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Attorney General nominee William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019.

In bizarre press conference, Barr said what Trump wanted to hear

04/18/19 10:48AM

All Attorney General Bill Barr had to do was release Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report. That's it. Donald Trump's handpicked attorney general could've simply let the document, its findings, and its conclusions speak for themselves.

But that apparently wasn't good enough for Barr. Instead, the attorney general scheduled a press conference to discuss the report, hours before the release of a redacted version of the document, to effectively pre-spin what the Republican lawyer wants the public to believe about Mueller's findings.

The result was a bizarre spectacle in which the nation's chief law enforcement officer, whose credibility and political independence have already been called into question, positioned himself as a defense attorney for the president who appointed him.

Consider this excerpt from Barr's prepared remarks, in which he seemed to justify his conclusion that Trump didn't cross the legal line into obstruction of justice.

"In assessing the president's actions discussed in the report, it is important to bear in mind the context. President Trump faced an unprecedented situation. As he entered into office, and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office, and the conduct of some of his associates. At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president's personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion.

"And as the special counsel's report acknowledges, there is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.

"Nonetheless, the White House fully cooperated with the special counsel's investigation, providing unfettered access to campaign and White House documents, directing senior aides to testify freely, and asserting no privilege claims. And at the same time, the president took no act that in fact deprived the special counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation."

I'm at a loss as to how anyone could take this seriously. Trump may have obstructed justice, but it's all right because he felt "frustrated and angered"? There was "relentless speculation in the news media," so we should shrug our shoulders in response to evidence of the president's alleged misconduct?

As for the idea that the White House "fully cooperated" with the investigation, and the president "took no act" to deprive investigators of access to witnesses, Barr conveniently overlooked the fact that Trump himself refused to be interviewed.

The president also publicly dangled pardons and publicly criticized the very idea of witnesses cooperating with law enforcement.

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Image: G20 Summit in Hamburg

Ivanka Trump says she passed on opportunity to lead the World Bank

04/18/19 09:21AM

Donald Trump recently conceded that he considered one of his adult daughters, White House aide Ivanka Trump, to lead the World Bank. In fact, the president told The Atlantic that he also saw her as a possible ambassador to the United Nations, but also thought she'd be a good fit at the World Bank because, as he put it, "she's very good with numbers."

It now appears the president did more than just contemplate this possibility.

White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump says her father asked her if she was interested in taking the job of World Bank chief but she passed on it.

In an Associated Press interview, President Donald Trump's daughter said Wednesday she was happy with her current role in the administration. She spoke during a trip to Africa to promote a global women's initiative.

Ivanka Trump says her father raised the job with her as "a question" and she told him she was "happy with the work" she's doing.... Asked if her father had approached her about other top jobs, Ivanka Trump said she'd "keep that between" them.

There's still some question as to the exact nature of the discussion. There's a qualitative difference between a president asking, "Is this a position you might be interested in?" and a president saying, "I'm offering you this job."

But in either case, we're looking at a very strange dynamic.

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Image: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with President Donald Trump

North Korean weapons test makes Trump's policy look even worse

04/18/19 08:40AM

Donald Trump has given North Korea's Kim Jong-un -- a rogue dictator the American president says he loves, respects, and trusts -- a striking number of concessions. The Republican gave the North Korean leader the bilateral talks he wanted. And the international legitimacy he wanted. And the cessation of military exercises he wanted. And the propaganda opportunities he wanted.

What has the United States received in return? One year ago this week, Trump said he'd scored three major accomplishments: a North Korean agreement to denuclearization, the closure of North Korean nuclear sites, and an end to North Korean weapons testing.

The first point turned out to be wrong; the second turned out to be backwards; and while the third was largely true for a while, that's no longer the case.

...North Korea said that it had test-fired a new type of "tactical guided weapon," its first such test in nearly half a year.

The test, which didn't appear to be of a banned mid- or long-range ballistic missile that could scuttle negotiations, allows Pyongyang to show its people it is pushing ahead with weapons development while also reassuring domestic military officials worried that diplomacy with Washington signals weakness. [...]

NBC News could not independently verify North Korea's claim, and it wasn't immediately clear what had been tested. The White House said it was aware of the report and had no comment.

North Korean state-run media also said yesterday that officials in Pyongyang no longer want Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to participate in nuclear talks, instead calling for someone who "is more careful and mature in communicating."

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William Barr testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination to be attorney general of the United States on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 15, 2019.

AG Barr's latest plan accused of 'stinking to high heaven'

04/18/19 08:00AM

At this point yesterday, the road ahead seemed relatively clear. Attorney General Bill Barr's office would release a redacted version this morning of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report, shedding new light on the Russia scandal, while the congressional fight to obtain a complete version of the document continued.

But by early evening, the landscape grew considerably more complex. The attorney general announced plans, for example, for a morning press conference, to be held hours before the release of Mueller's findings. We also learned that neither the special counsel himself nor anyone from his team would be available -- just Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Complicating matters, the Justice Department told a federal court yesterday that Barr intended to make a different version of the Mueller report -- with fewer redactions -- available to a select group of congressional lawmakers. There was, however, a catch: they wouldn't be able to take a copy with them, and the attorney general's office hadn't mentioned any of this to key members.

The New York Times then took the controversy in an even more startling direction.

Justice Department officials have had numerous conversations with White House lawyers about the conclusions made by Mr. Mueller, the special counsel, in recent days, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. The talks have aided the president's legal team as it prepares a rebuttal to the report and strategizes for the coming public war over its findings.

So, the president faced accusations of criminal misconduct, and the Justice Department thought it'd be a good idea to give the president's team private, undisclosed briefings on the investigation into that alleged misconduct, letting them know about the findings before anyone else?

On last night's show, Rachel spoke with Neal Katyal, the former acting U.S. solicitor general who wrote the Justice Department's regulations that define the office of the special counsel. He explained that he's never heard of a situation in which the Justice Department provided a special briefing for the subject of an investigation, calling it a "breach of precedent" and a "breach of common sense."

Katyal added that all of this "stinks to high heaven."

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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 4.17.19

04/17/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* There's simply no reason for this: "The Trump administration is re-imposing limits on the amount of money Cuban Americans can send to relatives on the island and ordering new restrictions on U.S. citizen, nonfamily travel to Cuba, national security adviser John Bolton said Wednesday."

* Bill Barr finds another way to make Trump happy: "The nation's top prosecutor broadened the Trump administration's authority to detain asylum seekers who cross the border illegally by declaring Tuesday that they are not entitled to bond hearings."

* I guess we're supposed to be thankful for her restraint: "White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump says her father asked her if she was interested in taking the job of World Bank chief but she passed on it."

* How's the whole "drain the swamp" thing going? "Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has a new job: a more than $100,000-a-year post with a gold mining firm that's pursuing project approvals involving the federal agency that Zinke left fewer than four months ago."

* Keep in mind, Dowd hasn't actually read the Mueller report: "John Dowd, President Donald Trump's former lawyer, is calling the Mueller report 'pure mischief' and 'not fair,' believing that it will cause undue problems for the president."

* Family separations: "Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union said in a federal court filing Monday night that the Trump administration's one- to two-year timetable for reuniting potentially thousands of separated migrant families shows 'a callous disregard for these families and should be rejected.'"

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks with reporters reporters after the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Aug. 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

For his 2020 pitch, McConnell highlights the 'heist of the century'

04/17/19 02:32PM

Three years ago, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did something few Americans in history can credibly claim: he stole a Supreme Court seat and got away with it. It's been described by many as the "heist of the century" for a reason: Americans will be dealing with the consequences of his actions for many years to come.

This year, however, his actions are now the basis for the GOP leader's re-election pitch. McConnell, who'll seek a seventh term in Kentucky next year, kicked off his latest campaign this morning with a new video that emphasizes his role in taking a Supreme Court seat from a Democratic administration and delivering it to a republican one.

The three-minute video released by McConnell's Senate campaign includes footage of Obama announcing his nomination of Garland in March 2016 and asking Senate Republicans to "give him a hearing and then an up-or-down vote."

It then switches to audio of McConnell pledging to block consideration of Garland.

"Let's let the American people decide: Who will Americans trust to nominate the next Supreme Court justice?" McConnell says.

Even at the time, the talking point didn't make sense: the American people had elected Barack Obama, who still had nearly a year remaining in his term. After the 2016 election, the argument was even more flawed: the American people chose Hillary Clinton -- even if the electoral college didn't.

But the details aren't nearly as important as watching McConnell brag about his abuse -- making it the centerpiece of his new re-election message -- as if it were somehow worthy of praise.

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Morning breaks over the White House and the offices of the West Wing (R) in Washington January 20, 2015. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Some White House staffers worry about exposure in Mueller report

04/17/19 12:40PM

As the investigation into the Russia scandal unfolded over the course of many months, plenty of White House officials did what Donald Trump refused to do: they spoke to investigators and answered their questions.

In theory, so long as they were truthful, the aides' cooperation with the probe seems like an inherently good thing. But in practice, as NBC News reported yesterday, some White House staffers are concerned about possible cameos in the Mueller report, due to be released tomorrow morning.

Some of the more than one dozen current and former White House officials who cooperated with special counsel Robert Mueller are worried that the version of his report expected to be made public on Thursday will expose them as the source of damaging information about President Donald Trump, according to multiple witnesses in the investigation.

Some of the officials and their lawyers have sought clarity from the Justice Department on whether the names of those who cooperated with Mueller's team will be redacted or if the public report will be written in a way that makes it obvious who shared certain details of Trump's actions that were part of the obstruction of justice probe, people familiar with the discussions said. But, they said, the Justice Department has refused to elaborate.

As one former White House official put it, in reference to White House officials, "They got asked questions and told the truth, and now they're worried the wrath will follow."

How worried? One person close to the White House told NBC News there is "breakdown-level anxiety" among some current and former staffers who cooperated with the investigation.

It's important to emphasize that the president's own attorneys told aides they should cooperate with the special counsel's probe. As best as we can tell from the outside, those directions did not come with a wink and a nod -- staffers were encouraged to answer investigators' questions, and so they did.

But these same aides are suddenly faced with the prospect of appearing in the Mueller report, alongside revelations that their volatile president may not appreciate.

Indeed, the NBC News report is important, if for no other reason, because it offers a peek behind the curtain: if these staffers didn't have damaging perspectives to offer, they wouldn't be nervous right now.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.17.19

04/17/19 12:00PM

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

* The new national Monmouth poll shows Donald Trump's approval rating dipping from 44% last month to 40% now. While Gallup recently found a bump in presidential support following the release of Bill Barr's memo, other polling isn't yet pointing to a broad shift.

* While Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) weighs a re-election bid despite being under criminal indictment, the Republican incumbent did not receive a campaign contribution from literally any individual in the first three months of 2019. Collins did, however, receive a couple of checks from political action committees.

* In Connecticut's state House special election yesterday, Tammy Exum (D) won by a two-to-one margin, keeping a "blue" seat in Democratic hands. That said, at a national level, Democratic performance in special elections in 2019 isn't quite as strong as the results we saw in 2018.

* As the Stop & Shop strike continues in the northeast, several Democratic presidential candidates have expressed their support for striking workers, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who brought them coffee and donuts over the weekend.

* Dan Baer, who served as the Obama administration's Ambassador for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, launched a Democratic U.S. Senate campaign in Colorado this week, hoping to take on Sen. Cory Gardner (R). More recently, Baer served as head of his state's Department of Higher Education.

* The latest Marquette Law School poll found Trump with a 46% approval rating in Wisconsin, a swing state he narrowly carried in 2016 with 47% of the vote.

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