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Monday's Mini-Report, 10.16.17

10/16/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Iraq: "After weeks of threats and posturing, the Iraqi government began a military assault on Monday to curb the independence drive by the nation's Kurdish minority, wresting oil fields and a contested city from separatists pushing to break away from Iraq."

* Somalia: "A huge truck bomb blast in Somalia's capital has killed 276 people and wounded roughly 300 more, the country's information minister said Sunday. It is believed to be the single deadliest attack ever in the Horn of Africa nation."

"Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, "five years a Taliban captive after abandoning his post in Afghanistan, pleaded guilty Monday to desertion and misbehavior-before-the-enemy charges that could put him in prison for life."

* Austria's "right-wing parties made strong gains in parliamentary elections on Sunday, after a campaign in which the main contenders competed with tough stances on immigration."

* That's quite a sentence: "Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sunday again declined to clearly say he hadn't called President Donald Trump 'a moron,' but he did deny a Republican senator's claim that he had been castrated as the nation's top diplomat."

* Duterte: "President Trump will meet with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during a marathon trip to Asia next month, the White House announced Monday."

* Kirstjen Nielsen, Trump's new choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security, lead a DHS team during Hurricane Katrina that "was widely criticized for its passive and clumsy response."

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U.S. President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss transition plans in the White House Oval Office in Washington, Nov. 10, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Trump forced to walk back ridiculous falsehood about Obama

10/16/17 04:15PM

Part of the problem with Donald Trump's presidency is his profound ignorance of history. This tends to get him into trouble because, when Trump does something he's proud of, he boasts that he's the first president to do it -- largely because he has no idea what his predecessors did and didn't do during their tenures.

After his recent trip to Puerto Rico, for example, the president bragged, "I guess it's one of the few times anybody has done this. From what I am hearing it's the first time that a sitting president has done something like this." And while it's true presidential travel was limited before airplanes were invented, in recent decades, plenty of presidents have traveled to areas affected by natural disasters. Lobbing paper towels at people may have been a presidential first, but the trip itself was routine.

Today, something similar happened. Nearly two weeks ago, four American soldiers were killed in Niger, and before this afternoon, Trump had said literally nothing about it. Asked about his silence at a White House event, the president said he had not yet contacted the fallen Americans' families because he wanted "a little time to pass." He added that he's written letters to those families, but they haven't been sent yet.

Let's note for context that since the ambush that claimed those four servicemen's lives, Trump has golfed five times.

The president then decided to brag about how awesome he thinks he is as compared to his predecessors.

"The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls. A lot of them didn't make calls," he said. "I like to call when it's appropriate, when I think I'm able to do it."

Even by Trump standards, this was a breathtaking lie. In fact, Alyssa Mastromonaco‏, a deputy chief of staff in the Obama White House, quickly explained that Obama (and other previous presidents) often called the families of Americans killed in action. Disgusted by Trump's smear, Mastromonaco went to describe Trump as "a deranged animal."

But then something interesting happened: the president was fact-checked in real-time, and Trump was forced to backpedal.

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

Donald Trump, demolitions expert

10/16/17 01:00PM

Donald Trump, apparently annoyed by a New York Times piece, was eager to point to some of his perceived accomplishments over the weekend. Among the presidential achievements he touted: scrapping the U.S. role in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, trying to end the U.S. role in the Paris Climate Accords, and the recent "cancellations" of EPA environmental safeguards.

What Trump may not have realized is that none of these things are actual accomplishments -- so much as they're attempts to take an ax to his predecessor's accomplishments.

The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin had a compelling piece on this the other day, describing the Republican president as "Trump the Destroyer."

What is increasingly obvious is that President Trump's motivations and impulses have everything to do with narcissism, personal piques, anger at his predecessor and fear of losing face -- and very little to do with creating real policy outcomes. He prefers to be seen doing something rather than to do something for which he would bear the consequences.

On health care, Trump doesn't have anything resembling a plan. He has a desire for Congress to tear down "Obamacare," and when those efforts came up short, the president took steps to sabotage the nation's health care system unilaterally, but the president has no constructive vision of his own. His principal focus is on tearing down what others have created.

On immigration, Trump doesn't have the foggiest idea what kind of system should be in place, but he's convinced himself that it's necessary to tear down what Barack Obama did. And on the international nuclear agreement with Iran. The president hasn't offered anything resembling a coherent strategy, but he's certain Obama's policy is wrong.

The pattern is hard to miss.

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Image: Reported Shooting At Mandalay Bay In Las Vegas

GOP rep: tackling bump stocks would be 'a perversion' of party agenda

10/16/17 12:30PM

Two weeks ago, the United States suffered its deadliest mass shooting in modern history. The scene in Las Vegas was nightmarish, with dozens killed and hundreds wounded, all as a result of an attack launched by one gunman.

In the immediate aftermath, in response to public clamoring for some kind of action, policymakers 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.

But as the horror of Las Vegas has faded from front pages, the bump-stock debate has shifted. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said last week that Congress would probably look to the Trump administration to deal with the issue, suggesting legislative progress is unlikely. The Washington Post reported:

Instead, Ryan and many of his fellow House Republicans hope the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) will act administratively to outlaw the devices, which the agency ruled legal in 2010.

"We think the regulatory fix is the smartest, quickest fix, and then, frankly, we'd like to know how it happened in the first place," Ryan (Wis.) told reporters Wednesday. He did not discuss pursuing legislation to address the issue.

Ryan made his remarks a day after 20 bipartisan House members backed a bill to ban bump stocks and similar devices meant to accelerate the firing rate of semiautomatic rifles.

In other words, despite support for a legislative fix, Ryan is prepared to wait for a regulatory fix through the ATF. Those looking for action should turn to Trump administration officials, not elected Republican lawmakers.

Perhaps the most amazing quote came from the chairman of the House's Second Amendment Caucus.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.16.17

10/16/17 12:00PM

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

* California state Senate Leader Kevin de Leon (D) made it official yesterday, launching his U.S. Senate bid, even though incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) is seeking re-election. (Remember, California has a jungle primary, not a traditional nominating fight.)

* Election Day is three weeks from tomorrow in Virginia, and the deadline for registering to vote is today.

* And speaking of Virginia, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Ed Gillespie continues to say he doesn't know Donald Trump, but he seemed eager to campaign over the weekend alongside Trump's vice president, Mike Pence.

* Former Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, was with Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Ralph Northam on Saturday, at the other end of the commonwealth.

* Donors to the president's re-election campaign may be interested to learn that it spent more than $1 million on legal bills, stemming from Trump's Russia scandal. That includes money to cover the legal expenses of Donald Trump Jr., who helps run the president's business, and whose work is supposed to be unrelated to politics.

* Former Vice President Al Gore hasn't been too engaged in electoral politics this year, but he was in New Jersey yesterday, campaigning with Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Phil Murphy. The statewide race in the Garden State is also three weeks from tomorrow.

* Following the first round of balloting in Louisiana over the weekend, New Orleans is poised to elect its first woman mayor in city history.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump's views on the 'executive-order concept' have evolved

10/16/17 11:30AM

In January 2014, then-President Barack Obama hosted a cabinet meeting, where he expressed optimism about working with lawmakers from both parties to advance the nation's interests. He also seemed realistic. however, about whether Congress would get anything done.

"One of the things that I'll be emphasizing in this meeting is the fact that we are not just going to be waiting for a legislation in order to make sure that we're providing Americans the kind of help that they need. I've got a pen and I've got a phone," Obama said. The pen referred to executive actions, including executive orders, and the phone referred to Obama's willingness to reach out to people beyond the Beltway -- "non-profits, businesses, the private sector, universities" -- to help work on his priorities.

Almost immediately, Republicans were outraged, suggesting Obama's "pen and phone" rhetoric was proof that the Democratic president intended to ignore our system of government and make major policy changes without congressional input. The "pen and phone" framing quickly became a GOP shorthand for the party's impression that Obama saw himself as a dictator.

And yet, there was Donald Trump last week, arguing that in response to the Republican Congress' ineptitude, "I will be using the power of the pen" to tackle health care policy unilaterally -- which is awfully similar to the kinds of actions GOP lawmakers condemned when Obama was in the Oval Office.

The New York Times had a piece on this over the weekend:

The president was frustrated. Lawmakers were not passing what he wanted. They were "obstructionists," he complained. So he took out his pen, signed his name to an order and took action on his own. "We're taking a little different route than we had hoped because getting Congress -- they forgot what their pledges were," he said.

The chief executive attacking Congress was President Trump, but his words might have been spoken by President Barack Obama. Mr. Trump has concluded that he cannot wait for a polarized Congress to act, so he is turning to executive power to accomplish what lawmakers will not, in this case erasing the legacy of the Obama years.

As is always the case, the substantive details matter, and there's no denying the fact that Obama was far more ambitious when it came to using executive power, at least given what we've seen from Trump thus far.

But at the same time, Obama didn't run on a platform predicated on avoiding executive orders -- and Trump did.

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

Trump's new drug czar has some explaining to do

10/16/17 11:01AM

While the opioid epidemic has earned a place in the national spotlight in recent years, our understanding of how the crisis went from bad to worse is still coming into focus. To that end, the Washington Post and "60 Minutes" have done some important reporting.

The Post published an amazing piece yesterday explaining that early last year, Congress "effectively stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration of its most potent weapon against large drug companies suspected of spilling prescription narcotics onto the nation's streets." The point of the measure was to "weaken aggressive DEA enforcement efforts against drug distribution companies that were supplying corrupt doctors and pharmacists who peddled narcotics to the black market."

And leading the way on the effort was Tom Marino, a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, who championed the controversial legislation, which seems tough to defend.

For years, some drug distributors were fined for repeatedly ignoring warnings from the DEA to shut down suspicious sales of hundreds of millions of pills, while they racked up billions of dollars in sales.

The new law makes it virtually impossible for the DEA to freeze suspicious narcotic shipments from the companies, according to internal agency and Justice Department documents and an independent assessment by the DEA's chief administrative law judge in a soon-to-be-published law review article. That powerful tool had allowed the agency to immediately prevent drugs from reaching the street.

As the piece explained, the nation's major drug distributors hired a former DEA insider to help formulate a strategy, and then invested in an ambitious lobbying campaign, which included at least $1.5 million in political action committee contributions to the small number of lawmakers who helped advance the issue.

All of this unfolded with almost no scrutiny: "Besides the sponsors and co-sponsors of the bill, few lawmakers knew the true impact the law would have. It sailed through Congress and was passed by unanimous consent, a parliamentary procedure reserved for bills considered to be noncontroversial. The White House was equally unaware of the bill's import when President Barack Obama signed it into law, according to interviews with former senior administration officials."

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Image: White House Senior Advisor Bannon attends a roundtable discussion held by U.S. President Trump with auto industry leaders at the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti Township

As Trump faces criticism, his allies take aim at dissent

10/16/17 10:30AM

At the Values Voter Summit, the year's largest gathering for the religious right movement, former White House aide Sebastian Gorka proclaimed, "The left has no idea how much more damage we can do to them as private citizens."

As striking as the comment was, attendees at the summit saw a related attempt to suppress dissent from Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's former chief strategist, who continues to make the case that Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) shouldn't criticize the president while U.S. troops are deployed abroad. The Washington Post reported:

"Some U.S. senator in a position of that authority for the first time in the history of our republic has mocked and ridiculed a commander in chief when we have kids in the field," Bannon said of Corker's comments. The remarks were not, in fact, the first time a senator has criticized a president while troops were deployed; it's a routine occurrence during most, if not all, modern presidencies.

Bannon then called on Republican senators John Barrasso (Wyo.), Deb Fischer (Neb.) and Dean Heller (Nev.) to condemn Corker's comments or face possible primary challenges.

Bannon's ignorance about history matters, but the more important takeaway is the degree to which people close to Trump -- including, as we discussed last week, one current White House official -- suggest there's something wrong with American dissent.

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Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-ELECTIONS-TRUMP

The deadly ambush Donald Trump hasn't yet acknowledged

10/16/17 10:00AM

It's been nearly two weeks since U.S. forces were ambushed in Niger, an attack that left four American servicemen dead. If it seems like this story hasn't generated much in the way of national news, it may be because Donald Trump hasn't said a word about it.

CNN had a report the other day on the president's silence.

On Saturday October 7, the day the body of 25-year-old Army Sgt. La David Johnson was returned to Dover Air Force Base after he was killed in an ISIS ambush in Niger, President Donald Trump was golfing. It's not known if the President ever planned to attend the return of remains ceremony at Dover as he has in the past. But since the ambush on October 4 in Niger, he has not commented publicly on the deadliest combat incident involving US troops since he took office. [...]

The Pentagon has not provided a detailed accounting of the ambush by 50 ISIS affiliated fighters which left four US soldiers dead and two wounded and has said the incident remains under investigation. But CNN has talked to half a dozen US officials who describe details of the chaos and confusion which led to the troops being left on the ground for nearly an hour before help could get to the remote area of southwestern Niger where they were operating.

In fairness, the White House hasn't been completely silent on the matter. Ten days ago, a reporter reminded Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, "The body of another U.S. soldier has just been discovered by local forces in Niger, which brings to four the total number of Green Berets that were killed on Wednesday in Niger. So far there's been no response to this by the president, no tweet from the president, no statement from the president."

Sanders responded, "Obviously, anytime one of the members of our great military are injured, wounded, or killed in action, that is certainly something that we take very seriously. Our thoughts and prayers are with those individuals. We're continuing to review and look into this. And as we have more details, we'll certainly let you guys know."

Since then, there's been nothing from Trump World on the deadly incident.

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Image: President Trump Discusses His Plan For The Iran Nuclear Deal

On the Iran nuclear deal, Trump finds the truth isn't good enough

10/16/17 09:30AM

One of the hallmarks of Donald Trump's presidency is the frequency with which he finds reality politically inconvenient. If the Affordable Care Act were really imploding, for example, the Republican White House wouldn't find it necessary to sabotage it. If the tax code were truly in desperate need of a dramatic overhaul, Trump wouldn't find it necessary to constantly remind us how great the economy is.

And if the international nuclear agreement with Iran were really a disaster, Trump wouldn't find it necessary to lie about it. The New York Times  reported:

President Trump declared his intention not to recertify the Iran nuclear deal in a forceful speech on Friday. But the rationale he provided includes several misleading or incomplete statements about the terms of the deal, what he considers a violation of the agreement and Iran itself.

Slate ran a related analysis, marveling at Trump's staggering dishonesty.

President Trump’s statement Friday on the Iran nuclear deal may be the most dishonest speech he has ever given from the White House -- and, depending what happens next, it could be his most damaging. It flagrantly misrepresents what the deal was meant to do, the extent of Iran’s compliance, and the need for corrective measures. If he gets his way, he will blow up one of the most striking diplomatic triumphs of recent years, aggravate tensions in the Middle East, make it even harder to settle the North Korean crisis peacefully, and make it all but impossible for allies and adversaries to trust anything the United States says for as long as Trump is in office.

The Washington Post had a piece of its own, fact-checking Trump's speech, highlighting some of the president's most glaring errors -- of which there were many.

To a certain extent, this may seem like a classic dog-bites-man story -- "Trump says a bunch of untrue things about a policy he pretends to understand" -- but given the seriousness of the situation, that doesn't seem like a satisfying response.

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

Trump is convinced he's always 'ahead of schedule'

10/16/17 09:00AM

Nine months into his first year as president, Donald Trump still doesn't have any meaningful accomplishments, but don't worry, he's certain he's "ahead of schedule." This was the point Trump seemed eager to emphasize in his speech to the Values Voter Summit's audience on Friday.

"I'm here to thank you for your support and to share with you how we are delivering on that promise, defending our shared values, and in so doing, how we are renewing the America we love.

"In the last 10 months, we have followed through on one promise after another. I didn't have a schedule, but if I did have a schedule, I would say we are substantially ahead of schedule."

This is an underappreciated staple of the president's rhetorical repertoire. As regular readers may recall, Trump has said, for example, that construction of a border wall is "way ahead of schedule." He's said his plans to overhaul veterans' care are "ahead of schedule." He's insisted that his proposed far-right changes to Americans education are "ahead of schedule."

And in late May, Trump boasted that his tax-cut plan is "actually ahead of schedule."

The trouble, of course, is that none of these claims are true. In fact, when it comes to passing massive tax breaks, the Trump administration expected the entire endeavor to be done by August -- suggesting Team Trump is pretty far behind schedule.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order To Promote Healthcare Choice

Even Republicans aren't happy with Trump's health care gambit

10/16/17 08:30AM

One of the oddities of Donald Trump's decision to cut off cost-sharing reduction payments to private health insurers is that literally no one benefits from the move. Usually, at least someone benefits from Republican health care measures, even if the underlying idea is misguided, but in this case, everyone loses from the president's gambit on CSRs.

It takes effort to come up with a policy proposal this foolish. In one move, Trump has managed to hurt consumers, hurt insurers, hurt the health care market, and raise the deficit, creating a bizarre dynamic in which the country will pay more and get less. What's more, the Associated Press found that 70% of those who benefit from cost-sharing reduction payments live in red states.

In other words, the White House is not only making the health care system worse on purpose; it's also hurting parts of its political base.

The question, of course, is why. Steve Bannon, the president's former chief strategist, said over the weekend that Trump's goal is to "blow up" insurance markets, which is an amazing thing for him to admit out loud.

The president had a different explanation.

REPORTER: You promised that you would help people who are struggling. The CSR payment looks like it will hurt low-income people.

TRUMP: The CSR payments, if you take a look at CSR payments, that money is going to insurance companies to prop up insurance companies.

REPORTER: To help lower-income people.

TRUMP: That money is going to insurance companies to lift up their stock price, and that's not what I'm about. Take a look at who those insurance companies support, and I guarantee you one thing: It's not Donald Trump.

The president is badly confused about his own actions. The money goes to insurers to cover out-of-pocket costs for lower-income Americans. Ending the CSR payments may hurt insurers stock prices -- something Trump was especially excited about over the weekend for reasons he didn't explain -- but it also directly hurts those who benefit from the payments, while indirectly hurting everyone through increases in premiums.

The list of critics of the president's ridiculous decision isn't short -- and it includes plenty of Republicans.

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Image: Trump Announces Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act

Team Trump faces subpoena over sexual misconduct allegations

10/16/17 08:00AM

Though the story largely faded after last fall's election, Donald Trump was recorded in 2005 bragging 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."

After Trump denied having done what he bragged about doing, 11 women came forward to accuse the Republican of sexual misconduct -- one of whom, Summer Zervos, is currently suing the president for defamation, after Trump insisted each of his accusers is a liar.

BuzzFeed reported yesterday the latest development in this ongoing litigation.

A high-stakes legal showdown is brewing for President Donald Trump, as a woman who said he groped her has subpoenaed all documents from his campaign pertaining to "any woman alleging that Donald J. Trump touched her inappropriately." [...]

Summer Zervos, a former contestant on the Trump's reality TV show The Apprentice, accused Trump of kissing and grabbing her when she went to his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 2007 to discuss a possible job at the Trump Organization.... As part of that suit, her lawyers served a subpoena on his campaign, asking that it preserve all documents it had about her.

Note, while the lawsuit isn't new, we weren't aware of the detail highlighted by BuzzFeed. The subpoena was entered into the court file on Sept. 19, nearly four weeks ago.

The article added that Zervos and her lawyer have asked for "all documents" related to the president's other accusers.

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