Melania speaks!

Donald Trump’s Slovenian wife is a woman of few words, which makes her rare speaking public performances notable by definition. When last we heard from her, Donald Trump was so happy and confident after winning South Carolina that he let her speak at a rally. On Wednesday morning, Donald Trump’s friends the folks at Morning Joe got her to sit down with Donald Trump’s friend Mika Brzezinski to answer a few questions about just who Melania Trump is. 

Here’s a bit of what we learned: 

  • Melania speaks English, Italian, French, and German.
  • Melania fell in love with Trump’s “amazing mind.” 
  • She is staying off the trail so she can be a good mom to their son, Barron.
  • Like a good 8th grade couple, Donald and Melania don’t try to change each other: “We are our own people. I’m my own person. He’s his own person.”
  • Melania thinks Donald Trump was referring to “illegal immigrants” and not Mexicans when he referred to Mexicans as “rapists.”
  • Melania thinks that the Muslim ban doesn’t apply to all Muslims, which it does. 

February 22, 2018

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Mueller just put more pressure on two former Trump campaign officials.

The office of special counsel Robert Mueller unsealed a new indictment on Thursday against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates. The 32-count filing charges both men with multiple financial crimes related to political consulting work they did on behalf of pro-Russia political parties in Ukraine over the last 15 years.

None of the crimes involve either of the defendants’ tenures on the Trump campaign. However, the additional charges put Manafort and Gates in deeper peril of serving long prison sentences if they’re found guilty at trial. Legal experts theorized during the initial wave of indictments against the two men last October that Mueller deliberately undercharged Manafort and Gates. That would allow the special counsel’s team to pressure them into plea bargaining negotiations in hopes of receiving a lighter sentence.

Multiple news outlets reported that Mueller’s team was close to finalizing a plea deal with Gates, who served as Manafort’s deputy when Manafort ran the Trump campaign during the summer of 2016. The long business relationship between the two men likely would have made such a plea deal dangerous for Manafort, especially if Gates testified against his former associate in exchange for a lighter sentence. Whether Gates is still negotiating with the special counsel is unclear after Thursday’s charges. The Daily Beast reported that Gates had fired an attorney who’s known for striking plea deals.

In the new indictment, federal prosecutors accuse Manafort and Gates of evading U.S. tax laws by misrepresenting and not reporting tens of millions of dollars in income from their consulting work in Ukraine, using a series of loans from multiple overseas banks to cover their tracks. According to prosecutors, Manafort and Gates then used those funds to purchase high-end real estate in the U.S., which became collateral for tens of millions of dollars in loans from U.S. banks. Manafort allegedly received $30 million in laundered funds, while Gates took $3 million.

Thursday’s filings cap one of the busiest weeks yet for Mueller’s team, at least from what’s publicly discernable. The special counsel’s office secured a guilty plea on Tuesday from Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch lawyer who once worked for a top U.S. law firm. In the plea, van der Zwaan admitted to lying to federal investigators about his conversations with Gates during the 2016 presidential election, some of which were recorded.

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Trump: I didn’t say “arm teachers.” Also, we should arm teachers.

At an excruciating meeting with parents who have lost children in school shootings, Donald Trump put forward a proposal he believed would help prevent massacres: Give teachers guns. “It only works when you have people very adept at using firearms, of which you have many,” Trump said. “It would be teachers and coaches.” He added, “An attack has lasted, on average, about three minutes. It takes five to eight minutes for responders, for the police to come in, so the attack is over. If you had a teacher who was adept at firearms, they could very well end the attack very quickly.”

Arming teachers is a horrible idea. Increasing the number of firearms in schools would increase the odds of firearms being used in schools. It would add to the already palpable anxiety in American schools. And, in dangerous situations, even people who have been extensively trained with firearms do not perform very well, meaning that innocent people are likely to be hurt. Given these realities, Trump’s comments were met with shock.

On Thursday morning, Trump tried to clarify his thoughts about arming teachers.

Trump is basically just reiterating what he said at the meeting on Wednesday. He also is very much arguing in favor of arming teachers—hundreds of thousands of teachers, if he’s serious about the 20 percent number. He also is conveniently omitting that Stoneman High School, where 17 teenagers were killed last week, had an armed security guard.

Trump has been all over the place on gun control. But his basic plan for school safety is still more guns, which would inevitably mean more violence.

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Teens may save us all yet.

At last night’s CNN town hall, teenage survivors of the Parkland shooting looked power in the face and held it accountable. They had tough questions for Senator Marco Rubio and the NRA’s Dana Loesch, neither of whom acquitted themselves particularly well. Via CNN:

The students-turned-gun-control advocates, their teachers and parents asked frank questions of Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson and Rep. Ted Deutch about whether they would support banning certain assault-style rifles and refuse to take money from the NRA. “We would like to know why do we have to be the ones to do this? Why do we have to speak out to the (state) Capitol? Why do we have to march on Washington, just to save innocent lives?” asked senior Ryan Deitsch, his voice rising with each question.

Asked directly by a survivor if he would refuse further donations from the NRA, Rubio dithered, saying only that “people buy into my agenda.” (Rubio has received an A+ rating from the NRA and took $9,900 from the organization for his 2016 re-election campaign.) Loesch, meanwhile, deflected questions and at times resorted to conspiracy theories, citing the Puckle gun and the Belton flintlick gun as evidence that semi-automatic rifles existed during the passage of the Second Amendment. The Belton gun never actually existed. The Puckle gun required a crew to operate it, and it never entered mass production.

Loesch and Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel also repeatedly blamed people with mental illness for the United States’s disproportionately high rate of mass shootings. Loesch decried the “mentally unfit” and Israel argued for expanded police power to involuntarily commit people with mental illness. Gun rights advocates have found their scapegoat, but fortunately for all of us, Parkland isn’t buying it.

February 21, 2018

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Pennsylvania Republicans are inching toward a constitutional crisis.

A growing number of GOP officials in the Keystone State are calling for the impeachment of five justices on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court who struck down the state’s congressional districts for unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. Those calls intensified after the court issued a new map on Monday that reduces Republicans’ advantage in races for the U.S. House of Representatives. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene in the case last week.

State Representative Cris Dush began circulating a letter among colleagues calling for the Pennsylvania judge’s removal shortly after their decision. U.S. Representative Ryan Costello, who represents the state’s Sixth Congressional District, endorsed removing the justices for what he described as a “politically corrupt process.” Other Republicans are planning a lawsuit in federal court, which has the backing of President Donald Trump.

U.S. Senator Pat Toomey told reporters on Wednesday that impeachment is “a conversation that has to happen” among state lawmakers. “I think state house members, state senators, are going to be speaking among themselves and their constituents, and the fundamental question is, does this blatant, unconstitutional, partisan power grab that undermines our electoral process—does that rise to the level of impeachment?” he asked.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices are elected to ten-year terms, and can be reelected for another ten-year term. All five of the justices in the gerrymandering majority ran as Democrats. Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives holds the power to impeach judges, whom the state Senate could then vote to remove by a two-thirds vote. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans, while Governor Tom Wolf is a Democrat.

Impeaching judges for misconduct isn’t unheard of at the state level or in the lower federal courts. But Pennsylvania’s Republican lawmakers are proposing something much different. Removing judges purely on the basis of an adverse legal decision would be a grave breach of the principle of judicial independence, which helps form the bedrock of the American rule of law.

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Donald Trump wants to know why Obama didn’t do more about Russian meddling. He should ask Mitch McConnell.

In the aftermath of Robert Mueller indicting 13 Russian nationals for intervening in the 2016 election, Trump has hit on a new defense: Actually, it’s all Obama’s fault.

The argument, such as it is, goes like this: Russian meddling occurred in 2016. Barack Obama was president in 2016. Therefore, it’s Obama’s fault that Russia interfered in the election.

There are a number of flaws with this reasoning. For one, there is a substantial body of evidence that, at the very least, the Trump campaign played footsie with Russian operatives during the 2016 election. It also suggests that Trump has been tougher on Russia than Obama was, a claim for which there is no evidence.

But the biggest problem is that Obama tried to do something about Russian meddling but was blocked by Mitch McConnell. Last year, The Washington Post reported that McConnell “voiced skepticism” when presented with intelligence by the FBI suggesting that Russia was trying to undermine Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Because of McConnell’s intransigence, the Obama administration decided not to go public with the information, fearing that it would just lead to a partisan squabble and accusations that it was trying to influence the election on Clinton’s behalf. (That said, it’s unclear whether the Obama administration would have intervened if it thought that Clinton losing was a serious possibility.)

The Obama administration could have done more to publicize Russian interference in the 2016 election, sure. But it failed to act because of partisan pressure from Republicans.

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Billy Graham, dead at age 99, transformed American Christianity and the Republican Party.

Graham passed away at his Montreat, North Carolina, home on Wednesday morning. Arguably the most important evangelist in American history, he applied a Southern preacher’s earnest demeanor to the eternal Christian project of winning souls. As NPR reported on Wednesday:

His influence as a moral and spiritual leader in 20th century America was such that one historian said Billy Graham could confer “acceptability on wars, shame on racial prejudice, desirability on decency, dishonor on indecency, and prestige on civic events.”

His Crusades, which began as modest tent revival services, earned him both a loyal following and disdain from some of his peers in the faith. The latter was because Graham was no theologian, and held only a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Wheaton College in Illinois. He further irked fundamentalists by promoting a more open engagement with the secular world—though they differed little on actual doctrine. Graham believed the Bible was God-breathed, or infallible in every respect, and thus should be interpreted in a literal fashion. 

Aside from the Crusades, Graham became best known for his influence on American politics. This did not always go well for him. Despite a record of condemning some forms of racial prejudice, he also appeared on the Nixon Tapes complaining about the Jewish “stranglehold” on the country. He apologized for those remarks in 2002, but they seriously damaged his credibility at the time. And Graham’s work—becoming a counselor to presidents, bringing religion into politics—may have unleashed consequences he did not intend. What “evangelical” means now is not what it meant when Graham began his career. It’s mutated from religious identity to demographic signifier: It increasingly means “white” and “Republican.”

Though Graham reached out to both parties, his emphasis on political engagement helped set the stage for the marriage of evangelicalism to the Republican Party. It is perhaps the greatest irony in Graham’s superlative life that his son, Franklin, is a vituperative, Muslim-hating, gay-bashing reminder that the admixture of Christianity and Republican politics benefited the latter more than the former.  

February 20, 2018

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Banning bump stocks wouldn’t have prevented the Parkland shooting.

The White House announced on Tuesday afternoon that President Donald Trump has decided to take action on bump stocks, which effectively convert semiautomatic rifles into machine guns:

Bump stocks were used in last year’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, but not in the Parkland shooting. And as a one reporter for The Trace pointed out on Twitter, Trump may not have the legal authority to bypass the legislative branch in this manner:

Still, this is more action than his fellow Republicans in Florida appear willing to take. On Tuesday afternoon, state legislators there refused to even hear a bill that would ban assault rifles:

They did so in front of survivors of the Parkland shooting.

Mitt Romney will never stop being owned by Donald Trump.

During the 2016 election, Romney gave a speech in which he called Trump a “phony” and a “fraud” and fervently argued that he was unfit for office. After the Access Hollywood tape dropped, Romney tweeted that these “vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America’s face to the world.” Then, three weeks after Trump won, he kissed the ring and submitted to a humiliating photo-op while trying to convince the president-elect to make him Secretary of State.

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When Romney finally announced that he was running for Senate last week, he strongly hinted that his days of criticizing Donald Trump were over. Advisers told the press that Romney would be focusing on Utah and Utahns. While there was some attempt to subtly rebuke Trump, offering Utah’s approach to conservatism as a contrast to the president, it was clear that Romney was throwing in the towel.

Romney’s supplication was complete on Monday evening, however, when he received and accepted Trump’s endorsement on Twitter.

Inconsistency is the core of Romney’s political brand. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney was pro-life and built a health care system that became the model for Obamacare. In 2016, Romney repudiated these positions and others (notably on immigration) and pitched himself as a Tea Party-style conservative.

But what’s notable about Romney’s decision to bow before Trump is that it’s unnecessary. Though Utah is a red state, it has been ambivalent toward Trump—Trump received just 46 percent of the vote there in 2016, while independent candidate Evan McMullin received 22 percent. Given his name recognition and his record criticizing Trump, Romney could conceivably run as a Republican alternative to the president. But that’s not who Mitt Romney is.

February 16, 2018

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Mitt Romney won’t be calling Donald Trump a “phony” and a “fraud” any time soon.

On Friday morning, Romney made it official: He’s running to replace Orrin Hatch as Utah’s senator.

Romney’s biggest weakness is that he’s not really from Utah. He grew up in Michigan, and while he did attend Brigham Young University in Provo, he spent most of his professional life in Massachusetts, where he served as governor from 2003-2007.

The state’s GOP chairman blasted Romney on these grounds, saying on Thursday that Romney is “essentially doing what Hillary Clinton did in New York” when she ran for Senate in 2000. “I think he’s keeping out candidates that I think would be a better fit for Utah because, let’s face it, Mitt Romney doesn’t live here, his kids weren’t born here, he doesn’t shop here.” The two-minute video accompanying Romney’s announcement makes it clear that his campaign takes that weakness seriously: The words “Utah” and “Utahans” appear a dozen times, and it focuses on Romney’s work as CEO of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

But there is still a national message in the ad, and in Romney’s campaign. “I think it will be very much a Utah-centric campaign,” longtime Romney ally Derek Miller told The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins. “[Romney] wants the country to look at Utah as an example. Why are things going so well here? … What lessons are there to learn, and how do you take them back to the nation’s capital?” In the ad, Romney uses Utah as a model for the country: The people are decent, hard-working, and frugal.

This is being held up as a subtle, anti-Trump message: Instead of attacking Trump, as he did during the 2016 election, Romney is embracing an implicit critique by standing up for a different kind of conservatism. But it’s also an acknowledgment that Romney’s critiques of Trump (and his overtures to him) have failed. Romney hasn’t been able to influence the president or his party, so he’s going to try to ignore Trump and run a conventional Senate campaign. The question is whether he’ll also be a conventional Republican senator—which is to say, obeisant to Trump.

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A former Playboy model says she was paid off to keep quiet about her affair with Donald Trump.

Karen McDougal told New Yorker correspondent Ronan Farrow that she had a consensual affair with Trump during his current marriage, and that she voluntarily ended it. Bolstering her account, the magazine reprinted her handwritten journal entries from the time of the affair.

The real scandal isn’t necessarily that Trump had another affair, but that a Trump ally—tabloid king David Pecker, the CEO of American Media Inc.—reportedly paid McDougal for the rights to her story. McDougal’s contract with Pecker’s company, which publishes the National Enquirer and other supermarket-aisle staples, effectively silenced her, Ronan reports:

Six former A.M.I. employees told me that Pecker routinely makes catch-and-kill arrangements like the one reached with McDougal. “We had stories and we bought them knowing full well they were never going to run,” Jerry George, a former A.M.I. senior editor who worked at the company for more than twenty-five years, told me. George said that Pecker protected Trump. “Pecker really considered him a friend,” George told me. “We never printed a word about Trump without his approval.”

McDougal told Farrow that she regrets signing the contract; American Media claims it never printed her story because it did not find her credible. But her account does resemble that of Stormy Daniels’s, the former porn star who alleges she was paid to keep quiet about her affair with Trump, and the White House’s statement is hardly a full-throated denial: “This is an old story that is just more fake news. The President says he never had a relationship with McDougal.” Emphasis mine.