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Voting booths await voters in Red Oak, Iowa, Tuesday, June 3, 2014, ahead of the Iowa primary elections.

Republicans reject Dem effort to boost election-security funding

07/20/18 09:20AM

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats noted last week that in the months leading up to 9/11, the "system was blinking red." Referring to Russian cyber-attacks, Coats added, "Here we are, nearly two decades later, and I'm here to say the warning lights are blinking red again."

With this in mind, House Democrats this week made a concerted effort to boost federal spending on election security at the state level, hoping to add $380 million to a broader appropriations bill. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on the floor yesterday, "The flashing red light calls us to action. Surely we can rise above pandering to party and Putin to act on behalf of our freedom and our security."

As USA Today  noted, the result in the chamber was a little unexpected.

Democratic lawmakers erupted on the House floor Thursday as they pushed to send more money to states for election security.

"USA! USA!" the group chanted, following fiery speeches from Reps. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

The chanting was so loud that reporters standing outside of the chamber rushed to windows to see what was happening.

The patriotic appeal fell short: the Democratic amendment failed, 182 to 232, with no members in either party breaking ranks with their respective party.

As for the Republican arguments against the effort, some were more compelling than others.

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An unexpected setback in the Republican campaign to remake the courts

07/20/18 08:40AM

As a rule, Senate Republicans effectively serve as a rubber stamp for Donald Trump's judicial nominees. The far-right tells the White House which jurists to nominate; the president obliges; and GOP senators confirm them at a breathtaking pace, remaking the federal judiciary in the process.

But once in a great while, there's a hiccup. Late last year, for example, Brett Talley withdrew because of his profound lack of qualifications; Jeff Mateer's nomination ended when senators learned of his bizarre anti-LGBT animus; and Matthew Petersen called it quits following a humiliating confirmation hearing.

Yesterday, in an unexpected development, the list of derailed nominees grew a little longer.

The nomination of one of President Donald Trump's circuit court nominees was withdrawn Thursday just minutes before the Senate was to vote on his confirmation. The nomination of Ryan Bounds was dropped because of concerns by two Republicans about Bounds' college writings where he was critical of diversity.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., was the initial GOP senator who defected and was joined by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., after the two discussed the issue. Because of the narrow Republican majority in the Senate and unanimous opposition from Democrats, Senate leaders could afford just one Republican defection to keep the nomination alive.

"The information I had was insufficient for me to be a 'yes' vote and therefore I was looking for more information that has not yet been provided," Scott, the chamber's only African-American Republican, told reporters.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) added, "There were some writings from when he was a student at Stanford that were maybe not racially sensitive. They weren't racist but there is some concern that the issue could have been handled with more sensitivity."

As attempts at political spin go, "maybe not racially sensitive" is a memorable phrase.

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Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-ELECTIONS-TRUMP

Amateur Hour: Trump makes his third walk-back on Russia in three days

07/20/18 08:00AM

On Monday, Donald Trump stood alongside Vladimir Putin and said he was inclined to take the Russian president's word over the findings of his own country's intelligence agencies. A day later, the American president tried to pretend he misspoke.

The same day, however, Trump said Russia is no longer targeting American elections, again contradicting the assessments of the U.S. intelligence community. Later, the White House walked that back, ignoring what was plainly true.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told the Associated Press, "There's a walk-back of the walk-back of the walk-back of the walk-back? This is dizzying."

And yet, it got worse. On Wednesday, the White House acknowledged that the president was considering a proposal from Putin -- which Trump publicly praised -- that would involve turning over innocent Americans to Russia for questioning. This, not surprisingly, generated hair-on-fire apoplexy from U.S. officials and a Senate resolution in opposition to the idea that passed unanimously.

All of which led to the third White House walk-back in three days.

Ahead of the Senate vote Thursday on resolution, Sanders issued a follow-up statement backtracking on what she had said a day earlier about Trump's position.

"It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it. Hopefully President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt," she said.

While I'm glad Trump is no longer considering a plan to turn over Americans for Russian interrogation, there's nothing satisfactory about this particular reversal.

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Yates: Congressional GOP fuss for Muller documents unusual

Yates: Congressional GOP fuss for Muller documents unusual

07/19/18 09:48PM

Sally Yates, former acting U.S. attorney general, talks with Rachel Maddow about the longstanding Department of Justice rule not to share material from an ongoing investigation with Congress, and the peculiarity of the big fuss Republicans are making over their demand to see materials related to the ongoing Mueller investigation. watch

Thursday's Mini-Report, 7.19.18

07/19/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* He's not the only one: "Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, said Thursday he wished President Donald Trump had not met alone with Vladimir Putin of Russia."

* Endangered Species Act: "President Trump's administration unveiled a proposal Thursday that would strip the Endangered Species Act of key provisions, a move that conservationists say would weaken a law enacted 45 years ago to keep plants and animals in decline from going extinct."

* A provocative idea: "Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday defeated an attempt by panel Democrats to subpoena the interpreter who worked for President Donald Trump during his summit Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin."

* Pay particular attention to the name of the town: "The Russian military has apologized for failing to warn Armenian villagers they were holding war games in their midst. During the exercises, Russian forces opened fire Tuesday in a village called Panic, and panic indeed ensued. Local media showed Russian military vehicles descending on the town in the allied nation."

* Hmm: "Iran rejected eight requests from the United States for a meeting of their presidents at the United Nations General Assembly last year, a top Iranian official said Wednesday."

* Scott Pruitt's last act has been blocked: "The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by a 2-1 decision issued an emergency stay on Wednesday in response to a lawsuit by the Environmental Defense Fund and other environmental groups. The order forces the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce stricter rules on 'super polluting' glider trucks as the court considers permanently overriding Scott Pruitt's final decision as the EPA's leader."

* Conspicuous silence: "Every year since a Russian missile downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 passengers and crew, the U.S. State Department has issued a statement to mark the anniversary. But on the anniversary this year -- a day after U.S. President Donald Trump met in Helsinki with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin -- the State Department was conspicuously silent about it."

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U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen speaks to reporters after she, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats briefed members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Despite evidence, DHS's Nielson still isn't sure Russia favored Trump

07/19/18 12:56PM

This has been a dramatic week in American politics, which has driven home some core truths. Near the top of the list is a simple fact: Russian President Vladimir Putin favored Donald Trump's Republican ticket in 2016, and his government took steps to attack our democracy in order to help put the current American president in office.

And yet, somehow, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen still isn't sure.

"I haven't seen any evidence that the attempt to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party," Nielsen responded when asked about Russia's intentions Thursday during the Aspen Security Forum.

"What we've seen on the foreign influence side is they were attempting to intervene and cause chaos on both sides," she continued.

I've watched the clip of her comments a few times, trying to find a way to give Nielsen the benefit of the doubt, but I'm at a loss. Indeed, the DHS chief went on to say that she believes Russian interference was intended to "sow discord and get us all to fight against each other." [Update: see below.]

But we already know better. Last week's indictment from Special Counsel Robert Mueller spells out in great detail what Russian intelligence officials did, and Putin himself admitted on Monday that he wanted Trump to win the election.

This bolstered the intelligence assessment from the FBI, CIA and NSA, which also pointed to Moscow's preference for Trump.

All of which raises the obvious question of why in the world the Homeland Security chief would say she hasn't "seen any evidence" that's already readily available.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.19.18

07/19/18 12:00PM

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

* With just five days remaining before Georgia's Republican gubernatorial primary runoff, Donald Trump has thrown his support behind Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Much of the party establishment prefers Casey Cagle, Georgia's current lieutenant governor.

* Former First Lady Michelle Obama has reportedly agreed to play a prominent role in a non-partisan voter registration initiative in the coming months.

* In a newly unearthed recording, Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) used misogynistic language during his radio show, wondering aloud why he shouldn't be able to call women "sluts." Lewis, running in a competitive Minneapolis-area district, also defended Rush Limbaugh's criticisms of Sandra Fluke over the issue of health plans covering contraception. The on-air comments pre-date the Republican's congressional career.

* Are Republicans concerned about Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey's (R) re-election chances? The Republican Governors Association is launching some new attack ads targeting two of the top Democratic contenders.

* Speaking of Arizona, while much of the GOP establishment is backing Rep. Martha McSally (R) in this year's Senate race, former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R) picked up her first congressional endorsement yesterday from far-right Rep. Paul Gosar (R). The primary is Aug. 28.

* After appearing on Alex Jones' radio show, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) conceded this week that he'd made a mistake. The far-right congressman, and close Trump ally, said that a member of Congress "should not grace that platform and legitimize it."

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Report: Trump was told of Putin's role in election attack in Jan. 2017

07/19/18 11:20AM

NBC News' First Read team this morning highlighted a provocative new report from the New York Times about an intelligence briefing Donald Trump received in early 2017, shortly before his inauguration.

Two weeks before his inauguration, Donald J. Trump was shown highly classified intelligence indicating that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had personally ordered complex cyberattacks to sway the 2016 American election.

The evidence included texts and emails from Russian military officers and information gleaned from a top-secret source close to Mr. Putin, who had described to the C.I.A. how the Kremlin decided to execute its campaign of hacking and disinformation.

According to the report, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, Trump met on Jan. 6, 2017, at Trump Tower with then-CIA Director John Brennan, then-DNI James Clapper, and Adm. Michael Rogers, the then-director of the National Security Agency.

At the briefing, the intelligence chiefs reportedly told the Republican president-elect, among other things, about the evidence pointing to Vladimir Putin's direct role in Russia's election interference. Their presentation, according to the Times, included a reference to a highly-sensitive piece of information: the United States had learned from human sources about Putin's role, suggesting American intelligence had come directly from someone close to the Russian president.

We now know, of course, that Trump chose not to believe what he learned from that briefing, and for months -- including this week -- the American president continued to suggest he believed Putin's denials.

So, here's my question: why did this sensitive information suddenly leak now, 18 months after that Trump Tower briefing?

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

The problem with Trump's proof of being 'tough' toward Russia

07/19/18 10:41AM

Donald Trump was still on the defensive yesterday, after siding with Russia's Vladimir Putin over the United States on Monday, but the Republican president nevertheless felt comfortable boasting at the White House yesterday, "There been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia."

For proof, Trump said, "Look at ambassadors not there." (He probably meant "diplomats," not "ambassadors," but the president isn't great with details.)

A couple of hours later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed the point, arguing that Trump "has been tougher on Russia than anybody," and pointing specifically to the fact that the administration has "expelled 60 Russian operatives from the United States."

If it seems as if this keeps coming up, it's not your imagination. Last week, during a press conference alongside British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump also bragged about having expelled 60 Russian diplomats, adding, "And Germany did three, as an example. So Germany -- big country, powerful country -- they did three. The fake news doesn't want to talk about it."

OK, let's talk about it.

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke delivers a speech billed as "A Vision for American Energy Dominance" at the Heritage Foundation on September 29, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Interior's Zinke faces investigation from internal watchdog

07/19/18 10:03AM

With Scott Pruitt gone from the EPA, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke should probably be seen as the most controversial member of Donald Trump's cabinet. Indeed, Politico  reported yesterday on the Montana Republican facing a new investigation.

The Interior Department's internal watchdog has launched a full investigation into a real estate deal involving a foundation established by Ryan Zinke and developers including Halliburton Chairman David Lesar, which was first reported by POLITICO last month, according to a letter the office sent to House Democrats on Wednesday.

The inspector general's probe will focus on whether Zinke violated conflict of interest laws, the latest official inquiry of Zinke's activities in his 16 months helming the department.

Circling back to our previous coverage, the story involves David Lesar, the Halliburton chairman, who's planning a commercial development in Ryan Zinke's hometown. A foundation created by the cabinet secretary and his wife -- which his wife still oversees -- is trying to make the project happen, and the Zinkes stand to benefit if the development comes to fruition.

It creates an awkward dynamic: the cabinet secretary's wife runs a foundation; the foundation is backing a project launched by the chairman of Halliburton; the cabinet secretary stands to benefit personally from the project; and Halliburton stands to benefit from decisions made by the cabinet secretary.

Politico recently spoke to Marilyn Glynn, who led the Office of Government Ethics in the Bush/Cheney era, who said all of this appears inappropriate and should prompt Zinke to recuse himself from Halliburton-related policy decisions.

Glynn added, "In a previous administration, whether Bush or Obama, you'd never run across something like this.... Nobody would be engaging in business deals" with executives whose companies they regulate.

Making matters slightly worse, Politico also ran a follow-up report last month on Zinke hosting a meeting with Lesar and other developers about the project at Interior Department headquarters last summer, raising further questions about blurred ethical lines.

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