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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 5.23.17

05/23/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Manchester: "This proud British city was in mourning Tuesday after a suicide bombing by a homegrown terrorist killed 22 people -- some of whom were children -- at an Ariana Grande concert. The man responsible for the carnage was identified by police as 22-year-old Salman Abedi, a British citizen of Libyan descent who lived in a south Manchester neighborhood called Fallowfield."

* Also from the U.K.: "[I]n the wake of the attack, British Prime Minister Theresa May raised the terrorist threat level to the highest level and warned that another terrorist attack could be 'imminent.'"

* Donald Trump "branded those responsible for the deadly suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert and other terrorist attacks 'evil losers' on Tuesday."

* More on this on tonight's show: "Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats on Tuesday refused to address -- but did not deny -- reports that President Donald Trump asked him to push back against allegations the Trump campaign colluded with Russia."

* Mueller: "Justice Department ethics experts have concluded that newly appointed special counsel Robert S. Mueller III can oversee the investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin during the 2016 presidential election -- even though his former law firm represents several people who could be caught up in the matter, authorities announced Tuesday."

* An angle worth watching: "A member of the Federal Election Commission is calling on the agency to investigate whether Russian agents paid for Facebook ads to spread damaging stories about Hillary Clinton ahead of last fall's presidential election."

* Good question: "Top Democrats are demanding answers from the Trump administration about whether a top healthcare official offered insurance companies a quid pro quo to get their support for the GOP's ObamaCare repeal bill."
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CIA Director John Brennan testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on "diverse mission requirements in support of our National Security", in Washington, DC, June 16, 2016. (Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Former CIA confirms 'interactions' between Russia, Trump campaign

05/23/17 04:57PM

For months, Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and their political operation insisted that no one from Trump World was in communications with Russia while Russia was attacking our election in support of Trump. The evidence to the contrary from news accounts has been overwhelming, to the point that the White House doesn't even bother to repeat the talking point anymore.

It was nevertheless helpful to have the former director of the CIA testify under oath today about the "interactions" between Team Trump and its Russian benefactors.
[F]ormer CIA Director John Brennan appeared before the House Intelligence Committee and said he believes Russia "brazenly" interfered in last year's presidential election and that he knew of contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials.

"I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign," Brennan told lawmakers.

He added that he is not sure whether "collusion existed" between the campaign and Moscow, but the interactions were enough that he believed the matter warranted an FBI investigation.
So much for the president's "witch hunt" argument.

Brennan, who led the CIA for four years, including throughout the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, also testified that Moscow "clearly had a more favorable view" toward the Trump campaign.

And though the former CIA chief didn't identify individuals from Trump's operation by name, Brennan was willing to say in his testimony, "I know there was a sufficient basis of information and intelligence that required further investigation by the bureau to determine whether U.S. persons were actively conspiring, colluding, with Russian officials."
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Image: US President Donald J. Trump participates in a health care discussion with House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady

Trump wastes little time breaking his key promises in a cruel budget

05/23/17 01:05PM

When Donald Trump rode down a New York escalator and announced his presidential campaign two years ago in front of an audience featuring people paid to be there, the Republican made international headlines by arguing that Mexican immigrants are rapists.

But in the same speech, Trump was careful to break with GOP orthodoxy on some of the nation's most popular social-insurance programs. He said, if elected, he would "save Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security without cuts." Trump added, "Have to do it."

Those who actually believed his rhetoric fell for an unfortunate scam. Indeed, Trump has made many of his defenders look quite foolish with the unveiling of his first federal budget.
President Donald Trump's 2018 budget proposal includes sweeping cuts to social spending for low-income Americans, including entitlement programs that the president promised to protect as a candidate, while boosting defense spending.
To appreciate just how radical the proposed cuts are, Vox's rundown paints a bleak picture. Trump's budget was expected to be radical -- his budget chief is Mick Mulvaney, a former right-wing congressman and Freedom Caucus leader -- but this blueprint is more of a cruel joke than a proper budget. Among the cuts highlighted by Vox's report:
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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.23.17

05/23/17 12:00PM

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

* It's a little hard to believe, but SurveyUSA released a poll ahead of Georgia's congressional special election that showed Jon Ossoff (D) leading Karen Handel (R), 51% to 44%. No other recent data pointed to the Democrat with that kind of advantage.

* On a related note, despite the fact that Ossoff's out-of-state financial support has become one of the key Republican messages, Handel will be in Washington, D.C., today where she's hosting three separate fundraising events.

* The American Action Network, allied with the House Republican leadership, is apparently investing an additional $2 million into an ad campaign in support of the GOP's far-right health care plan. Roll Call reports that since the House passed its bill, the American Action Network "has spent $5.6 million on radio, TV and digital ads."

* In a bit of a surprise, Tom Mechler, the chairman of the Texas Republican Party, announced his resignation over the weekend. A tussle is underway to replace him.

* In Pennsylvania, Rep. Mike Kelly (R) has decided not to run for governor in 2018, but he hasn't ruled out a campaign against Sen. Bob Casey (D) next year.

* In Kansas' only half-way competitive congressional district, Joe McConnell, an Iraq-war veteran and Bronze Star recipient, is officially launching his first congressional campaign today, running as a Democrat against incumbent Rep. Kevin Yoder (R). McConnell is likely to have a primary race against Jay Sidie, who came up short against Yoder last year.
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Image: US President Donald Trump (L) and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after delivering press statements

Donald Trump makes the wrong impression at Yad Vashem

05/23/17 11:31AM

When American presidents travel abroad, especially for the first time, they make a lasting impression. Yesterday, for example, Donald Trump raised more than a few eyebrows with some inexplicable comments about Israeli intelligence, which he soon after followed up by suggesting Israel isn't in the Middle East.

Today, Trump visited Yad Vashem, Israel's principal Holocaust memorial and museum -- the American president scheduled a brief visit, that did not include a tour of the museum -- and did little to improve upon yesterday's showing.
President Trump's message in a guestbook at Israel's main Holocaust memorial and museum has drawn some ridicule for its failure to demonstrate sensitivity to the atrocities memorialized at the site.

"It is a great honor to be here with all of my friends - so amazing + will never forget!" Trump wrote during his visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, today.
Raoul Wootliff, a reporter for the Times of Israel, posted on Twitter, "He forgot: 'See you next summer.'"

It wasn't long before observers started comparing Trump's "so amazing" message with the one Barack Obama left when he visited the memorial in July 2008.

"I am grateful to Yad Vashem and all of those responsible for this remarkable institution," Obama's note in the guest book read. "At a time of great peril and promise, war and strife, we are blessed to have such a powerful reminder of man's potential for great evil, but also our capacity to rise up from tragedy and remake our world."

Obama's message continued: "Let our children come here, and know this history, so that they can add their voices to proclaim 'never again.' And may we remember those who perished, not only as victims, but also as individuals who hoped and loved and dreamed like us, and who have become symbols of the human spirit."
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Trump's sabotage takes its toll on the health care system

05/23/17 11:01AM

Late Friday, with much of the political world focused on dramatic developments in the Russia scandal, the White House said Donald Trump was considering a radical move in the health care debate. The Republican president, reports indicated, was prepared to scrap cost-sharing reductions, deliberately destabilizing insurance markets, and taking coverage from millions.

Trump had until yesterday to pull the trigger on this threat, but he apparently decided to take a different course. Instead of ending the cost-sharing reductions, the administration said it would delay a final decision by 90 days -- which had the effect of leaving industry and its stakeholders in limbo while Republicans plot their next move.

In case this isn't obvious, insurance companies hate arbitrary uncertainty. It's in conflict with their business model. In fact, CNBC reported yesterday that the White House's political games will end up costing American consumers quite a bit of money.
Delay, delay, delay means Obamacare customers will pay, and pay, and pay a lot more next year.

The Trump administration's move Monday to avoid for 90 days -- yet again -- making a decision on a major court challenge to key Obamacare subsidies paid insurers by itself will alone add up to 20 percent or more to the price of individual health plans next year, experts said Monday.

Andy Slavitt, who until January oversaw Obamacare for the federal government, told CNBC that President Donald Trump has guaranteed higher insurance prices in 2018 by his indecision on what will happen to the $7 billion in subsidies insurers have counted on from the government.
"We need swift action and long-term certainty on this critical program," Cathryn Donaldson, a spokeswoman for America's Health Insurance Plans, told Bloomberg Politics. "It is the single most destabilizing factor in the individual market, and millions of Americans could soon feel the impact of fewer choices, higher costs, and reduced access to care."

"It," in that sentence, appears to refer to Trump's increasingly ridiculous antics.

This isn't some minor detail. Trump and his team have been threatening for months to sabotage the Affordable Care Act and the existing health care system, toying with the idea of creating intentional chaos, but what the White House fails to appreciate is the fact that the gamesmanship has an immediate detrimental effect.

By threatening to make things worse, Trump and allies are already making things worse.
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Buildings are seen near the ocean as reports indicate that Miami-Dade County in the future could be one of the most susceptible places when it comes to rising water levels due to global warming on March 14, 2012 in North Miami, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty)

Trump administration gives sea-level study a little touch-up

05/23/17 10:22AM

It would make sense for Republicans, like all Americans, to be concerned about rising sea levels. But in recent years, GOP officials' concerns have been limited to squelching the discussion about the environmental problem instead of addressing it.

As regular readers may recall, in 2012, Republicans in North Carolina tried to prohibit a state-appointed science panel from relying on the scientific evidence related to sea levels. Around the same time, Republican state lawmakers in Virginia commissioned a study on climate change and the state's Eastern shore, but "sea-level rise" was to be omitted. The GOP sponsor of the study pointed to "sea-level rise" as an example of "liberal code words."

That kind of thinking appears to have reached the Trump administration. The Washington Post reported yesterday:
On Thursday, a group of scientists, including three working for the U.S. Geological Survey, published a paper that highlighted the link between sea-level rise and global climate change, arguing that previously studies may have underestimated the risk flooding poses to coastal communities.

However, three of the study's authors say the Department of Interior, under which USGS is housed, deleted a line from the news release on the study that discussed the role climate change played in raising Earth's oceans.
The public statement originally said, "Global climate change drives sea-level rise, increasing the frequency of coastal flooding." The U.S. Geological Survey changed the text so that it now says, "The frequency and severity of coastal flooding throughout the world will increase rapidly and eventually double in frequency over the coming decades even with only moderate amounts of sea level rise."

In other words, officials were comfortable describing the problem, but not identifying the cause of the problem. The news release isn't wrong, exactly, so much as it was made deliberately incomplete.
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Image: FILE PHOTO - National security adviser General Michael Flynn arrives to deliver a statement during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington U.S.

Flynn's falsehoods create new troubles for Trump's White House

05/23/17 09:20AM

As Donald Trump's Russia scandal has progressed, we've been confronted with instances in which people close to the president failed to disclose Russian ties that should've been divulged. And sins of omission are important, outright deceptions are even more serious.

Take Michael Flynn, for example.
Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn appears to have lied to security clearance investigators by telling them he was paid by "U.S. companies" when he traveled to Russia in December 2015, according to a letter released Monday by the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.

"The Oversight Committee has in our possession documents that appear to indicate that General Flynn lied to the investigators who interviewed him in 2016 as part of his security clearance renewal," said Rep. Elijiah Cummings of Maryland in a letter to committee chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

"Specifically, the Committee has obtained a Report of Investigation dated March 14, 2016, showing that General Flynn told security clearance investigators that he was paid by 'U.S. companies' when he traveled to Moscow in December 2015 to dine at a gala with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The actual source of the funds for General Flynn's trip was not a U.S. company, but the Russian media propaganda arm, RT."
The payments Flynn received from Russia have long been a point of contention for Trump's top former national security aide -- someone the president kept at his post for 18 days, even after the Justice Department told the White House Flynn had been compromised by Moscow -- but allegations that he deliberately misled U.S. investigators in official documents are a new development.

It also sheds new light on why Flynn, who pleaded the Fifth yesterday in response to a Senate Intelligence Committee inquiry, has been so eager to cut an immunity deal with federal prosecutors in exchange for his testimony in the Russia scandal. As the New York Times' report noted, "Intentionally lying to federal investigators is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison."

And this doesn't even factor in the fact that Flynn was supposed to register as a foreign agent -- a step he failed to take -- which also appears to be a crime.
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People wait in line to enter the U.S. Supreme Court building January 11, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty)

Supreme Court strikes down North Carolina gerrymandering

05/23/17 08:40AM

North Carolina Republican leaders may be radicalized to an alarming degree, but they're also competent enough to achieve their goals. It's not easy, for example, to take a state where voters are roughly divided evenly between the parties, and then draw the congressional district lines so that Republicans hold 10 of the state's 13 seats, turning roughly 50% of the vote into 77% of the power.

That is, however, precisely what GOP officials in North Carolina did in one of the most ridiculous contemporary examples of gerrymandering in the country. It's also a map that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down yesterday as illegal.
The U.S. Supreme Court Monday threw out North Carolina's maps for two of the state's 13 congressional districts, a ruling that former attorney general Eric Holder called "a watershed moment in the fight to end racial gerrymandering."

In drawing the boundary lines for both districts, race was the predominant factor and the state failed to offer a compelling justification, the court said.
The full ruling in Cooper v. Harris is online here. Note that the majority included the court's four center-left jurists -- Kagan, Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Breyer -- who were unexpectedly joined in this decision by, of all people, Clarence Thomas. (It was a 5-3 ruling, since Gorsuch did not participate. The case was heard before his confirmation.)

The key takeaway of a ruling like this is about establishing some boundaries. When state lawmakers draw district lines following a decennial census, they're legally permitted to consider race as a factor, but as Vox's report explained, "to use race as a predominant factor, the state has to have a compelling interest. For example, a state can say that it needs to, under the federal Voting Rights Act, consider race to ensure that a minority voting bloc isn't consistently negated by a larger set of white voters who vote against the minority voting bloc's preferred candidate."

That's not what North Carolina Republicans did. In fact, they did largely the opposite, working with remarkable precision to isolate minority communities, not to advance a compelling state interest, but to maximize partisan GOP power by deliberately diminishing the voting power of people of color.

The Supreme Court said yesterday that this is a step states cannot take.
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Image: First Lady Melania Trump Hosts A Celebration Of MilitaryMothers Event

Obstruction allegations against Donald Trump grow more obvious

05/23/17 08:00AM

In August 1974, with the Watergate scandal ravaging Richard Nixon's presidency, the "smoking gun" tape made it impossible for the Republican to stay in office. The recording, which Nixon fought to conceal, showed the then-president discussing a plan with an aide: they'd try to get the CIA to help derail the FBI's investigation into the scandal.

Confronted with this evidence, GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill quickly abandoned Nixon, who then resigned.

Reading the latest Washington Post scoop, published online late yesterday, I'm reminded of the phrase, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."
President Trump asked two of the nation's top intelligence officials in March to help him push back against an FBI investigation into possible coordination between his campaign and the Russian government, according to current and former officials.

Trump made separate appeals to the director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, and to Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, urging them to publicly deny the existence of any evidence of collusion during the 2016 election.

Coats and Rogers refused to comply with the requests, which they both deemed to be inappropriate, according to two current and two former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private communications with the president.
NBC News confirmed that Coats and Rogers "were sufficiently concerned about the requests that one of them wrote a memo about it" and the two men "exchanged notes about their conversations with the president."

That was the appropriate response. The idea that a sitting president of the United States would personally encourage the NSA director and the DNI to intervene this way -- effectively asking them to make public claims they couldn't prove -- is plainly outrageous.

Making matters worse, the Post's report added that senior White House officials also "sounded out top intelligence officials about the possibility of intervening directly" with then-FBI Director Comey in order to "encourage the FBI to drop its probe of Michael Flynn."

One official said of the line of questioning from the White House, "Can we ask him to shut down the investigation? Are you able to assist in this matter?"
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