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Image: Trump Designates North Korea as State Sponsor of Terror During Cabinet Meeting

Trump balks at his Secretary of State's foreign policy (again)

12/14/17 10:00AM

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke at the Atlantic Council earlier this week, and was expected to address the administration's foreign-policy challenges in a general sense. Instead, Donald Trump's chief diplomat made some news.

Asked about diplomatic prospects with North Korea, Tillerson replied, "We're ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk, and we're ready to have the first meeting without precondition."

As the New York Times  reported, it wasn't long before the White House rejected Tillerson's line.

The secretary's comments were remarkably conciliatory for an administration that has repeatedly threatened North Korea with military action, and ruled out any negotiations, if it did not curb its missile and nuclear programs. But a few hours later, the White House distanced itself from his overture.

In an unusual statement released to reporters on Tuesday evening, the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said Mr. Trump's position on North Korea had not changed -- namely, that talks were pointless if the North's leader, Kim Jong-un, continued to menace his neighbors.

This might be less embarrassing if it weren't so common. In October, after Tillerson spoke about diplomatic efforts with North Korea, Trump announced that his cabinet secretary is "wasting his time."

In August, Tillerson seemed eager to ease tensions with Pyongyang, stating publicly, "We're trying to convey to the North Koreans, we are not your enemy.... We would like to sit and have a dialogue with them about the future that will give them the security they seek and the future economic prosperity for North Korea." Almost immediately thereafter, Trump declared via Twitter, "The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!"

It was around this time that Rachel noted on the show that the State Department and the White House don't even agree on what North Korea would have to do in order for the administration to consider negotiations.

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is seen as the sun sets on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Trump's bizarre choice to oversee chemical safety laws withdraws

12/14/17 09:20AM

If we held a contest to find the most offensive Donald Trump nominee for any post, Michael Dourson would be a very strong contender.

The Republican president decided over the summer that Dourson should lead the Environmental Protection Agency's office of chemical safety, which was outlandish, even by Trump World standards. Dourson has spent much of his career not only accepting money from the chemical industry, but also helping chemical companies fight against chemical safety regulations.

Making matters worse, emails recently came to public light showing Dourson maintaining correspondence with chemical industry officials -- even after Trump nominated him for the EPA post in which he'd help oversee toxic chemical regulation. Released emails detailed "an unusually close relationship with the American Chemistry Council and with individual companies whose products are scheduled for priority review" by the EPA.

Yesterday, as the New York Times  reported, Dourson withdrew from consideration, ending this fiasco.

[I]n recent weeks, two Republican senators came forward to say they would not support him.

Senator Thomas R. Carper, Democrat of Delaware and a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, had pushed his colleagues to reject Mr. Dourson. He said Wednesday that his objections were not partisan.

"I sincerely believe he is the wrong person to hold this important position, and it's become clear that, even with a Republican majority in the Senate, he could not be confirmed," Mr. Carper said in a statement. "Dr. Dourson, an individual who has spent most of his career promoting less protective chemical safety standards, had no business overseeing our nation's chemical safety laws."

The two GOP opponents of Dourson's nomination were Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, both of North Carolina.

These developments appear to be a victory for common sense, but I'm left with a couple of questions. For example, if Burr and Tillis hadn't balked, exactly how many Senate Republicans were prepared to confirm Dourson for this EPA post?

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The rare rejection of two outrageous Trump judicial nominees

12/14/17 08:40AM

Earlier this year, Donald Trump nominated Brett Talley for a lifetime position on the federal bench, despite the fact that he's a 36-year-old lawyer who’s never tried a case or argued a motion in court. He's also expressed “a fervent interest in investigating and writing about paranormal activities.”

Around the same time, the president also nominated Jeff Mateer for the federal judiciary, despite his bizarre contempt for LGBT Americans, including his belief that transgender children are evidence of “Satan’s plan.”

As of yesterday, as the Washington Post  reported, neither of these judicial nominees will proceed.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s top Republican said Wednesday that two of President Trump’s nominees for open seats on the federal bench will not be confirmed, just a day after urging the White House to “reconsider” them.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said that based on his discussions with the White House, the nominations of Jeff Mateer and Brett Talley would not move forward through the confirmation process.

Throughout Trump's first year as president, progressives and their allies have looked for ways to derail his most outlandish judicial nominees, which makes yesterday's news so extraordinary: we discovered that there are some limits. Republicans are prepared to rubber stamp practically anyone the White House sends to Capitol Hill for confirmation, but not literally anyone.

And while that's reassuring for those who take the integrity of the federal courts seriously, I think it's a mistake to suggest the controversy surrounding the Talley and Mateer nominations should simply disappear.

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

Behind closed doors, Republicans add a new tax break for the rich

12/14/17 08:00AM

Donald Trump and his team insisted that any Republican tax plan lower the corporate rate from 35% to 20%. The president declared publicly that the 20% rate was "very much a red line" he would not cross. Trump's Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, added soon after, "The president's number one issue that is not negotiable is 20% corporate taxes."

GOP lawmakers have reportedly agreed to cross Trump's "red line," though the White House won't mind -- because the president will approve of where the money's going.

Republicans in the House and Senate have reached an agreement in principle on their sweeping tax package that will slash individual and corporate rates, White House and GOP sources said Wednesday.

Once the details are ironed out, Republicans hope to have a vote in the Senate first, then the House, with the legislation done in Congress by next Wednesday, a White House official said. It can then be sent to President Donald Trump for his signature.

Two Republican sources familiar with the outlines of the deal confirmed to NBC News that the corporate tax rate would be cut to 21 percent, while the top tax rate for individuals would drop to 37 percent from 39.6 percent.

At face value, this is a difficult move to defend. The Republican tax plan is already wildly unpopular with the American mainstream in large part because the public believes -- accurately -- that the plan is stacked to favor the wealthy. In response, GOP officials met behind closed doors and agreed to ... wait for it ... cut taxes for the wealthy even more.

All of this also belies the White House's assurances that the Republican blueprint isn't a giant giveaway to the richest Americans. That rhetoric was absurd before the revised version of the GOP plan, and it's even more ridiculous now.

But just below the surface, the politics of this get even messier.

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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 12.13.17

12/13/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* I'll have more on this tomorrow: "Republicans in the House and Senate have reached an agreement in principle on their sweeping tax package that will slash individual and corporate rates, White House and GOP sources said Wednesday."

* It's almost as if Republicans are trying to get Trump to fire Mueller: "Republicans in Congress redoubled their attacks on the integrity of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation Wednesday, in what analysts believe is a concerted political strategy designed to discredit any potential Mueller findings that could argue for the impeachment of the president."

* The latest failed con: "Here's a new way to fight back attempts to spread fake news: file a police report. That's what Senator Chuck Schumer's staff did on Tuesday in reporting to the Capitol Police the existence of a fraudulent document that described false allegations against the New York Democrat."

* The Federal Reserve "raised interest rates by one-quarter of a point on Wednesday, in a widely expected move that signifies the central bank's confidence that the economy is continuing to strengthen."

* Only two days remain: "Over 1 million people chose insurance through the federal health care exchange last week as open enrollment approaches its Dec. 15 deadline. But the total number is likely to fall short of last year, which featured both a longer enrollment period and a far more robust outreach campaign from the White House."

* Signing statement: "President Trump signed a $700 billion defense policy bill Tuesday, saying the United States military "has got to be perfecto." But less than three hours later, he pointed out the bill's imperfections in a signing statement. Among them: A variety of provisions lawmakers included to force a more aggressive U.S. policy toward Russia."

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Image: A statue of the United States first President, George Washington, is seen under the Capitol dome in Washington

Following Alabama race, Dems push for a delay on the GOP tax plan

12/13/17 12:57PM

As dramatic as the results out of Alabama last night were, the immediate practical impact is limited. Republicans are wrapping up their work on tax breaks for the wealthy, and the GOP majority still intends to pass their unpopular bill before Sen.-elect Doug Jones (D) takes office.

As a procedural matter, the calendar appears to favor Republicans: by the time officials in Alabama certify Jones' victory, the GOP majority in Congress expects to be finished with the entire initiative.

The Washington Post, among others, reported this morning that Democratic leaders are arguing, with no small amount of desperation, to allow Jones to be seated before moving forward on the legislation.

Senior Republican aides said Wednesday morning that they did not expect Jones's election to slow down the tax push, citing a Christmas deadline for action that had been set months in advance.

Democrats are trying to upend that timeline, pointing to their party's decision to slow down controversial health-care legislation in 2010 — after a Republican, Scott Brown, won a special election to fill a Senate seat in liberal Massachusetts.

"It would be wrong for Senate Republicans to jam though this tax bill" without allowing Jones to vote, Schumer said. "That's exactly what Republicans argued when Scott Brown was elected in 2010.... What's good for the goose is good for the gander, and what's good for the gander is good for the goose."

For those who don't remember the details of what transpired in 2010, let's take a brief stroll down memory lane.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.13.17

12/13/17 12:00PM

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

* As of now, Roy Moore still hasn't conceded Alabama's Senate special election, and the right-wing candidate apparently thinks he still might win by way of a recount. This probably won't work out well for him.

* Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) is appointing Lt. Gov. Tina Smith (D) to replace Sen. Al Franken (D), and in a notable twist, Smith won't just be a placeholder -- she reportedly intends to run again next November. Whether Smith will face primary rivals is unclear.

* On a related note, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the vice chair of the DNC, has decided not to run for the Senate seat in Minnesota next year.

* The new national Quinnipiac poll, released yesterday, showed Donald Trump with an approval rating of 37%.

* An interesting tidbit out of Texas: for the first time in 25 years, there will be a Democratic candidate running in literally every congressional district in the Lone Star State.

* As Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) gets ready to wrap up his tenure, state Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) is eager to replace him. In an interview with the Nevada Independent's Jon Ralston, however, the incumbent governor seemed to have some concerns about his would-be GOP successor.

* In Illinois' gubernatorial race, the Democratic establishment appears to be closing ranks behind billionaire venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker: he picked up endorsements this week from Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).

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Image: White House aide Omarosa Manigault speaks during a panel discussion at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in New Orleans

Reality-show personality to leave White House post

12/13/17 11:20AM

It was never entirely clear why Omarosa Manigault, a former reality-show personality, had a job in Donald Trump's White House. A Washington Post  piece in March described her as "the highest-ranking African American in the West Wing," though everyone seemed to struggle to explain her position and responsibilities.

The same Post article quoted a Republican strategist saying Manigault had input on daily press briefings and that "she carries a lot of weight" with candidates seeking ambassadorships. Again, no one seemed able to explain why this dynamic existed.

Evidently, it no longer matters: effective Jan. 20, 2018, she's parting ways with Team Trump.

Omarosa Manigault Newman, a White House aide and infamous former "Apprentice" contestant, resigned Tuesday evening, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told NBC News, "to pursue other opportunities." [...]

Omarosa was one of his highest profile African-American, female supporters and one of the few black women in Trump's West Wing. Her title during her year in the White House was assistant to the president and communications director for the Office of Public Liaison.

Though the details haven't been confirmed by NBC News, the New York Times' Yamiche Alcindor said, “I just talked to sources who tell me Omarosa was let go yesterday and that she was escorted off of the White House grounds by security. They say she is now calling friends saying that she left voluntarily because her year anniversary was coming up.”

Whatever the backstory, this seems like a good time to update the list of prominent Trump World departures:

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Democratic Senate Candidate Doug Jones Holds Election Night Watch Party In Birmingham

In the South, some blue cracks emerge in the GOP's red wall

12/13/17 10:51AM

It was three years ago last week that the New York Times published a chart that was hard to forget. In the first half of the 20th century, Democratic control over governors' mansions, senators' seats, and state legislative bodies in the South was literally 100%. Then, as the Times' piece showed, after the civil-rights era transformed politics in the region, Democratic power in the South slipped.

By this point in 2014, the percentage of governors' mansions, senators' seats, and state legislative bodies held by Democrats in the South -- excluding Florida and Virginia -- was literally 0%.

This came to mind this morning reading the Washington Post's piece from Aaron Blake about Sen.-elect Doug Jones's (D) victory in Alabama yesterday -- which offered at least some evidence that his party has a "pulse in the Deep South."

To be clear: This is a stunning result -- no matter what preceded it. Before Tuesday, a Democrat had not won a Senate seat in Alabama in nearly three decades. The party is practically extinct in the Deep South and has been for a few years now, with its gains there gradually fading during the Obama presidency. Racial polarization has made the region practically impenetrable for the blue team, which basically holds majority-black congressional districts and nothing else.

I wouldn't say this ushers in a Democratic revival, by any means -- absent the allegations against Moore, Jones very likely would have lost -- but the fact that Democrats could even capitalize on the right opportunity in a tough region has to warm the hearts of party officials and supporters.

Sure, this was just one race, and it'd be foolish to suggest Jones' win is evidence of a region in the midst of a dramatic transformation. It's not. The South is easily the Republican Party's strongest part of the country, and that won't change anytime soon.

But it's also true that the big red wall in the South now features some blue cracks.

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Senator-elect, U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner delivers his victory speech to supporters during a GOP election night gathering at the Hyatt Regency Denver Tech Center, in Denver, Colo. on Nov. 4, 2014. (Brennan Linsley/AP)

Republicans encourage Alabama's Doug Jones to vote with them

12/13/17 10:03AM

After any major election, especially one that garners national attention, those of us who work in media can expect to receive an enormous number of press releases. Party committees, advocacy groups, political action committees, candidates with national ambitions all weigh in with their own spin on the outcome.

Naturally, the volume of press statements after Alabama's Senate special election was high, though my personal favorite came by way of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

NRSC Chairman Cory Gardner made the following statement regarding the results of the Alabama special election:

"Tonight's results are clear -- the people of Alabama deemed Roy Moore unfit to serve in the U.S. Senate," said NRSC Chairman Cory Gardner. "I hope Senator-elect Doug Jones will do the right thing and truly represent Alabama by choosing to vote with the Senate Republican Majority."

Look, I'm not unsympathetic to the circumstances. The NRSC -- which, to its credit, withheld support from Roy Moore -- probably can't remain completely silent in response to a Senate race the whole country was watching.

But, c'mon. A progressive-minded Democrat just pulled off an improbable victory in one of the nation's reddest states. Jones should now ignore his own platform and vote with the opposing party?

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