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Why would anyone want to be Trump's White House chief of staff?

12/10/18 08:40AM

The conventional wisdom was that Nick Ayers, a top member of Vice President Mike Pence's team, would replace John Kelly as White House chief of staff. The White House had reportedly already prepared a press statement announcing Ayers' new gig -- right before he turned down the job.

By some accounts, other top contenders aren't interested, either. Politico's Nancy Cook reported overnight that the list is "shrinking by the hour."

It's worth understanding why.

One of my favorite stories about Kelly was published in August 2017, about five weeks into the retired general's tenure in the West Wing. The Washington Post noted at the time that Kelly had taken some steps to control the flow of information and access to Trump. The president not only hated the new system, he resorted to reaching out to some of his more provocative associates "from his personal phone when Kelly is not around."

It was a simple anecdote that pointed to a larger truth: the White House chief of staff had some ideas about bringing order and discipline to the West Wing, but Trump made sure those ideas failed.

It was an untenable dynamic that didn't work and is now coming to an ignoble end.

President Donald Trump announced on Saturday that his chief of staff John Kelly would be leaving the position by the end of the year. [...]

"John Kelly will be leaving at the end of the year. We will announce who will be taking John's place," Trump said, adding that there might be an interim chief of staff. "I appreciate his service very much."

The announcement itself was emblematic of the chaotic conditions in the West Wing. Four months ago, Kelly agreed to remain at his post through the 2020 election. When that arrangement failed, according to the New York Times, the president and Kelly agreed to a schedule in which the departing chief of staff "would break his own news on Monday, announcing his exit to senior White House staff members."

Trump, as usual, had other ideas.

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Faced with scandal, Trump seems oblivious to his precarious state

12/10/18 08:00AM

Earlier this year, Donald Trump ignored the advice of his team and declassified portions of the so-called "Nunes memo." Despite the fact that the document left the White House worse off than it was before, the president claimed at the time, reality be damned, that he'd been "totally vindicated."

Four months later, in June, the Justice Department's inspector general's office published a report on the federal law enforcement's behavior during the 2016 presidential election. The IG effectively shredded every narrative Trump had peddled for months, prompting the president to say the document "totally exonerated" him.

And on Friday night, in the wake of incredibly damaging court filings, it happened again.

After the filing from Mueller, Trump tweeted that it "totally clears the President. Thank you!" But in fact there was nothing in either court filing that exonerated Trump, and one portion strongly suggested that Trump was personally involved in a campaign finance violation.

The Manhattan prosecutors said Cohen had paid off two women to suppress their stories about affairs with Trump -- a campaign expense that was improperly not reported -- and said he did so "in coordination with and at the direction of" Trump.

The rhetorical pattern points to a couple of unavoidable truths. First, the president is a little too fond of the word "totally." Second, when confronted with incriminating information, Trump's first instinct is turn to gaslighting as a strategy, making up his own reality in the hopes that everyone else will simply play along.

It's an approach that does his presidency no favors. On Friday afternoon, federal prosecutors directly implicated the sitting American president in a felony. Around the same time, we learned of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's latest filing, which shed some additional light on the Trump Organization's associations with Russia during the 2016 campaign.

It's against this backdrop that Trump told reporters on Saturday, "On the Mueller situation, we're very happy with what we are reading." This isn't just bonkers, it's emblematic of a political posture that should worry the president's Republican allies.

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Mueller: Manafort lying and lying about lying; SDNY rips Cohen

Mueller: Manafort lying and lying about lying; SDNY rips Cohen

12/07/18 09:00PM

Rachel Maddow reports on two of three major new court filings in the Trump-Russia scandal. In the first, Robert Mueller outlines how former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort breached his cooperation agreement by lying. In the second, federal SDNY prosecutors ask the court to impose a substantial term of imprisonment on Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. watch

Friday's Mini-Report, 12.7.18

12/07/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Guess who'll have more on this at 9 p.m. (ET) on MSNBC: "Federal prosecutors recommended Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former attorney, serve a 'substantial term of imprisonment' after he pleaded guilty to eight felony charges according to a sentencing memo released Friday."

* A verdict in Charlottesville: "James Alex Fields Jr. has been found guilty of first-degree murder in the car attack that killed Heather Heyer and injured dozens of people protesting a white supremacist rally on Aug. 12, 2017. A jury also found him guilty of five counts of aggravated malicious wounding, three counts of malicious wounding and one count of hit-and-run."

* What a waste: "Republicans spent much of Friday trying to wring new information from former FBI Director James Comey during an all-day deposition -- but identified little new ground after six hours of free-wheeling inquiries."

* Wall Street: "The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by 558 points on Friday, capping a wild week of trading that saw the blue-chip index lose close to 5 percent of its value. It was the worst week for the Dow since March, and erased all gains for the year."

* The Whitaker mess: "President Donald Trump may have a pick he plans to nominate to be attorney general, but his Justice Department has yet to file the required paperwork that states Jeff Sessions has left the office."

* In related news: "A Justice Department ethics office has received requests for advice and issued guidance concerning acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker's involvement in the special counsel's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to Justice Department records."

* A demotion: "The role of United Nations ambassador will once again be a non-Cabinet position following Nikki Haley's exit, a senior administration official and a source with direct knowledge tell NBC News."

* A stunning revelation: "Investigators revealed that CBS continues to pay out a settlement to a woman who claimed that ['60 Minutes' creator/producer Don Hewitt] sexually assaulted her on repeated occasions and destroyed her career. The settlement, reached in the 1990s, has been amended multiple times, including this year. In total, CBS has agreed to pay the former employee more than $5 million."

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Image: Trump Designates North Korea as State Sponsor of Terror During Cabinet Meeting

Doing himself no favors, Trump lashes out at 'dumb' former cabinet sec

12/07/18 04:30PM

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke at an event in Houston yesterday, and shared some uncomplimentary thoughts on Donald Trump. According to the nation's former chief diplomat, the president is "pretty undisciplined," "doesn't like to read," and "often" urged Tillerson to pursue policies that were inconsistent with American laws.

Evidently, Trump heard about the remarks.

President Donald Trump launched into a no-holds-barred attack on his former secretary of state on Friday hours after Rex Tillerson gave his own blistering assessment of his time as the president's chief diplomat.

"Rex Tillerson didn't have the mental capacity needed," Trump tweeted. "He was dumb as a rock and I couldn't get rid of him fast enough. He was lazy as hell."

I don't doubt that the president found this satisfying. Someone who saw how Trump tries to govern told the public some unflattering truths, so Trump found it necessary to lash out and insult his new critic. He gets hit, he impulsively hits back.

But if the president assumes these little outbursts make him look better, he has this exactly backwards. In fact, Trump's tweet leads to a fairly obvious follow-up question: if Rex Tillerson is "dumb," "lazy," and lacking in "mental capacity," why exactly did the president make him the secretary of state?

Remember, it was just a few years ago when then-candidate Trump vowed to surround himself "only with the best and most serious people" if elected. It was right around the time he promised via Facebook to "hire the best people."

Either he's succeeded on this front or he hasn't -- and according to Trump, there's a fair amount of evidence for the latter.

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Leading Conservatives Attend 40th Annual CPAC

GOP senator: Stop nominating people with 'questionable records on race'

12/07/18 02:05PM

Over the summer, Ryan Bounds' nomination for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was on track to succeed, right up until Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the Senate's only African-American Republican, balked. The South Carolinian reviewed Bounds' history of racially provocative writings and decided he just couldn't vote to confirm him.

Last week, it happened again. Thomas Farr's nomination to serve as a district court judge was well on its way, until Scott objected, pointing to Farr's awful record on racially-specific voter-suppression tactics.

It's against this backdrop that the Republican senator wrote a letter to the editor to the Wall Street Journal, sending an unmistakable message to the newspaper's conservative editorial board -- and in the process, sending a related message to the White House.

I am saddened that in the editorial "Democrats and Racial Division" (Dec. 1) you attempt to deflect the concerns regarding Thomas Farr's nomination to the federal bench. While you are right that his nomination should be seen through a wider lens, the solution isn't simply to decry "racial attacks." Instead, we should stop bringing candidates with questionable track records on race before the full Senate for a vote. [...]

We must not seek to sow the seeds of discord, but rather embrace the power of unity. Simply put, if the Senate votes on a candidate that doesn't move us in that direction, I will not support him or her. Our country deserves better.

To be sure, Tim Scott is by no means a moderate. As his letter noted, he's already voted to confirm more than 99% of Donald Trump's judicial nominees. But he's also drawing a line, saying that he won't just blindly follow his party when it comes to nominees with racially provocative pasts.

It's a welcome sentiment, though it raises a related question: why does it fall on Tim Scott's shoulders alone to raise this objection?

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A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)

Why Trump's choice for the new attorney general is so controversial

12/07/18 12:44PM

As recently as September, Donald Trump declared, "I don't have an attorney general. It's very sad." The president wasn't being literal, of course, since Jeff Sessions was still in the AG's office, but Trump was disgusted with the Alabama Republican for failing to do his bidding.

The president has apparently found someone more to his liking.

President Donald Trump announced Friday that he plans to nominate William Barr for attorney general.... "He was my first choice from day one," Trump said of Barr, calling him a "highly respected lawyer" and "one of the most respected jurists in the country."

If confirmed by the Senate, it would be Barr's second stint as head of the Justice Department. He served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993 under the late former President George H.W. Bush.

Barr won't be considered by the Senate until the new year, when the Republican majority will grow from 51 members to 53. Given this arithmetic, Barr, who was confirmed easily in 1991, has reason to be optimistic about his chances.

But if White House officials expect the confirmation process to unfold without incident, they're likely to be disappointed.

To be sure, Barr's public profile has been modest of late, though he does speak out from time to time. Just two weeks into the Trump presidency, for example, Barr wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post defending the president's decision to fire acting Attorney General Sally Yates.

Three months later, he wrote another op-ed for the same newspaper, defending Trump's ouster of FBI Director James Comey.

All the while, Barr has been a critic of Hillary Clinton, explicitly calling for additional federal investigations into the former secretary of state as recently as late last year.

Is it any wonder the president likes this guy?

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.7.18

12/07/18 12:00PM

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

* In North Carolina's 9th, Democrat Dan McCready, who appeared on the show last night, withdrew his concession yesterday, and pressed Republican Mark Harris to come clean on his role in the election-fraud scheme.

* Nancy Pelosi took another step toward the House Speaker's gavel this morning when Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) announced his support for her. Lynch recently put his name on a letter, signed by 16 House Dems, opposing Pelosi's bid.

* I hope to flesh this out in more detail later today, but Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) officially conceded to Rep.-elect T.J. Cox (D) yesterday, marking the 40th House Democratic pickup of the 2018 elections.

* Mother Jones reported yesterday that in the 2016 cycle, the NRA and Donald Trump's campaign allegedly violated campaign-finance law by coordinating their advertising campaigns. The article quoted Larry Noble, a former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission, saying, "This is very strong evidence, if not proof, of illegal coordination."

* Missouri's state legislature is suddenly dealing with a flurry of resignations, as lawmakers scramble to become lobbyists before a new constitutional amendment takes effect.

* A new campaign-finance filing found Florida's Rick Scott (R) spent nearly $64 million of his own money on his successful U.S. Senate campaign, including $12.5 million in the race's three final weeks. The Sun Sentinel added, "On a per vote basis, Scott spent $15.50 of his own money for each of the 4,099,505 votes he received."

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Image: FILE PHOTO: EPA Administrator Pruitt testifies before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington

Billionaire's support for EPA's Pruitt was 'believed to be in cash'

12/07/18 11:20AM

When EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was forced to resign in disgrace over the summer, he left under unusually ugly circumstances. As regular readers may recall, the Oklahoma Republican, tapped to lead an agency whose mission he opposed, was the subject of 15 federal investigations and stood accused of being one of the most corrupt cabinet officials in modern history.

Pruitt may no longer be a member of Donald Trump's cabinet, but Pruitt's controversies are ongoing. E&E News, which covers the energy sector, reported yesterday on a new Pruitt disclosure: billionaire Republican donor Diane Hendricks apparently gave the former EPA chief $50,000 for his legal defense fund.

Pruitt set up the fund as he battled with ethics allegations that eventually led to his resignation from EPA. The report, also known as his termination report, covers Pruitt's finances for the 2018 calendar year up to his departure from the agency in early July.

Included on the report is a note from Justina Fugh, a senior EPA ethics official, saying Pruitt did not seek ethics advice from EPA before accepting the contribution from Hendricks. In addition, "EPA ethics officials did not know of this contribution -- believed to be in cash -- until they received the termination report."

It's worth emphasizing that "cash" can have different meanings depending on context. In corporate mergers, for example, we'll often see references to "cash," but it doesn't refer to literal paper currency.

That said, if the scandal-plagued EPA administrator received $50,000 "in cash" from a billionaire Republican donor, that seems like the sort of thing the authorities should examine in some detail.

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Image: FILES-US-POLITICS-DIPLOMACY-INTELLIGENCE

Tillerson: Trump's instructions were often at odds with the law

12/07/18 10:48AM

Nine months after his departure from Donald Trump's cabinet, there's been an evolution to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's criticisms of his former boss. Initially, Tillerson expressed his frustrations in private, telling colleagues after a Pentagon briefing that he considers Trump a "f**king moron."

In May, the nation's former chief diplomat hinted at his concerns publicly, though obliquely. In a commencement speech at the Virginia Military Institute, Tillerson condemned the nation's "growing crisis in ethics and integrity" and leaders who "conceal the truth." Observers had a hunch to whom he was referring, though the president's name wasn't used explicitly.

Last night at an event in Houston, Tillerson went a little further still in explaining why he and Trump didn't see eye to eye. The Houston Chronicle reported:

Tillerson said the two had starkly different styles and did not share a common value system.

"So often, the president would say here's what I want to do and here's how I want to do it and I would have to say to him, Mr. President I understand what you want to do but you can't do it that way. It violates the law," Tillerson said.

Oh. So, according to the former secretary of state, the president "often" asked him to pursue a foreign policy that was at odds with American law.

Trump's indifference to legal constraints is unsettling, of course, though it's likely an outgrowth of his inexperience and ignorance. Trump is, after all, the nation's first amateur president, taking office despite never having served in the public sector in any way for any amount of time. The presidency was a job he never even tried to understand, and by all appearances, Trump's familiarity with governmental institutions and constraints was, at best, child-like.

The president vowed to govern like a business leader, which very likely contributed to the dynamic Tillerson described: Trump was accustomed to simply barking orders from his private-sector perch and expecting his team to follow his instructions. When he took office and tried to do the same thing from the Oval Office, it fell to his secretary of state to explain that some of his orders simply couldn't be followed under the American system of government.

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Heather Nauert

Trump to nominate former Fox personality for United Nations post

12/07/18 10:09AM

It's been two months since Nikki Haley unexpectedly announced her resignation as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and by all appearances, the process of finding her successor has been a challenging one. There was some chatter about State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, but a week ago, Politico reported she was "out of contention."

Of course, when it comes to Donald Trump's team, the winds can change direction quickly.

President Trump on Friday said that he was nominating State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert to be his next United Nations ambassador.

"Heather Nauert will be nominated for the ambassador to the United Nations," he told reporters. She replaces Nikki Haley, who is set to leave the post at the end of the year.

If Nauert seems familiar, it's not just because of her State Department briefings. It was, after all, just last year when Nauert was a Fox News personality, using her "Fox and Friends" platform to, among other things, endorse Ivanka Trump's branded merchandise.

Soon after, Nauert became the chief spokesperson for the State Department -- because if there's one thing this president values, it's a team with television experience.

Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported that Nauert felt "sidelined" and was prepared to quit, before the White House promoted her to a position with "responsibilities far beyond the regular news conferences she held in the briefing room."

Now, evidently, Trump is prepared to promote her again to one of the nation's highest profile diplomatic posts, despite Nauert's total lack of relevant experience in diplomacy.

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