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Trump, looking for a foe to attack, confirms he's under investigation

06/16/17 11:00AM

Donald Trump has been so consumed by the threat posed by the Russia scandal that, according to a Politico report, the president has been known to inject, "I'm not under investigation," without prompting, into various conversations with associates and allies.

Of course, that's not going to happen anymore. For only the third time in the history of the country, the American president is the subject of a federal criminal investigation -- a fact Trump confirmed in a tweet this morning.

"I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt"

As presidential tweets go, this one's a real doozy, and it's worth unpacking because the details will have real consequences.

Trump isn't referring to Robert Mueller, who's overseeing the investigation into the broader scandal, but rather to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, whom Mueller technically answers to in the Justice Department's hierarchy because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself in matters related to this controversy.

There was already some discussion about whether Rosenstein would also have to recuse himself -- he may be a witness to the president's alleged crimes -- and Trump admonishing Rosenstein in public probably makes the DOJ official's recusal more likely.

Indeed, while White House officials reportedly talked Trump out of firing Mueller, it's suddenly easy to imagine the president showing the deputy AG the door, sooner rather than later.

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Trump's second-term curse starts surprisingly early

06/16/17 10:14AM

Political observers have talked for years about American presidents and the frequency with which they run into the "second-term curse." It hasn't affected every president -- Barack Obama, for example, avoided the "curse" -- but in many modern administrations, presidents have confronted serious crises and scandals in the latter half of their two terms.

In fact, going into this year, only two American presidents have ever been the subject of federal criminal inquiries -- Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton -- and both ran into trouble in their second terms.

This small club, however, now has a new member, with Donald Trump facing his own criminal investigation. Time will tell what becomes of the ongoing federal probe, but MSNBC's Ari Melber raised an interesting numerical point yesterday: when Nixon first faced a criminal inquiry into his misconduct in office, he'd been president for 1,580 days. For Clinton, it was 1,835 days.

For Trump, it was 145 days. His second-term curse arrived in his first term -- before he'd even reached his first 4th of July in the White House. I made the above chart to help drive the point home.

I can appreciate why it feels like Trump has been in office for a very long time, but the fact remains that his presidency hasn't yet reached the five-month mark.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) bows his head in prayer during an event on Capitol Hill, Feb. 24, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Republicans struggle to find the purpose of their health care plan

06/16/17 09:35AM

Consider policymaking in a republic at its most basic level. Voters elect policymakers who identify problems and then try to come up with solutions to those problems.

To be sure, this is rarely easy. Sometimes officials misidentify problems, come up with misguided remedies, or struggle to reach a necessary consensus on solutions, but the underlying governing model is straightforward and sound.

In the case of Republican policymakers working on a health care overhaul, this model is being ignored.

When Democrats were crafting the Affordable Care Act, there was no question as to why they were acting. Democrats identified some key systemic problems -- too many Americans lacked basic health coverage, and even those with insurance faced security risks -- and then worked on a solution. There's ample room for debate about the merits of the Democrats' reform law, but there's no confusion about the purpose of their work.

With Republicans this year, no one has the foggiest idea what they're doing -- GOP leaders are operating in complete secrecy -- but just as importantly, we don't know what question they're trying to answer. The solution is being kept hidden, but so too is the purpose of the endeavor.

Vox published a great report on this today after speaking to eight Senate Republicans, each of whom struggled to explain what their party is even trying to do.

With the bill's text still not released for public view, Vox asked GOP senators to explain their hopes for it. Who will benefit from the legislation? What problems is this bill trying to solve?

"All of them," Sen. John McCain said in an interview, not an uncharacteristic response of his Republican Senate colleagues.

Over the course of the past week, Vox asked eight different Republican senators to explain the affirmative case for the bill. They rarely answered directly, at least not on the bill's policy merits.

In any policy debate, we're accustomed to asking whether the proposed solution is worthwhile. In this case, however, not only is the answer elusive, but the question is still murky.

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The 'clueless, not criminal' Trump defense comes up far short

06/16/17 08:42AM

Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) talked to NPR's Steve Inskeep yesterday, and the conservative lawmaker expressed support for the ongoing investigation into Donald Trump's Russia scandal, saying it'd be "healthy" to separate facts from fiction.

But note what happened when the discussion turned to the investigation into whether the president obstructed justice. From the NPR transcript:

SCHWEIKERT: I'm at the point where, you know, we also have to be real careful from the standpoint we have a president that's not from the political class. The learning of the disciplined use of language and what certain words mean in our context. If you're not from this world, you may not have developed that discipline. But understand, sometimes...

INSKEEP: Although he's got an entire staff. He's got scores of lawyers. He's got people who could advise him on the law and on procedures if he wanted to listen to those things.

This brings us back to the line of argument known in some circles as the "clueless, not criminal" defense. Trump may have obstructed justice, the defense goes, but he didn't really mean to: the president simply doesn't know enough about politics or the law to know where the boundaries are. We should hold Trump to a lower standard, the argument implicitly suggests, because he doesn't really know what he's doing.

Or as Schweikert put it, the president is new to "the political class," which means he lacks "the disciplined use of language."

If this sounds familiar, it's because Schweikert isn't the only one making the argument. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), among others, argued earlier this week, "The president is new at this, he is new to government, and so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, FBI, and White Houses. He is just new to this.”

This is a very bad argument, which does not improve with repetition.

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Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence waits for the start of the third U.S. presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on Oct. 19, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nev. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

Mike Pence lawyers up as Russia scandal reaches new level

06/16/17 08:00AM

Mike Pence's tenure as vice president has already been unusual, at least compared to his modern predecessors. The Indiana Republican, for example, created his own political action committee, a first for a sitting VP. He's also headlining his own "cross-country summer campaign tour," which isn't usually the sort of thing we see from a vice president six months into his first term.

And as Rachel noted on last night's show, the Washington Post reported that Pence has also found it necessary to lawyer up, as the Russia scandal intensifies.

Vice President Pence has hired outside legal counsel to help with both congressional committee inquiries and the special counsel investigation into possible collusion between President Trump's campaign and Russia.

The vice president's office said Thursday that Pence has retained Richard Cullen, a Richmond-based lawyer and chairman of McGuireWoods who previously served as a U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia.

Cullen will represent Pence's personal interests and will not be paid with taxpayer funds.

Note that Donald Trump hired his own outside counsel, Marc Kasowitz, who recently told White House officials that he didn't see the need for them to find their own attorneys. Evidently, Pence is ignoring that advice.

One of the striking differences between Pence's outside counsel and Trump's outside counsel is that the former seems vastly more qualified. The president created a legal team featuring commercial litigators and the head of TV preacher Pat Robertson's religious right legal group -- who collectively have no experience overseeing a defense over these kinds of constitutional questions. The vice president's new lawyer, on the other hand, worked on George W. Bush's legal team and played a legal role in the Iran-Contra affair.

One of these things is not like the other.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 6.15.17

06/15/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The latest out of Northern Virginia: "The firearms recovered after a gunman opened fire on a Republican congressional baseball practice and injured five people in Alexandria, Virginia, appear to have been purchased legally, the FBI and other authorities said Thursday."

* It's a shame this was even necessary: "The Republican-led Senate unanimously approved a measure emphasizing the importance of NATO's mutual defense pact, a not-so-subtle dig at President Donald Trump. Sen. Lindsey Graham's resolution passed 100-0 after Trump waffled on his commitment to Article 5. That's the alliance's 'one for all, all for one' defense agreement."

* A story worth watching: "Authorities in the District said Thursday that they have criminally charged a dozen members of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's security team who authorities say attacked protesters outside the ambassador's residence in May."

* In a normal administration, this would be a legitimate controversy: "Five months after first appearing in front of Congress in pursuit of the job of Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt may need to clarify his congressional testimony yet again. Pruitt appears to have used two government email addresses while serving as attorney general of Oklahoma -- despite telling the Senate that he used only one government email address during his time in that office."

* Kerry knows of what he speaks: "Former Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that the Iran nuclear deal could hold even if President Donald Trump pulls out but he warned that imposing new economic sanctions against Tehran could be dangerous."

* The new way to prepare for a national election in the West: "To guard against mischief similar to what Russia instigated in the U.S. last year and may have sought to do in France this spring, the Germans are shoring up their defenses."

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An attendee handles a revolver in the Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc. booth on the exhibition floor of the 144th National Rifle Association (NRA) Annual Meetings and Exhibits in Nashville, Tenn. on April 11, 2015. (Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty)

DC-area shooting delays Congress' consideration of silencers bill

06/15/17 04:28PM

The timing wasn't ideal. The House was poised to begin work yesterday on legislation to ease restrictions on firearm silencers, and as the Washington Post's Dana Milbank noted, the work roughly coincided with the first anniversary of the massacre at an Orlando nightclub and the second anniversary of the murders at a Charleston Bible study.

But work on that legislation -- indeed, work on all House legislation -- was put off in light of the terrifying shooting in Northern Virginia yesterday.

It did get me thinking, though, about the proposed changes to federal laws related to silencers. What does the measure, championed by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) -- who, coincidentally, was at yesterday's baseball practice, though he left before the gunman attacked -- do? Politico had a good summary:

Under the 1934 National Firearms Act, silencers are treated similarly to machine guns and explosives. The waiting time to purchase one is far longer than for handguns or other weapons, as much as nine months or more, and buyers have to submit fingerprints and a photograph. Federal law enforcement agencies keep a record of silencer purchases. There is also a $200 transfer tax on silencers.

Duncan's proposal would eliminate those requirements, as well as refunding the $200 transfer tax to anyone who has purchased a silencer since October 2015.

That last detail is especially generous. Even if you've already paid the necessary taxes on the purchase of a silencer, Congress is prepared to send you a refund.

The proposal -- named the "Hearing Protection Act" -- is just starting to move forward, but by all appearances, its chances of passing the House are good.

Yesterday's delay, meanwhile, was temporary. There's been no announcement about when the bill on silencers will be taken up again, but consideration of the measure is expected again soon.

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This file handout photo taken on May 10, 2017 made available by the Russian Foreign Ministry shows shows US President Donald J. Trump (C) speaking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and Russian Ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak.

Trump's indifference to Russia's election attack raises alarm

06/15/17 12:43PM

In the current political climate, it's rare to see any policy measure receive broad bipartisan support; the parties are simply too far apart on practically every issue. Yesterday, however, offered an exception.

The Senate voted 97 to 2 in support of legislation imposing new economic sanctions on Russia in response to Moscow's intervention in the American presidential election. The same measure, which now heads to the House, would block the White House from acting unilaterally on easing sanctions against Moscow -- a move Donald Trump has reportedly considered more than once.

For many Senate Republicans, this was literally the first time in 2017 in which they voted against Trump's preference.

There are a variety of interesting questions surrounding the bill -- most notably, no one knows if the president would veto it -- but let's not miss the forest for the trees. The fact that the chamber took this action at all demonstrated something important: nearly every member of the Senate cares that a foreign adversary attacked our democracy, and they're taking steps to do something about it.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, seems indifferent, if not outwardly hostile, to the core details -- which is difficult to accept at face value, and even harder to defend.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, talked to CNN on Tuesday and expressed his frustration about Trump's and his administration's indifference. His comments were quite candid:

"The other question [Attorney General Jeff Session] didn't answer -- I've got to say, it really, really disturbed me -- and that is, 'Have you looked into what the Russians did? Have you asked for any briefings? Do you understand the magnitude of what was done to us?' And the answer was no.

"And Jim Comey essentially said the same thing last week about the president. He had nine interactions with the president. The president never asked, 'What did the Russians do? How did they do it? How do you know they did it?' [...]

"[T]his is the most serious attack on our country since September 11. An adversary is aiming an arrow at the heart of our democracy. And these folks are just shrugging it off and saying, you know, 'Let's move on and talk about other issues.' I understand their defensiveness on whether they were involved in it or not, but the fundamental story of what the Russians did -- and that they're still at it and will continue to be at it -- is just being ignored, and it really bothers me when the Commander in Chief takes that position."

As it should.

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