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Thursday's Mini-Report, 3.22.18

03/22/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Risking a trade war: "President Donald Trump on Thursday directed his top trade representative to level an estimated $50 billion in new tariffs against Chinese goods, taking his latest action against what he sees as unfair trade practices even as markets remain skittish about a possible trade war."

* Investors noticed: "The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 700 points Thursday as losses accelerated late in the session, pushing the blue-chip gauge beneath a psychologically significant level at 24,000."

* What's left of his legal team disagrees: "President Donald Trump said Thursday that he still 'would like' to testify before special counsel Robert Mueller as part of the investigation into alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election."

* The final House vote on the omnibus spending bill wasn't close. The Senate has until tomorrow at midnight to prevent a shutdown.

* The banking angle to this story matters: "Stormy Daniels' lawyer is demanding that the Trump Organization preserve all records related to the adult film actress and he plans to subpoena them -- citing 'unmistakable links' between President Donald Trump's company and a secrecy agreement she signed."

* I sure hope you saw Rachel's segment on this: "A cooperating witness in the special counsel investigation worked for more than a year to turn a top Trump fund-raiser into an instrument of influence at the White House for the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to interviews and previously undisclosed documents."

* Border Patrol: "President Trump has called for a wall along the border with Mexico to stop undocumented immigrants and drugs from entering the United States. But Border Patrol agents on the front lines say they need more technology and additional personnel to curb the illegal traffic, according to a report released on Thursday by Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security Committee."

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A woman points a handgun with a laser sight on a wall display of other guns during the National Rifle Association convention Friday, April 13, 2007, in St. Louis.

After more than two decades, Congress clarifies limits on gun research

03/22/18 04:56PM

The day after the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a longtime opponent of new gun measures, said Congress needs to "take a breath and collect the facts." The Republican leader added, "We don't just knee-jerk before we even have all the facts and the data."

The trouble, of course, has been that access to facts and data has been severely limited by something called the Dickey Amendment, approved in the 1990s, which effectively made it impossible for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to study gun violence.

More than two decades later, we're starting to see an overdue change. This gets a little complicated, but the new omnibus spending measure addresses this is an important way. The Washington Post  reported:

Accompanying the $1.3 trillion spending bill that the House passed Thursday afternoon is language that may open the door slightly to restoring federal funding for gun research.

The language, which is still pending passage in the Senate, clarifies that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can indeed conduct research into gun violence.

This probably sounds a little confusing. After all, if the Dickey Amendment blocked researchers from studying gun violence, and the amendment is still in place, what changed?

The answer, evidently, is new language lawmakers have agreed to that clarifies how the Dickey Amendment should be interpreted.

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U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement from the Roosevelt Room next to the empty chairs of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (L), D-New York, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (R), D-California, after they cancelled their meeting at the Whi

Top member of Trump's legal defense team resigns

03/22/18 12:59PM

Just 12 days ago, the New York Times  reported that Donald Trump was "in discussions" with Emmet Flood, a veteran D.C. lawyer who has the kind of background and expertise the president desperately needs. He neglected to tell his current attorneys about his outreach to a new one.

A day later, Trump insisted that that everything was fine with his private legal team, which is overseeing Trump's defense in the Russia scandal. He added, "I am VERY happy with my lawyers, John Dowd, Ty Cobb and Jay Sekulow. They are doing a great job."

And yet, here we are, watching the lead attorney on the president's team resign.

President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, who has been providing counsel to the president on the Russia investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, said Thursday that he has resigned.

In a brief statement to NBC News, attorney John Dowd confirmed his move and said, "I love the president and wish him very well."

Dowd's resignation comes less than a week after he issued a bizarre call for the end of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, and three months after Dowd made the curious assertion that the president is literally incapable of obstructing justice.

This is the second time Trump has lost the lead attorney on his defense team, following Marc Kasowitz's demotion last year.

What we're left with is a striking set of circumstances: as the Russia scandal intensifies, and the special counsel's team flips key witnesses, the president's team of attorneys is becoming an embarrassing mess.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.22.18

03/22/18 12:00PM

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

* As Rachel noted at the end of last night's show, Pennsylvania's congressional special election is now officially over: Rick Saccone (R) finally conceded to Rep.-elect Conor Lamb (D).

* And speaking of Pennsylvania, state House Speaker Michael Turzai (R) confirmed yesterday that the Republican-led chamber will explore impeachment against four state Supreme Court justices who ruled against the GOP's gerrymandered map.

* Defying the White House's preferences, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) announced yesterday that he's appointing Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) to replace Sen. Thad Cochran (R), who's stepping down from the Senate for health reasons.

* In the Democratic primary in Illinois' 3rd district, did the state's open-primary system help Rep. Dan Lipinski fend off a progressive challenge from Marie Newman? Maybe.

* In Missouri, the Democratic-affiliated Senate Majority PAC is making a six-figure ad buy in support of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D), launching a new ad tying state Attorney General Josh Hawley (R) to the state's scandal-plagued governor, Eric Greitens (R).

* On a related note, Hawley's campaign is welcoming support from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), but Hawley still won't commit to backing McConnell for the GOP leadership post.

* In California, a new statewide poll from the Public Policy Institute of California shows Gavin Newsom (D) with a solid lead in the Golden State's gubernatorial race. The same survey shows Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) with a 26-point lead over her Democratic rival, Kevin de Leon, in this year's Senate race.

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Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a rally with Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Riverfront Sports athletic facility on Aug. 15, 2016 in Scranton, Pa. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty)

Biden, Trump, and the kind of rhetoric we'd never hear from Obama

03/22/18 11:21AM

Joe Biden has made clear on many occasions that he isn't fond of Donald Trump. In fact, the former vice president has mentioned more than once than he'd like to beat up the current president over Trump's treatment of women.

It came up again this week when Biden, who may be eyeing the 2020 race, appeared in Miami and referenced Trump's "Access Hollywood" tape. "A guy who ended up becoming our national leader said, 'I can grab a woman anywhere, and she likes it,' " Biden said. "They asked me if I'd like to debate this gentleman, and I said 'no.' I said, 'If we were in high school, I'd take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.' "

The former vice president added, "I've been in a lot of locker rooms my whole life. I'm a pretty [darn] good athlete. Any guy that talked that way was usually the fattest, ugliest S.O.B. in the room."

Because Trump is Trump, he returned fire this morning through his favorite medium.

President Donald Trump took a jab at Joe Biden on Thursday, blasting the former vice president on Twitter as "weak, both mentally and physically" and vowing that if they actually fought he "would go down fast and hard, crying all the way."

In a scathing early-morning tweet, Trump responded to earlier insults from Biden and wrote that "Crazy Joe Biden is trying to act like a tough guy."

"Don't threaten people Joe!" the president added.

If we put aside chatter about who might win such a fight -- or how much money might be generated in a pay-per-view event -- what we see are two septuagenarians arguing at great distances about who would beat up whom. One is a 71-year-old president, the other is a 75-year-old former vice president.

I'll go out on a limb here at say no one benefits from these hollow, chest-thumping displays of machismo. Biden needs to understand that addressing the societal scourge of mistreatment of women requires more than fistfights with abusive men, and Trump should understand that he's supposed to be the president of the United States.

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CIA Director John Brennan testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on "diverse mission requirements in support of our National Security", in Washington, DC, June 16, 2016. (Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Former CIA chief questions whether Russians 'have something on' Trump

03/22/18 10:42AM

As Donald Trump's presidency has progressed, several prominent former officials, who've held some of the nation's top security and intelligence posts, have been unguarded in criticizing the Republican.

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, for example, is on record questioning Trump's "fitness" for office and his "access to nuclear codes." Clapper added that the president exhibits a "complete intellectual, moral, and ethical void."

More recently, retired four-star Army General Barry McCaffrey, an NBC News analyst, wrote on Twitter, "Reluctantly I have concluded that President Trump is a serious threat to US national security.... It is apparent that he is for some unknown reason under the sway of Mr Putin."

And yesterday, former CIA Director John Brennan appeared on MSNBC and raised eyebrows with a similar assertion, suggesting, in reference to Trump, that Vladimir Putin's government "may have something on him personally." Brennan added, "The Russians, I think, have had long experience with Mr. Trump, and may have things that they could expose."

What made Brennan's comments stand out as important, however, wasn't just the intensity of the criticisms. Given his previous role atop the Central Intelligence Agency -- and the timing of his tenure -- the New York Times  reported that Brennan's interview set off "furious speculation about whether the former spy chief was basing that assertion on inside information."

Mr. Brennan was running the C.I.A. when a salacious dossier surfaced in 2016 that claimed the Russians had compromising information on Mr. Trump. If there were any current or former American officials who might know if there was truth behind the allegations in the dossier, Mr. Brennan would most likely be one of them. And his comments came the day after a phone call Mr. Trump made to Mr. Putin congratulating him for winning an election raised new questions about the president's relationship with Russia. [...]

[L]ast weekend, Mr. Brennan -- in response to Mr. Trump's praise for the firing of the former deputy director of the F.B.I., Andrew G. McCabe -- issued a remarkable condemnation of the president. "When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history," Mr. Brennan wrote on Twitter.

This, naturally, raises a couple of possibilities.

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Claudia Tenney, R-New Hartford, speaks during a news conference in Albany, NY on Wednesday, June 10, 2015.

GOP rep blames Ben Carson's furniture on nefarious 'Deep State'

03/22/18 10:01AM

Asked at a congressional hearing this week about his unreasonably expensive, taxpayer-funded furniture, HUD Secretary Ben Carson distanced himself from the decision -- and blamed his wife.

As the Daily Beast  reported yesterday, one of the cabinet secretary's supporters on Capitol Hill has an entirely different culprit in mind.

Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-NY) appeared to blame the nefarious "Deep State" for ordering a costly dining set for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson.

During a recent appearance on Talk! Of the Town, an upstate New York local radio show, the New York Republican was asked about the decision to buy a $31,000 dining room set for Carson's office last year. Tenney told the hosts that the "Ben Carson story is so misunderstood" before pointing to a no-named staffer of cryptic origin as the culprit.

After referencing a conversation with a HUD staffer, the GOP lawmaker specifically said, "Somebody in the Deep State -- it was not one of his people, apparently -- ordered a table, like a conference room table or whatever it was for a room."

There are basically three angles to this to keep in mind. First, Tenney, after just a year on Capitol Hill, is quickly developing a reputation as one of Congress' most outlandish members. A month ago, she was the lawmaker who thought it'd be a good idea to argue many mass murders "end up being Democrats." Two weeks earlier, Tenney argued that Democratic reactions to Donald Trump's State of the Union address were "un-American," adding, "And they don't love our country."

This is not the path an elected official follows if he or she wants to earn respect and credibility.

Second, in this case, Tenney is factually wrong. Nefarious forces didn't buy Carson's furniture; there's email evidence that the secretary and his wife did.

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A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Ga., Sept. 30, 2014. (Photo by Tami Chappell/Reuters)

Trump replaces one controversial CDC chief with another

03/22/18 09:20AM

Things didn't go well for Donald Trump's first choice to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald was ousted in January following a handful of embarrassing controversies, including reports that she bought shares in a tobacco company -- after she became CDC director.

Yesterday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced her successor: Dr. Robert Redfield, a prominent AIDS researcher, is the new head of the CDC. At first blush, Redfield at least has the kind of background one might expect for this position -- he's a longtime virologist and physician -- and unlike so many other Trump appointees, Redfield wants the agency he'll lead to exist.

But this choice is not without critics. NBC News reported that Redfield has been accused of overseeing "shoddy HIV research." Former Air Force Lt. Col. Craig Hendrix, a doctor who is now director of the division of clinical pharmacology at Johns Hopkins, worked with Redfield at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and told NBC, "Either he was egregiously sloppy with data or it was fabricated. It was somewhere on that spectrum, both of which were serious and raised questions about his trustworthiness."

BuzzFeed's report went a little further.

Redfield has also been criticized for his discriminatory views on HIV testing. During the 1980s, while serving as chief Army AIDS researcher, Redfield was instrumental in implementing controversial HIV testing policies -- including a mandatory HIV screening program at the Department of Defense that barred recruits who tested positive for HIV from military service. He later supported segregating HIV-positive members of the military, a practice that the Department of Defense Inspector General later found violated Army regulations.

"This pattern of ethically and morally questionable behavior leads me to seriously question whether Dr. Redfield is qualified to be the federal government's chief advocate and spokesperson for public health," [Democratic Sen. Patty Murray] said.

In fairness, the concerns are not universal. The Washington Post  reported that Maryland Democrats praised Redfield's selection. Rep. Elijah Cummings called him a "deeply experienced and compassionate public health physician." And former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who sits on the virology institute's advisory board, said, "It's terrific to have someone who has been such a caring doctor, who has really treated patients and knows what they're going through."

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A waitress looks out the window of a diner in Fort Lee, N.J. (Photo by Kelly Shimoda/Redux)

Why would the Trump administration go after workers' tips?

03/22/18 08:40AM

The idea is called "tip pooling," which may sound harmless, but the Trump administration's approach to the policy would be dangerous for millions of working-class Americans.

Last year, the Trump administration unveiled a proposal to undo Obama-era safeguards, which required employers who pooled tips and gratuities to distribute them back to waitstaff. Under the new plan, employers could "use workers' tips for essentially any purpose, as long as the workers were directly paid at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour."

Among the possible outcomes: employers could legally put some of the pooled tips in their own pocket. The Economic Policy Institute estimated that workers would stand to lose roughly $5.8 billion a year.

And as it turns out, the Republican administration came to a similar conclusion. Trump's Department of Labor prepared a study on the possible consequences of the plan, and researchers found significant losses for workers. According to a Bloomberg Law report last month, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and his team were "uncomfortable" with the findings, so they "removed" the data they didn't like.

Yesterday, the story got a little worse.

Labor Department leadership convinced OMB Director Mick Mulvaney to overrule the White House regulatory affairs chief and release a controversial tip-sharing rule without data showing it could allow businesses to skim $640 million in gratuities.

Mulvaney sided with Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta over the government's rulemaking clearinghouse -- a little-known but critical wing of the White House called the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs -- three current and former executive branch officials told Bloomberg Law. That allowed the department to delete from the proposal internal estimates showing businesses could take hundreds of millions in gratuities from their workers.

So to review, Team Trump unveiled a plan to screw over waitstaff workers. The administration then did a study, didn't like the results, and edited the report to take out the embarrassing parts. Those officials then went to the White House's far-right budget director, who endorsed hiding the data on the administration's plan.

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FBI authorized perjury investigation into AG Jeff Sessions

03/22/18 08:00AM

As a rule, we tend to think of U.S. attorneys general investigating those accused of possible felonies, not being investigated for committing possible felonies. But as we were reminded yesterday, Jeff Sessions is a special kind of attorney general.

Andrew McCabe, as the FBI's deputy director, authorized an investigation into whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied to Congress, three sources familiar with the matter told NBC News.

The investigation ended without criminal charges, according to Sessions's lawyer, and was not known to Sessions last week when he made the decision to fire McCabe, according to a Justice Department official.

ABC News was first to report that McCabe and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told lawmakers about the probe in a closed-door meeting last year. The inquiry eventually went to special counsel Robert Mueller, who was appointed to investigate possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

In case anyone needs a refresher, we learned a year ago this month that during the 2016 campaign, Sessions, then an Alabama Republican senator, had meetings with Russian officials -- for reasons that have never been altogether clear -- which he failed to disclose during his Senate confirmation hearings.

As we discussed the other day, Sessions was specifically asked during sworn testimony about possible evidence tying members of Trump's campaign team to the Russian government during Russia's election attack. "I'm not aware of any of those activities," Sessions said, adding "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians."

Sessions did, however, have communications with the Russians. Some Democratic senators urged the FBI to take a closer look, and we now know federal law enforcement did exactly that.

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