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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 4.26.17

04/26/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* An important hire: "The flagging U.S. probes into the Trump administration's ties to the Kremlin are about to get an injection of fresh blood. Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats have tapped April Doss, a former NSA lawyer, to join the committee's investigation of Russia's intervention in the U.S. election."

* Don't assume that the House Freedom Caucus' support for new-and-not-improved Republican health care plan means it will pass. Some GOP lawmakers who were inclined to support their party's bill last month suddenly aren't so sure.

* Remember, Trump congratulated Erdogan on the demise of democracy in Turkey: "Turkey on Wednesday detained more than 1,000 people with suspected links to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and later temporarily suspended some 9,000 personnel from its police force in one of the largest operations in recent months against the movement that is blamed for last summer's failed military coup."

* The truth apparently needed a little touch-up: "President Donald Trump told aides to toughen a State Department letter last week that declared Iran in compliance with a landmark nuclear deal, senior U.S. officials involved in a policy review said."

* A stunning story out of Wisconsin: "Milwaukee County Jail staff cut off an inmate's access to water for seven days straight before he died of dehydration, and the man was too mentally unstable to ask for help as he slowly died, prosecutors said Monday at the beginning of an inquest."

* DOJ: "Rod Rosenstein was confirmed as the second-ranking official at the Justice Department on Tuesday, giving him the reins of the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election after Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recusal last month."

Criminal justice: "Justice Sonia Sotomayor says the Supreme Court is letting police off the hook too easily. In a surprising dissent backed only by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sotomayor wrote in detail about one of the biases in the legal system that may let cops get away with excessive use of force -- by slanting the system in favor of the police officer."
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Image: White House news conference with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Director Gary Cohn

Donald Trump's proposed tax cuts are a joke, not a 'plan'

04/26/17 04:38PM

There's plenty of coverage this afternoon about Donald Trump's new tax "plan," but I'd caution against using that word. The White House has unveiled a document, and plenty of colorful words come to mind when describing that document, but it's awfully generous to describe the piece of paper as a "plan."
[Treasury Secretary Steve] Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn laid out a "broad brush overview" of the plan to reporters, cautioning that they are still negotiating many of the details with members of Congress. [...]

The broad outline of the plan resembles many of the promises Trump made as a candidate.
That's true, although in a bizarre turn of events, the tax-related promises Trump made as a candidate were arguably more substantive than the document the White House presented today. The Trump campaign produced a three-and-a-half-page document before Election Day, offering vague and unhelpful information about what the Republican would do on this issue if elected, but today's "plan" is even thinner.

In fact, the document the White House released to reporters today is literally one sheet of paper, with roughly 500 words of text, printed on one side. For comparison purposes, note that the blog post you're reading right now is longer than the president's approach to tax policy.

No, seriously. The officials responsible for running the executive branch of a global superpower have had plenty of time to craft a half-way credible proposal, and they instead presented some bullet points that read like a wish-list from a president who can't be bothered to think about policy details.
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Image: Paul Ryan

Republicans move forward on far-right health care overhaul

04/26/17 12:55PM

After the Republicans' American Health Care Act died last month, unable to garner enough support from within the GOP, there have been frequent reports about efforts to breathe new life into the far-right plan. By and large, the scuttlebutt was easy to overlook.

The latest developments, however, seem different and deserve to be taken seriously.

There's new legislative language that amends the original Republican proposal, and the House Freedom Caucus is now on board with this new version -- after having opposed their party's bill in March. Conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, which also balked at the AHCA during the fight last month, have said the new changes are sufficiently right-wing to earn the organizations' support.

All of which leads us to two broad areas of interest: how bad is this bill and can it pass.

On the former, the core of the original legislation -- taking coverage from tens of millions of Americans, slashing Medicaid, cutting taxes for the wealthy, directing subsidies away from those who need them most -- remains intact. What's new is an amendment, negotiated in part by Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), which moves the bill even further to the right. Vox's report noted that the changes "would likely cause even more Americans to lose coverage than the last version."
In particular, this amendment would allow some states to charge higher premiums to Americans with pre-existing conditions. States would also have the choice to opt out of the Affordable Care Act's essential health benefits requirement, as well as the possibility of charging older Americans significantly higher premiums. [...]

But this amendment doesn't do much at all to assuage concerns about the older proposals. While it meets many of the demands of the party's far-right wing -- namely, the deregulation of the individual insurance market -- it does nothing to address concerns about massive coverage loss. Instead, it likely makes those problems worse.
Vox also reported on language in the amendment that would exempt members of Congress from changes Republicans intend to impose on the public at large. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, initially denied such language was in the bill, though by late this morning, he said he's confident the exemption will be removed from the bill.

So, the new Republican plan is pretty much a disaster for everyone other than those who are healthy and wealthy. Will House Republicans actually pass this thing?
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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.26.17

04/26/17 12:00PM

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

* The House Republican leadership's super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, is reportedly "set to spend another $3.5 million" in Georgia's congressional special election. Karen Handel (R) will face off against Jon Ossoff (D) in a runoff schedule for June 20.

* Speaking of special elections, there's a lower-profile race in California's 34th district -- two Democrats are facing off in a race to replace Xavier Becerra -- and yesterday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi threw her support behind Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, who's widely seen as the favorite.

* Also in California yesterday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R) picked up his first challenger, with Andrew Janz (D), a young violent-crimes prosecutor, kicking off his first-ever campaign for elected office.

* Despite rumored pressure from GOP officials, Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) said yesterday he won't run for state attorney general in his home state of New York next year.

* Though Colorado's gubernatorial race is still coming together, on the Republican side, there's a very real possibility that Mitt Romney's nephew and George W. Bush's cousin may vie for the GOP nomination.
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Image: President Trump talks to journalists at the Oval Office of the White House after the AHCA health care bill was pulled before a vote, accompanied by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Price and Vice President Pence, in Washington

Team Trump puts on a clinic on how not to negotiate

04/26/17 11:20AM

In just two days, funding for the federal government will expire, at which point we'd see the first-ever shutdown in which one party controls Congress and the White House.

As things stand, however, this outcome appears highly unlikely. Congressional leaders unveiled a spending measure late yesterday that ignored Donald Trump's demands for taxpayer money for a border wall, and as TPM noted, the White House is now prepared to accept it.
Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, on Tuesday night said that President Donald Trump was willing to sign a temporary funding measure that did not include money to build a border wall.

During an interview on CNN, host Jake Tapper noted to Mulvaney that Republicans have proposed a funding measure without money for the wall and asked if Trump would be willing to sign that. Mulvaney replied that he was.
Remember, just five days ago, Mulvaney was saying the opposite. Speaking on behalf of Trump's White House, the far-right budget director insisted that "elections have consequences" and "we want wall funding" as part of the spending bill.

Democrats said no and Team Trump surrendered.

And while that's good news for those who hoped to see the government's lights stay on, let's not brush past the fact that we've learned something important about the president: Donald J. Trump is extraordinarily bad at negotiations.
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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

Trump has 99 problems, but Democratic obstruction isn't one of them

04/26/17 10:47AM

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" the other day and complained bitterly about congressional Democrats standing in the way of Donald Trump's qualified nominees for administrative posts.

"We're behind," Priebus said about filling key executive-branch posts, "but because of historical unbelievable obstruction from U.S. senators that are acting inappropriately."

That's certainly how Donald Trump sees this dynamic. After initially saying he was leaving many key offices empty on purpose, Trump recently reversed course, saying he wants those posts filled but can't because of "obstructionists."

Reality tells a different story. The Senate, which is responsible for confirming nominees, is run by Trump's Republican Party, and under existing rules, Democrats can't use filibusters to block any executive-branch nominee.

So if Dems aren't to blame, who is? The Washington Post makes clear that Team Trump should be looking in the mirror.
President Trump's Cabinet secretaries are growing exasperated at how slowly the White House is moving to fill hundreds of top-tier posts, warning that the vacancies are hobbling efforts to oversee agency operations and promote the president's agenda, according to administration officials, lawmakers and lobbyists.

The Senate has confirmed 26 of Trump's picks for his Cabinet and other top posts. But for 530 other vacant senior-level jobs requiring Senate confirmation, the president has advanced just 37 nominees, according to data tracked by The Washington Post and the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service's Center for Presidential Transition. These posts include the deputy secretaries and undersecretaries, chief financial officers, ambassadors, general counsels, and heads of smaller agencies who run the government day-to-day.
The Post's piece added that prospective nominees are often slowed because they "must win approval from competing camps inside the White House," and president's daughter, Ivanka Trump, sometimes has a say "when a hiring decision piques her interest."
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Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT., talks to reporters as he walks to the weekly Senate policy luncheons in the U.S. Capitol on June 4, 2013.

Orrin Hatch inadvertently helps end the debate over the deficit

04/26/17 10:09AM

The White House will release some details today about Donald Trump's new tax plan, but administration officials have already acknowledged the fact that the costs of the policy won't be offset with spending cuts, and Team Trump doesn't much care about the impact on the deficit.

It's likely Republicans on Capitol Hill will adopt a similar attitude. The New York Times reported late yesterday that "the powerful chairman of the Senate finance committee said Tuesday he was prepared to support President Trump's plan to cut corporate tax rates to 15 percent even if it added to the budget deficit."
Senator Orrin G. Hatch, the Republican finance committee chairman, is a critical voice on tax issues in Congress and support from him could make the difference in whether members of Congress fall in line and support the president's proposal. [...]

"I'm open to getting this country moving," Mr. Hatch said. He said that if the tax cut could stimulate the economy, then he was not as bothered by the impact it had on budget deficits. "I'm not so sure we have to go that route, but if we do, I can live with it," Mr. Hatch said.
Well, yes, of course he can -- because Republican concerns about the deficit are, and have always been, a sham.

In fact, Orrin Hatch offers a terrific case study on the matter. In the Bush/Cheney era, the Utah Republican voted for all kinds of Republican priorities -- wars, tax cuts, Medicare expansion, etc. -- by adding the costs to the national charge card. In 2009, Hatch told the Associated Press that "it was standard practice not to pay for things" during Bush's presidency.

A year later, the GOP senator told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell "a lot of things weren't paid for" before President Obama took office.
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In this March 10, 2016 photo, Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General, gestures as he speaks during an interview in Oklahoma City, Okla. (Photo by Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Trump's EPA chief keeps finding himself in hot water

04/26/17 09:20AM

The principal problem with Scott Pruitt leading the Environmental Protection Agency is that he appears to be overtly hostile, not only to environmental protections in general, but to the work of the agency he leads in specific.

But while Pruitt's work as the EPA chief is itself controversial, there are several other controversies swirling around Pruitt directly that, in a normal administration, might very well put the Oklahoma Republican's career in jeopardy.

We've learned recently, for example, that Pruitt used private email to conduct official business, though he gave sworn congressional testimony in which he said the opposite. Pruitt is also accused of illegally hiding correspondence that documented his cooperation with the oil and gas industries during his tenure as Oklahoma's attorney general. As if this weren't enough, there's also evidence pointing to Pruitt's role in a botched execution in Oklahoma.

And yesterday, yet another controversy emerged regarding the EPA administrator's work.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt is violating a federal anti-campaigning law with an upcoming Republican fundraiser, a Senate Democrat says.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) sent a letter Tuesday to Carolyn Lerner, the head of the Office of Special Counsel, seeking an investigation into Pruitt's plan to be the keynote speaker an Oklahoma Republican Party gala next week.
This doesn't look great for the far-right EPA chief.
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Image: Trump Attends the National Governors Association Meeting

Laughable White House claim: Trump has 'rebuilt' US global standing

04/26/17 08:43AM

With Donald Trump and his team struggling to spin the president's 100th day in office, it makes sense for the White House to point to vague accomplishments that are inherently subjective. Trump likes to point, for example, to the nation's improved "spirit" in the wake of his inauguration, which may seem silly, but it's a claim that's difficult to disprove because there's nothing specific or quantifiable to examine.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer rolled out a related pitch at yesterday's briefing:
"The world is responding to the leadership that the president is bringing under this -- bringing to Washington. In all, during his first 100 days, the president has made 68 calls with 38 different world leaders, and hosted a total of 16 bilateral meetings. The president has rebuilt America's standing in the world."
The number of phone calls may be accurate -- although with this White House, one shouldn't make too many assumptions -- but chatting with world leaders doesn't exactly offer evidence of leadership. Trump, after all, spoke with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull by phone soon after taking office, and that was a disaster.

But I'm fascinated by the White House's broader, vaguer belief that Trump has "rebuilt America's standing in the world." At least for now, that's tough to prove or disprove by any quantifiable metrics, but it's still pretty easy to laugh at Spicer's latest boast.
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