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President-elect Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump (L) meet with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) at The Capitol Building on Nov. 10, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

Paul Ryan carries a fig leaf for the emperor with no clothes

05/15/17 10:00AM

In the latest episode of "Saturday Night Live," there was a great sketch in which "Donald Trump" sat down for an interview with NBC News' "Lester Holt" -- actors, of course, portrayed the real people -- only to be interrupted by an overeager young man who wanted to give the president some ice cream.

The young man was an actor playing House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

It was a brutal reminder that the Republican leader's willingness to play the role of a pathetic lackey to the White House has reached a point at which Ryan's reputation has become a cultural punch line.

And while the problem isn't entirely new, last week brought the issue to the fore in new ways. After Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, for example, and leading lawmakers were sharing their perspective, Ryan remained silent for nearly a full day -- before eventually endorsing the president's abuse. By Friday, the House Speaker seemed eager to walk a fine line in which he was supportive of Trump though not responsible for Trump.
"I'm focusing on what's in my control, and that is what is Congress doing to solve people's problems," Ryan said at an event in Delavan, Wisconsin, according to CNN. [...]

"I'm working on making sure that we make good on our promises and fix people's problems," Ryan said, according to CNN. "That's what's in my control, and that's what I'm focused on."
Putting aside the fact that Ryan isn't fixing anyone's problems -- unless you consider it a "problem" when Americans have access to affordable health care -- his line is unsatisfying because it's wrong.

He is, after all, the Speaker of the House, and it's within his "control" to defend the rule of law, support an independent investigation of Trump's alleged misdeeds, and conduct vigorous oversight in the face of serious White House abuses. And yet, Ryan prefers to take a pass.

A year ago, hoping to make a media splash, Ryan used his powerful office to call on intelligence agencies to deny Hillary Clinton access to classified information, ostensibly because of his deep concerns about her email protocols from years earlier. At the time, the Speaker's "focus" wasn't on what he could "control," so much as it was on scoring cheap points.

Now, however, he's abandoned the pretense, providing cover for his party's president. The emperor has no clothes, but he does have a House Speaker who'll carry a fig leaf.
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Trump looks for help from Russia on North Korea

05/15/17 09:20AM

Before he became a presidential candidate, Donald Trump used to see North Korean missile launches as evidence of American weakness. In late 2012, for example, he tweeted, "We can't even stop the Norks from blasting a missile.... It is really sad."

Yes, Trump, on multiple occasions, referred to officials in North Korea as "Norks."

It's likely Trump has adopted a very different posture now that North Korea continues to launch missiles -- something "we can't even stop" -- including a ballistic-missile launch yesterday morning. NBC News reported that the unidentified ballistic missile "flew around 30 minutes" before landing in the Sea of Japan.

Last night, North Korea said the missile had the capacity to carry a "large scale heavy nuclear warhead," but then again, North Korea says a lot of things, many of which aren't true.

What struck me as especially interesting, at least as far as domestic politics is concerned, was the written statement from Donald Trump's White House.
"With the missile impacting so close to Russian soil -- in fact, closer to Russia than to Japan -- [Trump] cannot imagine that Russia is pleased," the White House statement said.
As White House reactions to North Korean misconduct go, this is a pretty odd statement. The missile launch really didn't have much to do with Russia, but Trump nevertheless appears eager to rope them in -- as if the White House is looking for some country that might be willing to help solve a problem Trump doesn't know how to address.

It was therefore of great interest when Russia said it was largely unconcerned.
In this Jan. 29, 2015 file photo, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/File/AP)

White House's source balks at Trump's dubious Russia assertions

05/15/17 08:40AM

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Friday that Donald Trump believes allegations about collusion between his campaign and Russia "is a hoax." Spicer added, "It's been reaffirmed by several people, including [Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck] Grassley and others who have spoken to him."

Later in the briefing, Spicer again pointed to the Iowa Republican, saying Chuck Grassley and others have said that on the question of collusion, "there was none."

Grassley has been quite loyal to this White House, and he's voted with Donald Trump's position this year more than 97% of the time, but when Yahoo News followed up with the senator's office, Spicer's claims ran into a little trouble.
Just hours after White House spokesman Sean Spicer said President Trump had received assurances from a key senator that the idea of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia was a "hoax," a spokesman for the senator, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, denied any such conversation.

"Sen. Grassley has not spoken to President Trump about what he has learned in briefings related to investigations into Russian interference in our elections, and he has never referred to the notion of collusion as a 'hoax,'" Grassley's spokesman, Taylor Foy, emailed Yahoo News. Grassley is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and together with ranking minority member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has been briefed on details of the FBI investigation into Russian meddling in last year's presidential election.
Oops.
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Image: First Lady Melania Trump Hosts A Celebration Of MilitaryMothers Event

Three months in, chaos grips Donald Trump's White House

05/15/17 08:00AM

In Friday's White House press briefing, a reporter told Press Secretary Sean Spicer he'd spoken to a former FBI official who was alarmed by Donald Trump threatening former FBI Director James Comey via Twitter. The reporter's source said the president, in his words, "is simply 'out of control.'"

Spicer replied, "That's, frankly, offensive." He did not elaborate.

The response was about as good as any -- it wasn't as if the president's chief spokesperson could acknowledge from the podium that Trump really is "out of control" -- but the reporter's FBI contact is hardly the only person thinking along these lines. The morning after the president fired the person overseeing the investigation into his campaign, a White House staffer told Politico the White House's team had slipped into "total and complete chaos -- even by our standards."

Over the weekend, the Washington Post published a piece that characterized the White House as a dysfunctional mess, led by a president whose stability is in doubt.
In deciding to abruptly fire FBI Director James B. Comey, President Trump characteristically let himself be guided by his own instincts -- fueled by his creeping anger and sense of victimhood about a probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election that he considers a "witch hunt."

The aftermath is a presidency rocked by its most serious self-inflicted crisis yet, exposing dysfunction and distrust within his West Wing and imperiling his agenda. The momentum for the health-care bill that passed the House is gone, and a week scheduled to be devoted to Trump's preparations for a high-stakes foreign trip was overtaken by distractions and fury.

Across Washington, Trump's allies have been buzzing about the staff's competence as well as the president's state of mind. One GOP figure close to the White House mused privately about whether Trump was "in the grip of some kind of paranoid delusion."
It's not often that the Washington Post publishes a quote like that -- in the third paragraph, on the front page, in the midst of what appears to be one of the most serious White House scandals in decades.

The piece went on to describe Trump as angry, impulsive, and directionless, overseeing aides who are eager to point fingers at one another. Describing the night of the Comey firing, one White House official told the Post, "They were running around like chickens with their heads cut off."
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Friday's Mini-Report, 5.12.17

05/12/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A brutal step backwards: "Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors this week to seek the maximum punishment for drug offenses, in one of the clearest breaks yet from the policies of the Justice Department under the Obama administration."

* Not the answer we were looking for: "Fired FBI Director James Comey turned down an invitation to be interviewed by the Senate Intelligence Committee next week, according to that panel's leading Democrat. Asked on MSNBC Friday afternoon if he believed it was 'critical' to speak to Comey, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) affirmed that it was, but said 'he won't be testifying on Tuesday' as he was invited to do."

* On a related note: "The Senate Intelligence Committee is exploring ways to compel President Donald Trump to hand over any potential audio recordings of now-former FBI Director James Comey, an aide with the committee told HuffPost."

* That's ridiculously close: "A Russian fighter jet came within about 20 feet of a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft over the Black Sea earlier this week, an American official said."

* Sunlight often makes a difference: "The real estate company owned by the family of Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior adviser to President Trump, said on Friday that its employees would no longer take part in a cross-country roadshow in China this month."

* Michelle Obama "on Friday criticized a Trump administration decision to delay federal rules aimed at making school lunch healthier, saying kids will end up 'eating crap' instead."

* Florida: "Corrine Brown, a former longtime United States representative from Florida, was convicted on Thursday of taking for herself thousands of dollars in donations that were meant to fund student scholarships."

* As a public service, the Washington Post "compiled a timeline of the shifting rhetoric by Trump and his staff" about the James Comey firing. I found it quite helpful.
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Image: Sean Spicer

White House doesn't deny Trump recording conversations

05/12/17 04:37PM

Donald Trump jolted the political world this morning, making a not-so-veiled threat towards former FBI Director James Comey via Twitter, saying Comey "better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"

Among other things, this raised the specter of previously unknown recordings of Trump's conversations with Comey -- and any number of other discussions the president has held in the White House.

To no one's surprise, the White House press corps was eager to hear more about the topic Trump raised.
The White House did not deny on Friday that President Donald Trump taped meetings with his former FBI director -- or that the president may be recording conversations in the Oval Office.

"The president has nothing further to add on that," White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said at the daily briefing when asked several times by reporters about the president's tweet Friday morning referring to "tapes" of Comey.
No one should blame reporters for a lack of effort. Does Trump have recordings of Comey? "The president has nothing further to add on that," Spicer said. Are there recording devices in the Oval Office? "The president has nothing further to add on that," Spicer said. Are there recordings in the White House residence? "The president has nothing further to add on that," Spicer said.

The beleaguered press secretary eventually said Trump's tweet "speaks for itself" -- which hardly seems sufficient, given that it prompted so many questions -- and that he's "moving on" from any questions on the matter.

Spicer may be disappointed to learn no one else seems to be moving on.
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Image: President Trump meets With Prime Minister Of Denmark Lars Lokke Rasmussen In The Oval Office

Controversial Oval Office meeting was held at Putin's request

05/12/17 04:01PM

Why in the world did Donald Trump welcome Russian officials into the Oval Office this week, the day after the president fired FBI Director James Comey over his investigation into the Russian scandal? A White House spokesman said this week Trump hosted the gathering "because [Vladimir Putin] asked him to."

In his interview with NBC News' Lester Holt yesterday, Trump elaborated on the subject.
"When I spoke with Putin, he asked me whether or not I would see [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov]. Now what do I, should I say, 'No, I'm not gonna see him'? I said I will see him."
It's worth noting that Trump very easily could've said, "No, I'm not gonna see him." Russia did, after all, attack our democracy last year with an illegal espionage operation. The American president certainly has no obligation to accept requests from the Russian president.

Indeed, David Cohen, the former deputy director of the CIA, noted to MNSBC's Andrea Mitchell yesterday how striking it was to see the president having a grand old time in the Oval Office with a Russian who's a potential figure in an FBI investigation.

But can we pause to note just how controversial this meeting has become? And the degree to which the seriousness has escalated this week?
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Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-TRUMP

Denying Russia ties, Trump's lawyers point to secret tax returns

05/12/17 12:46PM

In his interview yesterday with NBC News' Lester Holt, Donald Trump was asked about whether he or his family "have any accepted investments, any loans" from Russia. The president said, "I have no investments in Russia, none whatsoever. I don't have property in Russia.... I built a great company, but I'm not involved with Russia."

Note the disconnect between the question and the answer. The anchor asked about money he may have received from Russia, not investments he's made in Russia.

The Associated Press had a related report this morning, noting fresh pushback from the president's private legal team.
Lawyers for President Donald Trump's said Friday that a review of his last 10 years of tax returns do not reflect "any income of any type from Russian sources," with some exceptions. It's the latest attempt by the president to tamp down concerns about any Russian ties amid an ongoing investigation of his campaign's associates.

The attorneys did not release copies of Trump's tax returns, so The Associated Press cannot independently verify their conclusions. Their review also notably takes into account only Trump's returns from the past 10 years, leaving open questions about whether there were financial dealings with Russia in earlier years.

In a letter released to the AP, the attorneys said there is no equity investment by Russians in entities controlled by Trump or debt owed by Trump to Russian lenders.
The "exceptions" apparently includes money he received from selling a home to a Russian billionaire in 2008 and from hosting the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013, both of which he mentioned in yesterday's NBC interview.

And while this is certainly interesting, the assurances from Trump's lawyers are difficult to accept at face value. They are, after all, pointing to tax returns the president could release, but instead chooses to keep secret for reasons he hasn't fully explained.

There's also the suggestion this week from former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that reviews of Trump's business dealings in Russia are part of an ongoing investigation.
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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.12.17

05/12/17 12:00PM

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

* USA Today reports that a coalition of progressive groups, including End Citizens United and Every Voice, are launching new ads today in eight states, urging Republican senators to support an independent investigation into the Russia scandal.

* The White House and the National Republican Congressional Campaign are reportedly at odds over special-election strategies and "who is in charge" of the party's midterm campaign efforts.

* In Montana's congressional special election, Republican Greg Gianforte says he doesn't accept corporate PAC money, but he nevertheless referred industry PACs last week to "our Victory Fund."

* In Alabama's upcoming U.S. Senate special election, the Republican field is growing, but on the Democratic side, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones entered the race this week. Jones is perhaps best known for having successfully prosecuted KKK members for a Birmingham church bombing.

* On a related note, Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.), the appointed incumbent, released a strange new ad this week in which he tried to distance himself from disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley (R).

* Donald Trump told NBC News that if the election were today, he'd "win by a lot more than I did on November 8th." A national Quinnipiac poll released this week showed the president with a 36% approval rating.
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The J. Edgar Hoover Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) building stands in Washington, D.C., Aug. 8, 2013. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

Trump 'would not be well-received' at FBI headquarters

05/12/17 11:20AM

There was quite a bit of chatter yesterday morning that Donald Trump would stop by FBI headquarters as a way of signaling support for the bureau in the wake of the president firing its director. It's easy to imagine the scene Trump envisioned: he'd stop by, shake a few hands, tell a few jokes, maybe hand out a few electoral maps, and win the FBI over with some presidential charm.

I was eager to see what kind of reception he'd receive, but the plan was apparently scrapped. NBC News explained why.
The White House has abandoned the idea of President Trump visiting FBI headquarters after being told he would not be greeted warmly, administration officials told NBC News.

Amid the continuing fallout over his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, Trump was considering an appearance at the FBI's J Edgar Hoover Building in downtown Washington, DC. The White House publicly floated the idea as recently as Thursday morning.
The report added that FBI officials told the White House "the optics" would be unkind: "FBI officials made clear that the president would not draw many smiles and cheers, having just unceremoniously sacked a very popular director."

One FBI employee told NBC, "My sense is most FBI employees feel a loyalty to Comey. And whether they agree or disagree with the way he handled the email case, like and respect him ... Trump would not be well-received at headquarters."

And if there's one thing that seems fairly clear about Trump's preferences, he doesn't like to go where he isn't going to be "well-received."
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