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Friday's Mini-Report, 9.14.18

09/14/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The latest from North Carolina: "At least four people were killed Friday after Hurricane Florence crashed ashore on North Carolina's coast, ripping apart roofs with extreme winds, threatening massive storm surges and requiring dozens of water rescues."

* Supreme Court fight: "Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Friday denied allegations made by a woman who reportedly said that he had held her down at a party when they were in high school in the 1980s and tried to force himself on her."

* On a related note, Senate Republicans announced today that the Judiciary Committee vote on Kavanaugh's nomination will not be delayed and they don't expect the accusations to affect his likely confirmation.

* Trade: "President Donald Trump is urging his administration to move ahead with slapping tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods, according to a person familiar with the plans. The timing of an announcement remains unclear. Trump met with top aides earlier this week on the tariff issue and directed aides to proceed with plan."

* Good move: "The Violence Against Women Act, which was set to expire Sept. 30, will be extended through Dec. 7 under a stopgap spending bill released Thursday."

* I have a strong hunch he's wrong: "Three days after the Trump administration evicted the Palestine Liberation Organization from its offices in Washington, Jared Kushner defended the latest in a string of punitive actions against the Palestinians and insisted that none of them had diminished the chances of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians."

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Image: FBI Investigates Trump's attorney Michael Cohen

Has Michael Cohen been talking to Robert Mueller, too?

09/14/18 04:28PM

In a federal courtroom this afternoon, Paul Manafort, who led Donald Trump's political operation two years ago, pleaded guilty to a variety of felonies, including crimes committed during the president's 2016 campaign. But just as importantly, Manafort reached an agreement with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team, and agreed to cooperate with its probe. As a consequence, Trump's former campaign chair will turn over documents and offer to testify in future proceedings.

And while that's not the kind of news the president wants to hear, it's not the only revelation of note. In Vanity Fair this afternoon, Emily Jane Fox reports that Michael Cohen is talking to Mueller, too.

In the wake of Manafort's plea deal, sources confirm that it is now common knowledge among Cohen's inner circle that Trump's former lawyer has been in contact with the special counsel's office. [...]

In recent weeks, it has also become common knowledge among close friends of Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney, that Cohen is talking to the Mueller team, according to people familiar with the situation.

There's a lot about this that we don't know, and it's worth emphasizing that Vanity Fair's reporting has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News.

That said, whether, and to what degree, Cohen might cooperate with the special counsel's investigation has been a major point of interest in recent weeks. Trump's former "fixer" pleaded guilty to a variety of crimes last month, and directly implicated the president in some of his misdeeds, but there was no publicly available information to suggest Cohen had become a cooperating witness.

The day after his guilty plea, however, Cohen's lawyer told Rachel on the air that the president's former personal attorney stood ready to provide information "on certain subjects that should be of interest to the special counsel."

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Trump promotes a key message: 'Avoid spreading false information'

09/14/18 01:37PM

As Hurricane Florence reached the east coast this morning, Donald Trump published a series of tweets -- and thankfully, none of them were overtly ridiculous. In fact, the president hadn't written almost any of them.

In a rare display of common sense, nearly every tweet Trump shared with his followers this morning was hurricane-related information created by state and federal agencies. There was one message from FEMA, however, that stood out:

"We have created a rumor control page for Hurricane #Florence that will be updated regularly. During disasters, it's critical to avoid spreading false information. Always check with official sources before sharing."

The tweet directed people to this FEMA website, devoted exclusively to addressing dubious claims that the public may have confronted via social media.

What's wrong with that? On the surface, nothing. But just below the surface, it's hard not to notice the irony of this president reminding the public that "it's critical to avoid spreading false information."

After all, Donald Trump is ... how do I put this gently ... Donald Trump.

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Image: FILE PHOTO: Manafort arrives for arraignment on charges of witness tampering, at U.S. District Court in Washington

Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chair, makes a deal with prosecutors

09/14/18 12:31PM

A few weeks ago, a jury in Virginia convicted Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, on eight felony counts involving bank and tax fraud. It was a brutal outcome, but it wasn't the end of Manafort's legal troubles.

Because the jury was deadlocked on 10 counts, the president's former campaign aide faced the prospect of a retrial on those charges. Making matters quite a bit worse, Manafort was also facing a second trial on several related charges, in a case that was poised to begin in Washington, D.C.

This morning, the defendant and his attorneys dramatically changed direction.

Paul Manafort, formerly President Donald Trump's campaign chairman, pleaded guilty on Friday to two counts and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors.

Prosecutor Andrew Weissman called Manafort's plea deal a cooperation agreement during an 11 a.m. hearing at the federal courthouse in Washington.

A charging document filed Friday in the District of Columbia accuses Manafort, 69, of participating in a conspiracy against the United States -- involving money laundering, tax fraud, failing to file Foreign Bank Account Reports, violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and lying and misrepresenting to the Department of Justice.

The charging document is available in its entirety here.

In separate press statements, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani both said Manafort's guilty plea has "nothing to do with" the president. It's worth appreciating the fact, however, that based on what we now know, Manafort was committing a variety of felonies when Trump hired him to lead his political operation.

Initially, many observers noted that Manafort could reach an agreement with prosecutors in which he agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence, without becoming a cooperating witness. In other words, it was entirely possible that he'd strike a deal, go to jail, but not share information with Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team.

But that made it all the more interesting this morning when prosecutors described Manafort's deal as a cooperation agreement.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.14.18

09/14/18 12:00PM

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

* In the wake of several national polls showing Democrats with double-digit leads over Republicans on the generic congressional ballot, we have one more: CNN's latest survey shows Dems up by 10 on the generic ballot, 52% to 42%, among likely voters.

* Of all the results from New York's primaries yesterday, this is the one that stood out for me: "Years of anger at a group of Democratic state senators who had collaborated with Republicans boiled over on Thursday, as primary voters ousted nearly all of them in favor of challengers who had called them traitors and sham progressives."

* In related news, Democratic turnout yesterday was very high, and by some accounts, easily set a record for a midterm cycle. For vulnerable Republican incumbents in the Empire State, this isn't good news.

* Now that the primary season is over, what's the key takeaway? NBC News had a compelling piece on the most important trend: "[O]ne of the unmistakable conclusions from the last six months of intraparty races was the number of women running for office -- and winning."

* Did Matt Rosendale, the Republican Senate candidate in Montana, get an improper heads-up from the NRA about the group's intervention in his race? It sure looks like it.

* Less than a week after re-entering the electoral arena, Barack Obama campaigned in Ohio last night, stumping for gubernatorial hopeful Richard Cordray. Among other things, the former president decried "demagogues who promise simple fixes to complicated problems."

* In New York's competitive 19th congressional district, the latest Monmouth University poll shows Antonio Delgado (D) with a narrow lead over incumbent Rep. John Faso (R), 45% to 43%.

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A person man uses a laptop. (Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa/AP)

Top cyber-security officials keep leaving the FBI at a critical time

09/14/18 11:20AM

At first blush, the departure of a largely unknown FBI official may seem unimportant, but there's a context to this report that's worth appreciating.

Another cybersecurity expert at the FBI is headed for the private sector.

Trent Teyema, the FBI's section chief for cyber readiness and chief operating officer of the bureau's Cyber Division, has been named senior vice president and chief technology officer for the government-focused wing of Parsons Corporation.

Parsons Corporation confirmed the news in a press statement yesterday, announcing that Teyema is poised to join the company as a senior executive.

Why should you care? Because as we discussed earlier in the summer, as the midterm elections draw closer, and the threat of foreign cyber-attacks grows greater, the FBI appears to be losing much of its leadership in this area.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Scott Smith, who ran the FBI cyber division, parted ways with the bureau in July, following his deputy, Howard Marshall, out the door. Their supervisor, David Resch, is also stepping down.

They’re joined by Carl Ghattas, executive assistant director of the FBI’s national security branch, who’s also leaving, following Jeffrey Tricoli, “a senior FBI cyber agent who oversaw a Bureau task force addressing Russian attempts to meddle in U.S. elections,” out the door.

According to Politico, Tricoli was replaced by someone who “knows absolutely nothing about cyber.”

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Image: Former U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his keynote speech to the Montreal Chamber of Commerce in Montreal

What Obama's Medicare-for-All endorsement means (and what it doesn't)

09/14/18 10:44AM

Former President Barack Obama made a rather big splash last week, taking on a high-profile electoral role for the first time since leaving the White House, and delivering a hard-hitting speech at the University of Illinois. There was one line from his remarks, however, that continues to linger.

"Democrats aren't just running on good, old ideas, like a higher minimum wage," Obama said, "they're running on good new ideas, like Medicare-for-all, giving workers seats on corporate boards, reversing the most egregious corporate tax cuts to make sure college students graduate debt free."

Part of this list comes directly from Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) agenda, which is itself interesting, but seeing Obama express support for a Medicare-for-All plan seemed new.

And for some on the right, it also seemed like evidence of a previous deception. The Weekly Standard, a prominent conservative magazine, published an item this morning alongside a cartoon of the former Democratic president with a long Pinocchio nose.

"Medicare-for-all" ... signifies the full-on nationalization of the health-care industry so that everybody can enjoy the benefits of America's most expensive and worst-run health-care program. It also signifies a plan that's not remotely affordable for a nation with the budgetary obligations of the United States -- $32 trillion over 10 years.

But hold on. We seem to remember that in 2009 Obama specifically disavowed any intention of nationalizing the health-care industry. "What are not legitimate concerns are those being put forward claiming a public option is somehow a Trojan horse for a single-payer system," Obama said to the American Medical Association soon after taking office. "I'll be honest. There are countries where a single-payer system works pretty well. But I believe—and I've taken some flak from members of my own party for this belief—that it's important for our reform efforts to build on our traditions here in the United States. So when you hear the naysayers claim that I'm trying to bring about government-run health care, know this: They're not telling the truth."

There are a few glaring problems with this.

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Image: Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence

As midterm elections near, Republicans largely ignore their tax plan

09/14/18 10:00AM

Late last year, as the Republicans' regressive tax plan was poised to clear Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) looked ahead to the 2018 midterms with some confidence. "If we can't sell this to the American people, we ought to go into another line of work," he said at the time.

Nine months later, GOP officials have not only failed to sell their tax breaks to voters, they've also largely given up on even trying. The HuffPost published an interesting report yesterday examining Republicans' campaign messaging in quantifiable terms:

[T]he funny thing about the tax cut bill is Republicans are hardly talking about it.

According to data compiled by Kantar Media/CMAG for HuffPost, just under 12 percent of all GOP TV ads have mentioned the new tax bill so far this year. That's out of 396,607 TV spots that have aired this year -- a total of 1,039 individual ads. The supposed centerpiece of the GOP's agenda is merely a footnote.

There's no great mystery as to why Republicans are downplaying their own success: the American mainstream has never liked the GOP tax breaks, and it still doesn't.

A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal  poll, for example, found that a plurality of Americans is less likely to vote for a candidate who supports the Republican tax plan. For voters in the most competitive House districts, opposition is even stronger.

The result is an exceedingly awkward dynamic: GOP lawmakers in Congress have exactly one major accomplishment, and most of them are reluctant to brag about it because voters don't like it.

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Attendees stand during a news conference at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. (Photo by Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Republicans' latest 'proof' against Google comes up far short

09/14/18 09:21AM

In many Republican circles, it's taken as a given that Google is an opposition entity that's deliberately undermining conservatives. All GOP officials need at this point is some shred of proof to support their assumptions.

This week, some on the right thought they'd finally found something: a leaked video of discouraged Google executives talking to employees in the wake of Election Day 2016. The Washington Post  reported:

The new controversy stems from a roughly hour-long recording published Wednesday by Breitbart. It shows executives such as Sergey Brin, the president of Google parent Alphabet, and Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Google, addressing staff at a private meeting days after the 2016 election, the outcome of which Pichai said caused "a lot of fear within Google."

As they expressed their dismay, Google executives sought to assuage employees, especially immigrants, given the incoming president's pledge before Election Day to toughen security at the border. In doing so, Google's leaders encouraged their workers to be understanding of "all sides of the political spectrum," said Eileen Naughton, the company's vice president for people operations.

In response to the video, Brad Parscale, Donald Trump's 2020 re-election campaign manager, said the company "needs to explain why this isn't a threat to the Republic."

Given over-the-top responses like Parscale's, one might assume the video featured comments about Google conspiring behind the scenes to help Democrats over Republicans, but there's no such evidence. On the contrary, it shows Google founder Sergey Brin saying, "As an immigrant and a refugee, I certainly find this election deeply offensive and I know many of you do too."

Sure, conservative Trump supporters disagree with Brin's comments, but disappointment from a progressive tech executive does not a conspiracy make. The right's new bombshell does effectively nothing to help conservatives' cause: it shows some Trump critics coming to terms with the results of a shocking election.

It does not show anyone at Google taking any steps to manipulate the tech giant for political ends. There are probably thousands of American companies led by executives who were disappointed with the election results two years ago, but to assume that those companies are therefore part of a scheme to undermine the president's political party is a little silly.

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U.S. President Donald Trump holds an Oval Office meeting on hurricane preparations as FEMA Administrator Brock Long points to the potential track of Hurricane Florence on a graphic at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 11, 2018.

Trump enjoys GOP backing over false Puerto Rico conspiracy theory

09/14/18 08:40AM

Even many observers who've come to expect the worst from Donald Trump were taken aback yesterday morning. The president, for reasons that remain elusive, announced that he not only rejects the official death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, Trump also believes that the official estimate from independent researchers is the result of a conspiracy -- launched by "the Democrats" to make him look "as bad as possible."

The president finally found a victim from Hurricane Maria he feels deeply sorry for. Unfortunately, it's himself.

Trump's claims were ridiculously untrue, but he nevertheless kept the argument going on Twitter, promoting a missive from one of his conservative media allies, Lou Dobbs, who praised the president's conspiracy theory, insisted that the death tolls in Puerto Rico "have been inflated," and added a "Fake News" hashtag.

While this shed light on Trump's character, I was especially eager to see the reactions from congressional Republicans. GOP officials and candidates in Florida were quick to distance themselves from the president's nonsense, but as the Washington Post  reported, this wasn't the consensus in Republican circles.

[T]he quick defense of Trump from Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) was more reflective of the consensus among House Republicans. "I understand the president's frustration about what was essentially a well-done job is now drawing new complaints," he said.

Another House Republican argued that the media historically has been biased in assessing blame for natural disasters and defended Bush's handling of Katrina.

"They don't ever say Republicans handle hurricanes as well as Democrats when you talk to the press," Rep. Roger Williams (R-Tex.) said. "I was a Bush guy, and he got hammered for Katrina when he in many cases did the right thing."

As best as I can tell, these guys weren't kidding.

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