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U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump introduces Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions Mobile during his rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on Aug. 21, 2015 in Mobile, Ala. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty)

The mainstreaming of the Republican fringe

11/23/16 12:49PM

The Senate will have a Republican majority in the next Congress, but the GOP's edge will be smaller than it is now, shrinking from four seats to two. And in a 52-48 chamber, even small shifts -- a couple of members breaking ranks here and there -- can produce interesting results.

When Donald Trump announced Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) would be his choice for attorney general, for example, there was some chatter about whether the right-wing Alabaman with an ugly racial history was a sure thing for confirmation. Those questions were effectively answered yesterday when Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ostensibly the last of the Senate GOP "moderates," threw her support behind Sessions' nomination. (West Virginia's Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat, is also backing Sessions.)

With the far-right nominee's confirmation effectively assured, I was reminded of this Washington Post piece from a few days ago.
President-elect Donald Trump announced Friday that he will nominate Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to run the Justice Department. A few years ago, this would have a startling pick.

Sessions has always been one of the most conservative senators in the GOP, a fringe figure perhaps best known for his hard-line views on immigration. Now, if confirmed as attorney general, he will become the nation's top law-enforcement officer.

The mainstreaming of Sessions reflects just how much politics has changed of late.
It does, indeed. The Post piece added that Sessions, whose judicial nomination was rejected in 1986 because he was considered too racist, arrived in the Senate 20 years ago as one of the chamber's most extreme members, along with Republican colleagues like Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). In recent years, however, Sessions has found himself "moving closer to the center of the GOP" -- not because of his own shifts, but because other Senate Republicans "are getting more extreme."

What's striking about reports like this one is how easy it is to swap out Jeff Sessions' name with others' and make the identical observation.
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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.23.16

11/23/16 12:00PM

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

* Despite increasing pressure that he concede the race he appears to have lost, incumbent North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) formally requested a statewide recount yesterday. The Republican's deficit, as of this morning, is nearly 8,000 votes and growing.

* Though Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) appears to be the frontrunner in the race for the DNC chairmanship, the Obama White House is reportedly "uneasy" with the Minnesota congressman and looking for alternative candidates. Vice President Biden has ruled out pursuing the post.

* Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), taking on Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in the race to become House Minority Leader, faces an uphill challenge, but he has a provocative new idea. Ryan told Roll Call yesterday that if he wins and Democrats don't take back the House majority in 2018, he'll relinquish his post voluntarily. "If we don't win the House back in two years, I won't run," the Ohioan said. "That just needs to be the standard."

* If you're waiting to learn which cabinet post New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) might receive, stop. Christie declared on his radio show this week, "I'm serving the rest of my term." The Republican's second term won't end until the end of next year.

* Asked about his chief strategist's controversial record, Donald Trump told the New York Times yesterday, "I've known Steve Bannon a long time. If I thought he was a racist, or alt-right, or any of the things that we can, you know, the terms we can use, I wouldn't even think about hiring him." For the record, Bannon boasted in July that he's proud of having created "the platform for the alt-right."

* Next year, Sen.-elect Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) will serve as DSCC chair. He'll be the first incoming freshman to ever hold the post.

* Don't look for Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) to seek national office in 2020: Hillary Clinton's running mate said he's committed to running for re-election in 2018, but has no interest in joining his party's presidential ticket again.
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Even in victory, Trump's Electoral College concerns remain

11/23/16 11:22AM

As Hillary Clinton's popular-vote lead over Donald Trump passes 2 million, a growing number of Democrats are eager to have a debate over the existence of the Electoral College. If the discussion ever begins in earnest, they may even have an unexpected ally: Donald Trump.

Four years ago, when some Republicans initially thought President Obama would lose the popular vote, Trump declared, "The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy." In a tweet he later deleted, Trump added on Election Night 2012, in reference to Obama, "He lost the popular vote by a lot and won the election. We should have a revolution in this country!"

Of course, now it's Trump who "lost the popular vote by a lot and won the election." What's interesting, though, is that Trump, more than any candidate in American history, has benefited from the Electoral College -- but he still doesn't like it.

In his recent "60 Minutes" interview, the president-elect conceded, "I'm not going to change my mind just because I won. But I would rather see it where you went with simple votes." Trump said something similar to the New York Times yesterday:
"So we won that by a lot of votes and, you know, we had a great victory. We had a great victory. I think it would have been easier because I see every once in a while somebody says, 'Well, the popular vote.' Well, the popular vote would have been a lot easier, but it's a whole different campaign.

"I would have been in California, I would have been in Texas, Florida and New York, and we wouldn't have gone anywhere else. Which is, I mean I'd rather do the popular vote from the standpoint -- I'd think we'd do actually as well or better -- it's a whole different campaign."
Trump went on to joke, "I was never a fan of the Electoral College until now."

It'd be an exaggeration to say the president-elect endorsed doing away with the electoral college altogether -- he didn't go quite that far -- but Trump nevertheless twice said yesterday that he sees the popular vote as "easier" and he'd "rather" have it than the alternative.

If even the beneficiary of the Electoral College isn't a fan, and the current system failed in two of the last five presidential cycles, isn't it about time for a meaningful debate about reform?
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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump arrives for his election night rally at the New York Hilton Midtown in Manhattan, N.Y. on Nov. 9, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

After touting support for torture, Trump gets a new perspective

11/23/16 10:00AM

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) appeared at an international security forum over the weekend, where he pushed back against the idea of Donald Trump bringing back U.S.-sanctioned torture. "I don't give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do or anybody else wants to do. We will not waterboard. We will not torture," McCain said to applause. "My God, what does it say about America if we're going to inflict torture on people?"

A day later, Vice President-elect Mike Pence was asked to respond on CBS's "Face the Nation," and the Republican wouldn't commit to following the law. "We're going to have a president again who will never say what we'll never do," Pence said.

And what, pray tell, does Donald Trump himself have to say about this? The president-elect sat down with the New York Times yesterday, and was asked where he stands on torture. Trump's response departed a bit from his previous posture.
"So, I met with [retired General James Mattis], who is a very respected guy.... I met with him at length and I asked him that question. I said, 'What do you think of waterboarding?' He said -- I was surprised -- he said, 'I've never found it to be useful.' He said, 'I've always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.'

"And I was very impressed by that answer. I was surprised, because he's known as being like the toughest guy. And when he said that, I'm not saying it changed my [mind]. Look, we have people that are chopping off heads and drowning people in steel cages and we're not allowed to waterboard. But I'll tell you what, I was impressed by that answer. It certainly does not -- it's not going to make the kind of a difference that maybe a lot of people think. If it's so important to the American people, I would go for it. I would be guided by that. But General Mattis found it to be very less important, much less important than I thought he would say. I thought he would say -- you know he's known as Mad Dog Mattis, right? Mad Dog for a reason. I thought he'd say 'It's phenomenal, don't lose it.' He actually said, 'No, give me some cigarettes and some drinks, and we'll do better.'"
Imagine that. Trump assumed military leaders would agree with him on torture, only to actually have a conversation with a retired general who knows what he's talking about.

What will be interesting is whether or not Trump moves forward with his torture plans anyway.
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South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley delivers the State of the State in the House chambers at the South Carolina Statehouse, Jan. 20, 2016, in Columbia, S.C. (Photo by Sean Rayford/AP)

Why Trump tapped Haley for Ambassador to U.N.

11/23/16 09:06AM

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) hasn't always held Donald Trump in the highest regard. Back in January, when the governor delivered her party's response to the State of the Union address, Haley took a not-so-subtle shot at the then-frontrunner for the GOP's presidential nomination -- much to the consternation of the Republican base.

A month later, Haley called Trump "everything a governor doesn't want in a president." Soon after, Trump returned fire, declaring in a tweet, "The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley!"

As recently as late October, the South Carolina governor was reluctant to even say Trump's name out loud, conceding she's "not a fan" of her party's presidential nominee. Haley said she'd vote for the GOP ticket, but "that doesn't mean it's an easy vote."

And yet, here we are.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has accepted Donald Trump's offer to be his ambassador to the United Nations, a source familiar with the president-elect's transition process confirmed to NBC News on Wednesday. [...]

The daughter of immigrants from India, Haley served three terms in South Carolina's State House before winning the governorship in 2010 and again in 2014.
That's not a bad resume for someone in public service, but Haley's background in foreign policy doesn't exist. If confirmed, Haley would head to the United Nations as a diplomat, despite having no experience in diplomacy, working on international affairs she's currently unfamiliar with.

Which naturally raises the question of why in the world Trump would extend such an offer.
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Ben Carson watches as Donald Trump takes the stage during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Oct. 28, 2015, in Boulder, Colo. (Photo by Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Why Ben Carson's cabinet nomination matters

11/23/16 08:19AM

Just last week, retired neurosurgeon and failed presidential candidate Ben Carson said something unexpected: he didn't want to be a member of Donald Trump's presidential cabinet. Carson told the Washington Post he preferred to "work from the outside and not from the inside," and not be pigeonholed into one particular area."

Carson added, "Having me as a federal bureaucrat would be like a fish out of water, quite frankly." Armstrong Williams, a leading Carson confidant, told NBC's Pete Williams that Carson made clear to Trump that the retired physician doesn't have the experience to run a federal bureaucracy.

And yet, there was the president-elect yesterday, announcing on Twitter that he's "seriously considering" Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). As Politico reported, Trump has apparently already extended the cabinet offer.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson said on Tuesday that he'd had multiple "offers on the table" for positions in the incoming Trump administration, including secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"I would say that was one of the offers that is on the table," the retired neurosurgeon told Fox News' Neil Cavuto of the possibility that he is being considered for the top job at HUD.
In the Fox interview, Carson reflected on his qualifications for the position. "I know that I grew up in the inner city," he said. "And have spent a lot of time there. And have dealt with a lot of patients from that area."

Even by 2016 standards, this is very hard to take seriously.

Carson has literally no background in housing policy, urban development, or running a large organization. In fact, as recently as last week, he said he didn't even want to try. The fact that Carson would even consider accepting a job for which he's completely unqualified is bizarre.

But while Carson's possible role in a presidential cabinet is problematic, the fact that Trump would extend such an offer speaks volumes about his approach to his presidential responsibilities.
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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 11.22.16

11/22/16 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Crossing a threshold: "President Obama granted commutations to another 79 federal drug offenders Tuesday, pushing the number of inmates he has granted clemency to past 1,000. Obama's historic number of commutations was announced as administration officials are moving quickly to rule on all the pending clemency applications from inmates before the end of the year."

* I'd pay good money to listen in on one of these conversations: "President Barack Obama has spoken with President-elect Donald Trump at least once since their first-ever meeting in the Oval Office, the White House said Tuesday. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest confirmed during a press briefing that Obama and Trump had spoken 'at least once' since their Nov. 10 meeting."

* She's a Republican, so I guess we're not supposed to make a fuss about stories like this one out of Oklahoma: "Governor Mary Fallin has defended her use of personal email for state business as 'more efficient.' ... [Fallin] met with President-elect Donald Trump Monday about job opportunities."

* An unexpected story: "Exxon Mobil, under fire over its past efforts to undercut climate science, is accusing the Rockefeller family of masterminding a conspiracy against it. Yes, that Rockefeller family."

* Cabinet news: "Education advocate and former D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee said on Tuesday that she is not pursuing a role in President-elect Donald Trump's administration."
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President-elect Donald Trump, arrives with his son Barron, center, and wife Melania, to speak to an election night rally, Nov. 9, 2016, in N.Y. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

Trump's new boast: 'The president can't have a conflict of interest'

11/22/16 04:44PM

Less than a week after the presidential election, Rudy Giuliani, one of Donald Trump's top surrogates, was asked about the president-elect's obvious conflict-of-interest problems. The former mayor told CNN's Jake Tapper, "Well, first of all, you realize that those laws don't apply to the president, right?"

It wasn't long before one of Richard Nixon's most notorious claims came to mind: "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal." In this case, Giuliani was effectively arguing that President Trump can't break laws pertaining to conflicts of interest because the president is above those laws. Other government employees must steer clear of official actions that affect their personal finances, but the man in the Oval Office need not worry.

Trump himself sat down with the New York Times today and repeated the argument.
Mr. Trump brushed aside questions about conflicts arising from his business dealings, declaring that "the law's totally on my side, the president can't have a conflict of interest."
There is some truth to the underlying claim. As Ian Millhiser explained, the president is exempt from certain ethics laws: "One law, for example, prohibits many federal employees from participating in matters where they or a member of their close family has a financial interest in the outcome. But the president is exempt from this law. That exemption is likely a nod to the unique nature of the presidency --  there are certain decisions that can only be made by the president, and thus if the president were conflicted out the government could be paralyzed."

Of course, presidents have usually gone out of their way to avoid untoward appearances by putting their investments and business interests in blind trusts -- the one thing Trump could do to avoid potential controversies, but won't.

Regardless, Trump's legal exemption does not apply to the U.S. Constitution, which he's going to have to follow.
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The size of Donald Trump's popular-vote loss keeps growing

11/22/16 12:33PM

Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump's campaign manager, was so impressed with her boss' margin of victory, she recently declared, "This election was not close. It was not a squeaker." A day later, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, soon to be the White House chief of staff, declared Trump's victory a "landslide."

Last week, Corey Lewandowski, Trump's former campaign manager and a key Trump insider, claimed with a straight face that the Republican president-elect "won the election campaign by the largest majority since Ronald Reagan in 1984" -- which isn't even close to being true.

Every time I'm inclined to stop mentioning the popular vote, Team Trump gives me a reason to circle back.

When it comes to the metric that decides the outcome, Trump won 306 electoral votes, which is roughly 57% of the total. That's more than enough to win, but it's not especially close to the electoral totals earned by Barack Obama (in 2008 and 2012), Bill Clinton (in 1992 and 1996), or George H. W. Bush (in 1988).

But then there's that other metric.
Hillary Clinton's popular vote lead surged above 1.72 million on Sunday night, with millions of votes still to count. At 1.3 percentage points, she has built a lead not seen in a losing campaign since Rutherford B. Hayes's bitterly disputed election of 1876.

The 2016 results have no such disputes, however. Mrs. Clinton's lead keeps rising on her strength in California, where her margin stands at 29 percentage points, up from President Obama's 23 percentage points 2012.
As a matter of percentages, Clinton's current popular-vote advantage is greater than that of seven candidates who won the presidency, including Kennedy and Nixon. Her popular-vote win is roughly in line with George W. Bush's victory over John Kerry in 2004.

And votes are still being counted. By some measures, Clinton may end up with a popular-vote margin of roughly 2.5 million votes, pushing Trump well below the share of the popular vote than Mitt Romney received.
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Then, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Cleveland, Ohio, on Oct. 22, 2016. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Trump Foundation acknowledges wrongdoing to IRS

11/22/16 11:22AM

One of the great ironies of the 2016 presidential election is that Americans were told that one of the candidates had a controversial charitable foundation that may have run afoul of the law -- but voters were encouraged to look at the wrong candidate.

The Clinton Foundation faced a series of unproven allegations, but in the end, the entity was simply a charity that did worthwhile work around the globe. The Trump Foundation, meanwhile, faced far more credible allegations, some of which appear to be true.

We already know -- because Trump's team already admitted -- that the Donald J. Trump Foundation broke one law when it made an illegal campaign contribution to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, around the time the Florida Republican was weighing an investigation into "Trump University," a separate scandal-plagued Trump entity. The Washington Post's David Fahrenthold reports today that the Trump Foundation's troubles now appear to run deeper.
President-elect Donald Trump's charitable foundation has admitted to the IRS that it violated a legal prohibition against "self-dealing," which bars nonprofit leaders from using their charity's money to help themselves, their businesses or their families.

That admission was contained in the Donald J. Trump Foundation's IRS tax filings for 2015, which were recently posted online at the nonprofit-tracking site GuideStar. A GuideStar spokesman said the forms were uploaded by the Trump Foundation's law firm, Morgan, Lewis and Bockius.
As the Post's article explained, the IRS asked if the Trump Foundation had transferred "income or assets to a disqualified person." The foundation checked "yes."

The same document asked if the Trump Foundation had engaged in any acts of self-dealing in prior years. On this, the Trump Foundation also checked "yes."

In the charitable world, self-dealing is a fairly serious misstep. Charities are expected to use its resources to advance its non-profit mission, whatever it might be, which is why it's illegal for those running a charitable foundation to use its resources to benefit themselves -- as Trump's charity evidently did.
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Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listen to a question during the town hall debate at Washington University on Oct 9, 2016 in St Louis, Mo. (Photo by Saul Loeb/Pool/Getty)

Claiming an imaginary authority, Trump passes on pursuing Clinton

11/22/16 10:28AM

During the presidential campaign, one of Donald Trump's most striking promises was his vow to investigate, prosecute, and imprison his opponent, Hillary Clinton, for non-existent crimes. The Republican's intentions were unlike anything in the American tradition, and reinforced fears about Trump's undemocratic, authoritarian instincts.

Soon after the election, CBS News' Lesley Stahl asked Trump, Are you going to ask for a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton over her emails? And are you, as you had said to her face, going to try and put her in jail?" The president-elect said in response, "I'm going to think about it."

Well, evidently, he's done thinking about it. The Washington Post reported this morning that Trump "has decided that his administration will not pursue criminal investigations related to former rival Hillary Clinton's private email server or her family foundation." We learned of the decision by way of Kellyanne Conway, who appeared on MSNBC earlier today.
...Conway said Trump now sees things differently. "I think when the president-elect, who's also the head of your party, tells you before he's even inaugurated that he doesn't wish to pursue these charges, it sends a very strong message, tone and content" to fellow Republicans, she said. "Look, I think he's thinking of many different things as he prepares to become the President of the United States, and things that sound like the campaign are not among them," she added.
I suspect much of the political world will perceive this as a conciliatory, and perhaps even magnanimous, decision, but before anyone gives Trump too much credit for being gracious towards his former foe, let's set the record straight.
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North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory makes remarks concerning House Bill 2 while speaking during a government affairs conference in Raleigh, N.C., May 4, 2016. (Photo by Gerry Broome/AP)

A potential campaign crisis brews in North Carolina

11/22/16 09:11AM

Republicans were generally pleased with this year's gubernatorial elections, flipping several seats from "blue" to "red," extending the GOP's national advantage in gubernatorial offices. There is, however, one glaring exception.

In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory (R) had a tumultuous first term, faced a top-tier opponent in state Attorney General Roy Cooper (D), and appears to have lost a close race. As WRAL reported overnight, counties are continuing to count provisional ballots, but at this point, "Cooper's lead has grown from fewer than 5,000 on Election Night to more than 6,600 by Monday evening." McCrory's team has filed a series of challenges to vote tallies, but those filings have been largely "dismissed by Republican-controlled county elections boards as either factually incorrect or unproven."

And in theory, there's not much more to talk about. Cooper has declared victory; McCrory is under pressure to honor the will of voters; and state officials are moving forward with plans for a gubernatorial inauguration in early January. But in practice, as the New York Times explained the other day, the prospect of a political crisis is a little too real.
The legal and political jockeying raised the specter of a recount, and it could ultimately climax in a political wild card: Mr. McCrory using a state law to contest the election in the state's Republican-dominated General Assembly. [...]

[T]he immediate question in North Carolina is how long Mr. McCrory will dispute the results and whether he might ultimately ask the General Assembly to consider the election. Under state law, the legislature could order a new election or, "if it can determine which candidate received the highest number of votes," it may declare a winner. The law asserts that the legislature's decision in such a contest is "not reviewable" by the courts.
Some of you may have read that and thought, "Wait, that can't be right." But I'm afraid it is.
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