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Monday's Mini-Report, 7.16.18

07/16/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Look for more on this on tonight's show: "A Russian national with alleged ties to a top Russian official was charged in federal court in Washington Monday with conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation, and was ordered held without bond."

* Unexpected news out of Afghanistan: "The Trump administration has told its top diplomats to seek direct talks with the Taliban, a significant shift in American policy in Afghanistan, done in the hope of jump-starting negotiations to end the 17-year war."

* Germany's foreign minister said this morning that Europe "could not rely on Donald Trump and needed to close ranks after the U.S. president called the European Union a 'foe' with regard to trade."

* Brutal: "Cleaning Toilets, Following Rules: A Migrant Child's Days in Detention: A portrait of life in the shelters for the children detained after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border."

* Trump imposed tariffs on Canada, and when Canada responded, Trump filed a WTO complaint: "U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has filed a World Trade Organization challenge against the retaliatory tariffs Canada has imposed in response to Trump's own tariffs on steel and aluminum."

* Bad advice: "British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Sunday that President Donald Trump advised her to take legal action against the European Union rather than negotiate Britain's exit from the bloc."

* Maybe tax cuts don't pay for themselves? "The federal government recorded a $74.9 billion deficit in June, a month when the government often runs a surplus, as corporate taxes dropped sharply compared to a year ago."

* Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) is under fire again, this time for suggesting young black kids playing chess in West Louisville is unexpected.

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Image: The President Of The United States And Mrs Trump Meet HM Queen

Trump's overseas adventure becomes a week of 'calamitous' events

07/16/18 04:00PM

It was just six days ago that Donald Trump spoke briefly with reporters on the White House's South Lawn, as he prepared to depart for his overseas trip. "We'll see what happens," the president said. "We have a long, beautiful week."

Long? Maybe. Beautiful? Not so much.

* Tuesday, July 10: Trump lashed out at NATO allies via Twitter, misstated the size of the U.S. trade deficit with European Union, and incoherently called on NATO member nations to "reimburse" the United States.

* Wednesday, July 11: From Brussels, Trump threw a bit of a tantrum and blasted a key U.S. ally, falsely accusing Germany of being a "captive of Russia" and being "totally controlled by Russia." At a breakfast with Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, Trump again claimed that "many countries owe us a tremendous amount of money," which isn't true, and which was based on Trump's ongoing confusion about how NATO financing works.

* Thursday, July 12: Trump launched into a behind-closed doors tirade, forced NATO members into an emergency session, and further alienated U.S. allies. He then proceeded to hold a press conference, claiming to have secured financial commitments from NATO members that, according to multiple foreign governments, didn't actually exist.

* Friday, July 13: The Sun, a British tabloid, published an interview with Trump in which he condemned Prime Minister Theresa May's handling of Brexit, and in the process, he created another international incident with a key American ally. Later in the day, he somehow managed to screw up walking alongside Queen Elizabeth II.

* Saturday, July 14: Ignoring any sense of ethics or propriety, Trump visited -- and heavily promoted -- his golf course in Scotland, which he still owns and tries to profit from. The day after massive anti-Trump protests in England, the American president faced additional protests in Scotland. The same day, Trump said that "many, many" of the street demonstrations were in support of his presidency, a claim which was apparently hopelessly bonkers.

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Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., speaks during the news conference to oppose the chained Consumer Price Index to cut benefits for Social Security and disabled veterans on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Leading Dem senator: it's 'likely' Putin has incriminating info on Trump

07/16/18 03:12PM

There's been ample speculation for quite a while about whether Vladimir Putin's Russian government has compromising information on Donald Trump. And given the American president's antics, it's easy to understand why the questions persist: there has to be some kind of explanation for Trump's bizarre behavior.

But as loud as the speculation has been, it's nevertheless striking when a sitting U.S. senator -- and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- shared some candid thoughts on the subject. Consider what Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) had to say this morning to BuzzFeed News Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith.

"What do you think of Trump's persistent, among other things, refusal to criticize Vladimir Putin? I mean do you think Vladimir Putin has anything on him?" Smith asked.

"I think it's likely, yeah," Merkley said.

When Smith pressed him to elaborate, the Oregon Democrat said, "It's a standard strategy of Russia when people visit there who are important to try to get compromising information on them, to set them up with hookers, to tape everything that goes on in their room."

The BuzzFeed chief asked soon after, "Just to put this in terms that the Twitter world can relate to, you think the pee tape is real?"

Pausing briefly, Merkley nodded and replied, "Something close to that, something close to that."

The senator isn't the only one on Capitol Hill thinking along these lines.

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In disastrous press conference, Trump defended Putin, blasted Americans

07/16/18 01:15PM

It would've been pretty easy for Donald Trump to get through today's summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin without making things worse for himself. Following his behind-closed-doors talks, the American president could've kept things vague, made non-committal references to "common interests," and expressed optimism about the road ahead.

The meeting still would've been controversial -- there was no reason for Trump to reward Putin like this, especially in exchange for nothing -- but the gathering in Helsinki didn't have to be an abject disaster for the White House.

But it was. After watching the post-talks press conference, it's suddenly vastly easier to believe Donald Trump has been compromised in some way by the foreign adversary that attacked the United States in order to put Trump in power.

At a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on foreign soil, President Donald Trump attacked fellow Americans -- Democrats, Special Counsel Robert Mueller and members of the news media -- for damaging U.S.-Russia relations by pursuing questions about Moscow's efforts to help him win the presidency in 2016. [...]

Trump also touted several conspiracy theories related to the election, asking about the 33,000 Hillary Clinton emails he has long claimed are missing, the whereabouts of a computer server at the Democratic National Committee, and the activities of a former House Democratic staffer who some conspiracy theorists have alleged penetrated lawmakers' computers.

This is one of those important political moments that had to be seen to be fully believed. Some of the takeaways from my quickly scribbled notes:

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.16.18

07/16/18 12:00PM

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

* Though July is a pretty slow month for elections, Alabama will host primary run-off elections tomorrow, and the race to watch is Rep. Martha Roby's (R) contest against party-switching former Rep. Bobby Bright. Roby, having received endorsements from Donald Trump and Mike Pence, is expected to prevail.

* The New York Times  reported today on Donald Trump's re-election campaign committee's new FEC filing, which shows the Team Trump, combined with two joint committees formed with the Republican Party, has nearly $53.6 million in the bank. That's quite a haul before the president's first midterm cycle.

* That said, Trump talked to Piers Morgan the other day, and the British journalist asked if there's any doubt about whether he'll run again in 2020. The American president said, "Well, you never know what happens with health and other things," but added, "It seems like everybody wants me to." Asked if he sees a likely Democrat who can beat him, Trump said, "No. I don't see anybody. I know them all and I don't see anybody."

* Fueled by progressive activists, the California Democratic Party's executive committee officially endorsed state Sen. Kevin de Leon (D), incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D) general-election rival, over the weekend. As Politico noted, the move "delivers a lifeline to de Leon's struggling campaign -- and the party's imprimatur, which is accompanied by valuable access to slate cards, email lists and voter outreach machinery that will allow him to reach an estimated 2 million Democratic voters."

* House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), one of Congress' most sycophantic Trump allies, is receiving a fundraising boost from donors who appreciate his pro-Trump efforts: the California Republican raised roughly $5 million in the second quarter. Headed into the cycle's final four months, Nunes has over $6 million cash on hand.

* Elon Musk reportedly contributed $38,900 to the Protect the House PAC, which exists to help Republicans keep control of Congress. The Daily Beast noted that the Tesla and SpaceX CEO joins "the likes of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and Houston Texans owner Robert McNair in the PAC's top 50 donors."

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In this Jan. 12, 2016 file photo, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback speaks to the legislature in Topeka, Kan. (Photo by Orlin Wagner/AP)

Did Brownback lobby in support of a British right-wing activist?

07/16/18 11:30AM

Earlier this year, by the narrowest of margins, the Senate confirmed Sam Brownback to serve as the U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom in the Trump administration. The expectation was that Brownback, having ruined Kansas' state finances as a two-term governor, would maintain a fairly low profile in a position that has limited legal or political power.

Perhaps those expectations were mistaken. Reuters reported the other day Brownback took an interest in a right-wing activist who's currently in a U.K. jail -- and Brownback directed his concerns directly to the British ambassador.

Brownback raised the case of the activist known as Tommy Robinson in a June meeting with Sir Kim Darroch, Britain's Ambassador to the United States, according to a British official and two sources close to the organizers of a pro-Robinson demonstration planned for London on Saturday.

Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, though he also uses other aliases, is a founder of the English Defense League, which has organized violent demonstrations against Islamic immigrants in the UK in the past decade. More recently, Robinson has branded himself a journalist and campaigner against Islamic extremism, a move that won him contacts with American anti-Muslim activists.

Robinson was arrested in late May outside a courthouse in Leeds, England, while making video recordings about a trial related to child molestation and jailed for 13 months for violating English law limiting publicity during criminal trials.

The underlying controversy is of interest to observers in the U.K., but for reasons that aren't at all clear, Brownback reportedly pressed the British ambassador to treat the right-wing wing activist more sympathetically. If not, according to Reuters' reporting, Brownback said the Trump administration would publicly criticize the British government's handling of the case.

I should emphasize that the Reuters piece hasn't been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News. That said, if the reporting is accurate, it raises some questions that deserve answers.

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A voter marks a ballot for the New Hampshire primary inside a voting booth at a polling place, Feb. 9, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)

Former House Dem says Russia hacked his campaign, too

07/16/18 11:00AM

Quick quiz: how many House Democrats lost their re-election bids in 2016 to Republican challengers? It was a decent election cycle for the GOP -- the party did win control of the White House, Senate, and House -- so the number was probably pretty significant, right?

Wrong. The grand total of House Dems who lost their seats to Republican challengers in 2016 was one: Nebraska's Brad Ashford, who lost to Rep. Don Bacon (R) by about 1% of the vote.

The Associated Press reported the other day that Ashford has come forward with information we didn't know: months ahead of his narrow re-election defeat, Russian agents launched a cyber-attack on his campaign.

Former U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford announced the breach on his Facebook page after the Justice Department filed an indictment alleging that 12 Russian military intelligence officers stole information from Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and the Democratic Party.

Ashford, who lost his seat to Republican Don Bacon by 3,464 votes, said hackers obtained all of his campaign's email correspondence with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He said he was notified of the breach in the summer of 2016 by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi's office and was told that the Russians were likely responsible.

"I wasn't concerned about anything that would be untoward or inappropriate (in the emails), because I knew there wasn't anything like that," Ashford said in an Associated Press interview. "I was fearful that they would know things about our campaign's strategy and focus, and that it would somehow get into the hands of a dark money group. It was stuff you don't want the other side to get."

Ashford, who seems reluctant to sound like a sore loser, added, "I'm not suggesting that it cost me the election. But I do think it's important for people in my district to know how close to home these Russians can get."

It's an important point, the significance of which extends well beyond Omaha, Nebraska.

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On Russia, Trump and Trump's team are rarely on the same page

07/16/18 10:30AM

On the eve of Donald Trump's bilateral talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman said the one-on-one discussion should be seen as "meeting," not a "summit."

Apparently, his boss disagrees: Trump has described the gathering in Helsinki as a "summit."

In the grand scheme of things, the fact that the president and his ambassador to Russia disagree on what to call today's talks is minor, but as the New York Times  noted, this unfolded against a backdrop in which Trump and the rest of his team routinely draw dramatically different conclusions when it comes to U.S. policy toward to Russia.

Whether it is Russia's interference in the election, its annexation of Crimea or its intervention in Syria, Mr. Trump's statements either undercut, or flatly contradict, those of his lieutenants.

The disconnect is so profound that it often seems Mr. Trump is pursuing one Russia policy, set on ushering in a gauzy new era of cooperation with Mr. Putin, while the rest of his administration is pursuing another, set on countering a revanchist power that the White House has labeled one of the greatest threats to American security and prosperity.

The contradictions are jarring, though the underlying question -- should we listen to administration officials or their boss about U.S. policy toward Russia? -- has a clear answer.

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DNI on election cyber threat: 'The warning lights are blinking red again'

07/16/18 10:00AM

When Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen spoke over the weekend at a convention of state secretaries of state, she raised the prospect of additional foreign intervention in the 2018 midterm elections, though the DHS chief seemed to have something of a mixed message.

On the one hand, Nielsen said the threat of cyber-attacks has not dissipated. On the other hand, as the Associated Press noted, she added that there are no signs that Russia is targeting this year's elections with the same "scale or scope" it targeted the 2016 presidential election.

The director of national intelligence seemed far less sanguine. The New York Times  reported:

The nation's top intelligence officer said on Friday that the persistent danger of Russian cyberattacks today was akin to the warnings the United States had of stepped-up terror threats ahead of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

That note of alarm sounded by Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, came on the same day that 12 Russian agents were indicted on charges of hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Mr. Coats said those indictments illustrated Moscow's continuing strategy to undermine the United States' democracy and erode its institutions.

Speaking at a scheduled event at the Hudson Institute, Coats referenced the concerns among intelligence officials in the months leading up to 9/11, when the "system was blinking red." He added, "Here we are, nearly two decades later, and I'm here to say the warning lights are blinking red again."

In the same remarks, Coats said the United States' digital infrastructure "is literally under attack," and among our foes, Russia is the "worst offender."

All of this coincided with latest Justice Department indictment, charging 12 Russian intelligence officials for helping orchestrate the operation that targeted the 2016 presidential election.

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U.S.  President Obama meets with President-elect Trump in the White House Oval Office in Washington

Trump takes new steps to blame Obama for Russia's election attack

07/16/18 09:30AM

On Friday afternoon, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced a federal indictment against 12 Russian intelligence officers, with charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller. Soon after, the White House issued an official written statement that failed to mention anything about the accused, even in passing.

Donald Trump probably doesn't want my advice on communications challenges, but the president's line should probably be something along the lines of, "I commend law enforcement officials for their diligence. Our adversaries must understand that any foreign intervention in our elections is unacceptable, and perpetrators can and will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

It's really not that complicated. And yet, as woeful as the White House's written response was on Friday afternoon, Trump made things vastly worse over the weekend, tweeting on Saturday morning:

"The stories you heard about the 12 Russians yesterday took place during the Obama Administration, not the Trump Administration. Why didn't they do something about it, especially when it was reported that President Obama was informed by the FBI in September, before the Election?"

Eight hours later, the president added:

"These Russian individuals did their work during the Obama years. Why didn't Obama do something about it? Because he thought Crooked Hillary Clinton would win, that's why. Had nothing to do with the Trump Administration, but Fake News doesn't want to report the truth, as usual!"

In case that weren't quite enough, Trump sat down with CBS News and said officials at the DNC "should be ashamed of themselves for allowing themselves to be hacked."

There's a lot to chew on here, so let's take a minute to reflect on the gap between the president's rhetoric and reality.

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Rand Paul Campaigns In Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)

Following indictment of Russian operatives, Rand Paul shrugged

07/16/18 09:00AM

After traveling to Moscow over the 4th of July holiday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) -- the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, who also chairs a Senate Foreign Relations panel -- came back with some unexpectedly provocative thoughts about U.S. policy toward Russia.

For example, the Wisconsin Republican questioned the efficacy of existing sanctions, before insisting that concerns about foreign interference in American elections has been blown "way out of proportion."

Johnson's comments looked a little worse when, a week later, 12 Russian intelligence officials were indicted for their role in attacking our political system in 2016.

But at least Johnson can argue he hadn't seen the new indictment when he made his recent comments -- which is more than we can say about Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who waited until after the indictment to make the case that the attack on our elections was no big deal. The Kentucky Republican, who also serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN's Jake Tapper yesterday, "We all do it."

"I think really we mistake our response if we think it's about accountability from the Russians. They are another country. They are going to spy on us. The do spy on us. They are going to interfere in our elections. We also do the same."

Around the same time, Jon Huntsman, the Trump administration's ambassador to Russia, told Fox News, "We've got to at some point quit looking in the rear-view mirror. We have to be informed by what we've been through and use that to educate us as we go forward. But at some point, we have to look forward."

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Image: FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russia's President Vladimir Putin during the their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg

Trump endorses Russia's criticism of the US ahead of Putin summit

07/16/18 08:30AM

Just six months into his presidency, Barack Obama sat down with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time, and as former Ambassador Michael McFaul explained, Putin went "for an entire hour without interruption" about how previous U.S. administrations were responsible for heightened tensions between the two countries.

Nine years later, it's Donald Trump -- who should probably at least try to side with his own country -- who echoed Moscow's line ahead of his summit with his Russian counterpart.

"Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!"

First, if Trump believes relations with Russia have "NEVER been worse," he really ought to read a book or two about the Cold War. The chapters on the Cuban Missile Crisis would be especially illuminating.

Second, Americans have never heard their president lash out at his own country this way, endorsing the propaganda of our adversary, and blaming the United States' "stupidity" for undermining relations with a foreign foe.

Indeed, Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs quickly endorsed Trump's sentiment, which will do little to quiet questions about exactly whose side the American president is on.

Hours later, as Trump's one-on-one summit with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, got underway, the Republican laid out a list of topics he expected the two leaders to cover: trade, military, missiles, nuclear, and China. The list did not include election interference, Ukraine and the future of Crimea, Syria, Russia's suspected role in a poison-gas assassination attempt in the U.K., or the extradition of Russian intelligence operatives charged with attacking our political system. (On that last point, Trump said over the weekend, "I hadn't thought of that.")

All of this comes on the heels of a CBS News interview in which Trump was asked, "What's your goal for the Putin meeting?"

Trump replied, "Uh, I'll let you know after the meeting."

Maybe he didn't understand the question.

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Trump struggles to tell the difference between friend and 'foe'

07/16/18 08:00AM

Six years ago, Mitt Romney, then the Republican Party's presidential nominee, said Russia, "without question," was the United States' "number one geo-political foe." This sparked a fair amount of discussion, especially after then-President Barack Obama responded by pointing to terrorist groups such as ISIS as a more significant international adversary than a weakened Russia.

Republican perspectives have changed quite a bit since 2012. Donald Trump sat down with CBS News' Jeff Glor in Scotland over the weekend, and the anchor asked the Republican president to identify our "biggest foe globally right now." Trump's answer was extraordinary, even for him.

President Donald Trump is going into his much-anticipated meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin on Monday having called the European Union "a foe" of the United States and with the promise that nothing bad will come from the discussion.

"I think we have a lot of foes," Trump told CBS Evening News in a segment of an interview that first aired on "Face the Nation." "I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade. Now you wouldn't think of the European Union, but they're a foe."

As part of the same response, the American president added, "Russia is foe in certain respects. China is a foe economically, certainly they are a foe. But that doesn't mean they are bad."

So, asked to name the United States' "biggest" international foe, the European Union -- which is to say, our allies -- was the first thing that came to Trump's mind. Russia and China came next, though the Republican's comments about them came with qualifiers.

On more than a few instances, Trump has said the European Union was formed in order to "take advantage of the United States " It wasn't -- he has no idea what he's talking about -- and the comments were so absurd that, late last month, they contributed to the resignation of one of the president's ambassadors.

But this weekend's rhetoric clearly represented an escalation. For Trump to refer to our allies as a "foe" may delight Russian President Vladimir Putin, but it adds unwelcome uncertainty to the Western Alliance.

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Image: Immigrant children now housed in a tent encampment under the new "zero tolerance" policy by the Trump administration are shown walking in single file at the facility near the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas

This Week in God, 7.14.18

07/14/18 08:00AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a look at a new argument from an evangelical White House ally in defense of Donald Trump's family-separation policy. TPM reported the other day:

Pastor Paula White, chair of President Donald Trump's evangelical advisory board, defended Trump's child separation policy earlier this week by claiming that Jesus did not live in Egypt illegally, and that "he would not have been our Messiah" if he'd broken the law.

After gushing over how "amazing" the child detention center she visited was, White addressed immigration advocates' point that Jesus himself was a refugee.

In a segment aired by Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, the televangelist said that Jesus lived in Egypt, "but it was not illegal."

White added, "If he had broken the law, then he would have been sinful and he would not have been our Messiah."

Plenty of the president's evangelical allies have publicly defended Trump's family-separation tactics, but this appeared to be the first time a high-profile figure -- in this case, the chair of Trump's evangelical advisory board and the first woman to deliver a prayer at a presidential inauguration -- has incorporated Jesus' immigration status into the debate.

It wasn't long, however, before many noted Jesus' status as an accused law-breaker. As a Vox piece explained, "White did not mention that Jesus was ultimately executed by Judean colonial authorities for perceived political insurrection."

On Twitter, the Rev. William Barber II added, "Jesus was a refugee & did break the law. He was crucified as a felon under Roman law."

Also from the God Machine this week:

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The threat to NATO

The threat to NATO

07/13/18 09:50PM

Critics say that NATO’s mission ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. But its supporters say it’s needed now more than ever to help deter Russian aggression. watch