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Trump announces plans for politicized Justice Department probe

05/21/18 08:00AM

As yesterday progressed, and Donald Trump kept tweeting, it seemed obvious that the president's latest tantrum was reaching a boiling point. It started with Trump accusing Hillary Clinton of corruption -- the election was 558 days ago -- followed by him accusing the New York Times of also being corrupt.

That was soon followed by a series of "witch hunt" claims, criticisms of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigators, and poorly written complaints about former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Christopher Steele's dossier, the DNC, the FBI, and John Podesta's brother. Those who want to believe the president is emotionally stable would've been wise to avert their eyes.

The series of enraged missives culminated, however, in a message that was harder to overlook.

President Donald Trump says he'll demand that the Justice Department review whether it or the FBI infiltrated his presidential campaign for political purposes and whether any demands or requests came from the Obama administration.

Trump tweeted Sunday: "I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes -- and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!"

This represented a slight shift in posture for the Republican: on Friday, Trump declared with some certainty that federal law enforcement officials did, in fact, have a spy inside his 2016 campaign. Now, apparently, the president intends to order the Justice Department to find out of his assertions are true.

About a month ago, Trump told Fox News he "tries" to steer clear of the Justice Department's decision-making, though he added, "But at some point, I won't."

Evidently, we've arrived at that point.

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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP-PENCE

This Week in God, 5.19.18

05/19/18 07:18AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a bold claim from Vice President Mike Pence about the role of faith in modern American life.

In general, when White House figures make claims about Donald Trump's societal impacts, they stick to generalities or boasts that are difficult to check, such as the president's insistence that he personally has created a cultural surge in Americans wishing each other a "Merry Christmas."

Pence, however, delivered a commencement address last weekend at Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college in Michigan of notable significance in Republican politics, and he was far more specific. Faith in America, the vice president said, is "rising again" because of Trump and his administration.

Pence added, "We live in a time when traditional values, even religious conviction, are increasingly marginalized by a secular popular culture -- a time when it's become acceptable, even fashionable, to malign religious belief. I still believe with all my heart that faith in America is rising.... Religion in America isn't receding -- just the opposite. Faith is gaining new life with every passing day."

He went on to say that even though the American population has grown considerably over the decades, American religiousity "has remained remarkably consistent."

Putting aside the irony of the Indiana Republican's cultural complains -- the only prominent political figure I can think who's maligned others' religious beliefs is Donald Trump -- the Washington Post  noted that there's a fair amount of evidence to suggest the vice president's claims are mistaken.

The truth is that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion has been rising, according to the Pew Research Center.

While more than half -- 55 percent -- of Americans say they pray daily, according to Pew, the poll suggests that differences in the practice among age groups may not have remained consistent overtime.

What's more, the latest survey from the Washington Post and ABC News highlighted the fact that there's been a noticeable "rise in the number who profess no religion" over the last 15 years.

It'd be a mistake to attribute these developments to Trump, just as it was a mistake for Pence to argue that the president and his administration is responsible for religion "rising again."

But whatever the cause for the societal shifts, the vice president's assertions don't stand up well to scrutiny.

Also from the God Machine this week:

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Friday's Mini-Report, 5.18.18

05/18/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Today's deadly school shooting: "A 17-year-old student dressed in a trenchcoat and armed with a shotgun and a revolver barged inside a classroom at a southeast Texas high school on Friday and opened fire, killing at least 10 people and terrorizing hundreds more, officials said."

* Cuban media says there were only three survivors, and they're in critical condition: "A commercial airliner carrying more than 100 people crashed Friday afternoon shortly after takeoff from Cuba's main airport, Cuban state-run media reported."

* This is the second Stone assistant to be subpoenaed: "U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has subpoenaed a key assistant of long-time Donald Trump adviser Roger Stone, two people with knowledge of the matter said, the latest sign that Mueller's investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election is increasingly focusing on Stone."

* On a related note, Rachel talked about this story last night: "Paul Manafort's former son-in-law, real estate developer Jeffrey Yohai, has agreed to plead guilty in connection with a criminal investigation in Los Angeles, multiple sources familiar with the investigation said Thursday."

* A story worth watching: "The State Department Inspector General is looking into why senior career officials who worked on Obama administration priorities like refugee resettlement and closing the Guantanamo Bay prison were temporarily reassigned to menial work processing Freedom of Information Act requests, the IG's office confirmed to TPM on Thursday — reviewing whether the reassignments were politically motivated."

* Learning more about last fall's massacre in Las Vegas: "Just weeks before Stephen Paddock killed 58 people on the Las Vegas Strip, witnesses say he went on an anti-government tirade and said, 'somebody has to wake up the American public and get them to arm themselves.'"

* The latest on Greitens: "The Missouri House committee investigating Gov. Eric Greitens on Thursday sued his campaign and a dark-money group allied with the Republican governor, accusing the two entities of withholding documents from the panel."

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Two freshly delivered Amazon boxes are seen. (Photo by Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Did Trump use his office to try to punish Amazon.com?

05/18/18 03:19PM

Donald Trump has reportedly been "obsessed" with Amazon.com for quite a while, apparently because the online retailer is owned by Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post. It's like a political bank shot of presidential contempt: the Republican hates the newspaper's coverage, which leads Trump to hate its owner, which then leads the president to hate its owner's other businesses.

To that end, Trump has argued, publicly and privately, that Amazon is a tax-dodging company that unfairly exploits the U.S. Postal Service. The Wall Street Journal  reported last month that White House officials, eager to help the president understand reality, have put together "PowerPoint presentations and briefing papers they believed debunked his concerns."

Trump, however, was unmoved by facts and evidence. The president feels he's right about Amazon, and in this White House, that effectively ends the conversation.

The larger question is what, exactly, the Republican is prepared to do as part of his manufactured feud. The Washington Post  reports today on one alarming possibility.

President Trump has personally pushed U.S. Postmaster General Megan Brennan to double the rate the Postal Service charges Amazon.com and other firms to ship packages, according to three people familiar with their conversations, a dramatic move that probably would cost these companies billions of dollars.

Brennan has so far resisted Trump's demand, explaining in multiple conversations occurring this year and last that these arrangements are bound by contracts and must be reviewed by a regulatory commission, the three people said. She has told the president that the Amazon relationship is beneficial for the Postal Service and gave him a set of slides that showed the variety of companies, in addition to Amazon, that also partner for deliveries.

The Post added Brennan and Trump "have met at the White House about the matter several times," though none of the meetings appeared on Trump's public schedule.

I appreciate the fact that Trump is at the center of a great many scandals, but if it's true that this president used his office to try to punish a company he dislikes personally, that's an unusually outrageous abuse of power.

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U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks during his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept.22, 2016. (Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

House GOP leaders suffer another setback, fail to pass farm bill

05/18/18 01:03PM

Nearly everything about the House Republicans' farm bill was a mess.

At GOP leaders' insistence, for example, it would've increased food insecurity for millions of struggling Americans by cutting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. What's more, the traditionally bipartisan bill was, this year, put together exclusively by Republicans. Donald Trump's demand for punitive work requirements was, of course, also included in the package.

Making matters slightly worse, as the Washington Post's Catherine Rampell explained, the GOP bill would also create a new layer of government bureaucracy, which "eats up nearly all the 'savings' from kicking people off food stamps," intended to make it more difficult for qualifying Americans to receive benefits.

And in case all of this weren't quite messy enough, when the House Republican leadership brought the bill to the floor this morning, it failed. Roll Call  reported:

In a major blow to Republican leaders and after a week full of drama and last-minute vote wrangling, the House failed to pass a farm bill Friday, with several Freedom Caucus members voting no in protest to a lack of immediate action on immigration.

The bill failed 198-213. House GOP leaders had been touting the bill as a fulfillment of their campaign promise to overhaul welfare programs. The vote also brings the GOP’s intraparty fissures further into public view.

This was a fight with several moving parts, and much of the debate was tied to an unrelated debate over immigration: the right-wing Freedom Caucus' members said they would withhold support for the farm bill unless GOP leaders agreed to first hold a vote on a far-right immigration plan.

Republican leaders thought they'd made progress on reaching some kind of deal with the Freedom Caucus -- it's why they brought the bill to the floor, rather than punting -- but in the end, it wasn't enough.

Complicating matters is that many in the GOP thought the proposal just wasn't far enough to the right. It was a striking reminder of just how difficult governing can be in this Congress.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.18.18

05/18/18 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.

* Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) acknowledged yesterday that control of the Senate is "absolutely" in play this year. The GOP leader also listed the Senate races he considered competitive, but he didn't mention contests in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- where there are Democratic incumbents in states Donald Trump won in 2016.

* In Florida's Senate campaign, Gov. Rick Scott (R) launched a new Spanish-language TV ad this week, and according to the Tampa Bay Times, that brings his total amount of campaign spending to "more than $8 million in just over a month, an astounding figure." Incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) has so far spent nothing, though he has roughly $10 million in the bank.

* In his latest fundraising appeal to supporters, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) brags about Trump calling him a "Great American Hero." In the same letter, the far-right congressman claims he "exposed the scandal" of surveillance of Carter Page.

* Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R), the right-wing congresswoman whose Senate campaign is off to a difficult start in Tennessee, may soon benefit from some presidential attention: Trump will head to the Volunteer State to help Blackburn on May 29.

* Ahead of a possible 2020 presidential bid, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has so far backed 21 candidates this election cycle, 11 of whom have lost. Our Revolution, a group that grew out of Sanders' unsuccessful 2016 campaign, has backed 111 candidates, 65 of whom have lost.

* While much of the Republican establishment is rallying behind Rep. Martha McSally (R) in Arizona's U.S. Senate race, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has apparently thrown his support behind her more radical primary rival, former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R).

* In former Rep. John Conyers Jr's (D) district in Michigan, the race to replace him may not be a family affair: in response to a challenge from state Sen. Ian Conyers (D), local election officials found that John Conyers III failed to submit the proper number of signatures to appear on the ballot.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump's latest 'Watergate' appears to be as misguided as his others

05/18/18 11:23AM

Donald Trump, hardly a student of history, would benefit from a broader understanding of presidential scandals -- because as far the Republican is concerned, he keeps finding new Watergates behind every corner.

According to the current president, Uranium One, for example, is Watergate. So is the non-existent wiretapping of Trump Tower. Benghazi, Trump has assured us, is “bigger than Watergate.” What’s more, Joe Arpaio’s investigation into Barack Obama’s birth certificate, Trump wrote in 2012, “could dwarf Watergate.”

In March, the president said the Justice Department's investigation into his campaign is "bigger than Watergate," and yesterday, worked up by something he saw in conservative media, Trump added that the FBI had an "informant" in his political operation, which he said is -- you guessed it -- "bigger than Watergate!"

Maybe he can't think of any other controversies from history worth referencing?

Regardless, Trump continued to play with his new conspiracy theory this morning.

President Donald Trump on Friday quoted a claim that the Department of Justice put a "spy" inside his presidential campaign as part of an effort to "frame" him for "crimes" he "didn't commit."

"'Apparently the DOJ put a Spy in the Trump Campaign. This has never been done before and by any means necessary, they are out to frame Donald Trump for crimes he didn't commit,'" Trump wrote in a tweet Friday morning, quoting Fox Business Network anchor David Asman. He also tagged FBN anchor Lou Dobbs and Fox News Channel anchor Gregg Jarrett. He added, "Really bad stuff!"

The president added soon after that he thinks this may be the "all time biggest political scandal," which might be more compelling if (a) his latest claims weren't so dubious, and (b) all of the other times Trump said he'd uncovered the all-time biggest political scandal hadn't turned out to be nonsense.

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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

Trump White House scraps meeting for its own communications staff

05/18/18 10:40AM

It's now been eight days since Kelly Sadler, a White House communications aide, mocked Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) failing health during a private meeting, the contents of which soon leaked to the press. For some in the political world, Team Trump's refusal to apologize for the comments are reflective of this presidency's coarseness and stubborn mean-spiritedness.

But in the West Wing, the real problem wasn't Sadler's comment, but rather, the fact that the public learned about Sadler's comment. As the New York Times  reports, the fallout is still unfolding.

The big daily meeting that past administrations have used to keep the White House on message has been scrapped in favor of something smaller. West Wing aides are instructed to drop their personal phones into small storage lockers when they come to work, periodically checked up on by a scanning device that detects nongovernment phones.

And in the Oval Office, there is President Trump, who is prone to erupt about his communications team as ineffective and leak-ridden, complaining he has the biggest team and yet he gets "the worst press."

The report added that the White House, among other things, is considering "reducing the size" of its communications staff.

As for who's leading that team, let's also not forget that Trump has already gone through four communications directors since his election -- five if you count Sean Spicer -- and two months after Hope Hicks' departure, the office remains empty.

All things considered, I imagine many will see behind-the-scenes drama like this as inside baseball, of no real concern to the country at large. Perhaps. But it's nevertheless difficult to get over the fact that 15 months into the Trump presidency, the White House finds it necessary to scrap a daily meeting because West Wing officials no longer trust their own communications staff.

It's emblematic of a larger truth.

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Bill & Melinda Gates

Bill Gates offers behind-the-scenes insights into Trump

05/18/18 10:00AM

Given everything we know about Donald Trump and his, shall we say, idiosyncrasies, it's only natural to wonder what the president is like behind the scenes, away from the cameras. With this in mind, Microsoft founder Bill Gates recently spoke to the staff at his charitable Gates Foundation about his conversations with Trump -- and MSNBC's Chris Hayes obtained a recording.

The "All In" segments are worth watching in their entirety, in part to get the full context, and in part because the audience's reactions were interesting, but a few things stood out as notable. Gates noted, for example, that after meeting Trump for the first time after the election, the president seemed to know a "scary" amount about Gates' daughter's appearance -- which Melinda Gates apparently didn't appreciate.

Just as striking was Gates' description of two meetings he had with Trump in Trump Tower, where the Microsoft founder encouraged the president to focus on science and innovation, recommending renewed energies toward finding an HIV vaccine.

"In both of those two meetings he asked me if vaccines weren't a bad thing because he was considering a commission to look into ill-effects of vaccines," Gates said. "And somebody, Robert Kennedy Jr., was advising him that vaccines were causing bad things and I said, 'No, that is a dead end, that would be a bad thing, do not do that.'"

There were laughs and groans from the audience after Gates added: "Both times he wanted to know the difference between HIV and HPV and so I was able to explain that those are things that are rarely confused with each other."

As amazing as this anecdote is, the word that jumped out at me was "both."

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump hosts former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

Defamation lawsuit just became more alarming for Donald Trump

05/18/18 09:20AM

As much of the world no doubt recalls, Donald Trump was recorded in 2005 bragging about committing sexual assaults. The Republican said, among other things, that he kisses women he considers attractive – “I don’t even wait,” Trump claimed at the time – which he said he can get away with because of his public profile.

“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump said on the recording. “You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the p—y.”

After Trump denied having done what he bragged about doing, more than a few women came forward to accuse the Republican of sexual misconduct – one of whom, Summer Zervos, is currently suing the president for defamation, after Trump insisted each of his accusers were liars.

Trump’s lawyers have tried a variety of arguments to make the case go away – the president has denied any wrongdoing – but as of yesterday afternoon, those efforts have now failed in two New York courts. And as Rachel noted on the show last night, the next phase in the process is the one Trump and his team have been eager to avoid. The New York Times  reported:

Summer Zervos, a former contestant on "The Apprentice" who accused President Trump of sexual assault, is seeking records to prove that he defamed her by calling her a liar.

A lawyer for Ms. Zervos, who is suing Mr. Trump for defamation in New York, said on Wednesday that subpoenas had been issued both to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer [MGM], which owns archives of the reality show, and to the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Ms. Zervos says he groped her in 2007.

This is a story with a lot of potential.

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House Continues To Work On Spending Bill As Gov't Shutdown Looms

GOP member of Science Committee blames falling rocks for sea-level rise

05/18/18 08:40AM

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) has developed an unfortunate reputation for saying all kinds of bizarre things, but this week's addition to his greatest-hits list is a doozy.

The House Science Committee held a hearing on Wednesday to discuss technology's role in addressing climate change, and the Alabama Republican took the opportunity to share an idea about sea-level rise with Philip Duffy, president of Woods Hole Research Center, who was one of the witnesses participating in the hearing. USA Today  noted Brooks' creative new idea:

"Every single year that we're on Earth, you have huge tons of silt deposited by the Mississippi River, by the Amazon River, by the Nile, by every major river system — and for that matter, creek, all the way down to the smallest systems," Brooks said. "And every time you have that soil or rock whatever it is that is deposited into the seas, that forces the sea levels to rise. Because now you've got less space in those oceans because the bottom is moving up."

Brooks pointed to the White Cliffs of Dover and to California "where you have the waves crashing against the shorelines" and "you have the cliffs crash into the sea."

"All of that displaces the water which forces it to rise, does it not?" Brooks asked.

"I'm pretty sure that on human time scales, those are minuscule effects," Duffy answered.

I imagine climate deniers may appreciate Brooks' child-like logic: if a swimming pool, for example, were half filled with water, the water level would rise with the addition of many rocks. Maybe the congressman has even heard something about Archimedes.

The trouble, which the poor congressman doesn't seem to appreciate, is the size of the planet's swimming pool: a Washington Post  analysis found that to explain the current rises, we'd have to take "the top five inches of every one of the United States' 9.1 million square miles of land area and use it to coat the bottom of the world's oceans" -- and we'd have to do that every year.

But as embarrassing as Mo Brooks' confusion is, there may be a way to put an encouraging spin on this.

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