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Claudia Tenney, R-New Hartford, speaks during a news conference in Albany, NY on Wednesday, June 10, 2015.

GOP rep blames Ben Carson's furniture on nefarious 'Deep State'

03/22/18 10:01AM

Asked at a congressional hearing this week about his unreasonably expensive, taxpayer-funded furniture, HUD Secretary Ben Carson distanced himself from the decision -- and blamed his wife.

As the Daily Beast  reported yesterday, one of the cabinet secretary's supporters on Capitol Hill has an entirely different culprit in mind.

Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-NY) appeared to blame the nefarious "Deep State" for ordering a costly dining set for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson.

During a recent appearance on Talk! Of the Town, an upstate New York local radio show, the New York Republican was asked about the decision to buy a $31,000 dining room set for Carson's office last year. Tenney told the hosts that the "Ben Carson story is so misunderstood" before pointing to a no-named staffer of cryptic origin as the culprit.

After referencing a conversation with a HUD staffer, the GOP lawmaker specifically said, "Somebody in the Deep State -- it was not one of his people, apparently -- ordered a table, like a conference room table or whatever it was for a room."

There are basically three angles to this to keep in mind. First, Tenney, after just a year on Capitol Hill, is quickly developing a reputation as one of Congress' most outlandish members. A month ago, she was the lawmaker who thought it'd be a good idea to argue many mass murders "end up being Democrats." Two weeks earlier, Tenney argued that Democratic reactions to Donald Trump's State of the Union address were "un-American," adding, "And they don't love our country."

This is not the path an elected official follows if he or she wants to earn respect and credibility.

Second, in this case, Tenney is factually wrong. Nefarious forces didn't buy Carson's furniture; there's email evidence that the secretary and his wife did.

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A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Ga., Sept. 30, 2014. (Photo by Tami Chappell/Reuters)

Trump replaces one controversial CDC chief with another

03/22/18 09:20AM

Things didn't go well for Donald Trump's first choice to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald was ousted in January following a handful of embarrassing controversies, including reports that she bought shares in a tobacco company -- after she became CDC director.

Yesterday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced her successor: Dr. Robert Redfield, a prominent AIDS researcher, is the new head of the CDC. At first blush, Redfield at least has the kind of background one might expect for this position -- he's a longtime virologist and physician -- and unlike so many other Trump appointees, Redfield wants the agency he'll lead to exist.

But this choice is not without critics. NBC News reported that Redfield has been accused of overseeing "shoddy HIV research." Former Air Force Lt. Col. Craig Hendrix, a doctor who is now director of the division of clinical pharmacology at Johns Hopkins, worked with Redfield at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and told NBC, "Either he was egregiously sloppy with data or it was fabricated. It was somewhere on that spectrum, both of which were serious and raised questions about his trustworthiness."

BuzzFeed's report went a little further.

Redfield has also been criticized for his discriminatory views on HIV testing. During the 1980s, while serving as chief Army AIDS researcher, Redfield was instrumental in implementing controversial HIV testing policies -- including a mandatory HIV screening program at the Department of Defense that barred recruits who tested positive for HIV from military service. He later supported segregating HIV-positive members of the military, a practice that the Department of Defense Inspector General later found violated Army regulations.

"This pattern of ethically and morally questionable behavior leads me to seriously question whether Dr. Redfield is qualified to be the federal government's chief advocate and spokesperson for public health," [Democratic Sen. Patty Murray] said.

In fairness, the concerns are not universal. The Washington Post  reported that Maryland Democrats praised Redfield's selection. Rep. Elijah Cummings called him a "deeply experienced and compassionate public health physician." And former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who sits on the virology institute's advisory board, said, "It's terrific to have someone who has been such a caring doctor, who has really treated patients and knows what they're going through."

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A waitress looks out the window of a diner in Fort Lee, N.J. (Photo by Kelly Shimoda/Redux)

Why would the Trump administration go after workers' tips?

03/22/18 08:40AM

The idea is called "tip pooling," which may sound harmless, but the Trump administration's approach to the policy would be dangerous for millions of working-class Americans.

Last year, the Trump administration unveiled a proposal to undo Obama-era safeguards, which required employers who pooled tips and gratuities to distribute them back to waitstaff. Under the new plan, employers could "use workers' tips for essentially any purpose, as long as the workers were directly paid at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour."

Among the possible outcomes: employers could legally put some of the pooled tips in their own pocket. The Economic Policy Institute estimated that workers would stand to lose roughly $5.8 billion a year.

And as it turns out, the Republican administration came to a similar conclusion. Trump's Department of Labor prepared a study on the possible consequences of the plan, and researchers found significant losses for workers. According to a Bloomberg Law report last month, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and his team were "uncomfortable" with the findings, so they "removed" the data they didn't like.

Yesterday, the story got a little worse.

Labor Department leadership convinced OMB Director Mick Mulvaney to overrule the White House regulatory affairs chief and release a controversial tip-sharing rule without data showing it could allow businesses to skim $640 million in gratuities.

Mulvaney sided with Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta over the government's rulemaking clearinghouse -- a little-known but critical wing of the White House called the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs -- three current and former executive branch officials told Bloomberg Law. That allowed the department to delete from the proposal internal estimates showing businesses could take hundreds of millions in gratuities from their workers.

So to review, Team Trump unveiled a plan to screw over waitstaff workers. The administration then did a study, didn't like the results, and edited the report to take out the embarrassing parts. Those officials then went to the White House's far-right budget director, who endorsed hiding the data on the administration's plan.

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FBI authorized perjury investigation into AG Jeff Sessions

03/22/18 08:00AM

As a rule, we tend to think of U.S. attorneys general investigating those accused of possible felonies, not being investigated for committing possible felonies. But as we were reminded yesterday, Jeff Sessions is a special kind of attorney general.

Andrew McCabe, as the FBI's deputy director, authorized an investigation into whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied to Congress, three sources familiar with the matter told NBC News.

The investigation ended without criminal charges, according to Sessions's lawyer, and was not known to Sessions last week when he made the decision to fire McCabe, according to a Justice Department official.

ABC News was first to report that McCabe and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told lawmakers about the probe in a closed-door meeting last year. The inquiry eventually went to special counsel Robert Mueller, who was appointed to investigate possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

In case anyone needs a refresher, we learned a year ago this month that during the 2016 campaign, Sessions, then an Alabama Republican senator, had meetings with Russian officials -- for reasons that have never been altogether clear -- which he failed to disclose during his Senate confirmation hearings.

As we discussed the other day, Sessions was specifically asked during sworn testimony about possible evidence tying members of Trump's campaign team to the Russian government during Russia's election attack. "I'm not aware of any of those activities," Sessions said, adding "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians."

Sessions did, however, have communications with the Russians. Some Democratic senators urged the FBI to take a closer look, and we now know federal law enforcement did exactly that.

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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 3.21.18

03/21/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Austin: "'Exotic' batteries ordered online helped lead authorities to the Austin, Texas, bombing suspect before he died early Wednesday as police closed in, multiple senior law enforcement officials told NBC News."

* Related news: "Investigators piecing together a portrait of the suspected Austin, Texas, serial bomber -- who brought a manhunt to an end early Wednesday after he blew himself up -- may find some clues in a 2012 blog."

* The Fed: "The Federal Reserve voted Wednesday to raise interest rates by one-quarter of a percentage point, in the central bank's first policy meeting led by its new chairman, Jerome 'Jay' Powell."

* After nearly a year in which Donald Trump never mentioned Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the president has now gone after Mueller's probe for a third time.

* Presidents aren't supposed to do stuff like this: "President Trump on Wednesday criticized his own Justice Department for not urging the Supreme Court to get involved in a fight over whether Arizona can deny driver's licenses to the young undocumented immigrants known as 'dreamers.'"

* That was quick: "A federal judge is temporarily blocking a new Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks, the most restrictive abortion law in the United States."

* In related news: "Idaho will become the latest conservative state to require women seeking abortions to be informed that the drug-induced procedures can be halted halfway, despite opposition from medical groups that say there is little evidence to support that claim."

* Not too surprising: "A New York judge dismissed former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page's defamation suit against Yahoo News' parent company Tuesday."

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U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks during his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept.22, 2016. (Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Paul Ryan bolsters Democratic concerns with focus on entitlements

03/21/18 12:52PM

It's only been a few months since Republicans approved a massive package of regressive tax breaks, but so far, Democratic predictions about the GOP policy are holding up pretty well.

Democrats said, for example, that the corporate beneficiaries of the tax breaks would use their windfalls on priorities such as stock buybacks, which is what's happening. Dems said the Republican plan included all kinds of sloppy and consequential errors that would need fixes, which is also happening.

And Democrats said that once the tax cuts blow a massive hole in the budget, Republicans will use the mess they created to justify cuts to social-insurance programs that millions of families rely on. And wouldn't you know it, a Bloomberg Politics reporter highlighted this quote yesterday from House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.):

Paul Ryan reiterates his call for cutting "entitlements," saying that's the "name of the game on debt and deficits."

"We're just going to have to keep at it," he says.

Now, we're not.

The idea that the Wisconsin congressman actually cares about "debt and deficits" is obviously hard to take seriously. In the Bush/Cheney era, Ryan voted with his party in support of both of George W. Bush's tax cuts, both of George W. Bush's wars in the Middle East, Medicare Part D, and the Wall Street bailout -- none of which Republicans even tried to pay for.

More recently -- which is to say, a few months ago -- Ryan helped champion a GOP tax plan that adds $1 trillion to the deficit over the next decade.

With this in mind, no one should be fooled into thinking the House Speaker is genuinely committed to tackling "debt and deficits." Ryan's record obviously points in the opposite direction.

But what I'm especially interested in is the degree to which the Republican leader's rhetoric bolsters Democratic predictions.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.21.18

03/21/18 12:00PM

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

* Primary Day proved to be quite interesting in Illinois, where Rep. Dan Lapinski (D-Ill.) apparently won a very competitive race; Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) narrowly survived his primary; J.B. Pritzker (D) earned the opportunity to take Rauner on; and a neo-Nazi won an uncontested Republican congressional primary.

* Still upset that their gerrymandering plan was rejected, a dozen Pennsylvania Republicans yesterday introduced a measure yesterday to impeach four members of the state Supreme Court.

* What may be today's most notable campaign-related tidbit is the Public Policy Polling survey in Tennessee, where former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) leads Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) in their U.S. Senate race, 46% to 41%, at least in this poll. The seat is currently held by Sen. Bob Corker (R), who's retiring.

* Speaking of competitive Senate races, Public Policy Polling also found Sen. Dean Heller (R) trailing Rep. Jacky Rosen (D), 44% to 39%. Heller, of course, is the only GOP incumbent senator running in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

* The Koch-backed Americans For Prosperity (AFP) is making another six-figure ad buy, this time targeting Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a moderate North Dakota Democrat, who's up for re-election this year.

* As Cambridge Analytica is embroiled in scandal, its former clients are starting to face new scrutiny. In North Carolina, the News & Observer  reports today on the state GOP and Sen. Thom Tillis paying the controversial data firm $345,000 in the 2014 election cycle.

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Trump can't stop blindsiding his own team (and he doesn't want to try)

03/21/18 11:20AM

Last week, Donald Trump called Larry Kudlow to offer him the job of leading the White House National Economic Council. But during the call, the president apparently took pleasure in the fact that his own team had no idea he was extending the offer.

Kudlow told the Wall Street Journal that the president said on the call, "No one else knows that you and I are having this conversation."

According to the Washington Post, the same thing happened when Trump brought on Joe diGenova, a television pundit and far-right conspiracy theorist, to serve on his legal defense team.

The hiring caught many of his advisers by surprise, prompting fears that Trump is preparing for bigger changes to his legal team -- including possible departures -- as he goes on the offensive in the primary legal challenges facing him.

Trump is not consulting with top advisers, including Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and chief White House lawyer Donald McGahn, on his Russia legal choices or his comments about the probe, according to one person with knowledge of his actions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive conversations. He is instead watching television and calling friends, this person said.

"He is instead watching television" might as well be the name of the PBS documentary series on Trump's presidency.

But even putting that aside, I remain fascinated by the number of instances in which Trump blindsides his White House team. Before the president took office, the conventional wisdom was that Trump, a confused amateur with no relevant experience, knowledge, curiosity, or familiarity with the most basic details of government, would rely heavily on his staff, since left to his own devices, the president would obviously have no idea what he's doing.

Those assumptions have fallen short. Trump now seems to enjoy winging it, making major decisions without consulting anyone in the White House, reveling in the chaos.

When he declared in his Republican convention speech that he "alone" can fix what ails the nation, Trump apparently wasn't kidding.

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Image: President Trump announces steep tarrifs on imported steel and aluminum

Does Trump understand what an 'arms race' is?

03/21/18 10:40AM

Donald Trump spoke briefly with the press yesterday from the Oval Office, sitting alongside Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, but managed to cover some interesting ground. The American president made headlines, for example, by announcing he'd called to congratulate Russia's Vladimir Putin on his recent election.

But there was something else about Trump's unscripted comments that stood out for me as, well, a little confusing. From the official White House transcript:

"I had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory -- his electoral victory. The call had to do, also, with the fact that we will probably get together in the not-too-distant future so that we can discuss arms, we can discuss the arms race. As you know, he made a statement that being in an arms race is not a great thing. That was right after the election -- one of the first statements he made.

"And we are spending $700 billion this year on our military, and a lot of it is that we are going to remain stronger than any other nation in the world by far.

"We had a very good call, and I suspect that we'll probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control, but we will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have."

To know anything about Trump's rhetorical style is to understand that the president often likes to use phrases he doesn't fully understand. I'm convinced, for example, that he has no idea what a "witch hunt" is. The president also talks about "clean coal," without knowing what that means. I don't think he knows what a "blind trust" is, either.

And now it's probably worth taking a closer look at what an "arms race" is -- or at least what Trump thinks it is.

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Bacardi Presents Playboy's Super Saturday Night Party

One day, one president, and three women Trump would like to silence

03/21/18 10:00AM

The confluence of developments yesterday involving women who claim to have had affairs with or been sexually harassed by Donald Trump was rather extraordinary.

First, of course, there's Stormy Daniels, the adult-film actress who received $130,000 in hush money from Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, shortly before the 2016 presidential election. Soon after the president's lawyer insisted that the pre-election payoff had nothing to do with the election, NBC News reported that Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, passed a lie-detector test.

Second, there's Summer Zervos, a former contestant on Trump's reality show, who alleges he made unwanted sexual advances toward her back in 2007. She's now suing the president, and despite Trump's lawyers' efforts, a New York judge ruled yesterday that the case can go forward. Though the decision will be appealed, the possible discovery process in this case offers untold possibilities.

And then there's Karen McDougal. A few days before the 2016 election, the Wall Street Journal  reported the company that owns the National Enquirer paid the former Playboy centerfold $150,000 for the exclusive rights to her story about her alleged affair with Trump. The tabloid then chose not to publish it.

And as the New York Times  reported yesterday, she, too, is suing in the hopes of being able to tell the public about her experiences. Her lawsuit is targeting the National Enquirer's parent company,

Ms. McDougal, in a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, claims that [Michael Cohen, Trump's personal attorney] was secretly involved in her talks with the tabloid company, American Media Inc., and that A.M.I. and her lawyer at the time misled her about the deal. She also asserts that after she spoke last month with The New Yorker, which obtained notes she kept on Mr. Trump, A.M.I. warned that "any further disclosures would breach Karen's contract" and "cause considerable monetary damages."

Note, that New Yorker piece, written by Ronan Farrow, explained last month, "[McDougal's] account provides a detailed look at how Trump and his allies used clandestine hotel-room meetings, payoffs, and complex legal agreements to keep affairs -- sometimes multiple affairs he carried out simultaneously -- out of the press."

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