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After vowing to get tough, Trump retreats on China (again)

05/21/18 10:40AM

It had all the makings of a burgeoning trade war. Donald Trump announced plans for significant new tariffs in March, which prompted China to announce a related counter-move. The American president upped the ante, and Beijing responded in kind.

Yesterday, the White House changed direction in dramatic fashion.

The Trump administration has suspended its plan to impose sweeping tariffs on China as it presses forward with trade talks, a gesture that will temporarily ease tensions between the two nations but rapidly increase pressure on President Trump to secure the type of tough deal that he has long said is necessary to protect American workers.

Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said on Sunday that the two countries had made progress as they concluded three days of intense trade negotiations in Washington late last week. The planned tariffs on as much as $150 billion worth of Chinese goods are off the table while the talks proceed, he said.

"We're putting the trade war on hold," Mr. Mnuchin said on "Fox News Sunday."

The Treasury secretary apparently believes a halt in the president's plans is justified because China offered some vague assurances about buying more American products -- an agreement that even Trump allies conceded was weak and far short of what the White House wanted.

And yet, there was Mnuchin yesterday, putting new tariffs "on hold."

The Brookings Institution's David Wessel told NPR this morning, "The Trump administration didn't really have a strategy, certainly didn't have a unified negotiating position and basically asked the Chinese for unilateral disarmament, got rejected and folded."

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Despite previous failed guesses, Giuliani predicts Mueller probe's end

05/21/18 10:00AM

A few weeks ago, Rudy Giuliani appeared on a Fox News radio program and was asked when he expected Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation to end. "I think September," Donald Trump's lawyer said, calling it a "realistic timeframe."

The former New York City mayor went further yesterday, arguing that he's gained insights into Mueller's plans, and expects the probe to wrap up in four months.

Special counsel Robert Mueller could conclude the part of his investigation looking into whether President Donald Trump obstructed the Russia inquiry by September, the president's lawyer Rudy Giuliani said Sunday.

Giuliani said it was important to end that part of the investigation "so we don't get into what I call 'Comey territory'" -- a reference to James Comey, the former FBI director who alerted lawmakers to the agency's reopening of a probe into Hillary Clinton's emails on October 28, 2016, just days before the presidential election.

Like so much of Giuliani's rhetoric, this is awfully strange. First, this is the sixth prediction Trump World has made about Mueller's end point. Since predictions one though five were completely wrong, it's tempting to think these guys would stop peddling guesses.

Second, it's difficult to understand why Giuliani's claims are literally on the front page of the New York Times. Not to put too fine a point on this, but the former mayor generally seems to have no idea what he's talking about, and the idea that the special counsel's team offered him the inside scoop on their investigation's end point is difficult to take seriously.

Reuters quoted a U.S. official familiar with the probe who described Giuliani's timeframe "entirely made-up."

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Image: Trump speaks during an event in the East Room of the White House

Following 'spy' claims, Trump is the president who cried wolf

05/21/18 09:20AM

Fairly early on Friday morning, Donald Trump raised the prospect of a Justice Department "spy" infiltrating his 2016 campaign. The president, whose affection for odd conspiracy theories is endless, went on to allege the FBI had "at least one" representative "implanted" in his political operation, "for political purposes."

Over the weekend, siding with congressional Republicans over his own administration, Trump added, "If the FBI or DOJ was infiltrating a campaign for the benefit of another campaign, that is a really big deal."

Well, sure, but anyone can make any outlandish claim and say, "If this is true, it's a really big deal." What matters for those who take reality seriously is whether the claim is, in fact, accurate. And in this case, what the president alleged apparently didn't happen. As Rachel noted on the show on Friday, the New York Times had a good report on the what actually transpired.

In fact, F.B.I. agents sent an informant to talk to two campaign advisers only after they received evidence that the pair had suspicious contacts linked to Russia during the campaign. The informant, an American academic who teaches in Britain, made contact late that summer with one campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, according to people familiar with the matter. He also met repeatedly in the ensuing months with the other aide, Carter Page, who was also under F.B.I. scrutiny for his ties to Russia.

The Washington Post had a related report, noting that the FBI made use of "a longtime U.S. intelligence source" because of the bureau's concerns about Russian interference in the American election.

The article added, "There is no evidence to suggest someone was planted with the campaign." Similarly, the Times' report noted, "No evidence has emerged that the informant acted improperly when the F.B.I. asked for help in gathering information on the former campaign advisers, or that agents veered from the F.B.I.'s investigative guidelines and began a politically motivated inquiry, which would be illegal."

What we appear to be looking at is a story in which federal law enforcement was concerned about Trump campaign officials' communications with Russian operatives, and the legal methods the FBI relied on as part of the investigation.

Or put another way, what the president claimed simply wasn't true.

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A doorman stands as people walk past the Trump Tower in N.Y. on May 23, 2016. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Just how many foreign regimes offered to help the Trump campaign?

05/21/18 08:40AM

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN's Jake Tapper yesterday, "I don't understand what the president doesn't get about the law that says, if you have a foreign nation interfere in an American election, that is illegal."

Removed from context, one might assume the Virginia senator was referring to Russia's efforts to put Donald Trump in the White House. He wasn't. Warner was instead answering a question about this New York Times report published over the weekend.

Three months before the 2016 election, a small group gathered at Trump Tower to meet with Donald Trump Jr., the president's eldest son. One was an Israeli specialist in social media manipulation. Another was an emissary for two wealthy Arab princes. The third was a Republican donor with a controversial past in the Middle East as a private security contractor.

The meeting was convened primarily to offer help to the Trump team, and it forged relationships between the men and Trump insiders that would develop over the coming months — past the election and well into President Trump's first year in office, according to several people with knowledge of their encounters.

At issue is a Trump Tower meeting held on Aug. 3, 2016, featuring names that will no doubt be familiar to viewers of The Rachel Maddow Show. Erik Prince, for example, of Blackwater notoriety, reportedly arranged the gathering. George Nader was also there to convey a message from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates about their eagerness to help put Donald Trump in power. Joel Zamel, an Israeli expert in social media manipulation, was also on hand with a proposal designed to help elect the Republican to the American presidency.

Donald Trump Jr., the Times added, "responded approvingly" to the offers of foreign assistance, and Nader quickly became "a close ally" to the top members of the future president's team. He also paid Zamel "up to $2 million" after Trump won the 2016 election. (The Wall Street Journal  reported over the weekend that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has taken an interest in Zamel's work.)

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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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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

05/18/18 03:19PM

Donald Trump has reportedly been "obsessed" with 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 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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