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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 2.20.19

02/20/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* In the criminal-justice world, this ruling is a big deal: "The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that the Constitution's ban on excessive fines applies to punishments imposed by the states as well as by the federal government."

* Trade talks: "President Trump gave his firmest indication yet that the U.S. may not increase tariffs on Chinese goods on March 1, as scheduled, despite statements by his top trade official that the U.S. should stick to a firm deadline."

* If Trump were to nominate Shanahan to lead the Pentagon, this could matter: "Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan clashed with Sen. Lindsey Graham over the administration's Syria policy during a briefing last weekend, prompting Graham to unleash a string of expletives and declare himself Shanahan's 'adversary,' according to two officials in the briefing and three others familiar with the conversation."

* Sulzberger's right: "A few hours after President Donald Trump described The New York Times in a tweet as 'a true ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE,' A.G. Sulzberger, the newspaper's publisher, accused him of a 'reckless' and 'dangerous' attack that could put the lives of journalists at risk."

* In case you missed this last night: "President Donald Trump plans to nominate Jeffrey Rosen as the next deputy U.S. attorney general, the White House said on Tuesday night, the latest shuffle in the Justice Department at a time when it faces close scrutiny over its Russia investigation."

* Coats' precarious future: "President Trump has grown increasingly disenchanted with Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, who has served as the nation's top intelligence official for nearly two years, leading some administration officials to worry he will soon be dismissed, according to people familiar with the matter."

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A man throws an earth balloon into the air as people fill 58th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue before a global warming march in New York Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. (Photo by Mel Evans/AP)

Trump poised to challenge idea that climate crisis is a security threat

02/20/19 03:47PM

In recent weeks, Donald Trump's national security team has contradicted the president on a wide variety of fronts, including Iran, North Korea, Russia, border security, and the nature of the ISIS threat. It comes against a backdrop in which U.S. intelligence officials have alerted the public to the fact that the president is hostile toward any information that challenges his preconceived ideas.

And then, of course, there's the climate crisis.

About a month ago, the Pentagon issued a report, making clear that climate change is a global security threat. Soon after, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats went quite a bit further, and went into even more detail.

"Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security," Coats explained in the annual "Worldwide Threat Assessment" report. He added, "Extreme weather events, many worsened by accelerating sea level rise, will particularly affect urban coastal areas in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Western Hemisphere. Damage to communication, energy, and transportation infrastructure could affect low-lying military bases, inflict economic costs, and cause human displacement and loss of life."

Not surprisingly, Donald Trump, who has suggested the climate science is a hoax concocted by the Chinese, has no use for these findings. What is surprising is what the Republican president intends to do with the information. The Washington Post reported today:

The White House is working to assemble a panel to assess whether climate change poses a national security threat, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post, a conclusion that federal intelligence agencies have affirmed several times since President Trump took office.

The proposed Presidential Committee on Climate Security, which would be established by executive order, is being spearheaded by William Happer, a National Security Council senior director.

As Trump World moves go, this one is especially indefensible.

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Ben Carson watches as Donald Trump takes the stage during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Oct. 28, 2015, in Boulder, Colo. (Photo by Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Carson's HUD trouble: 'No one knows what they are supposed to do'

02/20/19 12:40PM

Ben Carson's tenure as secretary of Housing and Urban Development has not been easy. Less than a year after assuming the cabinet role, for example, the retired physician allegedly ignored warnings from HUD attorneys and permitted his son to organize an official agency event in Baltimore -- where Carson's son is a local businessman.

There was also the mess in which the secretary struggled to keep his story straight about his very expensive taxpayer-funded furniture, as well as an incident in which he announced the departure of a HUD official who wasn't leaving the agency. (She later resigned under "madcap" circumstances.)

But Carson's focus hasn't been limited to dealing with controversies. The former presidential candidate, who was chosen to lead HUD for reasons that have never made any sense, has also come up with a signature policy initiative: EnVision Centers that are intended to serve as one-stop shops for low-income residents who rely on social services, such as job-placement programs and education.

Carson's "plan," for lack of a better word, was to create 17 of these EnVision Centers. NBC News reported yesterday that the Republican cabinet secretary hasn't yet created any, in part because so few officials know what he's talking about.

[E]ight months later, not one has opened and the program remains mired in confusion and bureaucratic tangles, according to interviews with HUD officials and staffers for nonprofits and housing authorities that have been designated as EnVision Centers.

Some critics say the program appears to be little more than a rebranding of work that was already underway.

Chad Williams, executive director of the Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority, told NBC News, "No one actually knows what they are supposed to do. I was approached to run one, and I said: 'What does it do? Where's the funding?'"

Evidently, Carson didn't offer any new funding for the initiative, prompting Williams to balk. "EnVision Centers are a failed policy perception," he said. "I guess they give the image that HUD is doing something."

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Virginia residents wait in line in the pre-dawn hours to vote in the Virginia primary at a historic property called the Hunter House at Nottoway Park in Vienna, Va., on March 1, 2016. (Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

Why a special election in Virginia raised so many eyebrows

02/20/19 12:01PM

Ordinarily, state legislative special elections don't generate national attention, but more than a few campaign watchers had their eyes on Virginia for a good reason yesterday.

When Jennifer Wexton (D) won a competitive congressional race last fall, it was the first in a series of electoral dominoes. The Democratic lawmaker gave up her state Senate seat to go to Congress, and soon after, Jennifer Boysko (D) won a special election to replace her, giving up her seat in Virginia's House of Delegates.

That led to another special election to fill Boysko's seat, and as the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported, that election was yesterday.

Democrats recaptured a Northern Virginia seat in the House of Delegates Tuesday as Ibraheem Samirah won a special election for the seat formerly held by Jennifer Boysko, now a state senator.

Samirah, 27, a Palestinian-American dentist from Herndon, topped Republican Gregg Nelson and independent Connie Hutchinson to win the seat, which has been vacant for most of the General Assembly session that is scheduled to adjourn on Saturday. In unofficial results Samirah received about 59.5 percent of the tally to 34.4 percent for Nelson and about 5.9 percent for Hutchinson.

The margin of victory wasn't too surprising. This district is in the northern part of the commonwealth, just west of the Washington, D.C., beltway, and is generally seen as a Democratic stronghold. Under normal circumstances, a Democratic victory would be assumed.

Except, given recent developments in Virginia, these weren't exactly normal circumstances.

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Space Force takes a detour away from Trump's original plan

02/20/19 08:40AM

By Donald Trump's own admission, the push for a Space Force started as an offhand joke.

As regular readers know, the president said a year ago, in reference to a conversation he claims to have had with White House staff, "You know, I was saying it the other day, because we are doing a tremendous amount of work in space. I said, 'Maybe we need a new force. We'll call it Space Force." And I was not really serious. Then I said. 'What a great idea. Maybe we'll have to do that.'"

In the months that followed, administration officials felt compelled to act on Trump's not-really-serious idea, launching a major policy initiative intended to turn the Republican's joke into a branch of the United States military.

Yesterday, as the New York Times reported, the president advanced the plan, though his Space Force has clearly taken a significant detour.

President Trump moved forward with his planned United States Space Force on Tuesday, signing an order to begin the process for establishing a new branch of the military that would be dedicated to handling threats in space.

Mr. Trump's directive orders the Defense Department to "marshal its space resources to deter and counter threats in space" -- which the Pentagon already does. The newly created Space Force would be overseen by the Air Force, a concession to congressional critics who say the Pentagon does not need to add to its sprawling bureaucracy.

The fact that the Space Force will fall under the purview of the Air Force represents a retreat from Trump's plan (to the extent that this White House actually has plans). As recently as five months ago, the administration insisted that the Space Force would be an entirely separate branch of the military.

"I'm hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces," the president declared last summer. "That's a big statement. We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force -- separate but equal. It is going to be something. So important."

Trump's "separate but equal" plan flopped in the face of widespread resistance. The new approach is something of a compromise: the White House will still get its Space Force, but it'll be under the Air Force, which already has a Space Command.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump visits Saudi Arabia

Trump admin's policy toward Saudi Arabia takes a controversial turn

02/20/19 08:00AM

The connections between Trump World and Saudi Arabia have long been a source of controversy, but as Rachel noted on the show last night, there's a new report that takes the broader story in an even more serious direction.

Whistleblowers from within President Donald Trump's National Security Council have told a congressional committee that efforts by former national security adviser Michael Flynn to transfer sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia may have violated the law, and investigators fear Trump is still considering it, according to a new report obtained by NBC News.

The House Oversight Committee has formally opened an investigation into the matter, releasing an interim staff report that adds new details to previous public accounts of how Flynn sought to push through the nuclear proposal on behalf of a group he had once advised. Tom Barrack, a prominent Trump backer with business ties to the Middle East, also became involved in the project, the report says.

The committee's report is online here.

Right off the bat, it's difficult to understand the rationale for providing Saudi Arabia with sensitive nuclear technology: the Middle East giant already has an abundance of oil, so it's not as if Saudi officials have an energy problem they hope to solve with nuclear power plants.

That said, once a country has a nuclear energy program, it's not too big a leap before it could have a nuclear weapons program. It's why there are laws in place that restrict the transfer of nuclear technology.

It's against this backdrop that Democrats on the House Oversight Committee believe Donald Trump's team may have circumvented those laws -- even after lawyers for the National Security Council delivered warnings on the subject.

Making matters worse, some of the officials involved with the efforts had conflicts of interest, thanks to business ties with Saudi Arabia.

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