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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 9.11.18

09/11/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Hurricane Florence "is the strongest storm to target the Carolinas and Virginia region 'in decades,' the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Tuesday in issuing dire warnings for the hundreds of thousands of people ordered to evacuate before the Category 4 storm makes landfall."

* The US vs the ICC: "Afghan rights workers warned Tuesday that a blistering U.S. attack on the International Criminal Court investigating war crimes allegations will strengthen a climate of impunity in Afghanistan, prolong the war and embolden those committing acts of violence."

* International opposition to Trump can be a problem: "President Trump has canceled a planned trip to Ireland, the Irish government said Tuesday, amid planned demonstrations to protest his climate policies, international relations and treatment of immigrants, women and minorities."

* Iraq: "In scenes that appeared to mirror the explosion of protests across southern Iraq in July, government headquarters and the offices of many of Iraq's most powerful political parties and militias have been attacked and set ablaze by protesters in the oil-rich southern province of Basra. The Iranian Consulate in Basra was ransacked and burned Friday. As a fractured Shiite Islamist bloc continues to wrangle over power months after national elections in May, its core constituency in the Shiite south is in open revolt."

* Good advice: "Warning of the risks of 'runaway' global warming, the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, on Monday called on global leaders to rein in climate change faster."

* The clean-up is expected to take weeks: "A Texas company says one of its pipelines has spilled more than 8,000 gallons of jet fuel into a river in the northeastern Indiana city of Decatur."

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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

Trump: Puerto Rico disaster response was 'an incredible unsung success'

09/11/18 04:23PM

With Hurricane Florence approaching the Carolinas and Virginia, Donald Trump spoke from the Oval Office this afternoon about the threat. In theory, this should've been an incredibly easy task: the president alerts the public to a looming natural disaster, emphasizes the seriousness of the situation, and urges the public to follow the instructions of emergency-response officials.

But Trump isn't a normal president. He began his comments assuring the public that his administration is "as ready as anyone's ever been" -- even now, bragging is apparently important -- before saying that the hurricane is "tremendously big and tremendously wet."

Eventually, the president opened it up to questions, and a reporter asked about the lessons the administration has learned since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. It was at this point that Trump said ... pretty much what you'd expect him to say.

"I think Puerto Rico was incredibly successful....I actually think it was one of the best jobs that's ever been done with respect to what this is all about. [...]

"The job that FEMA and law enforcement and everybody did working along with the governor in Puerto Rico, I think was tremendous. I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible unsung success. Texas, we had been given A+'s for. Florida, we've been given A+'s for. I think in a certain way the best job we did was Puerto Rico, but nobody would understand that. I mean, it's harder to understand. It was very hard. very hard thing to do, because of the fact they had no electric before the storms hit -- it was dead, as you probably know. So we've gotten a lot of receptivity, a lot of thanks for the job we've done in Puerto Rico."

His answer, in total, lasted nearly a full two minutes -- during which time Trump suggested he's learned absolutely no lessons whatsoever from last year's devastation in Puerto Rico because he thinks the federal response was an "incredible" success.

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The empty speaker podium in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

Top members of Trump's economic team 'do not exactly inspire confidence'

09/11/18 12:50PM

About six months ago, following a series of White House embarrassments, the Washington Post's Catherine Rampell made a compelling case that "the key members of Trump's economic brain trust ... do not exactly inspire confidence." The headline on Rampell's piece read, "Trump's economic team needs to grow up -- fast."

At the time, her piece was principally focused on Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, both of whom have struggled through a series of missteps, failed predictions, obvious falsehoods, and strange economic assessments.

But they're not alone. Kevin Hassett, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, delivered a presentation in the press briefing room yesterday, and as Slate's Jordan Weissmann explained, Hassett's pitch was at times "baffling."

Monday, the White House tried to present a counterargument [to Barack Obama's recent statements about when the current economic expansion began], without exactly admitting it. Council of Economic Advisers Chair Kevin Hassett stopped by the daily White House press briefing to present a series of charts that supposedly demonstrate how the economy improved after Trump was elected. "We were prepared to do this briefing a few weeks ago and there's not in any way a timing that's related to president Obama's Friday remarks," Hassett told reporters.

This was not particularly convincing. Nor was the case Hassett laid out, in which he used some oddly misleading charts to try and prove that several economic trends improved sharply after Trump was elected.

Weissman did a nice job going point by point -- with charts -- highlighting Hassett's misleading rhetoric and tortured efforts to prove that Trump is responsible for an economic "turnaround" that the White House is irresponsibly exaggerating.

I've seen some suggestions that Hassett's presentation was little more than a campaign event from the press briefing room, and while there's certainly some truth to that, I think in some ways it was worse than that. It struck me as an attempt from a conservative economist, unconcerned with his reputation, to make a president feel better about himself.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.11.18

09/11/18 12:00PM

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

* It's Primary Day in New Hampshire, and the race to watch is in the state's competitive 1st congressional district, where incumbent Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) is retiring, and where both parties have large fields of candidates vying to replace her.

* A Monmouth University poll, released yesterday, found Democrats with modest advantages in eight competitive congressional districts currently represented by House Republicans.

* In Florida, Rep. Ron DeSantis (R) was already giving up his congressional seat to run for Congress, but yesterday he took a step further, announcing his resignation in order to focus full time on his gubernatorial campaign.

* In New York, Rep. Chris Collins (R) suspended his re-election campaign after his criminal indictment, hoping Republican officials would choose someone else to run in his place. The New York Times  reported yesterday, however, that "even as local Republican leaders have interviewed a slate of replacement candidates for the seat, there is a real possibility that Mr. Collins could stay on the November ballot and represent the party."

* Michigan's gubernatorial race looks like a major pick-up opportunity for Democrats: a new Detroit News poll shows Gretchen Whitmer (D) with a double-digit advantage over Bill Schuette (R), 49.8% to 36.1%.

* Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), the Republican nominee in one of the nation's most important Senate races, enjoys Trump's enthusiastic support -- but he apparently doesn't want to be seen with the president.

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A plume of exhaust extends from a coal-fired power plant on Sept. 24, 2013 in New Eagle, Pa. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty)

Trump looks to roll back safeguards on methane pollution

09/11/18 11:20AM

At a recent campaign rally in West Virginia, Donald Trump told supporters, "I want clean air. I want crystal clean water. And we've got it. We've got the cleanest country in the planet right now. There's nobody cleaner than us."

That's not even close to being true; the president just presented made-up nonsense as fact. But just as importantly, Trump neglected to mention the steps he's taking to make pollution an even bigger problem.

A couple of months ago, for example, the Trump administration proposed freezing fuel-efficiency and anti-pollution standards for cars. Last month, the administration announced plans to relax pollution rules for coal plants. And the New York Times  reported overnight that Trump's next move intends to make it "significantly easier for energy companies to release methane into the atmosphere."

Methane, which is among the most powerful greenhouse gases, routinely leaks from oil and gas wells, and energy companies have long said that the rules requiring them to test for emissions were costly and burdensome.

The Environmental Protection Agency, perhaps as soon as this week, plans to make public a proposal to weaken an Obama-era requirement that companies monitor and repair methane leaks, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times. In a related move, the Interior Department is also expected in coming days to release its final version of a draft rule, proposed in February, that essentially repeals a restriction on the intentional venting and "flaring," or burning, of methane from drilling operations.

Under existing policy, crafted by the Obama administration, energy companies are required to conduct inspections for leaks as frequently as every six months on their drilling equipment, and to repair leaks within 30 days. According to the draft obtained by the New York Times, the Trump administration would ease the burdens on polluters, requiring less frequent inspections and giving companies twice as much time to fix leaks.

The idea, evidently, is to help the oil and gas industry earn back most of the money the industry was poised to lose from the Obama era from environmental safeguards.

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Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., joined by, from left, Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, and Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., smiles as they unveil the GOP's tax overhaul, Nov. 2, 2017.

Republicans move forward with 'Phase 2' of their tax plan

09/11/18 10:42AM

After Republicans rushed through their massive, regressive tax plan late last year, many assumed the GOP majority would turn its attention to other issues, such as infrastructure or immigration. What we didn't realize is that Republicans would instead keep their focus on ... more tax cuts.

As we discussed in the spring, Donald Trump told a selected group of supporters in St. Louis, in reference to his tax plans for 2018, "We're now going for a Phase 2." Pointing to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the president added, "It's going to be something very special. Kevin Brady's working on it with me."

In this case, Trump apparently wasn't making stuff up. Brady told Fox Business at the time that Republicans believe "even more can be done" on taxes.

We're now getting a look at what they have in mind. Reuters reported overnight:

With congressional elections looming, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday proposed more deficit-expanding tax cuts, an effort seen by some tax experts as unlikely to become law and geared chiefly toward winning votes.

Even if the initiative fails to pass, it could put Democrats in the position of opposing the new tax-cut plan on the House floor, which Republicans could seek to use to their advantage in the Nov. 6 elections where control of Congress will be at stake.

Under the measure, federal individual income tax cuts approved on a temporary basis by the Republican-controlled Congress and President Donald Trump in December would become permanent.

This should probably sound familiar. As part of their accounting tricks, Republican lawmakers created permanent tax breaks for big corporations, but temporary tax breaks for the public. "Phase 2," to borrow the president's phrase, is about making the latter permanent, too.

If this seems like a cheap gimmick, there's a good reason for that. GOP leaders almost certainly don't expect another round of regressive tax breaks to pass, but by holding a vote shortly before the midterm elections, they will likely use the demise of their plan as fodder for attack ads -- with Republicans accusing Democrats of opposing "tax relief" for "American families."

There is, however, a problem with the plan.

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A woman places her vote into the ballot box on March 5, 2016 in Bowling Green, Ky. (Photo by Austin Anthony/Daily News/AP)

Republicans confront a significant gender gap ahead of midterm elections

09/11/18 10:06AM

When the latest Quinnipiac poll asked respondents whether Donald Trump is mentally stable or not, the president didn't fare especially well: only 48% of Americans said yes. But the gender breakdown pointed to an interesting result: while a narrow majority of men said they consider Trump mentally stable, 50% of women said the opposite.

The result was emblematic of the significant gender gap Republicans are confronting this year. Indeed, the same Quinnipiac poll showed the president with a weak 38% approval rating, but Trump fared even worse among women, with whom he has 34% support.

The new CNN poll, released yesterday, offered even more dramatic results.

"Do you approve or disapprove of the way Donald Trump is handling his job as president?"

Men: 42% approve, 51% disapprove
Women: 29% approve, 65% disapprove

That's not a typo.

Of course, the president isn't literally on the ballot this year, but that doesn't mean the news for congressional Republicans is much better. A recent Quinnipiac poll on the generic congressional ballot found women preferring Democratic candidates to GOP candidates by a whopping 25-point margin -- far larger than in other recent midterm election cycles.

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Rep. Rod Blum, R-Iowa, speaks during a town hall meeting, Thursday, May 11, 2017, in Marshalltown, Iowa.

Iowa Republican faces investigation over ethics mess

09/11/18 09:20AM

Last week, Roll Call published its list of the most vulnerable U.S. House members in this year's midterm elections. Listed at #1 -- the incumbent lawmaker most likely to lose in November -- was Republican Rep. Rob Blum of Iowa.

Reports like this one from the Des Moines Register probably won't help the congressman's chances.

A U.S. House ethics committee on Tuesday announced it's investigating U.S. Rep. Rod Blum, the incumbent Republican in Iowa's first congressional district, following news reports earlier this year that he failed to disclose his private business on a required form.

The Committee on Ethics for the U.S. House of Representatives said that its top leaders had decided to "extend" a "matter" about Blum.

It's worth emphasizing that the Ethics Committee didn't go into any detail about which "matter" it's investigating, but Blum himself issued a statement on the developments, explaining that the scrutiny is over a "clerical error" about a company he failed to disclose his role in.

At first blush, that may sound like a fairly dull controversy. The truth is far more interesting.

Part of what makes the controversy amazing is the nature of the company in question and its work. The Associated Press reported back in February that Blum was one of two directors who led the Tin Moon Corp., incorporated in May 2016, more than a year into the Iowa Republican's first term in Congress.

As the AP reported, Tin Moon Corp. offered to "help companies cited for federal food and drug safety violations bury their Food and Drug Administration warning letters below positive internet search results."

That's not a great business model for anyone, least of all a sitting member of Congress. But in this case, it gets a little worse.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump visits Bethlehem

Middle East talks prove to be more difficult than Trump realized

09/11/18 08:41AM

Just four months into his presidency, Donald Trump seemed quite confident about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, as regular readers may recall, the Republican boasted there's a "very, very good chance" his administration would help strike a deal for Middle East peace.

"It's something, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years," the president added.

Fifteen months later, I half-expect Trump to declare, "Nobody knew talks between Israelis and Palestinians could be so complicated." Take yesterday, for example.

The Trump administration ordered the closure of the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington on Monday and threatened sanctions against the International Criminal Court if it pursues investigations against the U.S., Israel, or other allies. The moves are likely to harden Palestinian resistance to the U.S. role as a peace broker.

The administration cited the refusal of Palestinian leaders to enter into peace talks with Israel as the reason for closing the Palestinian Liberation Organization office, although the U.S. has yet to present its plan to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians accused the administration of dismantling decades of U.S. engagement with them.

The Trump administration also announced the withdrawal of $25 million it had committed to the East Jerusalem Hospital Network. As NBC News reported, this followed last month's announcement that the Trump administration is cutting more than $200 million in aid to the Palestinians. It also comes on the heels of the Trump administration announcing the end of funding to the United Nations relief agency for Palestinian refugees.

Of course, it also follows the American president's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital -- a highly contentious point in negotiations, which Trump gave up in exchange for nothing, and which had the predictable effect of pushing Palestinians further away.

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