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Thursday's Mini-Report, 1.17.19

01/17/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* If only more Senate Republicans agreed: "In a rebuke to the Trump administration, 136 Republicans joined House Democrats Thursday to oppose a Treasury Department plan to lift sanctions against companies controlled by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin."

* Madness: "A Marine veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder was held for three days for possible deportation before federal authorities learned that he was a U.S. citizen born in Michigan, lawyers said Wednesday."

* VA: "Members of the security detail tasked with protecting senior leaders at the Department of Veterans Affairs followed questionable procedures that put officials' safety at risk, abused rules governing overtime pay, and acted as chauffeur for former Secretary David Shulkin’s wife, according to a new investigation."

* Maybe Trump shouldn't have prematurely declared a triumph: "North Korea has not taken "concrete steps" to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, Vice President Mike Pence told a group of U.S. diplomats on Wednesday."

* Departures like these are discouraging: "A top Department of Housing and Urban Development official is leaving the agency Thursday following disagreements with other members of the Trump administration over housing policy and the White House's attempt to block disaster-recovery money for Puerto Rico, according to five people with direct knowledge of the situation."

* Is it legal for Trump's Treasury Department to force tens of thousands of IRS workers back onto the job without pay? Probably not.

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Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Mike Pence

Trump scraps Pelosi trip to Afghanistan, apparently out of spite

01/17/19 04:18PM

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), citing security concerns, wrote to Donald Trump yesterday, suggesting he either postpone his State of the Union address or submit it in writing. The president didn't immediately reply, though he sent a rather remarkable written response this afternoon. It read in its entirety:

"Due to the Shutdown, I am sorry to inform you that your trip to Brussels, Egypt, and Afghanistan has been postponed. We will reschedule this seven-day excursion when the Shutdown is over. In light of the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay, I am sure you would agree that postponing this public relations event is totally appropriate. I also feel that, during this period, it would be better if you were in Washington negotiating with me and joining the Strong Border Security movement to end the Shutdown. Obviously, if you would like to make your journey by flying commercial, that would certainly be your prerogative.

"I look forward to seeing you soon and even more forward to watching our open and dangerous Southern Border finally receive the attention, funding, and security it so desperately deserves!"

For a man who claims not to throw tantrums, today's petty announcement offers compelling evidence to the contrary.

It's always nice to see when the president actually writes his own correspondence. The idiosyncratic grammar -- Trump continues to capitalize random words he finds important, he's never quite gotten the hang of hyphens -- gives away the game.

The trouble, naturally, is that the needlessly petty president doesn't know what he's talking about. Pelosi wasn't going to Egypt; this wasn't an "excursion" or a "public-relations" trip; the trip wasn't scheduled to last seven days; there's no such thing as a "Strong Border Security movement"; and if Trump is genuinely interested in giving the border obsessive "attention," it's a mystery as to why he invested so little effort into the issue during his first two years in office -- and why he agreed with Pelosi's position on funding the government as recently as last month.

Nevertheless, the House Speaker's office responded soon after with a written press statement:

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

House Republican quits in first resignation of the new Congress

01/17/19 03:45PM

The most recent Congress, which wrapped up two weeks ago, featured a surprisingly large number of resignations. Al told, 12 House members and two senators stepped down from Capitol Hill before the end of their respective terms.

It's impossible to say whether we'll see anything comparable in the new Congress, though the resignation list already has a very early entry.

Pennsylvania Rep. Tom Marino announced Thursday he would be resigning from Congress.

The Republican lawmaker, who represents the 12th District in northeast and central Pennsylvania, said he will be leaving his post Jan. 23 for a job in the private sector.

Marino has served in the House since 2011 and was just re-elected to his fifth term.

There's some ambiguity as to what prompted the Pennsylvania Republican to quit just two weeks into his new term, and his official press statement only said that he's taken a position "in the private sector."

State officials will now organize a special election to fill the vacancy, and the seat is expected to safely remain in the GOP's hands: Donald Trump won Pennsylvania's 12th by 36 points in his race, and this is one of the "reddest" districts in the northeast.

But one of the things that makes Marino's resignation of particular interest is that he was supposed to give up his House seat for an entirely different reason.

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Image: Immigrant children now housed in a tent encampment under the new "zero tolerance" policy by the Trump administration are shown walking in single file at the facility near the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas

New evidence casts family separation policy in an even worse light

01/17/19 02:33PM

Just when it seemed Donald Trump's family separation policy couldn't look worse, we're confronted with a new report from Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general's office. Not only did the Trump administration separate thousands more immigrant children from their parents than we previously knew, but as NBC News reported, whether those families have been reunified is unknown,

The report found a spike in immigrant family separations beginning in the summer of 2017, a year prior to the "zero tolerance" policy that prosecuted immigrant parents who crossed the border illegally while holding their children separately in HHS custody. The families separated under zero tolerance were represented in a class action lawsuit, where a federal judge ordered that the government reunify them.

However, the government had no such order to reunify children separated prior to "zero tolerance." Some may have been released to family or nonrelative sponsors, but it is not known how many have been reunified.

HHS officials did not keep track of whether children they were releasing from their custody had been separated from their parents at the border or whether they crossed the border without a parent.

Just how many families are at issue? No one seems able to say for sure, and both the report and an HHS spokesperson said the department has faced "challenges in identifying separated children."

They didn't know what they were doing, and they did it badly.

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Image: Lindsey Graham; Donald Trump

On foreign policy, Trump vacillates between Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul

01/17/19 12:46PM

Among Senate Republicans, it's probably fair to say no two members are more dissimilar on foreign policy than Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). The South Carolinian is a hawk who's long demonstrated an eagerness to exercise the United States' military might, while the Kentuckian is a libertarian who envisions a drastically reduced military presence abroad.

One would ordinarily expect a president, especially a Republican president, to side with one of these GOP lawmakers. Donald Trump, however, seems to vacillate between them, depending on the day.

I'm reminded of fictional characters, presented as having an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other, each whispering in the protagonist's ear -- except in this case, it's an amateur president, who has no consistent foreign policy vision of his own, and who apparently sees value in two opposing visions.

When Trump first announced a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, no Republican was happier than Rand Paul, just as no Republican was as dissatisfied as Lindsey Graham. The president proudly tweeted praise from the Kentuckian, while condemning the South Carolinian's motives.

Two weeks later, the president seemed to flip, abandoning his plan for a precipitous withdrawal. After a meeting with Trump, a relieved Graham told reporters that when it came to U.S. troops in Syria, the president agreed to a "pause situation."

Nine days later, the "pause" apparently ended and U.S. troops started to withdraw. As Politico  noted, now it's Rand Paul who's as pleased as Lindsey Graham was.

Sen. Rand Paul strongly suggested that President Donald Trump is poised to begin scaling back the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and will follow through on his promise to pull out of Syria, the Kentucky Republican told reporters Wednesday.

Paul met with Trump privately and in a larger meeting with other senators on the president's plans to wind down the U.S. presence in Syria. While Paul would not talk specifics of Trump's plans, he said that the president recognizes "we've been at war too long and in too many places."

This is consistent with Josh Rogin's recent piece for the Washington Post, which noted, "These days, Trump is listening more than ever to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is quietly steering U.S. foreign policy in a new direction."

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.17.19

01/17/19 12:00PM

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

* Ahead of a possible 2020 campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) met yesterday with a group of women who worked on his 2016 team and who've alleged sexual misconduct as part of the senator's operation. One person who was in attendance told Politico, "It went as well as it could have."

* A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll shows Donald Trump with a 39% approval rating, but just as important is the president slipping with his base. The survey results showed his support slipping among self-identified Republican voters and white men without a college degree, generally seen as a key constituency in Trump's base.

* Adding to Rep. Steve King's (R-Iowa) troubles, the editorial board of The Messenger in Fort Dodge, Iowa, published a piece today expressing regret for having endorsed his re-election bid. "It is now clear that the endorsement we made was a mistake," the editorial read, while calling for the far-right Republican to resign.

* Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) spoke earlier this week at a reception intended to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander members of the 116th Congress. As part of his remarks, the Democratic lawmaker told attendees he's "an Asian trapped in a white body." Case yesterday tried to walk that back, saying, "I regret if my specific remarks to the national API community on my full absorption of their concerns caused any offense."

* As former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) launches his road trip, Politico  reports, "Becky Bond, a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign and an adviser to O'Rourke's 2018 Senate run, has been talking with operatives in recent days about potential jobs on a 2020 campaign."

* Democratic leaders believe appointed Sen. Martha McSally (R), who has to run again next year, is vulnerable, and they already have a candidate in mind for the race. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) met yesterday with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), and said after the meeting, "It went great. I'm strongly considering it."

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Image: U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen arrives at his hotel in New York

Cohen says he paid to rig online polls at Trump's direction

01/17/19 11:00AM

Those who've spent a considerable amount of time online have come across websites that invite visitors to vote in unscientific polls. They generally tell us very little about public attitudes, but people often like to register their opinions, and website operators often like to create ways to engage visitors, so they're fairly common. Those who understand social-science research know to ignore the results.

Donald Trump is not one of those people. In fact, he's complained more than once about the results of online unscientific polls that failed to make him look good.

With this in mind, the Wall Street Journal published a rather remarkable article this morning on Michael Cohen's efforts -- when he was Trump's personal lawyer and "fixer" -- to "rig online polls in his boss's favor" before the 2016 elections.

To execute the plan, Cohen reportedly hired John Gauger, the chief information officer at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, and the owner of a small tech company called RedFinch Solutions LLC. The goal was simple: deliver online poll results intended to make Trump happy.

In January 2014, Mr. Cohen asked Mr. Gauger to help Mr. Trump score well in a CNBC online poll to identify the country's top business leaders by writing a computer script to repeatedly vote for him. Mr. Gauger was unable to get Mr. Trump into the top 100 candidates. In February 2015, as Mr. Trump prepared to enter the presidential race, Mr. Cohen asked him to do the same for a Drudge Report poll of potential Republican candidates, Mr. Gauger said. Mr. Trump ranked fifth, with about 24,000 votes, or 5% of the total.

As is often the case with people who do work for Team Trump, Gauger said he never received the $50,000 he was promised, though he claims Cohen did give him a Walmart bag containing between $12,000 and $13,000 in cash.

Cohen denies that detail -- he insists payments were made by check -- though he seemed to confirm the gist of the story. In a tweet published this morning, Cohen pointed to the WSJ article and said that when it came to poll rigging, his actions were made "at the direction of and for the sole benefit of" Donald Trump.

The lawyer, who'll soon be incarcerated for crimes he committed under Trump's employ, added, "I truly regret my blind loyalty to a man who doesn't deserve it."

Why should we care about details like these now? A few reasons.

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Image: U.S. President Trump tosses rolls of paper towels to people at a hurricane relief distribution center at Calvary Chapel in San Juan

Trying to shift shutdown blame, White House slams Dems' Puerto Rico trip

01/17/19 10:18AM

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday on the divisions among White House staffers on the best strategy for the ongoing government shutdown, and it included an odd quote from one of Donald Trump's aides.

"Everyone wants to know what the president is doing," an unnamed senior White House official said. "Let me tell you what he's not doing. He's not going to Puerto Rico."

If it seems like we've heard this talking point a lot this week, it's not your imagination. On Tuesday, a reporter asked the president about the status of negotiations with congressional Democrats. "I've been here all weekend," Trump replied. "A lot of the Democrats were in Puerto Rico, celebrating something. I don't know, maybe they're celebrating the shutdown."

As Vox noted, "Press secretary Sarah Sanders, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, and White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley all also attacked Democrats for making the trip."

I think we're supposed to believe that Democrats blew off negotiations to have fun in the sun in January. In reality, there were no negotiations to blow off and the trip had a substantive purpose. As the Washington Post  reported, the trip, months in the making, was designed to offer a congressional delegation the latest information on Hurricane Maria recovery efforts.

According to members who participated, the three-day event featured informational sessions on the damage from the 2017 hurricane, meetings with Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, presentations on the controversial oversight board created to meet the island's bond obligations, and information on how residents of territories can't access many of the government services available to residents of the 50 states.

There was a special "Hamilton" show as part of the trip, but members paid their own way, and the proceeds went to a local non-profit.

So why has this become such an important line of attack for Team Trump? Does it have something to do with the president's attitude toward the island?

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel walk along a section of the recently-constructed fence at the U.S.-Mexico border on Feb. 26, 2013 in Nogales, Ariz. (Photo by John Moore/Getty)

Trump shared 'serious misconceptions' about border at shutdown meeting

01/17/19 09:20AM

Between Jan. 2 and Jan. 9, Donald Trump's hosted three meetings at the White House with lawmakers to discuss his government shutdown. Each failed rather spectacularly. A fourth, quickly thrown together earlier this week, couldn't even attract Democratic participants.

Yesterday, Trump brought members of the House "Problem Solvers Caucus" -- a bipartisan group of relative moderates -- to the West Wing for a chat. The president and his team are obviously trying to divide congressional Democrats, excluding party leaders from the discussions, but he nevertheless got seven House Dems to come and hear his pitch.

By some accounts, it was a polite and friendly affair, though some aspects didn't go especially well.

"He believes what he believes": That's what Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Tex.), who met with President Trump at the White House on Wednesday along with a handful of his colleagues from the "Problem Solvers Caucus," told [the Washington Post] about the president's "very serious misconceptions of the border."

"He mentioned, 'I don't even know why we have ports of entry. You can just drive down the border and turn left into the U.S.' ... I think he's convinced himself that that's what the border is," Gonzalez told us. "I was listening to him today. He makes a lot of comments that are so untrue. But I believe that he actually believes them."

That's certainly important -- it's never been altogether clear if the president actually believes his own nonsense -- though it's not at all reassuring to think Trump, two years into his presidency and nearly four weeks into his shutdown, is still badly confused about the most basic details of the issue he claims to care so deeply about.

The idea behind yesterday's meeting was itself suspect -- Trump should be reaching out to lawmakers in a decision-making authority, and no congressional leaders from either party or either chamber were on hand for yesterday's chat -- but Vicente Gonzalez's peek behind the curtain reminds me of something important about the president's capacity.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

On shutdown, Trump gets one thing right: 'We are getting crushed'

01/17/19 08:41AM

At a certain level, Donald Trump seems to realize that the political fight over his government shutdown is not going well. The New York Times  reported overnight:

President Trump has insisted that he is not going to compromise with Democrats to end the government shutdown, and that he is comfortable in his unbendable position. But privately, it's sometimes a different story.

"We are getting crushed!" Mr. Trump told his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, after watching some recent coverage of the shutdown, according to one person familiar with the conversation.

That's the first quote I've seen from the Republican about the shutdown that I'm inclined to endorse.

Earlier this week, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll found most Americans blaming Trump and his party for the shutdown, and rejecting the White House's idea for a giant border wall. A CNN poll soon followed with very similar results.

A day later, a national Quinnipiac survey pointed in the same direction -- most Americans don't want a wall, don't approve of the president's shutdown strategy, and blame Republicans for the mess -- which was soon followed by a Pew Research Center poll that not only found the same results, it also found that most Americans don't want Democrats to give in to Trump's demands.

Yesterday, a poll from PBS NewsHour, NPR, and Marist offered very similar findings, and FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver published an analysis on what the shutdown is doing to Trump's approval rating (hint: nothing good).

And yet, despite all of this evidence, there's apparently still some debate within the White House about the merits of the president's political strategy.

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Lawyer and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani at a press conference after appearing in court to call for the dismissal of a lawsuit filed against video game giant Activision in Los Angeles, Calif., Oct. 16, 2014. (Photo by Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Giuliani stuns with new claim: 'I never said there was no collusion'

01/17/19 08:00AM

When Rudy Giuliani comments on the investigation into the Russia scandal, his observations tend to fall into two broad categories: he reflects on things that have happened in the past and things that might happen in the future.

When the former mayor focuses his attention on the latter, his comments are of little value. Giuliani often seems hopelessly lost about where Donald Trump's legal defense is headed, the status of talks with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team, and what the president is likely to do next. By and large, when it comes to future developments, Giuliani routinely appears to be guessing.

But when he comments on things that have already happened, I think there's a qualitative difference. More specifically, when Giuliani talks about the past, he's reflecting on things he presumably knows more about: evidence he's seen, witnesses he's spoken to, details he's reviewed, etc.

With this in mind, when Giuliani dramatically changes his story about central questions at the heart of the Russia scandal, it's worth taking note. Consider this exchange from last night between the former mayor and CNN's Chris Cuomo.

CUOMO: Mr. Mayor, false reporting is saying that nobody in the campaign had any contacts with Russia. False reporting is saying that there has been no suggestion of any kind of collusion between the campaign and any Russians. Because now you have Paul Manafort giving poll data that winds up leading to this coincidence --

GIULIANI: I -- I never said -- well, you just misstated my position. I never said there was no collusion between the campaign, or between people in the campaign --

CUOMO: Yes, you have.

GIULIANI: I have no idea if -- I have not. I said the president of the United States.

There a few angles to this that are worth keeping in mind. The first is that Giuliani, in reality, really is on record saying that the Trump campaign -- not just the president himself -- did not collude with Russia during its attack on the American elections. Giuliani is now changing his story. It seems likely that he learned something new that led him to adopt this new position.

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