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Dec. 6 2016 6:25 PM

Obama Warns the Country About How Much Power He’s About to Hand Trump

From George Washington and foreign entanglements to Dwight Eisenhower and the military-industrial complex, there’s a tradition of presidents on their way out the door warning the American public about threats they failed to prevent. But few presidents have ever handed the country over to as uncertain a situation as Barack Obama will soon do. This uncertainty and unease was reflected in his speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, on Tuesday, which he described to the audience of troops as “my final words as your commander in chief.”

MacDill is the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, which has overseen the U.S. military engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East and Central Asia. (It’s also, incidentally, the former command of Defense Secretary–nominee James Mattis.) The speech was billed as a thank you to the military for its service under the Obama administration and a defense of his counterterrorism record: He emphasized that “No foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland. And it’s not because they didn’t try.”

Obama never referred to Trump directly, but much of the speech seemed aimed at him. Referring to torture, specifically waterboarding, which Trump promised to bring back during the campaign but is perhaps now wavering on after conversations with Mattis, Obama said that “at no point has anyone who worked with me told me that [prohibiting torture] has cost us good intelligence.” Perhaps prompted by Trump’s completely illegal suggestion that the U.S. should “take the oil” from the countries in the Middle East where it sends troops, Obama said, “We are a nation that won world wars without grabbing the resources of those we defeated.” Responding to any number of Trump statements about Muslim Americans, Obama said, “The United States is not a country that imposes religious tests as a price for freedom. We’re a country that was founded so that people could practice their faith as they chose. The United States is not a place where some citizens have to withstand greater scrutiny or carry a special ID card or prove that they’re not an enemy from within.” And in a likely response to Trump’s single-minded focus on ISIS when it comes to U.S. security priorities, Obama said:

A sustainable counterterrorism strategy requires keeping the threat in perspective. The terrorist threat is real and is dangerous. But these terrorists want to cast themselves as the vanguard of a new world order. They are not. They are thugs and they are murderers and they should be treated that way. They don’t pose an existential threat to our nation and we must not make the mistake of elevating them as if they do. That does their job for them. It makes them more important and helps them with recruitment.

At times Obama seemed to be casting his arguments in terms that might appeal to Trump. He made appeals to the bottom line, noting that, thanks to his light-footprint counterterrorism approach, which relies more on drones and special forces than large troop deployments, “We’ve accomplished all this at a cost of $10 billion over two years, which is the same amount that we used to spend in one month at the height of the Iraq war.” His argument against continuing to keep the detention center at Guantánamo Bay open was financial as well as moral, saying we’re “wasting hundreds of millions of dollars to keep fewer than 60 people in a detention center in Cuba. That’s not strength.” He also echoed one of Trump’s favorite themes by saying the U.S. “should ask allies to do their fair share in this fight.”

Much of the speech was devoted to the tricky question of legal authorization for the war on terrorism, which Obama himself has taken advantage of. “Right now we are waging a war under authority provided by Congress over 15 years ago. I had no gray hair 15 years ago,” he joked. Obama blamed Congress, saying that, “If a threat is serious enough to require the sacrifice of men and women in uniform, then members of Congress should at least have the courage to make clear where they stand.” But that’s a little unfair. It was the White House, not Congress, that first argued that the war against ISIS fell under the 2001 authorization. Even as the president has hectored Congress for not passing a new resolution, he’s been more than happy to continue and expand the war on terror under the old one.

Even before the election, Obama had made remarks suggesting that he was concerned about the unchecked power of the presidency in counterterrorism, even as his own administration significantly helped normalize that power. Those worries are more justified now that Obama is handing that power over to Trump rather than Hillary Clinton. As he put it in his speech, “the power of the presidency is awesome but it is supposed to be bound by you, our citizens.” The White House also issued an unusual 61-page document on Monday outlining the legal basis for its various counterterrorism activities, arguing for the necessity of transparency and for legal constraints that reduce “the risk of an ill-considered decision.”

The document and the speech together sure seem like an acknowledgment that Obama, partially because of his own administration’s actions, is handing unprecedented presidential powers to someone he clearly thinks is unequipped to handle them responsibly.

Obama ended his speech by urging both members of the military and American citizens to continue to “protect our Constitution among all threats foreign and domestic.” For once, the “and domestic” part didn’t feel like a throwaway line.

Dec. 6 2016 5:35 PM

Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, and Tom Daschle Are All on Taiwan's Payroll


One thing that American public servants of both parties agree on is, well, the importance of public service. That's why Republican former Senate majority leader Bob Dole, Democratic former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, and Democratic former House majority leader Dick Gephardt have teamed up on a wildly successful bipartisan initiative to educate American high school students about the origins and ongoing relevance of the Constitution and the Bill of Ri—

Wait, I'm sorry. That was the lead for a story I'm writing in an alternate universe that's accessed by riding a talking unicorn through Candyland. In our universe, Dole, Daschle, and Gephardt have teamed up to take money from the apparently-quite-extensive Taiwanese lobbying initiative that preceded the infamous phone call between Donald Trump and Taiwanese president Tsai Ying-wen which is going to cause World Wars Three through Five. Dole told the Wall Street Journal in a piece published Monday that he'd helped arrange the call, and Politico now has more:

Dole, the only past Republican presidential nominee to endorse Trump before the election, briefed the campaign’s policy director, set up meetings between campaign staff and Taiwanese emissaries, arranged for Taiwan’s delegation to attend the Republican National Convention, and helped tilt the party platform further in the island’s favor, the disclosure released to POLITICO shows. He even arranged for members of Taiwan’s ruling party to take a White House tour, according to the filing.

"In addition to [Dole's] Alston & Bird, Taiwan pays the firms of former Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle, former Republican Senator Don Nickles, former Florida Republican Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt," the article goes on to state.

Daschle and Gephardt's work on behalf of Taiwan has been previously noted in other outlets, though I should clarify that there has been no reporting tying them specifically to the Trump-Tsai call. Neither of them appear to have commented publicly on the matter.

Dec. 6 2016 4:14 PM

Trump’s Affection for American Workers Still Doesn’t Extend to Hiring Them at His Palm Beach Resort


Frankly, I have little to add to the thorough reporting of this story by the Palm Beach Post besides my sarcastic headline. You can and should click here to see the piece on the Post's website to help it monetize eyeballs and generate $$$$. But if you're really in a hurry, here's the gist:

  • One of the central tenets of Donald Trump's campaign was that the American economy is being destroyed by unfair competition from foreign workers.
  • During the presidential campaign it was widely reported that Trump had hired hundreds of foreign individuals on temporary visas to staff his Mar-a-Lago resort despite the availability and interest of local (American) workers.
  • Trump won the election, somehow.
  • And, per the Post's new report, he's still hiring foreign workers to staff Mar-a-Lago this winter. This despite what one placement agency describes as the availability of "hundreds of qualified candidates" locally for the relevant positions.

A hypocritical politician! Can you imagine?

Dec. 6 2016 12:49 PM

In a Twist, Trump’s Disputed Twitter Claim About Air Force One Turns Out to Be Completely True


In a piece published Sunday, Slate's Julia Turner predicted that Donald Trump's presidency will be a series of dubious PR stunts that make headlines but have little actual impact on Americans' lives. This prediction seemed to have proved immediately correct when Trump tweeted this morning that Boeing is wasting $4 billion building a new Air Force One:

Boeing soon disputed the claim:

LOL, typical Trump, right? Not this time, friends! Here's Todd Harrison of the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies:

While it may be true that Boeing's current contract is for $170 million, what Harrison is saying is that the Pentagon (in publicly available documents) has budgeted $4 billion in total spending through 2021 to buy two new Air Force Ones from the company.

So, aside from referring to a single "Air Force One"—which everyone else does too even though there are already actually two such planes—you might say that Trump was ... right?!?!?!?!? I mean, it's subject to interpretation whether $4 billion is too much, but it's certainly a lot, and is the correct figure.

Also, is this the biggest day of Todd Harrison's professional life, or what?

Dec. 6 2016 11:19 AM

Trump Campaign Admits Pizza Sex Conspiracy Weirdo Was Involved in Transition


On Monday, Slate noted that incoming national security adviser Michael T. Flynn's son Michael G. Flynn (who's being referred to as Mike Flynn Jr. in press reports) has promoted, among many other conspiracy theories, the weird ongoing idea that a Washington, D.C., pizzeria is involved in a Hillary Clinton–related Satanic pedophile thing. (An individual who claimed he was present to "investigate" the situation fired a rifle inside the pizzeria on Sunday.) Flynn's son, our post noted, has been assigned a .gov presidential transition email address. Tuesday on Morning Joe, however, VP-elect Mike Pence said that the younger Flynn "has no involvement" in the transition process. Video above; here's the transcript, courtesy of the Washington Post:

MIKE BARNICLE: What’s the level of concern within the national security apparatus about Gen. Flynn’s son?
PENCE: Well, Gen. Flynn’s son has no involvement in the transition whatsoever. Ah, and …
BARNICLE: He has a transition email [address].
PENCE: Well, he has no involvement in the transition whatsoever.
JOE SCARBOROUGH: So you were saying, as the head of the transition, that Flynn’s son is not involved at all in the transition.
PENCE: No, he’s not.

CNN's Jake Tapper, however, reported that Flynn's son has done transition work:

Just a few minutes ago, Trump spokesman Jason Miller confirmed it:

Assuming it's true that Flynn Jr. is no longer working on the transition (we'll see), it looks like Pence was being sneaky by saying he "has no involvement," present tense, rather than "has had no involvement."

One conspiracy theory weirdo who's definitely still involved in the transition is the elder Flynn, who's promoted the Clinton child sex abuse hoax himself. Erratic New York real estate heir Donald Trump, who has praised Sandy Hook and 9/11 truther Alex Jones and who once insinuated on national television that private investigators he'd hired had uncovered evidence that Barack Obama was not born in America, is also expected to play a central role in the incoming administration.

Dec. 6 2016 9:35 AM

Joe Biden May or May Not Have Announced That He’s Running for President in 2020

On Monday night, Joe Biden announced (kind of) that he is planning (maybe) to run for president in 2020. Or something.

NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell and other reporters were with Biden as he left the Senate after presiding over the renaming of the administration’s Cancer Moonshot initiative in honor of his son Beau, who died of brain cancer last year.

Dec. 5 2016 10:33 PM

LeBron James and Teammates Will Boycott Trump-Branded Team Hotel When Playing in New York

The Cleveland Cavs have made alternative accommodation arrangements for its players that do not want to stay at the team hotel, the Trump SoHo, when the team plays the New York Knicks this season, the team general manager David Griffin told Griffin said it’s not totally clear how many of the team’s 14-man traveling squad will boycott the Trump hotel, which was booked before the election, but the team expects LeBron James and “upwards of half the team” to stay elsewhere.

James endorsed Hillary Clinton for president and some of his Cavs teammates, most vocally Iman Shumpert, have said they would consider not going to the White House for the traditional champions celebration, if they won another title during a Trump presidency.  Three other teams—the Dallas Mavericks, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Memphis Grizzlies—have indicated they will avoid using Trump-branded properties on the road.*

The first of two meetings between the Cavs and the Knicks in New York City is Wednesday.

*Correction, Dec. 7, 2016: This post originally misspelled Milwaukee.

Dec. 5 2016 8:52 PM

Pentagon Commissioned, Then Buried, Report Showing $125 Billion in Bureaucratic Waste

The Washington Post published a lengthy investigation Monday evening into how a Pentagon-commissioned study that found the Department of Defense could save $125 billion in administrative waste was effectively buried by the DoD because it feared the findings would spur Congress to cut its funding. The study produced by the Defense Business Board and McKinsey and Company was issued in January 2015 and, according to the Post, outlined a 5-year plan to save money that “would not have required layoffs of civil servants or reductions in military personnel [and] [i]nstead [-] would have streamlined the bureaucracy through attrition and early retirements, curtailed high-priced contractors and made better use of information technology.”

The report did exactly what it was commissioned to do—find wastage and inefficiency in the non-combat, administrative and support roles within the Defense Department. The report was ordered by the second-highest ranking official at the Pentagon, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work. The investigation discovered a tangled bureaucratic web and "that the Pentagon was spending almost a quarter of its $580 billion budget on overhead and core business operations such as accounting, human resources, logistics and property management,” according to the Post. In sum, more than one million contractors were employed doing back-office support tasks for 1.3 million active duty troops.

Here’s more of what was found (via the Post):

In a confidential August 2014 memo, McKinsey noted that while the Defense Department was “the world’s largest corporate enterprise,” it had never “rigorously measured” the “cost-effectiveness, speed, agility or quality” of its business operations. Nor did the Pentagon have even a remotely accurate idea of what it was paying for those operations, which McKinsey divided into five categories: human resources; health-care management; supply chain and logistics; acquisition and procurement; and financial-flow management… The board added a sixth category of business operations — real property management. That alone covered 192,000 jobs and annual expenses of $22.6 billion…
Almost half of the Pentagon’s back-office personnel — 457,000 full-time employees — were assigned to logistics or supply-chain jobs. That alone exceeded the size of United Parcel Service’s global workforce. The Pentagon’s purchasing bureaucracy counted 207,000 full-time workers. By itself, that would rank among the top 30 private employers in the United States. More than 192,000 people worked in property management. About 84,000 people held human-resources jobs…
But the McKinsey consultants had also collected data that exposed how the military services themselves were spending princely sums to hire hordes of defense contractors. For example, the Army employed 199,661 full-time contractors, according to a confidential McKinsey report obtained by The Post. That alone exceeded the combined civil workforce for the Departments of State, Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development. The average cost to the Army for each contractor that year: $189,188, including salary, benefits and other expenses. The Navy was not much better. It had 197,093 contractors on its payroll. On average, each cost $170,865. In comparison, the Air Force had 122,470 contractors. Each cost, on average, $186,142.

Support for bureaucratic reform began to crumble when the final tally of potential wastage came in and the agency went about discrediting and discarding its findings. The Pentagon yanked the then-public report from its website and slapped secrecy restrictions on the data.

Dec. 5 2016 5:56 PM

Mistrial for Cop Who Shot Walter Scott in the Back


The trial of ex-police officer Michael Slager, who fatally shot unarmed 50-year-old Walter Scott after pulling him over for a broken taillight on April 4, 2015, has ended with a hung jury, forcing the judge who presided over the case for the past month to declare a mistrial.

The outcome leaves prosecutors with the option of putting Slager on trial a second time, with a new jury, and hoping for a different result. According to a press release from the office of Ninth Judicial Circuit Solicitor Scarlett A. Wilson, they will take that bet, and are committed to trying Slager again.

A bystander with a cell phone camera caught Slager firing his gun at Scott eight times as Scott ran from him. The release of the videotape swiftly led to Slager being charged with murder. The fact that the seemingly open-and-shut case against Slager has, for now, ended in a mistrial provides new evidence that the criminal justice system is simply not set up to deliver justice to victims of police misconduct.

Slager’s non-conviction marks at least the third trial in recent memory in which a white police officer charged with killing an unarmed black civilian ended in a hung jury. One of the others took place last month in Cincinnati, Ohio, and centered on the death of Sam Dubose; the second, involving the death of Jonathan Ferrell, happened last year in Charlotte, North Carolina. Last December, in Baltimore, Maryland, the trial of one of the six officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray ended in a mistrial as well.

The jurors tasked with reaching a verdict in the Walter Scott case had three options before them: find Slager guilty of murder, find him guilty of voluntary manslaughter, or acquit him of both. It’s not clear at this point how many of the 12 jurors voted to convict and how many voted to acquit, though an unusual letter written to the judge by one of the jurors on Friday suggested that he or she was the lone holdout arguing for acquittal. That letter prompted Judge Clifton Newman to float the possibility of a mistrial, but at the last second the jury foreman indicated that a unanimous verdict might still be possible if the jury was allowed to continue deliberating. Judge Newman encouraged them to do so, shortly before adjourning court for the weekend.

On Monday morning, the jury submitted a note to the judge asking a set of questions about the law, and reporting that, for the time being, the “majority” of the jurors were “still undecided.” It was not immediately clear whether that meant some of the jurors who appeared to be supportive of a conviction on Friday had changed their minds, or whether earlier reports of an 11-1 split had been incorrect. Several hours after sending the note, the jury informed the court that they still could not reach a unanimous verdict, moving Newman to declare a mistrial.

Slager’s legal defense, as presented to the jury over the past several weeks, was that he had acted in self-defense, and had fired at Scott because Scott had put him in fear for his life by stealing his stun gun from him during a struggle. That claim of self-defense—which would have required the jury to decide Slager had "no other probable way to avoid the danger of death or serious bodily injury"—seemed like it couldn’t possibly fly given that Scott could clearly be seen on the video tape running away from Slager when the officer shot him. And yet, for at least one person on the jury, it did, and that was enough to prevent Slager from being convicted.

Dec. 5 2016 4:57 PM

A Utah Republican Is Challenging Trump More Effectively Than 99 Percent of Democrats


Evan McMullin is the Utah Republican operative who ran for president as a self-described conservative independent. He received 21.5 percent of the vote in Utah but only totaled about 600,000 votes nationwide. In other words, he is 1) not especially well-known and 2) not a Democrat. And yet in the past day alone he has done more than almost any Democratic figure to organize opposition to Donald Trump's kleptocratic and Constitution-hostile tendencies.

Example 1 is this series of tweets that McMullin wrote on Sunday, outlining a set of principles for civic life in Trump's America. Example 2 is the op-ed he wrote Monday in the New York Times called "Trump's Threat to the Constitution." An excerpt:

We cannot allow Mr. Trump to normalize the idea that he is the ultimate arbiter of our rights. Those who can will need to speak out boldly and suffer possible retaliation. Others will need to offer hands of kindness and friendship across the traditional political divide, as well as to those who may become targets because of who they are or what they believe.

Little of what McMullin is saying is radical or surprising. His guidelines are instructions like "Hold members of Congress accountable for protecting our rights and democracy through elections and by making public demands of them now." But there's one part of his analysis that sticks out as relatively original:

We can no longer assume that all Americans understand the origins of their rights and the importance of liberal democracy. We need a new era of civic engagement that will reawaken us to the cause of liberty and equality.

McMullin has been keeping close tabs on the details of Trump's transition, and he compliments and engages with liberals who share his Trump-related concerns. He clearly thinks of himself as being involved on a day-to-day level in a new movement, one with the goal of restrengthening the democratic, constitutional, and not-being-openly-racist norms that Trump and his army of white nationalist hacks have spent the last 18 months peeing on. And it should embarrass the Democratic Party, which reacted to Trump's election by recertifying the longstanding leader of its perennially irrelevant House minority that a Utah Republican is doing a more active job of organizing this new opposition coalition than most of the party's ostensible leaders. (Look at that list—and ignore Harry Reid, who's retiring—and you'll get all the way to Elizabeth Warren before you find someone who's done anything in the past month that's registered in the national news.)

I was recently and appropriately chastised, in a despondent email exchange with a friend who works in Democratic politics, for being too smug in my 20-20 hindsight criticism of the people who worked to elect Hillary Clinton and/or believed in her candidacy. But it's simply a statement of fact to say that the current Democratic Party—the one that has produced such classic object lessons in failed play-it-safe-ism as "vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine"—isn't reaching enough voters to adequately defend basic American principles.

There are, fortunately, a huge number of Americans who abhor Trump and what he's doing—but most of them exist outside the apparatus of the existing Democratic Party. I don't know for certain that Democrats could rally them and retake Congress in 2018 by giving more power and attention to figures like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Chris Murphy, whose personalities and positions resonate on Facebook, or by organizing new activist groups and communities around opposition to Trumpism and commitment to equality before the law. But I do know that the other party has successfully used that model—has ridden its own social-media-fueled wave of popular discontent—into control of all three branches of government. Shouldn't the Democrats at the least be trying out something other than business as usual?