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Image: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks during a visit to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia U.S.

Trump once again rejects US intelligence he finds inconvenient

11/19/18 01:02PM

U.S. intelligence professionals have spent quite a bit of time telling Donald Trump that Russia intervened in American elections two years ago. He still can't bring himself to believe it -- which is emblematic of a larger problem with how this president perceives reality.

The intelligence community told Trump there are no dangerous Middle Easterners "mixed in" among migrants from Honduras, but he chooses to believe it anyway. Confronted with information about North Korea building up new missile sites, the president said, "Maybe they are. Maybe they're not. I don't believe that. I don't. And, you know, could be."

And then there's the latest intelligence about Saudi Arabia. NBC News reported:

The CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to a person briefed on the CIA's assessment. [...]

The Washington Post, citing people familiar with the matter, first reported the assessment, stating that the CIA made its conclusion with "high confidence." Khashoggi, a U.S. resident from Saudi Arabia, was a Washington Post opinion contributor critical of the crown prince's regime.

The Washington Post's report added that Trump has been aware of the evidence pointing to Mohammed bin Salman's involvement in the murder of an American journalist, but the Republican "remains skeptical," and has "looked for ways to avoid pinning the blame on Mohammed."

The article added, "The president's skepticism has put him at odds with the findings of the CIA and senior intelligence officials."

Trump shared his doubts with Fox News' Chris Wallace, who asked the president whether Mohammed bin Salman lied to him about the slaying. "I don't know," Trump replied. "You know, who can really know?"

Saudis say one thing; the CIA says the opposite. Trump could side with his own country's intelligence assessment, but he doesn't want to -- so he doesn't.

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Image: US-POLITCS-FBI-MULLER

Trump suggests he won't accept interview request from Mueller

11/19/18 12:31PM

On Friday afternoon, Donald Trump told reporters that Special Counsel Robert Mueller prepared a series of written questions for him, which the president "very easily" answered. Trump stressed how very simple the Q&A was -- he apparently saw this as a test, which he's confident he passed -- while insisting that his lawyers played no role in preparing the answers.

Since we're dealing with a president who's the subject of an ongoing federal investigation, it's very difficult to believe Trump's legal defense team were passive bystanders in response to the special counsel's questionnaire, but that was Trump's line and he was proud of it.

What was less clear from his answer, though, was whether the written responses would mark the end of his communications with Mueller's team or serve as a precursor to a sit-down interview. In his latest Fox News interview, which aired yesterday, the president made the case for the former over the latter.

Chris Wallace asked specifically if his "final position" is that there will be no sit-down interview with the special counsel. The president said he'll "probably" refuse the invitation.

TRUMP: I would say probably. Probably. I mean, I can change my mind, but probably. I think we've --

WALLACE: No interview?

TRUMP: I think we've wasted enough time on this witch hunt and the answer is probably, we're finished.

When the Fox host pressed further, asking what the odds are that he'd agree to a sit-down interview with Mueller and his team, Trump said, "I don't do odds."

Wallace responded, "You ran a casino, sir."

And while that was the correct response, it's important to appreciate Trump's apparent decision not to fully cooperate with the Mueller probe.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.19.18

11/19/18 12:00PM

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

* In Florida's U.S. Senate race, incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) conceded yesterday to outgoing Gov. Rick Scott (R), ending their extremely close contest. Would the Democrat have prevailed were it not for the ballot design in Broward County? Probably, yes.

* On a related note, Andrew Gillum (D) also conceded Florida's gubernatorial race over the weekend. With no remaining gubernatorial contests, we now know that in the new year, there will be 23 Democratic governors -- up from 16 now.

* And speaking of the Sunshine State, Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes submitted her resignation over the weekend.

* In California, it looks like Gil Cisneros (D) has prevailed over Young Kim (R) in the state's 39th congressional district. It's the sixth "red" to "blue" flip in California this year, and it means Dems now represent all of Orange County, up until recently a Republican bastion.

* A notable piece of trivia: Texas' 36-member U.S. House delegation will now feature 13 Democrats, while California's 53-member congressional delegation is sending just 8 Republicans.

* Mississippi's U.S. Senate runoff is a week from tomorrow, and with Republicans feeling antsy about Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith's (R) chances, Donald Trump will travel to Mississippi a week from today to headline two rallies on the GOP senator's behalf.

* In Arizona, we now know that Katie Hobbs (D) eked out a narrow win in the secretary of state race. It'd the third secretary of state to flip from "red" to "blue" this year, following other Democratic wins in Colorado and Michigan. There may yet be a fourth: Georgia will hold its runoff election for its next secretary of state on Dec. 4.

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Image: Matt Whitaker

Acting AG Whitaker gets a strange vote of confidence from Trump

11/19/18 11:30AM

Almost immediately after Donald Trump named Matt Whitaker as the acting attorney general, many recognized the simple fact that the president had made an untenable choice. Within 48 hours of Whitaker's appointment, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters, "I think this will be a very interim AG."

Trump, however, doesn't appear to be in much of a rush to nominate Jeff Sessions' successor. During a brief Q&A with reporters on Saturday morning, the president fielded a question about whether he'd chosen a new attorney general.

"No, we haven't," he replied. "But I will tell you, until that decision is made, we have a great gentleman in Matt Whitaker. And everybody tells me he's doing a fantastic job."

A day later, Fox News aired its latest presidential interview, in which Chris Wallace reminded Trump of Whitaker's condemnation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Russia scandal, which Whitaker is now overseeing despite his public denunciations of the probe.

WALLACE: Did you know, before you appointed him, that he had that record and was so critical of Robert Mueller?

TRUMP: I did not know that. I did not know he took views on the Mueller investigation as such.

WALLACE: And when you found that out?

TRUMP: I don't think it had any effect. If you look at those statements -- those statements that can -- they really can be viewed really either way.

The president said that if Whitaker tries to curtail the special counsel's investigation, "it's going to be up to him." Trump added, "I would not get involved."

Let's unpack this.

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The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stands in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

Trump to nominate coal lobbyist Wheeler to lead the EPA

11/19/18 11:00AM

When a series of head-shaking scandals and investigations forced Scott Pruitt to resign as the EPA administrator in July, those concerned with the environment breathed a sigh of relief. That exhale ended the moment they saw who'd take Pruitt's place.

Donald Trump announced at the time that the Environmental Protection Agency would be led, at least temporarily, by Andrew Wheeler -- a former lobbyist for, among others, Murray Energy, one of the nation's largest coal companies. Wheeler also served as chief counsel for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of the nation's preeminent climate deniers.

The New Republic's Emily Atkin recently explained, "Wheeler is not just the figurative embodiment of the swamp, but the literal embodiment of it. The coal industry is responsible for 72 percent of toxic water contamination in the United States, making it the nation's largest water polluter. That's according to the agency where Wheeler is about to be second in command – the agency that is charged with protecting clean water."

It's against this backdrop that the president intends to remove the word "acting" from Wheeler's current job title. The Washington Post reported:

President Trump said Friday that he intends to nominate former industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as the Environmental Protection Agency's next administrator, a move that would ensure a continued deregulatory push at the agency.

Trump made the impromptu announcement during a Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House, saying that Wheeler had done a "fantastic job" as the agency's acting administrator in recent months. Wheeler took the helm in early July after Scott Pruitt resigned amid mounting ethics scandals.

Some may be tempted to assume that Wheeler's leadership of the EPA won't be much worse than Pruitt's. I disagree.

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Image: President Trump Holds Make America Great Again Rally In Pennsylvania

After saying he was on the ballot, Trump insists he 'wasn't on the ballot'

11/19/18 10:38AM

At a campaign rally in Missouri in September, Donald Trump tried to explain to supporters why the 2018 midterms were so important. "Get out in 2018, because you're voting for me in 2018," the president said. "You're voting for me. You're voting for me."

Two weeks later, the president told a different audience, "I'm not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket because this is also a referendum about me."

The day before Election Day, Trump went so far as to declare, "Even though I'm not on the ballot, in a certain way I am on the ballot."

In his latest Fox News interview, which aired yesterday, Chris Wallace reminded the president that Republicans suffered significant losses in the Rust Belt. "If you can't carry -- and you certainly didn't carry it two weeks ago -- Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania -- you're not going to get re-elected," the host explained. Trump, after insisting that the entire cycle was a referendum on him, replied:

"I didn't run. I wasn't running. My name wasn't on the ballot."

Minutes earlier, in the same interview, Trump said, "I won the Senate, you don't mention that.... I won the Senate.... I won the Senate, and that's historic, too."

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Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Georgia Stacey Abrams speaks as her Republican opponent Secretary of State Brian Kemp looks on during a debate in Atlanta, Georgia, October 23, 2018.

Trump thinks Georgia race was 'stacked against' Kemp (it wasn't)

11/19/18 10:00AM

In his latest Fox News interview, which aired yesterday, Donald Trump was eager to defend the Republican Party's poor showing in the midterm elections by arguing that he personally looked good. The president was specifically excited about Georgia's gubernatorial race, which ended late on Friday afternoon with Brian Kemp's (R) victory.

Referring to some of Stacey Abrams' (D) high-profile supporters, Trump told Fox News' Chris Wallace, "I won against President Obama and Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama in a great state called Georgia for the governor. And it was all stacked against Brian and I was the one that went for Brian and Brian won."

I can appreciate at some level why the president is eager to boast about the results, but the idea that "it was all stacked against" Brian Kemp is demonstrably ridiculous. In fact, the exact opposite is true: it was all stacked in Kemp's favor, thanks to Kemp's own efforts to ensure his own success. Mother Jones' Ari Berman summarized this nicely:

There were a multitude of voting problems in the gubernatorial race between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. Eligible voters didn't show up on the registration rolls or were purged by the state. Thousands of Georgians had their registrations put on hold and weren't sure if they'd be able to vote. Some voters were wrongly flagged as non-citizens; others had their ballots rejected because poll workers told them they had the wrong ID. Hundreds of polling places were shuttered before the election, and other precincts had four-hour lines. Absentee ballots were rejected because of signature mismatches or other minor errors. One Abrams adviser described it as "death by a thousand paper cuts." [...]

We don't know yet -- and might never know -- how many people were disenfranchised or dissuaded from voting in the state. But it's clear that Kemp did everything in his power to put in place restrictive voting policies that would help his candidacy and hurt his opponent, all while overseeing his own election.

Georgia's system didn't fail as a result of neglect or incompetence. Rather, Kemp, in his capacity as Georgia's secretary of state and chief elections official, designed a process that worked exactly as intended.

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Image: TOPSHOT-US-ATTACKS-ANNIVERSARY

Trump tries to explain his wife firing a national security official

11/19/18 09:30AM

Americans confront an avalanche of controversies surrounding Donald Trump's White House on a nearly daily basis, which often means important stories capture and lose attention too quickly. Take the story of Mira Ricardel, for example.

In a move without any known precedent, First Lady Melania Trump's office announced early last week that she believes Ricardel, the White House's deputy national security adviser, "no longer deserves the honor" of serving in that position.

A day later, Ricardel was out, moved to "a new role within the administration."

In a Fox News interview that aired yesterday, Chris Wallace asked about the developments.

WALLACE: Your deputy national security advisor was moved out after your wife did something I've never heard of a first lady doing before publicly calling for her removal. Are you comfortable with the way that went down where it kind of looked like your wife was firing one of your advisors?

TRUMP: Well, I didn't know the advisor well, really, and I know they had a lot of problems.... They came to me. They wanted to go a little bit public because that's the way they felt and I thought it was fine.

I met with Mira two days ago and we're going to move her around. She was with me for a long time, although I don't know her. She's really somebody I don't know very well. But we're going to move her around because she's got certain talents.

So, when Wallace said it "kind of looked like" Melania Trump "was firing one of your advisors," that's because the First Lady really was responsible for ousting the White House deputy national security adviser.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but this is all quite bonkers.

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US military soldiers march during the Veterans Day Parade in New York on Nov. 11, 2014. (Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty)

Even when admitting he made a mistake, Trump makes a mistake

11/19/18 09:00AM

It's extremely unusual to see or hear Donald Trump admit a mistake, which makes it all the more notable that the president conceded he made the wrong choice on Veterans Day.

President Donald Trump says he should have visited Arlington National Cemetery to commemorate Veterans Day -- a traditional presidential act.

Trump, who rarely admits a faux pas, told "Fox News Sunday" that "in retrospect, I should have" gone, but he was busy on calls and had just returned from abroad.

The context matters. Last Saturday, Trump was in France for events marking the 100th anniversary of World War I, and he was supposed to visit an American cemetery. It was, to a certain degree, the whole point of the president's trip. Trump, however, did not attend the event.

Two days later, when many Americans recognized Veterans Day, the Republican could've visited Arlington Cemetery -- a short drive from the White House -- but he didn't. Trump told Fox News, "I should have done that. I was extremely busy on calls for the country. We did a lot of calling as you know."

He added, "I probably, you know, in retrospect, I should have and I did last year."

It's a welcome change to hear Trump acknowledge a misstep, but even when admitting a mistake, he made a mistake: Trump didn't go to Arlington Cemetery last year. He was actually in Asia on Veterans Day 2017.

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Image: President Trump speaks at swearing in ceremonies for new CIA Director Haspel

Why Trump's absurd claims about a revered Navy admiral matter

11/19/18 08:30AM

Retired Adm. Bill McRaven, the former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, is perhaps best known to Americans as the Navy SEAL who oversaw the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. McRaven is also recognized as a revered veteran who's publicly shared some concerns about Donald Trump's presidency.

Last year, for example, the retired four-star admiral described Trump's attacks on the press as possibly "the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime." Three months ago, after Trump said he'd revoke the security clearances of some of his critics, McRaven wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post urging the president to revoke his security clearance, too, explaining that he would consider it "an honor" to stand alongside those "who have spoken up against your presidency."

Trump responded at the time, "I don't know McRaven." Evidently, three months later, he thinks he knows all that he needs to know about the revered admiral.

During a "Fox News Sunday" interview that aired yesterday, Chris Wallace discussed Trump's condemnations of the free press, and pointed to McRaven's concerns. The president dismissed the celebrated admiral as a "Hillary Clinton fan" whose opinion should be dismissed.

TRUMP: OK, he's a Hilary Clinton backer and an Obama backer and frankly --

WALLACE: He's a Navy SEAL --

TRUMP: Wouldn't it have been nice if we got Osama Bin Laden a lot sooner than that, wouldn't it have been nice?

The president then added that the al Qaeda leader was living in Pakistan "in what they considered a nice mansion -- I don't know, I've seen nicer."

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Smoke and flames are seen along Loma Prieta Avenue during the Loma Fire near Santa Cruz, Calif. on Sept. 27, 2016. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Trump reacts to California fires in the most Trump-like way possible

11/19/18 08:00AM

A week ago, as deadly fires tore through California, Donald Trump thought it'd be a good idea to blame state officials for "gross mismanagement of the forests." Despite the fact that the president had no idea what he was talking about, he also threatened to cut off federal aid to California in response to the disaster.

Friday, after announcing plans to visit the Golden State and survey affected areas, Trump told Fox News the fires had something to do with raking, and when asked about the purpose of his trip, the president he was going "just to see the firefighters."

On Saturday, standing alongside Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and incoming Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), a reporter asked Trump about preventing future fire catastrophes. The president responded:

"We have been talking about that on the ride over. I think we're all on the same path. We have to do management, maintenance, and we will be working also with environmental groups. I think everybody has seen the light. [...]

"We have to take care of the floors, the floors of the forest. It is very important. You look at other countries, they do it definitely and it is a whole different story. I was with the president of Finland and he said, 'We're a forest nation.' He called it a 'forest nation.' And they spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don't have any problem. And when it is, it is a very small problem."

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said he didn't know what Trump was referring to. Many in Finland, meanwhile, took the opportunity to mock the confused American president.

In case that weren't quite enough, speaking soon after at an Incident Command Post briefing, Trump was asked, "Does seeing this devastation ... change your opinion at all on climate change, Mr. President?" He replied, "No. No. I have a strong opinion. I want great climate."

Trump is under the mistaken impression that his "opinion" about climate science is relevant.

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