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Friday's Mini-Report, 7.13.18

07/13/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* What a day: "President Trump on Friday tried to repair the diplomatic damage he caused with an explosive interview blasting his host, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, by praising her leadership and calling their two countries' relationship 'the highest level of special,' even as he continued to publicly question her decisions."

* Amateur hour: "The trade war between the United States and China showed no signs of yielding on Thursday, as Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, told lawmakers there was no clear path to resolution and Beijing blasted the administration over its approach."

* Didn't Ross say he sold his holdings in January? "Billionaire Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Thursday he was selling all his stock holdings after being criticized by the Office of Government Ethics for some of his financial transactions."

* Speaking of scandalous members of Trump's cabinet: "Former Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price should repay the federal government more than $341,000 for improperly using charter and military aircraft for travel for himself and his wife, a new report from the agency's independent Office of the Inspector General has concluded."

* Misguided: "House conservatives are preparing a new push to oust Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, according to three conservative Capitol Hill sources -- putting the finishing touches on an impeachment filing even as Rosenstein announced the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for interfering in the 2016 election."

* Jared Kushner "lacks the security clearance level required to review some of the government's most sensitive secrets, according to two people familiar with his access."

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Image: Rod Rosenstein, John Demers, Ed O'Callaghan

White House responds to new Mueller indictment the wrong way

07/13/18 04:29PM

Today's new indictment against 12 Russian intelligence officers is a major development in the overall scandal. The charges, brought by special counsel Robert Mueller and announced by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, further connect the attack on the U.S. elections to Vladimir Putin's government, just days before Donald Trump -- the beneficiary of the Russian operation -- sits down with his counterpart for a one-on-one summit.

So, how did the White House, which knew about today's announcement days ago, respond to the indictment? In a rather discouraging way.

A statement from the White House did not address the allegations of Russian government interference and focused only on what was not in the indictment.

"Today's charges include no allegations of knowing involvement by anyone on the campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result. This is consistent with what we have been saying all along," the statement said.

If you're looking for the part of the White House statement that condemned our adversary for attacking the United States, don't bother. The statement quoted a few lines from Rod Rosenstein's press conference, and then added the aforementioned two sentences pointing to the president's alleged innocence.

In other words, the White House had literally nothing to say about the Russian intelligence officers who orchestrated an attack on our democracy. Trump World's statement to the press was only about Trump World.

Did it not occur to them to criticize the foreign officials who launched an intelligence operation in the president's own country? Is Team Trump so reluctant to disparage Russia that the White House forgot to express its disapproval of the Kremlin targeting us?

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In this image from the U.S. Library of Congress, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln sits for a portrait on Feb. 5, 1865. (Photo by Alexander Gardner/U.S. Library of Congress/Getty)

Trump on his popularity within the GOP: 'I beat our Honest Abe'

07/13/18 03:51PM

Earlier this week, Donald Trump acted as if he'd found something new to brag about. Referring to himself in third person, the president wrote on Twitter, "New Poll says Trump, at over 90%, is the most popular Republican in history of the Party. Wow!"

In his interview with The Sun, the British tabloid, Trump repeated the claim, and this time, added Abraham Lincoln to the mix:

"You know, a poll just came out that I am the most popular person in the history of the Republican Party -- 92 per cent. Beating Lincoln. I beat our Honest Abe."

Right off the bat, the obvious problem is that Lincoln was president before telephones were invented and were there no polls in the 1860s. It's difficult to gauge the precise popularity of the nation's 16th president during his tenure in the White House, though it's probably worth noting that Lincoln, unlike Trump, managed to receive more votes than his principal opponent.

Perhaps Trump meant that, among Republicans alive today, he enjoys more support than Lincoln? I suppose it's possible, but I haven't seen any evidence to support the claim, and it's difficult to imagine Lincoln's support among contemporary GOP voters being lower than 92%. (I'd also guess that among today's Republicans, support for Reagan would be in the ballpark of 100%.)

But even if we put these pesky details aside, Trump is still wrong.

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Image: FILE PHOTO: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein speaks at a news conference

Mueller charges Russian intelligence officers for election attack

07/13/18 01:16PM

Donald Trump is scheduled to participate in a one-on-one summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in three days. In theory, the American leader should be eager to discuss an important new indictment with his foreign counterpart.

Twelve Russian intelligence officers have been indicted in connection with hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign and the release of stolen emails through Guccifer 2.0 and DC Leaks to "interfere in the 2016 election," officials announced Friday. [...]

[Special Counsel Robert] Mueller, who has been investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion by the Trump campaign for months, alleged the 12 defendants in Friday's indictment are members of GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency.

The full, 29-page indictment is online here (pdf). In announcing the charges, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told reporters this afternoon that he briefed Trump on the allegations earlier this week.

It raises the awkward possibility that when the president told reporters he believed his meeting with Putin would be "easier" than the NATO summit and his visit to the United Kingdom, Trump was already aware of the pending criminal charges against 12 Russian intelligence officers accused of attacking an American election.

There's a lot to chew on here, but here are some initial takeaways to keep in mind:

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.13.18

07/13/18 12:00PM

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

* The latest Washington Post-Schar School poll found Democratic voters are quite a bit more enthusiastic about this year's midterms than Republican voters, though the Dems' advantage "is smaller in battleground congressional districts."

* An interesting analysis from USA Today: "Secret donors financed more than four out of every 10 television ads that outside groups broadcast this year to influence November's high-stakes congressional elections.... Leading the way: organizations affiliated with billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, whose conservative donor network plows hundreds of millions of dollars into politics and policy debates each election cycle."

* Demand Justice, a progressive group opposed to Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, is launching television ads targeting North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, West Virginia's Joe Manchin, and Indiana's Joe Donnelly -- three red-state Democrats up for re-election this year -- urging them to vote against confirming Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

* Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) launched a new campaign ad this week in which he brags to voters, "When President Trump tried to take away important environmental protections for the Boundary Waters, I said, 'No way.'" Keep an eye on other vulnerable Republicans distancing themselves from their party's president between now and Election Day.

* The Houston Chronicle ran a rather embarrassing report on Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) re-election campaign: "Federal campaign regulators have three times in the last year sent notices to the Cruz campaign -- more than any Senator running for re-election this year -- for taking tens of thousands of dollars more than legally allowed from dozens of donors. And in another case, a Cruz donor had to file a Federal Election Commission complaint to get the campaign to stop automatically deducting monthly donations from her bank account."

* Trump took time out of his foreign trip to formally endorse one of his most sycophantic congressional allies, freshman Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.). The Florida Republican is running in an overwhelmingly "red" district, so his re-election is all but assured.

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Image: SINGAPORE-US-NKOREA-DIPLOMACY-SUMMIT

Why is Trump celebrating non-existent 'progress' with North Korea?

07/13/18 11:00AM

As Donald Trump's policy toward North Korea unravels, the American leader decided yesterday to offer some evidence of progress: the Republican president released an image of a recent letter he received from Kim Jong-un.

"I deeply appreciate the energetic and extraordinary efforts made by Your Excellency Mr. President for the improvement of relations between the two countries and the faithful implementation of the joint statement," Kim said in a translated letter tweeted by the president.

Trump added in his tweet: "A very nice note from Chairman Kim of North Korea. Great progress being made!"

No, there is no great progress being made. Trump is making that up, hoping we'll all just play along with the fantasy.

The fact remains, however, this is too important for make-believe. Following up on our previous coverage, consider what we've seen since the spectacle of the Trump/Kim summit:

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The Pentagon, the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, Arlington County, Virginia.

After Trump's summit performance, Pentagon goes into 'damage control' mode

07/13/18 10:21AM

Over the course of a NATO summit that spanned just two days, Donald Trump managed to offend and frighten many key allies of the United States, leaving foreign leaders convinced that he's not a "very stable genius," his latest claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

After the American president departed Brussels -- in order to create new international incidents in the U.K. -- it fell to others to help clean up Trump's latest mess. NBC News reported this morning:

Hours after President Donald Trump departed NATO headquarters Thursday, U.S. military leaders embarked on a full-scale "damage control" operation with calls to their counterparts across Europe to reassure them that America will abide by its defense commitments in the region.

The outreach, directed by the Pentagon leadership, came after Trump threatened to reassess those commitments during a gathering with NATO allies in Brussels, according to multiple current and former diplomatic and military officials familiar with the calls.

The overall message from senior military officials in a series of phone calls to members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been that U.S. military bases in their countries will remain open and American troop levels in the region will not be reduced.

In other words, the message from U.S. officials to our international partners is effectively, "Don't pay too much attention to what the Leader of the Free World has to say."

It's remarkable that such "damage control" is necessary -- ideally, an American president should be able to attend a NATO summit and earn the respect of his or her counterparts -- but what's especially depressing about reports like these is often we're confronted with circumstances in which U.S. officials urge international colleagues to ignore Trump.

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Trump complains of immigration's impact on European 'culture'

07/13/18 09:27AM

A few months ago, during French President Emmanuel Macron's visit to the White House, Donald Trump was reportedly critical of British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. When the Washington Post asked about the American president's comments, Trump said in a statement that "immigration is destroying Europe as we know it and it is very sad to be witness to what is happening."

Not surprisingly, the Republican's comments prompted speculation about a possible racial subtext. In his highly controversial interview with The Sun, a British tabloid, Trump was even less subtle.

Trump also spoke on immigration policy in the interview, saying that Europe was losing its identity and culture because of an influx of migrants.

"Allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame," Trump said. "I think it changed the fabric of Europe. And unless you act very quickly it's never going to be what it was and I don't mean that in a positive way. So I think allowing millions and millions of people to come in to Europe is very, very sad. I think you are losing your culture."

When the American president talks about immigration, he tends to maintain a specific pretense: the concern is about illegal immigration, Trump says.

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Image: BRITAIN-US-DIPLOMACY-TRUMP

Trump creates another international incident, blasts key US ally

07/13/18 08:48AM

Donald Trump sat down with The Sun, a British tabloid newspaper, for an interview earlier this week, knowing that its report would be published soon after the American president arrived in the U.K. for his first official visit since taking office. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders notified British officials about the interview and suggested The Sun's report wouldn't be a problem.

It is, however, an enormous problem.

President Donald Trump continued to attack America's European allies on Thursday -- this time aiming at the United Kingdom's Prime Minister Theresa May a day before they are due to meet in London. [...]

In the interview, Trump insisted that he would have negotiated the [Brexit] deal differently than May, and he said that he had provided the prime minister his "views on what she should do and how she should negotiate."

"I would have done it much differently. I actually told Theresa May how to do it but she didn't agree, she didn't listen to me."

The report in the British tabloid was published late yesterday, and it wasn't long before the piece became the basis for an international incident. In addition to condemning the prime minister's Brexit policy, Trump also suggested May's approach would adversely affect a future trade agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom.

"[I]f they do that, I would say that would probably end a major trade relationship with the United States," Trump said.

Adding insult to injury, as the prime minister's government faces a political crisis, the president took time to praise Boris Johnson, who just resigned as Britain's foreign secretary, which had a destabilizing effect on May's leadership.

Johnson, Trump said, "would be a great prime minister."

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Strzok hearing backfires badly on House Republicans

07/13/18 08:00AM

House Republicans made no effort to hide their intentions: they wanted to create a spectacle with a lengthy interrogation of Peter Strzok, who served as the head of the FBI's counter-intelligence division, and who's become a boogeyman in Republican circles.

To a degree, GOP lawmakers got their wish. On the heels of 11 hours of closed-door testimony from Strzok, Americans were treated to 10 hours of open-door testimony yesterday, which offered plenty of sound and fury.

But did it signify anything? Yesterday's drama on Capitol Hill created a circus-like atmosphere, which at times descended into farce, but if we look past the spectacle and focus on the ostensible point of yesterday's hearings, we're left with a question Republicans failed to think through.

If Donald Trump and his allies are correct, Strzok was a biased attack dog who conspired to use his role at the FBI to undermine the president's 2016 candidacy. But if the conspiracy theory were true, why didn't Strzok do what his critics claim? As a Washington Post  analysis explained:

If there was such a conspiracy, of course, it didn't work. Trump is president and, before the election, there was barely a public whiff that any investigation even existed. If Strzok's idea was to "stop" Trump from becoming president, it was a spectacular failure.

In a written statement offered before he testified before the House Oversight Committee on Thursday, Strzok pointedly noted that there was no effort on his part to keep Trump from winning the White House -- and, further, that he was one of only a few people who could have potentially leaked details from the investigation in an effort to block Trump's victory.

"In the summer of 2016," Strzok told lawmakers, "I was one of a handful of people who knew the details of Russian election interference and its possible connections with members of the Trump campaign. This information had the potential to derail, and quite possibly, defeat Mr. Trump. But the thought of exposing that information never crossed my mind."

This point has gone unrefuted. Strzok could've leaked word to the public about the pre-election investigation into Trump's political operation, but he didn't. If the high-ranking agent had been determined to use his position to undermine the president's candidacy, why didn't he use his position to undermine the president's candidacy?

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