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Sept. 20 2017 10:30 AM

Tom Price Reportedly Spent $60,000 on Private Jets Last Week

Late on Tuesday, Politico reported that Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price flew on private jets five times last week, at an expense of “tens of thousands of dollars” more than the commercial flights that had been standard for his predecessors. From Politico:

The secretary’s five flights, which were scheduled between Sept. 13 and Sept. 15, took him to a resort in Maine where he participated in a Q&A discussion with a health care industry CEO, and to community health centers in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, according to internal HHS documents.
HHS spokespeople declined to confirm details of the flights, or respond to questions about who paid for them, with a spokesperson only saying that Price sometimes charters planes when commercial flights aren’t feasible. All three organizations that hosted Price last week — the Massachusetts-based health IT firm athenahealth, Goodwin Community Health Center in New Hampshire and the Mirmont Treatment Center in Pennsylvania — told POLITICO they did not pay for his flights or other travel costs.
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According to Politico, staffers say Price has been using private jets for months. Charter operators told Politico’s Dan Diamond and Rachana Pradhan that Price’s private flights last week would have cost at least $60,000. For at least one leg of travel, a short jaunt from Washington to Philadelphia and back on September 15, Diamond and Pradhan write that there were ample commercial alternatives. A round-trip United flight would have cost between $447 and $725 per person. A cheap ticket on an Amtrak train would have cost $72. A road trip would have cost around $46 in gas and tolls per SUV. Mnuchin’s round trip to Philly—just over an hour of flight time—cost $25,000.

Sept. 20 2017 9:20 AM

Earthquake Death Toll Rises in Mexico as Hurricane Maria Pummels Puerto Rico

The death toll from Tuesday’s earthquake in Mexico has risen to more than 200 people.

Rescuers continue to search for survivors among the rubble of collapsed buildings in the nation’s capital city and in the surrounding region. The death toll will likely continue to rise.

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The devastating magnitude-7.1 earthquake struck around 1 p.m. local time 100 miles south of Mexico City, and just two weeks after a more powerful earthquake caused a wave of destruction of Mexico’s Pacific coast and led to the deaths of more than 90 people. Dozens of buildings shook and caved, and a school in southern Mexico City collapsed, killing at least 21 children and four adults. At least 30 children are still being reported as missing.

Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria made landfall around 6:15 a.m. Wednesday as a powerful Category 4 storm.

At 8 a.m. Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center reported sustained winds at 150 miles per hour. The center projects the eye of the hurricane to move across Puerto Rico this morning and pass the island by the afternoon before swinging just north of the Dominican Republic, where there are still expected to be hurricane conditions on Wednesday night and Thursday. The National Weather Service warned people in Puerto Rico to expect widespread power outages, impassable bridges and roads, storm surges of 6 to 9 feet, and “extreme” flooding. The conditions are also right for tornadoes.

On Twitter, Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, reported that at 5 a.m., the island’s shelters, which still house refugees from Hurricane Irma and which in a previous tweet the governor counted at 146, held 11,229 refugees with 580 pets.

According to CNN, Maria is the first storm of its strength to hit Puerto Rico in nearly 80 years.

Sept. 19 2017 10:46 PM

After Powerful Earthquake, Scenes of Destruction Across Mexico City

A powerful earthquake rattled Mexico City Tuesday afternoon killing dozens and causing buildings to collapse and roads to split. The epicenter of the 7.1 magnitude quake, which took place around 1 p.m. (local time), was 100 miles south of the capital city, but caused buildings to shake and sway and sent terrified residents pouring into the streets. According to local officials, dozens of buildings have collapsed, including two schools. The death count stands at more than 139 in the region, most of those coming from Morelos state, south of Mexico City, where the quake was strongest. There are 36 recorded fatalities in Mexico City so far. The death toll will surely rise as rescue crews comb through the rubble for survivors.

Earthquakes are not uncommon in Mexico; two weeks ago a deadly earthquake hit off the country’s Pacific coast. Today’s earthquake came on the very anniversary of a deadly 1985 quake. Here are scenes from around the Mexican capital, which is home to some 20 million people.

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*This post has been updated with new information as it became available.

Sept. 19 2017 7:52 PM

Today in Conservative Media: Trump Gave His Best Speech Yet at the U.N.

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A daily roundup of the biggest stories in right-wing media.

Conservatives had mostly praise for President Trump’s speech to the U.N. on Tuesday. One of the more mixed critiques came from National Review’s Rich Lowry, who called the address “Jacksonian”:

In general, Trump defended the American-created and -defended world order, but he did it on his own terms. He emphasized the importance of sovereign nation-states and said we should accept their different cultures and interests. This is fine as far as it goes. In his version of post-war history, however, Trump gives short shrift to how important a vision of liberal democracy was to the United States. And there was a tension between his avowal to accept the ways of other nation-states and his (appropriately) excoriating attacks on the political and economic systems of North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. Indeed, George W. Bush could have spoken in exactly the same terms about those rogue regimes, if with more elevated rhetoric.
All things considered and given the alternatives, it was a fine speech. It wasn’t really an “America First” speech — it defended the world order and even had warm words for the Marshall Plan — but in its signature lines about North Korea, it was thematically a very Jacksonian speech. What exactly this means in terms of policy remains to be seen. But everyone is paying attention, if they weren’t before.
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The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson called it the best speech of Trump’s presidency thus far. “With President Trump we are not going to get the soaring rhetoric of Barack Obama or the happy smile and sentiment of George W. Bush,” he wrote. “We are not going to get Reagan or Clinton. What we are going to get is a blunt instrument who understands he can occasionally use his bluntness to make real change.”

“Give Trump credit for bringing his authentic self to the United Nations, at the very least,” Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey wrote. “If his supporters worried about the supposed ‘globalists’ on his staff watering down Trump’s approach on foreign policy, the president dispelled all of those worries in his 40-minute address. He made it clear that US policy would take a sharp turn towards self-interest and put nations on notice over trade.”

The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison was critical:

U.S. foreign policy already suffers from far too much self-congratulation and excessive confidence in our own righteousness, so it was alarming to hear Trump speak in such stark, fanatical terms about international affairs. Paired with his confrontational rhetoric directed towards North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and Syria, Trump’s choice to cast these states as the “wicked few” portends more aggressive and meddlesome policies and gives the leaders of all of these governments reason to assume the worst about our intentions. It was similar to Bush’s foolish “axis of evil” remarks in 2002.

In other news:

Conservatives were aghast at a survey of college students on speech just published by the Brookings Institution. “THE END OF AMERICA: Poll Shows 51% of College Students Say It's Fine to Shout Down ‘Offensive and Harmful’ Speakers” was the headline of a Daily Wire post by Ben Shapiro:

That poll shows that 19 percent of college students agree with the notion that using violence to silence a speaker who says “offensive and hurtful things” is appropriate; that includes 22 percent of Republicans. Furthermore, about four in ten Americans said that the First Amendment should not protect “hate speech” – leaving that term of art utterly undefined – and 51 percent backed the proposition that students should shout down offensive speakers.
This is terrifying. Young Americans clearly don’t understand the meaning or purpose of the First Amendment. They believe that their feelings justify interference with the political expression of others. And that opinion is being coddled by administrators who see fit to “protect” students from so-called “microaggressions” with “trigger warnings.” The safe space mentality utterly perverts American freedom.

Commentary’s Noah Rothman blamed the media and academics for fostering anti-speech attitudes and wrote that the survey furnished evidence that “America is lurching toward a civic crisis.”  “Cosseted, well-compensated soft revolutionaries are busy penning hagiography to thugs who commit acts of terror in the name of ‘anti-fascism,’ ” he wrote. “Respectable left-wing journals like the Nation, Mother Jones, and the New Republic have found themselves in the rank agitation business.”

“If you want to see how these realities are playing out on an actual campus,” Hot Air’s Allahpundit wrote, “go read the new Middlebury interim policies for speakers, which explicitly contemplate canceling events if the threat of violence is so high that the safety of people attending the event can’t be guaranteed. The fact that an American university would need to plan for that contingency in the form of an official policy shows you how bad things have gotten."

Sept. 19 2017 7:29 PM

Trump’s Oracular Sermonizing at the U.N. Is a Real Head Trip

As a speechmaker, President Trump is either in the gutter or the stratosphere. He has one mode for riling his base, a style defined by boorish epithets (“crooked Hillary”), colorful insults (“bad hombres”), petulance (“very, very unfair”), and improvised asides. And he has another mode for the global spotlight—delivering his inauguration address, for instance—when he gropes for florid Romanticism, the kind of rhetoric that roils with souls and carnage and valleys of disrepair.

Sept. 19 2017 5:30 PM

Today's Impeach-O-Meter: Rocket Man

The Impeach-O-Meter is a wildly subjective and speculative daily estimate of the likelihood that Donald Trump leaves office before his term ends, whether by being impeached (and convicted) or by resigning under threat of same.

In honor of Donald Trump's threat to "totally destroy" North Korea if Kim "Rocket Man" Jong-un doesn't stop building and testing nuclear wepaons, our regular Impeach-O-Meter graphic has been replaced today by a photo taken 16 milliseconds after the detonation of "The Gadget" at the Trinity site in New Mexico on July 16, 1945—the first nuclear explosion in history:

Berlyn Brixner / Los Alamos National Laboratory

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Wrote Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer of the moments after the bomb went off: "A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent." Have a good night.

Sept. 19 2017 5:29 PM

McCain, Collins, Murkowski: Where the Big Three Stand on Obamacare Repeal

Senate Republicans have been stuck on 48 or 49 votes for their last-ditch health care plan, Graham-Cassidy, since late last week. They continue to be stuck on that number Tuesday. We will know when they become unstuck when Senate leaders begin skipping down the halls, giggling like schoolchildren, to set up the vote. They have until next Saturday to get to 50, and then their ability to pass an Obamacare repeal with a simple-majority vote expires.

So far there seems to be one hard “no”: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is far more interested in broadcasting his escalating complaints about the bill to as many reporters as possible than he does in seeking some extraction. That means two of the following three holdouts would be necessary, along with all of the other 48 members of the caucus: Maine Sen. Susan Collins, Arizona Sen. John McCain, and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. These are the three that tanked the Obamacare repeal process last time, in that dramatic late July vote, but none have come out with a firm position on Graham-Cassidy yet.

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Here’s how they explained their thinking Tuesday.

Susan Collins

Collins is viewed as the least likely of the three to support the bill. She’s the most moderate member of the caucus, and she came nowhere close to supporting any of the several repeal bills the Senate considered over the summer. Graham-Cassidy, which would replace the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and subsidies with block grants allotted to states, also contains the elements of previous health care bills that most alarmed her: permission for states to gut protections for those with pre-existing conditions, per-capita spending caps on traditional Medicaid, and the defunding of Planned Parenthood.

Collins was not prepared to come out as a “no” on Tuesday. But what she’s seen of the bill, she said, “causes me great concern.” Graham-Cassidy has "many of the same flaws of the bill that we rejected previously, and in fact it has some additional flaws,” she told reporters, citing specifically the bill’s treatment of those with pre-existing conditions.

This is not a health care bill that treats Susan Collins’ vote as all that attainable.

John McCain

The pursuit of McCain’s vote is the most slapstick. About one hour after each time McCain makes his criteria known publicly, an effort to meet that criteria suddenly materializes.

On Monday morning, McCain said that the support of his governor, Doug Ducey, was of the utmost importance to him. Shortly thereafter, a tweet appeared on Ducey’s feed offering his support for the bill. It remains unclear what machinations were required to obtain Ducey’s support, since Graham-Cassidy would appear to take money from his state and retains the Medicaid cuts that made Ducey queasy over the summer.

The endorsement, though helpful, wasn’t enough to get McCain to "yes." He insisted, again, that any bill that is to win his support must go through “regular order”: hearings, markups, amendments.

Shortly after McCain said that, both Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch announced that the committees they chair would hold Graham-Cassidy hearings next week. Johnson’s sudden announcement of a show health care hearing was especially cynical, since he chairs the ... Homeland Security Committee. That one has since been canceled, but Hatch’s Finance Committee hearing is still on for next Monday.

The rushed hearing, which the Democratic ranking member of the committee, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, has called “an abomination on the history of this storied committee," looked just a bit like a stunt put together to give McCain enough cover to claim the process met his “regular order” test.

But McCain doesn’t seem to be taking that cover.

“Do you think that that’s regular order?” he asked reporters on Tuesday. “I always thought regular order was hearings and debates and amendments, and then to the floor with debates and special amendments. That’s what I thought regular order was.”

Expect, then, leaders to set up some sort of Potemkin process of more stunt hearings, debates, amendments, floor debates, and special amendments to get McCain onboard.

Lisa Murkowski

If Collins and Paul oppose the bill, but McCain supports it, it really all comes down to Murkowski. And her vote hinges on the numbers.

“I’m still looking for the data that walks me through how Alaska actually does,” Murkowski told reporters Tuesday following the Senate Republican caucus lunch. “But I don’t have that right now. So those that have asked, ‘Where are you, where are you?’—it’s not that I’m being evasive, it’s that I’m trying to be diligent.”

She cited Alaska’s governor, Bill Walker, in insisting that additional “flexibility” for states is not nearly enough. “My governor has said ‘I like flexibility, but if I get half as much money, flexibility doesn’t help me,’ ” she said. “So, in fairness to my governor, in fairness to Alaskans, the numbers actually matter.”

Well, Walker himself seems to have looked at some numbers and determined that they are, indeed, bad. Walker, an independent, was part of a bipartisan group of 10 governors Tuesday who issued a letter opposing Graham-Cassidy.

“Our country’s Medicaid program has been in place for over 50 years,” Walker told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “Any proposal to restructure Medicaid goes far beyond repealing the Affordable Care Act.” He noted that “any proposal to shift federal costs to the states would likely result in drastic cuts to our Medicaid program.”

If Murkowski is following Walker’s lead, the fate of this bill, and the future of the country’s health care systems, may well hang on what offer Republican leaders are willing to make on Alaska’s behalf in the next week.

Sept. 19 2017 2:42 PM

Police Reportedly Find Hitler Speech in Home of Louisiana Man Arrested for Killing Two Black Men

A white man in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was arrested Tuesday and accused of shooting and killing two black men in separate incidents that may have been racially motivated.

In a Tuesday morning news conference, law enforcement authorities said they would charge Kenneth James Gleason with first-degree murder for the shootings. A spokesperson for the department said “there was a ‘strong possibility’ that the shootings were racially motivated,’ ” according to the Associated Press. Gleason’s attorney denied the allegations.

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A law enforcement official told the AP that police had found a copy of a Hitler speech at the man’s home. Gleason was also named as a person of interest in an earlier shooting in which shots were fired at the house of a black family that lived in his neighborhood. No one was killed in that incident.

Gleason had been arrested over the weekend on unrelated drug charges but bailed out of jail Sunday night. At the time, he was considered a “person of interest” in the shooting, but police said they didn’t have enough evidence to charge him.

The two men killed were 59-year-old Bruce Cofield, who died on Sept. 12, and 49-year-old Donald Smart, who died on Thursday. ABC reported: “The suspect first fired from his car and then exited the vehicle to shoot the victims while they were on the ground.” Cofield and Smart were shot within five miles of one another.

Smart’s aunt told ABC that her nephew, who was on his way to work at a café when he was killed, “was always smiling and hugging everybody. A lot of people knew him." A Baton Rouge woman told the Advocate she knew Cofield as “Mr. Bruce,” a homeless man who would often sit with a sign at an intersection.

The case gained additional prominence on social media Tuesday when a New York Post headline referred to the alleged murderer as a “clean-cut American kid.”

Sept. 19 2017 11:46 AM

Right Wing Revives Claim That Trump’s Obama Wiretap Accusation Has Been “Vindicated.” (It Hasn’t.)

On March 4, Donald Trump tweeted a number of claims about Barack Obama having ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign.

You'll note that these tweets are heavy on specific claims:

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  • Obama had Trump's phones at Trump Tower tapped.
  • This wiretapping took place during the 2016 campaign.
  • Nothing was found.
  • Tap is actually spelled with two p’s.

On Monday, CNN reported that Paul Manafort—who was briefly Trump's campaign chairman—has been the subject of intermittent court-approved surveillance since 2014. As you can see above, Breitbart immediately announced that the news "vindicated" Trump. Nope. Here's what CNN wrote:

  • Manafort was initially being surveilled not because of his connection to Trump but because of an investigation opened in 2014 into his work as a political consultant in Ukraine.
  • He was subsequently placed under surveillance again "last fall" because of his connections to "suspected Russian operatives," but it's "unclear" exactly when that happened—which is to say that it's not certain whether it happened before or after the election.
  • The investigation was led by the FBI and required the approval of Justice Department officials, i.e., not Obama himself.
  • Regarding Trump's "nothing found" remark, the investigation into Manafort appears to have in fact escalated; one of his homes was raided in July.
  • "While Manafort has a residence in Trump Tower, it's unclear whether FBI surveillance of him took place there."
  • "It's unclear whether Trump himself was picked up on the surveillance."
  • Tap is still spelled with the traditional single p.

What's particularly funny about the idea that Trump has been vindicated by the revelation of a literal wiretap on Paul Manafort is that the White House and its stooges in the right-wing press spent months earlier this year insisting that Trump's tweets weren't referring to literal wiretapping. Here's Sean Spicer in March:

I think there’s no question that the Obama administration, that there were actions about surveillance and other activities that occurred in the 2016 election. That is a widely reported activity that occurred back then. The President used the word “wiretap” to mean, broadly, surveillance and other activities during that.

At another point, Spicer also argued that Trump's comments about surveillance having taken place "just before" the 2016 election might have also been meant to suggest that surveillance took place well after the election:

If we're splitting hairs on what day of the calendar it was, that's a pretty interesting development. If the allegation is, well it was actually on the 1st of December or the 10th of December versus the 31st of October, I think we're starting to split some serious hairs here.

At the time, Breitbart made a nearly identical argument. You know, I'm really beginning to suspect that these guys are not being 100 percent honest with us all the time.

Sept. 19 2017 11:34 AM

Toys R Us Files for Bankruptcy as Latest Victim of Retail Crisis

Toys R Us, the national toy chain that has been around since the 1950s, announced Monday night that the company had filed for bankruptcy, just ahead of the holiday shopping season.

In a statement, the company said its roughly 1,600 stores, which include Babies R Us, will remain open. But the move might also make customers and manufacturers less confident, keeping some shoppers away during the holiday season and causing some toy manufacturers to become more cautious with their deliveries.

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In the statement, in which it declared “the dawn of a new era at Toys R Us,” the retailer said its stores will function as before, with its customer programs, sales, and promotions running uninterrupted and its stores fully stocked.

The company said it would use the bankruptcy protection to restructure its $5 billion in debt and put into place new long-term strategies to cope with a challenging world for traditional retail models. According to the New York Times, the company had been saddled with a substantial portion of that debt for years, and in 2005, private equity firms and a real estate firm bought it off the public market for $6 billion. It was left with a considerable amount of debt, and the company was staring down a $400 million debt payment next year.

The rise of e-commerce has struck a blow to most retailers, but Toys R Us also has suffered from competition with other big-box retailers such as Walmart and Target, which can drive down the price of toys. Some big lenders have agreed to provide $3 billion in financing to kick-start some of the company’s restructuring. In order to stay afloat, the company will have to convince investors that it knows what it needs to survive the existential threats to traditional retail stores.

According to USA Today, the store has plans to renegotiate its leases for cheaper rent, convert some of its existing properties into side-by-side Toys R Us and Babies R Us brands, and improve its recently launched online store. But bankruptcy will also allow it to shutter some of its less profitable stores. In the meantime, it will also need to smooth over any wrinkles with suppliers who might have become skittish in the wake of the filing.

Other retailers that have filed bankruptcy this year include Gymboree, Payless ShoeSource, and Rue21.

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