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Friday's Mini-Report, 9.29.17

09/29/17 05:34PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* I think he's right: "The general who ran the U.S. military relief operation after Hurricane Katrina is among the chorus of critics who now say the delay in getting the U.S. military to Puerto Rico is at the heart of the island's unfolding humanitarian crisis."

* This requires some follow-up: "Despite the widespread damage to Puerto Rico's infrastructure inflicted by Hurricane Maria, the federal government is making no promises to fix it."

* A bizarre story: "The United States is pulling more than half its diplomatic personnel out of Cuba and warning Americans not to visit in response to mysterious sonic incidents that sickened 21 embassy staffers and their families. 'Some very bad things happened in Cuba,' President Donald Trump said after the announcement by the State Department on Friday."

* Word choice matters: "The mayor of Puerto Rico's capital sharply criticized a senior Trump administration official Friday for calling the government's disaster response 'a good-news story,' comments that came amid mounting criticism of the federal reaction to the disaster here."

* A message America needs to hear: "The head of the Air Force Academy gathered 5,500 cadets, faculty, staff and cadet candidates Thursday to deliver a powerful message after racial slurs were found written on message boards at the academy's preparatory school. 'If you can't treat someone with dignity and respect, then get out,' Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria told the group at the culmination of a forceful five-minute lecture on the 'power of diversity.'"

* Interesting story out of Illinois, where Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner "signed legislation Thursday allowing state health insurance and Medicaid coverage for abortions, ending months of speculation after the Republican reversed his stance on the issue last spring.... The proposal would allow abortions funded by state employee health insurance and Medicaid."

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Image: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer Holds Press Briefing At White House

The Price is Wrong: Scandal-plagued HHS secretary resigns

09/29/17 05:13PM

The statement from the White House -- a classic of the "Friday Night News Dump" genre -- late this afternoon helps prove that Trump World is not immune to the laws of political gravity. Common sense suggested HHS Secretary Tom Price's scandal should force him from Donald Trump's cabinet, and it has.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Thomas Price offered his resignation earlier today and the President accepted. The President intends to designate Don J. Wright of Virginia to serve as Acting Secretary, effective at 11:59 p.m. on September 29, 2017. Mr. Wright currently serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health and Director of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

Regular readers know we've been following Price's scandal pretty closely since it broke last week, marveling at how the story looked bad from the start, and grew progressively worse on a nearly daily basis with fresh revelations about the extent of his taxpayer-financed private jet travel.

The Georgia Republican scrambled yesterday, expressing "regret" and vowing to reimburse the cost of his "seats" on the chartered flights -- as opposed to the flights themselves -- but immediately after his attempt to salvage his career, the story got worse. As Rachel noted on last night's show, Price also used "military aircraft for multi-national trips," and tried to reopen an executive dining room.

At the risk of kicking a guy when he's down, Price was a rather ridiculous choice for Trump's cabinet in the first place. The far-right physician was burdened by a stock-trading scandal from his time in Congress -- a story that should've given everyone involved in his confirmation pause -- and he wasn't entirely honest during his Senate hearings.

Price also had a record of radicalism on his approach to health policy; he’s been associated with fringe elements; and he’s been a staunch critic of evidence-based policymaking.

Republicans voted en masse to put him in the president's cabinet anyway. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that was unwise.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump and President Sauli Niinisto of Finland joint news conference

Fresh evidence discredits key White House tax claim

09/29/17 04:43PM

"The wealthy are not getting a tax cut under our plan." That was the assertion Gary Cohn, Donald Trump's director of the White House Economic Council, told a national television audience yesterday.

Trump World has already repeated quite a few brazen falsehoods about tax policy over the last few days, but Cohn's 11-word declaration is probably the most offensive, and as Vox noted this afternoon, there's fresh evidence that helps proves it.

The tax reform "framework" proposed by the Trump administration and Republican leaders in Congress would give the largest benefits to the top 1 and top 0.1 percent of households, according to a new analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. The poor and middle class would get comparatively little. And the whole thing would leave a $2.4 trillion hole in federal revenue in the first decade.

The full analysis is available here and. It's a safe bet GOP leaders aren't going to like it.

But that doesn't make it wrong. On the contrary, the independent analysis of the data speaks for itself. The Tax Policy Center found that the wealthiest 1% of Americans would get a tax break of $129,030 under the Republican "framework," while the wealthiest 0.1% of the country would get, on average, $722,510.

The typical middle-class American would get about $660, while those earning $25,000 or less would get, on average, about $60.

This is ordinarily the point at which conservative readers start shouting at their screens, insisting that those who make more are necessarily going to receive more, since that's how percentages work. That's generally true, but it doesn't work in this case: Vox's report specifically highlighted the projected percentage gains, and found, based on the TPC data, that those at the bottom would get a 0.5% boost; those in the middle would see an increase of 1.2%; one-percenters would receive 8.5% more; and the wealthiest of the wealthy -- those taking home $3.4 million a year or more -- would get a boost of 10.2%.

Meanwhile, as the New York Times noted, more than a third of Americans making between $150,000 to $300,000 face a possible tax increase, not a tax decrease.

The tax blueprint didn't have to be written this way. On the contrary, policymakers could've taken all kinds of steps to make the distribution far more progressive. But the Republicans' "Big Six" chose to do the opposite, embracing a trickle-down model that directs the bulk of the benefits to those at the very top.

And that includes, of course, a certain billionaire president who seems a little too eager to cut his own tax bill.

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Image: Trump speaks before departing Washington for Florida

Trump: Puerto Rico is 'an island surrounded by ... big water'

09/29/17 02:29PM

With Americans in Puerto Rico still facing crisis conditions in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Donald Trump has faced considerable criticism for his administration's emergency response. The president has been eager to defend himself -- he routinely tweets praise from Puerto Rican officials desperate for assistance, for example -- but Trump's rhetoric hasn't exactly inspired confidence.

Take this morning, for example, when the president delivered a speech to the National Association of Manufacturers. Reading from his teleprompter, Trump began by sending "our thoughts and prayers to the people of Puerto Rico, who have been struck by storms of historic and catastrophic severity." But then he strayed from his script:

"The response and recovery effort probably has never been seen for something like this. This is an island surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water."

I suppose his point was that Puerto Rico's distance and location have hampered the speed of the federal response, though we've responded effectively to disasters in the Philippines and Hispaniola -- both of which are islands "surrounded by water" -- with greater speed and efficiency.

Complicating matters is the series of related comments the president has made about the disaster. After a prolonged silence on Puerto Rico -- he seemed far more interested in protesting athletes last weekend -- Trump eventually addressed the island's crisis on Monday night, noting that Puerto Rico is "billions of dollars in debt to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with."

It wasn't exactly the angle that seemed relevant this week.

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Two men stand on the plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building as storm clouds fill the sky, June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Congress fails to follow through on key children's health program

09/29/17 12:54PM

When Congress returned from its summer break earlier this month, lawmakers faced a daunting to-do list for September. Among other things, the House and Senate had to prevent a government shutdown and increase the debt ceiling. They were also poised to take a variety of major legislative priorities, ranging from health care to tax policy, prompting lots of chatter about "the month from hell."

Now that legislating has wrapped up for the month -- lawmakers left town yesterday -- September wasn't quite as dramatic as originally feared, largely because Democrats and Donald Trump struck a deal to punt questions over government funding and the debt ceiling a few months.

But perhaps more interesting than what Congress did in September is what it didn't do. One of the tasks members were supposed to tackle this month was reauthorizing the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and as TPM explained yesterday, that didn't happen.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who sits on one of the key committees in charge of health care, confirmed to TPM that Congress will likely allow CHIP to lapse by Saturday's deadline, putting the health insurance of millions of children in jeopardy.

"I'm confident the money will come but obviously it's not going to come on time," she said wearily.

Funding for CHIP, which provides health insurance for nearly 9 million children nationwide, expires this Saturday. The Senate Finance committee has worked for months on a bill to reauthorize it for the next five years, but the work was pushed to the back burner as Republicans chose instead to spend weeks taking one last unsuccessfully run at repealing Obamacare.

I'll confess, when Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) struck a bipartisan deal on Sept. 12 to extend CHIP for five years, I more or less assumed everything would work out. After all, that's usually what happens: Congress approaches a deadline, some bipartisan pairings work on an agreement, and it passes in the 11th hour.

Except, this time, it didn't work out at all. Senate Republicans focused their energies on yet another ACA repeal gambit, and reauthorizing CHIP was pushed to the back-burner.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.29.17

09/29/17 12:00PM

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

* Confirming previously reported rumors, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) formally announced yesterday she's running for the U.S. Senate in Arizona. The seat is currently held by Sen. Jeff Flake (R), who's facing at least one far-right primary challenger.

* Reflecting Democratic leaders' enthusiasm about Sinema, the DSCC quickly endorsed the congresswoman's Senate bid this morning. The move was no doubt intended to discourage other potential candidates.

* In Virginia's gubernatorial campaign, a fundraising pitch from Ed Gillespie's (R) campaign went after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) this week, despite Pelosi not having anything to do with the race.

* The Daily Beast reported yesterday that Roy Moore, the Republicans' Senate nominee in Alabama, "neglected to disclose as much as $150,000 in income to federal ethics officials."

* The latest national survey from Public Policy Polling found Democrats with a significant lead over Republicans on the generic congressional ballot, 48% to 37%.

* In Ohio's open gubernatorial race, Rep. Jim Renacci (R) launched the campaign's first television ad this week. In the spot, the former mayor and four-term congressman attacks his Republican rivals as political insiders.

* There's a chance Democrats will try to compete in Tennessee's open U.S. Senate race, but some high-profile Dems this week said they're not interested. Former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D) both withdrew from consideration.

* Sen. Diane Feinstein (D) hasn't yet said whether she'll run for another term next year, but the latest Public Policy Institute of California poll found that roughly half of her constituents would like to see her retire. The longtime senator, however, maintains a high approval rating.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump meets with members of the House Ways and Means Committee

The GOP's tax plan rollout burdened by familiar missteps

09/29/17 11:20AM

The Republican effort to overhaul the nation's health care system obviously hasn't turned out well for the party. One of the key questions now is what lessons, if any, GOP leaders have learned from their most recent fiasco.

Given the rollout of the Republicans' tax "framework" this week, there's reason to believe the party is repeating some of its more glaring mistakes.

A familiar closed-door process

The GOP health care proposals, in both chambers, were written in secret, with a small group of like-minded partisans crafting plans behind closed doors. This made bipartisanship practically impossible, and limited the ability of those affected by the legislation to buy into the proposed reforms.

On tax policy, Republicans are doing ... the exact same thing. In fact, just yesterday, Gary Cohn, the president's top economic adviser, told reporters, "Our opening offer and our final offer are on the table." Despite Donald Trump's talk that the tax plan could receive bipartisan backing, Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs chief, was part of the secretive "Big Six" talks that were limited to Republicans.

Unrealistic promises the GOP can't keep

One of the most amazing things about the Republicans' health care pitch was that the party promised that their plans would reflect Democratic priorities: Americans could take comfort in the fact that there'd be universal coverage, protections for those with pre-existing conditions, low consumer costs, and an emphasis on protecting families and their interests.

All of this, of course, was intended to make the Republicans' pitch more politically palatable, but it failed spectacularly when the public realized GOP officials had no intention of keeping any of their promises.

The rollout of the tax plan seems eerily familiar. The GOP "framework," Republicans insist, is also shaped to reflect Democratic priorities, with a focus on the middle class and small businesses, not the wealthy. All of this can be done, GOP leaders assure us, in a fiscally responsible way.

It's taken very little time to realize that the pitch is a sham: the bulk of the benefits would go to corporations and the very wealthy, while some middle-class households might even see their taxes go up, not down. What's more, Republicans have no idea how to pay for any of this.

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A passenger aircraft makes its landing approach to Heathrow airport in front of a "super moon" at dawn in west London, Britain on Oct. 17, 2016. (Photo by Toby Melville/Reuters)

Team Trump seems to have an aversion to commercial air travel

09/29/17 10:42AM

So many Trump-era political controversies are so unusual, we lack frames of reference and historical parallels. When a foreign adversary launches an espionage operation against our democracy to help elect its preferred presidential candidate, and they may have had American confederates colluding with the attackers, it's the kind of scandal that defies easy comparison.

On the other hand, cabinet secretaries avoiding commercial air travel is refreshingly simple. The Washington Post has the latest example for a growing list.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke chartered a flight from Las Vegas to near his home in Montana this summer aboard a plane owned by oil-and-gas executives, internal documents show.

The flight, along with private flights during a trip to the Virgin Islands, could propel Zinke into the growing debate over the costs of travel by Cabinet secretaries, some of whom have chosen expensive charter jets and military planes at high expense to taxpayers over the cheaper option of flying commercial.

According to the Post's report, the flight cost taxpayers $12,375. Complicating matters, Donald Trump's Interior secretary didn't just charter a private flight; he flew aboard "a private plane owned by the executives of a Wyoming oil-and-gas exploration firm."

And in case this isn't obvious, oil-and-gas exploration firms are generally eager to make friends with the Department of the Interior.

But what makes this especially amazing is the broader pattern:

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US Department of Homeland Security employees work in front of US threat level displays inside the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center as part of a guided tour in Arlington, Va. June 26, 2014. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Two months later, Trump still doesn't have a DHS secretary

09/29/17 10:07AM

The Trump administration announced yesterday that Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke will travel to Puerto Rico today, accompanied by a series of other senior officials, as part of the response to the post-Hurricane Maria crisis. Why send the "acting" DHS chief? Because the president hasn't nominated someone to actually lead the mammoth agency.

And for those of us waiting to see Donald Trump fill this key cabinet post, it looks like we'll be waiting quite a bit longer. Politico reported yesterday afternoon:

The Trump administration is hitting reset on its search for a permanent Department of Homeland Security secretary due to White House aides' dissatisfaction with the slate of candidates, according to two people familiar with the process.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul had been considered the front-runner for the job, but he no longer is in contention, these people said.... One person close to the process said the Trump administration is now "back to square one" on the search, and it could be weeks before a final decision is made.

Politico charitably described the White House's process as "deliberate." That's not the first adjective that comes to my mind.

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Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore speaks to the congregation of Kimberly Church of God, June 28, 2015, in Kimberley, Ala. (Photo by Butch Dill/AP)

Republican Party struggles to pass Roy Moore test

09/29/17 09:23AM

To his credit, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) conceded yesterday that Roy Moore, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama, represents a problem for his party. In particular, the Arizona senator pointed to Moore's insistence that Muslim Americans shouldn't be allowed to serve in Congress, regardless of voters' will.

"That's not right, and Republicans ought to stand up and say, that's not right," Flake said. The GOP senator, who conceded he was "troubled" by Moore's record, added, "I think that when we disagree with something so fundamental like that, we ought to stand up and say, that's not right, that's not our party, that is not us."

Flake, however, appears to be the only prominent Republican in D.C. raising these kinds of concerns.

Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada -- who faces a potentially tough primary and general election challenge this cycle -- told The Associated Press that he wasn't even aware that Moore had won the Alabama Republican primary on Tuesday, despite a day of nonstop TV coverage of the race about what his victory meant for Trump, McConnell and the GOP.

"Who won? I wasn't paying attention," Heller said. "I'm just worried about taxes."

Little known fact: "Who won? I wasn't paying attention; I'm just worried about taxes" is the official Republican Party platform condensed to 11 words.

Similarly, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) told Politico, in reference to Roy Moore, "He's going to be for tax reform, I think. I don't know, I don't know him."

We're left with a party facing a test, which requires them to balance a sense of limits with an unquenchable thirst for tax breaks for rich people. So far, it's a test the GOP is failing.

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Flowers on a tree bloom near the Treasury Department building in Washington, DC on March 10, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty)

Trump's Treasury Department hides inconvenient economic report

09/29/17 08:40AM

About five years ago, the Treasury Department's Office of Tax Analysis completed a study that found workers end up paying roughly 18% of the existing corporate tax, while corporate owners pay 82%. This wasn't exactly surprising: the results were in line not only with the assessments of most economists, but also data compiled by the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office.

Up until recently, this analysis was publicly available through the Treasury. As the Wall Street Journal reported overnight, that analysis has now vanished -- because it "contradicts Secretary Steven Mnuchin's argument that workers would benefit the most from a corporate income tax cut."

The paper was available on the Treasury website during the summer, and it wasn't clear when it was removed or whether Treasury intended to publish a new analysis. Other technical papers from 2008 through 2016 remain on its site, along with working papers dating back to 1974.

For Mnuchin, it's critical that people believe that a corporate tax break would benefit workers, which makes all of the evidence to the contrary quite inconvenient.

Evidently, Donald Trump's Treasury secretary believes the proper solution is to make that evidence disappear -- even if it came from career officials at his own cabinet agency.

Mark Mazur, the top Treasury tax policy official until January, told the WSJ, "The career economists who worked on this technical paper did a great job summarizing the mainstream of economic thought on this important topic. They shifted my thinking a bit, by pointing out clearly how some of the burden gets shifted to labor. The public interest is advanced by using the best economic science available and being transparent about the analysis undertaken."

That's true, though the political interests of Trump World prefer a very different approach.

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Image: White House news conference with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Director Gary Cohn

Team Trump can't 'guarantee' middle class won't face tax increase

09/29/17 08:00AM

House Speaker Paul Ryan appeared on CNBC yesterday, in part to help promote the Republicans' new tax plan, and the Wisconsin Republican seemed eager to boast about the outline he helped write. He and his partners, Ryan said, "made sure we did the hard lifting and the tough work" before rolling out the proposal.

I wish that were true. It's not. Six like-minded allies met in secret for months, writing a partisan outline behind closed doors, and came up with a bunch of tax cuts. They didn't make any of the difficult choices about how to pay for the "plan," and at least at this point, they've left all kinds of questions unanswered about who'll win and who'll lose if their framework is implemented.

NBC News' Benjy Sarlin explained yesterday, for example, that while gains for ultra-wealthy Americans and businesses are "larger and more concrete" in the GOP proposal, the "net effects on lower- and middle-income Americans are hard to determine." If Republicans had done "the hard lifting and the tough work" before unveiling the framework, there'd be far less ambiguity.

Indeed, one of the architects of the plan, former Goldman Sachs chief Gary Cohn, Donald Trump's top economic adviser, talked to ABC News' George Stephanopoulos yesterday about some of these ambiguities.

STEPHANOPOULOS: ...If I'm hearing you correctly, you can't guarantee that no middle-class family will get a tax increase. There will be middle-class families who get a tax increase under your plan, correct?

COHN: George, there's an exception to every rule.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So that's a yes?

COHN: Look, I can't guarantee anything. You could always find a unique family somewhere.

I suppose Cohn deserves some credit for candor -- it must have been tempting to make a guarantee he couldn't back up -- but the top economics official in the White House seems to realize that some middle-class households really could pay more under the Republican proposal, despite the plan's tax breaks for the wealthy, and despite Donald Trump's rhetoric about the policy's intended beneficiaries.

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About The Rachel Maddow Show

Launched in 2008, “The Rachel Maddow Show” follows the machinations of policy making in America, from local political activism to international diplomacy. Rachel Maddow looks past the distractions of political theater and stunts and focuses on the legislative proposals and policies that shape American life - as well as the people making and influencing those policies and their ultimate outcome, intended or otherwise.



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