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TRMS is going to law school

12/14/17 07:44PM

We are doing something special on the show Friday.

Pretty much every day, as we gather as a show to try to decipher the day's latest news, we end up wishing we had a lawyer handy to help clarify the latest developments in the Trump Russia scandal.

Well! For Friday night's show, we are bringing in some heavy legal firepower to help us understand the kind of potential legal jeopardy the White House might be worried about right now after the Michael Flynn guilty plea.

Are there matters of law or legal procedure that you have questions about when it comes to the special counsel and the White House? Are there things that have happened thus far in the special counsel's investigation that seem to make sense only to people who have gone to law school, and you would like to understand them, too?

Here's your chance to join us in accessing some of the best legal minds in the country on this subject without incurring any billable hours for doing so.

Email your questions to us at Rachel@msnbc.com. Send us your questions about the law and the courts and a president's rights when it comes to this White House and the Mueller investigation. We cannot promise that we will pose your question on the air, but we will get to some of them.

Rachel@msnbc.com!

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 12.14.17

12/14/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Over the skies of Syria: "Two U.S. fighter jets intercepted two Russian planes in Syria on Wednesday after the Russians crossed a 'deconfliction line,' and the U.S. fired chaff and warning flares in a confrontation that lasted 40 minutes, an American military spokesman said Thursday."

* Somalia: "A suicide bomber disguised as a policeman blew himself up inside a police training camp in Somalia's capital Mogadishu on Thursday and killed at least 15 officers, officials said."

* It's hard not to think of Colin Powell getting Iraq wrong on days like this: "The Trump administration accused Iran on Thursday of violating United Nations resolutions, unveiling what U.S. officials said was proof that Iran is exporting missiles and other military hardware to a rebel group in Yemen."

* RT: "New filings with the Justice Department show that the original US distribution company for RT, also known as Russia Today, is in the process of 'winding down' and has been since earlier this year."

* The Dan Johnson story is stunning in so many ways: "A Kentucky state representative who had denied allegations of sexually assaulting a teenage girl in 2013 died Wednesday in a probable suicide, the county coroner said."

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A person man uses a laptop. (Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa/AP)

FCC's Republican members kill net neutrality

12/14/17 02:00PM

Following up on our previous coverage, when Donald Trump chose a fierce opponent of net neutrality to lead the Federal Communications Commission, it was obvious that it was only a matter of time before the very idea of an open internet came under fire.

That time is now.

Net neutrality, the set of rules requiring internet service providers to treat all traffic as equal, is dead.

The five members of the Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday 3-2 along party lines to scrap Obama-era net neutrality rules, returning to a "light touch" approach and ending what Chairman Ajit Pai has called the federal government's "micromanaging" of the internet.

As we discussed in November, it’s important to understand that what Pai describes as “micromanagement” are existing safeguards, established by the Obama administration, mandating that all online content be treated equally by service providers. Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, has long opposed those safeguards, and Donald Trump has empowered him to rewrite the rules.

You may not have realized last year that your internet access was on the presidential ballot, but it was, and we’re now facing a rather severe elections-have-consequences moment.

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The dome of the Capitol is reflected in a puddle in Washington, Feb. 17, 2012.

'It's difficult not to feel like a prop here'

12/14/17 12:48PM

On paper, yesterday offered the public an opportunity to watch an important part of the policymaking process. Because the House and Senate passed different versions of the Republican tax plan, a conference committee has been convened to reconcile the bills' differences and create one final piece of legislation for both chambers to vote on.

The first and only public meeting of the conference committee's members was held on Capitol Hill yesterday afternoon, which theoretically offered Americans a chance to see a meaningful and deliberative debate about a proposal that will dramatically affect the world's largest economy.

In practical terms, however, yesterday's conference committee gathering was a joke: Republicans announced two hours before the meeting began that they'd already finalized the details of the new GOP tax blueprint.

It led Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) to note in his opening remarks, "It's difficult not to feel like a prop here."

The Arizona Democrat was, of course, exactly right. This was pointless political theater at its most inane. Committee members got together, ostensibly to begin discussions on a final bill, hours after Republicans said they'd already finished writing the bill in secret and behind closed doors.

And so, for 90 minutes, members bickered for no apparent reason, during which time Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) reminded his Republican colleagues, "This is the United States Congress, not the Duma."

So why bother? Why have a public meeting to begin drafting legislation that's already been drafted? Slate's Jim Newell explained:

The only purpose of the meeting was to serve as a photo-op for Republicans to argue that the conference committee was conducted under "regular order." [...]

Several members noted that they would get more information about the final deal from reading reporters' Twitter feeds than sitting in the hearing.

I think this is exactly right. This was a charade intended to create a talking point: Republican leaders can say they went through the motions, even if they were only pretending to care.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.14.17

12/14/17 12:06PM

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

* Confronted with allegations of sexual misconduct, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) has decided to retire at the end of this term rather than seek re-election. The Texas Republican reportedly plans to stay in office through next year, however, despite calls for his resignation.

* As of this morning, Alabama's Roy Moore (R) still hasn't conceded the Senate race he lost on Tuesday. The right-wing candidate released a video through his campaign last night, in which he said, "We are indeed in a struggle to preserve our republic, our civilization, and our religion, and to set free a suffering humanity. And the battle rages on."

* Sen.-elect Doug Jones (D-Ala.), meanwhile, fielded a wide variety of phone calls yesterday, including one from Donald Trump. The incoming senator described the president's call as "very gracious."

* The latest Monmouth University poll, released yesterday, showed Trump's approval rating dropping to 32% -- a new low in this survey -- but more alarming for the right is the Democratic lead on the generic congressional ballot. Monmouth shows Dems leading Republicans, 51% to 36%.

* Now that Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) has formally announced plans to appoint Lt. Gov. Tina Smith (D) to Al Franken's (D) Senate seat, Minnesota will become only the fourth state currently represented by two women. The other states are California, New Hampshire, and Washington.

* As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) adopts a more sycophantic posture towards Donald Trump, the senator tweeted this morning that Steve Bannon "should have followed" the president's lead in supporting appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R) in Alabama. Graham added, "Trump's instincts on the Alabama race proved to be correct."

* The Nevada Independent  reported yesterday that Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.) "made repeated and unwanted sexual advances toward a female lobbyist while he was a state senator." Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill have already called on Kihuen to step down.

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Image: DFoug Jones, Louise Jones

After Alabama, Trump World struggles to explain a double standard

12/14/17 11:20AM

Sen.-elect Doug Jones (D-Ala.) is eager to get to work on Capitol Hill, but the Senate Republican majority isn't going out of its way to expedite his arrival. The Alabama Democrat will be sworn in, of course, but GOP leaders will wait until officials in Alabama complete the certification process, which should take a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, Republicans hope to ram through an unpopular tax plan before Jones takes his seat.

The trouble, as we discussed yesterday, is that GOP officials are ignoring their own purported standards. Seven years ago, when Republican Scott Brown won a Senate special election in Massachusetts, GOP senators demanded that he be seated quickly and that all major legislative efforts stop until he was sworn in.

Indeed, this wasn't limited to Capitol Hill. Jay Sekulow, now a leading member of Donald Trump's legal team, said in 2010 that Brown should be seated before the results of his election were certified, and it'd be "outrageous" to suggest otherwise. Even Donald Trump himself made similar comments at the time.

Yesterday, Trump World apparently came up with a line to explain the double standard.

A White House official told CNN on Wednesday that the Brown example is different because Democrats passed health care in 2010 using a process that allowed them to do so with only a 50-vote majority -- at the time, they had more than 50 Democrats -- rendering Brown's vote less critical.

Jones is different, the official said, because his vote could tip the balance on the tax measure because the Republican majority is far slimmer.

It's important to understand how very wrong this is.

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This file photo taken on April 28, 2016 shows US Speaker of the House Paul Ryan at the Capitol in Washington, DC. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty)

Paul Ryan embraces ridiculous Treasury 'analysis' of GOP tax plan

12/14/17 10:40AM

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin assured everyone that as the Republican tax plan was coming together, he had dozens of officials working on creating a detailed analysis of the proposal. None of this was true: the New York Times  reported that officials inside the Treasury's Office of Tax Policy claim to have been "largely shut out of the process" and haven't "worked on the type of detailed analysis" that Mnuchin described.

This week, the Treasury Department released a one-page document, billed as an "analysis," which was plainly embarrassing. It not only failed to offer any meaningful scrutiny of the GOP plan -- the Washington Post's Catherine Rampell said it read like "fan fiction" -- the document showed that the Republican proposal wouldn't actually pay for itself unless a series of other, unrelated, non-existent bills also passed Congress.

New York's Jon Chait joked, "It's like claiming for months you can beat up the toughest kid in school, then finally backing up the boast by describing a hypothetical fight where you beat him up with the aid of your black-belt cousin, when in fact your cousin's grasp of martial arts has not advanced beyond an intention to enroll in a karate class at the YMCA."

It's against this backdrop that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said how impressed he was with the Treasury Department's findings.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan on Tuesday defended a one-page analysis by the Treasury Department that asserted a tax plan pushed by the Republican-led Congress would pay for itself in 10 years.

"I think that estimate makes a lot of sense. ... I do believe the Treasury when they say that this is going to unleash a lot of economic growth, which will accrue more revenues," Ryan told reporters.

In theory, it stands to reason that a Republican House Speaker would turn to a Republican-led Treasury Department for policy backup on a Republican tax plan. That's kind of how this works on a conceptual level: when GOP lawmakers get discouraging data from the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office, they're likely to turn to a GOP administration's Treasury Department for more favorable figures.

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Image: Trump Designates North Korea as State Sponsor of Terror During Cabinet Meeting

Trump balks at his Secretary of State's foreign policy (again)

12/14/17 10:00AM

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke at the Atlantic Council earlier this week, and was expected to address the administration's foreign-policy challenges in a general sense. Instead, Donald Trump's chief diplomat made some news.

Asked about diplomatic prospects with North Korea, Tillerson replied, "We're ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk, and we're ready to have the first meeting without precondition."

As the New York Times  reported, it wasn't long before the White House rejected Tillerson's line.

The secretary's comments were remarkably conciliatory for an administration that has repeatedly threatened North Korea with military action, and ruled out any negotiations, if it did not curb its missile and nuclear programs. But a few hours later, the White House distanced itself from his overture.

In an unusual statement released to reporters on Tuesday evening, the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said Mr. Trump's position on North Korea had not changed -- namely, that talks were pointless if the North's leader, Kim Jong-un, continued to menace his neighbors.

This might be less embarrassing if it weren't so common. In October, after Tillerson spoke about diplomatic efforts with North Korea, Trump announced that his cabinet secretary is "wasting his time."

In August, Tillerson seemed eager to ease tensions with Pyongyang, stating publicly, "We're trying to convey to the North Koreans, we are not your enemy.... We would like to sit and have a dialogue with them about the future that will give them the security they seek and the future economic prosperity for North Korea." Almost immediately thereafter, Trump declared via Twitter, "The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!"

It was around this time that Rachel noted on the show that the State Department and the White House don't even agree on what North Korea would have to do in order for the administration to consider negotiations.

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is seen as the sun sets on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Trump's bizarre choice to oversee chemical safety laws withdraws

12/14/17 09:20AM

If we held a contest to find the most offensive Donald Trump nominee for any post, Michael Dourson would be a very strong contender.

The Republican president decided over the summer that Dourson should lead the Environmental Protection Agency's office of chemical safety, which was outlandish, even by Trump World standards. Dourson has spent much of his career not only accepting money from the chemical industry, but also helping chemical companies fight against chemical safety regulations.

Making matters worse, emails recently came to public light showing Dourson maintaining correspondence with chemical industry officials -- even after Trump nominated him for the EPA post in which he'd help oversee toxic chemical regulation. Released emails detailed "an unusually close relationship with the American Chemistry Council and with individual companies whose products are scheduled for priority review" by the EPA.

Yesterday, as the New York Times  reported, Dourson withdrew from consideration, ending this fiasco.

[I]n recent weeks, two Republican senators came forward to say they would not support him.

Senator Thomas R. Carper, Democrat of Delaware and a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, had pushed his colleagues to reject Mr. Dourson. He said Wednesday that his objections were not partisan.

"I sincerely believe he is the wrong person to hold this important position, and it's become clear that, even with a Republican majority in the Senate, he could not be confirmed," Mr. Carper said in a statement. "Dr. Dourson, an individual who has spent most of his career promoting less protective chemical safety standards, had no business overseeing our nation's chemical safety laws."

The two GOP opponents of Dourson's nomination were Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, both of North Carolina.

These developments appear to be a victory for common sense, but I'm left with a couple of questions. For example, if Burr and Tillis hadn't balked, exactly how many Senate Republicans were prepared to confirm Dourson for this EPA post?

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The rare rejection of two outrageous Trump judicial nominees

12/14/17 08:40AM

Earlier this year, Donald Trump nominated Brett Talley for a lifetime position on the federal bench, despite the fact that he's a 36-year-old lawyer who’s never tried a case or argued a motion in court. He's also expressed “a fervent interest in investigating and writing about paranormal activities.”

Around the same time, the president also nominated Jeff Mateer for the federal judiciary, despite his bizarre contempt for LGBT Americans, including his belief that transgender children are evidence of “Satan’s plan.”

As of yesterday, as the Washington Post  reported, neither of these judicial nominees will proceed.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s top Republican said Wednesday that two of President Trump’s nominees for open seats on the federal bench will not be confirmed, just a day after urging the White House to “reconsider” them.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said that based on his discussions with the White House, the nominations of Jeff Mateer and Brett Talley would not move forward through the confirmation process.

Throughout Trump's first year as president, progressives and their allies have looked for ways to derail his most outlandish judicial nominees, which makes yesterday's news so extraordinary: we discovered that there are some limits. Republicans are prepared to rubber stamp practically anyone the White House sends to Capitol Hill for confirmation, but not literally anyone.

And while that's reassuring for those who take the integrity of the federal courts seriously, I think it's a mistake to suggest the controversy surrounding the Talley and Mateer nominations should simply disappear.

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

Behind closed doors, Republicans add a new tax break for the rich

12/14/17 08:00AM

Donald Trump and his team insisted that any Republican tax plan lower the corporate rate from 35% to 20%. The president declared publicly that the 20% rate was "very much a red line" he would not cross. Trump's Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, added soon after, "The president's number one issue that is not negotiable is 20% corporate taxes."

GOP lawmakers have reportedly agreed to cross Trump's "red line," though the White House won't mind -- because the president will approve of where the money's going.

Republicans in the House and Senate have reached an agreement in principle on their sweeping tax package that will slash individual and corporate rates, White House and GOP sources said Wednesday.

Once the details are ironed out, Republicans hope to have a vote in the Senate first, then the House, with the legislation done in Congress by next Wednesday, a White House official said. It can then be sent to President Donald Trump for his signature.

Two Republican sources familiar with the outlines of the deal confirmed to NBC News that the corporate tax rate would be cut to 21 percent, while the top tax rate for individuals would drop to 37 percent from 39.6 percent.

At face value, this is a difficult move to defend. The Republican tax plan is already wildly unpopular with the American mainstream in large part because the public believes -- accurately -- that the plan is stacked to favor the wealthy. In response, GOP officials met behind closed doors and agreed to ... wait for it ... cut taxes for the wealthy even more.

All of this also belies the White House's assurances that the Republican blueprint isn't a giant giveaway to the richest Americans. That rhetoric was absurd before the revised version of the GOP plan, and it's even more ridiculous now.

But just below the surface, the politics of this get even messier.

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