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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 7.17.18

07/17/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Who's going to believe this? "President Donald Trump attempted on Tuesday to clarify his widely criticized comments in Helsinki, saying that he had misspoken when he said a day earlier that he did not see why Russia would have meddled in the election. Trump said Tuesday he meant to say he did not see any reason why it wouldn't have been Russia that interfered."

* Developments in the Butina case: "Russian national Maria Butina was indicted by a federal grand jury Tuesday on charges of conspiracy against the U.S. and acting as 'an agent of a foreign government.'"

* Developments in the Manafort case: "Special counsel Robert Mueller wants to give a form of immunity to five potential witnesses against former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort, according to court papers filed Tuesday."

* Priorities: "On the very same day that President Trump sided with Russia over election interference and called the special counsel investigation back home 'a disaster for our country,' a group of House conservatives escalated its campaign against the person overseeing that investigation, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein."

* He is nothing if not predictable: "Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) says he's not sure whether he's the congressman mentioned in Monday's indictment of a Russian gun-rights activist for acting as an unregistered agent of the Kremlin -- but he is sure that the charge against the woman is 'bogus.'"

* This is an odd one: "President Trump has never been one to just casually accept people's accounts of their birthplaces. Apparently that now extends to his father. Despite his dad being born in the United States to German American parents, Trump has gone around in recent days suggesting -- and even outright stating, bizarrely -- that Fred Trump was born in Germany."

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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

Trying to clean up Trump's mess, White House writes underwhelming talking points

07/17/18 12:42PM

Donald Trump's White House is no doubt aware of the fact that the president's disastrous press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin created a problem. To that end, the president's communications team put together talking points for Trump's allies, and NBC News obtained a copy of them that had been sent to at least one congressional Republican's office.

Much of the document is predictable -- it emphasizes the value of diplomacy, which isn't exactly controversial -- but what stood out for me was Team Trump's insistence that the president really does believe U.S. intelligence agencies, despite what he told the world yesterday. From the talking points:

President Trump said in Helsinki that he had "great confidence" in his intelligence agencies.

For over a year and half, the President has repeatedly said he believes the intelligence agencies when they said Russia interfered in American elections.

In January 2017, the President-Elect said "I think it was Russia."
On July 6, 2017, the President said "I think it was Russia."
On November 11, 2017, the President said "I'm with our Agencies".
On March 6, 2018, the President said "certainly there was meddling."

I'm certain the White House didn't intend for this to be funny, but this is rather laughable.

For example, the first line emphasizes that Trump said yesterday he has "great confidence" in U.S. intelligence agencies. In context, however, here's what the American president actually said: "I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today."

That's not an expression of support for American intelligence professionals; it's the opposite.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.17.18

07/17/18 12:02PM

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

* Alabama is holding its primary runoff elections today, and the race to watch is Rep. Martha Roby's (R) contest against former Rep. Bobby Bright. Roby, having received endorsements from Donald Trump and Mike Pence, is expected to prevail.

* Speaking of primary runoffs, Georgia Republicans will choose their gubernatorial candidate a week from today, and a poll from the University of Georgia found Secretary of State Brian Kemp narrowly leading Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, 44% to 41%.

* I'm still looking into the details, but it looks like Trump's Treasury Department announced this morning that some politically active non-profit organizations will no longer have to disclose some of their contributors.

* California's 48th congressional district is expected to be one of this year's most important U.S. House races, and a new poll from Monmouth University helps explain why: Harley Rouda (D) leads incumbent Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R), 46% to 43%. This is a district Mitt Romney carried easily in 2012, but which Hillary Clinton narrowly won two years ago.

* The next congressional special election will be held in Ohio's 12th congressional district three weeks from today, and the winner will fill the vacancy left by former Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R). The Washington Post  reports today that Troy Balderson, a longtime Republican state legislator, is favored ,but Democrats are starting to get their hopes up about Danny O'Connor's chances.

* Ahead of Arizona's Republican Senate primary in late August, conservative megadonor Robert Mercer is investing $500,000 in support of a super PAC backing Kelli Ward.

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A voter casts their ballot at a polling place in Nashua, N.H., on Feb. 9, 2016. (Photo by Cassi Alexandra/For The Washington Post/Getty)

New Hampshire Republicans spark major fight over voting rights

07/17/18 11:23AM

Last year, New Hampshire became the only state in the Northeast in which Republicans control the governor's office and both chambers of the state legislature. Given recent history, it probably shouldn't come as too big of a surprise that the Granite State's GOP majority picked a fight over voting rights.

The Union Leader  reported on Friday on significant new developments.

Gov. Chris Sununu has signed into law a controversial election bill that opponents say will constrain voting by students and other transient residents of the state.

Supporters applauded the move as a way to ensure that only bonafide New Hampshire residents vote in New Hampshire elections.

"After receiving an advisory opinion from the New Hampshire Supreme Court finding the bill to be constitutional, I signed HB 1264 into law," the governor said in a statement released Friday after a low-key signing with no ceremonial trappings, as student protesters lined the hall outside his door.

Those who follow voting rights are probably accustomed to go-to voter suppression tactics that have become alarmingly common nationwide: unnecessary voter-ID laws, voter-registration hurdles, measures to curtail early voting, etc.

But the fight in New Hampshire, one of the country's most competitive and evenly split electoral battlegrounds, is a little different.

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U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement from the Roosevelt Room next to the empty chairs of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (L), D-New York, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (R), D-California, after they cancelled their meeting at the Whi

The White House had a plan for Putin, but Trump ignored it

07/17/18 10:41AM

The New York Times reported late last year that Donald Trump spends at least four hours a day watching television. The president soon after pushed back with one of the more amusing claims of his tenure.

"I do not watch much television," Trump said, adding, "I don't get to watch much television, primarily because of documents. I'm reading documents a lot."

If only that were true. The Washington Post  reported overnight on the White House's plan for Trump's summit with Russian President Vladimir, which included giving the American leader plenty of documents -- which went unread.

Administration officials had hoped that maybe, just maybe, Monday's summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladmir Putin would end differently -- without a freewheeling 46-minute news conference in which Trump attacked his own FBI on foreign soil and warmly praised archrival Russia.

Ahead of the meeting, staffers provided Trump with some 100 pages of briefing materials aimed at laying out a tough posture toward Putin, but the president ignored most of it, according to one person familiar with the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal deliberations. Trump's remarks were "very much counter to the plan," the person said.

It's a bit like the "Do Not Congratulate" fiasco, but turned up to 11.

The Post's article added that in the lead-up to yesterday's meeting, White House officials repeatedly told U.S. allies "not to worry," because Trump wouldn't strike any specific deals or make any secret promises.

But our allies responded by saying they can't take such assurances seriously -- because administration officials "don't control the reality." That power, of course, is in the hands of the erratic American president who, as the world saw yesterday, is willing to side with a foreign adversary over his own country.

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Image: President Trump And President Putin Hold A Joint Press Conference After Summit

Insisting there was 'no collusion,' Trump quotes Putin

07/17/18 10:01AM

Almost immediately after Donald Trump's disastrous press conference alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin, the American president sat down with Fox News' Sean Hannity, and as expected, the interview didn't exactly break new ground.

But there was one exchange that struck me as funny. Reflecting on his private, one-on-one meeting with Putin, Trump shared some of what he'd heard from his Russian counterpart.

TRUMP: Well, first of all, he said there was no collusion whatsoever. I guess he said he said as strongly as you can say it. [...]

HANNITY: He said it was nonsense.

TRUMP: He said it's nonsense, that's right. He also says there is absolutely no collusion.

Oh. Well, in that case, this changes everything. There's quite a bit of evidence pointing to cooperation between Russia and Trump's political operation during Russia's attack on the United States, but if Vladimir Putin privately told the American president there was "absolutely no collusion," then I guess the scandal's over and Special Counsel Robert Mueller can return to private practice.

It's not as if Vladimir Putin would lie about such a thing, right? What better witness could Trump possibly quote on the matter than the foreign autocrat who stands accused of orchestrating the intelligence operation that put Trump in power?

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Pro-Euro protestors hold European Union flags during a pro-Euro rally in front of the parliament building in Athens, Greece on Jun. 30, 2015. (Photo by Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

'The world just moves on without us': Japan and EU sign a trade deal

07/17/18 09:20AM

Almost immediately after taking office, Donald Trump killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement he assumed he hated. A year later, the United States' former partners in the TPP struck their own agreement -- without the provisions the Obama administration fought to include to benefit the United States.

Phil Levy, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and an economist in the Bush/Cheney administration, told the New York Times earlier this year, "Maybe there was some sort of presumption on the part of the president and his team that if the U.S. said stop, this process would come to a halt. What this shows is that's not true. The world just moves on without us."

It's still moving on without us.

The European Union and Japan signed a landmark deal on Tuesday that will eliminate nearly all tariffs on products they trade.

The ambitious pact signed in Tokyo runs counter to President Donald Trump's moves to hike tariffs on imports from many U.S. trading partners. It covers a third of the global economy and markets of more than 600 million people.... The leaders did not mention Trump by name, but they did little to mask what was on their minds -- highlighting how Europe and Japan have been pushed closer by Trump's actions.

The Associated Press' report added that there's still some legislative work to do, but barring any dramatic developments, the agreement will benefit consumers in both the EU and Japan.

And they're not alone on this front.

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After Trump sides with Putin, Republicans respond with hollow backlash

07/17/18 08:40AM

There was no shortage of Republican reactions to Donald Trump's stunning summit with Vladimir Putin, in which the American leader sided with the Russian president over his own country. Much of Trump's party was ... not pleased.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) went the furthest, calling Trump's appearance in Helsinki "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory." The ailing GOP senator added, "No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant."

On the other end of the spectrum, there was Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) who actually defended Trump's efforts. The Kentucky Republican's comments came a day after he dismissed the importance of Russia's attack on the United States, and coincided with Paul's announcement that he's planning his own diplomatic mission to Russia.

In general, most GOP officials were closer to McCain than Paul in their reactions, but the importance of their rhetoric is limited. What matters more, of course, is what Republicans intend to do about these developments. Politico's "Playbook" reported this morning that there was a "general consensus" on Capitol Hill yesterday that Donald Trump "thoroughly embarrassed the United States." The president's party, however, seems uncertain about how, and whether, to act.

...Privately, senior-level Republican aides and lawmakers had a second message: what the hell do you want us to do? [...]

At the end of the day, senior Republican aides and lawmakers told us yesterday, it's up to the president to conduct foreign policy.... Congress is not going to do anything substantive. They have no idea what more they should be doing.

With this in mind, some Senate Republicans are reportedly eyeing a non-binding, symbolic resolution that would endorse the intelligence community's findings related to Russian intervention in the 2016 elections.

If that sounds inadequate, that's because it is.

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A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)

Justice Department charges Russian who eyed NRA as a foreign agent

07/17/18 08:00AM

Late last week, the Justice Department filed criminal charges against 12 Russian intelligence officials for their role in allegedly attacking the U.S. elections in 2016. Yesterday, federal prosecutors charged another Russian, but this story is a little different. NBC News reported yesterday:

The gun-loving former aide to a top Russian official has been arrested and charged with being a foreign agent who conspired with her ex-boss to infiltrate politically powerful U.S. organizations and push Moscow's agenda.

Mariia Butina, 29, who came to the U.S. in August 2016 on a student visa, previously served as a special assistant to a Kremlin crony whose description in court papers matches that of Alexander Torshin.

If Torshin's name sounds familiar, there's a reason for that: McClatchy News reported earlier this year that the FBI is exploring whether "a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money" to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency. The specific focus was reportedly the activities of Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia's central bank, a close Putin ally, and someone who's faced allegations of money laundering and connections to organized crime.

Mariia Butina, by all accounts, is a Torshin protégé, who worked to establish connections to the NRA and prominent figures in American conservative politics.

And now Butina is facing federal criminal charges, with the Justice Department accusing her of working as a Russian foreign agent -- at the direction of Torshin -- and trying to establish "backchannel" lines of communication with American politicians in order to advance Putin's agenda in the United States.

More to the point, the new indictment appears to describe an effort, backed by the Russian government, to use Butina and Torshin to influence Republican politics -- using the NRA in particular as a point of leverage.

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