January 9, 2020

The White House briefed members of Congress for 75 minutes Tuesday on President Trump's decision to order the killing of a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, and lawmakers emerged with mixed assessments of whether the Trump administration had made a persuasive case for the extraordinary move. There are legal and political reasons it matters if Soleimani's killing was an act of self-defense to stop an "imminent" attack or the assassination of a foreign government official.

The assessments largely broke down along party lines, though Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) memorably called it "probably the worst briefing I've seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I've served in the United States Senate." Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had the pithiest response. When told some lawmakers found it the "worst briefing," Pelosi quipped, "Well, there's stiff competition for that honor from this administration."

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told MSNBC that the classified briefing showed "there was no imminent threat to cause this assassination to happen right when it did," and "It struck me as the same kind of lies I was hearing 20 years ago, when I was a House member, about the war in Iraq." Many Republicans said they came away persuaded.

Lee said the insistence of the briefers that lawmakers fall in line and not publicly question the strike convinced him to vote with Democrats to limit Trump's warmaking powers. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called such criticism "empowering the enemy," and Lee ally Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told CNN that Graham's "low, gutter type of response" was "sad."

"I think it's sad when people have this fake sort of drape of patriotism, and anybody that disagrees with them is not a patriot," Paul said. He criticized the Soleimani killing on both constitutional and strategic grounds, and when Wolf Blitzer asked about the briefing, Paul said "there was no specific information given to us of a specific attack. Generalities, stuff you read in the newspaper, was given to us. I didn't learn anything in the hearing that I hadn't seen in a newspaper already, and none of it was overwhelming, that X was going to happen."

You can watch Lee's entire dissent below. Peter Weber

August 8, 2020

President Trump on Saturday announced multiple executive actions intended to extend economic aid, as Congress remains in a stalemate over the next coronavirus relief package. The measures will likely face legal challenges, however, as Trump attempts to bypass the legislative policy-making process.

The president said during a press conference at his golf club in Bedminister, New Jersey, that, via executive order, he would unilaterally renew expanded unemployment benefits, hold off student loan payments, and extend a moratorium on evictions. Additionally, Trump said the action authorizes the Treasury Department to defer payroll taxes for Americans making less than $100,000 per year. He suggested he may extend the deferral if he's re-elected in November and ultimately terminate the tax, although his stance on the matter is at odds with both parties in Congress.

The extended unemployment boost under Trump's order would have an additional $400/week go to individuals who lost their job because of the pandemic, landing between the previous $600/week figure and the $200/week plan discussed by Republicans lawmakers.

Trump did not participate directly in negotiations with congressional leaders in recent days, according to The Associated Press, and, in addition to the legal ambiguity, "Trump's embrace of executive actions to sidestep Congress runs in sharp contrast to his criticism of former President Barack Obama's use of executive orders on a more limited basis."

Read more at Bloomberg and The Associated Press. Tim O'Donnell

August 8, 2020

Intelligence officials have had a difficult time briefing President Trump on matters throughout his presidency, The New York Times reports. He reportedly often loses interest, unless the subject is heavy on economics or could intrigue other wealthy people, which tended to concern the intelligence community.

In the latter scenario, one former senior administration official told The New York Times, Trump would "show off about some of the stuff he thought was cool," like the capabilities of different weapons system to billionaires. "These were super rich guys who wouldn't give him the time of day before he became president," the former official said. "He'd use that stuff as currency he had that they didn't, not understanding the implications."

What's more, Trump also filled his President's Intelligence Advisory Board with wealthy businesspeople, who would occasionally make briefers uncomfortable, one intelligence official said, because their questions sometimes "were related to their business dealings." Read more about the culture clash between Trump and the intelligence community at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

August 8, 2020

The Mid-American Conference postponed all fall sports Saturday due to the coronavirus pandemic. The decision makes the MAC the first FBS conference to forego a football season this year.

MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said "there are simply too many unknowns for us to put our student-athletes in situations that are not clearly understood." But it seems that financial costs were also a concern, especially since many of the schools would lose revenue from already-canceled games against major conference teams.

The league isn't giving up all hope of seeing its student-athletes get back on the field, though. The conference is looking into ways to move the affected sports — which also include men's and women's cross country, men's and women's soccer, field hockey, and women's volleyball — to the spring, and ESPN has reportedly said it's open to fitting televised games into its broadcast schedule next year.

It's unclear how the mid-major conference's move will affect the rest of the college football landscape, since most FBS conferences are opting to go ahead with modified schedules bereft of non-conference games, and the so-called Power Five Conferences (ACC, Big 10, SEC, PAC-12, and Big 12) have a lot more money at stake. But players have at least raised the possibility that they'd be willing to sit out the season if they aren't satisfied with health and safety protocols. The MAC's decision could put pressure on the other conferences to bolster their plans, if not call off the season outright. Read more at ESPN. Tim O'Donnell

August 8, 2020

Florida and Arizona have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic this summer, but the two Sun Belt states appear to be entering a stage of relief.

Arizona saw its test positivity rate fall below the crucial 10 percent threshold for the first time in months, signaling that a return to more intense lockdown measures has begun to pay off.

Florida, meanwhile, saw improvement across the board, although it's positivity rate remains above 10 percent. Daily fatality figures are still high, as well, but appear to be on a downward trend from last week. Tim O'Donnell

August 8, 2020

President Trump's fondness for Mt. Rushmore is well known, so it's likely South Dakota Kristi Noem (R) scored some bonus points with the gift she gave the president when he came to her state to give an Independence Day speech in front of the monument in July.

Noem spoke highly of Trump when introducing him before the speech, comparing him to former President Theodore Roosevelt and describing him as a leader who "brave the dangers of the arena." In private, The New York Times reports, the flattery went a little further when Noem apparently greeted Trump with a four-foot replica of Mt. Rushmore, with a twist. In addition to the four U.S. presidents whose faces are actually carved into the mountainside — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Roosevelt — the replica reportedly included Trump's likeness. Trump, after all, had previously told Noem it was his dream to have his face up there.

Eventually, per the Times, word circulated around the Trump administration that Noem was ingratiating herself with Trump, leading to suspicions that she was seeking to supplant Vice President Mike Pence as his running mate in November. Noem reportedly flew to Washington, D.C., a couple of weeks later to meet with Pence and reportedly made it clear she was not after his job. Read more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

August 8, 2020

The emergence of Susan Rice, a former national security adviser in the Obama administration, as a leading candidate to become former Vice President Joe Biden's running mate has led to a renewed focus on the 2012 attacks against U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the deaths of 11 people, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stephens. Rice, though, called the criticism of her role in the aftermath of the event a "political distraction" amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Rice did express regret about agreeing to represent the Obama administration on news shows where she announced that the attacks were part of a spontaneous protest in response to an anti-Muslim video. The information relayed turned out to be inaccurate, and the attacks were premeditated. Rice told The Atlantic her mother warned about going on the shows, especially since then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declined, but said she ultimately accepted the task because she consider herself a "team player." Now, she says, she wishes she had listened to her mother's advice and has since learned that tragedies like Benghazi almost always get politicized.

But she isn't too bothered by the efforts of people like Fox News host Tucker Carlson to amplify her role in the event. Rice noted there has been "no investigation, no outrage, not a boo out of Congressional Republicans" over the Pensacola air base shooting that left three Americans dead or the four American service members who were killed in a terrorist attack in Niger, both under President Trump's watch. She also doesn't think focusing on Benghazi in 2020, when more than 150,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, makes much sense. "They're going to talk about Benghazi?" she said. "I say fine, let them." Read Rice's full interview at The Atlantic. Tim O'Donnell

August 8, 2020

President Trump's allies are growing worried about his re-election chances, Politico reports, with one Republican close to the White House comparing the situation to the 1993 film Groundhog Day. "You think it's better, then it's not," the official told Politico.

One incident that probably won't allay their concerns is a recent phone conversation between Trump and GOP megadonor and Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, per Politico. Adelson reportedly called Trump last week to discuss the coronavirus relief bill and the economy, but Trump eventually turned the conversation to the campaign and asked Adelson why he wasn't doing more to help, three people with direct knowledge of the call told Politico.

One of the sources said it became clear Trump wasn't aware of the extent to which Adelson — whom Politico describes as a financial linchpin who has donated tens of millions of dollars to pro-Trump efforts — has poured in resources for the president. Adelson reportedly didn't fire back at Trump, and his allies say it's unclear if the phone call will dissuade him from working to bolster Trump's campaign during the home stretch. But Republican Party officials were reportedly alarmed by the incident and rushed to smooth things over. Read more at Politico. Tim O'Donnell

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