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Thursday's Mini-Report, 4.25.19

04/25/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* For an isolated dictator, Kim has become quite chatty: "Russian President Vladimir Putin sat down for talks Thursday with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, saying the summit should help plan joint efforts to resolve a standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear program."

* The list of Trump administration ethics troubles gets a little shorter: "A Pentagon report released Thursday cleared Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan of preferential treatment of Boeing while he was deputy secretary of defense, meaning he is now likely to be nominated as defense secretary."

* Really? "A federal magistrate has agreed to the pre-trial release of a Coast Guard lieutenant accused of being a domestic terrorist. U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Day noted on Thursday that 50-year-old Christopher Hasson hasn't been charged with any terrorism related offenses. Hasson was arrested Feb. 15 and is awaiting trial on firearms and drug charges. Prosecutors say he created a hit list of prominent Democrats, two Supreme Court justices, network TV journalists and social media company executives."

* An important delay at Interior: "The Trump administration's proposal to vastly expand offshore oil and gas drilling has been sidelined indefinitely as the Interior Department grapples with a recent court decision that blocks Arctic drilling, according to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt."

* A case worth watching: "An anti-gun-violence organization founded by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Federal Election Commission for failing to take action against the National Rifle Association for alleged campaign finance violations."

* The Democratic mayor probably shouldn't make any long-term plans: "Federal law enforcement agents fanned out Thursday across Baltimore, raiding City Hall, the home of embattled Mayor Catherine Pugh and several other locations as the investigation into the mayor's business dealings widened."

* Keeping an eye on Stephen Moore: "Conservative commentator Stephen Moore said he was hopeful about his chances of being nominated and confirmed to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors but would bow out of the process if he became a political liability for the Trump administration or Senate Republicans."

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Podiums stand empty prior to the start of a South Carolina Republican presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C. on Jan. 16, 2012 (

Why are so many Democrats running for president?

04/25/19 12:50PM

By most measures, the Republican Party's presidential field in the 2016 cycle was the largest ever: 17 GOP candidates vied for their party's nomination, nearly enough to field two full baseball teams.

It didn't take long for that record to be broken.

As of this morning, there are 18 Democratic presidential candidates with at least some experience in public office. If we include Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson, there are 20 candidates. What's more, with a handful of other Dems eyeing the race -- Stacey Abrams, Michael Bennet, Bill de Blasio, et al -- the largest primary field in major-party history may yet reach new heights.

It's worth asking why.

Donald Trump is seen as vulnerable. If there were an incumbent Republican president with a 65% approval rating, it's a safe bet far fewer Democrats would launch candidacies. This isn't to say Trump is certain to lose, but his weak public standing encourages competitors.

Trump effectively lowered the eligibility bar. It's part of the American ethos: anyone can grow up to be president. In 2016, voters showed the world just how literally true that is when 63 million people voted for a television personality with no background in public service and no real interest in public policy. The takeaway for ambitious politicians couldn't have been clearer: a big chunk of the electorate will vote for anyone, without the slightest regard for qualifications or even the ability to speak in complete sentences.

There's no obvious frontrunner scaring away potential rivals. As things stand, polls point to Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders as the top contenders for the Democratic nomination, and while it's easy to make the case that either one of them will prevail, neither one is in a commanding position. When there's a prohibitive favorite, potential candidates stay on the sidelines. When there isn't, they jump in.

Arithmetic. When there's a field this enormous, it gets easier for candidates to do well with a modest percentage of the overall vote. In other words, when the field has a handful of people, 10% support won't get a candidate very far. When there are 20 candidates, 10% support looks pretty impressive. It's amazing how many people consider their prospects, take the arithmetic into account, and say to themselves, "10% doesn't sound so hard. I can do that!"

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.25.19

04/25/19 12:00PM

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

* Three sitting U.S. senators -- Delaware's Chris Coons, Pennsylvania's Bob Casey, and Alabama's Doug Jones -- formally endorsed Joe Biden's presidential campaign this morning. As things stand, the former vice president already has more Senate endorsements than any other Democratic presidential hopeful.

* Former President Barack Obama hasn't endorsed anyone in the 2020 race, but through his spokesperson said this morning he "has long said that selecting Joe Biden as his running mate in 2008 was one of the best decisions he ever made." The spokesperson added, "The two forged a special bond over the last 10 years and remain close today."

* NBC News noted this morning that Donald Trump's re-election campaign has not committed, at least not yet, to staying away from materials hacked by foreign adversaries.

* Appearing at the "She the People" forum, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) both committed to choosing a woman as a running mate if they win the Democratic presidential nomination.

* Speaking of Booker, the New Jersey Democrat late yesterday became the latest Democratic presidential hopeful to release his tax returns, disclosing materials from the last 10 years.

* South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg crossed a new threshold yesterday: he picked up his first congressional endorsement. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) announced his support for the Indiana Democrat in a formal statement issued yesterday afternoon.

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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump turns away from the cameras as he speaks at a town hall event in Appleton, Wis., March 30, 2016. (Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)

The heart of the Dems' debate: is Trump 'an aberrant moment in time'?

04/25/19 11:22AM

In his presidential campaign kickoff video, former Vice President Joe Biden made no effort to shy away from criticizing Donald Trump. On the contrary, the Delaware Democrat effectively said he's running because he "cannot stand by and watch" the current president continue to damage the country.

But as part of his pitch, Biden added, "I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time."

I can't say with confidence whether the former vice president intended to weigh in on a major debate in Democratic circles, but he did. The New York Times' Astead Herndon summarized the issue succinctly:

"There are so many ways to divide this Democratic field based on ideology and identity but Biden presents another one: Do you think Trump is an outgrowth of systemic American problems or an outlier presidency in need of a course correction?"

For Biden, Trump's presidency is effectively a fluke. A historical accident. An "aberrant moment in time" that can be corrected with the election of a Democratic president who won't necessarily turn back the clock to 2016, but who can at least restore a sense of normalcy and maturity to the White House, bringing an abrupt end to a four-year period of madness.

But for many Democrats, each of whom would welcome Trump's departure, Biden's assessment is a misdiagnosis.

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Why Trump is so nervous about former White House counsel Don McGahn

04/25/19 10:46AM

Few figures play as an important a role in the Mueller report as former White House Counsel Don McGahn. As we discussed the other day, the Republican lawyer spoke with investigators for dozens of hours, and in the redacted version of Mueller's report, the former White House counsel is cited more than 150 times.

In some of the episodes in which Donald Trump allegedly obstructed justice, the claims of suspected criminal misconduct are based heavily on what McGahn told investigators.

Indeed, as the special counsel's findings made clear, the former White House counsel very nearly resigned because the president directed him to "do crazy s**t," including an incident in which, according to McGahn, Trump pressed the lawyer to push the Justice department to derail the investigation by getting rid of Mueller.

It was against this backdrop that the New York Times noted this week, almost in passing, that the president is inclined to attack McGahn as a way "to protect himself from impeachment." Rachel spoke last night with William Jeffress, a former attorney on Richard Nixon's team, who explained the risks associated with Trump's political gambit.

I can't say with confidence whether the president was watching, but Trump made clear this morning on Twitter that McGahn is very much on his mind.

"As has been incorrectly reported by the Fake News Media, I never told then White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller, even though I had the legal right to do so. If I wanted to fire Mueller, I didn't need McGahn to do it, I could have done it myself."

Given the importance of the underlying allegations, it's worth taking a moment to unpack this one.

Note, for example, that the allegation about Trump directing McGahn to oust Mueller didn't just come from the press; it came from the Mueller report. In fact, according to the special counsel's findings, shaped in part by McGahn's testimony, the president not only pressed the former White House counsel to undermine the investigation while it was ongoing, Trump also urged McGahn to lie about it.

To hear the president tell it, this version of events isn't true. Why would Don McGahn lie? Trump hasn't offered a possible explanation.

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Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) speaks to guests at the Iowa Freedom Summit on Jan. 24, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)

Asked about Mueller, Ernst points to Barr's 'spying' conspiracy theory

04/25/19 10:03AM

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) was asked by voters this week for her reaction to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report, and according to the Des Moines Register, part of the conservative senator's answer was a shift in focus.

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst on Wednesday suggested the federal government misused its power to spy on President Donald Trump for political reasons as part of its investigation into Russia's efforts to influence the 2016 election.

"It begs the question, too, with the federal government spying on political opponents -- what have we come to?" Ernst said Wednesday at a meeting of the Westside Conservative Club in Urbandale. "And that seemed to generate out of the Obama administration. So I think that there are some things that need to be looked at. We need to understand, when is it appropriate to misuse power so that you're using your federal assets to go after a political opponent? It sounds very much like something you find in Russia or someplace like that."

This is a very unfortunate answer, because as a sitting U.S. senator really ought to know, what Ernst described did not happen in reality. The Obama administration did not spy on the Trump campaign. Federal assets were not used to "go after" anyone's domestic political opponents.

It's likely that the Iowa Republican is echoing what Attorney General Bill Barr kinda sorta tried to say during a recent hearing, but Barr scrambled to walk back his comments -- which is all the more reason why Ernst shouldn't have parroted them when asked about Mueller's findings.

But stepping back, all of this is emblematic of a larger truth: Joni Ernst is on record endorsing some awfully strange conspiracy theories.

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Image: U.S. President Trump celebrates with Republican House members after healthcare bill vote at the White House in Washington

Following the Mueller report, why are Dems the only ones 'wrestling'?

04/25/19 09:21AM

The headline on the front page of the New York Times yesterday read, "Divided on Impeachment, Democrats Wrestle with Duty and Politics." The article that followed highlighted a contentious and pressing issue that the House majority is struggling with.

As Speaker Nancy Pelosi urges caution on impeachment, rank-and-file House Democrats are agonizing over the prospect of trying to oust President Trump, caught between their sense of historic responsibilities and political considerations in the wake of the special counsel's damning portrait of abuses.

The Democrats -- including more than 50 freshmen -- are mindful that impeachment poses political risks that could endanger the seats of moderates and their majority, as well as strengthen Mr. Trump's hand. They ran on kitchen-table issues dear to their constituents and do not want to be consumed in a partisan morass that might unite Republican voters in opposition. But some prominent members of the 55-member strong Congressional Black Caucus and a newly empowered progressive caucus are pressing for action -- three Democrats have filed articles of impeachment against Mr. Trump and dozens of others have signaled a willingness to consider that path.

My concern is not that this report was wrong. It was perfectly accurate and it highlighted a real issue. Donald Trump's possible impeachment is a real challenge for the House Democratic majority, and its members haven't settled on a strategy -- despite the fact that they'll soon need one.

But reading the Times' piece nevertheless got me thinking about the reports we haven't seen since the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report. The newspaper is right that Democrats are "wrestling with duty and politics," but that only raises a question that's gone largely overlooked:

Why aren't Republicans "wrestling with duty and politics," too?

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Image: Baby Trump Blimp protest in parliament square in London

British official calls Trump conspiracy theory 'utterly ridiculous'

04/25/19 08:40AM

Two years ago, relying on a Fox News report, Donald Trump's White House falsely accused the Obama administration and GCHQ, the British surveillance agency, of spying on the Republican's 2016 campaign. British officials were understandably unhappy: the Fox News report was based on absurdities peddled by a fringe conspiracy theorist.

The network walked back its report, and according to two reports in the British press, the White House apologized to our allies in the UK.

Nevertheless, the American president peddled the exact same conspiracy theory yesterday, based on another report in the conservative media from the exact same conspiracy theorist. As Reuters reported, our friends across the pond were once again displeased.

Britain's main eavesdropping agency on Wednesday said allegations that it had been asked by the Obama administration to spy on Donald Trump after the 2016 presidential election were utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.

Trump on Wednesday tweeted that a former CIA analyst, Larry Johnson, had accused Britain of spying on the Trump campaign. Trump said: "It is now just a question of time before the truth comes out, and when it does, it will be a beauty!"

When asked about the tweet, a GCHQ spokesman said: "The allegations that GCHQ was asked to conduct 'wire tapping' against the then President Elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored."

As we discussed yesterday, all of this unfolded just one day after Buckingham Palace announced that the UK would welcome Trump in June with the formality of a state visit.

The American president expressed his gratitude by falsely accusing our allies of participating in a spying scheme against him, based on absurd claims he saw some random conspiracy theorist make on an obscure far-right outlet.

But I mention all of this anew because of one phrase in the British statement: "should be ignored."

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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)

Joe Biden launches 'battle for the soul of this nation'

04/25/19 08:00AM

The largest field of presidential contenders in history just got a little bigger, though the latest addition is arguably more notable than most. After months of speculation, former Vice President Joe Biden kicked off his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination this morning, insisting that, when it comes to taking on Donald Trump, "we are in a battle for the soul of this nation."

In the opening of his announcement video, Biden highlighted the 2017 violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where during a large gathering of white nationalists and counter-protesters, a white supremacist rammed his car into an opposition group, killing one person.

Biden noted that President Donald Trump said there were some "very fine people on both sides" in Charlottesville, where the white nationalist protest was aimed against the city taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general.

"In that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I'd seen in my lifetime," Biden said, adding that he believes "history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time. But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation. Who we are. And I cannot stand by and watch that happen."

There was some speculation in recent weeks about the Delaware Democrat launching his candidacy with some possible gimmicks, including a vow to only serve one term if elected and/or an early introduction to his running mate.

At least for now, neither of these of things has happened.

This is Biden's third presidential candidacy, and to put it mildly, the first two did not go well. In the 1988 race, the then-senator -- who was just 45 years old at the time -- was seen as a credible contender, but his campaign was derailed by a plagiarism controversy. Twenty years later, Biden tried again, only to garner 1% of the vote in the Iowa caucuses. In the wake of his fifth-place finish, he exited the stage.

What Biden didn't know at the time, of course, was that later in the year he'd join Barack Obama's national ticket, and he'd soon after become a popular and respected vice president.

All of which leads us to a dilemma of sorts: there are, in effect, two Joe Bidens.

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Rep. Hill: Where do we draw the line?

Rep. Hill: Where do we draw the line?

04/24/19 11:09PM

Rep. Katie Hill, Vice-chair of the Oversight Committee, talks to Rachel Maddow about Trump’s willingness to defy subpoenas and why she believes it is embarrassing and dangerous to our national security for him to continue to try and obstruct oversight at every turn. watch