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House Benghazi Committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., steps back as other Republican members of the panel discuss the final report on Benghazi, June 28, 2016, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Gowdy: Oversight Committee to examine Rob Porter controversy

02/14/18 10:42AM

As the controversy over former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter has unfolded, the number of questions has grown. More than a few observers have noted of late that, under normal political circumstances, we'd see lawmakers asking these questions during congressional hearings.

But with a Republican president and Republican-led Congress, basic oversight has effectively collapsed since Donald Trump took office. Will the Porter scandal be the latest victim of partisan neglect?

Maybe not. Politico  reported this morning:

The House Oversight Committee is investigating the Trump administration's employment of Rob Porter, the former White House staff secretary accused of domestic abuse, committee chairman Trey Gowdy said Wednesday.

Gowdy was asked on CNN's "New Day" if his committee would launch an investigation into Porter's employment at the White House and at what point the administration was made aware of the allegations against him. "We did last night," he responded.

In theory, for those seeking some kind of explanation for the White House's ridiculous handling of this matter, Gowdy's interest is an important step.

I have to wonder, though, what kind of inquiry he and his colleagues have in mind.

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Image: Director of Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt is sworn in by Justice Samuel Alito (not pictured) at the Executive Office in Washington

Pruitt tries to explain his taxpayer-financed first-class flights

02/14/18 10:08AM

There's a common thread that connect several of the controversies surrounding EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt; anxiety about critics of his work.

Pruitt has an around-the-clock security detail, apparently because he's concerned about his personal safety. He's had his office swept for surveillance devices, apparently because he's worried about spies. He's used our money to construct "a secure, soundproof communications booth," apparently because he's afraid of his colleagues hearing his conversations. He reportedly prevents the EPA's custodial staff from entering his office on their own, apparently because he's concerned about his trash. He's requested copies of emails from EPA employees because he's worried about what people are saying about him and Donald Trump.

And now we know Pruitt likes to spend taxpayer money on first-class travel because, well, I'll just let the Oklahoma Republican explain.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said Tuesday that the first class and military flights he takes at taxpayer expense come as a result of the "level of threat" he faces on planes.

"Unfortunately ... we've had some incidents on travel dating back to when I first started serving in the March-April timeframe," he told the New Hampshire Union Leader in an interview Tuesday, during a visit to the state.

"We live in a very toxic environment politically, particularly around issues of the environment," he continued, adding: "We've reached the point where there's not much civility in the marketplace and it's created, you know, it's created some issues and the (security) detail, the level of protection is determined by the level of threat."

The comments coincide with a CBS News report about Pruitt taking a very pricey international flight to Italy last summer.

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Image: Napolitano, Mueller Testify At Senate Homeland Security Committee Hearing

Despite Trump's boasts, his Mueller interview is looking less likely

02/14/18 09:20AM

Three weeks ago today, Donald Trump surprised White House reporters by making unscheduled comments about a provocative subject: Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Russia scandal. More specifically, the president made a variety of comments about how much he's looking forward to speaking to Mueller and his team under oath.

"I'm looking forward to it, actually," Trump said, adding that he'd "love to" talk to the special counsel investigators. The president went on to say he's "absolutely" prepared to answer questions under oath.

The comments were interesting for all sorts of reasons, but Trump added an additional element that stood out for me: a timeline:

REPORTER: Do you have a date set [for the Mueller interview], Mr. President?

TRUMP: I don't know, no. I guess you're talking about two or three weeks, but I would love to do it.

It's now been exactly three weeks. Not only has the president's conversation with Team Mueller not happened, but as the New York Times recently reported, Trump's lawyers are pushing against the idea, the president's recent rhetoric notwithstanding.

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Early Voting Starts In Florida

Dems are 'winning elections in places where they shouldn't be'

02/14/18 08:40AM

State Senate special elections don't generally receive national attention, but yesterday's race in Florida did. And as the Washington Post  reported, it's Democrats who are celebrating the results.

Democrats continued a streak of special election wins with a victory along the Gulf Coast of Florida on Tuesday, the 36th red-to-blue switch in a state legislative race since the 2016 election.

Democrat Margaret Good triumphed by seven points in the Sarasota-based 72nd District, defeating Republican candidate James Buchanan in an area that backed Donald Trump for president in 2016 by more than four points.

On the surface, this looked like a good race for the GOP. Sarasota tends to be a pretty conservative area; the Republican candidate was the son of a former congressman; this is a district where Democrats were at a significant registration disadvantage; and relatively high-profile GOP surrogates took an interest in the race, including Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump's former campaign manager.

A pro-Republican super PAC even weighed in, sending direct mail pieces trying to connect the Democratic candidate to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. (Remember, this was a state legislative race in Florida, in which Pelosi has literally no relevance.)

Lewandowski warned locals at a rally over the weekend that Democrats are "winning elections in places where they shouldn't be." That was certainly the case in Sarasota -- and it's been the case in districts all over the country.

Republican control of the state Senate remains intact, despite yesterday's results, though the GOP advantage is now just a little smaller.

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Adult-movie star Stormy Daniels stops at Rooster's Country Bar in Delhi, La. on Friday, July 3, 2009

Team Trump's payment to porn star finally comes into focus

02/14/18 08:00AM

There's been some discussion this week about why the Rob Porter controversy, and the White House's handling of the matter, has stuck in ways other Trump scandals have not. There are competing explanations, though I suspect some of it may be the result of timing: so often since Donald Trump took office, one controversy will start to pick up steam, before some other scandal with push it off the front page.

With this in mind, it's a bad sign when fresh details about hush money to a porn star are a welcome distraction for a White House already reeling from an unrelated controversy.

A personal lawyer for President Donald Trump told NBC News on Tuesday night that he paid $130,000 to pornographic film star Stormy Daniels, who has in the past said she had an affair with Trump.

In a statement late Tuesday, the lawyer, Michael Cohen, confirmed a report in The New York Times that he made the payment to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, a month before the 2016 presidential election.

In his statement, Cohen, the president's longtime attorney, said, "Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly."

When I describe Cohen's latest version of events as unbelievable, I'm being quite literal.

Indeed, consider what we're being asked to believe: Donald Trump's personal lawyer took it upon himself to pay a porn star $130,000, out of his own pocket, shortly before the 2016 presidential election. The attorney -- whose client claims to be a billionaire with vast resources at his disposal -- made the payment through an LLC he quietly created in Delaware, where it's easier to establish business entities with minimal disclosures.

The adult-film actress alleges she had a sexual relationship with Trump, during his third and current marriage, and Cohen, for reasons he hasn't yet explained, just wanted the porn star, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, to have $130,000.

This story had largely faded from the political radar in recent weeks. I think it's safe to say it's back. Among the relevant angles:

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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 2.13.18

02/13/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* DACA: "A second U.S. judge on Tuesday blocked President Donald Trump's decision to end a program that protects immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children from deportation."

* Climate crisis: "The Trump administration on Monday moved to repeal one of the last unchallenged climate-change regulations rushed into place in the waning days of the Obama presidency -- a rule restricting the release of planet-warming methane into the atmosphere."

* Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "vowed he would be vindicated Tuesday moments after police recommended that he be indicted on charges of corruption and bribery."

* The good news: "With the fate of hundreds of thousands of young, undocumented immigrants in the balance, the Senate on Monday began an open-ended debate on immigration -- an exceedingly rare step that, in effect, will allow senators to attempt to build a bill from scratch on the Senate floor."

* The bad news: "That excitement quickly turned to frustration as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) confirmed Tuesday morning that he wants the entire debate -- on the half-dozen-plus competing proposals put forward so far by lawmakers -- to be over by the end of the week."

* Baltimore: "Two Baltimore detectives were convicted Monday of robbery and racketeering in a trial that laid bare shocking crimes committed by an elite police unit and surfaced new allegations of widespread corruption in the city's police department."

* Milwaukee: "A Wisconsin jail commander repeatedly lied after her officers cut off water to an inmate who later died of dehydration, prosecutors said on Monday as they described a series of lethal missteps and a two-year investigation."

* This is a bad idea: "The Trump administration wants to turn the International Space Station into a kind of orbiting real estate venture run not by the government, but by private industry."

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US National Security Advisor Susan Rice listens to a speaker before speaking in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on March 21, 2014 in Washington, DC. Photo by Mandel Ngan/Getty.

Latest Republican offensive against Susan Rice comes up far short

02/13/18 04:07PM

There's something about former White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice that seems to send Republicans in unhealthy directions. Donald Trump, for example, invested quite a bit of energy last year in trying to smear the Obama-era aide, before his claims completely unraveled.

Before that, a variety of GOP officials targeted Rice with truly bizarre conspiracy theories involving the 2012 attack in Benghazi, each of which were discredited.

Politico  reported yesterday on the new Republican offensive against Rice.

Former President Barack Obama suggested in January 2017 that information related to a federal probe of Russian election interference might have to be withheld from aides to then-President-elect Donald Trump, according to an internal White House email released Monday by two senior GOP senators.

The warning Obama delivered on Jan. 5, 2017, came during an Oval Office conversation shortly after senior intelligence officials briefed him on Russian cyber-meddling in the 2016 election. It was documented in an email then-national security adviser Susan Rice sent to herself on Jan. 20, the day of Trump's inauguration.

Portions of the email were released Monday by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who called the missive "odd" and "unusual."

As one might expect, conservative media has embraced this as some kind of new Rice-related controversy.

So, let's unpack the story, because it's important -- not just to events that unfolded over a year ago, but also to the ongoing Trump-Russia scandal.

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Image: US-POLITICS-FBI-WRAY

FBI's Wray makes the White House's Porter problem worse

02/13/18 12:58PM

Last Thursday, just two days after the controversy surrounding former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter first broke, an Axios analysis said, "The West Wing couldn't have handled it worse."

That was premature -- because Trump World's handling of the controversy has clearly deteriorated since.

As of yesterday, the official line from Donald Trump's team included three key points: (1) White House officials weren't fully aware of the extent of the allegations against Porter; (2) the FBI hadn't yet completed its review of Porter's security clearance; and (3) the FBI first notified the White House about concerns related to Porter's clearance last summer.

According to FBI Director Christopher Wray's testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning, the White House's version of events simply isn't true. The New York Times  reported that Wray "contradicted ... the White House timeline."

Mr. Wray said that the bureau delivered to the White House a partial report on problems in Mr. Porter's background in March, months earlier than the White House has admitted receiving the information. [...]

[Wray added] that after the partial report in March, the F.B.I. gave the White House "a completed background investigation" in late July. He said the bureau received a request for a "follow-up inquiry" and provided more information about Mr. Porter's background to the White House in November.

The bureau's director went on to say that the investigation was "administratively closed" in January, which further contradicts the White House's claim that the examination was "ongoing" when domestic-abuse allegations forced Porter's ouster -- a claim Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeated twice yesterday.

It also raises further doubts about Trump World's claims that officials in the West Wing didn't know the extent of Porter's alleged misdeeds. Wray said the FBI compiled information about the staff secretary and the bureau "passed that on" to the White House.

So, unless Wray just perjured himself for no reason -- an unlikely scenario -- Trump's handpicked FBI director effectively contradicted all of the key defenses the White House has presented in the Porter matter, which comes on the heels of various members of the president's team contradicting each other.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.13.18

02/13/18 12:00PM

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

* In Minnesota yesterday, Democrat Karla Bigham won her state Senate special election by three points, keeping the seat "blue." It was, however, a competitive district: Donald Trump narrowly won here in the last presidential election.

* In related news, Minnesota was also home yesterday to a state House special election, where Republican Jeremy Munson prevailed in a district that Trump won by 26 points. Munson won by about 18 points.

* In a quote Nevada Democrats will be only too pleased to share with voters in the fall, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said yesterday about his plans for immigration policy, "I have a tendency to support what the president's trying to do, and that's probably the position that's closest to where I am."

* The Republican National Committee now intends to keep the donations it received from Steve Wynn, the RNC's former finance chair, "until state regulators in two states complete their investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct made against him."

* The Koch-backed Americans For Prosperity is reportedly launching new attack ads targeting Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) for voting against the regressive Republican tax plan.

* In Alabama, state Attorney General Steve Marshall (R) has been caught in an exceedingly awkward spot: his office is subpoenaing state lawmakers while his political operation seeks campaign contributions from those same lawmakers. (Thanks to my colleague Laura Conaway for the heads-up.)

* In Arizona, Senate hopeful Kelli Ward (R) told MSNBC's Kasie Hunt yesterday that she still wants Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to resign. Ward is currently running to replace Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who's retiring.

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Amtrak Train 111, which was the first Northeast Regional train out of New York City at 5:30 am this morning, arrives at Union Station May 18, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

The unsettling details surrounding Trump's railroad safety chief

02/13/18 11:20AM

The Trump administration has struggled with all kinds of personnel troubles lately, but this Politico piece about Heath Hall points to a different kind of controversy.

A top official charged with overseeing the safety of the nation's railroads has resigned "effective immediately," the Department of Transportation said Saturday after POLITICO raised questions about whether he was simultaneously working as a public relations consultant in Mississippi.

The news comes at a time of strain for the Federal Railroad Administration, which hasn't had a permanent leader for more than a year while it investigates a string of fatal train crashes and deals with a rising trend of rail-related deaths.

As Rachel explained on the show last night, the trouble in this case is that Heath Hall oversaw the Federal Railroad Administration while he maintained an entirely different job: Hall also served as a spokesperson for a local sheriff's department in Mississippi, home to the public-relations firm he's run for years.

In fact, Hall reportedly had federal officials help him with his second job, all while he was ostensibly helping oversee the $1.7 billion agency that's in charge of rail safety for the entire country. No one notified the Department of Transportation about any of this.

Almost immediately after Politico called to inquire about Hall's two simultaneous jobs, he resigned -- suggesting he intended to keep the scheme going until someone finally figured it out.

But before we move on, can we also ask how it is this guy got the job?

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