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Administration adopts a 'Never-Mind-What-Trump-Said' foreign policy

02/20/17 11:35AM

On his first full day as president, Donald Trump delivered a speech at CIA headquarters, where he lamented the fact Americans did not take Iraqi oil after the 2003 invasion. "The old expression, to the victor belong the spoils," the new president said, adding, "We should've kept the oil. But, okay, maybe we'll have another chance."

A few days later, in an interview with ABC News, Trump said, four times, "We should have taken the oil." Asked about the "maybe we'll have another chance" comment, Trump added, "[W]e'll see what happens. I mean, we're gonna see what happens."

Nearly a month later, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Baghdad this morning, declaring, "We're not in Iraq to seize anybody's oil."

I call this part of the "Never-Mind-What-Trump-Said' approach to foreign policy, which follows an increasingly familiar pattern: the president makes a ridiculous comment, which creates international alarm, which leads to leading members of the Trump administration trying to reassure global observers that there's simply no reason to take the leader of the free world's claims seriously.

As Politico noted over the weekend, this happens with alarming regularity.
Even though the administration is less than a month old, both [Secretary of State Rex Tillerson] and [Defense Secretary James Mattis] have been in perpetual cleanup mode, making calls to leaders around the world with far less drama and unpredictability than Trump's own calls and traveling to assuage the anxieties of key allies in Asia and Europe. Both have spent much of their first weeks in office in other countries, reassuring allies about Trump's ad hoc approach to foreign policy that is being driven largely by the president's son-in-law.
It's not just Tillerson and Mattis. Last week, literally the day after Trump dismissed a possible two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said the exact opposite, insisting, "We absolutely support a two-state solution."

And then there's Vice President Mike Pence, whose vision of foreign policy appears to be wholly at odds with his boss', even as he tries to argue that the two are on the same page.
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Image: File Photo: Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing

Betsy DeVos hasn't changed her mind about education

02/20/17 11:00AM

Betsy DeVos' nomination to lead the Department of Education was one of the most contentious confirmation fights Americans have seen in a while, but despite bipartisan opposition, she was narrowly confirmed anyway -- thanks to a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence.

Her brief tenure thus far hasn't been much smoother. DeVos has faced a variety of protests since taking over as the nation's Education Secretary, and like much of the Trump administration, the Michigan Republican believes it's best to dismiss her critics as being part of a conspiracy against her. "I don't think most of those are spontaneous, genuine protests," DeVos told a conservative website last week. "I think they're all being sponsored and very carefully planned."

She's offered no evidence, only her assumptions.

At the same time, DeVos is also sticking to her far-right views on education policy, despite her new job. Axios asked the megadonor/cabinet secretary last week if, in her ideal world, the federal government would have any role in education. She replied:
"It would be fine with me to have myself worked out of a job, but I'm not sure that -- I'm not sure that there will be a champion movement in Congress to do that."
Oh. So, the nation's Education Secretary, even now, isn't sure the position she now holds should exist -- apparently because she's still not on board with the idea of having a federal Department of Education, which she now leads.

The quote made it sound as if DeVos is simply waiting for Congress to follow through on the far-right vision she embraced before her confirmation hearing.
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50 subject one dollar note sheets are run through an intaglio printing press before the face is printed at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C., April 14, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

As the budget takes shape, Team Trump pushes highly dubious math

02/20/17 10:32AM

Donald Trump's White House hasn't yet released its first budget blueprint, but the New York Times reported over the weekend on a draft's "hit list" of programs the president and his team intends to eliminate, including "longstanding conservative targets like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation, AmeriCorps and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities." More surprising is Team Trump also targeting the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy.

For all of the president's rhetoric about tackling the opioid crisis, eliminating the ONDCP would be a giant step backwards.

But while we wait for the official document, and Congress' reaction to it, the Wall Street Journal published a fascinating scoop on how Trump World is approaching budget math.
The Trump administration has drafted preliminary economic growth forecasts in its federal budget planning that rely on assumptions that are far rosier than projections made by independent agencies and most private forecasters, according to several people familiar with the discussions. [...]

What's unusual about the administration's forecasts isn't just their relative optimism but also the process by which they were derived. Normally, the executive branch starts with a baseline forecast prepared by career staff of the CEA.... Discussions for the Trump administration unfolded differently, with transition officials telling the CEA staff the growth targets that their budget would produce and asking them to backfill other estimates off those figures.
Got that? Trump's team has started with the growth forecast that it likes -- which also happens to be consistent with what the Republican president said during the campaign -- and wants to work backwards to justify the numbers chosen in advance.

The Federal Reserve and the Congressional Budget office expect growth of around 2% in the coming years, but Trump's budget will project growth between 3% and 3.5% a year, every year for the next decade.

Maybe the White House would attract more capable economists if the administration didn't try nonsense like this.
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House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy prepares to speak to the media after unexpectedly dropping out of consideration to be the next Speaker of the House on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 8, 2015. (Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

GOP leader warns Trump critics 'are putting Californians at risk'

02/20/17 10:00AM

At this point, there are only a handful of states in which Democrats dominate, but it's safe to say California is one of them. Not only do Dem officials control much of the state government and statewide offices, but in 2016, Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in the Golden State by 30 points.

But California is nevertheless a massive and diverse place, and there are plenty of Republican-friendly areas in the state. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), for example, represents Bakersfield in the single "reddest" congressional district on the West Coast.

And according to the New York Times, the GOP leader has a suggestion for his fellow Californians: it's time to start being nicer to Donald Trump.
One month into the Trump presidency, Mr. McCarthy is a man with a foot in two warring camps. He represents a 10,000-square-mile red rural stronghold in the farmland of central California, a state that Mr. Trump lost by four million votes. His seniority in the House leadership, and his ties to Mr. Trump, mean that he is indisputably the most powerful Californian in the nation's capital.

And in an interview here, Mr. McCarthy left no doubt that his loyalties in this fight were east of the Mississippi River. He assailed California's Democratic leaders for provoking the president, and warned that it could prove damaging to the state, particularly as the Trump administration created an infrastructure program to pay for public works projects across the nation.
McCarthy told the Times that he will, of course, represent his district and state, "but what they are doing, they are playing with fire. Donald Trump is not going out in any way or form to attack California. They are the ones who are attacking California right now. They are the ones who are putting Californians at risk in every shape and form. And they are doing it to make a political point, which is wrong."

That's the kind of quote that could use some clarification.
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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

Blame Trump, not Democrats, for the administration's empty offices

02/20/17 09:30AM

Sometimes, the right thing happens for the wrong reason. Take Elliott Abrams, for example.

Abrams, a controversial figure in Republican foreign policy for decades, was poised to become the deputy secretary of state in Donald Trump's administration, but the nomination never came. The president learned that Abrams was openly critical of his candidacy last year, and as a consequence, Abrams would not be welcome on Trump's team.

And while I'm generally pleased with the outcome -- Abrams' return to a position of government authority struck me as a very bad idea -- these developments are emblematic of an administration that remains largely empty, in large part because of the president's difficulties. The New York Times reported over the weekend:
Mr. Trump remains fixated on the campaign as he applies a loyalty test to some prospective officials. For their part, many Republicans reacted to what happened to Mr. Abrams with dismay, leaving them increasingly leery about joining an administration that cannot get past the past.

As Mr. Trump brings candidates for national security adviser to meet with him in Florida this weekend, he presides over a government where the upper echelons remain sparsely populated. Six of the 15 statutory cabinet secretaries are still awaiting Senate confirmation as Democrats nearly uniformly oppose almost all of the president's choices.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is still without a deputy, and Trump hasn't named under secretaries or assistant secretaries. The Times' report added that there are similar problems at a variety of other cabinet agencies, where nominees simply haven't been sent to the Senate for consideration.

Republicans may be eager to blast Democratic "obstruction" and partisan delays, but the truth of the matter is simple: Democrats can't block nominees who don't exist.

Looking past the numbers, what seems to be the problem here? Why isn't the White House completing this most basic of tasks?
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Trump's for-profit enterprise isn't the 'Southern White House'

02/20/17 09:00AM

For the third consecutive weekend, Donald Trump departed the White House for Florida, spending time once again at Mar-a-Lago, one of the president's many business ventures. Last week, Trump and his team were casually referring to the club as the "Winter White House," but this week, the president rebranded it the "Southern White House."

Apparently, it's not just seasonal anymore.

The facilities at Mar-a-Lago have proven to be controversial of late, especially after Trump started conducting sensitive national security talks in front of club members, wait staff, and other civilians. But complicating matters is the broader ethical dynamic.

The New York Times noted over the weekend that Team Trump has created "an arena for potential political influence rarely seen in American history: a kind of Washington steakhouse on steroids, situated in a sunny playground of the rich and powerful, where members and their guests enjoy a level of access that could elude even the best-connected of lobbyists."
... Mr. Trump's weekend White House appears to be unprecedented in American history, as it is the first one with customers paying a company owned by the president, several historians said.

"Mar-a-Lago represents a commercialization of the presidency that has few if any precedents in American history," said Jon Meacham, a presidential historian and Andrew Jackson biographer. "Presidents have always spent time with the affluent," he added. "But a club where people pay you as president to spend time in his company is new. It is kind of amazing."
"Amazing" is a generous word under the circumstances. Nixon's California home came to be known as the "Western White House," and Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush spent a considerable amount of time during their presidencies at their respective ranches. But in each of those cases, presidents had private properties where they had private homes. Trump's business operation, on the other hand, now charges $200,000 a person to join a club where members can gain access to the president, members of his team, and a front-row seat to foreign-policy talks in the wake of a North Korean missile launch.
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John McCain speaks during The Daily Beast's 2nd Annual Hero Summit at Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium on Oct. 10, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty)

If only John McCain's actions matched John McCain's rhetoric

02/20/17 08:30AM

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a steadfast Republican partisan for many years, is suddenly generating quite a bit of attention for raising concerns about a president from his own party.
Republican Sen. John McCain took a veiled swipe at President Donald Trump's attacks on the media, cautioning that suppressing the press "is how dictators get started."

McCain, who has broken with Trump on several issues, made the comments in an exclusive interview with NBC's "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd, after being asked about the president's condemnation of several media outlets as "fake news" and "an enemy of the American people."
"I hate the press. I hate you especially," McCain joked. "But the fact is we need you. We need a free press. We must have it. It's vital." He added, "If you want to preserve -- I'm very serious now -- if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That's how dictators get started."

The senator did not, for the record, call Donald Trump a dictator, but the implications of McCain's rhetoric of late aren't exactly subtle. The Arizona Republican delivered striking remarks on Friday that took aim at the Trump White House's foreign policy; he had some provocative things to say about the infamous Russian dossier; he chastised the administration's approach to national security as "dysfunctional"; and he's separated himself from a variety of key elements of the Trump agenda.

The president himself has been annoyed enough with McCain to send a few snide tweets in his direction.

This, naturally, has led to a resurgence of media affection for the longtime senator -- with plenty of outlets dragging his "maverick" nickname out of storage. The New York Times today labeled McCain Trump's "Critic in Chief."

Before the gushing gets completely out of hand, it's worth pausing to appreciate the disconnect between McCain's rhetoric and his actions.
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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 points to imagined violence at brazenly dishonest rally

02/20/17 08:00AM

Kellyanne Conway recently made repeated references to a "massacre" at Bowling Green that never actually happened. Sean Spicer similarly pointed several times to a terrorist attack in Atlanta that didn't occur. So perhaps it was inevitable that Donald Trump, fresh off his bizarre claims about U.S. murder rates that exist only in his imagination, would point to a Swedish incident with no basis in reality.

At a campaign rally in Florida on Saturday, incredibly the first official event of the 2020 presidential election cycle, the Republican president told a group of supporters:
"Here's the bottom line. We've got to keep our country safe. You look at what's happening. We've got to keep our country safe. You look at what's happening in Germany, you look at what's happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden."
It's likely that no one would believe this because there were no security incidents in Sweden on Friday night. In fact, Swedish officials, asked what in the world the U.S. president might have been referring to, seemed baffled. (The bizarre comments were  the result of something Trump saw on Fox News the night before. If only he had some federal agencies that might help keep him informed about international events, the president might be better informed. Oh wait, he does.)

If it makes Sweden feel any better, many Americans often have no idea what Trump is saying, either.

But the events "last night in Sweden" were really just the tip of a truly ridiculous iceberg. The president, speaking to a smaller-than-expected crowd -- I assume the White House will soon insist it was the largest campaign rally in the history of Western civilization -- seemed eager to paint a picture of an alternate reality in which the Obama administration did no vetting of refugees; the Trump White House is "running so smoothly"; and he "inherited one big mess."

"When the media lies to people, I will never, ever let them get away with it," he declared. Trump was less clear on what's supposed to happen when he lies to people, even while reading from his trusted Teleprompter.
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A visitor looks into a cage containing a model dinosaur inside a replica Noah's Ark at the Ark Encounter theme park during a media preview day, Tuesday, July 5, 2016, in Williamstown, Ky.

This Week in God, 2.18.17

02/18/17 08:11AM

First up from the God Machine this week is an update on a faith-based theme park regular readers are probably familiar with. The Huffington Post reported this week:
A new display going into the creationist Noah's Ark attraction in Kentucky shows what appears to be gladiator-style fights involving humans, giants and a dinosaur.

Ken Ham, founder of the group that runs the attraction, tweeted images of the new diorama on Thursday.... Ham, who believes in a strict literal interpretation of the Bible, claims the planet is roughly 6,000 years old, that humans existed alongside dinosaurs and that Noah even carried dinosaurs with him on the ark during a global flood roughly 4,300 years ago.
In fact, that appears to be one of the key points of the theme park itself. Revisiting our coverage from July, this isn’t just a fun excursion for tourists. The point of “Ark Encounter” is to promote a Christian ministry’s worldview, “share the gospel,” and encourage visitors to embrace young-earth creationism. This ark’s builders genuinely believe the story of Noah is literally true – complete with dinosaurs on the replica of the mythical boat.

And while everyone is free to choose their own spiritual path, the Christian ministry that built this park demanded and receivedtaxpayer subsidies for the project, despite the fact that all employees – including staff whose responsibilities have nothing to do with religion – will be required to be Christian and sign a written document professing “Christ as their savior.”
Indeed, those hoping to work at “Ark Encounter” must also submit a “creation belief statement” before being hired, which includes endorsing the idea that the planet is roughly 6,000 years old.
The fact that Kentucky taxpayers are subsidizing all of this may seem legally problematic, but a Bush/Cheney-appointed federal judge cleared the way for the public assistance, and Gov. Matt Bevin (R), delighted with the outcome, did not appeal the case that had been litigated by his Democratic predecessor.

Also from the God Machine this week:
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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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