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ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson delivers remarks on the release of a report by the National Petroleum Council on oil drilling in the Arctic, on March 27, 2015, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

The travails of being Donald Trump's Secretary of State

02/23/17 12:50PM

In most presidential administrations, Secretary of State is the cabinet post. Though officially no cabinet secretary is above his or her colleagues, being the nation's chief diplomat, traveling the world representing the United States and directly shaping the foreign policy of the world's strongest superpower, is a unique public-service opportunity.

At least, it's supposed to be.

Rex Tillerson, Trump's Secretary of State, is in Mexico today, trying to clean up the mess the president created by antagonizing our neighbor. There's been a lot of that happening lately, with Tillerson in "perpetual cleanup mode," trying to reassure countries rattled by the president's antics.

Making matters worse, the Washington Post reports that the State Department itself has been sidelined by the White House.
The Trump administration in its first month has largely benched the State Department from its long-standing role as the pre­eminent voice of U.S. foreign policy, curtailing public engagement and official travel and relegating Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to a mostly offstage role.

Decisions on hiring, policy and scheduling are being driven by a White House often wary of the foreign policy establishment and struggling to set priorities and write policy on the fly.
For weeks, it seems the president has largely ignored Tillerson, not bothering to even alert him to developments that would affect his duties. When the White House unveiled its Muslim ban, for example, no one provided Tillerson with any details about the policy in advance, and Tillerson was forced to tell West Wing officials "that he was baffled over not being consulted."

When Trump balked at a two-state solution in the Middle East, the Secretary of State learned about it by watching the comments live on television, and no one from the State Department was welcome at the meeting between Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. When the White House put Iran "on notice" a week earlier, no one checked in with State about this, either.
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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.23.17

02/23/17 12:00PM

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

* If you missed last night's show, the chair of the Montana Republican Party explicitly warned state policymakers against making voting too easy, insisting that higher turnout gives Democrats too big an advantage.

* To get a sense of how the Republican campaign against the Affordable Care Act is going, Sen. Tom Cotton's (R-Ark.) town-hall event last night offered a big hint. One local woman asked everyone who's benefited from the law to stand up. The response from attendees was striking.

* In November, Donald Trump won South Carolina by 14 points, picking up 54% of the vote. The latest statewide poll from Winthrop University, however, puts the president's approval rating at 44%. South Carolina will soon be home to a congressional special election in the 5th district.

* Similarly, Trump won Tennessee in November by 24 points, picking up 60% of the vote. A new poll from Middle Tennessee State University, however, puts the president's approval rating in the Volunteer State at 51%.

* In Texas, where Trump won by 9 points, the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll shows the president with an approval rating of just 46% in the Lone Star State.

* In Georgia's upcoming congressional special election, local polling shows Jon Ossoff (D) as the top contender in the race to replace HHS Secretary Tom Price (R).
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U.S. President-elect Donald Trump (L) meets with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) (C) and Vice-President elect Mike Pence on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 10, 2016. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Ads tout Republican health care plan that doesn't exist

02/23/17 11:23AM

Congressional Republicans are feeling quite antsy following the recent wave of progressive activism, including some fierce audiences at town-hall events, and GOP leaders are eager to ease their burden. The Washington Post noted yesterday that 22 House Republicans are "about to get some air cover from a conservative outside group aligned with Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and his leadership team."
The American Action Network, founded by veteran GOP fundraisers to support the speaker's agenda, will spend $2.2 million on TV and digital buys over the next two weeks to promote GOP efforts related to overhauling the law across two dozen media markets.

That's in addition to $5.2 million already spent on Obamacare-related advertising since the start of the year.
A total of $7.4 million in ad buys in the winter after an election is a considerable investment, and it got me wondering exactly what kind of message the American Action Network is pushing.

The most recent ad features a woman who says, after criticizing the Affordable Care Act, "[W]e need to move forward with a new plan that Republicans are putting forward. I support the Republicans' effort to fix health care for the American people."

This comes a month after a different ad from the American Action Network that touted a new GOP plan that provides "more choices and better care at lower costs" and "provides peace of mind to people with preexisting conditions." The commercial added, "House Republicans have a plan to get there without disrupting existing coverage."

To which the obvious follow-up question is, "They do? Since when?"
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Image: FILE PHOTO: Trump speaking by phone with Putin in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington

Abandoning policy plans, Trump's 'fine-tuned machine' stalls

02/23/17 10:41AM

When Donald Trump unveiled his Muslim ban, the president made it seem as if he were responding to a national security crisis in need of immediate attention. When the administration's policy failed in the courts, Team Trump scurried to come up with a quick solution.

More recently, however, the White House's schedule has slowed quite a bit. After Trump vowed he'd see his opponents "in court" -- a phrase apparently intended to signal new judicial appeals -- Trump's lawyers quietly moved in the opposite direction. When the administration decided to move forward with a new, revised policy, Trump said we'd see his executive order "toward the beginning or middle, at the latest" of this week.

Yesterday, the White House said the new policy would be unveiled next week.

In the meantime, Team Trump's plans to unveil proposals on health care reform and tax reform haven't just been delayed; CNBC reported yesterday those plans have been scrapped altogether.
Last year, candidate Donald Trump promised to repeal Obamacare and give Americans a better, cheaper replacement. Last month, President-elect Trump vowed, "we'll be filing a plan" as soon as the Senate confirmed his Health secretary.

But, post-confirmation, Health Secretary Tom Price has told House Republicans "the administration wouldn't be sending us a bill" after all, said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma. Instead, Cole added, the White House "will cooperate and provide input into what we do."

Two weeks ago, Trump said at the White House that "we're going to be announcing something over the next, I would say, two or three weeks that will be phenomenal in terms of tax." But House Republicans do not expect the president to announce his own tax plan; instead, they anticipate he will simply align himself with theirs.
The "fine-tuned machine" Trump is so excited about doesn't appear to be running especially well.
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A child walks past a graffiti depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on the walls of a bar in the old town in Vilnius, Lithuania, May 14, 2016. (Photo by Mindaugas Kulbis/AP)

Interest in Trump's Russia scandal isn't limited to the Beltway

02/23/17 10:05AM

Sen. Tom Cotton (R) hosted an event in his native Arkansas last night, in which he faced an unexpectedly fierce audience, filled with constituents who didn't seem impressed by the far-right senator's answers. Many of the questions related to health care, the Republican campaign to kill the Affordable Care Act, but one local voter asked if Cotton would support an independent investigation into Donald Trump's Russia scandal.

In response, she received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience. When Cotton demurred, saying he wants the Senate Intelligence Committee -- on which he serves -- to examine the controversy, the Arkansan faced jeers from attendees.

If anyone had the sense that interest in the Russia scandal is limited to inside-the-Beltway types, that impression is quickly being discredited. Politico reported late yesterday:
There's another topic besides Obamacare animating town halls across the country this week: Donald Trump's relationship with Russia.

Constituents and liberal activists are demanding to know what GOP lawmakers are doing to help or hinder investigations into the president's ties to Moscow and Russian interference in the 2016 election. The scrutiny suggests the firestorm over alleged ties between Russian officials and members of Trump's campaign and administration has spread well beyond the Beltway.

"I am very concerned about the Trump administration and his ties to Russia," a woman told GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley in Garner, Iowa, on Tuesday -- winning huge applause from the overflow crowd when she said that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should recuse himself from any investigation.
Fears about health care are clearly helping drive the public backlash at these Republican events, but interest in the Russia scandal is palpable.

If GOP officials were counting on the controversy not drawing attention at the grassroots level, they were mistaken.
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Trump's effort to be the sole authority for truth hits a snag

02/23/17 09:20AM

One of the hallmarks of Donald Trump's young presidency is his effort to position himself as the sole authority for truth. Since taking office, the Republican has urged Americans to not only follow his lead, but also to reject information from those who might get in his way.

Americans have been told, don’t trust the courts. Don’t trust pollsters. Don’t trust U.S. intelligence agencies. Don’t trust unemployment numbers. Don’t even trust election results.

And perhaps most importantly, don't trust news organizations. The president has described himself as being in a "war" with American media, which he's characterized as "the enemy" of the American public.

As the Washington Post noted, the people Trump is trying to convince don't seem especially persuaded by the attacks.
A new poll from Quinnipiac University suggests that while people may be broadly unhappy with the mainstream media, they still think it's more credible than Trump. The president regularly accuses the press of "fake news," but people see more "fake news" coming out of his own mouth.

The poll asked who registered voters "trust more to tell you the truth about important issues." A majority — 52 percent — picked the media. Just 37 percent picked Trump.
What's more, according the poll results, 61% of the public also disapproves of the way the president talks about the media.

"The media, so demonized by the Trump Administration, is actually a good deal more popular than President Trump," Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, said.

There is, however, a catch.
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House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) sits in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill March 19, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

When investigating, Chaffetz has an odd definition of 'serious'

02/23/17 08:40AM

Two weeks ago, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) faced a raucous crowd in his Republican-friendly congressional district, and the House Oversight Committee chairman is still complaining about it.

"I thought it was a bit over the top," the GOP congressman said yesterday. "I thought it was intended to bully and intimidate."

Chaffetz, however, seems eager to prove that he won't be bullied or intimidated -- and he can continue to ignore important issues like the political professional that he is, focusing instead on trivia.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) is investigating a months-old tweet from his state's Bryce Canyon National Park.

Chaffetz reportedly suspects that the tweet, which was posted in December the day after President Obama designated the more than 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah, may reveal that the park officials had advanced notice.
Yes, the Oversight Committee's Republican leadership is quite concerned that a national park was alerted to an announcement about the designation of a new national monument.

"The timing," Chaffetz wrote in a letter to Bryce Canyon's superintendent, "is serious."
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U.S. President Donald Trump looks at Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a joint news conference at the White House in Washington, U.S.

Dem reminds Trump: LGBT doesn't stand for 'Let's Go Back in Time'

02/23/17 08:00AM

One of the 2016 campaign's strangest strategies unfolded in the wake of the Orlando nightclub massacre, when Donald Trump and his allies insisted that LGBT voters, en masse, should move to the right and vote Republican.

The pitch was always a little convoluted, but as Trump saw it, a religious fanatic attacked an LGBT club; he'd target such extremists as president; so LGBT voters should like Trump. At one point, the Republican went so far as to say he, not Hillary Clinton, would be the "better friend" of the "LBGT" [sic] community because of his anti-immigration and anti-Muslim agenda. Just two days after the Orlando mass-shooting, Trump added, "Thank you to the LGBT community! I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs."

Some of his loyalists even believed it. Anthony Scaramucci, a Trump advisor and surrogate, declared earlier this month that Trump "is most pro-LGBTQ rights [president] in history. Why's that story not written in mainstream media?"

Probably because it's not true.
In a complete reversal of the Obama administration's position, President Donald Trump's administration formally rescinded past guidance on transgender bathroom protections in public schools.

Letters from the Justice and Education departments late Wednesday notified the Supreme Court and the nation's public schools that the administration is changing its position on the issue.

Former President Barack Obama instructed public schools that they must allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with a child's chosen gender identity. The guidance was issued as an interpretation of Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in education.

Now, the administration is revoking key guidance on which that policy was based.
It fell to Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) to explain, "President Trump seems to think #LGBT stands for Let's Go Back in Time. He's wrong."
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