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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 2.15.17

02/15/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Trump thought this wouldn't happen under him: "Four Russian aircraft flew in an 'unsafe and unprofessional' manner near a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Black Sea, according to the Pentagon."

* California: "After a mandatory evacuation was reduced to a 'warning' around Lake Oroville, California, many residents are still wary Wednesday about returning home as days of rain still threaten to compromise the spillway of America's tallest dam."

* Israel: "President Donald Trump said he would support the peace agreement Israel and Palestinians 'like the best' in a joint press conference during which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu railed against Palestinian efforts to reach a deal."

* ACA: "Humana announced on Tuesday that it would no longer offer health insurance coverage in the state marketplaces created under the federal health care law, becoming the first major insurer to cast a no-confidence vote over selling individual plans on the public exchanges for 2018."

* In related news: "The Trump administration has canceled plans to tighten enforcement of the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate. The Obama administration's plan was designed to strengthen the law. The Trump administration's decision could weaken it."

* NATO: "Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued an ultimatum Wednesday to allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, warning that if they do not boost their defense spending to goals set by the alliance, the United States may alter its relationship with them."
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Image: Andrew Puzder, chief executive officer of CKE Restaurants In

Trump cabinet nominee withdraws under a cloud of controversy

02/15/17 04:42PM

The question in recent weeks surrounding Donald Trump's cabinet nominees has been simple: Will Senate Republicans confirm literally anyone? Or more to the point, do standards for cabinet posts still exist in any meaningful way?

For a while, the answers to those questions were not encouraging. Senate Republicans confirmed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos despite her overt hostility towards public schools and complete lack of familiarity with the basics of education policy. They confirmed HHS Secretary Tom Price despite his investment scandals, radical ideology, fringe associations, and repeated falsehoods during his confirmation hearing. They confirmed Treasury Secretary Steve Mnunchin after he failed to disclose millions of dollars he parked in the Cayman Islands.

Is there any limit as to who GOP senators will support? Apparently, yes.
Andy Puzder, President Donald Trump's nominee for labor secretary, withdrew his nomination on Wednesday amid growing questions about his business record and scrutiny from senators on both sides of the aisle.

The head of CKE Restaurants, which owns Hardee's and Carl's Jr., came under harsh criticism from Democrats and liberal groups for his opposition to raising the minimum wage, past controversial comments, and the racy ads his properties have used to promote the fast-food chains.
Puzder was less a Labor Secretary nominee and more a caricature of what a ridiculous cabinet selection looks like. Even by contemporary Republican standards, his overt hostility towards working people stood out as breathtaking.

But what ultimately derailed his nomination was the lengthy list of controversies, including allegations of domestic abuse, hiring undocumented workers, and multiple unresolved controversies surrounding his own businesses. The fact that Puzder's confirmation hearings were delayed multiple times, in part because he seemed reluctant to provide the Senate with his background materials, didn't help.
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U.S. President Donald Trump looks at Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a joint news conference at the White House in Washington, U.S.

Trump's preoccupation with his election does more harm than good

02/15/17 03:57PM

At a brief White House press conference today, standing alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump fielded a question from an Israeli journalist who asked about a rise in anti-Semitic incidents. "I wonder what you say to those among the Jewish community in the States, and in Israel, and maybe around the world who believe and feel that your administration is playing with xenophobia and maybe racist tones," the reporter asked.

The American president's reaction was .... unexpected.
"Well, I just want to say that we are, you know, very honored by the victory that we had -- 306 electoral college votes. We were not supposed to crack 220. You know that, right? There was no way to 221, but then they said there's no way to 270. And there's tremendous enthusiasm out there."
Trump went on to say national divisions contributed to his victory, and then pointed to Jewish members of his family.

In other words, asked about anti-Semitic incidents, Donald Trump immediately thought of how cool it was that he won the presidential election.

This followed a press conference on Monday with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in which Trump, in response to a question about Syrian refugees, noted that he won "a very, very large electoral college vote."

This, of course, came on the heels of a series of bizarre claims in which Trump claimed to have secretly won the popular vote, a recent interview in which he described his 2016 win as "one of the greatest victories ever," and a recent conversation between the president and the Australian prime minister in which Trump reportedly "boasted about the magnitude of his electoral college win."

Part of the problem with Trump's unhealthy preoccupation is that it's factually incorrect. He earned 306 electoral votes, and he received 304. Neither number is especially impressive: Trump's tally was well below the historical average, and ranks among the lowest in American campaign history.
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File Photo: Rhino 500 handguns are on display at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Annual Meetings and Exhibits on April 14, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images, File)

Senate Republicans vote to expand gun access for mentally impaired

02/15/17 02:14PM

Following up on our previous coverage, congressional Republicans have made a specific gun measure one of their early priorities. As of this morning, it's on its way to becoming law.

Under the status quo, when an American suffers from a severe mental illness, to the point that he or she receives disability benefits through the Social Security Administration, there are a variety of limits created to help protect that person and his or her interests. These folks cannot, for example, go to a bank to cash a check on their own.

They also can't buy a gun. Last week, the GOP-led House passed a measure to expand these Americans' access to firearms, and as the Huffington Post noted, the GOP-led Senate did the same this morning.
Congress took its final step Wednesday to repeal a Social Security Administration rule that was written to prevent mentally incompetent people from buying guns. [...]

Republicans, who frequently assert that the way to deal with gun violence is to deal with mental illness, in this case argued that the regulation mistreats disabled Americans.
The Senate roll call is online here. Note that literally every Senate Republican voted for it, as did four red-state Democrats and one independent who caucuses with Dems.

As always, the specific substantive details matter. The Social Security Administration reports the names of those who receive disability benefits due to severe mental illness to the FBI's background-check system. The Republicans' bill intends to block that reporting, making more people eligible to legally buy a firearm.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen through the audience before participating in a roundtable event, Sept. 27, 2016, in Miami. (Photo by John Locher/AP)

With the pressure on, Trump thinks a Twitter tantrum will help

02/15/17 12:57PM

Nearly a month into his presidency, Donald Trump is failing by practically every metric. His White House is facing a deeply serious scandal; his National Security Advisor has been forced out; members of his campaign team are facing a counter-espionage investigation; and polls show the American mainstream rejecting what they're seeing out of the West Wing.

The result is something of a test for the new president. How does Trump respond under pressure? Can he show grace under fire? President Obama excelled at keeping his cool -- in ways that often seemed to annoy pundits -- and current conditions offer his successor an opportunity to show he can do the same.

So far, it's not going well.
President Donald Trump blamed "conspiracy theories and blind hatred" — and an attempt to "cover-up" for Hillary Clinton's failed presidential campaign — in a series of tweets Wednesday morning as he tried to distance himself from any links to Russia.

Trump tweeted that the "fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred," and added that "this Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton's losing campaign."
Yes, the president, who loved leaks when they related to Hillary Clinton, had quite a series of angry missives this morning, starting early with complaints about the media and "conspiracy theories" -- this from a man who's been largely defined by his bizarre affection for ridiculous and racially charged conspiracy theories -- which was followed by a torrent of related tweets.

Of particular interest was Trump's complaints about "classified information" from intelligence agencies being shared "illegally" with major news organizations. It creates an interesting contradiction: the information can either be "fake news" or it can be classified materials from official sources, but he really ought to pick one or the other.

At another point, the president raised concerns about the FBI possibly intervening in politics -- which was ironic given James Comey's role in helping Trump win the election.

But aside from the specifics of his social-media tirade, this morning seemed to also offer the public a peek into the president's internal monologue.
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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.15.17

02/15/17 12:00PM

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

* The latest out of North Carolina: "A three-judge panel has rejected Gov. Roy Cooper’s request to continue to block the new Cabinet approval process adopted by the General Assembly in December, but clarified that it’s the governor, not the state Senate, that launches any review of the key administrators." [Note, this is an updated report from the one I mentioned earlier.]

* In the race to become the next DNC chair, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez claims to be closing in on the number of votes he'll need to win. Rep. Keith Ellison's (D-Minn.) team strongly disputes that assessment. The election is a week from Saturday.

* With control of Delaware's state Senate on the line, former Vice President Joe Biden is trying to rally support for Stephanie Hansen, a local candidate who's running in a Feb. 25 special election.

* Despite backing President Obama twice, Iowa easily threw its support to the Trump/Pence ticket in November. It's therefore notable that the new Des Moines Register poll shows the Republican president with a 42% approval rating in the Hawkeye State. The same survey found Trump with a 49% disapproval rating.

* In the political parlor-room game about who's feuding with whom in Donald Trump's dysfunctional White House, it stood out yesterday when Breitbart News took aim at Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Steve Bannon, who used to run Breitbart, later said he's "unhappy" with the piece.

* Two years ago, reporter Alison Parker was murdered live on the air. Now, her boyfriend, Chris Hurst, is running for the state House in Virginia. Among the issues he intends to focus on is keeping people under emergency protective orders from having guns.
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President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Orlando Amphitheater at the Central Florida Fairgrounds, Dec. 16, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

Why Trump's falsehoods about autism matter

02/15/17 11:20AM

Shortly before launching his presidential campaign, Donald Trump wanted the world to know he's "totally pro-vaccine" and he also believe vaccines can cause "horrible autism." There is, of course, literally zero evidence linking vaccines and autism, but Trump isn't an evidence-based kind of guy.

After becoming a candidate, Trump declared during a primary debate that autism "has become an epidemic" and has "gotten totally out of control." He even had an anecdote to share: "Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic."

There's no reason to believe that child exists in reality, but Trump seemed quite animated about his beliefs -- which are directly at odds with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the Institute of Medicine.

Worse, he's apparently not done. New York magazine noted yesterday that Trump hosted an event at the White House with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and a group of educators, and the president focused on one principal of a special education center in Virginia.
After Jane noted that many of her students have autism, Trump asked, "Have you seen a big increase in the autism, with the children?" Jane replied in the affirmative, but seemed to couch her response as being more about an increase in demand for services -- she didn't explicitly agree there's been a big increase in the overall rate.

Trump continued: "So what's going on with autism? When you look at the tremendous increase, it's really -- it's such an incredible -- it's really a horrible thing to watch, the tremendous amount of increase. Do you have any idea? And you're seeing it in the school?" Jane replied -- again, in a way that seems a bit noncommittal vis-a-vis Trump's claim -- that the rate of autism is something like 1-in-66 or 1-in-68 children. To which Trump responded: "Well now, it's gotta be even lower [presumably meaning higher, rate-wise] than that, which is just amazing -- well, maybe we can do something."
As the New York article makes clear, Trump's rhetoric may be in line with his claims from the campaign -- though he did not specifically mention vaccines yesterday -- but actual science doesn't support his assertions. Trump was simply peddling nonsense about a "tremendous amount of increase" that doesn't exist.

At first, this seemed to simply fit into a broader pattern in which Trump simply assumes, incorrectly, that practically everything has gotten worse in advance of his presidency. He's insisted, for example, that murder rates are at a 45-year high, despite the fact that this isn't even close to being true. Trump's made similarly bogus claims about everything from unemployment to trade to illegal border crossings.
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Image: Trump, flanked by Kushner, Pence and Porter, welcomes reporters into the Oval Office for him to sign his first executive orders at the White House in Washington

To Big Oil's delight, Trump signs his first meaningful bill into law

02/15/17 10:41AM

The bulk of Donald Trump's presidential acts have been executive actions, not signing legislation into law. Soon after taking office, the Republican signed a waiver allowing John Mattis to serve as Secretary of Defense, and about a week later, he signed a small measure related to the Comptroller General's powers, but other than these largely overlooked policies, Trump hasn't put his signature on many bills.

As Politico noted, that changed a bit yesterday.
President Donald Trump Tuesday signed the first in a series of congressional regulatory rollback bills, revoking an Obama-era regulation that required oil and mining companies to disclose their payments to foreign governments.

That regulation, part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms, was strongly opposed by the oil and gas industry -- including Trump's Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who as head of Exxon Mobil personally lobbied to kill the Securities and Exchange Commission's rule that he said would make it difficult to do business in Russia.

"It's a big deal," Trump said at the signing.
That's a matter of perspective. Oil giants want the ability to hide payments they make to foreign governments, and Republican policymakers agreed to prioritize this as 2017 got underway. Democrats wouldn't agree to the change in the Obama era, but now that the GOP is in a dominant position, the disclosure requirement will not be implemented.

ExxonMobil was no doubt pleased with the president's bill signing yesterday, but for the American mainstream, this isn't "a big deal" at all.

What struck me as interesting, however, is what Trump said at the bill-signing ceremony, which took place in the Oval Office, and which lasted a grant total of two minutes.
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Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) emerges from a closed-door weekly policy meeting with Senate Republicans, at the U.S. Capitol, May 10, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Rand Paul accidentally speaks his mind about investigating Trump

02/15/17 10:00AM

About a month ago, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) was reminded that he seemed to be applying easier standards for Donald Trump's cabinet nominees than previous presidents' nominees. The Republican Oklahoman didn't make much of an effort to deny the allegation.

"So it's different now because it's Trump?" a reporter the Huffington Post asked. "That's just right," Inhofe replied.

It was an interesting moment because of the GOP senator's unexpected candor. Politicians routinely apply different standards to their allies, but they generally don't admit it, preferring instead to claim to be fair and even-handed. Inhofe simply abandoned the pretense.

Yesterday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) did something similar, explaining why he's inclined to ignore the Russia scandal surrounding the Republican White House.
Paul said that Republicans will "never even get started" with major policy changes like repealing Obamacare if they are focused on investigating their colleagues.

"I just don't think it's useful to be doing investigation after investigation, particularly of your own party. We'll never even get started with doing the things we need to do, like repealing Obamacare, if we're spending our whole time having Republicans investigate Republicans. I think it makes no sense," Paul said.
It's a great example of what some call a Michael Kinsley Moment: a politician making a mistake by accidentally telling the truth.
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Donald Trump's campaign manager Kellyanne Conway speaks to the media while entering Trump Tower on Nov. 14, 2016 in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty)

Kellyanne Conway burdened by her own ethics mess

02/15/17 09:20AM

The White House's Republican allies are prepared to look the other way in response to all kinds of Team Trump controversies, but even GOP lawmakers weren't pleased with Kellyanne Conway last week.

Donald Trump's presidential counselor, speaking from the West Wing, appeared on national television and encouraged the public to buy Ivanka Trump's merchandise. Conway, a public official whose salary is paid by taxpayers, was pushing back against retailers who'd dropped the president's daughter's product line following poor sales.

Or put another way, a White House official did a little on-air testimonial in support of her boss' daughter's business -- despite laws that appear to prohibit such behavior. No wonder the Office of Government Ethics is unimpressed.
The Office of Government Ethics warned the White House there is "strong reason" to believe presidential aide Kellyanne Conway violated ethics rules and that disciplinary action is warranted in a letter made public on Tuesday.

OGE Director Walter Shaub said Conway's urging of Americans to buy Ivanka Trump's products during a television interview from the White House briefing room "would establish a clear violation of the prohibition against misuse of position."
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters the day after the incident that Conway had been "counseled" -- he didn't elaborate on what that entailed, exactly -- but Shaub's letter added that his office was unaware of any disciplinary action.

"Executive branch officials should use the authority entrusted to them for the benefit of the American people and not for private profit," he wrote, adding that he recommends "the White House investigate Ms. Conway's actions and consider taking disciplinary action against her."
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Image: FILE PHOTO: Trump speaking by phone with Putin in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington

Why Sean Spicer was right to use the word 'unbelievable'

02/15/17 08:51AM

On Jan. 26, less than a week into Donald Trump's nascent presidency, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates notified the White House of an alarming revelation: the Justice Department had evidence that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn lied about his post-election talks with Vladimir Putin's government and may be vulnerable to a Russian blackmail campaign.

Within days, Trump took decisive action -- by firing Yates. Flynn, however, remained in place, guiding the White House's policies on national security.

Late Monday night, Flynn stepped down from his powerful position, and yesterday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the NSA's ouster was a result of the revelations three weeks ago. It led, as Spicer put it yesterday, to an "evolving and eroding level of trust" between the president and Flynn.

The trouble, of course, is the gap on the calendar. A reporter asked Spicer yesterday what in the world took so long. If the White House was notified about Flynn on Jan. 26, and the president was briefed right away, why not show Flynn the door on Jan. 27, instead of waiting until Feb. 13?

Spicer responded that Trump, "from day one, from minute one, was unbelievably decisive."

I'm delighted the press secretary used the word "unbelievably," because in this case, it's literally true.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

New questions surround Team Trump's pre-election talks with Russia

02/15/17 08:00AM

We learned this week that Donald Trump's former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, was in communications with Vladimir Putin's government during the 2016 presidential election, while Russia was in the midst of an illegal espionage operation to help hand Trump the presidency.

The New York Times published a report last night noting that Flynn wasn't the only one.
Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.

American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said. The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.
CNN had a related report this morning, noting that "high-level advisers" close to Trump were in "constant communication" with Russian officials during the American election season. Investigators, the CNN report added, were struck by "the frequency and the level of the Trump advisers involved."

It's worth emphasizing that the Times' reporting added that U.S. investigators have found "no evidence" of cooperation between the Republican campaign and Moscow, at least not yet.

And for Trump allies and much of the right, that effectively ends the conversation. Russia may have been trying to intervene on Trump's behalf during the campaign, the argument goes, and Trump's aides may have been talking to Russian officials at the time, but so long as Republicans weren't actively colluding with Putin's agents, the importance of the communications is limited.

But while this calculus may make Trump World feel better, it overlooks a key detail.
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Can Americans get an impartial Trump inquiry?

Can Americans get an impartial Trump inquiry?

02/14/17 09:30PM

Rep. Adam Schiff, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, talks with Rachel Maddow about how and whether government institutions can be counted on to investigate the Donald Trump campaign's interactions with the Russian government when Republicans control Congress and Jeff Sessions refuses to recuse himself on any related matters. watch


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