammer to the American health care system, because he felt like it, giving Republicans even more than they expected.

Did the ruling make sense?

It did not. Even some conservative legal experts, who've been deeply critical of the ACA, have criticized the decision, with one calling it "embarrassingly bad."

So the 5th Circuit will reverse it, right?

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