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E.g., 2/20/2018

Tuesday's Mini-Report, 2.20.18

02/20/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Look for more on this near the top of tonight's show: "A lawyer who is the son-in-law of a Ukranian-Russian oligarch named in the controversial Donald Trump dossier pleaded guilty on Tuesday to lying to investigators in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe. It is not clear, however, if Alex van der Zwaan, 33, has signed a cooperation deal with Mueller."

* SCOTUS: "The U.S. Supreme Court said Tuesday it will not take up an appeal to California's 10-day waiting period for gun buyers, acting as the issue of gun control is once more in the national spotlight after last week's school shooting in Florida."

* Syria: "Attacks by forces loyal to the Syrian government have killed more than 100 people in a rebel-held Damascus suburb, aid agencies and monitoring groups said Tuesday, calling it one of the bloodiest 24-hour periods in Syria's seven-year war."

* Israel: "The mushrooming corruption scandal plaguing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel took a surprising new turn on Tuesday, with an allegation that one of his closest advisers had sought to bribe a judge into dropping a criminal investigation involving the prime minister's wife."

* A slow-moving, ongoing tragedy: "Exactly five months after Hurricane Maria, new figures show suicide rates in Puerto Rico reached a new high after years of steady drops."

* Manafort: "Federal law enforcement officials have identified more than $40 million in 'suspicious' financial transactions to and from companies controlled by President Donald Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort -- a much larger sum than was cited in his October indictment on money laundering charges."

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Trump moves forward with plan to ban 'bump stocks'

02/20/18 05:03PM

It was just a few months ago that the United States suffered its deadliest mass shooting in modern history, with a nightmarish attack in Las Vegas that left dozens killed and hundreds wounded. As regular readers know, much of the public, as usual, turned to policymakers, seeking some kind of action.

In this case, officials raised the prospect of action on “bump stocks” – an after-market modification that helps semi-automatic weapons, which are legal, fire like automatic weapons, which are already largely banned. A bipartisan bill was introduced on Capitol Hill, and even some Republicans suggested publicly that action on this issue was at least possible.

The momentum stalled quickly. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) announced that Congress would look to the Trump administration to deal with the issue with new regulations, rather than have lawmakers tackle this new legislation. Today, Donald Trump indicated he's moving forward with a regulatory fix.

President Donald Trump has directed his attorney general to propose regulations that would ban bump stocks and similar devices "that turn legal weapons into machine guns," he announced Tuesday.

The president, speaking at the start of a Medal of Valor ceremony at the White House, said he expected the "critical" new regulations to "be finalized soon."

It's worth clarifying a few things. First, today's presidential remarks didn't actually change any policy; Trump instead suggested we'll eventually see a change in policy once new regulations are complete. What will the new regulations say? We don't yet have any details.

Second, this afternoon's announcement wasn't altogether new. The Justice Department began its review of bump stock regulations two months ago. Trump's specific direction to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, however, is new.

And finally, let's not forget that as recently as late December, the New York Times  reported that Justice Department officials "have indicated they do not believe the department can regulate the sale of gun bump stocks without congressional action."

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Allies abroad urged to ignore Trump's intemperate tweets

02/20/18 12:40PM

During a tour of Latin America last summer, Vice President Mike Pence boasted that the world recognizes Donald Trump as "a leader who says what he means and means what he says." It's a nice sentiment, which was wholly at odds with reality.

I'm not just referring to the Republican president's penchant for breathtaking dishonesty; I'm also referring to the fact that the world has learned no such thing. In fact, the Washington Post  reported over the weekend that U.S. policymakers continue to travel abroad and assure allies that Trump's bizarre messages are better left ignored.

Amid global anxiety about President Trump's approach to world affairs, U.S. officials had a message for a gathering of Europe's foreign policy elite this weekend: Pay no attention to the man tweeting behind the curtain.

U.S. lawmakers -- both Democrats and Republicans -- and top national security officials in the Trump administration offered the same advice publicly and privately, often clashing with Trump's Twitter stream: The United States remains staunchly committed to its European allies, is furious with the Kremlin about election interference and isn't contemplating a preemptive strike on North Korea to halt its nuclear program.

Or put another way, the position of the United States on key international issues is not what the president of the United States says it is.

The result, predictably, is widespread confusion. Even our European allies aren't sure whether to believe the words that come directly from Trump or the reassurances from U.S. officials who insist Trump's rhetoric is better left ignored.

The article quoted one diplomat who wondered aloud whether policymakers like White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and others like him who adhere largely to traditional U.S. foreign policy positions "were falling into the same trap as Germany's elite during Hitler's rise, when they continued to serve in government in the name of protecting their nation."

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.20.18

02/20/18 12:00PM

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

* The Pennsylvania Supreme Court yesterday unveiled a new map of congressional districts, and though Republicans still hope to file a lawsuit to block it, NBC News called the new map "the most consequential midterm development of 2018."

* On a related note, while the Pennsylvania GOP intends to attack the map as unfair, Donald Trump weighed in this morning, saying Republicans should challenge the map as a partisan matter.

* Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, announced yesterday that after a decade on Capitol Hill, he won't seek re-election this year. By my count, he's the 34th House Republican to announce his or her retirement (12 are retiring from the House to seek higher office, while 22 are leaving elected office altogether.)

* Which gubernatorial races are likely to be the most competitive this year? It looks like the Republican Governors Association has invested $20 million in ad buys in four states: Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and Ohio.

* Among the guests at Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this year will be Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and oddly enough, White House Counsel Don McGahn.

* In Montana, Republican Senate hopeful Troy Downing was charged "with illegally purchasing resident hunting or fishing licenses in Montana while living in California." A local court announced last week that his jury trial will begin in May. Downing has pleaded not guilty.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump

Trump helps put the spotlight back on his women accusers

02/20/18 11:35AM

During the 2016 presidential campaign, a recording emerged of Donald Trump bragging years earlier about committing sexual assaults. The Republican said, among other things, that he kisses women he considers attractive -- "I don't even wait," Trump claimed at the time -- which he said he can get away with because of his public profile.

"When you're a star, they let you do it," Trump said on the recording. "You can do anything. Grab 'em by the p---y."

When the Republican denied ever having done what he'd bragged about doing, 19 women came forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct. Trump dismissed his accusers as liars and vowed to sue them. While he never followed through, one of the women is now suing Trump.

Other members of "The Nineteen," as they're sometimes called, have responded in different ways. The Washington Post today profiled Rachel Crooks, who's making an effort to make sure the allegations against the president don't just fade away.

Crooks, 35, had been publicly reliving this story for much of the past two years, ever since she first described it in an email to the New York Times several months before the 2016 election. "I don't know if people will really care about this or if this will matter at all," she had written then, and after Donald Trump's election she had repeated her story at the Women's March, on the "Today" show and at a news conference organized by women's rights attorney Gloria Allred. Crooks had spoken to people dressed in #MeToo sweatshirts and to her rural neighbors whose yards were decorated with Trump signs.

In early February, she launched a campaign to become a Democratic state representative in Ohio, in part so she could share her story more widely with voters across the state. And yet, after dozens of retellings, she still wasn't sure: Did people really care? Did it matter at all?

"I know there are many worse forms of sexual harassment, but doesn't this still speak to character?" Rachel Crooks told one audience. "I don't want money. I don't need a lawsuit. I just want people to listen. How many women have to come forward? What will it take to get a response?"

This morning, Trump responded.

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Speaker of the House Paul Ryan shares a laugh with Republican members of Congress after signing legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and to cut off federal funding of Planned Parenthood.

Why Republicans and the US mainstream keep going in opposite directions

02/20/18 11:03AM

In any democratic system, there's usually quite a bit of overlap between what the public wants and the priorities politicians tend to pursue. There's no great mystery here: unless elected officials intend to have short careers in politics, they have an incentive to satisfy the electorate's demands.

And yet, in contemporary politics, there's a disconnect. The public urged Republicans not to take away health care coverage from millions of Americans, and yet, GOP policymakers fought tooth and nail to do exactly that. The public then urged Republicans not to cut taxes for the wealthy and big corporations, only to have GOP policymakers again do the opposite.

The same is true when it comes to policies the American mainstream actually likes. The public wants new measures, such as expanded background checks, to prevent gun violence. The public also wants protections for Dreamers. Republicans who control the levers of power don't want either of these things, and so these goals are likely to go unmet.

The Washington Post's Catherine Rampell makes the case today that it's important to identify the nature of the problem with specificity.

Dysfunctional Washington refuses to work out its differences to solve problems that matter to Americans. So say pundits and policy activists, perhaps hoping that diffuse criticism, rather than finger-pointing, will yield a government willing to govern.

But the problem isn't "Washington." It isn't "Congress," either. The problem is elected officials from a single political party: the GOP.

That seems more than fair. The next question is why Republican politicians, who ostensibly have to worry about the will of the electorate, are going in one direction while the American mainstream goes in another.

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Image: APEC Summit 2017 in Vietnam

Despite reality, Trump insists he's been 'tough' on Russia

02/20/18 10:14AM

Members of the American Political Science Association's Presidents and Executive Politics section -- 170 scholars, in total -- ranked every president from best to worst, and the results were released yesterday. Barack Obama was among the presidential elite, ranked #8, while Donald Trump finished dead last.

Whether Trump saw these rankings or not is not yet clear, but it was interesting to see the Republican start to publish a series of tweets last night and this morning focused specifically on criticizing his immediate predecessor. One missive, however, stood out as especially notable.

"I have been much tougher on Russia than Obama, just look at the facts. Total Fake News!"

Hmm. The president wants us to "just look at the facts." Perhaps that's a good idea.

It's a fact, for example, that Trump hasn't implemented congressionally approved sanctions punishing Russia for its attack on American elections. Similarly, it's a fact that Trump not only has failed to criticize Russia for the attack, he's also endorsed Vladimir Putin's denials of responsibility.

It's a fact that when the Russian government moved against U.S. diplomats, Trump thanked Putin. It's a fact that when Congress approved sanctions against Russia, Trump blamed American lawmakers, not Putin, for undermining relations between the two countries.

It's a fact that Trump has repeatedly and publicly praised Putin's authoritarian leadership style. It's a fact that Trump's political operation weakened the Republican Party's platform in ways that made Moscow happy. It's a fact that three weeks before the 2016 presidential election, Trump complained that Hillary Clinton was being too "tough" on Putin.

It's a fact that Trump welcomed Russian officials in the Oval Office, at Putin's request, and during the chat, the American president shared highly sensitive, classified information with his Russian guests in exchange for nothing.

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Donald Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. speaks on the second day of the 2016 Republican National Convention at Quicken Loans Arena, July 19, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Reynolds/EPA)

Trump's 'no foreign deals' pledge came with an asterisk

02/20/18 09:21AM

At a press conference during the presidential transition period last year, a lawyer representing Donald Trump's business assured the public that "no new foreign deals will be made whatsoever" during the Republican's presidency.

And yet, here we are, reading reports like these in the Washington Post.

The president's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., is making what has been dubbed an unofficial visit to India to promote his family's real estate projects. But he's also planning to deliver a foreign policy speech on Indo-Pacific relations at an event with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Beginning Tuesday, Trump Jr. will have a full schedule of meet-and-greets with investors and business leaders throughout India, where the Trump family has real estate projects -- Mumbai, the New Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, the western city of Pune and the eastern city of Kolkata.

Jordan Libowitz, the communications director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told the Post, "Trump's company is literally selling access to the president's son overseas. For many people wanting to impact American policy in the region, the cost of a condo is a small price to pay to lobby one of the people closest to the president, far away from watchful eyes."

That assessment seems more than fair. The Post's reporting describes a dynamic in which Indian media outlets are telling the public, "Trump is here -- Are You Invited?" Prospective customers are invited to pay about $38,000 to have access to the American president's son.

It's during this same business trip that Trump Jr. will speak on foreign policy at a summit that will also feature remarks from India's prime minister.

Eric Trump, who's also helping lead the president's private-sector enterprise -- from which the president has refused to divest -- told the Post last year that "the company and policy and government are completely separated. We have built an unbelievable wall in between the two."

If by "unbelievable," the president's son meant literally unable to be believed, then sure, the firewall is unbelievable.

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Trump: Romney camp hasn't asked me to lay off the birther talk

The awkward dance between Donald Trump and Mitt Romney

02/20/18 08:44AM

In 2012, as Mitt Romney was wrapping up the Republicans' presidential nomination, he welcomed a public endorsement from Donald Trump. At the time, this was not without controversy; Trump was widely seen as a ridiculous television personality who championed a racist conspiracy theory.

But Romney, eager to lock up support from conservatives who agreed with Trump, welcomed the support anyway, literally standing alongside him at a 2012 event.

The alliance didn't last. By 2014, when Trump was weighing his own presidential campaign, he started taking shots at Romney, and that intensified in 2015. By March 2016, the feeling was mutual: Romney delivered a blistering condemnation of Trump's candidacy, telling voters, "Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He's playing the members of the American public for suckers."

That same week, Romney expressed some regret for having accepted Trump's endorsement four years earlier. (It was also around this time that Trump described Romney as "one of the dumbest and worst candidates in the history of Republican politics.")

Nevertheless, Romney changed his mind again after Trump was actually elected and Romney saw an opportunity to become Secretary of State -- a chance Trump seemed eager to dangle, right up until he yanked it away.

A year later, the dance continues. Romney, once described by Trump as a "stone cold loser," yesterday picked up Trump's endorsement for his Senate campaign.

President Donald Trump is endorsing Mitt Romney in Utah's Senate race, another sign that the two Republicans are burying the hatchet after a fraught relationship.

The GOP's presidential nominee in 2012, Romney announced last week he would seek the nomination to replace retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch. In a tweet Monday night, Trump wrote, "He will make a great Senator and worthy successor to @OrrinHatch, and has my full support and endorsement!" Romney quickly accepted the endorsement via Twitter.

This was not necessarily an inevitability.

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Burdened by scandals, school shooting offered Trump World a 'reprieve'

02/20/18 08:00AM

Donald Trump's White House team faced daunting challenges last week, burdened by multiple controversies at once. The president and his aides found it difficult to answer questions, for example, about whether they tried to cover for a staff secretary accused of violence toward women. Rumors were rampant that the White House chief of staff was on his way out.

At the same time, the Russia scandal was becoming more serious; Trump confronted reports of two adulterous affairs with women from the adult-entertainment industry; and two cabinet members struggled to explain taxpayer-financed trips.

Against this backdrop, the Washington Post  reported overnight, some in the White House apparently felt some relief after a mass murder pushed West Wing controversies off the front page.

[A] gun massacre at a Florida high school last Wednesday, which left 17 dead, seemed to shift the media glare away from the Trump scandals and gave embattled aides an opportunity to re­focus on handling a crisis not of their own making. While the White House mourned the loss of life in Parkland, Fla., some aides privately acknowledged that the tragedy offered a breather from the political storm.

"For everyone, it was a distraction or a reprieve," an unnamed White House official told the Post. "A lot of people here felt like it was a reprieve from seven or eight days of just getting pummeled."

He or she added, "But as we all know, sadly, when the coverage dies down a little bit, we'll be back through the chaos."

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Monday's Mini-Report, 2.19.18

02/19/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Problematic: "The president's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., is making what's been dubbed an unofficial visit to India to promote his family's real estate projects. But he's also planning to deliver a foreign policy speech on Indo-Pacific relations at an event with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi."

* Yesterday's mass shooting: "Police were seeking a suspect after a 6-year-old boy and three adults were shot in the parking lot of a popular San Antonio steakhouse. San Antonio Police Chief William McManus says two of the adults' injuries are life-threatening. The boy was shot in the leg and is expected to survive."

* Look for more on this on tonight's show: "White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly announced Friday that beginning next week, the White House will no longer allow some employees with interim security clearances access to top-secret information -- a move that could threaten the standing of Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law."

* The national scourge: "Vermont police on Friday said they thwarted a potential attack on a high school and had arrested an 18-year-old after receiving what they said were credible threats he planned to, in his words, 'shoot up' Fair Haven Union High School."

* A fight worth watching: "The Commerce Department recommended Friday that President Trump restrict soaring imports of steel and aluminum, saying that relying upon foreign sources for such critical materials poses a threat to national security."

* The right thing to do: "Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has reportedly apologized for defending his former chief of staff Rob Porter, who recently resigned from President Donald Trump's administration following allegations that he abused his two ex-wives."

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