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Is Donald Trump actually running for president?

As Josh Marshall noted a week ago, Trump has only the semblance of a real campaign. The numbers back that up, according to reports filed last night to the Federal Election Commission. Trump has $1.3 million in cash on hand, after bringing in a meager $3.2 million in donations in May and personally loaning his campaign $2.2 million. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has $42 million on hand, after raising $28 million in May.

Other head-to-head comparisons do not bode well for Trump. He has 70 staffers nationwide, compared to 700 for Clinton. She and her allies have spent $26 million in advertising in the month of June; he has spent none, while his allies have spent less than $2 million. Clinton’s ads have attacked Trump for being incompetent, prejudiced, and a fraud, and they are coming in a crucial post-primary period, when the two parties’ presumptive nominees try to define one another for a national audience.

Trump was able to rely on Twitter and cable television to fuel his primary campaign. But primaries are much smaller affairs, involving hard-core voters who are familiar with the candidates and well-versed in the issues. A presidential campaign is tied to hundreds of other races, and is geared toward voters who show up at the polls once every four years. So far, it appears Trump is not running that kind of campaign.

November 15, 2018

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Even Donald Trump is sick of Sean Hannity’s fawning.

Sean Hannity has good claim to be Trump’s number one fan in the media, but the love isn’t always reciprocated. On his Fox News program, Hannity has strained even the lax standards of his network by being an open cheerleader of the president, going so far as to appear in campaign videos. The two men repeatedly share a phone call most weeknights, after Hannity’s show ends. But, a new Daily Beast report indicates that Trump doesn’t fully respect Hannity’s ardent praise.

According to the news site:

Trump has repeatedly—and sometimes for a sustained period of time—made fun of Hannity’s interviewing skills, usually zeroing in on the low-quality laziness of the host’s questions, the three people with direct knowledge tell The Daily Beast.

“It’s like he’s not even trying,” Trump has said, one source recalled, right before the president launched into a rough imitation of Hannity’s voice and mannerisms to complain that the questions about how “great I am” give him nothing to work or have fun with.

Another source told the Beast that Trump described Hannity’s soft-ball questions as “dumb.” 

The problem might be that Hannity is trying too hard to please Trump, which has rendered his praise worthless. A New York investigation into the Hannity/Trump relationship once noted, “More than most politicians, Trump abides by the Groucho Marx law of fraternization. He inherently distrusts anyone who chooses to work for him, seeking outside affirmation as often as possible from as vast and varied a group as he can muster—but Hannity is at the center.” 

But Hannity is no longer an outside affirmer. He’s firmly a part of Trump’s circle of cronies. Which is another way of saying he’s a ripe target for Trump’s abuse.  

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Trump effectively admits he chose Matthew Whitaker to undermine Mueller.

The president has a habit of saying whatever’s on his mind. To his supporters, it’s endearing, but it can also lead to awkward and potentially damaging confessions. The Daily Caller prompted one such moment on Wednesday when it asked Trump about acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker and the future leadership of the Justice Department.

Matthew Whitaker is a very respected man,” Trump answered. “He’s—and he’s, very importantly, he’s respected within DOJ. I heard he got a very good decision, I haven’t seen it.” He was referring to a 20-page opinion by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that concluded that Whitaker’s appointment is legal. But then Trump, without any prompting, vented about special counsel Robert Mueller and the Russia investigation.

Well, I heard it was a very strong opinion. Uh, which is good. But [Whitaker] is just somebody that’s very respected.

I knew him only as he pertained, you know, as he was with Jeff Sessions. And, you know, look, as far as I’m concerned this is an investigation that should have never been brought. It should have never been had.

It’s something that should have never been brought. It’s an illegal investigation. And you know, it’s very interesting because when you talk about not Senate confirmed, well, Mueller’s not Senate confirmed.

It’s not exactly a secret that Trump wants to interfere in the Russia investigation. He made a similar admission to NBC’s Lester Holt after he fired FBI Director James Comey last year, and it’s well known that the president’s falling-out with Sessions could be traced back to his recusal from the inquiry. Placing Whitaker, a frequent critic of the investigation, atop the Justice Department wasn’t subtle, either.

Trump isn’t really trying to hide what he’s doing. Through either brazen self-confidence or the absence of self-discipline (or both), the president keeps admitting that he’s trying to hamstring an investigation into his own alleged misconduct. Trump isn’t the first president to obstruct justice, of course. But he might be the first one who doesn’t care than anybody knows it.

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President Trump and the lame duck GOP Congress are backing Saudi Arabia to the hilt.

On Wednesday, Republicans in the House of Representatives blocked a Democratic measure to bring congressional oversight to American participation in the Yemen war. The United States is part of a Saudi-led coalition fighting against Houthi rebels in a conflict that is taking an increasingly severe toll on Yemen’s civilian population. As Axios reports, “Republicans voted to strip the bill, which would have withdrew support of the Saudis’ presence, of privilege, meaning that Republicans can essentially ignore the bill until Democrats take control of the House in January.”

Democratic congressman Ro Khanna, who spearheaded the resolution, tweeted: “It’s unfortunate that the Republicans broke precedent and blocked our resolution to end U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen. They are abdicating congressional oversight duties on their way out of power.”

The matter is unlikely to end here. Democrats have promised greater congressional scrutiny of foreign policy. Both the Yemen War and the alliance with Saudi Arabia are becoming less popular with political leaders from both parties, especially after agents of the Saudi government murdered the American-Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As

As Axios argues, “The presumptive leaders of the incoming Democratic majority in the House have indicated they intend to expand foreign policy oversight, including over U.S. involvement in the Yemeni conflict. This will increase pressure on the Trump administration, which has supported Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy objectives and cultivated a close relationship with Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.”

Symptomatic of the closeness of the Trump administration to the Saudi autocrat is extraordinary efforts made to help cover up Bin Salman’s possible role in the Khashoggi killing. NBC News is reporting that “the White House is looking for ways to remove an enemy of Turkish President Recep Erdogan from the U.S. in order to placate Turkey over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” The Turkish government has long wanted to extradite the cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the United States. The Trump administration seems to have hoped that if they could accommodate this request, the Turkish government would go easier on Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s killing.

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Theresa May is pushing forward with Brexit even as her government crumbles.

Less than 24 hours after getting her cabinet to sign on a Brexit agreement, the British Prime Minister is facing a mutiny within her own party and renewed attacks from the opposition. On Wednesday after a tense five-hour cabinet meeting, May got her cabinet to sign on with a Brexit plan that would see the United Kingdom enter into a de facto custom union with the European Union, with Northern Ireland (which shares a border with the EU via Ireland) being subject to more EU regulations than the rest of the country.

This attempt to find a middle ground between a complete exit from the EU and continued membership has upset all sides, with opponents of the EU membership saying it isn’t really Brexit and supporters of the EU saying it goes too far in the direction of Brexit. This has resulted in a spate of resignations in the past twenty-four hours, including Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, and Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary. (Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary widely believed to have his eye on May’s job, resigned in July, following the exits of Brexit secretary David Davis and Department for Exiting the EU minister Steve Baker.)

The quick loss of two cabinet members could be the start of a wider insurrection. The hardline Brexit faction has enough votes in Parliament to force a vote of no confidence. The open question is whether they’d be joined by enough other factions within Parliament to topple the government.

As The New York Times observes, the problem May faces is that her Brexit plan is uniting different factions of the political spectrum in opposition. “Worryingly for Mrs. May, many of her enemies, on both the right and the left, are converging around the view that the compromise she has carefully forged is the worst of both worlds, leaving Britain without a voice in the European Union but still subject to many of its trade rules,” the newspaper notes. “Several leading Brexit supporters have characterized the draft deal as worse than membership in the bloc they find so objectionable.”

Politico offers a similar analysis, pointing out that, “only a handful of Conservative MPs spoke up in support, and May was met with fierce opposition from the Labour party, from Brexiteer MPs within her own party and from her Northern Irish backers, the Democratic Unionist Party.”

November 14, 2018

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Facebook accused critics of anti-Semitism while promoting George Soros conspiracy theories.

In a blockbuster expose, The New York Times documents the hypocrisy of the social media giant as it tried to deflect political criticism for an array of offences ranging from violating the privacy of users to facilitating Russian election interference.

Facebook went after a group called Freedom from Facebook which, according to the Times,  carried in Congress “aloft signs depicting Ms. Sandberg and Ms. Zuckerberg, who are both Jewish, as two heads of an octopus stretching around the globe.” As the newspaper adds, “Facebook official quickly called the Anti-Defamation League, a leading Jewish civil rights organization, to flag the sign.”

Almost immediately after doing this, Facebook worked with a Republican opposition research firm too “take on bigger opponents, such as [George] Soros, a longtime boogeyman to mainstream conservatives and the target of intense anti-Semitic smears on the far right. A research document circulated by Definers to reporters this summer, just a month after the House hearing, cast Mr. Soros as the unacknowledged force behind what appeared to be a broad anti-Facebook movement.”

The article also illuminates the way Facebook was able to lobby powerful politicians such as New York Senator Chuck Schumer:

Mr. Schumer also has a personal connection to Facebook: His daughter Alison joined the firm out of college and is now a marketing manager in Facebook’s New York office, according to her LinkedIn profile.

In July, as Facebook’s troubles threatened to cost the company billions of dollars in market value, Mr. Schumer confronted Mr. Warner, by then Facebook’s most insistent inquisitor in Congress.

Back off, he told Mr. Warner, according to a Facebook employee briefed on Mr. Schumer’s intervention. Mr. Warner should be looking for ways to work with Facebook, Mr. Schumer advised, not harm it.

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By rebuking Myanmar leader, Mike Pence takes on the mantle of mainstream Republican foreign policy.

While attending the the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Singapore on Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence met with Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and chastised her for the atrocities her government is committing against Rohingya Muslims. The State Department has accused Myanmar of committing ethnic cleansing. Pence said atrocities against the Rohingya are “without excuse.” He also reprimanded Suu Kyi for the imprisonment of two Reuters reporters. “In America, we believe in democratic institutions and ideals, including a free and independent press,” the vice president said. “The arrests and jailing of two journalists last fall was deeply troubling to millions of Americans.”

In using the language of human rights, Pence is going against the grain of the Trump administration. President Donald Trump has generally been dismissive of human rights as a foreign policy concern and has tamped down on American criticism of autocratic regimes like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia.

In the Trump White House, Pence is one of the rare figures, along with former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, who continued to uphold human rights in the manner of older administrations, both Democratic and Republican. On previous occasions, Pence has talked like a mainstream Republican when challenging North Korea and China on human rights.

While Pence has been a loyal solider in supporting President Trump against all critics, the Vice President now has more room to maneuver since Trump is licking his wounds after the Republican Party’s poor showings in the midterms.

Politically, championing human rights has paid off by earning Pence applause even from some Democrats:

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The media acknowledges that Trump duped the media with the migrant caravan.

National outlets have pointed to the president’s relative silence on the caravan in the past week as proof of a clear political ploy to energize his conservative base ahead of the midterms—a trap many of the same major newspapers and broadcasters fell for.

He might return his attention to the caravan once a majority of migrants reach the U.S.-Mexico border (according to recent reports, small groups of migrants have already arrived). But for now it appears that Trump has lost all interest in the issue. He hasn’t tweeted about it since Election Day, despite previously stoking fear among conservative voters by making unsubstantiated claims about “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” who had allegedly infiltrated a caravan of otherwise helpless, desperate migrants. He also called for an end to birthright citizenship and ordered more than 5,000 troops to guard the border. They are now hard at work putting up barbed wire and additional fencing along the border between Tijuana and San Diego.

Fox News, which dedicated over 33 hours of airtime to the caravan from mid-October through Election Day, spent less than five minutes discussing it in the two days following the election. The New York Times and The Washington Post ran 115 print stories on the caravan by November 2, 25 of which appeared on front pages. That coverage often sought to fact-check Trump’s claims and add context for readers and viewers, but also tended to frame the issue on Trump’s terms. It also pulled attention from other news, and glossed over the major factors driving the exodus, including violence, corruption, drought, and poverty.

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Even Fox News joins in widespread media support for CNN lawsuit against Trump.

On Wednesday, thirteen media outlets issued a statement supporting CNN and reporter Jim Acosta. CNN is suing the Trump administration for having revoked Acosta’s press credentials after the president took exception to some of Acosta’s questioning.

Signatories included The Associated Press, Bloomberg, NBC News, The New York Times, Politico, USA Today, and The Washington Post. The statement read:

Whether the news of the day concerns national security, the economy, or the environment, reporters covering the White House must remain free to ask questions. It is imperative that independent journalists have access to the President and his activities, and that journalists are not barred for arbitrary reasons. Our news organizations support the fundamental constitutional right to question this President, or any President. We will be filing friend-of-the-court briefs to support CNN’s and Jim Acosta’s lawsuit based on these principles.

Fox News president Jay Wallace also made a separate statement. “FOX News supports CNN in its legal effort to regain its White House reporter’s press credential,” Wallace wrote. “While we don’t condone the growing antagonistic tone by both the President and the press at recent media avails, we do support a free press, access, and open exchanges for the American people.”

Fox News’s intervention is important because the cable news network is very popular with the Republican base, and, indeed, often shapes the thinking of President Donald Trump.

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Is the Freedom Caucus dead, or is it just the Republican Party now?

In 50 days, Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives will elect their leaders for the upcoming session. Both races appear predictable. Nancy Pelosi is expected to become the first person to hold non-consecutive speakerships in six decades, while Kevin McCarthy is expected to replace retiring fellow Young Gun Paul Ryan.

But Pelosi and McCarthy will have to deal with their left and right flanks, respectively. Pelosi is already being pressured by progressives to take on a host of issues, while McCarthy is facing the same group that has pestered the last two Republican leaders: the Freedom Caucus.

McCarthy likely will have an easier time than Ryan and John Boehner did. Founded in 2014, the Freedom Caucus only ever boasted between 30 and 40 members, but was able to exert an outsized influence when the GOP was in power, because they could deny the party leadership a governing majority. Without that majority next year, the Freedom Caucus’s power is diminished.

At the same time, there has never been less distance between the Freedom Caucus and the median member of the Republican caucus. The midterm elections were a bloodbath for the GOP in general, but particularly for moderate, suburban Republicans. Those who kept their seats tended to be from safely Republican districts, and many who won new seats are fiercely conservative. The Freedom Caucus lost two members, for instance, but is still expected to gain five new members.

The Freedom Caucus lacks leverage, and there is plenty of bad blood between it and McCarthy. But two of its high-profile members, Jim Jordan and chair Mark Meadows, are expected to take on leadership profiles once McCarthy becomes minority leader. Per Politico:

The Freedom Caucus is all but dead at this point, and McCarthy is going to easily put away Jordan in this leadership race. But they are now viewing how McCarthy treats Jordan as a litmus test. The president has put McCarthy in quite a position by asking him to cut a deal with Jordan, and place him at the top of Judiciary. Insiders thought Jordan would’ve been great at Oversight and Government Reform, where Jordan was next in line. Jordan has to jump Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and Steve King (R-Iowa) to get to the top of Judiciary—not a huge lift.... There’s a domino effect by putting Jordan at Judiciary: it seems very likely that Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) will make a run for his party’s top slot at Oversight and Government Reform.

Meadows and Jordan are rising in the ranks partly because of the president’s intervention, sure, but also because the party’s hardliners are now in the mainstream. The Freedom Caucus is dead—long live the Freedom Caucus.

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The Trump campaign’s hoarding and self-dealing hurt the GOP in the midterms.

While many congressional Republicans had fundraising difficulties this year, President Donald Trump remained a champion at raising money. Unfortunately for the Republican Party, Mother Jones reports, much of it was spent to enrich Trump’s own businesses as well as a firm run by the head of the Trump campaign. The Trump campaign also sat on a significant chunk of money rather than helping cash-strapped Republicans running in congressional elections.

Trump started raising money almost as soon as he was inaugurated in 2017. This in itself was a break from the immediate past. Former President Barack Obama, for example, didn’t do any fundraising until 2011, a year before running for re-election. Trump quickly amassed a massive war chest in excess of $100 million.

Some of that money went to enrich the Trump Organization. Mother Jones notes that “through the end of September, his campaign paid $3.2 million to Trump’s own properties and businesses. There was money paid for rent at Trump Tower. There were hotel rooms at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC. There were banquet room rentals at Trump country clubs in New Jersey and Florida. The Trump campaign also paid for more than $1.2 million worth of flights using Trump’s personal jets—planes the president no longer travels on, but which other family members still do.”

Other big expenditures were on lawyers ($9 million) and on ads made by the company run by head of the Trump campaign ($5 million). The Trump campaign also hoarded $35.4 million, presumably to be used in 2020.

Even though the Trump campaign did spend some money on the midterms, it is likely that overall it was a net drain for Republicans, especially since it was drawing money from the same donor base that the party as a whole relies on.