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How many years to rebuild Puerto Rico? “Somewhere between 1 and 100,” says Ben Carson.

The secretary of Housing and Urban Development’s answer drew laughs from the crowd at a Wednesday event in downtown D.C., but it illustrated a serious point: One month after Hurricane Maria ravaged the U.S. territory, the federal government doesn’t know how long it will take for Puerto Rico to achieve a full recovery. “We will be there until the conclusion, which will be years from now,” Carson said, responding to a question from The Hill’s editor-in-chief Bob Cusack about HUD’s efforts to rebuild public housing, fix ravaged businesses, and support displaced families on the island.

The Hill billed Wednesday’s event as an opportunity for Carson to answer questions about “housing needs in hurricane-ravaged regions,” as well as HUD’s future policy priorities for low-income housing. But the 30-minute discussion often veered into politics. Cusack asked Carson questions about Senator Jeff Flake’s resignation, the media’s treatment of President Trump, and whether Carson would ever run for office again. Carson also addressed criticisms that he’s not qualified to lead the housing agency because he’s a pediatric neurosurgeon. “People are so stupid,” he said, arguing that hospital CEOs probably don’t know much about infectious diseases or surgery. “But they have a lot of people who do know,” he added.

Those diversions meant that many questions about Puerto Rico were left unasked and unanswered. Among them: Will HUD rebuild all the thousands of federally subsidized housing units that were damaged, or just some? What will the process for distributing funds to homeowners look like—will grants be based on the value of the home, or the amount of damage leveled? Will HUD allow homeowners with mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration to suspend their mortgage payments while they rebuild? The Center for American Progress has a helpful guide to the many challenges HUD, and Carson, will face in the U.S. territory.

Carson did, however, appear to grasp that rebuilding is going to be a costly process—and that future structures must be more resilient to extreme weather. “We need to start re-thinking; how do we remediate after a flood, and after a hurricane?” Carson said. “We need to do it in a way that we protect ourselves in the future.” Indeed, there appears to be growing recognition in the White House of the suffocating cost of these disasters. As Politico reported on Wednesday, the Trump administration expects yet another disaster relief bill in the tens of billions to be passed before the year ends, in addition to the $36.5 billion and $15 billion packages that have already been approved.

But while Carson spoke of smarter building practices, he did not mention human-caused climate change as the core reason why federal agencies should re-think those practices. Carson’s cluelessness about Puerto Rico’s recovery time was a bit cringeworthy, but his failure to identify this costly challenge is a much more dangerous form of ignorance.

July 20, 2018

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Is Trump really about to enter into a “full-blown trade war” with China?

Axios reports that “top advisers” say that “chances of a longer, wider, more damaging trade war with China are rising.” President Donald Trump slapped $34 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods with “industrially significant technology” on July 6, and on Friday he told CNBC that he’s “ready to go to $500” billion—a number equal to the dollar amount of imports that entered the U.S. from China in 2017. Dow futures slumped 120 points in response to Trump’s comments. All of this adds to the growing threat of what Axios has deemed a “full-blown trade war.”

Larry Kudlow, who leads the president’s economic council, was adamant that the administration would not back down from the threats. “They’re picking the wrong customer, I’ll tell you that—you know how intense [Trump] is on this issue,” he told Mike Allen. “Xi seems to think if he waits out the November elections, Trump will be weakened and therefore will lighten the bite. That’s a very bad bet.”

The trade war between China and the U.S. is not exactly punishing either country yet. At present, the $34 billion in tariffs are insignificant to China and the United States, given that the combined economies of both countries are over $30 trillion. Despite the flashy rhetoric, there is no indication that the administration is ready to immediately go nuclear by slapping an additional $466 billion in tariffs. Instead, if the trade war were to escalate, it would still be done incrementally.

Between the CNBC interview, Kudlow’s comments, and Axios’ report, it’s clear that the administration is doing everything it can to try to convince China—and Trump’s base—that he isn’t bluffing. But right now, this is all pageantry.

The Parkland generation is registering to vote in serious numbers in swing states.

Ever since February 14, when 17 students and staff members were killed by a gunman at Stoneman Douglas High School in Southern Florida, “registration rates for voters aged 18-29 have significantly increased in key battleground states,” according to a new study from the Democratic data firm TargetSmart. Young people comprised 61 percent of new registrants in Pennsylvania, a 16-point increase. Virginia and Indiana saw 10-point increases, and Arizona and Florida saw 8.

TargetSmart

Much of this may have to do with the efforts Parkland student activists have undertaken to help students register to vote. Back in May, David Hogg partnered with the New York–based organization HeadCount to organize registration drives in about 1,000 high schools across 46 states.

A group of Parkland student activists, including Hogg, Cameron Kasky, and Emma Gonzàlez, also announced a summer-long bus tour devoted to encourage students to “get young people educated, registered and motivated to vote,” Kasky said in June. “At the end of the day, real change is brought from voting and too often voting off as nothing in our country.”

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The administration’s position on mergers is all over the place.

Since it was proposed in May 2017, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media appeared to be a done deal. Donald Trump has gushingly praised the network, which is infamous for forcing (sometimes identically scripted) pro-Trump content onto its stations’ broadcast. Meanwhile, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has been a vocal anti-regulation proponent. As long as it sold enough stations to meet the legal ownership limit, Sinclair appeared well-positioned to become the nation’s largest TV station owner, with over 200 stations reaching an unprecedented 72 percent of American households.

But in a surprising reversal this week, Pai announced that Sinclair’s indifferent nods towards compliance weren’t going to cut it. The company, Pai said, was attempting to maintain control over its relinquished stations “in practice, even if not in name, in violation of the law.” The FCC then voted unanimously to bring the proposed merger before an administrative law judge. The order claims that Sinclair “did not fully disclose facts” about its proposals for compliance. In the case of a Chicago TV station, for example, the order notes that Sinclair had strong ties to the buyer and might attempt to buy back the station in the future. The legal review process is likely to kill the merger entirely.

It’s a dramatic about-face, especially when combined with the news this week that the Department of Justice has filed an appeal challenging the approval of the AT&T-Time Warner merger.

It might seem like the Trump administration is finally making good on his campaign promises to crack down on media consolidation. But let’s not jump to conclusions. The ink has hardly dried on the DoJ’s approval last month of Walt Disney’s proposed $71 billion acquisition of parts of 21st Century Fox. With no coherent policy on media mergers, we can add this to the list of issues where no decision should be taken as a clue for what’s to come.

July 19, 2018

Senator Tim Scott (l) and Trump. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A Trump judicial nominee was pulled for his college rants on race and sexual assault.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday withdrew Ryan Bounds, who had been nominated for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, after Republican Senator Tim Scott objected to articles from Bounds’s university days.

As a student at Stanford University, Bounds wrote that multicultural organizations and on-campus activism “divide up by race for their feel-good ethnic hoedowns,” act as a “pestilence” that “threatens to corrupt our scholastic experience,” and “contribute more to restricting consciousness, aggravating intolerance, and pigeonholing cultural identities than many a Nazi bookburning.” He also argued against expelling students accused of sexual assault, claiming that the punishment is “probably not going to contribute a great deal toward a rape victim’s recovery.”

Bounds, a prosecutor in Portland, Oregon, was nominated back on September 7. Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley, ignoring the “blue slip” process, went ahead with confirmation hearings over the objections of Bounds’s home-state senators, Democrats Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden. After Senate debate on Bounds’s nomination concluded yesterday, the Willamette Week reported that he was “likely to win the confirmation.”

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Trump’s military parade will be “tremendously expensive,” by Trump’s standard.

At a press conference following the historic U.S.-North Korea summit on June 12, President Donald Trump told reporters that he planned to end military exercises with South Korea. “We’ve done exercises for a long time, working with South Korea,” he said. “And we call them war games, and I call them war games, and they’re tremendously expensive.” His cancellation of the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises saved $14 million, according to the Pentagon.

CNN reported today, however, that Trump’s domestic war games—a planned military parade in Washington, D.C.—is estimated to cost about $12 million. The parade is scheduled for November 10, one day before the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. (President Emmanuel Macron is hosting world leaders at a centennial parade planned for the following day.)

Trump was reportedly inspired by France’s Bastille Day festivities, which he attended last year. “The marching orders were: I want a parade like the one in France,” an anonymous official told France24 in February. But Bastille Day featured tanks. Trump’s parade will not, by order of the Department of Defense.

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Trump misses the point about the European Union’s record fine against Google.

On Wednesday, the European Union brought a $5 billion (€4.3 billion) fine against Google for its abuse of its Android mobile operating system. The fine was the result of an investigation into anticompetitive practices that began eight years ago and that led to an earlier $2.7 billion fine relating to its online shopping platform.

But the new fine comes amid an escalating trade war between the United States and the European Union. While the EU fine has nothing to do with the tariffs on steel and cars that have been levied, the president is nevertheless arguing that it is part of the nascent trade war—and proof that the EU has taken advantage of the U.S. for years.

While Trump has been critical of Amazon and Apple, other tech giants like Google and Facebook have escaped his ire. That may be because he is not exactly a technophile: Amazon’s online shopping platform and Apple’s hardware production are less abstract than a search engine and a social network. Politics certainly plays a role as well—Amazon has undoubtedly been singled out because it shares an owner, Jeff Bezos, with The Washington Post, which the president has repeatedly feuded with.

But Trump’s embrace of Google doesn’t really have anything to do with Google. The president is looking for any evidence he can to show that the EU is abusing American companies. The most recent fine isn’t that—it’s part of a decades-long regulatory push. But at this point Trump doesn’t have much evidence that European companies are taking advantage of American ones, so he’ll take what he can get.

Marc Israel Sellem/AFP/Getty Images

Israel passes a law affirming a Jewish nation-state.

Israel’s parliament voted 62-55 in favor of the long-debated Nation State bill early Thursday morning, enshrining religion-based identity in law. The bill defined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people (rather than of Israeli citizens), revokes the status of Arabic as an official language, and affirms Jewish-only settlement as “a national value.”

Knesset (Israeli parliament) members say that the law merely puts the country’s Jewish character into writing. But in actively encouraging Jewish-only settlement, the law elevates the unequal treatment of 1.8 million Arabs with Israeli citizenship—who reports suggest are already discriminated against in employment, social services, and education—to the status of a constitutional norm.

The bill did not pass quietly: thousands of demonstrators gathered for an “emergency rally” in Tel Aviv on Saturday night; 14 American Jewish organizations penned a letter last week to Knesset member Isaac Herzog expressing their opposition to the bill. In a speech at the demonstration, Ayman Odeh, chair of the mostly Arab Joint List party alliance described the law’s purpose as being to “stick a finger in the eyes of a fifth of Israel’s population, spark a dispute and polarize in order to make political gain for the Netanyahu tyranny.” The Joint List party proposed a counter-bill last month that would define Israel as a “state of all its citizens.” The Knesset rejected it.

For decades, the broad appeal of liberal Zionism in America has depended on a supposed equilibrium between the state’s Jewish and democratic values—repeatedly tested by controversies over, for example, the Gaza blockade and associated violence. With this new law, Netanyahu’s government may drive Israel’s liberal supporters further from the fold.

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Republicans disagree with the rest of America about Trump’s handling of Putin.

Two new polls show that a large majority of Americans are unhappy with the president’s performance in his summit with the Russian president in Helsinki on Monday. But Trump’s supporters are still standing by him.

A CBS News poll this week found that 55 percent of Americans disapproved of Trump’s handling of the summit, where the president sided with Putin on whether Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. (Trump later made an unconvincing effort to walk back his remarks.) That figure included 83 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of voters who described themselves as independent.

Among Republican voters, however, Trump’s support remains largely unchanged. In the CBS poll, 68 percent of Republicans said they approved of the president’s handling of Putin. A new Axios/SurveyMonkey poll found similar results: 58 percent of Americans overall disapproved of the summit, but 79 percent of Republicans sided with Trump.

The results track with what we know about Trump’s bond with Republican voters. The president has long enjoyed considerable support with the party’s deeply conservative base, and none of his words or deeds since entering the White House have significantly disrupted it. This week’s polls, coming immediately after the president publicly humiliated himself before a hostile foreign power, are perhaps the starkest reminder yet of that hold.

The polls also suggest that Trump may be able to weather worse storms to come. “Every piece of data, and virtually every public action of elected Republican officials, shows Trump will have overwhelming and probably unbreakable party support, regardless of what Robert Mueller finds with his Russia probe,” Axios’ Mike Allen concluded.

July 18, 2018

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The GOP thinks “Abolish ICE” is going to hurt Democrats.

The House on Wednesday voted on a GOP measure in overwhelming support of U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE), following a chorus of calls by progressive Democrats to dismantle the agency.

With the resolution passing on a 244-35 vote—18 Democrats voted in favor of the agency, while 34 voted against the measure—the GOP strategically exposed a division within moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party. The remaining 133 Dems voted present, withholding their vote at the behest of party leaders, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who have refrained from jumping on the “Abolish ICE” bandwagon.

“The campaign against ICE is the latest rallying cry for open borders, the latest call to prioritize illegal immigrants over American citizens,” said Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA), who sponsored the bill, in the House debate on Wednesday.

The movement to eliminate ICE, the agency established under the Department of Homeland Security by George W. Bush in 2003, has gained traction among some high-profile Democrats following the upset victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley of New York in June. Ocasio-Cortez made the elimination of ICE a central part of her campaign during the family separation crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as well as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand have joined the rallying cry.

In attempting to make Democrats take a stand on ICE, Republicans apparently think a vote against the agency could hurt their opponents in the midterms. Polls show that a majority of voters believe ICE should stay.

Democrats roll out their newest midterms slogan: “For the People.”

Party leaders debuted the slogan after a Wednesday meeting of House Democrats, Politico reports. “For the People,” with its populist undertones, will be a rhetorical improvement on “A Better Deal,” which drew widespread criticism for being tepid.

The “For the People” platform focuses on three main aims: health care, wage increases, and a spotlight on Republican corruption. Democrats are now expected to begin incorporating the slogan and its three policy priorities into their messaging.

The slogan represents another bid for a party that’s struggled with unified, coherent messaging. Months away from midterm elections where Democrats must flip 24 Republican-controlled seats to take control of the House, the party was under pressure to get at least roughly on the same page. “I don’t think any of us are claiming this is poetic or this is the end-all-be-all of messaging,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois. “It’s just a way, in a quick way, to put together the answer to what we stand for.”