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Monday's Mini-Report, 4.9.18

04/09/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* We'll have plenty more on this on tonight's show: "The FBI on Monday raided the office of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, a person with knowledge of the matter told NBC News."

* Syria: "Flanked by members of his Cabinet, President Donald Trump on Monday condemned the suspected chemical attack in Syria, calling it a 'heinous' act and saying his administration would soon make 'major decisions' on how to respond."

* Scott Pruitt: "The federal government's top ethics official has taken the unusual step of sending a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency questioning a series of actions by Administrator Scott Pruitt and asking the agency to take 'appropriate actions to address any violations.'"

* On the Hill: "Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, tried to get ahead of a week of intense scrutiny for him and his company by visiting several top lawmakers in Washington on Monday and reiterating how sorry he was for the social network's failings."

* The latest Team Trump departure: "National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton said Sunday that he plans to leave the White House -- a move that will leave President Donald Trump without one of the earliest and sharpest defenders of his 'America First' foreign policy."

* Ordinarily, this would be a pretty big story: "The apartment destroyed by a raging fire in New York's Trump Tower that killed a resident and injured six firefighters had no sprinkler system, authorities said."

* The Denver Post "is in open revolt against its owner."

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen in a television cameras view finder during a press conference at the Trump National Golf Club Jupiter on March 8, 2016 in Jupiter, Fla. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

White House discovers that Trump listens more 'when it's on TV'

04/09/18 01:00PM

The Associated Press ran an interesting report this morning, noting Donald Trump's newfound interest in rejecting White House constraints. Like a toddler who knows when a parent is skipping pages during pre-bedtime reading, the president has slowly started to notice when his aides are trying to steer him toward a responsible decision -- and he doesn't like it.

The AP article included this great tidbit.

Managing a boss who despises being managed is a difficult game. And those who have succeeded have proceeded carefully. Some aides, convinced that Trump puts more stock in what he sees on TV than in his own aides' advice, regularly phone prominent commentators and news hosts to provide talking points on everything from tax policy to Syria in hopes of influencing Trump.

Similar strategies have also been embraced by foreign governments and outside groups trying to sway the president's thinking.

If this sounds familiar, it may be because the Washington Post had a report late last week, which noted that White House aides "sometimes plot to have guests make points on Fox that they have been unable to get the president to agree to in person."

A senior administration official told the newspaper, "He will listen more when it is on TV."

The Wall Street Journal had a related piece a few weeks ago, describing a bizarre behind-the-scenes strategy: White House aides have asked Jared Kushner to reach out to John Bolton -- the new White House national security adviser, who was a Fox News personality until very recently -- so that Bolton "would have a firm grasp of the administration's position before appearing in forums that the president watches."

As we discussed at the time, it's an amazing dynamic without precedent. When White House officials want Trump to understand his own agenda, they brief television pundits in the hopes that they'll convey the lessons to the president through his preferred medium.

In theory, presidential aides could just brief their boss, but everyone involved seems to understand that doesn't work. After all, Trump "will listen more when it is on TV."

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In this March 10, 2016 photo, Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General, gestures as he speaks during an interview in Oklahoma City, Okla. (Photo by Sue Ogrocki/AP)

The myth of Scott Pruitt's competence at the EPA

04/09/18 12:30PM

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has developed a reputation for brazen corruption and abusing his office, but his champions tend to defend him, not just on ideological grounds, but on practical ones. Pruitt, the story goes, is ruthlessly effective in dismantling environmental safeguards -- which was the rationale for giving him this job in the first place.

Whatever one thinks of the far-right EPA chief and his agenda, it's hard to deny he's carefully executing his well-crafted plan, right? Well, maybe not.

As the EPA chief faces an avalanche of controversies, what if the assumptions about Pruitt's efficacy are wrong? What if the far-right Republican is actually far clumsier and more error prone when rolling back protections than his reputation suggests? The New York Times  reported over the weekend:

[L]egal experts and White House officials say that in Mr. Pruitt's haste to undo government rules and in his eagerness to hold high-profile political events promoting his agenda, he has often been less than rigorous in following important procedures, leading to poorly crafted legal efforts that risk being struck down in court.

The result, they say, is that the rollbacks, intended to fulfill one of the president's central campaign pledges, may ultimately be undercut or reversed.... Six of Mr. Pruitt's efforts to delay or roll back Obama-era regulations -- on issues including pesticides, lead paint and renewable-fuel requirements -- have been struck down by the courts. Mr. Pruitt also backed down on a proposal to delay implementing smog regulations and another to withdraw a regulation on mercury pollution.

The article added that when the EPA filed its legal justification last week on vehicle emissions, Pruitt presented his argument "in a 38-page document filed on Tuesday that, experts say, was devoid of the kind of supporting legal, scientific and technical data that courts have shown they expect to see when considering challenges to regulatory changes."

Richard Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Harvard, told the Times, "In their rush to get things done, [Pruitt and his team are] failing to dot their i's and cross their t's. And they're starting to stumble over a lot of trip wires, They're producing a lot of short, poorly crafted rulemakings that are not likely to hold up in court."

The hype surrounding the EPA chief is starting to unravel. The New Republic's Emily Atkin explained the other day that Pruitt has been prolific in attacking environmental protections, "but so far, Pruitt’s biggest achievement is that he appears successful."

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.9.18

04/09/18 12:00PM

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

* In Orlando this morning, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) launched his U.S. Senate campaign against incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D). While I think Nelson is probably a slight favorite, the problem for Democrats is that advertising in Florida is expensive, and investing in this race will mean far fewer resources for other competitive contests.

* A variety of Republican candidates have embraced a curious election tactic: telling voters that Democrats will impeach Donald Trump if they're in the majority. Dems tried a similar tack in 2014, but it didn't have much of an effect.

* There are two state legislative special elections this week, a state Senate race in Florida and another in Iowa.

* An interesting New York Times  analysis the other day found that there are "far more" Democratic congressional candidates this year "than at any time in the last quarter-century." The piece added, "Notably, there are even more Democrats running for the House this year than there were Republican hopefuls in 2010, when the Tea Party uprising against Mr. Obama helped sweep in 63 new House Republicans."

* On the comeback trail, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), seeking his old job, has unveiled his 2018 pitch: "Putting Minnesotans in the middle first is a better way forward." That is one very awkward sentence.

* California is moving forward with a plan to get 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote. The L.A. Times  reported that, according to information released on Friday by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the effort has now enlisted 100,000 teenagers.

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The Arizona-Mexico border fence near Naco, Arizona, March 29, 2013.

As Trump seeks Guard troops for the border, some governors balk

04/09/18 11:20AM

At a White House event last week, Donald Trump seemed excited about "doing things militarily" along the U.S./Mexico border. "Until we can have a wall and proper security, we're going to be guarding our border with the military," the president said. "That's a big step. We really haven't done that before -- certainly not very much before."

In reality, it's not that big a step. The Bush and Obama administration used National Guard troops along the border, and in both of those instances, illegal border crossings were higher than they are now. In fact, given the total absence of a crisis, there's no apparent substantive reason why Trump has made this decision.

In practical terms, however, the president isn't simply dispatching 2,000 to 4,000 National Guard troops to the border; he's actually requesting that governors agree to his request to deploy troops. Some aren't.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, also a Republican, on Friday became one of the latest leaders to oppose the plan. His spokeswoman, Mary-Sarah Kinner, said in an email that Sandoval does not believe the mission would be "an appropriate use" of the Nevada National Guard.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, has said she would deny Trump's request.

The news wasn't all bad for the White House, however. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) announced plans to send about 150 Guard members this week, and Texas has agreed to send an additional 250 Guard troops, as part of an initial surge.

That's a combined total of 400 people. What's less clear, however, is exactly how Trump will cobble together 4,000 troops -- his publicly stated goal. An Associated Press report added late last week, "New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez's office said Friday that it had not yet deployed any Guard members. The office of California Gov. Jerry Brown did not respond to questions about whether it would deploy troops."

I know the president wants 4,000 Guard troops along the border; I just don't know if Trump is going to get 4,000 Guard troops along the border.

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Image: First Lady Melania Trump Hosts A Celebration Of MilitaryMothers Event

Trump concedes his new economic plan may produce 'a little pain'

04/09/18 10:40AM

As a rule, Donald Trump likes to pretend that every aspect of his presidential agenda is working flawlessly, to the historic benefit of all Americans. It therefore came as a bit of a surprise the other day when the president conceded during a radio interview that his controversial trade policies may lead to "a little pain" for the domestic economy.

"I'm not saying there won't be a little pain, but the market has gone up 40 percent, 42 percent so we might lose a little bit of it. But we're going to have a much stronger country when we're finished.

"So we may take a hit and you know what, ultimately we're going to be much stronger for it," Trump said.

At the risk of sounding picky, the market has not gone up 40% or 42%. Since Trump's inauguration, as of late last week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen about 20%. That's not bad, of course, but (a) Trump shouldn't double the market's performance just because he feels like it; and (b) market growth under this president ranks Trump below H.W. Bush, Clinton, Obama, Reagan, and FDR at comparable periods in their presidencies.

The more relevant point, however, is Trump's belief that he'll cause "a little pain" for the American economy now, taking a "hit" in the short-term, but the steps he's taking will pay off for us in the long-term. At first blush, that's not necessarily crazy: this president may be obsessed with instant gratification and impulsive antics, but if Trump had a real, credible plan to impose economic punishments now in order to help the country down the road, that could, theoretically, be a responsible, albeit uncharacteristic, move.

The trouble, however, is identifying that real, credible plan.

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An 'I voted' sticker is handed out to a voter during the Maryland presidential primary election at Skyline Elementary School in Suitland, Md., April 26, 2016. (Photo by Shawn Thew/EPA)

Automatic voter registration takes another big step forward

04/09/18 10:00AM

Automatic voter registration (AVR) may now seem like common sense, but as recently three years ago, it did not exist in any of the nation's states. As Mother Jones' Ari Berman reported late last week, however, the policy keeps expanding its reach.

Maryland became the 12th state to enact automatic voter registration on Thursday after Republican Gov. Larry Hogan declined to veto a bill that had passed the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Maryland has half a million unregistered voters, according to a 2017 report by the department of legislative services. [...]

Under the bill, eligible voters will automatically be registered when they obtain or renew a driver's license at the Department of Motor Vehicles or interact with other agencies such as the state's health insurance exchange and local departments of social services, unless they opt out. The new law takes effect in July 2019 and could register 400,000 new voters, according to a report by Demos.

For those keeping score, Maryland now joins Oregon, California, Alaska, Colorado, Illinois, Georgia, West Virginia, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia in adopting AVR. (Technically, that's 11 states plus D.C.)

They may soon have some company. New Jersey, where Democrats now control the levers of power, is poised to approve automatic voter registration fairly soon, and in Nevada, AVR will be on the statewide ballot this fall, and most observers expect it to pass.

As we discussed a month ago, when Democrats in Washington approved sweeping progressive election reforms, including AVR, I’ve long believed this is a policy that’s tough to argue against. When it comes to registering to vote in the United States, the burden has traditionally been on the individual: if you’re eligible to vote, it’s up to you to take the proactive steps needed to register.

Automatic voter registration, which already exists in many of the world’s democracies, flips that model.

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Blake Farenthold

Texas Republican resigns, increases historic resignation count

04/09/18 09:20AM

It's not unusual for some of the most interesting political stories to come to light late on a Friday afternoon, when embarrassed politicians hope developments will get less attention. Take the latest congressional resignation, for example.

Rep. Blake Farenthold announced Friday that he has resigned from Congress, months after details surfaced about his use of $84,000 in taxpayer funds to settle a sexual harassment claim lodged by a former employee. [...]

It's unclear what suddenly prompted him to leave Washington. His official Twitter account appeared to have been deleted as of Friday afternoon.

The Texas Republican was already slated to retire at the end of this Congress; his resignation announcement, effective immediately, wrapped up his career seven months early.

Regular readers may recall the key Farenthold controversy, which first came to public light about four years ago. The Texas Republican’s former communications director, Lauren Greene, accused Farenthold and his chief of staff of creating a hostile work environment, gauging her interest in a sexual relationship. In her court filing, Greene alleged that Farenthold told another staffer that he had “sexual fantasies” and “wet dreams” about her.

The case was settled out of court, but the incident was politically unique: NBC News reported that the $84,000 settlement came by way of the Office of Compliance, the first such taxpayer-funded settlement to be made public.

Farenthold, perhaps best known for his choice in pajamas, said he intends to pay Americans back for the cost of the settlement. 

As of Friday, however, Farenthold still owed us $84,000. Following the resignation announcement, House Speaker Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) office said the Texan "reiterated his commitment" to pay taxpayers back as he exited Congress, but it's been about six months since Farenthold first made his promise, and it's hard not to wonder whether we'll ever see that money.

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U.S.  President Obama meets with President-elect Trump in the White House Oval Office in Washington

Following attack in Syria, Trump turns attention to Obama

04/09/18 08:40AM

NBC News reported over the weekend that Syria's Assad regime launched an alleged chemical weapons attack late Saturday, killing dozens. Donald Trump, relying on Twitter instead of official White House statements, said Russia and Iran "are responsible for backing Animal Assad."

Soon after, however, the American president turned his attention to his predecessor.

"If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago! Animal Assad would have been history!"

This really isn't a good argument. For one thing, when Trump launched a missile strike in Syria last year, the line from the White House and its allies was that the U.S. had sent a powerful signal that put the Assad government in its place. Those boasts haven't held up especially well.

For another, perhaps Donald Trump has forgotten what his position was in 2013 when Barack Obama was weighing a military offensive in Syria -- because he was the one saying the opposite of what he's saying now.

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Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-TRUMP

As scandals pile up for EPA's Pruitt, Trump signals indifference

04/09/18 08:00AM

As corruption allegations piled up last week against EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, reporters asked Donald Trump about whether he's concerned. The president said his far-right EPA chief is doing a "fantastic job," and "incredible job," a "terrific job," and a "great job."

As for the series of allegations, Trump added, "I want to look at it.... I'll take a look at it very closely."

Since then, Pruitt's troubles have, if anything, intensified. The day after the president's comments, the Associated Press published a brutal report on the Oklahoma Republican's abusive spending habits, including the fact that he flew coach, but only when taxpayers weren't picking up the tab. Politico added that Pruitt overstayed his welcome with his lobbyist landlords, to the point that they "changed their locks."

And yet, the president has apparently completed his "very close" analysis and determined that Pruitt is in the clear. Here's Trump's tweet from the weekend:

"While Security spending was somewhat more than his predecessor, Scott Pruitt has received death threats because of his bold actions at EPA. Record clean Air & Water while saving USA Billions of Dollars. Rent was about market rate, travel expenses OK. Scott is doing a great job!"

To the extent that reality matters, Trump's overly forgiving refutation of some of the allegations Pruitt is facing doesn't stand up especially well to scrutiny. The EPA chief's security spending is vastly more expensive, for example, not "somewhat." The existence of the death threats is also suspect.

The rent at the lobbyist's Capitol Hill home, meanwhile, was not "about" market rate, and the first-class travel expenses for Pruitt and several members of his team are plainly indefensible.

I'm not altogether sure what "record clean Air & Water" is supposed to mean.

But even putting the details aside, what we're left with is a president who appears alarmingly indifferent to brazen corruption.

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An exterior view of the entrance to the new Trump International Hotel at the old post office on Oct. 26, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty)

This Week in God, 4.7.18

04/07/18 07:36AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a look at a political event evangelical leaders are organizing, which theoretically could cause some discomfort for Donald Trump. NPR had this report yesterday.

As allegations continue to swirl about the president and a payout to a porn star to cover up a sexual encounter, evangelical leaders are organizing a sit-down with President Trump in June, four sources with knowledge of the planned meeting tell NPR.

"We're very concerned" about the allegations, said a leader of a faith-based ministry. The leader is involved in hosting the gathering, which organizers are aiming to take place June 19 at Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. The source said the combination of the Stormy Daniels sex-scandal allegations and Trump's continued reputation for divisive rhetoric could suppress evangelical turnout in the November midterm elections.

Organizers are reportedly coordinating the schedule for the event with the White House, with the expectation that invitations will then go out to "hundreds of conservative Christian pastors and political leaders in the coming days." The president would, according to the plan, not only attend the gathering but also field questions from evangelical leaders in attendance for roughly 90 minutes.

One of NPR's sources said, "It is a concern of ours that 2018 could be very detrimental to some of the other issues that we hold dear."

What's surprising to me is the fact that some politically active conservative evangelicals would consider such a meeting necessary. A month ago, for example, far-right megachurch leader Robert Jeffress, cognizant of the Stormy Daniels scandal, effectively gave his presidential ally as a pass.

"Evangelicals still believe in the commandment: Thou shalt not have sex with a porn star," Jeffress said in early March. "However, whether this president violated that commandment or not is totally irrelevant to our support of him.... Evangelicals knew they weren't voting for an altar boy when they voted for Donald Trump."

So which is it? It apparently depends which politically active conservative evangelicals you ask. NPR spoke to a "very concerned" leader of a faith-based ministry, but as Right Wing Watch noted yesterday, the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, who's reportedly helping organize the June gathering, appeared on a conservative radio talk show and questioned the premise of NPR's report.

"At no point in the conversations that we've had organizing this ... [was there any] discussion at all about doing this to have a confrontational meeting with the president," Perkins said. "It is not going to be a confrontational meeting with the president. That is just absolutely not true because that's not what we are hearing. It might be what the media wants to take place, but it's not going to happen."

Of course, if Trump has any reason to believe this might become "a confrontational meeting," organizers should consider the possibility that he won't show up.

Also from the God Machine this week:

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