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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.8.19

02/08/19 12:00PM

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

* Just four months after barely winning re-election, Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) announced yesterday that he'll retire at the end of this term. His suburban-Atlanta district backed Donald Trump in 2016 by six points, but it also backed Stacey Abrams' (D) gubernatorial campaign last year by one point.

* I found this analysis from Politico on former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Sherrod Brown to be quite compelling: "They're chasing the same potential supporters, touting the same themes and even using some of the same language to go after President Donald Trump. And Brown, kicking off a pre-campaign tour of key presidential voting states last week, made clear that if he gets into the race he intends to run, essentially, as Biden without the baggage."

* Nevertheless, ahead of a possible candidacy, Biden continues to reach out to congressional Democrats about their support, including recent conversations with Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.), and Bob Casey (D-Pa.).

* I'm skeptical of the idea that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) will be vulnerable during his re-election bid next year, but if anyone can launch a credible challenge against him, it's former S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison, who's kicking off an "exploratory committee" today.

* The Associated Press reported yesterday that Priorities USA, one of the nation's leading outside groups associated with Democratic politics, is launching a $30 million effort to "register voters, push ballot measures that expand voter rights and fight Republican-backed laws in court that restrict ballot access."

* State election laws in New Jersey would allow Sen. Cory Booker (D) to run for president and for re-election to the U.S. Senate simultaneously. For now, however, he says he's not prepared to make a firm decision about whether to pursue such a course.

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A new reason to find Mar-a-Lago controversial: Trump hires his customers

02/08/19 10:50AM

It's surprisingly difficult to count all of the controversies surrounding Donald Trump's' Mar-a-Lago golf resort in south Florida. Do we start with the ethical mess? The hidden visitor logs? The security lapses? The cost to taxpayers? The H-2 visa hires?

Or how about the fact that the president keeps giving jobs to his customers?

This first arose as an issue last fall, when the Palm Beach Post  reported that couture handbag designer Lana Marks, a Mar-a-Lago member, was Trump's choice to serve as ambassador to South Africa. The same article noted some other club members who were also offered diplomatic posts in the Trump administration.

USA Today published a related report today taking stock of just how many of the president's customers have also been beneficiaries of jobs on his team.

Membership rolls of Trump's clubs are not public. USA TODAY identified members through interviews, news accounts and a website golfers use to track their handicaps.

Since he took office, Trump has appointed at least eight people who identified themselves as current or former members of his club to senior posts in his administration. USA TODAY identified five of those appointees in mid-2017, prompting criticism from ethics watchdogs that the selections blurred the boundary between his public duties and his private financial interests.

That does not appear to include at least two other Trump customers who were offered ambassadorships, but who declined the nominations.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump finds new ways to falsely claim exoneration in Russia scandal

02/08/19 10:19AM

In March 2018, Donald Trump published an all-caps tweet in which he claimed the House Intelligence Committee had completely exonerated him in the Russia scandal. That wasn't what happened. In reality, the president's Republican allies on the committee published a one-party report echoing the White House's talking points, following a ridiculous investigation that no one could take seriously.

Three months later, the Justice Department inspector general's office shredded practically every claim Trump had made against federal law enforcement, making the president look quite foolish in the process. Trump nevertheless told reporters, "I think that the report yesterday, maybe more importantly than anything, it totally exonerates me."

His claim could charitably be described as gibberish. The president pointed to non-existent answers to questions the Justice Department's IG didn't even ask.

This morning, Trump published a trio of tweets, apparently in response to something he saw on Fox News, once again claiming exoneration.

"Highly respected Senator Richard Burr, Chairman of Senate Intelligence, said today that, after an almost two year investigation, he saw no evidence of Russia collusion. 'We don't have anything that would suggest there was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia.' Thank you!

"Not only did Senator Burr's Committee find No Collusion by the Trump Campaign and Russia, it's important because they interviewed 200 witnesses and 300,000 pages of documents, & the Committee has direct access to intelligence information that's Classified. @GreggJarrett

"The mainstream media has refused to cover the fact that the head of the VERY important Senate Intelligence Committee, after two years of intensive study and access to Intelligence that only they could get, just stated that they have found NO COLLUSION between 'Trump' & Russia...."

Let's take a minute to unpack this.

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History mandates presidential candidates release tax returns, but not how many

While trying to keep Trump's tax returns secret, GOP pushes a dubious line

02/08/19 09:20AM

The basic contours of the controversy surrounding Donald Trump's tax returns are pretty straightforward. In 2016, Trump ignored historical norms and his own promises to become the first modern major-party presidential candidate to refuse to disclose his tax returns. In the first two years of his presidency, congressional Democrats took steps to force transparency, but Trump's Republican allies shielded him.

Now that Dems are in the House majority, the White House is quite nervous that the opposition party will be able acquire the documents the president has gone out of his way to keep secret (for reasons he has not yet explained).

Democrats, however, have proceeded with some caution -- too much, to hear some progressive voices tell it. The party could just use raw political force to acquire Trump's tax returns, but they instead appear determined to methodically build a case to justify the move. To that end, Congress saw its first hearing on the subject yesterday.

President Donald Trump exhibited "aggressive tax planning" prior to his 2016 election and "could have eliminated his taxes for a couple of decades" by claiming millions in business-related losses, tax expert Steven Rosenthal told a congressional panel Thursday.

"There is a lot to find," said Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center who has scrutinized portions of Trump's 1995 and 2005 returns last year in partnership with the New York Times.

Rosenthal was among several nonpartisan tax experts who testified at the first Democratic-run House Ways and Means Committee hearing on Trump's taxes. The hearing was intended to begin "building the public case for why the American people deserve to know something — anything -- about Trump's finances," said a Democratic leadership aide who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Not surprisingly, the White House's GOP allies on Capitol Hill remain determined to help Trump keep his materials under wraps, and House Ways and Means Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-Texas) and House Oversight Subcommittee Ranking Member Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) yesterday sent a letter to Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), urging him to back off.

Their argument included one notable claim that stood out.

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This July 12, 2017, file photo shows the cover of an issue of the National Enquirer featuring President Donald Trump at a store in New York.

At the intersection of Jeff Bezos and Donald Trump's favorite tabloid

02/08/19 08:45AM

Once in a while, we're confronted with a story that's so unusual, it's tough to know where to start. In this case, it's probably best to start with the end and work backwards.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos accused the National Enquirer's parent company, American Media Inc., of "extortion and blackmail" on Thursday for threatening to publish scandalous photos of him and his girlfriend if he didn't drop an investigation into how the tabloid obtained text messages exposing his extra-marital affair.

According to the emails that Bezos published, which have not been independently reviewed by NBC News, AMI threatened to publish texts from Bezos and his girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, that included photos of a sexual nature. In exchange for withholding the photos, AMI demanded that Bezos stop the Washington Post, which he owns, from reporting about political motivations behind the National Enquirer's initial reports about his relationship with the former TV anchor.

Bezos explained these developments in a lengthy blog post published at Medium, which appeared to include the written messages he'd received from AMI. American Media Inc., led by a prominent Donald Trump ally named David Pecker, has not yet commented.

But to appreciate the significance of all of this, we're going to have to back up a bit.

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U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts arrives prior to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill on Jan. 28, 2014. (Larry Downing/Pool/Getty)

Why the Supreme Court's latest move on abortion is so important

02/08/19 08:00AM

Louisiana passed a law in 2014 that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their practice. The practical effects of the measure were significant: as NBC News reported, the Center for Reproductive Rights concluded that the state law, if implemented, would leave just one New Orleans doctor who could legally perform the procedure.

In a state where 10,000 women seek abortion services every year, Louisiana's measure would severely limit reproductive choices statewide -- which was almost certainly the point of the law.

Local physicians filed suit, making the case that Louisiana's measure was medically unnecessary, at odds with legal precedent, and a thinly veiled effort to close abortion clinics. Late last night, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened, agreeing to block the law, at least for now.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday blocked Louisiana from enforcing a law that women's groups said would leave only a single doctor legally allowed to perform abortions in the state.

By a 5-4 vote, the court said the restrictions must remain on hold while challengers appeal a lower court decision in favor of the law. Chief Justice John Roberts voted with the court's liberal members.

It's important to note that this was not a ruling on the constitutionality of the state law. Rather, the justices weighed in on whether the Louisiana measure could be implemented while lower courts evaluated the law on its merits.

If the U.S. Supreme Court had gone the other way, and said the Louisiana measure could be enforced immediately, some legal experts have said it would have singled the beginning of the end of the Roe v. Wade precedent.

But in June Medical Services v. Gee, Justices Roberts, Ginsburg, Kagan, Sotomayor, and Breyer went the other way. The result tells us quite a bit.

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Bezos accusation could mean huge trouble for National Enquirer

Bezos accusation could mean huge trouble for National Enquirer

02/07/19 09:48PM

Elliot Williams, former deputy assistant attorney general, talks with Rachel Maddow about whether the accusation made by Jeff Bezos against the National Enquirer would be a crime, and what the implications are for the terms of the non-prosecution agreement the National Enquirer's parent company AMI has with prosecutors in the Michael Cohen... watch

Thursday's Mini-Report, 2.7.19

02/07/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Today's messiest story: "The acting attorney general, Matthew G. Whitaker, told lawmakers on Thursday that he would not testify before the House Judiciary Committee as scheduled on Friday without a written assurance that they would not issue a subpoena for his testimony during the hearing."

* How reassuring: "When asked whether his acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker will testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Friday, President Trump deflected, suggesting if Whitaker did end up appearing he would 'do very well.'"

* Look for a floor vote on Barr in six days: "The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the nomination of William Barr to be the next attorney general Thursday, as Republicans touted his qualifications and Democrats voiced concerns about how he would handle the special counsel investigation."

* The Green New Deal gets some details: "Liberal Democrats put flesh on their 'Green New Deal' slogan on Thursday with a sweeping resolution intended to redefine the national debate on climate change by calling for the United States to eliminate additional emissions of carbon by 2030."

* A new Virginia mess:  "A Republican Virginia state senator oversaw a yearbook at the Virginia Military Institute that included racist images and slurs, adding him to the list of scandal-plagued Virginia politicians that has thrust the normally decorous state capital Richmond into a state of tumult."

* Trade talks: "Stocks fell on Thursday after White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said China and the U.S. were still far away on striking a trade deal, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropping by 360 points."

* Remember, Trump has argued that these farmers simply don't mind the economic hardship: "President Donald Trump's trade war is magnifying some of the toughest farm conditions since the crisis that bankrupted thousands of farmers in the 1980s -- and threatening a constituency crucial to his reelection hopes."

* I hope you saw Rachel's coverage of this last night: "Paul Erickson, the American political operative and boyfriend of admitted Russian agent Maria Butina, has been indicted by a federal grand jury in South Dakota on charges of wire fraud and money laundering."

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen in a television cameras view finder during a press conference at the Trump National Golf Club Jupiter on March 8, 2016 in Jupiter, Fla. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

Trump taps someone else from Fox News for his team (yes, again)

02/07/19 03:47PM

About a year ago, Fox News' Juan Williams joked on the air that he sees Donald Trump's White House as a reality-television program -- and if you want to make it onto the show, you have to be in a Fox News green room "because apparently that's the staging area."

Perhaps he wasn't kidding.

The Trump administration will tap a former Fox News reporter and former intelligence operative to lead the U.S. government's premier agency charged with exposing and countering disinformation from Russia and other foreign governments around the world.

Lea Gabrielle, who joined Fox News in 2013 and is also a former Navy pilot, will be the new head of the Global Engagement Center, according to a copy of the announcement obtained by USA TODAY.

The State Department's Global Engagement Center is a relatively obscure agency, though it made headlines for a good reason last year. The New York Times  reported in March 2018 that the center was provided with $120 million to "counter foreign efforts to meddle in elections," but it hadn't spent a dime.

It will now be led by Fox News' Lea Gabrielle, who, as USA Today's report added, is facing questions from Trump administration critics about "her qualifications for the job."

Brett Bruen, who worked on the U.S. response to Russian propaganda in the Obama administration, told the newspaper, "Lea may be a great reporter and pilot. She has evidenced absolutely no knowledge of or experience with information warfare. We need leadership that can take on this danger from day one."

She will, however, find plenty of other folks on Team Trump who've made the transition from the president's television screen to his administration's staff.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump hosts former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

Trump suggests investigations into his scandals shouldn't be 'allowed'

02/07/19 12:44PM

Someone really ought to introduce Donald Trump to the phrase, "Never let 'em see you sweat."

President Donald Trump escalated his complaints about the myriad of investigations he is facing on Thursday morning, tweeting that there was "no reason" for the House Intelligence Committee to open a new, sweeping probe into whether his decision making as president is motivated by financial gain.

A day after claiming he's never heard of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Trump began the day by lashing out at the congressman, claiming that the Democrat is poised to examine "every aspect of my life, both financial and personal."

The president went on to say that "unlimited presidential harassment" has "never happened before," adding, "The Republicans never did this to President Obama, there would be no time left to run government. I hear other committee heads will do the same thing. Even stealing people who work at White House!"

He concluded the little Twitter tantrum, "PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT! It should never be allowed to happen again!"

These are not the missives of a man who's feeling confident in the face of scrutiny. On the contrary, between these tweets and his State of the Union threat, Trump appears to be panicking a bit.

Let's unpack the tantrum a little, because the presidential pitch is deeply flawed.

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