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Image: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer Holds Daily Press Briefing

After a brief and tumultuous tenure, Sean Spicer resigns

07/21/17 12:37PM

After Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, elevating Gerald Ford, the new Republican president needed a new White House team. Ford tapped Jerald terHorst, a veteran journalist, to be the press secretary, and he seemed like a perfectly sensible choice.

The arrangement, however, did not last. A month into Ford's tenure, the new president issued a controversial pardon to Nixon, and unwilling to defend the decision, terHorst resigned. His tenure -- just 31 days -- was the shortest of any White House press secretary ever.

The second shortest was Sean Spicer, who lasted 182 days.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer resigned on Friday, sources tell NBC News.

The sudden departure comes as Donald Trump transition team official Anthony Scaramucci was slated to be announced as White House communications director.

For more on Scaramucci's apparent appointment, see our piece from this morning.

By any fair estimate, Spicer was never an ideal choice for this position. Trump's principal spokesperson quickly developed a reputation for brazen dishonesty and clumsy evasiveness, both of which made it easy for hilarious impressions, but difficult for competent work from the podium of the White House briefing room.

Some of my personal favorite moments from Spicer's brief-but-tumultuous tenure included the time he was caught hiding in the bushes for several minutes; his spirited argument over the meaning of the word "is"; the terribly unfortunate reference to "Holocaust centers"; his unintentionally hilarious instance that Trump's inaugural crowd "was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration -- period"; the argument that the Republican health care bill must be superior to the Affordable Care Act because it can be printed on fewer pieces of paper; and many, many more moments we can all collectively treasure.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.21.17

07/21/17 12:00PM

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

* There's a little over three months remaining in Virginia's gubernatorial race, and Republican nominee Ed Gillespie has decided he needs strong turnout from Donald Trump supporters if he's going to prevail. "Virginia needs a governor who is eager to work with President Trump, not be at odds with him," he said this week. Trump lost Virginia last year by five points.

* By all accounts, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray is preparing to launch a Democratic gubernatorial campaign in Ohio next year. Cordray, before joining the CFPB, was the Buckeye State's attorney general.

* In Alabama's U.S. Senate special election primary, a super PAC supporting appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R) has launched a new ad, highlighting Rep. Mo Brooks' (R) previous criticism of Trump. Viewers are told the far-right congressman is "Wrong on Trump. Wrong for Alabama." The primary is Aug. 15.

* The Washington Post did an interesting analysis of the interviews Trump's done since taking office, which found the president tends to turn his attention to Hillary Clinton, unprompted, very early on in almost every conversation.

* In Ohio's U.S. Senate race, Republican Josh Mandel this week took the unusual step of condemning the Anti-Defamation League and expressing solidarity with right-wing conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, who's perhaps best known for promoting the bizarre "Pizzagate" theory.

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Rep. Mike Pompeo listens during the House Select Committee on the Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi hearing, Sep. 17, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

CIA Director Pompeo's views on Wikileaks have apparently evolved

07/21/17 11:20AM

A few months ago, in his first public remarks after becoming the director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo expressed contempt for Wikileaks, calling the website "a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia."

Yesterday, The Hill highlighted some related thoughts from Pompeo.

Pompeo argued during an interview with conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens at the Aspen Institute's Security Forum that Wikileaks is intent on harming America.

"WikiLeaks will take down America any way they can," he said. "I don't love WikiLeaks."

This wasn't an unexpected response. Not only did he criticize Wikileaks earlier this year, but most high-ranking officials in U.S. intelligence agencies have made related comments about the website and the people behind it.

The trouble is what Pompeo used to say about Wikileaks. CNN had an interesting report on this back in April.

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Clouds fill the sky in front of the U.S. Capitol on October 7, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Senate GOP confirms controversial Trump nominee to appeals court

07/21/17 10:42AM

Asked this week about his party's difficulties in governing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters, "We have a new Supreme Court justice,"

The point wasn't subtle: the Republicans may be struggling to advance their legislative agenda, but the party is nevertheless moving the federal judiciary to the right. And while this may seem like an argument intended to rationalize failure, McConnell's argument isn't wrong.

Yesterday, for example, Senate Republicans voted unanimously to confirm John Bush, a Donald Trump nominee to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. And who's John Bush? Let's revisit a recent piece from Slate's Dahlia Lithwick:

Blogging under a pseudonym, the Kentucky lawyer wrote more than 400 posts for the website Elephants in the Bluegrass. His wide-ranging and unfiltered commentary has included, for instance, the claim that abortion and slavery are “[t]he two greatest tragedies in our country.” His blog posts have cited conspiracy theories and false information, including references to the claim that President Obama was not born in the United States.

In his Senate questionnaire, he described the vicious 1991 beating of Rodney King as a “police encounter.” As Eleanor Clift notes in the Daily Beast, he has also gone on record arguing that the Supreme Court made a bad ruling in the landmark freedom of the press case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. In the Trump era, that’s a feature, not a bug.

During Bush's confirmation hearing, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked Bush to explain why he relied on radical and fringe websites like World Net Daily as legitimate sources for information. Bush said that "as a blogger I was finding things in the news that were of note."

World Net Daily, for those unfamiliar with it, is known for peddling ridiculous conspiracy theories, including championing the ant-Obama "birther" cause for many years. The fact that Bush saw WND as credible raises serious questions about his judgment.

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

Trump makes an odd choice for White House communications director

07/21/17 10:04AM

Donald Trump's first choice for White House communications director was Jason Miller, who worked with the Republican during the campaign, but who unexpectedly withdrew before Inauguration Day due to personal troubles.

In February, the president turned to Mike Dubke, the founder of a Republican consulting firm called Crossroads Media, to serve as communications director, but Dubke quit after three months.

The position has been vacant for two months, but Trump World has reportedly settled on Dubke's successor.

The Trump administration is expected to name former Trump transition team official Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director, four sources in and close to the White House told NBC News Thursday.

The news of the expected appointment was first reported by Axios. A White House official said the move is expected to be announced Friday.

If Scaramucci's name sounds familiar, it's probably because you've seen him on television several times, defending Trump in dubious ways. My personal favorite came in December on MSNBC, when Scaramucci, hoping to provide cover for Trump's routine departures from the truth, said in all seriousness, "Don't take him literally, take him symbolically. See, it's different."

Scaramucci, one of six Goldman Sachs veterans with prominent positions in the administration despite Trump using the finance giant as a campaign punching bag, was initially supposed to serve in the White House Office of Public Liaison -- the president wanted him to be Team Trump's "liaison" to the business community -- but Chief of Staff Reince Priebus reportedly scuttled the move.

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Senate candidate, Rep. Bill Cassidy, left, talks to the media in Shreveport, La. on Oct. 14, 2014.

An unpersuasive defense of Trump's health care ignorance

07/21/17 09:26AM

Donald Trump's ignorance about health care is obvious. Just this week, the president, while bragging about his expertise on the subject, made plain that he simply doesn't have any idea what he's talking about.

The question, however, is whether Trump's illiteracy is consequential. MSNBC's Hallie Jackson asked Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) about this yesterday, and the Republican senator did his best to defend his party's president.

"In your conversations with him, do you think the President understands the political, the policy intricacies of this bill?" Jackson asked.

"I don't think it's important for him to understand the policy intricacies of this bill," Cassidy replied. "What's important for him is to understand the principle -- his principle is that there should be a replace associated with repeal. And during the campaign he consistently said he wanted to continue coverage for those who had, cover preexisting conditions, eliminate mandates and lower premiums, those are very good principles by which to go."

For now, let's put aside the fact that Trump's purported "principles" on health care have been easily discarded, and practically every promise he made to American voters -- including his vow not to cut Medicaid -- has already been broken.

Let's instead focus on Cassidy's broader point: that the president doesn't really have to understand the substantive details. I can appreciate the motivations behind the argument, but it's still unpersuasive.

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Without mentioning Donald Trump by name, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., denounced Trump's recent remarks about restricting Muslim travel during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Dec. 8, 2015. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Republicans' health care process is 'starting to feel incoherent'

07/21/17 08:57AM

To appreciate the scope of the Republicans' mess on health care, consider this quote from a high-profile GOP senator -- who happens to support his party's regressive plans.

"Things are starting to feel incoherent," said Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, reflecting on the health care efforts, which have turned many Republican senators against one another as efforts to negotiate the future of the Medicaid program have caused large rifts.

With no small measure of understatement, Mr. Corker conceded, "There's just not a lot of progress happening."

"Things are starting to feel incoherent" is a fair and accurate summary, though I'm inclined to take issue with the "starting to" qualifier. The Republicans' health care gambit has felt incoherent for quite a while.

I've heard from more than a few readers with questions about where things stand, so let's dive in with a Q&A.

Everyone said the Republican effort was dead. Then everyone said it's alive. I no longer know what to think.

And neither does anyone else. The original Senate Republican plan, unveiled last month, failed. Mitch McConnell then tweaked his proposal last week, only to discover this week that it didn't have the votes, either. The Majority Leader then said he'd bring an even-more-radical "repeal and delay" plan to the floor, and more than enough GOP senators almost immediately balked.

So health care advocates can breathe easy.

Not exactly. On Wednesday night, some Republican critics of their party's plans renewed their negotiations, hoping to work something out.

Did they reach some kind of agreement? Did any "no" votes flip to "yes"?

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Trump-Russia scandal developments raise the prospect of a crisis

07/21/17 08:00AM

There was no shortage of striking developments overnight in the Trump-Russia scandal, but perhaps the most important was the Washington Post's reporting that Donald Trump and his lawyers have had conversations about "the president's authority to grant pardons."

Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe, according to one of those people. A second person said Trump's lawyers have been discussing the president's pardoning powers among themselves.

Trump's legal team declined to comment on the issue. But one adviser said the president has simply expressed a curiosity in understanding the reach of his pardoning authority....

Ah, yes, our "curious" president. Trump hasn't decided to start handing out pardons like candy on Halloween; he's just interested in learning more about whether he could -- you know, in case the circumstances should arise.

The same article added that the president was "especially disturbed" after learning that Special Counsel Bob Mueller "would be able to access several years of his tax returns."

It's almost as if Trump has something to hide.

Also overnight, the New York Times reported that the president's team has begun "scouring the professional and political backgrounds" of members of Mueller's team, "looking for conflicts of interest they could use to discredit the investigation -- or even build a case to fire Mr. Mueller or get some members of his team recused."

With both of these articles in mind, the prospect of a genuine political crisis is becoming increasingly real. Congressional Republicans, who've largely been willing to look the other way in response to the scandal, need to start preparing themselves for the possibility of a president not only waging a political war against the special counsel and his investigation, but also issuing highly provocative pardons to derail an ongoing federal investigation.

If GOP officials were to respond to such developments with a collective shrug, the impact on our system of government would be incalculable.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 7.20.17

07/20/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Apparently, Sessions isn't resigning: "President Trump still has confidence in Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the White House said Thursday, despite the president's blunt comments that he would've chosen a different person for the top Department of Justice job had he known Sessions was going to recuse himself."

* Tillerson's recent past follows him: "Exxon Mobil Corp. showed 'reckless disregard' for U.S. sanctions on Russia while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the oil giant's CEO, the Treasury Department said Thursday. The U.S. fined the company $2 million."

* Sen. John McCain "has been diagnosed with brain cancer, the Mayo Clinic said Wednesday in a statement released on behalf of the senator and his family."

* An ostensible U.S. ally: "US officials accused Turkey Wednesday of putting US troops at risk after Turkey’s state-owned news agency published the locations of 10 previously secret US military outposts in Syria."

* The latest on Manafort: "Financial records filed last year in the secretive tax haven of Cyprus, where Paul J. Manafort kept bank accounts during his years working in Ukraine and investing with a Russian oligarch, indicate that he had been in debt to pro-Russia interests by as much as $17 million before he joined Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign in March 2016."

* Pay attention to Poland: "Step by step, the Polish government has moved against democratic norms: It increased government control over the news media, cracked down on public gatherings and restricted the activities of nongovernmental organizations. Now the party in power is moving aggressively to take control of the last major independent government institution, the courts, drawing crowds into the streets and possible condemnation by the European Union."

* Sam Clovis: "President Donald Trump on Wednesday nominated an open climate change skeptic with no credentials in agricultural research, science or medicine for the top scientific post at the U.S. Department of Agriculture."

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Image: US-POLITICS-FBI-WRAY

Trump's FBI pick gets treated as if these were normal times

07/20/17 04:45PM

Just yesterday, while trashing the impudence of the Justice Department, Donald Trump told the New York Times that he believes the director of the FBI reports directly to the president. He called this "interesting," before adding, "I think we're going to have a great new FBI director."

Matthew Miller, a former DOJ spokesperson, explained on the show last night that Trump badly misstated the facts, adding that Trump "wanted Jim Comey to operate as if he reported to him. He wanted Jim Comey to be loyal to him, and follow his whims. When [Comey] wasn't, [Trump] fired him. And I think [the president is] making clear he wants his next FBI director to do what Jim Comey wouldn't do."

Given this, it might be worth pausing for a moment, taking a breath, and considering how best to proceed with the White House's choice to lead the bureau. And yet, as Politico reported, the Senate doesn't seem to agree.

Christopher Wray, President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the FBI, easily cleared a key Senate committee Thursday -- even following an explosive Trump interview in The New York Times that prompted Democrats to raise renewed concerns of political interference with the Department of Justice.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 20-0 in favor of Wray, a former Justice Department official who has been in private practice for the past dozen years. His nomination now goes to the Senate floor, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated he intends to have Wray confirmed before the August recess.

What we're witnessing is a process in which the Senate is treating Trump's nominee as if these were normal circumstances -- but they're not.

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