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Marco Rubio threatens to beat up Alex Jones.

The Senate hearings to evaluate Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court nominee are turning into a reunion of the more louche elements of the conspiratorial far right. Among those seen in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday were Laura Loomer, Chuck Johnson, and Jack Posobiec. Also present was America’s foremost purveyor of paranoid fantasies, Alex Jones, who heckled Senator Marco Rubio at a press gaggle. 

While Rubio was trying to talk about the security threat posed by China interfering in the American election, Jones stood in the sidelines and mouthed off about big tech companies “shadow banning” conservatives. “The Democrats are doing what you say China does,” Jones barked. “It’s happening here but you say I don’t exist.” 

Rubio tried to laugh it off. “I just don’t know who you are, man.” Jones mimicked, floridly but recognizably, Rubio’s braying giggle and called the senator “a little frat boy.” Rubio then asked, “Who are you?” 

After Jones tapped Rubio on the shoulder, the Republican politician said, “Don’t touch me again man. I’m asking you not to touch me.” Jones accused Rubio of “trying to get me arrested.”

Rubio replied, “You’re not going to get arrested, man.  You’re not going to get arrested. I’ll take care of it myself.” Jones then bellowed, “Oh, he’ll beat me up!”

After the gaggle ended, Jones started holding court with the remaining reporters, making homophobic insinuations about Rubio and spouting off about how he was being censored. 

November 12, 2018

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Trump’s North Korean love story is turning out to be a fantasy.

President Donald Trump loves touting his diplomatic opening with North Korea as one of the signature achievements of his administration, often speaking about it in extravagant terms that are closer to the language of romance than foreign policy. In a September rally in West Virginia, he detailed the history of his personal relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.“I was really being tough, and so was he,” The president enthused. “We were going back and forth. Then we fell in love. OK? No, really. He wrote me beautiful letters. And they’re great letters. We fell in love.” 

Like many love stories, Trump’s tale is turning out to be a fantasy. Trump claims that he opened up a new era of peace in the Korean peninsula by getting the North Koreans to agree to halt its nuclear and missile program in exchange for friendlier relations. 

But, as The New York Times made public on Monday morning, North Korea’s nuclear and missile program continues unabated.  “North Korea is moving ahead with its ballistic missile program at 16 hidden bases that have been identified in new commercial satellite images, a network long known to American intelligence agencies but left undiscussed as President Trump claims to have neutralized the North’s nuclear threat,” the newspaper reports. “The satellite images suggest that the North has been engaged in a great deception: It has offered to dismantle a major launching site—a step it began, then halted—while continuing to make improvements at more than a dozen others that would bolster launches of conventional and nuclear warheads.”

Critics, including Jon Wolfsthal, the Director of the Nuclear Crisis Group at Global Zero, have long warned that a foreign policy based on wildly overselling meager results would be destabilizing. There are myriad ways the current situation could go awry. One possibility is that hawks in the Trump administration, such as National Security Advisor John Bolton, could now argue that diplomacy has failed and push for a return to the “bloody nose” strategy that Trump initially toyed with. That strategy includes launching a preemptive strike that could easily escalate into a region-wide war. 

But even short of igniting a war, Trump’s policy carries other risks. It is already helping to discredit America’s reputation as a reliable ally and sober superpower.

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Trump’s trip to France was a fiasco.

Under any normal presidency, a visit to France to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I would be one of the easiest possible diplomatic assignments. After all, France is one of America’s oldest allies and American participation in the two world wars is recalled with gratitude and forms the historical foundation for the contemporary Western alliance. But President Donald Trump went to Europe at a fraught moment, with his party coming to terms with a midterm drubbing that will put the Democrats in charge of the House of Representatives. Now facing an emboldened opposition that will soon have subpoena power, Trump seemed to have gone to Europe in a sour mood, which infected the weekend.

The first big blunder was the failure to attend the ceremony at the Aisne-Marne American cemetery on Saturday morning. The pretext for missing the event, that rain prevented the planned helicopter trip, suggested at the very least poor planning. Why wasn’t there a back-up plan in case of rain, as is normal in presidential trips? Other leaders managed to make it to the cemetery, which made Trump’s absence all the more striking.

Trump did make it to the Sunday event, where he made an awkward joke about the rain. Calling out a group of American World War II veterans, he said, “You look so comfortable up there under shelter as we’re getting drenched. You’re very smart people.”

On Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin flashed Trump a thumbs up. Putin said that he and Trump weren’t going to meet privately at the “request” of their French host.

To top off a weekend of failed diplomacy, French President Emmanuel Macron used Sunday, while making a speech the war that still remains France’s dominant historical experience of the last century, to lambast Trump’s America First nationalism.

“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism,” Macron intoned. “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying ‘our interests first; who cares about the others?’, we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great, and what makes it essential—its moral values.”

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Trump, after misreading a newspaper article, wants to cut off relief funding for Puerto Rico.

Jonathan Swan of Axios reports that President Donald Trump wants to terminate any further federal funding to help Puerto Rico deal with the aftermath of the 2017 hurricanes that hit the island. This move is motivated by the president’s misunderstanding of a Wall Street Journal article he read in October. The article noted that the island’s bond prices were improving thanks to expectations of an injection of federal funding.

“Sources with direct knowledge told me Trump concluded — without evidence — that Puerto Rico’s government was scamming federal disaster funds to pay down its debt,” Swan writes. “A second source said Trump misinterpreted the Journal article, concluding falsely that the Puerto Rican government was using disaster relief funds to pay down debt.”

Trump’s turn against Puerto Rico is also part of his general penchant for not wanting to assist jurisdictions that vote against him. On Saturday, the president fulminated on Twitter against forest management in California and threatened “no more Fed payments.”

With the Democrats soon taking control of the House of Representatives, relief funding for Puerto Rico could be a major source of friction between Congress and the president. “Trump won’t be able to take away disaster funds that have already been set aside by Congress, and sources close to the situation tell me the White House hasn’t asked Republican lawmakers to do so,” Swan observes. “But Trump could refuse to sign a future spending bill that would make more money available for Puerto Rico’s recovery.”

November 10, 2018

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After arriving in France, Trump makes a quick jab at Emmanuel Macron.

President Donald Trump is currently France, where he’ll attend an Armistice Day celebration to mark the 100th year anniversary of the end of the First World War, but his trip has already gotten off to a bad start. Just moments after landing, he tweeted:

Trump’s peevish tweet seems to be based on a misunderstanding of Macron’s comments about building up Europe’s unified military. According to the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, “Actually, what Macron said on French radio on Tuesday was that Europe needed a real army to reduce reliance on the United States for defense in the face of a resurgent Russia.”

Macron’s actual comments were perfectly consistent with Trump’s own agenda of getting NATO countries to pay more for their own defense. “We won’t protect Europeans if we don’t decide to have a real European army,” the French president remarked. “Faced with Russia, which is near our borders and has shown it could be threatening—I want to build a real security dialogue with Russia, which is a country I respect, a European country—but we must have a Europe that can defend itself on its own without relying only on the United States.”

Trump is walking into a fraught situation in Europe, one well described by foreign policy scholar Tom Wright of the Brookings Institution. In a series of tweets, Wright argued that the trip shows how America and its European allies are at cross-purposes. Trump’s main reason for going seems to be that he enjoys military parades, which the French excel in presenting. Macron, meanwhile, is using the event to promote the Paris Peace Forum, a showcase for liberal internationalism. Normally, an American president would be welcome at such an event, but Trump has been discouraged from sticking around for it.

Wright’s tweets are worth reading in full, but here are some highlights:

November 09, 2018

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Report: Trump personally helped direct hush money payments to women he allegedly slept with.

In a blockbuster investigative article, The Wall Street Journal reports that on two previously undisclosed occasions in 2015 and 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump met with David Pecker, chief executive of the firm that owns The National Enquirer, to plot out strategies for hush money payments to women that Trump had allegedly had extra-marital affairs with. These meetings led to the dispersal of money from The National Enquirer to the model Karen McDougal. If accurate, The Wall Street Journal’s account contradicts Trump’s frequent denials of involvement in the payouts. They also underscore the possibility the president is vulnerable to possible charges of violating federal campaign-finance laws.

The Journal report also indicates further evidence of a parallel arrangement, made by the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, with the actress Stormy Daniels. According to the newspaper, “Trump was involved in or briefed on nearly every step of the agreements. He directed deals in phone calls and meetings with his self-described fixer, Michael Cohen, and others. The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan has gathered evidence of Mr. Trump’s participation in the transactions.” Further, Allen Weisselberg, chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, is reported to have been involved in the deals with both McDougal and Daniels.

Given The Wall Street Journal’s reporting, there is a high probability that the president will be facing legal trouble growing out of these deals, possibly including criminal charges.

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Bret Stephens’s dismissal of the size of the blue election was overly hasty.

On Thursday, the New York Times columnist confidently declared, “This week’s elections were, at most, a very modest rebuke of a president reviled by many of his opponents, this columnist included, as an unprecedented danger to the health of liberal democracy at home and abroad.” To support his point, he noted that, “The 28-seat swing that gave Democrats control of the House wasn’t even half the 63 seats Republicans won in 2010.”

Stephens’s column was posted two days after the election but was still a rush to judgment because the votes are still being counted. Especially in states like California, Arizona, Georgia, and Florida, voting is tight and there is the prospect of recounts. But what is increasingly clear is that the more votes are counted, the more the election looks like a substantial Democratic wave, the biggest gains the party has made in the House of Representatives since 1974 (when the Republicans were dragged down by a poor economy and a president facing impeachment).

Polling guru Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight rebuked Stephens:

In a subsequent tweet, Silver underscored how strong the results for the Democrats were, with a real possibility that they could gain nearly 40 net seats in the House of Representatives and lose only one or two net seats in the Senate.

Stephens did not take well to being slagged.

Silver in turn rejected the label of troll:

While the pundit-on-pundit name-calling is entertaining, the more serious part of the argument deserves attention. The slowness of the vote counting has clouded over the fact that the Democrats had a very good night on Tuesday. They gained impressive victories in all elections except in the Senate, where they faced a difficult map dominated by red states. Even in the Senate, if Democrats win Arizona and Florida, they will have kept losses to a near minimum, putting them in a better position for 2020.

Stephens was trying to downplay the Democratic victory in order to push for his preferred path for the party (that it try to appeal to centrists rather than leftists). Ironically, this argumentative maneuver was unnecessary. There’s plenty of evidence from Tuesday that Democrats succeeded on Tuesday by fielding moderate candidates in the suburbs.

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Judge rules that Trump can’t ignore ‘inconvenient facts’ about climate change.

A federal judge issued a major blow to President Donald Trump’s pro-fossil fuel agenda on Thursday night when he blocked construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. But the ruling also served as an important reminder that, while Trump can lie about climate change in public all he wants, federal law requires his administration’s policy changes to be based on facts.

The Trump administration didn’t provide those facts when it reversed President Barack Obama’s rejection of the 1,200-mile oil pipeline in 2017, Judge Brian Morris wrote. Specifically, Trump’s State Department ignored Obama’s main justification for throwing out the project: That it would exacerbate climate change, and the United States’ standing as a world leader on the issue.

“Without explanation or acknowledgment,” Morris wrote, the Trump administration’s legal document reversing Obama’s decision “omitted entirely” any discussion of Keystone XL’s potential impact on U.S. climate leadership. The [document] simply states that since 2015, there have been ‘numerous developments related to global action to address climate change, including announcements by many countries of their plans to do so.’” Judge Morris wrote. “Once again, this conclusory statement falls short of a factually based determination, let alone a reasoned explanation, for the course reversal.”

“An agency cannot simply disregard contrary or inconvenient factual determinations that it made in the past, any more than it can ignore inconvenient facts when it writes on a blank slate,” Judge Morris continued. He said the Trump administration didn’t provide a reasonable explanation when it asserted that approving Keystone XL would have no climate-related impacts. Instead, it “simply discarded prior factual findings related to climate change to support its course reversal.”

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Trump regurgitates a Fox News conspiracy theory about the Florida vote count.

At a press gaggle on Friday morning, President Donald Trump suggested there was some connection between Fusion GPS, the security firm that prepared a notorious dossier on Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the ongoing vote count in Florida.

“If you look at Broward County, they have had a horrible history,” Trump said. “And if you look at the person, in this case a woman, involved, she has had a horrible history. And all of a sudden they are finding votes out of nowhere. And Rick Scott who won by, it was close but he won by a comfortable margin, every couple hours it goes down a little bit. And then you see the people, and they were involved with the fraud of the fake dossier, the phoney dossier, and I guess I hear they were somehow involved or worked with the GPS Fusion people, who have committed, I mean you look at what they’ve done, you look at the dishonesty, look, look, there’s bad things gone on in Broward County, really bad things.”

The president’s words are confusing but they seem, as so often, to have their origins in something he heard on Fox News. In this case, Sean Hannity was making the Fusion GPS claim on Thursday night.

In the same press gaggle, the president lashed out at CNN reporter Abby D. Phillip for asking whether Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker would rein in special counsel Robert Mueller. He called it a “stupid question” but did not answer it.

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Trump threatens to use “law enforcement” because he is unhappy with Florida election results.

On Thursday night, President Donald Trump tweeted:

Trump was referring to the still unsettled elections in Florida, where both the gubernatorial and Senate race are so close that they are heading for a recount. In the gubernatorial race, Republican Ron DeSantis has 49.6 percent of the vote as against 49.2 percent for Democrat Andrew Gillum. In the Senate race, Republican Rick Scott has 50.1 percent of the vote against Democrat Bill Nelson, who has 49.1 percent. The Scott/Nelson race has been narrowing especially fast as counting continues in traditionally Democratic areas such as Broward County.

According to The Sun-Sentinel, Scott launched a lawsuit on Thursday against Broward County’s elections supervisor Brenda Snipes, alleging a lack of transparency. According to the lawsuit, “The lack of transparency raises substantial concerns about the validity of the election process.”

It’s unclear what “law enforcement” the president was referring to, since election laws are a state matter. As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo suggests, the goal might be to bolster Scott in the ongoing battle:

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The new acting attorney general is hostile to the mission of the Mueller investigation.

With the forced resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, attention has turned to his replacement, Matthew Whitaker, a GOP functionary who has a long history of extreme statements condemning the Mueller investigation. Mother Jones reports that Whitaker believes that the president has the power to shut down any federal investigation. “There is no case for obstruction of justice because the president has all the power of the executive and delegates that to people like the FBI director and the attorney general,” Whitaker told a radio show in 2017. “The president could and has in our nation’s history said stop investigating this person or please investigate this other person.”

In another 2017 interview, flagged by The Daily Beast, Whitaker made clear he already dismissed any possibility that the Trump campaign could be culpable for Russian interference in the election, the very subject special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating. “The truth is there was no collusion with the Russians and the Trump campaign,” Whitaker said. “There was interference by the Russians into the election, but that was not collusion with the campaign. That’s where the left seems to be combining those two issues.”

CNN reports of yet another interview from 2017 where Whitaker described Mueller’s appointment as special counsel as being “ridiculous” and “a little fishy.”

But even as Whitaker questions Mueller’s appointment, his own appointment to the position as acting attorney general is being interrogated. In an op-ed in The New York Times, Neal Katyal and George Conway argue on constitutional grounds that a “principal officer must be confirmed by the Senate.” If that constitutional principle is valid, the Whitaker can’t simply be elevated from being Jeff Sessions’s chief of staff to having a cabinet-level position.

As Katyal and Conway contend, “Constitutionally, Matthew Whitaker is a nobody. His job as Mr. Sessions’s chief of staff did not require Senate confirmation. (Yes, he was confirmed as a federal prosecutor in Iowa, in 2004, but Mr. Trump can’t cut and paste that old, lapsed confirmation to today.) For the president to install Mr. Whitaker as our chief law enforcement officer is to betray the entire structure of our charter document.”