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E.g., 4/25/2018

GOP campaign to push the courts to the right continues unabated

04/25/18 12:40PM

It's generally assumed that the Republican-led Congress will not take up any major new legislative initiatives between now and the midterm elections in November, but GOP senators will still make time for Donald Trump's far-right judicial nominees.

Yesterday's developments in the upper chamber didn't generate a lot of headlines, but that doesn't mean they're not important. Roll Call  reported overnight:

Appeals court nominee Kyle Duncan has advocated on behalf of conservatives in legal fights over contentious cultural issues such as abortion and LGBT rights, leaving behind the kind of paper trail that might have dissuaded presidents from putting him through the Senate's confirmation process.

Donald Trump is not such a president.

And changes to the Senate filibuster rules from five years ago meant Democrats alone didn't have the votes to block Duncan from a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit based in New Orleans.

Quite right. Ordinarily, Kyle Duncan is the kind of far-right lawyer whom a president would hesitate to even nominate to the federal bench. Much of his career has been built on fighting against reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, voting rights, and the rights of immigrants.

But Trump nominated Duncan anyway and every Senate Republican -- including the ostensible "moderates" -- voted to confirm him to the appellate bench, where the 46-year-old conservative will likely spend the next several decades making those who share his ideology happy.

And he won't be alone. Duncan was the 15th appellate-court judge GOP senators have confirmed to the bench since Trump took office -- and 33rd confirmed judicial nominee overall -- which reflects a concerted partisan effort to move the courts sharply and quickly to the right -- an effort that's quietly succeeding.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.25.18

04/25/18 12:00PM

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

* In case Republicans weren't already nervous about this year's midterms, a new Mason-Dixon poll in Tennessee shows former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) leading Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) in this year's open U.S. Senate race, 46% to 43%.

* Rep.-elect Debbie Lesko (R), who won a special election in Arizona yesterday, is already poised to join the right-wing House Freedom Caucus.

* The NRA will clearly have plenty of resources for the 2018 midterm cycle: "The National Rifle Association's Political Victory Fund raised $2.4 million in donations in March, setting a 21st-century record for the group in the month after a gunman killed 17 students and educators at a high school in Parkland, Fla."

* With time running out before West Virginia's May 8 Republican primary, a new Fox News poll shows Rep. Evan Jenkins (R) leading state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) in the race for the party's U.S. Senate nomination, 25% to 21%. Don Blankenship (R) is third with 16%.

* In a fundraising appeal, appointed Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) claimed she enjoys Donald Trump's support. She most certainly does not.

* In Ohio's U.S. Senate race, Trump has weighed in on the GOP primary, throwing his support behind Rep. Jim Renacci (R). The primary is May 8, and the Republican congressman was already widely considered the frontrunner for the party's nomination.

* A largely unknown group called the American Exceptionalism Institute, which does not disclose its donors, is running attack ads against Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) over his opposition to Gina Haspel's nomination to lead the CIA.

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An employee at a money changer counts $100 bills.

New evidence shows critics of the Republican tax plan were right

04/25/18 11:20AM

The debate over the Republican tax plan was, to put it mildly, brief. GOP leaders crafted the plan in secret, then rushed it through Congress without a substantive hearing, hoping it would stand a better chance of success if no one looked too closely at its provisions.

But to the extent there was a public discussion about the plan's merits, one of the key controversies was over tax deductions for owners of "pass-through" businesses. Democrats said the provision would largely benefit the wealthy, while Republicans insisted the change would help small business owners.

NBC News reported this week on the latest findings from the Joint Committee on Taxation, which suggest the plan's progressive critics were on to something.

The deduction, which ranges up to 20 percent, will shower $40.2 billion in tax breaks on owners of pass-throughs -- largely businesses owned by an individual or a partnership, or those "S" corporations that kick income and losses to shareholders for tax purposes -- in 2018, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimated. The provision was included in the larger overhaul of tax rates enacted in December.

In 2018, the lion's share of the benefit -- $17.4 billion, or 44.3 percent of the total -- will go to roughly 200,000 Americans making $1 million or more who claim the pass-through deduction, the committee said. Another $3.6 billion, or 8.9 percent, will go to a similar number of taxpayers who earn $500,000 to $1 million.

By 2024, the tax deductions will amount to $60.3 billion, and those making $1 million or more will account for $31.6 billion (52.4 percent) of that.

For Republicans, of course, this is a feature, not a bug. Their rhetoric notwithstanding, the point of the GOP tax plan was, and is, to divert more wealth to the richest Americans.

But stepping back, this latest evidence fits into a larger pattern in which Democratic predictions about the Republican tax law keep coming true.

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Donald "Don" Blankenship, former chief executive officer of Massey Energy Co., center, and his attorney, left, exit the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse in Charleston, W. Va., on Dec. 3, 2015. (Photo by Calvin Mattheis/Bloomberg/Getty)

GOP Senate candidate targets Mitch McConnell's family

04/25/18 10:40AM

Early on in Donald Trump's presidential campaign, he briefly went after Jeb Bush's wife, suggesting her Mexican heritage influenced the former governor's position on immigration.

That 2015 incident came to mind this morning reading about Don Blankenship, the coal baron and ex-con, who's running for the Republicans' U.S. Senate nomination in West Virginia, and who offered a similar criticism of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to the New York Times.

In a highly unusual move, a super PAC linked to Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky senator and Republican leader, began saturating the West Virginia airwaves last week with an ad attacking Mr. Blankenship for poisoning local drinking water from his former coal mines. The nearly $745,000 campaign of TV and digital ads is meant to boost the chances of two conventional Republicans in the race, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Representative Evan Jenkins. [...]

On Monday, responding to the attack ads, Mr. Blankenship brought up Mr. McConnell's marriage to Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation, and questioned whether the majority leader faced a conflict of interest in foreign relations. Ms. Chao's father is "a wealthy Chinaperson," Mr. Blankenship said, speaking on a West Virginia radio show, adding, "And there's a lot of connections to some of the brass, if you will, in China."

That's obviously offensive, though I won't pretend to know if it will help or hurt Blankenship's chances of electoral success. Trump relied heavily on racially charged appeals and attacks on GOP leaders, and he won 68% of the vote in West Virginia -- his single strongest state in 2016.

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Image: FILE PHOTO: EPA Administrator Pruitt testifies before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington

For his next trick, the EPA's Scott Pruitt takes aim at science

04/25/18 10:06AM

In a cabinet filled with scandal-plagued members, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt manages to stand out. In recent weeks, the corruption controversies surrounding the Oklahoma Republican have reached crisis levels, and even Donald Trump's White House has begun "cautioning" its allies about defending him.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the Senate's third-ranking Republican leader, conceded to reporters yesterday, "Obviously, Scott Pruitt has got some serious questions to answer." Thune added that while GOP lawmakers like the EPA chief's efforts to undermine environmental safeguards, the allegations Pruitt is facing make it "harder to be effective in his job."

The question of efficacy is an important one, and it's more difficult to answer than it may appear. On the one hand, when it comes to dismantling safeguards, Pruitt has a reputation for being ruthlessly effective, but his record reflects a clumsy and careless administrator.

But on the other hand, the EPA chief is proving to be quite effective in going after science. Mother Jones  reported on Pruitt's announcement yesterday -- at an event closed to the press, but well attended by his ideological allies -- intended to "restrict the kinds of scientific studies the agency can use in developing its regulations."

For years, EPA critics have pushed Congress to forbid the agency from relying on the studies that comprise the bulk of the independent research on fossil fuels on public health. Their strategy aims to sow doubt about the health effects of air pollution, while slowing down or weakening future rules targeting particulate matter and ozone. The proposed rule is modeled after bills introduced by Smith in the House, which Pruitt described as the "codification of an approach."

Under the new approach, the Environmental Protection Agency will only consider research with publicly available underlying data. And while Pruitt pretends this is about "transparency," the practical implications are dramatic. The Mother Jones piece added, "It would drastically limit the kinds of studies available to regulators crafting the agency's air and water regulations, because many of these studies rely on sensitive medical records that cannot be made public, or may be owned by private institutions not keen on publishing proprietary information."

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Eric Greitens Founder and CEO, The Mission Continues speaks at the Robin Hood Veterans Summit at Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum on May 7, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty for The Robin Hood Foundation)

Governor to speak at law enforcement event, despite felony charges

04/25/18 09:20AM

No governor in the nation is in as much trouble as Missouri's Eric Greitens (R). He was already facing one felony count stemming from his alleged blackmail of his former mistress when the Republican governor was indicted again earlier this month for allegedly misusing his veterans charity to advance his political interests.

Making matters worse, GOP leaders in Missouri's legislature have called on Greitens to resign; they released a brutal report detailing his alleged personal misconduct; and he's quickly running out of friends.

But not completely. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch  reported yesterday:

Gov. Eric Greitens, who faces two felony charges in St. Louis and mounting legal troubles, is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a St. Louis Area Police Chiefs Association prayer breakfast on Wednesday.

Wentzville Police Chief Kurt Frisz, who is chairman of the St. Louis Area Police Chiefs Association, confirmed Greitens' attendance.

The event, which is intended to memorialize fallen officers, is scheduled for this morning.

For his part, Greitens spoke late last week at the Texas County Lincoln Day dinner, and he suggested news organizations are responsible for his troubles.

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'Republicans shouldn't be hitting the alarm, they should be slamming it'

04/25/18 08:40AM

Congressional elections are zero-sum affairs. Candidates vie for a seat, the winner earns the opportunity to serve, and the loser gets nothing. No one gets a "nice job keeping it close" trophy.

That said, as we were reminded last night, context is everything.

Arizona's 8th congressional district is a heavily Republican area. Donald Trump won here by 21 points in his presidential race, and GOP voters enjoy a 17-point registration advantage. In yesterday's special election. Republicans ran an experienced state lawmaker, while Democrats ran a first-time candidate. Common sense suggested the race wouldn't be close.

Except it was. As of this morning, Rep.-elect Debbie Lesko (R) defeated Hiral Tipirneni (D) by about five percentage points, 52.6% to 47.4%. Politico  noted the growing anxiety among GOP officials.

Lesko's single-digit margin is the latest evidence that Republicans face a punishing midterm environment, even in Trump-friendly territory. [...]

"Republicans shouldn't be hitting the alarm, they should be slamming it," said Mike Noble, a GOP pollster based in Arizona. He added: "This district isn't supposed to be competitive, and so to see this margin, especially with the Republicans pouring in resources here -- again, it's a tough year."

That point about resources is of particular interest: Republicans spent about $1 million to help push an established local candidate over the finish line, while national Democratic organizations largely ignored the contest. And Lesko still won a close race in a district Trump won by 21 points a year and a half ago.

Making matters quite a bit worse for Republicans, this wasn't the first time. On the contrary, Democrats have already flipped two key "red" seats in Congress -- Rep. Conor Lamb (D) won in a Pennsylvania district that Trump carried by 20 points, while Sen. Doug Jones (D) won a U.S. Senate special election in a state Trump carried by nearly 28 points -- while Dem candidates kept it surprisingly close in U.S. House races in "red" districts in Montana, Georgia, Kansas, and South Carolina.

Donald Trump whined this morning that not enough people are paying attention to yesterday's results in Arizona, but he doesn't seem to understand what matters here: the outcome of this congressional special election offers fresh proof of his party's troubles under his presidency.

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Mick Mulvaney

With unusual candor, Mulvaney talks about selling access to lobbyists

04/25/18 08:00AM

Mick Mulvaney. Donald Trump's budget director and the acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has been quite busy lately -- but not in a good way.

The far-right Republican has not, for example, been busy protecting Americans' financial interests. On the contrary, Mulvaney has effectively stopped all enforcement actions at the CFPB, while also taking outrageous steps to help the payday-loan industry.

Instead, Mulvaney has been busy moving in the opposite direction. He's been working on changing the name of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection -- critics believe he's trying to lower the agency's profile and make it less accessible -- while also advancing a plan to make it harder for American consumers to file complaints against financial institutions suspected of abuses.

Mulvaney has also been busy giving advice to bankers on their political activities in the Trump era. The New York Times  reported overnight:

[Mulvaney] told banking industry executives on Tuesday that they should press lawmakers hard to pursue their agenda, and revealed that, as a congressman, he would meet only with lobbyists if they had contributed to his campaign.

"We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress," Mr. Mulvaney, a former Republican lawmaker from South Carolina, told 1,300 bankers and lending industry officials at an American Bankers Association conference in Washington. "If you're a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn't talk to you. If you're a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you."

Cynics who assume the worst of federal officials often suspect members of Congress sell access to lobbyists, but it's exceedingly rare to hear a prominent politician brag about such corruption in public.

Indeed, as part of his presentation to bankers, Mulvaney talked about additional steps he wants to take to weaken the agency he leads, and he encouraged the financial industry to help him in this endeavor by making campaign contributions that would enhance their influence on Capitol Hill.

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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 4.24.18

04/24/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Things get just a little worse for Trump's VA nominee: "A 2012 watchdog report ordered up by Veterans Affairs nominee Dr. Ronny Jackson found that both he and a rival physician exhibited 'unprofessional behaviors' as they engaged in a power struggle over the White House medical unit."

* This probably won't help, either: "President Donald Trump on Tuesday defended Dr. Ronny Jackson, his embattled pick to be the next Veterans Affairs secretary, but added, 'If I were him ... I wouldn't do it.'"

* The latest out of Toronto: "The man suspected of deliberately driving a van into a bustling intersection in downtown Toronto, allegedly running down panicked pedestrians in his path, appeared in court Tuesday and was hit with 10 counts of first-degree murder."

* Remember, Trump vetoed Pence's first choice: "Vice President Mike Pence has chosen retired Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, a top official with the National Security Council, to serve as his national security adviser."

* New questions at the CDC: "Dr. Robert Redfield Jr., 66, had a long career as a top HIV researcher, but he had no experience working in public health or managing a public health agency. The U.S. government is paying him $375,000 a year to run the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

* Interesting choice: "Fired FBI Director James Comey has retained former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald as one of his personal attorneys, bringing in a heavy-hitting former prosecutor, close friend and longtime colleague to help him navigate his dramatic role as a potential witness in the investigation of President Trump's campaign and potential obstruction of justice."

* It's almost as if Trump tried to solve a problem that didn't exist: "Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein told Congress Tuesday he was not aware of any negative effects from transgender personnel serving, joining all three other service chiefs in a rare public split with President Donald Trump over the issue."

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Image: SKOREA-NKOREA-US-NUCLEAR-DIPLOMACY

Trump praises North Korea's 'very honorable' dictator

04/24/18 12:58PM

Donald Trump's opinion of North Korea's Kim Jong-un has evolved over time. A year ago this week, for example, the American president offered unexpected praise for the dictator, saying, "At a very young age, he was able to assume power.... So obviously, he's a pretty smart cookie."

Trump added soon after that he'd be "honored" to meet the North Korean leader, leaving South Korean officials "bewildered."

In his State of the Union address earlier this year, the president changed course. "No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea," Trump said. He went to condemn "the depraved character of the North Korean regime."

The American president has also described Kim Jong-un as "Little Rocket Man," a "maniac," and a "madman." Today, however, Trump shifted his posture once again.

"Kim Jong-un was, he really has been very open and I think very honorable from everything we're seeing. Now a lot of promises have been made by North Korea over the years, but they have never been in this position."

Of course, they've "never been in this position" because previous American presidents have been less cavalier about giving North Korean dictators what they wanted: a presidential meeting that raises the rogue nation's stature and legitimacy.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.24.18

04/24/18 12:00PM

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

* It's Election Day in Arizona's 8th congressional district, where a special election will decide who fills former Rep. Trent Frank's (R) vacant seat. This is a heavily Republican district -- Donald Trump won here by 21 points, and the GOP enjoys a 17-point registration advantage -- suggesting former state lawmaker Debbie Lesko (R) is a clear favorite over Hiral Tipirneni (D), an emergency-room physician and first-time candidate.

* On a related note, Republicans have outspent Democrats in this special election by a roughly four-to-one margin.

* Speaking of special election, it's also Election Day in part of New York, where a state Senate race may help determine partisan control of the chamber.

* At least for now, incumbent Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) has not qualified for the ballot, following a Colorado Supreme Court ruling. Roll Call  reported, "State law says the signature collectors must be Colorado residents, and the state Supreme Court determined one of the collectors was not.... Lamborn plans to challenge the ruling in federal court."

* In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) will apparently circumvent state election laws -- with the state attorney general's blessing -- to schedule a special election to fill former Rep. Blake Farenthold's (R) congressional vacancy.

* Speaking of the Lone Star State, the latest Quinnipiac poll found Abbott with a nine-point lead over former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez (D) in this year's gubernatorial race, 49% to 40%. Abbott had a similar lead against Valdez's Democratic primary rival, businessman Andrew White.

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