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Antonin Scalia’s death will cause fireworks at tonight’s GOP debate.

The unexpected death of the conservative Supreme Court justice is already disrupting American politics, especially on the Republican side. With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell peremptorily stating that Obama should not appoint a replacement and that the Senate won’t consider any appointments. Republican presidential candidates are rushing to take sides on this issue. So far, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson have echoed McConnell, while Jeb Bush and Donald Trump have kept quiet on the matter. 

The new vacancy in the court also creates an opening for Trump’s rivals to play up how dangerous he is to GOP orthodoxy. Trump has said that his sister Maryanne Trump Barry, a federal judge, would make an excellent Supreme Court justice. The problem, from a traditional Republican point of view, is that Judge Barry is pro-choice. Are anti-abortion Republicans who might otherwise like Trump really going to risk making Roe v. Wade permanent? In a bible belt state like South Carolina, where tonight’s debate is being held, that’s a great argument to make against Trump.

June 19, 2018

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The Koch brothers know how to play the long game to change America.

Nashville, Tennessee won’t be getting a better transit system with light-rail trains and more buses thanks to the efforts of Charles and David Koch. As The New York Times reports, the super rich Koch brothers, via their Americans for Prosperity front group, have launched effective, tech-savvy campaigns all over America to thwart public transit initiatives.

Using data to target voters who distrust big government and an army of canvassers, Americans for Prosperity has been inventive in turning the public against mass transit. “In Little Rock, Americans for Prosperity made more than 39,000 calls and knocked on nearly 5,000 doors to fight a proposed sales-tax increase worth $18 million to fund a bus and trolley network,” The New York Times notes. “In Utah, it handed out $50 gift cards at a grocery store, an amount it said represented what a proposed sales tax increase to fund transit would cost county residents per year.”

The Kochs are motivated by a mixture of ideology (public transit is socialistic) and self-interest (they are heavily invested in fossil fuel extraction and automobile production). But the efforts of Americans for Prosperity testify to something more than the Kochs’ commitment to standard conservative politics.

The Kochs aren’t just right-wing billionaires, but men who think about politics in big, broad, and far-reaching ways. They have money to burn (Charles Koch is the ninth richest man in the world) and have decided to spend it on changing the direction of American politics at every level, from municipal to federal. Liberal billionaires, by contrast, prefer to focus either on winning national elections or global health policy (as with Bill and Melinda Gates’ campaign to end malaria).

There’s no real counterpart on the left of billionaires so committed to an ideological vision of America that they are willing to take up every small fight they on issues like municipal transit. The ambition of the Kochs is what sets them apart and allows them to keep winning small battles that could, in time, add up to a total victory.

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Xenophobia, rather than polling numbers, may best explain this immigration policy.

The White House is standing firm on the policy of separating families at the border despite the fierce backlash it has produced. McKay Coppins of The Atlantic, who has written an extensive profile of the chief architect of the policy Stephen Miller, argues that the motivating force behind the administration’s hard-line stance is politics. In Miller’s view of the electoral landscape, the president is winning anytime the country is focused on immigration—polls and bad headlines be damned,” Coppins contends.

In a Tuesday morning tweet, Trump seemed to be acting on Miller’s advocacy of making immigration a wedge issue against Democrats:

Trump and Miller might think this is smart politics but The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board strongly disagrees. In a Tuesday editorial they warn that the GOP’s “internal feuding over immigration that is fast becoming an election-year nightmare over separating immigrant children from their parents.” FiveThirtyEight shares this assessment, noting that the family separation policy “is generating widespread opposition, even from people who have traditionally been allies of the president. It has forced the administration to defend an approach that polls terribly and results in images of children in cages and accounts of breastfeeding kids being taken away from their mothers.” FiveThirtyEight then draws the reasonable inference: “It seems like bad politics.”

It’s a mistake, though, to look at the Trump White House’s actions through the narrow prism of electoral politics. Figures like Trump Miller have genuine ideological convictions, which also shape what they think a winning political strategy should be.

Vox writer Matt Yglesias offers a clear cut way to think about this issue:

If we appreciate that Trump and Miller are racists, then it becomes much more obvious why they are trying to build a political coalition around demonizing and punishing immigrants. After all, there are many strategies to build a political coalition, so the choice of xenophobia isn’t driven purely by electoral calculations.

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Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration is just warming up.

Even as the White House’s policy of separating families crossing the border is facing intense political opposition, including a rising chorus of dissent in President Donald Trump’s own party, the commander in chief is reportedly set on provoking more immigration fights. Trump and his staff believe that immigration is the issue most likely to excite the Republican base for the fall midterms.

To score some wins that they can earn goodwill from that base, Trump has tasked his policy adviser Stephen Miller, perhaps the foremost anti-immigration advocate in the administration, to come up with quick policies that can be enacted. As Politico reports, the proposals Miller is putting forward include “tightening rules on student visas and exchange programs; limiting visas for temporary agricultural workers; making it harder for legal immigrants who have applied for any welfare programs to obtain residency; and collecting biometric data from visitors from certain countries.”

Trump’s desire to put all his political eggs in the the basket of anti-immigration policy rests on the fact that he has precious little else to run on. His major legislative achievement, the tax cut, still doesn’t poll well. Trump himself has had great success with immigrant-bashing in the one election season he ran as a candidate, 2016.

The New York Times reported on tension between Trump and his party on this issue, with elected GOP officials wary of immigration as a midterm wedge issue. “Republicans typically handle immigration gingerly in an election year, as they try to appeal to Hispanic voters, independents and moderates across divergent districts,” the Times notes. “But with more Americans still opposing the tax measure than supporting it, Mr. Trump’s allies believe that trying to link Democrats to crimes committed by undocumented immigrants and gangs like MS-13 will do more to galvanize Republican voters and get them to the polls in November than emphasizing economic issues.”

Corey Lewandowski, the former campaign manager who still has the president’s ear, is a major advocate of this policy, telling the Times that, “If you want to get people motivated, you’ve got to give them a reason to vote. Saying ‘build the wall and stop illegals from coming in and killing American citizens’ gives them an important issue.”

While Trump in the past has shown uncanny political instincts for how the GOP thinks, it’s by no means clear that immigration will be a winning issue for the Republicans in the midterms. The congressional GOP is rightly nervous about the issue because Trump’s position is particularly unpopular among college educated suburban voters, who have been trending towards the Democratic Party in special elections.

As Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight notes, even the popularity of anti-immigration policy among Republicans is a narrow one:

Trump is trying to use the old xenophobic magic of 2016 but he might find it has lost its potency in 2018.

June 18, 2018

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We can now listen to Trump’s family separation policy.

ProPublica, a nonprofit that specializes in investigative reporting, has acquired and released an audio recording of an immigration detention center where President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy is being enacted. “The desperate sobbing of 10 Central American children, separated from their parents one day last week by immigration authorities at the border, makes for excruciating listening,” ProPublica reports. “Many of them sound like they’re crying so hard, they can barely breathe. They scream ‘Mami’ and ‘Papá’ over and over again, as if those are the only words they know.”

The audio also includes the voice of a joking Border Patrol agent. “Well, we have an orchestra here,” he says about the screaming children. “What’s missing is a conductor.”

Previously, images of caged and crying children gave a face to the story. This audio helps give it a voice as well.

Aside from the screams, the audio also includes the voice of a nine-year old girl trying to get assistance to call her aunt, whose phone number she has memorized.

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Bannonism without Bannon has triumphed in the White House.

At the beginning of the year, Steve Bannon’s political exile seemed complete. The previous summer, Bannon had been elbowed out of his job as White House adviser. Then, after revelations that he had slagged Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner as “treasonous” when talking to reporter Michael Wolff, Bannon stepped down from his position as CEO of Breitbart. Since then, Bannon has been persona non grata in the Republican world, dismissed by his former boss as “Sloppy Steve.”

But if Bannon now has no formal power, his ideas still seem to be dominant in Trump’s White House. As Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt noted in a Monday column, “Truculent, anti-immigrant nationalism; disdain for the ‘deep state’; disparaging democratic allies while celebrating dictators: These are now the pillars of President Trump’s rule. In his administration’s policy, foreign and domestic, and in the compliant Republican Party, Bannonism is ascendant.”

Bannon himself seems to be on a bit of a victory tour, giving prominent interviews, perhaps with a view toward rehabilitating himself with the president. Possibly with that goal in mind, Bannon, in a Sunday interview with ABC News, made the remarkable claim that Donald Trump has never lied:

If Bannonism continues to have a robust afterlife, it’s in part because he still has some prominent fellow travelers inside the White House pushing his agenda, figures like Stephen Miller, Julia Hahn, and Peter Navarro. But more importantly, the very scandal that got Bannon into hot water is keeping his ideas alive. Trump turned against Bannon because Bannon had suggested Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation might ensnare members of the Trump family. But as the Russia investigation heats up, Trump needs to keep the loyalty of the GOP base. Given that Trump won the GOP nomination in 2016 by distinguishing himself from mainstream Republicans, the only way to keep the GOP base happy is with the red meat of Bannonism: trade wars and immigration bashing. As his administration sinks in scandal, Trump will cling all the more tightly to Bannonism.

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On immigration, Angela Merkel is Trump’s greatest foil.

In a series of tweets on Monday morning, he attacked the German chancellor’s refugee policy for “allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture.” He also claimed that crime was “way up” as a result, even though it actually hit a 30-year low in March. Merkel’s open-door policy on immigration, particularly for refugees, stands in complete juxtaposition to Trump’s hardline approach, which has led to the separation of thousands of children from their parents at the border. Trump has a history of targeting Merkel on the issue, which has led to political convulsions not only in Germany, but across Europe.

In 2015, Trump claimed Merkel was the “person who is ruining Germany”:

The following February, he told the French conservative magazine Valeurs Actuelles that he thought “Angela Merkel made a tragic mistake with the migrants.” Warning that if she didn’t fix the situation “completely and firmly” it would be “the end of Europe.” In a 2017 interview with U.K. MP Michael Gove for the German newspaper Bild and London’s The Times, he added, “I think she made one very catastrophic mistake, and that was taking all of these illegals.”

Merkel and her Interior Minister Horst Seehofer recently agreed to a two-week truce in an immigration standoff that has threatened her government. During this time, Merkel will try to reach a migration deal with the European Union, amidst increased opposition animated by two recent controversies: allegations that civil servants granted asylum to migrants for money and the brutal murder of a 14-year-old girl in western Germany by an Iraqi asylum-seeker.

The number of asylum-seekers entering Germany has drastically declined from the 890,000 people that arrived at the peak of the migrant crisis in 2015, but 10,000 still arrive every month.  

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The GOP is the party of Trump on separating families.

If you only scanned the headlines you might get the impression that both of Americans political parties were rising up in opposition to President Donald Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents in border apprehensions.

New York Times: “Leading Republicans Join Democrats in Pushing Trump to Halt Family Separations” 

Associated Press: “Family Separation Policy Starts Dividing Republicans” 

Washington Post: “White House insists Democrats to blame for family separations, een as some in GOP urge Trump to reverse course” 

These headlines are creating a false impression that there is a serious Republican divide on the family separation policy. It is much more accurate to say that the party is on board with the policy even as a few Republican lawmakers, usually in mild terms, dissent.  In fact, the policy is popular among Republicans even as it is opposed by the general population. 

A recent Ipsos poll asked“It is appropriate to separate undocumented immigrant parents from their children when they cross the border in order to discourage others from crossing the border illegally.” The results demonstrated a stark partisan divide. “Of those surveyed, 27 percent of the overall respondents agreed with it, while 56% disagreed with the statement,” The Daily Beast reports. “Yet, Republicans leaned slightly more in favor, with 46% agreeing with the statement and 32 percent disagreeing. Meanwhile, 14 percent of Democrats surveyed supported it and only 29% of Independents were in favor.”

Given these numbers, it is hardly surprising that most Republican lawmakers have decided to play it safe by not speaking out against Trump’s policies. 

It’s notable that the most outspoken critic of the policy, former First Lady Laura Bush, has never been an elected official. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse issued a Facebook rebuke that mixed strong language (“wicked”) with a framing of the issue that actually echoes what the Trump administration is saying (casting blame on previous administrations). Utah Senator Orrin Hatch also tried to thread the needle by praising Trump even as he suggested a move away from the policy. 

The general Republican subservience to Trump on immigration shouldn’t surprise us. Donald Trump’s hardline stance on immigration was key to his victory in the Republican primaries. As FiveThirtyEight notes, “In 2016, moreover, immigration may have been the issue most responsible for Trump’s winning the Republican nomination. In every state with a caucus or primary exit poll, he did best among voters who said immigration was their top issue.”

On immigration, including family separation, the Republicans are the party of Trump. Anti-immigration sentiment is increasingly defining the GOP, as abolition defined an earlier incarnation of the party in the 1850s and populism defined the Democrats in the 1890s. Any solution to America’s myriad immigration problems has to start with the recognition that the nativism of many voters is the single biggest hurdle to crafting humane policies. 

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Laura Bush condemns Trump’s family separation policy, but will the GOP listen?

On Sunday the former first lady published an unusually scathing column in The Washington Post condemning the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy towards border crossers. “In the six weeks between April 19 and May 31, the Department of Homeland Security has sent nearly 2,000 children to mass detention centers or foster care,” Bush noted, “I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.” Bush added that images of children jailed by this policy “are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.”

These are exceptionally tough words for a former first lady, especially when speaking about the policies carried out by a president of her own party. Trump’s zero-tolerance policy is unpopular with the public at large (56 percent of whom oppose it as against 27 percent who approve) but has a support of a plurality of Republicans (46 percent approving as against 32 percent disapproving). These numbers explain why Republicans lawmakers have either been silent about the policy or have only had muted criticism. Even Maine Senator Susan Collins, a reputed moderate, offset her criticism of the administration with an unwillingness to support a Democratic sponsored bill to stop the policy.

It’s uncertain whether Bush’s words can change the opinion of a substantial number of Republicans. She has enjoyed high approval ratings, in the neighborhood of 70 percent public support or more. But surely some of that approval comes from being an apolitical public figure, less prone to taking stands on contentious issues than most recent first ladies. By making such a bold statement against the policy of her own party, Bush threatens to undermine her own status as a widely loved figure.

Also working against Bush’s efforts to convince Republicans is that the faction of the party she belongs to, the Bush family, is now on the wane as a political force. One of the factors driving Trump’s popularity among Republicans is his rejection of the pretenses of Bushian “compassionate conservatism.” Instead, Trump offers raw, unvarnished right-wing policy goals, which includes using cruel methods to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants. In the age of Trump, Laura Bush might be a voice most Republicans no longer respect or heed.

June 15, 2018

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Paul Manafort is going to jail. Will he now flip on Trump?

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ordered Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, to be jailed until his trial in September on charges involving money laundering, fraud, and unlawful lobbying.

Prior to Judge Jackson’s orders, Manafort had been under house arrest as he tried to raise the $10 million in bail the court asked for. The decision to jail Manafort rested on evidence presented by Special Counsel Robert Mueller that Manafort and his longtime associate Konstantin Kilimnik, who is suspected of having ties to Russian intelligence, tried to tamper with witnesses in Manafort’s pending legal case.

Reportedly, Trump’s legal team and even the prosecution was taken aback by the court’s decision.:

Manafort has been one of the great hold-outs in the Mueller investigation. Unlike others charged by the special counsel, notably Manafort’s former deputy and former son-in-law Rick Gates, Manafort hasn’t taken a plea deal. The open question now is whether the experience of jail will change his mind.

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More and more Republicans are calling on Scott Pruitt to resign.

The Environmental Protection Agency chief’s ethics scandal continues to widen. On Friday, The New York Times revealed Pruitt’s habit of making EPA employees to do personal tasks for him, like finding his wife a job, and helping his daughter get an internship at the White House. Also on Friday, The Washington Post reported that Pruitt asked a public relations executive for energy companies to help him secure coveted tickets to the Rose Bowl. Pruitt got the tickets and took his family to the event, along with a taxpayer-funded 24-hour security detail.

Pruitt’s job has so far remained safe in spite of stories like these, due to continued support from key Republican lawmakers and President Donald Trump. But the facade is starting to crack. On Friday, Trump expressed displeasure with Pruitt’s misbehavior for the first time. “I’m not happy about certain things. I’ll be honest,” Trump said, according to Bloomberg. “He’s done a fantastic job running the EPA, which is very overriding. But I am not happy about it.”

Key Republican lawmakers are getting fed up, too. Senator Jim Inhofe—Pruitt’s close friend and mentor from Oklahoma—said on Thursday that he has “had enough” of Pruitt’s controversies, and that “something needs to happen to change that.” Inhofe added, “One of those alternatives would be for [Pruitt] to leave that job.” Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, the chair of the Senate environment committee, which oversees the EPA, said on Thursday that Pruitt will be called on to testify later this year. Pruitt has also drawn the ire of Iowa’s Republican senators, Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley. Grassley threatened to call for Pruitt’s resignation in May. Earlier this month, Ernst said Pruitt “is about as swampy as you get here in Washington, D.C.”

Back in April, only five Republican lawmakers had called for Pruitt’s resignation: Carlos Curbelo, Ileana Ros-Lehtine, Elise Stefanik, and Frank LoBiondo in the House, and Susan Collins in the Senate. This month, Louisiana’s Republican Senator John Kennedy joined the chorus. “It’s time to find another line of work,” Kennedy said of Pruitt. So did Iowa Congressman David Young, who said this week that he “wouldn’t lose sleep” if Pruitt were let go.

The news about Pruitt has been hard to miss, but House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters on Thursday that he hasn’t “paid that close attention” to Pruitt’s sandals. “I don’t know enough about what Pruitt has or has not done to give you a good comment,” he said.