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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.11.19

03/11/19 12:00PM

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

* The Des Moines Register and CNN released a new poll of Iowa Democrats over the weekend, and found former Vice President Joe Biden leading the 2020 field with 27%, followed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at 25%. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is third with 9%, followed by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) at 7% and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) at 5%. Every other candidate was at 3% or lower.

* The same poll, by the way, asked respondents for their second choice. The Register reported, "Among those who say Sanders is their first choice, 40 percent say Biden is their second choice." At least at this point in the process, it would suggest ideology isn't foremost on many voters' minds. It also suggests name-ID is helping drive the results.

* And before we move on, the Washington Post's Dave Weigel noted for context that at this point four years ago, Hillary Clinton had a 51-point lead in Iowa, and she ended up winning the 2016 caucuses by less than a percentage point. Among Republicans, Scott Walker narrowly led the crowded GOP field, and by the time of the caucuses, he'd already dropped out of the race.

* The Democratic National Committee has chosen Milwaukee as the host city for its 2020 national convention, despite an aggressive 11th-hour lobbying push from Miami. The event, slated for mid-July, will be the first time Milwaukee has hosted a nominating convention for either national party.

* Democratic leaders lobbied North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein (D) to take on Sen. Thom Tillis (R) next year, but Stein has reportedly decided to seek re-election to his state office instead.

* Apparently concerned about Beto O'Rourke's 2020 prospects, the far-right Club for Growth is poised to begin airing attack ads against the Texas Democrat in Iowa this week. (The group is going after O'Rourke from the left, not the right.)

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President Donald Trump talks with reporters as he reviews border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego.

On legal immigration, Trump can't seem to make up his mind

03/11/19 10:45AM

In his State of the Union address last month, Donald Trump ad-libbed five words that surprised those engaged in the immigration debate.

The president was supposed to say, "Legal immigrants enrich our nation and strengthen our society in countless ways. I want people to come into our country, but they have to come in legally." When delivering the remarks, however, Trump actually said, "I want people to come into our country, in the largest numbers ever...."

That improved phrase suggested Trump, who's spent most of his presidency demanding cuts to legal immigration, had reversed course. The trouble, of course, is that no one knew whether to take the declaration seriously.

The picture grew murkier still last week when, at a meeting of the president's American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, Trump declared, "We're going to have a lot of people coming into the country. We want a lot of people coming in. And we need it.... We want to have the companies grow. And the only way they're going to grow is if we give them the workers."

The New York Times reported over the weekend that the Republican's new posture has "ignited furious criticism from his hard-line, anti-immigrant supporters."

"This is clearly a betrayal of what immigration hawks hoped the Trump administration would be for," said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates cutting legal immigration by more than half. He warned that Mr. Trump was in danger of being "not even that different from a conventional Republican."

Breitbart News, a conservative website that promotes anti-immigrant messaging, published on Thursday the latest in a series of articles attacking Mr. Trump for catering to big business at the expense of the Americans who put him in the Oval Office. "Trump Requests 'More' Foreign Workers as Southern Border Gets Overrun," the site blared on its home page.

"That Mr. Trump would advance the interests of the global elite ahead of our citizens would be a tragic reversal on any day," Lou Dobbs, the Fox Business Network host, said in a televised rant against the president on Wednesday evening. "The White House has simply lost its way."

The tension between competing Republican factions is inevitable and commonplace. The party's corporate supporters see economic benefits to increased immigrant labor, while the party's anti-immigration nativist wing push for drastic cuts to legal immigration.

The trouble is, both sides assume Donald Trump and the White House are on their side.

And, oddly enough, they're both right. The president has endorsed -- recently and publicly -- both competing positions, making no effort to resolve the contradiction.

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A file picture dated Feb. 23, 2016 shows a security guard patrolling in front of an Apple Store before a small rally in support of the company's privacy policy in New York. (Photo by Justin Lane/EPA)

Whether Trump likes it or not, sometimes the truth is just easier

03/11/19 10:12AM

Donald Trump hosted a relatively uneventful White House meeting last week of his American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, which includes a variety of prominent private-sector leaders. In fact, the president sat next to the CEO one of the world's largest companies: Apple's Tim Cook.

Turning to Cook, Trump said, "I mean, you've really put a big investment in our country. We appreciate it very much, Tim Apple."

As verbal slip-ups go, this seemed unimportant. The president obviously meant Tim Cook, not Tim Apple. The Apple CEO had a little fun with the error -- he changed his last name on Twitter to his company's iconic logo -- but it wasn't long before everyone moved on and forgot about it.

Well, perhaps not everyone.

Republican donors in attendance called it one of Trump's weirdest lies ever. On Friday night, under a tent erected over the pool at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, President Trump claimed the media were spreading "fake news" when they said he called the CEO of Apple "Tim Apple."

Trump told the donors that he actually said "Tim Cook Apple" really fast, and the "Cook" part of the sentence was soft. But all you heard from the "fake news," he said, was "Tim Apple."

Two donors who were there told me they couldn't understand why the president would make such a claim given the whole thing is captured on video.

One of Axios' sources responded, "I just thought, why would you lie about that. It doesn't even matter!"

That's entirely right. Last week's minor error -- he very clearly said "Tim Apple" -- was unimportant, but Trump apparently didn't appreciate being the target of harmless jokes, even for a day. And so he lied, again, even when the truth would've been easier.

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Image: John Bolton

Bolton latest Team Trump member to play the role of presidential interpreter

03/11/19 09:20AM

Donald Trump can't seem to make up his mind about whether ISIS has lost control of all of its territory in Syria and Iraq. Occasionally the president says the achievement is near, occasionally he claims it's already happened.

Of course, either way, it's only part of a larger puzzle. The demise of the ISIS "caliphate" matters, but so long as the terrorist network's dangerous militants remain plentiful, the amount of land it controls isn't the only consideration that matters.

White House National Security Advisor John Bolton appeared on ABC News' "This Week" yesterday to make clear that Trump and his team are well aware of the details.

"The president has been I think as clear as clear can be when he talks about the defeat of the ISIS territorial caliphate. He has never said that the elimination of the territorial caliphate means the end of ISIS in total. We know that's not the case."

Well, maybe. I don't doubt that there are plenty of officials in the U.S. government who appreciate the fact that ISIS remains a threat, caliphate or no caliphate, but it's much tougher to say the same about their boss.

It was, after all, just a few months ago when Trump declared in an online video message, "[W]e have won against ISIS. We've beaten them and we've beaten them badly." He went on to boast that American troops have successfully "killed ISIS."

Even at the time, Republicans cringed, knowing full well that the president's rhetoric wasn't true, but Trump didn't apologize or walk back his rhetoric. He was eager to declare victory -- a "Mission Accomplished" moment, one might say -- and so he and the White House peddled the rhetoric they knew to be wrong.

And yet, there was John Bolton yesterday, effectively playing the role of presidential interpreter, trying to turn Trump's words into English. Sure, the president may have argued that the United States successfully beat ISIS, but we're apparently supposed to listen to the White House national security advisor, who's certain Trump understands reality, even if it's at odds with the president's own rhetoric.

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New questions surround Mar-a-Lago guest allegedly selling access to Trump

03/11/19 08:40AM

When New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft was first charged with solicitation, it didn't appear to be much of a political story. It was of mild interest that Donald Trump was quick to give his friend/donor the benefit of the doubt, but this didn't appear to be the kind of story that would capture the political world's attention.

That's starting to change -- for reasons that have very little to do with Kraft.

The Miami Herald reported late last week that Trump hosted a Super Bowl party last month at Mar-a-Lago, the Florida country club he still owns and profits from, and smiled for a picture with Li Yang (who goes by Cindy Yang), who created a chain of spas that "gained a reputation for offering sexual services." In fact, the New England Patriots owner was arrested at a spa created by Yang.

Mother Jones advanced the story several steps further over the weekend, noting that Yang also runs an investment business that has "offered to sell Chinese clients access" to the Republican president and his family.

Yang, who goes by Cindy, and her husband, Zubin Gong, started GY US Investments LLC in 2017. The company describes itself on its website, which is mostly in Chinese, as an "international business consulting firm that provides public relations services to assist businesses in America to establish and expand their brand image in the modern Chinese marketplace." But the firm notes that its services also address clients looking to make high-level connections in the United States.

On a page displaying a photo of Mar-a-Lago, Yang's company says its "activities for clients" have included providing them "the opportunity to interact with the president, the [American] Minister of Commerce and other political figures." The company boasts it has "arranged taking photos with the President" and suggests it can set up a "White House and Capitol Hill Dinner."

Yang, a registered Republican and Trump donor, featured a photo of her and the president on the company's website. (Coincidentally, the site was apparently taken down after the Miami Herald's initial report was published.)

Mother Jones' report added, "The overall message conveyed by the GY US Investments website seems clear: hire Yang's company and she can get you close to Trump and his government -- at Mar-a-Lago and in Washington."

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A "Help Wanted" sign is posted in the window of an automotive service shop on March 8, 2013 in El Cerrito, California.

Trump White House struggles to spin discouraging jobs news

03/11/19 08:00AM

May 2016 was the single worst month for the U.S. job market since the economic recovery began in 2010. The good news, though we didn't know it at the time, was that May 2016 was something of a fluke: the economy bounced immediately, creating 282,000 jobs in June 2016 and 336,000 in July 2016 -- the best back-to-back totals since 2012.

But when the initial tally was released, in the midst of a competitive presidential campaign, it became immediate fodder for Barack Obama's critics. A Republican candidate by the name of Donald Trump wrote on Twitter, "A massive blow to Obama's message -- only 38,000 new jobs for month in just issued jobs report. That's REALLY bad!"

Larry Kudlow, years before he began serving as director of the National Economic Council in Trump's White House, wrote a piece for National Review at the time, arguing that the weak monthly job totals in May 2016 suggested "a business recession looms." Kudlow acknowledged in his piece, "A lot of investors and economists are making the case that this was a weird, one-off, statistical glitch, and that stronger employment is on the way." He made the case that those investors and economists may very well be wrong -- because "trouble" was on the way.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know Trump and Kudlow were wrong. The one-time hiccup wasn't a precursor to a recession; the job market immediately improved; and the unemployment rate continued to fall.

Nearly three years later, however, Trump, Kudlow, and their team have been forced to confront a similarly disappointing jobs report: as we learned on Friday, the official tally for jobs created in February 2019 was just 20,000. Asked about the employment report on Fox News yesterday, Kudlow did his best to shrug it off.

"Well, let me say on that number on Friday, the payroll numbers from the establishment survey was only 20,000 -- a very fluky number. It has a lot to do with the government shutdown and the timing of jobs."

Oh. So when the economy creates 38,000 jobs in a month under Obama, it's evidence of a looming recession, but when the economy creates 20,000 jobs in a month under Trump, it's "fluky"?

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President Donald Trump signs a Bible as he greets people at Providence Baptist Church in Smiths Station, Ala., Friday, March 8, 2019, during a tour of areas where tornadoes killed 23 people in Lee County, Ala.

This Week in God, 3.9.19

03/09/19 07:30AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a look at Donald Trump’s trip yesterday to Alabama, where the president visited communities devastated by recent tornadoes, and where Trump apparently wanted to show his support.

While greeting locals at Providence Baptist Church in Opelika, however, the president was apparently comfortable autographing Bibles, which seemed a little ... different.

“Growing up in a religious home, it would’ve been seen as blasphemous as having someone signing your own name,” said Jamie Aten, an evangelical and psychologist at Wheaton College.

Aten, who specializes in the effects of disasters on the religious mind, said it’s common for disaster survivors to use the Bible to help make meaning of what happened. However, he said, he has never seen survivors bring Bibles for someone to sign.

“Maybe you penned your own name so people knew it was yours,” Aten said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

In case there were any doubts, Trump signed the covers of the Bibles handed to him.

In fairness, the Washington Post article on this noted that there are some documented instances of other modern presidents having signed Bibles. In this case, however, the motivations of those who asked for Trump’s signature on their holy book may have said even more than the president who agreed.

John Fea, a historian at Messiah College, told the newspaper, “The fact that people are bringing Bibles to him says a lot about them. It seems to imply that they see him not only as a political leader but a spiritual savior for the nation.”

It’s not the first time Trump raised eyebrows by signing something he probably shouldn’t have. At a White House event last summer for the families of murder victims, the president thought it’d be a good idea to autograph pictures of violent crime victims.

Also from the God Machine this week:

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Friday's Mini-Report, 3.8.19

03/08/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* This is a good bill, which literally every Democrat voted for, and literally every Republican voted against: "The House passed the Democrats’ showcase anti-corruption and voting rights legislation on Friday, an expansive measure that aims to dismantle barriers to the ballot box, end big money in politics and impose stricter ethics rules on federal officials."

* I guess Wilson won't be the new Defense secretary: "Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson announced her resignation on Friday. Wilson said she will be leaving in May to become president of the University of Texas at El Paso."

* This is an odd situation driven by Manning's rejection of the grand-jury process: "Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning was jailed on Friday after refusing to answer questions from a federal grand jury in Virginia looking into the release of documents to WikiLeaks."

* A question in need of an answer: "The Department of Homeland Security and the House Homeland Security Committee are investigating whether U.S. border agents have been targeting journalists for questioning, according to a statement from Customs and Border Protection and a letter to CBP from the chair of the committee."

* Setting the stage for the next big legal fights: "The Tennessee House of Representatives passed a controversial bill Thursday that would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, legislation that could become among the most restrictive in the nation."

* A "summary" probably won't suffice: "The House Judiciary Committee's top Republican said he expects Congress and the public may get only a short summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's findings from his Russia investigation."

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Image: President Trump Holds Make America Great Again Rally In Pennsylvania

The added incentive to Trump's re-election bid: avoiding prosecution

03/08/19 04:07PM

The New York Times published an article this week on the timing of Donald Trump's reimbursement checks to Michael Cohen, and about halfway through the piece, the Times added an interesting tidbit, almost as an afterthought.

Indeed, some people close to Mr. Trump have privately predicted that he will ultimately choose to seek a second term in part because of his legal exposure if he is not president. While there is no legal consensus on the matter, Justice Department policy says that a president cannot be indicted while in office.

If you watch The Rachel Maddow Show regularly, you know that there is some debate about existing Justice Department guidelines on whether a sitting president can be charged with a crime. It's a complex issue, which has never been litigated in earnest.

For now, however, the prevailing assumption seems to be that Donald Trump, no matter how serious his alleged misdeeds, will not be indicted so long as he's president of the United States. To the extent that he'll be held accountable for possible transgressions, the remedy will be political -- in the form of the impeachment process, for example -- not legal.

All of which makes the point in the New York Times piece so notable.

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Trump loses yet another White House communications director

03/08/19 12:47PM

According to Spinal Tap's WikiPedia page, the band has had five drummers. Donald Trump has now named six White House communications directors, and he'll apparently soon need a seventh.

White House communications director Bill Shine has resigned his post and will become a senior adviser to President Donald Trump's re-election campaign, officials announced Friday.

Shine, a former top executive at Fox News before he was forced out in 2017, has worked in what's become a high-turnover position in the White House since July of last year.... He tendered his resignation Thursday night and Trump accepted, officials said.

I've seen some reports that Shine was Trump's fifth communications director, but I'm inclined to put the overall total at six -- just so long as we include the presidential transition process.

Remember, before Trump took office, he tapped Jason Miller, who worked with Trump during the campaign, to be the first communications director in this White House, though he unexpectedly withdrew before Inauguration Day due to personal troubles.

Then Sean Spicer briefly served as both the communications director and the press secretary. When that proved untenable, Trump brought in Mike Dubke for the job. He wasn't altogether impressed with the White House's operation, so he quit, making way for Anthony Scaramucci -- who didn't quite make it two weeks in the job.

Though the communications-director job was vacant for a while, Hope Hicks eventually took on the task, before leaving the White House. Bill Shine took the reins, having made the transition from Fox News, though he's now leaving after about eight months.

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