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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 3.22.17

03/22/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The latest from London: 'Three people were killed and 20 others were wounded Wednesday in a terrorist attack at Britain's Parliament that sent crowds of tourists and lawmakers running for their lives. The victims included a police officer who was stabbed at the House of Commons and died despite the efforts of doctors and a passing government minister to save him."

* Despite all the focus on the far-right opponents of the Republican health care bill, this afternoon, two center-right House GOP lawmakers announced their opposition to their party's legislation. For Republican leaders, that's really not a good sign.

* Supreme Court: "About 40 minutes after Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch began his second day of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, all eight of the justices he hopes to join said a major disability decision Gorsuch wrote in 2008 was wrong."

* The U.S. Secret Service "requested $60 million in additional funding for the next year, offering the most precise estimate yet of the escalating costs for travel and protection resulting from the unusually complicated lifestyle of the Trump family, according to internal agency documents reviewed by The Washington Post."

* NATO: "President Trump will travel to Brussels in May for a NATO summit, the White House said Tuesday. The announcement comes as Trump has roiled the alliance with renewed complaints about how much European allies are paying for their defense. "

* Trump's first Labor Secretary nominee was forced to withdraw. His second Labor Secretary nominee, Alexander Acosta, is facing some serious questions about a deal he struck with Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire money manager, who faced allegations that Epstein "sexually abused more than 40 minor girls, most of them between the ages of 13 and 17."

* What's Trump's net worth? It's a surprisingly difficult question to answer.

* GOP governors hate the White House's health care plan and also hate the White House's budget: "As Mr. Trump and his advisers press for bone-deep cuts to the federal budget, Republican governors have rapidly emerged as an influential bloc of opposition. They have complained to the White House about reductions they see as harmful or arbitrary, and they plan to pressure members of Congress from their states to oppose them."
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Paul Manafort of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's staff listens during a round table discussion on security at Trump Tower in the Manhattan borough of New York, Aug. 17, 2016. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Trump's former campaign chair worked to 'benefit' Putin's government

03/22/17 12:42PM

Paul Manafort, who helped lead Donald Trump's presidential campaign as its chairman and de-facto campaign manager, has long had important ties to the Russian government. Indeed, it led to his ouster from Team Trump.

In mid-August, a month after Trump officially became the Republican nominee, Manafort resigned following reports that he helped a pro-Russian party in Ukraine secretly route payments to two prominent D.C. lobbying firms.

But the revelations surrounding Trump's former campaign chair aren't nearly over. The Associated Press reported this morning:
President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, secretly worked for a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago and proposed an ambitious political strategy to undermine anti-Russian opposition across former Soviet republics, The Associated Press has learned. The work appears to contradict assertions by the Trump administration and Manafort himself that he never worked for Russian interests.

Manafort proposed in a confidential strategy plan as early as June 2005 that he would influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government, even as U.S.-Russia relations under Republican President George W. Bush grew worse.

Manafort pitched the plans to Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally with whom Manafort eventually signed a $10 million annual contract beginning in 2006, according to interviews with several people familiar with payments to Manafort and business records obtained by the AP. Manafort and Deripaska maintained a business relationship until at least 2009, according to one person familiar with the work.
In a memo at the time, Manafort wrote that his work "can greatly benefit the Putin Government" and "can re-focus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government."

Asked for a reaction, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told NBC News, "It would be inappropriate for us to comment on a person who is not a White House employee."
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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.22.17

03/22/17 12:00PM

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

* The RNC is reportedly launching a new digital ad campaign intended to pressure congressional Democrats to vote for Judge Neil Gorsuch's Supreme Court confirmation and the Republican health care plan.

* And speaking of digital ad campaigns, as Rachel noted on the show last night, the DSCC is launching a new spot of its own, pushing opposition to the Republican health care plan.

* At a fundraiser last night, Donald Trump claimed "most people don't even know" that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, and he suggested someone should alert voters to this fact through commercials.

* On a related note, the fundraiser, held for the House Republicans' campaign arm, raised more than $30 million, which Politico noted was "a record for the event."

* The good news for Republicans: officials found an instance of voter fraud in Colorado. The bad news for Republicans: the alleged fraud was perpetrated by the former chairman of Colorado Republican Party.

* Trump has reportedly agreed to deliver the commencement address at Liberty University, an evangelical college in Virginia founded by Jerry Falwell, on May 13.

* Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) apparently feels safe dipping his toes back into political waters again, announcing this week that he's supporting former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie's gubernatorial campaign this year.
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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. to the chamber to vote at the Capitol in Washington, Feb. 10, 2016. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

McConnell prepares for the 'conclusion' of the health care fight

03/22/17 11:23AM

A couple of weeks ago, MSNBC's Chris Hayes had a fascinating chat with Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), who was pressed on a single point: how many hearings did House Republicans hold on their health care plan before passing out of committee?

Lance, reluctant to acknowledge that the number was zero, dodged the question repeatedly, before the congressman eventually said he thought the Senate might hold some "discussion" about the legislation.

As it turns out, that's not going to happen. The House vote is still scheduled for tomorrow -- though that may be delayed if GOP leaders find themselves far short of the votes they'll need -- but in the upper chamber, Republican leaders are moving forward with a plan to make this mess go away as quickly as possible. Politico reported:
Senate Republicans are unlikely to hold any committee hearings, and many of them haven't even read what the House is about to pass. It's unclear, to put it mildly, how proponents can placate enough moderates or conservatives to get the bill across the finish line.

But GOP leaders are showing no signs of applying the brakes.

"We're not slowing down," [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell said on Tuesday. "We will reach a conclusion on health care next week."
The Kentucky Republican didn't literally say, "Let's just get this over with," but he probably should've, since that sentiment appears to be guiding his plans.
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(L to R) President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with retired United States Marine Corps general James Mattis after their meeting at Trump International Golf Club, Nov. 19, 2016 in Bedminster Township, N.J. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Mattis is proving to be far too responsible for some in the GOP

03/22/17 10:41AM

The headline on the Politico piece overnight was unexpected: "Hill Republicans say they're growing frustrated with Mattis." OK, I'll bite. What seems to be the trouble with Defense Secretary James Mattis from the perspective of congressional Republicans?
Defense Secretary James Mattis' unconventional choices for top Pentagon posts and his reluctance to aggressively push for dramatic increases in the defense budget have rankled Republicans on Capitol Hill who say he's burning through political capital he needs as he begins reshaping the Pentagon. [...]

Republican lawmakers and senior congressional aides said in recent interviews they're running out of patience with the former four-star general's staffing decisions, which have disappointed Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee members hoping to see their ideological allies elevated to senior levels in the Defense Department. Others are grumbling about Mattis's refusal to advocate for a bigger increase in the defense budget, which defense hawks believe was gutted disastrously under President Barack Obama.
One top Republican staffer on Capitol Hill told Politico that Republicans have waited for years to fill key Pentagon posts "with Republicans," a desire the Pentagon chief isn't taking seriously. Another GOP aide says Mattis seems to forget "that we won the election."

Oh. So Republicans are "growing frustrated" with the former four-star general because he's trying to govern in a mature, non-partisan, and responsible fashion, making decisions based more on merit and less on politics.

The nerve of that guy.
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Despite White House claims, our 'military superiority' is clear

03/22/17 10:01AM

Gary Cohn, the chief White House economics advisor, recently talked to Fox News' Chris Wallace about Donald Trump's budget priorities. The host asked about why the administration believes it's necessary to increase defense spending by $54 billion.

"Unfortunately," Cohn said, "we have no alternative but to reinvest in our military and make ourselves a military power once again."

It was a bizarre answer predicated on the idea that the United States is not already the preeminent global military power.

The evidence, meanwhile, couldn't be much clearer. The New York Times published a helpful piece today providing necessary context to international defense spending, noting that after the United States, the seven countries that invest the most in every year in their armed forces -- China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Great Britain, France, India, and Japan -- combined spend about $514 billion. The United States, meanwhile, spends $596 billion.

Using the New York Times' data, I put together the above chart to help drive the point home.
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Image: Paul Ryan

The Republican health care plan is actually worse than nothing

03/22/17 09:21AM

It dawned on congressional Republicans quite a while ago that they couldn't simply repeal the Affordable Care Act, roll back the clock as if "Obamacare" never existed, and walk away. GOP policymakers conceded they'd have to "repeal and replace" the health care law with their own policy blueprint.

That, of course, has become a fiasco of historic proportions. Last week, the Congressional Budget Office released a report that highlighted the profound impact the Republican bill would have on the American system: the ranks of the uninsured would grow by 14 million by next year, and that number would expand to 24 million by 2026.

And as dreadful as those results sound, the New York Times' Margot Sanger-Katz's highlighted an even more striking detail yesterday:
The Republican bill would actually result in more people being uninsured than if Obamacare were simply repealed. Getting rid of the major coverage provisions and regulations of Obamacare would cost 23 million Americans their health insurance, according to another recent C.B.O. report.

In other words, one million more Americans would have health insurance with a clean repeal than with the Republican replacement plan, according to C.B.O. estimates.
Let that sink for a moment. If Republicans simply took a sledge hammer to the ACA, 23 million Americans would lose their health coverage. If Republicans pass their own legislation, 24 million Americans would lose their health coverage.
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Image: US President Donald J. Trump participates in a health care discussion with House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady

When a president simply lies too much

03/22/17 08:46AM

The funny thing about Donald Trump's wiretap conspiracy theory is that, from the outset, everyone knew he was lying. The sitting president accused his predecessor of ordering an illegal surveillance operation, as part of a Watergate-like scheme, and nearly the entire political world quickly reached a consensus: these claims are clearly not rooted in reality.

As Trump's falsehoods go, these were hardly the most dramatic -- indeed, they're not even the most shocking lie he's told about Barack Obama -- and it didn't take long before the claims were discredited in bipartisan fashion. But there was something about this lie that gained traction in ways most of Trump's other lies don't. Apparently, when a sitting president makes demonstrably false claims about his predecessor committing a felony, many are inclined to believe there should be some kind of consequences for dishonesty at this level.

Making matters much worse, when FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Monday, confirming an investigation into the Trump campaign and further debunking Trump's wiretap conspiracy theory, the president used his official White House Twitter account to make a variety of related claims, each of which was plainly untrue.

The same day, the White House tried to tell the public that Trump's former campaign chairman and National Security Advisor were unimportant, peripheral figures.

And as a result, the bough is breaking. Discussions of the president's uncontrollable dishonesty are becoming more open, more explicit, less guarded, and more widespread. Take, for example, this new editorial from the Wall Street Journal, which argued that Trump's falsehoods "are eroding public trust, at home and abroad."
If President Trump announces that North Korea launched a missile that landed within 100 miles of Hawaii, would most Americans believe him? Would the rest of the world? We're not sure, which speaks to the damage that Mr. Trump is doing to his Presidency with his seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods. [...]

Two months into his Presidency, Gallup has Mr. Trump's approval rating at 39%. No doubt Mr. Trump considers that fake news, but if he doesn't show more respect for the truth most Americans may conclude he's a fake President.
In case this isn't widely known, let's note for the record that the Wall Street Journal's editorial page is one of the most Republican-friendly pieces of real estate in all of national print media. When it calls out a GOP president's mendacity in such a direct way, it's emblematic of a change in perceptions about Trump's presidency.
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Image: Neil Gorsuch speaks after U.S. President Donald Trump announces his nomination of Gorsuch to be an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court at the White House in Washington

FBI probe into Team Trump casts cloud over Supreme Court process

03/22/17 08:00AM

On Monday, FBI Director James Comey publicly confirmed that there's a counter-espionage investigation underway, examining not only Russia's illegal efforts to help put Donald Trump in the White House, but also whether Team Trump cooperated with Moscow's scheme. On Tuesday, the confirmation hearing for Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, began in earnest.

Much of the political world is treating these two developments as distinct and unrelated. It was heartening to see Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) take the obvious step of connecting then. The Washington Post reported:
"I'd like to point out that it is the height of irony that Republicans held this Supreme Court seat open for nearly a calendar year while President Obama was in office, but are now rushing to fill the seat for a president whose campaign is under investigation by the FBI," Schumer said, according to remarks sent out by his office.

Schumer said that, to him, it appeared "unseemly to be moving forward so fast on confirming a Supreme Court Justice with a lifetime appointment" due to the looming FBI investigation, which could potentially last for months or years.
The Democratic leader added, "You can bet that if the shoe was on the other foot -- and a Democratic president was under investigation by the FBI -- that Republicans would be howling at the moon about filling a Supreme Court seat in such circumstances. After all, they stopped a president who wasn't under investigation from filling a seat with nearly a year left in his presidency."

I don't imagine any fair-minded observer would disagree with this assessment. Donald Trump not only received far fewer votes than his opponent, making it difficult for him to claim that he has a mandate to push a far-right conservative onto the high court, his campaign also may have colluded with a foreign adversary during an attack on our presidential election -- an attack that elevated Trump into the Oval Office.

If the partisan dynamic were flipped, we can say with some certainty that Republicans would demand that the FBI investigation be resolved before the president's Supreme Court nominee is considered for a lifetime appointment. Given the unprecedented GOP abuses surrounding the Merrick Garland nomination, the high court vacancy is itself of dubious legitimacy, but the FBI's probe raises questions anew about the legitimacy of the president trying to fill that vacancy.

So why not wait until the questions have answers?
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