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Friday's Mini-Report, 10.20.17

10/20/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The deadly attack in Niger: "A senior congressional aide who has been briefed on the deaths of four U.S. servicemen in Niger says the ambush by militants stemmed in part from a 'massive intelligence failure.'"

* Afghanistan: "A suicide bomber detonated explosives in a Shiite mosque in Kabul on Friday as worshipers were gathering for evening prayer, killing at least 32 people in the latest in a series of attacks against Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan."

* Things are not all right in Puerto Rico: "Back-up diesel generators in Puerto Rico that have provided a lifeline for hospitals and other critical facilities in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria are starting to break down and need fixing."

* It'd be nice if the sitting president were a reliable source of national-security information, but he's not: "President Trump misrepresented a recent report on crime in Britain with a Twitter message Friday blaming 'Radical Islamic terror' for an uptick in reported crime, critics in the United Kingdom say."

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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP

Donald Trump vs. Generals: A brief history

10/20/17 04:50PM

As we discussed earlier, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked this afternoon to defend a discredited story Chief of Staff John Kelly shared yesterday. She replied, "If you want to go after Gen. Kelly that's up to you but I think that that – if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that's something highly inappropriate."

This is problematic for all kinds of reasons, but let's take a moment to focus on Trump's own record on showing deference and respect towards American military leaders with stars on their shoulder.

“I know more about ISIS than the generals do,” he insisted during the campaign. “Believe me.” Several months later, Trump added that U.S. military leaders “don’t know much because they’re not winning,” As recently as September 2016, the Republican said American generals “have been reduced to rubble,” adding, “They have been reduced to a point where it’s embarrassing to our country.”

During the Democratic National Convention, Trump was especially disrespectful towards retired four-star General John Allen. Politico reported at the time:

Trump then proceeded to pounce on criticisms levied against him by Allen, who Thursday night gave an impassioned speech framing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as a leader who possessed the needed experience to helm the United States military.

"They had a general named John Allen. I never met him, and he got up and started talking about Trump, Trump, Trump," the Republican nominee said before unleashing his counterassault. "You know who he is? He's a failed general. He was the general fighting ISIS. I would say he hasn't done so well, right?" Trump said.

It was around this time that the GOP candidate tweeted, "General John Allen, who I never met but spoke against me last night, failed badly in his fight against ISIS. His record = BAD"

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White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds the daily briefing at the White House, September 12, 2017.

Confronted with evidence, White House won't acknowledge falsehood

10/20/17 04:16PM

As part of the White House's offensive against Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), Chief of Staff John Kelly delivered dramatic remarks to the press yesterday, including an anecdote intended to highlight the Florida Democrat's pettiness and offensive partisanship.

It was a lengthy, 300-word story about the dedication of an FBI field office in Miami, which was being named after two FBI agents who'd been killed in a firefight in the city. As Kelly explained it, Frederica Wilson "stunned" the audience by speaking about how she was "instrumental in getting the funding for that building" from President Obama, when she should've shown more dignity at the event.

It was a striking anecdote, which we now know wasn't true. The Sun-Sentinel  published the video today of Wilson's remarks, and pretty much every relevant detail from Kelly's story was wrong: she didn't mention Obama; she didn't mention the money; and she didn't take credit for the building. What's more, the audience didn't seem at all "stunned" by Wilson, who actually received applause at the end of her remarks.

Kelly's anecdote may have been powerful, but it was also fictional.

Given the circumstances, I thought it was likely Kelly would apologize. But when a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to comment on the fact that the chief of staff was wrong, she replied:

"If you want to go after Gen. Kelly that's up to you but I think that that -- if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that's something highly inappropriate."

This followed a White House written statement that stood by Kelly's remarks, which we now know weren't true.

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A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)

Trump raises new questions with outreach to US Attorney nominees

10/20/17 12:57PM

For those who enjoy following White House scandals, Donald Trump's presidency has been a treasure trove, to the point that it's challenging at times to keep up. It's quite common for the president and his team to face legitimate controversies, which would ordinarily jolt a normal administration, that soon fade from the headlines to make room for a new controversy.

For example, I've long been fascinated by Trump's decision in the spring to summarily fire 46 U.S. Attorneys, without warning or explanation, with each of these federal prosecutors told on a Friday afternoon to submit their resignations and clean out their offices before close of business. One of the U.S. Attorneys, who'd specifically been told he could stay on, was among the prosecutors sent packing.

At the time, the president and his team didn't have any replacement U.S. Attorneys lined up. The White House just wanted nearly four dozen prosecutors to leave their jobs immediately.

The questions grew a little louder three months ago, when Trump reportedly had a private meeting with a prospective U.S. Attorney, D.C.'s Jessie Liu, before her nomination was made official.

Politico  reported yesterday that this wasn't an isolated incident.

President Donald Trump has personally interviewed at least two potential candidates for U.S. attorney positions in New York, according to two sources familiar with the matter — a move that critics say raises questions about whether they can be sufficiently independent from the president.

Trump has interviewed Geoffrey Berman, who is currently at the law firm Greenberg Traurig for the job of U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Ed McNally of the firm Kasowitz Benson Torres for the Eastern District post, according to the sources.

The presidential chat with Geoffrey Berman is of particular interest because the federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York will have jurisdiction over Trump Tower. The person who used to have this job, Preet Bharara, is the same U.S. Attorney who was fired in March despite having been told he could remain at his post.

"It is neither normal nor advisable for Trump to personally interview candidates for US Attorney positions, especially the one in Manhattan," Bharara tweeted Wednesday.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.20.17

10/20/17 12:00PM

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

* In a campaign rally in Virginia last night in support of Ralph Northam, former President Barack Obama told a crowd in Richmond, "We need you to take this seriously. Our democracy is at stake. Elections matter. Voting matters. You can't take anything for granted. You can't sit this one out."

* As some Republican incumbents fret over possible even-further-to-the-right primary rivals, Donald Trump has reportedly assured three Republican senators -- Nebraska's Deb Fischer, Mississippi's Roger Wicker, and Wyoming's John Barrasso -- that he'll support their re-election bids.

* On a related note, though Deb Fischer is not seen as a vulnerable incumbent, Steve Bannon has reportedly been in contact with former state Treasurer Shane Osborn about a possible GOP primary.

* In the wake of Trump repeatedly disparaging U.S. intelligence professionals, a variety of former CIA officials have decided to run for Congress as Democrats.

* Following up on an item from the other day, Tom Steyer, a progressive California billionaire, has launched a new television ad, pressing Democratic candidate to "take a stand" on Donald Trump's impeachment. The size of the ad buy in support of the commercial is not yet clear, but the Washington Post reports the TV spot "will be supplemented by a seven-figure social media buy."

* Speaking of new ads, the far-right Club for Growth launched its new ad campaign this week in support of a Republican tax plan that, at least for now, doesn't exist.

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Image: U.S. President Trump celebrates with Republican House members after healthcare bill vote at the White House in Washington

As uninsured rate starts to climb, Trump won't avoid blame

10/20/17 11:20AM

In recent years, health care advocates had a trump card to play when asked if the Affordable Care Act was working: the uninsured rate had dropped to the lowest point on record.

There were all kinds of reasons to tackle health care reform, but at the core of the ACA was the goal of bringing health security to Americans who lacked it. And on this aspect of the debate, progressives have enjoyed the better hand: once "Obamacare" became law, the number of insured Americans improved, and kept improving throughout Barack Obama's second term.

A new report on the uninsured rate, compiled by Gallup and Sharecare, suggests we've started to replace progress with regress.

The percentage of U.S. adults lacking health insurance rose in the third quarter of 2017 to 12.3%, up 0.6 percentage points from the previous quarter and 1.4 points since the end of 2016. The uninsured rate is now the highest recorded since the last quarter of 2014 when it was 12.9%.

To be sure, this may look like a modest uptick, affecting a relatively small percentage of the population. But (a) that doesn't make bad news good; (b) if your family is part of that increase, you probably don't care how small the percentage is; and (c) there is widespread concern throughout the health care sector that the uninsured rate will continue to move in the wrong direction as a direct result of Donald Trump's aggressive antics, each of which appear designed to deliberately make the U.S. system worse.

The politics of this may seem bizarre, since political leaders generally don't take an issue, make it one of the centerpieces of their governing agenda, and then leave the nation worse off on purpose. But Trump World doesn't seem to think this will be a problem -- because they'll just blame the deterioration of the health care system on the Affordable Care Act itself.

It's like watching arsonists set fire to a sound structure and then blaming the building for being flammable.

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Image: North Korea

Haley contradicts Trump on Russian election interference (again)

10/20/17 10:40AM

On July 7, Donald Trump said "nobody really knows" whether Russia meddled in the American elections. On July 9, Nikki Haley, Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, said "everybody knows that Russia meddled in our elections."

Everybody, apparently, except her boss.

Soon after, Haley reflected on Trump's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and said the American president wanted to look Putin in the eye in order to "let him know that, 'Yes, we know you meddled in our elections. Yes, we know you did it, and cut it out.'" Trump then pointed in the opposite direction, suggesting he was satisfied with Putin's "vehement" denial of wrongdoing.

All of this came to mind again yesterday, when Haley contradicted her boss on the issue once more. Politico reported:

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Thursday that interference in U.S. elections by another nation "is warfare," telling an audience in New York that such meddling has become Russia's go-to tactic. [...]

"I find it fascinating because the Russians, God bless 'em, they're saying, 'Why are Americans anti-Russian?' And why have we done the sanctions? Well, don't interfere in our elections and we won't be anti-Russian," Haley said Thursday. "And I think we have to be so hard on this and we have to hold them accountable and we have to get the private sector to understand they are responsible for this, too. We all have to step up from this event."

It's as if Haley is working in an entirely different administration -- because as far her boss is concerned, there's no reason to believe Russia did anything wrong at all.

Indeed, Haley referenced the importance of economic sanctions on Russia, neglecting to mention the fact that the administration in which she serves was supposed to implement that policy weeks ago, but hasn't.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order To Promote Healthcare Choice

On opioids, Trump World's plans have become 'such a mess'

10/20/17 10:04AM

Ten weeks ago, speaking from one of his golf resorts, Donald Trump declared, "The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I'm saying officially, right now, it is an emergency. It's a national emergency." His use of the word "officially" led many to assume a White House declaration would soon follow, initiating a series of policy measures.

But Trump followed up with nothing. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), the man the president appointed to lead a White House opioid commission, conceded recently that Trump's inaction is "not good."

Asked on Monday when we might see a declaration, the president gave himself a deadline. "We are going to be doing that next week," Trump said, adding, "That is a very, very big statement. It's a very important step. And to get to that step, a lot of work has to be done and it's time-consuming work. We're going to be doing it next week, okay?"

According to a new Politico report, the answer from Trump administration officials was no, it's not okay.

Blindsided officials are now scrambling to develop such a plan, but it is unclear when it will be announced, how or if it will be done, and whether the administration has the permanent leadership to execute it, said two administration officials.

"They are not ready for this," a public health advocate said of an emergency declaration after talking to Health and Human Services officials enlisted in the effort. Trump's off-script statement stunned top agency officials, who said there is no consensus on how to implement an emergency declaration for the drug epidemic.

Top members of the Trump administration don't even agree on whether there should be a declaration, and Politico's report noted that leaders from relevant federal agencies haven't yet been asked "to draw up strategies and tactics."

A senior FDA official added that the entire endeavor is "such a mess."

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

Unwilling to move on, Trump takes aim at 'wacky' House Democrat

10/20/17 09:20AM

Following White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's dramatic remarks to the press yesterday, it was tempting to think Donald Trump would move on from this week's cringe-worthy controversy over the president's interactions with fallen soldiers' loved ones.

But Trump can't seem to leave this alone. Last night on Twitter, he took aim at Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) once again.

"The Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson (D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!"

Look, there's no real value in belaboring this, but Trump seems to think he deserves the last word on the subject, and he wants the public to believe Wilson wasn't telling the truth.

Reality points in the opposite direction. In fact, Kelly yesterday effectively confirmed Frederica Wilson's version of events, saying he advised the president to tell Sgt. La David T. Johnson's loved ones he "knew what he was getting into."

Now, it's easy to make the argument that Trump tried to be comforting to the grieving family, and though Johnson's loved ones took offense, that wasn't the president's intention. But based on the White House's own account, nothing Wilson said has been discredited.

Trump's smart move would be to stop digging. The president claimed this week Wilson "totally fabricated" what he said, and that turned out to be untrue. Trump claimed there was "proof" to bolster his version of events, and that turned out to be untrue. He said the congresswoman had changed her story, and that turned out to be untrue.

Making matters worse, the Miami Herald and the Washington Post scrutinized John Kelly's remarks yesterday, and both found that the White House chief of staff got several of his facts wrong.

So why in the world does Trump want to keep the argument going over who told "a total lie"?

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The dome of the US Capitol is seen in Washington, D.C., September 20, 2008.

With the GOP tax plan looming, the Senate budget vote matters

10/20/17 08:41AM

Congressional and White House Republicans are clearly focused on passing massive tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations, but in order to make that happen, GOP lawmakers had to pass a budget plan. As the Washington Post reported, the Senate barely cleared this hurdle overnight.

The Senate approved the Republican-backed budget Thursday night, a major step forward for the GOP effort to enact tax cuts.

The budget's passage will allow the GOP to use a procedural maneuver to pass tax legislation through the Senate with 50 or more votes, removing the need for support from Democratic senators.... The budget opens the door to expanding the federal deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

The final vote was 51 to 49, with every Democratic senator opposed to the GOP plan, and every Republican senator except Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) voting for it. (Paul complained that the plan doesn't balance the budget, which is why he broke ranks.)

Instead of a conference committee, which would reconcile the differences between the two chambers' budgets, the Senate-approved blueprint will now head to the House, which is likely to approve it, as is, fairly soon.

And why should you care about any of this? Because of what will happen next.

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