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August 22, 2017

The New York Times' conservative op-ed columnist Bret Stephens ruled Rex Tillerson "a nominee for worst secretary of state ever" on Morning Joe on Tuesday, throwing in a comparison to Cambodian dictator Pol Pot for good measure, Mediaite reports.

"The State Department is also part of the machinery of government and that machinery has to run in order for normal things to happen like having relationships with foreign countries or having consular services for U.S. people, or doing all the things the State Department has to do, " Stephens told the Morning Joe hosts. "And Tillerson seems to be of a kind of Maoist school, in which it's — maybe it's Pol Pot."

"Wow," Scarborough jumped in. "If that is in fact the case, that is like one of the worst secretaries of state of all time."

"I don't mean killing fields," Stephens was quick to clarify. Catch up on what he did mean below. Jeva Lange

August 22, 2017

At a CNN town hall forum in Racine, Wisconsin, on Monday, House Speaker Paul Ryan addressed President Trump's various comments in the wake of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the previous week. He told one constituent that he believes Trump was "pitch perfect" in his remarks on white supremacists and neo-Nazis a week ago Monday, but added, "I do believe that he messed up in his comments on Tuesday, when it sounded like a moral equivocation or at the very least moral ambiguity when we need extreme moral clarity." He added that he doesn't support a motion to censure Trump because he doesn't want condemning white supremacy to turn into a "partisan food fight."

If he appeared a little hesitant to criticize Trump, Ryan was happy to scold the Senate for not passing a health-care reform bill — part of the audience cheered when he mentioned the bill's failure, which he took in stride — and he encouraged the upper chamber to revisit the legislation. He optimistically predicted that "it's going to be far easier for us to do tax reform than it was for, say, health-care reform," because of Senate rules that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) invoked so no Democratic votes would be needed.

Ryan also said he wished Trump would tweet less, and there are "some of those tweets that I'd prefer not to have seen," but he is only responsible for his actions and Trump probably isn't going to change his Twitter habits. Which seems fair — White House Chief of Staff John Kelly can't tame Trump's tweeting habits, and the House speaker has enough other things on his plate. In September, for example, Ryan actually needs to shepherd through a budget, fund the government, and pass legislation to raise the debt ceiling. He did not address those must-pass bills at the CNN town hall. Peter Weber

August 22, 2017

At a CNN town hall forum on Monday, House Speaker Paul Ryan faced some pointed questions from the home-district audience in Racine, Wisconsin. The town hall directly followed President Trump's speech on the Afghanistan war, and Ryan praised the address, saying he thinks he heard a new Trump doctrine, "principled realism," and appreciated that Trump did not set any deadlines for ending the war, arguing that the U.S. "shouldn't telegraph our timetable for when we're leaving," because the Taliban would just "wait us out."

In another notable exchange, a Dominican nun, Sister Erica Jordan, asked Ryan how he squares his Catholic faith with his and his party's laissez-faire policies of cutting taxes, social services, and health-care support. Ryan said he wants to help the poor, and he thinks the best way to do that is by promoting "upward mobility and economic growth." The "war on poverty" has largely failed, he said. Jordan did not look terribly impressed.

Ryan's answers drew some questions and comments from people who weren't in the room, like Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who pushed back on Ryan's timetable quote, tweeting: "If your view is that any declaration of a war's end will precipitate victory for some undefined enemy, then the war can never end." The Week's Ryan Cooper added that the Taliban doesn't "have to know the exact moment we're going to give up to be 100 percent certain we will eventually." HuffPost's Matt Fuller cut deep:

And even Ryan's likely Democratic challenger, Randy Bryce, had some questions he posed in an ad, since he wasn't invited to the town hall, Ryan's first in his district in two years.

Bryce ran that and another, more polished ad during the CNN broadcast in the district. Peter Weber

August 20, 2017
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Ousted White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon expressed little optimism for a united, productive GOP in the near future while speaking to The Washington Post for an article published Saturday evening.

"If the Republican Party on Capitol Hill gets behind the president on his plans and not theirs, it will all be sweetness and light, be one big happy family," Bannon told the Post, adding that this is not an outcome he expects in the foreseeable future, because no "administration in history has been so divided among itself about the direction about where it should go."

That assessment contributed to the Post's conclusion that Bannon's exit to resume his erstwhile position at Breitbart News will not end the Trump White House's internal division and apparently endless controversy. (Read The Week's Ryan Cooper on why Bannon's departure won't change much here.)

"I think it raises the morale of staffers and brings more of a sense of normalcy to the White House on a day-to-day basis," said an unnamed Republican strategist with access to the administration. "What it does not do is remove the person who's creating the most drama in the White House, and that's Donald Trump."

What Bannon will do at Breitbart remains to be seen. Some of his post-firing remarks and comments from those near him suggest he will use the outlet to attack the Trump administration, or at least figures within it who oppose his "economic nationalist" agenda. However, Bannon himself told Bloomberg News he is "going to war for Trump against his opponents — on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America." Bonnie Kristian

August 17, 2017

Once-and-future action hero and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) may not be the best person to convince President Trump about the merits of unequivocally condemning neo-Nazis and white supremacists, given their history and especially when he uses a Trump bobble-head, but he gave it a try anyway on Thursday night. "The only way to beat the loud and angry voices of hate is to meet them with louder and more reasonable voices," he said in a video for ATTN, and that includes Trump, who, "as president of this great country," has "a moral responsibility to send an unequivocal that you won't stand for hate and racism." In case Trump was unsure what such a statement would sound like, Schwarzenegger offered him a Republican-specific template.

More interesting was his "blunt" message to "the neo-Nazis and to the white supremacists and to the neo-Confederates," which began: "Your heroes are losers. You are supporting a lost cause. Believe me, I knew the original Nazis." He explained that he was born in Austria in 1947, right after World War II, and growing up he "was surrounded by broken men, men who came home from the war filled with shrapnel and guilt, men who were misled into a losing ideology. And I can tell you that these ghosts that you idolize spent the rest of their lives living in shame. And right now, they're resting in hell." He said it isn't too late to change course, and he wasn't buying Trump's "fine people" excuse for the Charlottesville marchers.

"If you say 'Arnold, hey, I was just at the march, don't call me a Nazi, I have nothing to do with Nazis at all,'" Schwarzenegger said, "let me help you: Don't hang around people who carry Nazi flags, give Nazi salutes, or shout Nazi slogans. Go home. Or better yet, tell them they are wrong to celebrate an ideology that murdered millions of people. And then go home." Schwarzenegger also had some advice for people who are not Nazis or Nazi sympathizers and think it's best to stay quiet or keep their heads down, and he only used one of his famous movie catchphrases. Peter Weber

August 17, 2017

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker (R) said President Trump "has not demonstrated that he understands the character of this nation" in grave comments delivered at the Rotary Club of Chattanooga on Thursday. "The president has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to ... in order to be successful. And we need for him to be successful," Corker said.

The senator pointedly added that Trump does not appear to understand "what has made this nation great and what it is today."

The remarks followed a number of tweets from Trump on Thursday, some of which bashed Republican senators and others that defended Confederate monuments. Many reporters and analysts consider Corker to be something of a bellwether on Trump:

"We're at a point where there needs to be radical changes that take place at the White House itself," Corker said. "It has to happen." Watch his full comments below. Jeva Lange

August 17, 2017
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On Wednesday, endangered chief strategist Stephen Bannon gave two eyebrow-raising interviews, although at least one he has since argued was intended to be "off the record." The other, with The New York Times, saw Bannon defending Trump on Charlottesville and arguing that the left has picked the wrong fight.

"President Trump, by asking, 'Where does this all end' — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln — connects with the American people about their history, culture, and traditions," Bannon told the Times. "The race-identity politics of the left wants to say it's all racist."

For good measure, Bannon added: "Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can't get enough of it."

One person was killed and more than a dozen others injured when a Charlottesville protester rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters on Saturday. Critics of Trump's response to Charlottesville are also quick to point out that the president has apparently equivocated white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and KKK members with counter-protesters on the left.

As Politico observes: "Bannon is an incredibly savvy political operator who talks to reporters all the time, and did these interviews for some reason ... Whatever his motivation was, he felt like he should dial up some reporters and get his take out there." Jeva Lange

August 16, 2017
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The latest Stephen Bannon interview comes from a surprising source: The American Prospect, a progressive publication.

Bannon associates told CNN and Axios that the White House chief strategist did not know his conversation with magazine co-founder Robert Kuttner would be turned into an article, published Wednesday, and that he had called to chat with Kuttner because he liked his stance on China in a recent story. Kuttner said media-savvy Bannon — who was a topic of conversation during former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci's phone call with The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza, which led to his firing — never asked for the conversation to be off the record.

Bannon told Kuttner there is "no military solution" to North Korea and its nuclear threats, said the "economic war with China is everything" and the U.S. must be "maniacally focused on that," and called white nationalists "losers," "a fringe element," and "a collection of clowns." He also made it sound like he has final say in staffing ("I'm changing out people at East Asian Defense; I'm getting hawks in") and discussed his fights with colleagues ("There's Treasury and [National Economic Council Chair] Gary Cohn and Goldman Sachs lobbying").

Axios' Jonathan Swan spoke with some of Bannon's associates, including one described as being "not an enemy of his," who all saw this as a terrible move by Bannon. That person told Swan, after reading the article, "Since Steve apparently enjoys casually undermining U.S. national security, I'll put this in terms he'll understand: This is DEFCON 1-level bad." You can read more about Kuttner's conversation with Bannon at The American Prospect. Catherine Garcia

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