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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 3.21.17

03/21/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Confirmation hearings begin in earnest: "Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch began the second day of his confirmation hearing by stating that the Roe v. Wade precedent 'has been reaffirmed many times,' and telling the Senate Judiciary Committee that the question of whether he could rule against Trump was a 'softball.'"

* National security: "The new electronic device cabin restrictions on certain flights inbound to the United States from 10 overseas airports in the Muslim world were not prompted by a specific, newly-discovered threat, multiple U.S. officials told NBC News."

* I don't imagine the president will be tweeting this one: "For the first time since the election, markets are doubting they will get the pro-growth policies of tax reform and stimulus promised by President Donald Trump and the Republican Congress."

* Following up on Rachel's report from last night: "Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to skip a semiannual meeting of NATO foreign ministers this spring and will instead travel to a Group of 7 meeting of top diplomats in Italy and then to Russia."

* Paul Manafort remains in the news: "A Ukrainian lawmaker released new financial documents Tuesday allegedly showing that a former campaign chairman for President Trump laundered payments from the party of a disgraced ex-leader of Ukraine using offshore accounts in Belize and Kyrgyzstan."
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Ivanka Trump, right, listens as her father Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers a policy speech on child care, Sept. 13, 2016, in Aston, Pa. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

Ivanka Trump gains unprecedented new powers in the White House

03/21/17 04:52PM

Shortly after the election, there were multiple reports about Donald Trump seeking security clearance for his adult children. Soon after, the president quickly knocked those reports down, saying via Twitter, "I am not trying to get 'top level security clearance' for my children. This was a typically false news story."

Four months later, however, the story has apparently changed for at least one of the Trump kids. Politico reported:
Ivanka Trump, who moved to Washington saying she would play no formal role in her father's administration, is now officially setting up shop in the White House.

The powerful first daughter has secured her own office on the West Wing's second floor -- a space next to senior adviser Dina Powell, who was recently promoted to a position on the National Security Council. She is also in the process of obtaining a security clearance and is set to receive government-issued communications devices this week.
Even by Trump standards, it's hard to know what to make of a story like this. Ivanka Trump won't get a paycheck, but she will get classified information. She won't have a White House position, but she will have an office in the West Wing.

As is often the case with this administration, there's no real precedent for this. Americans have seen the president's adult kids adopting ceremonial roles, but Ivanka Trump is participating in meetings with foreign leaders -- literally sitting next to Canada's Justin Trudeau and Germany's Angela Merkel during recent White House discussions -- and tackling a policy portfolio.

She'll answer to no one but her father, and will get around nepotism laws by not having an official paid position.

I've long assumed that Ivanka Trump would have special access to the president, but this job-that-isn't-exactly-a-job is something else. It's ... odd.
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President-elect Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump walk with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. on Capitol Hill, Nov. 10, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Brandon/AP)

Republicans can't defend their health care bill on the merits

03/21/17 03:39PM

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) issued a warning to his Republican colleagues today, arguing that GOP lawmakers must support the party's health care plan because Republicans made a "commitment" to voters to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

He didn't talk about the bill's merits, or what he believes it would do to help Americans, but rather, McConnell's focus was on the political calculus. It's a classic example of a logical fallacy:

1. We have to do something.
2. This bill is something.
3. We therefore have to pass this bill.

Similarly, Donald Trump was in Louisville last night, headlining a campaign-style rally, where he touted his party's health care bill, again without actually describing any of its effects or purported benefits. Politico reported that the president is "increasingly talking about health care like the vegetables of his agenda -- the thing he must begrudgingly finish in order to get to what he really wants: tax cuts, trade deals and infrastructure."

NBC News reported that Trump took a similar message to congressional Republicans this morning on Capitol Hill.
President Donald Trump told House Republicans Tuesday that they could lose re-election in the 2018 midterms if they vote against the GOP health care bill later this week that would undo much of Obamacare.

Trying to help wrangle enough votes for passage, Trump went to Capitol Hill to meet privately with Republican lawmakers and said they are putting the GOP majority at risk with opposition to the bill, pushed by Speaker Paul Ryan.
We can certainly have a credible debate about Trump's assessment. In his mind, if the American Health Care Act goes down, Republican incumbents will suffer at the ballot box next year. As I see it, the risk is far greater for GOP members who vote for a wildly unpopular bill that's likely to die in the Senate anyway.

But the point here is that the argument itself is detached from what really matters: whether this legislation is a worthwhile policy prescription.
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Image: Neil Gorsuch

Gorsuch nomination creates important test for Senate Democrats

03/21/17 12:55PM

When Judge Neil Gorsuch arrived in the Senate yesterday to begin his Supreme Court confirmation process, there was a little news before the nominee even sat down. Sen. Michael Bennet (D) of Gorsuch's home state of Colorado joined the nominee and graciously introduced him to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

It's the sort of thing a senator ordinarily does when he or she supports a nomination, which meant Bennet was already undermining Democratic opposition to Donald Trump's high court nominee before the process had even begun in earnest. Roll Call reported:
...Bennet did not say if he would support Gorsuch for the high court, telling the committee, "I am keeping an open mind on this nomination."

His introduction did highlight what he saw as two clouds hanging over the proceedings, which the committee's Democrats also acknowledged. The first is the Republicans' refusal to hold a hearing or a vote on President Barack Obama's nominee to fill the vacancy, Judge Merrick Garland.

Bennet said it was tempting to deny Gorsuch a fair hearing, but, "Two wrongs never make a right."
That's an interesting principle, actually. Under normal circumstances, it's fairly compelling to think powerful policymakers should act in a mature and responsible fashion, steering clear of pettiness and needlessly cheap efforts to score partisan points. Many understandably grow weary of "tit-for-tat" schemes.

But I have a few straightforward follow-up questions for the Democratic senator: two wrongs may not make a right, but what does? Given the circumstances, what's just in this situation? How will rewarding Republican maximalist tactics move us any closer to what's "right"?
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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.21.17

03/21/17 12:00PM

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

* With many House Republicans worried about losing if they support an unpopular and regressive health care plan, Donald Trump reportedly told GOP lawmakers this morning, "I honestly think many of you will lose your seats in 2018 if you don't get this done."

* At a campaign-style rally in Louisville last night, Trump also talked once again about his electoral-vote totals, and because he remains stuck in 2016, the president also talked about NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem last fall.

* I can't vouch for the reliability of the survey, but Clout Research released a poll yesterday in Georgia's 6th congressional district showing Jon Ossoff (D) in a very strong position ahead of next month's congressional special election. The first round is scheduled for April 18.

* USA Today reports that organizers of January's Women's March on Washington and leaders of Indivisible "will make presentations later this week to the Democracy Alliance when the influential donor coalition holds its private spring meeting in Washington, the group's president Gara LaMarche said."

* Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith (D) surprised many in state politics when she announced on Friday that she won't run for governor in 2018.

* Joe Piscopo, a "Saturday Night Live" actor in the 1980s, has decided not to seek the Republican gubernatorial nomination in New Jersey, but he's moving forward with plans to run as an independent. Piscopo, a former Democrat, backed Donald Trump's campaign last year.

* The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised $3.8 million in February, short of the $5.1 million raised by its Republican counterparts over the same period.
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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

Republicans hope the 'Buffalo Bribe' can make a difference

03/21/17 11:09AM

How concerned are congressional Republican leaders about dragging their health care bill across the finish line? Enough to start adding last-minute sweeteners intended to buy off specific on-the-fence members. The New York Times reported overnight:
House Republican leaders, trying to lock down the votes of wavering upstate New York Republicans, inserted a last-minute special provision in their health care bill that would shift Medicaid costs from New York's counties to its state government.

The move -- one of a number of late changes designed to gain more votes -- would affect New York State only. It could save county governments outside of New York City $2.3 billion a year. But it could shift costs to state taxpayers or deny New York that same total in matching federal aid if the state continues to require those counties to contribute to the cost of Medicaid.
Not surprisingly, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) isn't pleased, saying in a statement last night, "The more we learn about the repeal and replacement for the Affordable Care Act, the sicker New York gets." The Democratic governor is reportedly rushing to D.C. today to meet with the state's congressional delegation, explaining to them that this one new provision -- which some have labeled the "Buffalo Bribe," or the "Buffalo Buyout" -- would create a multi-billion-dollar hole in New York's state budget.

So why add it? Because many upstate Republicans believe New York's existing Medicaid policy adds a significant tax burden in their area. GOP leaders on Capitol Hill inserted language into the American Health Care Act last night that's likely to make Reps. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), Claudia Tierney (R-N.Y.), Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), John Faso (R-N.Y.), and John Katko (R-N.Y.) happy -- or at least happier -- and given how narrow the margins are likely to be on Thursday, every vote counts.

But let's also take a moment to pause and appreciate just how breathtaking the hypocrisy is.
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Image: White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland

Reince Priebus' FBI contacts suddenly look even worse

03/21/17 10:19AM

When there's a major development in an ongoing controversy, it's important to consider the news at face value, but it's also important to reconsider previous details in light of new evidence.

Take White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus' communications with the FBI, for example.

We learned about a month ago that Priebus spoke with FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe about Team Trump's Russia scandal, and by some accounts, the White House chief of staff hoped to persuade FBI officials to reach out to journalists to downplay the significance of the controversy.

As we discussed at the time, there are rules in place that severely limit the communications between the FBI and the White House, though in this case, Reince Priebus either didn't know or didn't care about those restrictions. Politico had a report over the weekend -- before yesterday's testimony from FBI Director James Comey, obviously -- about the communications.
Reince Priebus's request that the FBI refute a report of Donald Trump associates' contacts with Russian intelligence appears to have violated the White House's policy restricting political interference in pending investigations, according to a copy of the policy obtained by POLITICO.

The policy says only the president, vice president and White House counsel can discuss specific investigations or cases with the attorney general, deputy attorney general, associate attorney general or solicitor general. Any other conversations require the approval of the White House counsel, according to the document.
In other words, Priebus' chats with the deputy director of the FBI -- communications that the White House has already acknowledged -- were problematic on their face.

But in light of yesterday's news, they seem quite a bit worse.
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President-elect Donald Trump arrives at a rally at the Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville, N.C., Dec. 6, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP)

Trump picks the wrong slogan: 'Promises made, promises kept'

03/21/17 09:20AM

Donald Trump held the latest in a series of presidential rallies last night in Louisville, where he pretended the FBI director hadn't just told the world that Trump campaign operation is under investigation for its ties to Russia. The New York Times noted that the event included the unveiling of a new slogan.
For Mr. Trump, who is enduring one of the most difficult stretches of his young presidency, the rally was a chance to bathe in the adulation of a campaign crowd, a sea of people waving placards that said: "Buy American. Hire American" and "Promises Made. Promises Kept."
Those placards weren't the result of organic, grassroots enthusiasm; they were part of a specific push from Team Trump, which apparently finds the phrase compelling.

And at a certain level, it's easy to understand the motivation. The more the White House struggles and Trump's approval rating sinks, the more the president and his aides stick to the idea that they're simply following through on the platform presented to voters during the 2016 campaign. Love Trump or hate him, the argument goes, he's simply keeping the promises he made before he was elected.

The problem, of course, is that this isn't even close to being true.
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Image: House Speaker Paul Ryan Holds Weekly Briefing

Republicans scramble to rescue flailing health care bill

03/21/17 08:45AM

The quote may be apocryphal, but when Nancy Pelosi was Speaker of the House, she came to be associated with a simple phrase: "First you get the votes, then you take the vote."

It seems like a strategy so obvious that it's hardly worth articulating -- along the lines of, "First you put on the shoes, then you tie the laces." And yet, the Pelosi Principle of passing bills is routinely overlooked by her Republican successors.

Take, for example, the ongoing GOP plan to pass the Republican health care legislation. Instead of "First you get the votes, then you take the vote," House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is moving forward with a different tack: "First you schedule the vote, then you search for votes, then you significantly change the bill two days before the vote, and then you take the vote without any certainty about the outcome or the CBO score."

Politico reported last night on the latest developments.
House Republican leaders are making a last-ditch attempt to win enough support to pass their Obamacare repeal, revealing an expansive series of changes to the bill on Monday night designed to woo wary GOP lawmakers.

Requested by President Donald Trump, the amendment includes perks for restive conservatives who wanted optional work requirements and block granting in Medicaid, as well as a potential olive branch to wary centrists who demanded more help for older Americans to buy insurance, POLITICO has learned.
There are quite a few tweaks: more tax breaks for the wealthy, more punishments for the poor, some regional provisions targeted at specific GOP lawmakers, and a weird anti-abortion provision. Vox's Ezra Klein explained that none of the new provisions "meaningfully change the underlying legislation," nor do they "fix the old bill's problems."

But for Republican leaders, improving the legislation isn't the point; passing the legislation is.
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Image: US-INTELLIGENCE-POLITICS-RUSSIA

Russia scandal leaves a 'big, gray cloud' over Trump, Republicans

03/21/17 08:00AM

Yesterday was not a good day for Donald Trump and his team. FBI Director James Comey confirmed that there's an ongoing counter-intelligence investigation underway, not only into Russia's attack on our democracy, but also into whether people close to Trump cooperated with the crime.

But as stunning as the developments were, and as awful as they made the president look, congressional Republicans were cast in a light that was nearly as unflattering. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank's summary rings true:
Comey's testimony confirmed what was widely suspected: The FBI is investigating whether the president's campaign colluded with a powerful American adversary in an attempt to swing the election. But instead of being shaken from complacency and uniting to make sure this never happens again, the Republican majority on the House Intelligence Committee mounted a reflexive defense of Trump.

The partisan response made it plain that there will be no serious congressional investigation of the Russia election outrage, nor any major repercussions for Russia. We were attacked by Russia — about this there is no doubt — and we're too paralyzed by politics to respond.
Confronted with evidence that Russia launched an illegal espionage operation to subvert an American presidential election, and the president's campaign team may have cooperated with our adversary's scheme, nearly every GOP member of the House Intelligence Committee linked arms and effectively declared in unison: "We don't care."

Republicans wanted to talk about leaks. And Hillary Clinton. And answers to vote-rigging questions that no one has asked. With very limited exceptions, as Milbank added, GOP members "slavishly echoed [Trump's] excuses."

In the closing moments of the hearing, Intelligence Committee Chairman David Nunes (R-Calif.), a Trump loyalist who served on the president's executive transition team, told the FBI director, "[T]here is a big gray cloud that you have put over people who have very important work to do to lead this country. And so the faster you can get to the bottom of this, it's going to be better for all Americans."
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