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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 4.18.18

04/18/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Seven months later: "An islandwide blackout hit Puerto Rico on Wednesday, knocking out power throughout the island seven months after Hurricane Maria destroyed its electrical grid."

* The defendants' argument was very hard to believe: "A federal jury on Wednesday found three men guilty of plotting to bomb a mosque and apartment complex housing Somali refugees in Kansas."

* The end of the Castro era: "Cuba's National Assembly cleared the way for the end of Castro rule on Wednesday, naming longtime Communist Party figure Miguel Díaz-Canel as the sole candidate for head of state."

* Sometimes, primaries can be very effective in producing worthwhile results: "New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday that he was granting conditional pardons to every parolee in the state -- 35,000 -- to restore their voting rights."

* Tennessee: "The Republican-dominated House in Tennessee voted Tuesday to punish the city of Memphis for removing Confederate monuments by taking $250,000 away from the city that would have been used for a bicentennial celebration next year."

* Trump ended up confirming this in a tweet: "CIA Director Mike Pompeo made a top-secret visit to North Korea as an envoy for President Trump to meet with Kim Jong Un, and plans for a possible summit between the two leaders are underway, Trump confirmed Wednesday."

* How much longer can this guy hang onto his job? "Republican legislative leaders [in Missouri] joined together Tuesday to demand that Gov. Eric Greitens resign, with the state Senate president going one step further and saying that if he doesn't step down the governor should be immediately impeached."

* Mattis was probably right: "Defense Secretary Jim Mattis urged President Trump to get congressional approval before the United States launched airstrikes against Syria last week, but was overruled by Mr. Trump, who wanted a rapid and dramatic response, military and administration officials said."

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Image: U.S. President Trump listens to  Speaker Ryan as he gathers with Republican House members after healthcare bill vote at the White House in Washington

Paul Ryan picks a poor time to praise Trump's toughness on Russia

04/18/18 01:07PM

Toward the end of a Capitol Hill press conference yesterday, a reporter asked House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) a rather simple question. From the transcript:

Q: Do you think that the administration has been tough enough on Russia?

RYAN: Oh, yeah.... We have moved miles in the right direction on our Russia policy.... We have so improved our policy with respect to Russia, far more hawkish, far more realistic.

Perhaps the House Speaker hasn't been paying close enough attention to Donald Trump's latest moves on Russia.

Indeed, Ryan's timing could've been better. Shortly before he praised the administration's toughness on Russia, the president changed his mind -- and embarrassed U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley -- about imposing new sanctions on Russia over its support for the Assad regime in Syria and assuring officials in Moscow they had nothing to worry about. That's not what a hawkish, tough-on-Russia president would do.

This news came just days after we learned Trump threw a profanity-laced tantrum when he thought his administration's expulsion of Russian diplomats might make it look like we were being harsher toward Putin's government than Europe. That's not what a hawkish, tough-on-Russia president would do, either.

There was also a report today in the New York Times about Trump yelling angrily at his television when he recently saw Nikki Haley "criticizing Russia over its intervention in Ukraine." That's not what a hawkish, tough-on-Russia president would do, either.

All of this comes less than a month after Trump congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin in the wake of his sham election, despite being handed briefing materials that said, in all-capital letters, "DO NOT CONGRATULATE." That's also not what a hawkish, tough-on-Russia president would do.

There's a deeply strange conversation underway, in which Trump, Paul Ryan, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and their allies insist that this White House has been impressive in its "toughness" toward Moscow. "Nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have," the president recently said about himself.

And as part of that same conversation, we're confronted with voluminous evidence that points in the exact opposite direction.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.18.18

04/18/18 12:00PM

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

* With time running out in Arizona's congressional special election, Donald Trump has recorded a robocall for local voters complaining about Nancy Pelosi and warning that Democrats will put "illegal immigrants" -- and "their drugs" -- "right into your neighborhood, right into your backyard."

* Speaking of congressional special elections, what will happen when Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) steps down next month? It gets a little complicated in light of Pennsylvania's new congressional map.

* Citing new FEC filings, the Cook Political Report has updated its congressional ratings in seven U.S. House districts, and in each case, all seven were moved in the Democrats' direction.

* A new statewide poll in Mississippi shows a competitive race to fill former Sen. Thad Cochran's (R) seat, with appointed Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) and former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy (D) effectively tied with 33% each. Chris McDaniel, the right-wing firebrand, is further back with support around 13%.

* On a related note, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has taken an interest in the race, and has already invested in campaign ads in support of Hyde-Smith.

* I won't pretend to know about Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) future plans, but it's worth noting that he's hired Michael Needham, the chief executive of Heritage Action, as the senator's chief of staff. Needham has spent the last several years pushing Republicans to move the party even further to the right.

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Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., leaves the House Republican Conference meeting at the Capitol Hill Club on Nov. 3, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP)

GOP rep accused of using his office to boost his investments

04/18/18 11:21AM

You might remember Tom Price as the former HHS secretary who was forced to resign after using public funds for private chartered flights. But before that controversy ended his political career, Price was a Georgia Republican who was also controversial for his investments.

Price, regular readers may recall, invested in an Australian biomedical firm, Innate Immunotherapeutics, and then sponsored legislation that sent the company's sock higher, making his investment far more valuable.

But Price wasn't alone. Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), one of Donald Trump's key congressional allies, was an even bigger investor in Innate Immunotherapeutics -- indeed, the New York Republican sits on the company's board -- and Collins also took the lead on pushing legislation that benefited the company.

The Daily Beast moved the ball forward yesterday, reporting that Collins has sponsored "several bills" that would have benefited the company he's invested in, while also "trying to make changes to a government program that would save the company millions of dollars if its drug is approved by the FDA."

Collins's office says he doesn't believe his bills represent a conflict of interest, but he is already accused by independent Office of Congressional Ethics of violating House ethics rules and U.S. securities law for his dealings with the drug company.

The Daily Beast found at least four bills that Collins drafted or sponsored that would have directly affected the drug company, Innate Immunotherapeutics.

This comes six months after the New York Times, citing findings from the Office of Congressional Ethics, reported that Collins "may have violated federal law by sharing nonpublic information about a company on whose board he served," and "may have broken House ethics rules by meeting with the National Institutes of Health and asking for help with the design of a clinical trial being set up by the company."

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U.S. President Donald J. Trump speaks to the media during a meeting with congressional leadership in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, in Washington, D.C., November 28, 2017.

On trade, Trump brings an abrupt end to a plan he never understood

04/18/18 10:45AM

Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) failed presidential 2016 campaign was largely forgettable -- he quit a couple of days after a fifth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses -- but it featured one shining moment.

It came during a November 2015 debate, when Donald Trump was asked why he was so opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and he responded by rambling for a long while about China and currency manipulation. Eventually, Rand Paul interjected, "You know, we might want to point out China is not part of this deal" -- a detail Trump seemed completely unaware of.

It was the first real indication that Trump hated the TPP, despite not knowing what it was.

Nevertheless, after becoming president, the Republican formally ended the U.S. role in the partnership, prompting our former partners to move on without us. (In January 2017, Trump assured Americans he'd replace the TPP with a "beautiful" alternative. Fifteen months later, we've seen no such policy.)

Recently, however, the White House opened the door, at least a crack. In February, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that the president would "consider" re-engaging with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Last week, to the delight of rural-state senators, Trump went much further, instructing White House officials to examine rejoining the TPP that he'd already abandoned.

And why didn't I write about this at the time? Because I had a hunch this was going to happen.

After publicly flirting last week with having the United States rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership, President Trump appeared to rebuff the idea once and for all late Tuesday.

In a Twitter post at 10:49 p.m., Mr. Trump said that although Japan and South Korea would like the United States to join the 11 other nations in the multilateral trade agreement, he had no intention of doing so. The decision put an apparent end to a meandering trade policy in which Mr. Trump pulled out of the deal in his first week in office, before suggesting last week that he was having second thoughts.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow also downplayed the possibility, calling the idea of the United States rejoining the TPP more of a "thought than a policy."

The trouble is, that same phrase could be applied to practically every aspect of the White House agenda: Trump and his team are filled with thoughts, but they have few actual policies.

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U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) listens during a news conference on the terror attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi Feb. 14, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

Arizona Republicans try to play partisan games with McCain's Senate seat

04/18/18 10:00AM

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been ailing in recent months, and this past weekend, the senator's office issued a statement noting that he'd undergone an additional surgery to treat an intestinal infection related to diverticulitis. McCain was described as being in stable condition.

Those close to the senator are, of course, hoping for a speedy recovery that would allow him to return to Capitol Hill. In Arizona's Republican-controlled state legislature, however, there's an effort underway to change how members of Congress who give up their seats are replaced. The state Associated Press reported overnight:

U.S. Senate vacancies are filled by a governor's appointee, with the seat on the next general election ballot. The secretary of state has interpreted that to mean that if McCain's seat is vacated by May 31, it would be on the August primary and November general election ballot. The new proposal changes that to 150 days before the primary, or March 31 of this year. [...]

The Legislation was originally intended to lengthen the time required for a special election for a vacant U.S. House seat and was prompted by the scramble to replace Trent Franks, a longtime Congressman who stepped down in December amid sexual misconduct allegations.

In other words, someone in the state Senate wants to take McCain's seat out of play, should the senator no longer be able to serve, preventing voters from choosing a successor this year.

This isn't going to work. Steve Farley, a Democratic state senator, told the AP, "They're trying to make it really easy to appoint someone to two and a half years without an election to a U.S. Senate seat should the current holder of that Senate seat resign or no longer be able to hold office. The thing is, we're all going to vote against it as Democrats, so they won't get their emergency. It's silly for them to put it on and think we won't notice."

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Image: James Comey

Trump contradicts his own claims on James Comey's firing

04/18/18 09:20AM

NBC News reported last week that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation is focused on possible obstruction-of-justice allegations against Donald Trump, with investigators collecting information on four specific areas of interest. At the top of the list: the president's intent to fire former FBI Director James Comey.

It's against this backdrop that Trump decided to change his story a bit this morning, publishing this tweet:

"Slippery James Comey, the worst FBI Director in history, was not fired because of the phony Russia investigation where, by the way, there was NO COLLUSION (except by the Dems)!"

Some of this is obviously just garden-variety nonsense. There is, for example, all kinds of evidence of cooperation between Trump's political operation and Russia during Russia's 2016 attack on the American elections. There is also no evidence of collusion between Putin's government and Democrats -- the party Moscow took steps to defeat.

But what matters this morning is the American president's newfound belief that Comey's firing was unrelated to the Russia scandal. We know this claim isn't true -- because Donald Trump has already told us the opposite.

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Ethics be damned, Trump touts his private club in Florida

04/18/18 08:39AM

Yesterday morning, Donald Trump delivered some brief remarks alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ahead of a closed-door meeting. According to the White House's transcript, the American president began his remarks, "I just want to say that your representatives look right out of a movie. You're absolutely perfect. So I think that's very nice. I'm very impressed."

Trump's preoccupation with "central casting" is well-documented, but sometimes it goes in uncomfortable directions.

Yesterday afternoon, Trump and Abe spoke briefly to reporters from Mar-a-Lago, where the American president seemed eager to do a little infomercial for the venue he continues to profit from.

"Many of the world's great leaders request to come to Mar-a-Lago and Palm Beach. They like it; I like it. We're comfortable. We have great relationships. As you remember, we were here and President Xi of China was here. [...]

"It is, indeed, the Southern White House. And again, many, many people want to be here. Many of the leaders want to be here. They request specifically."

I'm skeptical that foreign leaders have specifically requested visits to the president's Florida club, but I'm not in a position to know for sure. It certainly seems like the sort of thing Trump would blurt out because he would like it to be true, but anything's possible.

What's more jarring is the fact that the president continues to use his office to promote a private resort that puts money in his own pocket.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, May 17, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

McConnell rejects bipartisan effort to protect Mueller from Trump

04/18/18 08:00AM

The more Donald Trump raises the prospect of firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the greater the need for congressional action to prevent a crisis. Fortunately for those who support the law and the judicial system, there are several pieces that are already coming together.

A bipartisan proposal to shield Mueller from presidential interference is already on the table in the Senate; it's poised for attention in the Senate Judiciary Committee next week; and there's a bipartisan House bill picking up co-sponsors in the lower chamber, too.

Everything appeared to be on track, right up until yesterday afternoon.

The effort to pass legislation to protect Robert Mueller's job as special counsel appeared to hit a dead end Tuesday as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would not allow the bill to come to the floor for a full Senate vote.

"I'm the one who decides what we take to the floor. That's my responsibility as majority leader. We'll not be having this on the floor of the Senate," the Kentucky Republican said in an interview on Fox News.

McConnell that he believes there's "no indication that Mueller's going to be fired" -- the GOP leader might have missed the president's public comments last week -- making the bipartisan bill "not necessary."

In fairness to McConnell, it's worth emphasizing that he hasn't called for Mueller's ouster. On the contrary, McConnell has said, more than once, that the special counsel should be allowed to continue his work. The Republican leader, with varying degrees of subtlety, has even warned Trump not to interfere with the ongoing investigation.

But McConnell isn't prepared to do anything to ensure Mueller is shielded from the White House. Even if there's bipartisan support to pass legislation, McConnell has decided to prevent the Senate from exercising its will.

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