Steve Benen

The State of the Department (Quack)

#AmericanPrestige | #WhatTheyVotedFor

With apologies: Altered detail from cartoon by Jen Sorensen, 17 April 2018.

“guess how many people are working on Iranian nuclear proliferation at the State Department? as of today....zero”

Anne Applebaum

We should be clear that by today, the columnist means Friday last, when she posted the tweet, which refers, in turn, to a report from Foreign Policy:

One of the State Department’s top experts on nuclear proliferation resigned this week after President Donald Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, in what officials and analysts say is part of a worrying brain drain from public service generally over the past 18 months.

Richard Johnson, a career civil servant who served as acting assistant coordinator in State’s Office of Iran Nuclear Implementation, had been involved in talks with countries that sought to salvage the deal in recent weeks, including Britain, France, and Germany — an effort that ultimately failed.

Johnson’s departure leaves a growing void in the State Department’s stable of experts on Iran’s nuclear program and highlights a broader problem of high-level departures from government.

Officials say the trend is particularly evident at the State Department, where Trump sidelined career diplomats and morale plummeted under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The office Johnson led has gone from seven full-time staffers to none since Trump’s inauguration.

Today is Tuesday, and elsewhere in the commentariat Steve Benen notes, “The article didn’t explicitly say that Johnson resigned in protest, but there doesn’t appear to be much of a mystery about what happened here.”

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Not at All Unexpected if We Just Stop and Think About It for a Moment

#NationalistRepublicanArmy | #WhatTheyVotedFor

Oliver North, notorious figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, speaks to the National Rifle Association in Dallas, Texas, 4 May 2018. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

As Steve Benen explains—

In 1994, then-Sen. Chuck Robb (D-Va.) offered a famous description of his Republican rival, Oliver North.

Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver North, former aide to former National Security Adviser John Poindexter, is sworn in 7 July 1987 before the House and Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in Washington, D.C. on arms sales to Iran and diversion of profits to Nicaraguan Contra rebels. North testified under limited immunity. The 'Irangate' saga erupted 30 November 1986 into a new crisis for the US President Reagan administration with the resignation of Admiral John Poindexter as the President's National Security Advisor and the dismissal of North, a member of the National Security Council Staff. 'Ollie' North, a much-decorated Marine officer, known to White House cynics as the President's 'Swashbuckler in Chief', was linked to the transfer of some $ 30 million profit from the Iran weapons sales to Contra rebels fighting the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua. (Photo: Chris Wilkins/AFP/Getty Images)“My opponent is a document-shredding, Constitution-trashing, commander-in-chief-bashing, Ayatollah-loving, arms-dealing, criminal-protecting, resume-enhancing, Noriega-coddling, Swiss-banking, law-breaking, letter-faking, self-serving, snake-oil salesman who can’t tell the difference between the truth and a lie,” Robb said.

North went on to narrowly lose that race—then Republican Sen. John Warner (R) endorsed the Democrat, and North was denounced by Ronald Reagan—but he nevertheless cemented his role as a far-right celebrity and conservative media personality. Today, he landed a notable new gig.

—this is your new president of the National Rifle Association: Oliver North, ladies and gentlemen.

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Image notes: Top — Oliver North speaks to the National Rifle Association in Dallas, Texas, 4 May 2018. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)  Right — Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver North, former aide to former National Security Adviser John Poindexter, is sworn in 7 July 1987 before the House and Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in Washington, D.C. on arms sales to Iran and diversion of profits to Nicaraguan Contra rebels. (Photo: Chris Wilkins/AFP/Getty Images)

Benen, Steve. “Despite his criminal scandal, Oliver North to lead the NRA”. msnbc. 7 May 2018.

The Pruitt Watch (Peat Fire)

#DrainTheSwamp | #WhatTheyVotedFor

Detail of 'Lucifer', by Franz von Stuck, 1890.

While the idea of a rioting dumpster fire experienced brief vogue among media commentators trying to describe the Donald Trump presidency, the slowburning, filthy corruption of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt seems to describe something akin to a peat fire. The lede from the New York Times:

Since moving to Washington, Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has attracted the attention of federal investigators because of his unusual association with lobbyists, including his rental of a condominium last year owned by the wife of a lobbyist with business before the E.P.A.

As a state senator in Oklahoma 15 years ago, Mr. Pruitt went even further: He bought a home in the state capital with a registered lobbyist who was pushing for changes to the state’s workers’ compensation rules—changes that Mr. Pruitt championed in the legislature.

And as with the condominium rental in Washington, Mr. Pruitt never publicly disclosed his financial relationship with the lobbyist, who, like Mr. Pruitt, lived in the home when in Oklahoma City on business.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment, on Capitol Hill, 26 April 2018, in Washington D.C. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)But if for some reason the Pruitt Watch seems frustrating, or even verges toward incomprehensible, perhaps the striking report from The Atlantic suggests a flashpoint:

As Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt faces a seemingly endless stream of scandal, his team is scrambling to divert the spotlight to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. And the White House isn’t happy about it.:

In the last week, a member of Pruitt’s press team, Michael Abboud, has been shopping negative stories about Zinke to multiple outlets, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the efforts, as well as correspondence reviewed by The Atlantic.

“This did not happen, and it’s categorically false,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said.

To the other, an unnamed White House official claiming knowledge of the situation explained: “Absolutely nothing Scott Pruitt did would surprise me.” And, yes, that last might as well include, the prospect of the EPA Administrator simply persisting and enduring, though the article did not.

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The Pruitt Watch (#swamped)

#DrainTheSwamp | #WhatTheyVotedFor

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. (Photo: Jason Andrew/Getty Images)

The list from Steve Benen might, ‘twixt now and Monday, have become obsolete; it’s hard to tell, some days.

1. The EPA’s inspector general is investigating Pruitt’s controversial travel habits.

2. The House Oversight Committee is also exploring the EPA chief’s use of public funds for first-class travel.

3. The EPA’s inspector general is investigating Pruitt’s behind-the-scenes talks with the National Mining Association.

4. Pruitt’s exorbitant spending on an around-the-clock security detail is the subject of three inspector general investigations.

5. The House Oversight Committee is also examining the EPA chief’s security expenditures.

6. The Government Accountability Office has already investigated Pruitt for exceeding federal spending limits when he bought a $43,000 phone booth for his office.

7. The White House Office of Management and Budget is also investigating the phone booth.

8. The EPA’s inspector general is investigating Pruitt’s use of funds set aside for the Safe Drinking Water Act and diverting the money to give generous raises to two of his top aides.

9. The EPA’s inspector general is investigating Pruitt’s four-day trip to Morocco late last year.

10. The Government Accountability Office is investigating Pruitt’s ouster of scientists from the EPA’s science advisory committee.

11. The Government Accountability Office is investigating whether Pruitt broke lobbying laws with comments he made to the National Cattleman’s Beef Association.

12. The House Oversight Committee is investigating Pruitt’s living arrangement at a lobbyist’s condo.

13. And as noted above, the EPA’s inspector general is now also taking a closer look at Pruitt’s time at that condo.

Before the day was out, the msnbc blogger found himself adding to the list, sort of, noting a “controversy that should become the 14th” in a Reuters report describing a financial hardship waiver Pruitt’s EPA granted to an Oklahoma facility for a company owned by former Trump administration hand Carl Icahn:

The waiver enables Icahn’s CVR Energy Inc (CVI.N) to avoid tens of millions of dollars in costs related to the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program. The regulation is meant to cut air pollution, reduce petroleum imports and support corn farmers by requiring refiners to mix billions of gallons of biofuels into the nation’s gasoline and diesel each year.

And it does, you know, just keep going downhill.

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Congress, As Only Congress Can

#dysfunction | #WhatTheyVotedFor

A reflection of the U.S. Capitol, 17 February 2012. (Detail of photo by Kevin LaMarque/Reuters)

This is what it is—

At last count, one member has stepped down for health reasons (Mississippi’s Thad Cochran), one member resigned to seek a statewide office (California’s Xavier Becerra), four members gave up their seats to serve in the Trump administration (Georgia’s Tom Price, South Carolina’s Mick Mulvaney, Kansas’ Mike Pompeo, and Montana’s Ryan Zinke), five resigned under a cloud of scandal (Arizona’s Trent Franks, Michigan’s John Conyers, Pennsylvania’s Tim Murphy, Minnesota’s Al Franken, and Texas’ Blake Farenthold), and two stepped down because they didn’t feel like being in Congress anymore (Ohio’s Pat Tiberi and Utah’s Jason Chaffetz).

A recent FiveThirtyEight analysis noted, “If that feels like a lot, that’s because it is; it’s the most people who have resigned from Congress through this point in the session in at least 117 years.”

(Benen)

—but does not account for three U.S. Senators and thirty-three Members of Congress who are simply not running for any office, nor nineteen leaving their House seats in search of statewide office.

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The Latest Pickup: Joseph diGenova

#trumpswindle | #WhatTheyVotedFor

US President Donald J. Trump after a group photo on the second day of the G7 Summit at the Hotel San Domenico in Taormina, Sicily, Italy, 27 May 2017. (Photo: Angelo Carconi/ANSA)

Steve Benen suggests—

Obviously, diGenova’s track record of pushing strange, right-wing conspiracy theories on television makes it difficult to take him seriously, but because Donald Trump is Donald Trump, the opposite is true in the White House: this president loves those who push strange, right-wing conspiracy theories on television. The same qualities that make Joseph diGenova appear foolish in the eyes of the American mainstream are the very qualities that make him appealing to Trump.

Attorney Joseph E. diGenova, ca. 2016 (Image: C-SPAN)—and that is all well and fine insofar as it goes. One need not protest, though, in order to recall general questions of White House morale and who might wish to work for the Trump administration, and from there specifically point out that eventually there will only be diverse manners of true believers left to answer the call. In this context, Joe diGenova might not be the best man for the job—

For those who support the president and want him to succeed, none of this is good news. Trump is facing a serious scandal of historic significance, which may very well bring his presidency to a premature end. He needs the best legal defense possible.

I’m not sure he’s getting it. Trump—who already had to replace the former head of his legal team, who seemed completely out of his depth—has assembled a group of attorneys who haven’t necessarily served him especially well, and he’s now adding a conspiracy theorist whom the president probably saw on Fox News, peddling a strange tale with no basis in fact.

—but could well be the last best attorney to take up President Trump’s defense.

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Image notes: Top —President Donald Trump. (Photo: Angelo Carconi/ANSA)  Right — Attorney Joseph E. diGenova (Image: C-SPAN)

Benen, Steve. “Trump’s new defense attorney burdened by a controversial past”. msnbc. 19 March 2018.

What They Voted For: Why Government Doesn’t Work (Educational Remix)

#wellduh | #WhatTheyVotedFor

Betsy Devos (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It is said, sometimes, that there are no stupid questions, and we all know better, but that really does not seem the problem challenging Steve Benen when his consideration of Education Secretary Betsy Devos would seem to wonder after the obvious:

There’s a reason Betsy DeVos doesn’t sit down for a lot of interviews.

My question, however, is for the 51 Republicans who put elevated her to her current post: any regrets?

Of course not; they’re Republicans. This is the party that tells us government does not work; we ought not be surprised, and instead remember that Secretary DeVos only “embarrasses herself (and the 50 senators who voted to confirm her)” according to contexts by which competence and functionality are considered admirable, desirable, or, at the very least, a necessary component according to purpose. To the other, it seems worth reminding that even into the twenty-first century it was inappropriate to presume so poorly of public servants as we would to account for the incompetence, corruption, and sheer stupidity of the Trump administration.

Sixty-two million nine hundred eighty-four thousand eight hundred twenty-five. This is what they voted for.

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Image note: Betsy Devos (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Benen, Steve. “DeVos embarrasses herself (and the 50 senators who voted to confirm her)”. msnbc. 12 March 2018.

What They Voted For: They Are, After All, Conservatives

#trumpswindle | #WhatTheyVotedFor

The Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington, D.C., 21 December 2016.  (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

Steve Benen notes an obvious question:

The point isn’t that the arrangement is somehow untoward. Rather, what’s amazing about this is that our self-professed billionaire president has a re-election campaign operation in place, housed in a building the president still owns and profits from, and despite the fact that the operation has millions of dollars in the bank, it’s the Republican National Committee that’s using donor money to help Trump’s campaign with the rent.

This comes on the heels of Washington Post reporting from last summer, which said the RNC and other Republican political committees spent nearly $1.3 million at Trump-owned properties in 2017—and that was long before the year was even over.

Whether party donors actually mind any of this is unclear.

The actual answer is not so complicated: First, the upward redistribution of wealth and assets is the Republican Party’s raison d’être; and then there is the point that this is precisely #WhatTheyVotedFor.α

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α At some point, we must accept that conservative populism means cronyism with an ameliorating dose of supremacism.

Image note: The Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

Benen, Steve. “The many bills the RNC is willing to pay for Trump”. msnbc. 26 February 2018.

A Matter of Perspective (Poodlefinger Mix)

#PutiTrump | #WhatTheyVotedFor

A child walks past a graffiti depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on the walls of a bar in the old town in Vilnius, Lithuania, 14 May 2016. (Photo by Mindaugas Kulbis/AP Photo)

This is important:

When Donald Trump makes ridiculously untrue comments, few are surprised. The president has a reputation for breathtaking dishonesty, which is well deserved. Making matters much worse, however, is the degree to which his White House makes no real effort to be more trustworthy.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP Photo)For example, the White House issued a formal written statement late Friday responding to the federal indictment of 13 Russian operatives who are accused of attacking our elections to help put Trump in power. A Washington Post analysis described the statement as “extremely dishonest,” and documented several demonstrable falsehoods—none of which has been corrected.

But West Wing officials weren’t content to stop there. On Twitter, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “Unlike Obama, [Trump] isn’t going to be pushed around by Russia or anybody else.” That might be slightly less laughable if Obama hadn’t imposed sanctions on Russia, which is the opposite of what Trump did.

In a certain way it does not matter what the esteemed Steve Benen finds laughable. There is a long story, of course, behind the statement that, brain chemistry is brain chemistry, or that brain chemistry will as brain chemistry does, but the proposition of laughability depends on circumstantial norms observably not in effect.

When the Press Secretary says President Trump will not be “pushed around by Russia or anybody else”, we need to consider what that means to her. Because either Sarah Huckabee Sanders believes what she says or she does not. The latter is actually the extraordinary alternative, so the question becomes how she believes such a seemingly ridiculous statement.

And to this the answer is actually straightforward:

• President Trump will not be pushed around by Russia because Russia is not pushing him around.

• President Trump will not be pushed around by anybody else because he will not be pushed around by Congress or the Special Counsel’s Office.

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What They Voted For: Jeopardy

#DimensionTrump | #WhatTheyVotedFor

Composite: President Donald Trump photo by Reuters, 2017; Puti-Toots protest image.

“Trump’s lawyers are cognizant of the fact that the president lies with such incredible frequency that allowing him to have a conversation with federal investigators would likely put him in legal jeopardy.”

Steve Benen

There are many standards by which we might consider the daily grind of life during the Trump administration, and perhaps some ought not complain so much if it is not a daily question of life and death, or, maybe, freedom, necessity, and serious impairment thereof; nonetheless, there is still just the general indignity of how long the spectacle must persist, and within that context we might note that circumstances do continue, as circumstances will, apace. Via msnbc:

Three weeks ago today, Donald Trump surprised White House reporters by making unscheduled comments about a provocative subject: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Russia scandal. More specifically, the president made a variety of comments about how much he’s looking forward to speaking to Mueller and his team under oath.

“I’m looking forward to it, actually,” Trump said, adding that he’d “love to” talk to the special counsel investigators. The president went on to say he’s “absolutely” prepared to answer questions under oath.

And, yes, President Trump did go on to say two or three weeks.

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