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Maybe Trump wants a mission to Mars a little too much?

01/23/19 09:20AM

At a conference last May, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross described the administration's vision for using Earth's moon as "a type of gas station" for ships en route to other destinations, including Mars. When Ross was asked whether a gas station on the moon would happen in the next decade, the cabinet secretary said it's coming "a lot sooner than that."

It wasn't altogether clear what he was talking about. In fact, Ross' comments came on the heels of NASA cancelling its only lunar rover in development.

The most likely explanation is that the Commerce secretary was echoing his boss' thoughts on the subject.

A few months earlier, Donald Trump boasted to an audience that the United States would reach Mars "very soon." Apropos of nothing, the president added, "You wouldn't have been going to Mars if my opponent won, that I can tell you. You wouldn't even be thinking about it." (Hillary Clinton has long described herself as "an enthusiastic supporter of human space flight," and during her candidacy, she committed her administration to investing in the endeavor, including a Mars mission.)

Trump's interest in the subject was apparently quite intense. In April 2017, he participated in a video call with astronaut Peggy Whitson, who'd just broken the record for the longest amount of time in space for any American. The two had this exchange:

TRUMP: Tell me, Mars — what do you see a timing for actually sending humans to Mars? Is there a schedule? And when would you see that happening?

WHITSON: Well, I think as your bill directed, it will be approximately in the 2030s. As I mentioned, we actually are building hardware to test the new heavy launch vehicle, and this vehicle will take us further than we've ever been away from this planet. Unfortunately, spaceflight takes a lot of time and money, so getting there will require some international cooperation to get it to be a planet-wide approach in order to make it successful, just because it is a very expensive endeavor. But it so worthwhile doing.

TRUMP: Well, we want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second term. So we'll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?

WHITSON: (Laughter.) We'll do our best.

It now appears he may not have been kidding.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, May 17, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

As shutdown drags on, Senate readies first votes on doomed bills

01/23/19 08:40AM

Yesterday afternoon, the New York Times published a headline that briefly sparked some optimism for those hoping to see the government shutdown end. It read, "Senate Leaders Reach Deal That Offers Possible Path to Reopen Government." Alas, that wasn't quite right.

Democratic and Republican Senate leaders did reach an agreement yesterday, but it was a procedural deal on this week's legislative calendar. The upper chamber will hold votes tomorrow on bills to end the shutdown -- these will be the first votes the Senate has held on the issue since before the shutdown began -- but neither bill is expected to pass.

The Senate is scheduled to vote Thursday afternoon on two competing bills that aim to re-open the federal government, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced Tuesday, the 32nd day of the partial government shutdown.

While the 2:30 p.m. ET vote will mark the first time the Senate will take action to end the shutdown since it began on Dec. 22, both pieces of legislation are expected to fail.

The first bill will be the Republicans' proposal, crafted by Donald Trump's White House, which would allocate $5.7 billion for a border wall, while offering Democrats temporary protections for some vulnerable immigrants.

After the GOP's legislation was formally unveiled, many discovered that it also includes some "poison pill" provisions, including harsh new asylum restrictions. The New York Times  reported overnight, "White House officials conceded privately on Tuesday they had tacked on controversial proposals anathema to Democrats that would block many migrants from seeking asylum."

It is, in other words, a bill that will not only fail, but is in fact designed to fail. In a White House address on Saturday, the president said, "Both sides in Washington must simply come together, listen to each other, put down their armor, build trust, reach across the aisle, and find solutions."

Evidently, he didn't mean a word of it.

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Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., arrives at the Virginia Democratic "Victory for Virginia" election party, in Tysons Corner, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013.

Dem senator unveils 'Stop STUPIDITY Act' to prevent all shutdowns

01/23/19 08:00AM

Congressional offices often invest considerable time and energy into crafting the perfect name for legislation. Bills that have memorable acronyms tend to get more attention, while hopefully conveying the purpose of the underlying idea.

One of my personal favorites was an infrastructure bill from a few years ago called the Generating Renewal, Opportunity, and Work with Accelerated Mobility, Efficiency and Rebuilding of Infrastructure and Communities throughout America Act (the GROW AMERICA Act). I can almost picture Capitol Hill aides giving each other high-fives after coming up with that one.

Yesterday, a new gem was unveiled when Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who represents a whole lot of federal workers adversely affected by the government shutdown, introduced a bill called the "Stop STUPIDITY Act." The Washington Post reported:

The measure ...would automatically keep all of the federal government running in the case of a future funding standoff -- with the exceptions of the legislative branch and the Executive Office of the President.

"The Stop STUPIDITY Act takes the aggressive but necessary step of forcing the president and Congress to do the jobs they were elected to do," Warner said in a statement. "Workers, business owners and tax payers are currently paying the price of D.C. gridlock and my legislation will put an end to that."

In this case, the "Stop STUPIDITY" in the bill's title stands for "Stop Shutdowns Transferring Unnecessary Pain and Inflicting Damage in the Coming Years Act." (Some might quibble about leaving out the "c" in "coming," but let's be generous and say Warner and his team were close enough.)

Of course, far more important than the name is the substantive point behind the bill, and in this case, the Virginia Democrat's proposal has real merit.

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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 1.22.19

01/22/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Afghanistan: "A U.S. military service member was killed in Afghanistan on Tuesday, the U.S. military said in a statement, without providing additional details."

* A tentative deal in L.A.: "The Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers reached a tentative labor deal that could end a six-day strike, officials said on Tuesday. Mayor Eric Garcetti praised both the union and LAUSD administrators."

* Police found 23 firearms and three improvised explosive devices: "Three men and a juvenile were arrested for allegedly plotting to attack Islamberg, a predominantly Muslim community in upstate New York."

* Quiet talks have been ongoing for a while: "U.S. intelligence officials have met with North Korean counterparts secretly for a decade, a covert channel that allowed communications during tense times, aided in the release of detainees and helped pave the way for President Trump's historic summit last year with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un."

* Someone should probably alert the White House: "Greenland's enormous ice sheet is melting at such an accelerated rate that it may have reached a 'tipping point,' and could become a major factor in sea-level rise around the world within two decades, scientists said in a study published on Monday."

* It's hard to see this as benign: "The Chinese government has granted Ivanka Trump's company preliminary approval for another five trademarks this month, as her father's administration pushes ahead on trade negotiations with China."

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Image: 58th U.S. Presidential Inauguration

As the shutdown drags on, shouldn't Trump try talking to Pelosi?

01/22/19 04:24PM

Donald Trump made quite a fuss about the fact that he was in the White House over the holidays in late December, though the president didn't appear to do any meaningful work on his government shutdown. In fact, Trump didn't bother to reach out to congressional Democrats at all during the holidays, and he reportedly didn't speak to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at all between Dec. 11 and Jan. 2.

There was some interaction between the Republican president and House Democratic leader on Jan. 4, when Trump hosted some negotiations, though he opened the meeting with "a 15-minute profanity-laced rant about impeachment." Five days later, Trump welcomed congressional leaders to the White House for another meeting, but when Pelosi said she wouldn't approve funding for the wall the president feels entitled to, Trump threw a little tantrum and literally walked away from the negotiating table.

Today, the White House made a curious argument about the possibility of negotiations.

The president earlier this month said only the "principals" will strike a final deal. But on Monday, a White House spokesman signaled no new negotiations between Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- who have been locked in a bitter back-and-forth battle -- are on the horizon.

"She won't even have a conversation with the president," Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said Tuesday.

I'm reasonably sure that's wrong. In fact, by all appearances, the president hasn't tried to have a conversation with Pelosi since he walked away from the negotiating table two weeks ago after being told his demands wouldn't be met.

A spokesperson for Pelosi told  Roll Call, "We have received no request to meet or even to have a phone call."

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The U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, March 16, 2016. (Photo by Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Supreme Court throws a wrench into Trump's immigration strategy

01/22/19 12:45PM

Donald Trump's immigration plan has meandered in different directions, but when it comes to DACA protections for Dreamers, the president's strategy has been fairly obvious for a while: Trump rescinded the DACA policy, imperiling the fate of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants, in order to gain leverage over the Dreamers' Democratic allies.

If Dems want to protect the young immigrants from the threat of deportation, they're going to have to pay the White House a ransom.

Trump's plan ran into trouble when the courts blocked his policy and allowed DACA to continue, but the president and his lawyers expected the Supreme Court to bail them out. Trump was explicit on this point a couple of weeks ago, predicting that after conservative justices on the high court endorse his position, "we'll work out a deal very fast with the Democrats on DACA."

There was a certain logic to it. Once the high court knocks down DACA, Democrats would have no choice but to go to Trump, hat in hand, begging for some kind of deal to shield Dreamers. The president could, and certainly would, make the same demands he made last year: he'd agree to protections for Dreamers in exchange for border funding and significant cuts to legal immigration.

This morning, Trump's strategy ran into a (ahem) wall. NBC News reported:

The U.S. Supreme Court took no action on Tuesday on the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a move that requires the government to keep the program going for at least 10 more months.

The Trump administration urged the justices to hear appeals of lower court rulings that prevent the government from shutting DACA down. Now, any cases accepted in subsequent weeks won't be heard until the next term, which begins Oct. 1, and it would take a few months more for the court to issue a decision.

Just so we're clear, the Supreme Court didn't issue any rulings on DACA this morning; the justices simply chose not to act on the issue at all.

The Washington Post  added, "If the court sticks to its normal procedures, that would mean that even if it accepts the case as a later date, it would not be argued until the new term starting in October, with a decision likely in 2020."

That's not what Trump wanted to hear. Indeed, it makes his whole plan, such as it is, effectively impossible to execute.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.22.19

01/22/19 12:00PM

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

* As former Vice President Joe Biden eyes a possible 2020 presidential campaign, he's faced with the prospect of defending decades' worth of Senate votes, some of which may be problematic for much of his party's progressive base. Yesterday, the Delaware Democrat expressed regrets for his votes on criminal justice bills in the 1980s and 1990s.

* Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will reportedly be in South Carolina today, where he's scheduled to meet with the state's legislative black caucus and the full Democratic caucus. With South Carolina being an early presidential primary state, it's scheduling like this that suggests the Vermont senator is moving closer to a 2020 campaign.

* Hoping to create a rival to the Democrats' ActBlue initiative, which had great success in 2018 in collecting small-dollar donations online, Republicans have reportedly created Patriot Pass. According to Politico, under the arrangement reached by party leaders, "Data Trust, the RNC's designated clearinghouse of voter information, will form a joint venture with Revv, a donation processor used by the Trump campaign. The two entities will form the nucleus of Patriot Pass."

* In an affidavit filed as part of divorce proceedings, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) reportedly claimed that Donald Trump offered her the Republicans' vice presidential nomination in 2016, but she turned it down for family reasons. The Iowan was first elected in 2014, and will be up for re-election next year. [Update: Revised reporting now suggests Ernst wasn't formally offered the VP slot, but she withdrew from consideration before Trump made his selection.]

* A grass-roots Democratic group called Justice Democrats is reportedly recruiting a challenger to take on Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) in a Democratic primary next year. Though Cuellar represents a rather "blue" district, he's one of Congress' most conservative Democrats and, by some measures, he voted with Trump's position most of the time over the last two years.

* Who's the most vulnerable Democratic senator in the 2020 elections? The Washington Times  reported the other day on the enthusiasm among Alabama Republicans to take down Sen. Doug Jones (D). "I'm already calling him, 'One and Done Doug,'" said state Republican Party Chairwoman Terry Lathan. "Our people are champing at the bit, and I'm telling you it is on fire right now in my state."

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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)

Supreme Court allows Trump to enforce ban on transgender military service

01/22/19 11:00AM

In July 2017, Donald Trump announced a new policy via Twitter: the president would no longer allow transgender Americans to serve in the military. He hadn’t given anyone at the Pentagon a heads-up about his new discriminatory policy – officials throughout the executive branch were blindsided – and no one at the White House could explain the necessity of the change.

Trump eventually defended the move by saying, “I think I’m doing a lot of people a favor by coming out and just saying it.” I still have no idea what that meant.

Not surprisingly, there were plenty of lawsuits challenging the president’s policy, and Trump’s position hasn’t fared well. As regular readers may recall, the day after Thanksgiving, when much of the country’s attention was focused elsewhere, the administration turned to the Supreme Court for a rescue.

Today, the administration got at least some of what it wanted.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday revived the Trump administration's policy of barring most transgender people from serving in the military. In a brief, unsigned order, the justices lifted nationwide injunctions that had blocked the policy.

The vote was 5 to 4. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented.

It's important to clarify that the justices did not rule on the legality of Trump's policy itself. Rather, this specific dispute was over whether the administration could implement its discriminatory policy while lower courts evaluated legal challenges to it.

There were injunctions in place, blocking the Trump administration's policy and allowing transgender military service to continue. Today, the Supreme Court lifted the injunctions, clearing the way for officials to begin blocking transgender Americans from wearing the uniform.

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What the 'Both Sides Brigade' gets wrong about the shutdown

01/22/19 10:20AM

Two weeks ago, following Donald Trump's Oval Office address on the government shutdown, the Associate Press turned to a familiar refrain: it blamed both sides for the mess.

"Democrats put the blame for the shutdown on Trump. But it takes two to tango," the AP wrote. "Trump's demand for $5.7 billion for his border wall is one reason for the budget impasse. The Democrats refusal to approve the money is another." The AP added, "It takes two sides to shut down the government."

It was, of course, a deeply flawed argument, but the instinct to blame Republicans and Democrats is unshakable for much of the political world. It's why we've heard similar rhetoric from pundits, editors, a former Republican president, and a longshot Democratic presidential candidate.

Eric Levitz labeled the advocates of this position the "Both Sides Brigade."

The Brigade's position is familiar because it's a staple of how much of the political establishment prefers to see the world: as a bipartisan mess. To hold one party responsible for a specific fiasco would be "partisan" and evidence of "bias," which is why so many prioritize even-handedness over facts. It's a comfortable lens through which to see events unfold.

In the case of the current government shutdown, however, there's an inescapable detail: Democrats aren't asking for anything. Consider the competing postures:

Congressional Democrats: We just want to re-open the government. We don't have any extraneous policy demands and we're asking for no concessions.

The Trump White House and congressional Republicans: We'll consider re-opening the government if Democrats approve billions of dollars in spending for an unpopular border wall.

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Image: Donald Trump

Donald Trump's metaphor of choice: 'Like a dog'

01/22/19 09:20AM

Cliff Sims was a conservative media figure in Alabama before packing his bags and joining Donald Trump's presidential campaign a few years ago. He cultivated close ties to the New York Republican, and after the election, Sims went to the White House, where he worked as "director of message strategy," and where he apparently spent a fair amount of time with the president.

He reflects on his experiences in a new book, "Team of Vipers," which the Washington Post  reported on yesterday. There's quite a bit to chew on, but I was struck by an anecdote about Trump's angry reaction when then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) criticized the president's comments about a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

"Paul, do you know why Democrats have been kicking your a-- for decades? Because they know a little word called 'loyalty,' " Trump told Ryan, then a Wisconsin congressman. "Why do you think Nancy [Pelosi] has held on this long? Have you seen her? She's a disaster. Every time she opens her mouth another Republican gets elected. But they stick with her.... Why can't you be loyal to your president, Paul?"

The tormenting continued. Trump recalled Ryan distancing himself from Trump in October 2016, in the days after the "Access Hollywood" video in which he bragged of fondling women first surfaced in The Washington Post.

"I remember being in Wisconsin and your own people were booing you," Trump told him, according to former West Wing communications aide Cliff Sims. "You were out there dying like a dog, Paul. Like a dog! And what'd I do? I saved your a--."

If Sims' anecdote is accurate, it's interesting for a variety of reasons, including the president's unhealthy ideas about how "loyalty" is supposed to work.

But I'm also curious about Trump telling Ryan he was "dying like a dog" in 2016. What is it about Trump and dog metaphors?

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