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A secret service agent keeps a watch in Vista, Calif. on May 22, 2016. (Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters)

The Secret Service confronts unique challenges in the Trump era

08/21/17 11:22AM

A couple of years ago, the U.S. Secret Service struggled with a series of damaging controversies, including some important security breakdowns, prompting a congressional investigation and a bipartisan report about an "agency in crisis." Among other things, lawmakers identified budget cuts one of the "primary causes" of the agency's difficulties.

And while the Secret Service has tried to turn things around since the release of that report, the agency is now facing another daunting challenge: Donald Trump's presidency.

The relationship between the Secret Service and the Republican president's team has already faced some difficulties. A leading Trump attorney, for example, tried to blame the agency for last year's infamous meeting in Trump Tower with a Kremlin-linked attorney, prompting the Secret Service to make a rare entry into a political debate in order to defend the agents' actions. That was soon followed by a leasing dispute between the agency and the New York building the president still owns.

But USA Today goes a step further this morning, highlighting a different kind of problem.

The Secret Service can no longer pay hundreds of agents it needs to carry out an expanded protective mission -- in large part due to the sheer size of President Trump's family and efforts necessary to secure their multiple residences up and down the East Coast.

Secret Service Director Randolph "Tex'' Alles, in an interview with USA TODAY, said more than 1,000 agents have already hit the federally mandated caps for salary and overtime allowances that were meant to last the entire year.

The agency has faced a crushing workload since the height of the contentious election season, and it has not relented in the first seven months of the administration. Agents must protect Trump -- who has traveled almost every weekend to his properties in Florida, New Jersey and Virginia -- and his adult children whose business trips and vacations have taken them across the country and overseas.

There are currently 42 protectees -- up from 31 in the Obama era -- including 18 members of the Trump family.

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As Trump controversies intensify, Mar-a-Lago faces cancellations

08/21/17 10:40AM

In D.C., Donald Trump's response to Charlottesville became so politically toxic, there was a sudden exodus from several White House advisory panels, with private-sector members deciding they no longer wanted to be associated with this president.

But about 1,000 miles to the south, Trump World faced a slightly different kind of problem stemming from the same controversy. The New York Times reported:

With its ornate 20,000-square-foot ballroom and manicured lawns, President Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., is often the site of elaborate fund-raisers, drawing big charities -- and big dollars.

But several organizations are having a change of heart since Mr. Trump blamed "both sides" for the violence in Charlottesville, Va., after a white nationalist rally and an attack by a driver that left a woman dead. There were "very fine people on both sides," Mr. Trump said.

Over the weekend, the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach and the Palm Beach Zoo and Conservation Society became the latest nonprofit groups to cancel galas at Mar-a-Lago.

Exact tallies vary, but I believe that was the 10th cancellation of the 16 big-ticket events scheduled at Mar-a-Lago for the upcoming "social season."

Though none of the groups that are moving their events condemned the president directly, each made clear they were choosing a different venue in order to avoid being associated with Trump-related controversies.

Take the American Red Cross, for example.

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

White House aide: 'You have no idea how much crazy stuff we kill'

08/21/17 10:00AM

One of the more compelling parlor games in the political world right now is speculating about why Donald Trump's aides don't quit. It's taken as a given that staffers throughout the White House recognize the president's most alarming flaws, but it's less clear why they don't flee their erratic boss before he permanently tarnishes their reputations.

My argument last week is that White House officials stick around because they're not actually surprised. They chose to work for the guy who spent two years touting a racist conspiracy theory -- and that was before he launched a ridiculous presidential campaign that exposed some of Trump's most depraved qualities. They don't quit, I posited, because they knew what they were signing up for.

But there are some members of Team Trump who like to tell reporters that they resist the urge to resign because they're performing a valuable public service. Axios had a piece along these lines over the weekend:

We talked to a half dozen senior administration officials, who range from dismayed but certain to stay, to disgusted and likely soon to leave. They all work closely with Trump and his senior team so, of course, wouldn't talk on the record. Instead, they agreed to let us distill their thinking/rationale:

"You have no idea how much crazy stuff we kill": The most common response centers on the urgent importance of having smart, sane people around Trump to fight his worst impulses. If they weren't there, they say, we would have a trade war with China, massive deportations, and a government shutdown to force construction of a Southern wall.

I suppose the obvious response to this is that the White House is already responsible for all kinds of "crazy stuff," which suggests these officials aren't exactly succeeding in their efforts, but I'll concede it's possible that some in Trump World are intervening before their impulse-challenged boss acts on the worst ideas that pop into his mind.

The curious thing is, we've heard this quote before.

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Image: Donald Trump

One member of Trump's Evangelical Advisory Board has seen enough

08/21/17 09:20AM

With its members no longer wanting to be associated with Donald Trump, the White House's American Manufacturing Council is no more. The White House Strategy and Policy Forum was disbanded for the same reason. The president's Advisory Council on Infrastructure has been scrapped; the administration's Digital Economy Board of Advisors met the same fate; and members of Trump's Committee on the Arts and Humanities also walked away on Friday.

The fallout from the president's racially inflammatory remarks last week has been considerable, but Trump still has the White House's Evangelical Advisory Board. The Associated Press reported the other day on its members' "steadfast support" for the president, no matter how far Trump goes.

Trump's evangelical council members have strongly condemned the bigotry behind the Charlottesville march by white nationalists and neo-Nazis over the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. But regarding Trump, they have offered either praise for his response or gentle critiques couched within complaints about how he has been treated by his critics and the media.

Late last week, however, a crack appeared in the dam: one member of the panel decided he'd simply seen enough. The Washington Post reported:

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Image: Donald Trump

GOP base comfortable with Trump's racially inflammatory posture

08/21/17 08:40AM

More than a few political observers, hopeful that American politics was still driven by decency and principle, saw last week as a deal-breaker of sorts for Donald Trump. The amateur president could spend months testing the limits of the fabric that holds the country together, the argument went, but he couldn't expect to get away with offering a tacit defense of white supremacists.

And yet, here we are. The Washington Post reported yesterday:

A GOP strategist working campaigns in red and purple states said that while support for Trump generally declined slightly since Charlottesville, support rose among his base, after a decline last month because of the failure on health care and revelations about the Russia investigation. This strategist said many Trump supporters applaud the president's continuing desire to shake up Washington, favor his economic priorities and admire his willingness to speak his mind.

Hugh Hewitt, a conservative pundit who hosts an MSNBC weekend show, added on Twitter the other day that he spoke to a group of influential California Republicans, and he came away convinced that Trump's support "has increased" within the party in the wake of the president's racially inflammatory comments.

I wish this were more surprising, but it's important that the political world start adjusting its expectations for what constitutes "the Republican mainstream" in 2017. This radicalized GOP is Donald Trump's party, and with that comes a degree of comfort and acceptance with presidential antics many other Americans consider contemptible.

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Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University speaks during a Liberty University Convocation in Lynchburg, Va., on Sept. 14, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

As others flee, Trump's top evangelical ally comes to his defense

08/21/17 08:00AM

After Donald Trump publicly defended racist activists, to the delight of prominent white supremacists, the White House hoped the president's Republican allies would rally to his defense. That clearly didn't happen.

Last week, bookers and producers for a variety of news programs -- including colleagues of mine at MSNBC -- reached out to dozens of GOP officials about appearing on camera to defend Trump's comments, and Republicans simply weren't interested. That continued yesterday: in an exceedingly rare sight, there were no elected GOP officials on any of the Sunday shows.

In an interesting twist, when ABC News' "This Week" asked the White House for a spokesperson willing to appear as a guest, officials directed the show's producers to, of all people, Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and a member of the White House's Evangelical Advisory Board. Falwell was one of the few people to defend Trump last week, and he did so again yesterday with ABC's Martha Raddatz.

RADDATZ: [Trump] said, there were "very fine people" on both sides. Do you believe there were very fine people on both sides?

FALLWELL: He has inside information that I don't have. I don't know if there were historical purists there who were trying to preserve some statues. I don't know. But he had information I didn't have. And I believe that he spoke what was...

RADDATZ: What made you think he knew that...

FALLWELL: I think he saw videos of who was there. I think he was talking about what he had seen, information that he had that I don't have.

This is a curious line of defense. On Friday, Aug. 11, tiki-torch-wielding activists were filmed chanting, "Jews will not replace us." Other participants at that Charlottesville rally were photographed making a Nazi salute. Trump said of these activists, “Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”

Were we supposed to "believe" him because, as Falwell put it, Trump has unique "information" about these activists' motivations? From Falwell's perspective, does the president have some kind of special insights into what the torch-wielding racists were thinking?

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Friday's Mini-Report, 8.18.17

08/18/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Barcelona: "Thousands of Spaniards set out on a pilgrimage of peace Friday along the same street that was a scene of horror less than 24 hours before."

* Related news: "Spain was seized Friday with the realization that it had incubated a large-scale terrorist plot, as authorities across Europe mounted a manhunt following the deadliest attacks to strike the country in more than a decade: two vehicle assaults in Barcelona and a Catalan coastal town."

* Susan Bro: "The mother of the woman who was run down by a car during violent clashes in Charlottesville, Va., said Friday that after seeing President Trump's comments equating white supremacist protesters with those demonstrating against them, she does not wish to speak with him."

* Not surprisingly, they sent a great letter: "All seventeen members of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities resigned en masse Friday, citing President Donald Trump's comments ascribing blame to 'both sides' for violence in Charlottesville."

* Mar-a-Lago: "The Salvation Army, the American Red Cross and Susan G. Komen on Friday joined a growing exodus of organizations canceling plans to hold fundraising events at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, deepening the financial impact to President Trump's private business amid furor over his comments on Charlottesville."

* Related news: "Thursday afternoon, the Cleveland Clinic and American Cancer Society announced they were leaving the president's Palm Beach estate."

* Those rumors were wrong: "Democratic Senator Joe Manchin said he has no plans to become Donald Trump's Energy Secretary, an idea that was floated as a way to let the state's Republican governor name a successor and advance the president's stalled agenda in Congress."

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Donald Trump keeps parting ways with 'the best people'

08/18/17 04:48PM

Remember when Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate, vowed to surround himself "only with the best and most serious people" if elected? It was right around the time he promised via Facebook to "hire the best people."

Whether he's kept that promise or not is a subjective matter, but given the volatility in the White House, it's hard not to get the impression that Trump doesn't believe he's hired "the best people" -- or he wouldn't have gotten rid of so many of his top aides.

Revisiting a recent item, Trump World has been in office for almost seven months, and we've seen a startling number of departures among leading officials, including:

- Reince Priebus, chief of staff

- Katie Walsh, deputy chief of staff

- Michael Flynn, national security advisor

- Sean Spicer, press secretary

- Michael Short. assistant Press Secretary

- Mike Dubke, the first communications director

- Anthony Scaramucci, the second communications director

- K.T. McFarland, deputy national security advisor

- Monica Crowley, advisor to the National Security Council

- Ezra Cohen-Watnick, director for intelligence programs at the National Security Council

- Tera Dahl, deputy chief of staff at the National Security Council

- Rich Higgins, director of strategic planning at the National Security Council

- Josh Pitcock, chief of staff to the vice president

- Sally Yates, acting U.S. attorney general

- James Comey, director of the FBI

- Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics

- Steve Bannon, chief White House strategist

- Dozens of U.S. Attorneys

This does not include the various shake-ups we've seen on Trump's outside legal team.

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Image: White House Senior Advisor Bannon attends a roundtable discussion held by U.S. President Trump with auto industry leaders at the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti Township

Steve Bannon, Trump's chief strategist, exits stage right

08/18/17 02:18PM

At his now-infamous press conference this week, Donald Trump was asked if he still has confidence in Steve Bannon, the chief White House strategist. The president's perspective seemed pretty clear.

"Well, we'll see," Trump said. "Look, I like Mr. Bannon. He's a friend of mine. But Mr. Bannon came on very late, you know that. I went through 17 senators, governors, and I won all the primaries. Mr. Bannon came on very much later than that, and I like him. He's a good man. He is not a racist, I can tell you that. He's a good person.... But we'll see what happens with Mr. Bannon."

Keep this in mind when reading today's big news out of the White House.

Steve Bannon, the embattled White House chief strategist, is leaving President Donald Trump's administration, two senior White House officials told NBC News.

Bannon's departure brings to a close his rocky tenure in the West Wing in which he clashed with many of Trump's other top aides, including the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner.

For Trump's progressive critics, there's reason to see this as a positive development. Trump's campaign adopted a more radical and nationalistic posture when Bannon joined the team, and his role as the president's chief strategist meant Bannon's brand of extremism had a high-profile advocate in the West Wing.

And if Bannon's ouster was motivated by Trump's desire to be a more mainstream president, that'd be even more encouraging. But that's almost certainly not what today's news is all about.

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Image: Donald Trump, Neil Gorsuch, Anthony Kennedy

The worst week of Trump's presidency keeps happening

08/18/17 01:01PM

It's been nearly 20 years since its release, but there's a scene early on in "Office Space" that keeps coming to mind. Peter Gibbons, feeling depressed, goes to see a therapist and explains his state of mind.

"So I was sitting in my cubicle today," our protagonist says, "and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that's on the worst day of my life."

The intrigued therapist asks, "What about today? Is today the worst day of your life?"

Without hesitation, Peter responds, "Yeah," to which the therapist replies, "Wow, that's messed up."

I was reminded of the scene this morning reading NBC News' First Read, which labeled this the worst week of Donald Trump's presidency.

For a presidency that's contained some ups and many more downs, this has been President Trump's worst week in office -- highlighted by his controversial comments about Saturday's violence in Charlottesville.

The analysis strikes me as entirely fair; this week has been truly abysmal. Trump's response to the violence in Charlottesville, for example, has been a debacle for the ages. As the backlash to his defense of racists continued, the president also feuded with his ostensible Republican allies, and saw his corporate allies flee White House councils, deeming Trump too toxic to be around.

An ABC News piece this morning added, "This week has arguably been the worst in his presidency and has left members of his party unsure how to pick up the pieces."

Which brings us back to "Office Space" and Peter Gibbons.

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