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What does candidate Beto O’Rourke stand for? That’s a work in progress.



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By Alex Seitz-Wald

BURLINGTON, Iowa — A lot has changed in the Democratic party in the six months since Beto O’Rourke was its biggest fascination.

The crowded 2020 Democratic presidential field that O’Rourke joined on Thursday has supercharged the pace of policy innovation as candidates looking to stand out push ideas like boosting the number of justices on the Supreme Court, slavery reparations, breaking up Facebook, the Green New Deal, new ways to tax the rich, and much more.

“We’re in a revolutionary moment,” said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the left-wing group Justice Democrats. “The progressive movement wants to see candidates that are not only calling for these progressive policy visions now, but also who is going to take on the people that have been halting progress for a long long time.”

Where does O’Rourke — whose new campaign website offers no policy ideas — fit in this new playing field?

Depending on who you ask, he’s either arriving late to a battle of ideas he’s not equipped to fight or he’s smartly coasting above the fray of the internecine wars of Twitter activists that few voters really care about.

“Campaigns aren’t typically won based on a side-by-side of issues, but instead by voters judging the character and vision of candidates,” said Ben LaBolt, a former aide to Barack Obama.

After all, some of the most successful politicians of recent years, including Obama and Donald Trump, were dismissed by critics as celebrities lacking substance and experience in government — all sizzle. Obama especially, like O’Rourke, spoke in a way that allowed supporters to project onto him what they wanted to believe.

Obama, Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., all had defining policy issues that helped them stand out not only from the other side but from their own party.

For Obama, it was the Iraq War, the defining policy issue of his time; for Trump, it was immigration; for Sanders, it was and is taking on the establishment.

“The most compelling vision is often animated by great policy ideas, and then-Senator Obama used his decision-making on critical policy issues like opposing the war in Iraq to differentiate his judgment from his opponents,” LaBolt said.

For O’Rourke, that keystone idea is less clear.

And now he’ll have to face questions from voters and the media on a whole host of thorny issues, as he did on his first campaign swing on Thursday, that divide Democrats and would likely carrying baggage in the general election.

They’re exactly the kinds of issues that O’Rourke skirted last year when the entire Democratic Party was united behind his effort to defeat Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

But he began to face those questions as soon as he touched down in the first caucus state in the nation.

A voter in Fort Madison asked O’Rourke about “Universal Basic Income,” the idea of the government paying every American a guaranteed basic salary, and the candidate ended up talking about rural broadband and Tinder.

A local radio reporter questioned O’Rourke about Medicare for All, and he responded that he’s focused on a “goal that is separate from any labels,” though he did say he likes a new bill that would allow Americans to buy into Medicare but keep private insurance in place.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-TX, candidate for U.S. Senate greets supporters at a campaign rally in Austin, Texas on Nov. 4, 2018.Mike Segar / Reuters file

He came closest to making policy news when a voter in Burlington asked about adding more justices to the Supreme Court to tilt its ideological balance.

“There’s nothing in the Constitution that defines how many people should sit on that court,” O’Rourke said. “What if there were five justices selected by Democrats, five Justices selected by Republicans, and those 10 then picked five more justices independent of those who chose the first 10? I think that’s an idea that we should explore.”

That kind of public deliberation is exactly what many supporters like about his approach to policy. They say O’Rourke, instead of being confined by ideology, is open-minded and flexible, wanting to hear the evidence before making up his mind.

“There’s no sense in campaigning if you already know every single answer,” O’Rourke said Thursday.

And at least so far, voters here don’t seem to mind — they just like him in a way they sometimes have trouble describing.

Marcia Armstrong, 67, said she had been depressed for two-and-half years since Hillary Clinton lost to Trump, but that that ended at a sub shop in Fort Madison when she met O’Rourke.

“It’s like a ton of bricks have been lifted off my shoulder,” Armstrong said. “He’s what we need.”

But some on the left, who have been generating most of the hot new ideas in the party, said what they are hearing from O’Rourke sounds like mushy pablum designed to obscure a mixed ideological track record.

“If Beto was still in the House, he would be on my top list of Democrats to primary,” said Sean McElwee, founder of the left-wing think tank Data for Progress. “The only thing he’s ever done for the progressive movement is retire from the House and be replaced by a more progressive woman of color.”

O’Rourke, however, has shown a willingness to take on boldly on unsafe ideas.

He’s been a vocal advocate of criminal justice reform and marijuana legalization for years, long before those issues caught on in his party.

He challenged the Obama White House on immigration, privacy and its military intervention in Syria.

And during his campaign against Cruz, he swore off PAC donations of any kind and called for impeaching Trump when almost any Democratic consultant in America would have strongly advised him against that in a Texas statewide contest.

Democratic activist Billy Freeland, who goes by the Twitter handle “@policyjunkie,” defended O’Rourke’s policy chops in a Houston Chronicle op-ed.

“He’s not the only candidate among the likely 2020 Democratic field to champion these policies, but O’Rourke has consistently and successfully raised the profile of these issues,” Freedland wrote. “He also proved he had the political courage to do so unabashedly in all 254 counties of Texas.”

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Bank CEO Stephen Calk charged with soliciting Manafort for Trump admin job



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By Tom Winter, Joe Valiquette and Adiel Kaplan

Bank CEO Stephen Calk tried to exchange $16 million in loans to Paul Manafort for a top position within the Trump administration, according to an indictment against the banking executive unsealed Thursday.

Calk, the president of the Federal Savings Bank, approved millions in “high-risk loans in an effort to secure a personal benefit, namely to an appointment as Secretary of the Army, or another similar high-level position in the incoming presidential administration,” said Deputy U.S. attorney Audrey Strauss of the Southern District of New York.

Stephen CalkThe Federal Savings Bank

Federal investigators were probing last year whether Manafort, the former Trump campaign chair, promised Calk a job in the White House in return for $16 million in home loans, NBC News first reported in February 2018.

Calk, who surrendered to the FBI Thursday morning, allegedly approved multiple high-risk loans for Manafort, who urgently needed them to avoid foreclosure. While the loans were pending approval, Calk allegedly provided Manafort with a ranked list of positions he desired. At its head were the two top positions at the U.S. Treasury, followed by Secretary of Commerce and Secretary of Defense. The list also included 19 high-level ambassadorships, among them ambassador to the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy.

Manafort received three separate loans in December 2016 and January 2017 from Federal Savings Bank for homes in New York City, Virginia and the Hamptons. The three loans were questioned by other officials at the bank, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter told NBC News last February.

The loans raised red flags at the bank in part because of Manafort’s history of defaulting on prior loans and that the size made Manafort’s debt the single largest lending relationship at the bank, according to prosecutors. Calk was required to authorize an unusual lending scheme to avoid passing the lending cap to a single borrower.

In exchange, Manafort provided Calk with personal benefits, prosecutors said. The bank CEO was appointed to Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers in August 2016, just days after the bank approved a proposed $9.5 million loan to Manafort.

According to the indictment, Manafort and his son-in-law, Jeffrey Yohai, approached the bank in an effort to refinance loans tied to a construction project in Los Angeles.

During a meeting held on July 27, 2016 — while Manafort was Trump campaign chairman — Calk allegedly broached the idea of him joint the Trump campaign. By the next day, the first loan of $5.7 million was approved. Less than a week later, Manafort offered Calk a position on the economic advisory committee for Donald Trump, according to the indictment.

Calk issued another loan for over $9 million later in the fall of 2016. Then, Calk reached out to Manafort asking him if he was involved in the Trump presidential transition following the election, according to the indictment.

Manafort allegedly responded, “total background but involved directly.”

Shortly after the election, in November or December 2016, Manafort recommended Calk for an administrative position, leading to a formal interview of Calk for Under Secretary of the Army at the transition team headquarters in Trump Tower in 2017. When Manafort made the recommendation, he had more than $6 million in loans pending approval at Calk’s bank.

Calk ultimately was not hired for the position.

Months later, the loans to Manafort were downgraded by the banks regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Calk allegedly lied to regulators, telling them he never desired a position in the presidential administration.

A November 14, 2016 email Calk sent to Manafort that included his resume and list of desired positions in ranked order was as exhibit in the Manafort trial.

Charlie Gile contributed.

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European elections UK results time: What time is the result of EU election due?



THE EUROPEAN elections kicked off in the UK this morning, with polling stations open from 7am. What time is the result of the EU election due?

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Trump lashes out at Rex Tillerson for saying Putin out-prepared him



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By Allan Smith

President Donald Trump lashed out at Rex Tillerson on Thursday morning after his former secretary of state reportedly told a House committee that the president was ill-prepared for a 2017 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Rex Tillerson, a man who is ‘dumb as a rock’ and totally ill prepared and ill equipped to be Secretary of State, made up a story (he got fired) that I was out-prepared by Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Hamburg, Germany,” Trump tweeted. “I don’t think Putin would agree. Look how the U.S. is doing!”

The tweet followed a Washington Post report that Tillerson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Putin out-prepared Trump for the meeting at the 2017 G-20 summit. Tillerson said Putin’s higher level of preparation put Trump at a disadvantage during the meeting.

The U.S. had anticipated a shorter meeting between the two leaders, but it instead turned into a two-hour plus discussion of geopolitical issues, committee aides told the Post. Tillerson spoke before the committee for seven hours in a closed-door session on Tuesday.

“We spent a lot of time in the conversation talking about how Putin seized every opportunity to push what he wanted,” a committee aide told the Post. “There was a discrepancy in preparation, and it created an unequal footing.”

Tillerson spoke with a bipartisan group of lawmakers and staff at the request of the panel’s chairman, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the newspaper reported. Unlike Trump’s solo meeting with Putin in Helsinki last summer, advisers — including Tillerson — were present alongside him at the meeting with the Russian president in Germany.

Tillerson and Trump had sparred for months before the president fired him in March of last year. The former secretary of state nearly resigned in the summer of 2017 amid mounting policy disputes and clashes with the White House, NBC News reported, citing senior administration officials. As tensions came to a head, Tillerson called Trump a “moron” following a meeting at the Pentagon with Cabinet officials and members of Trump’s national security team, three officials familiar with the incident said.

In December, Tillerson told CBS News that Trump was “undisciplined,” didn’t read much and tried to do things that would violate the law. In response, Trump said Tillerson “didn’t have the mental capacity needed” to be secretary of state.

“He was dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough,” Trump tweeted. “He was lazy as hell.”

In hiring Tillerson to run the State Department, Trump pointed to the former Exxon Mobil executive’s “vast experience at dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments” and called him “a world class player and dealmaker.”

“He will be a star,” Trump tweeted after Tillerson was sworn in.

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