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Thursday's Mini-Report, 3.8.18

03/08/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Part of me wasn't sure he'd go through with it: "President Donald Trump on Thursday approved new steel and aluminum tariffs, capping off a week-long worth of controversy over his plans to impose the trade penalties."

* Doing this on International Women's Day seems especially insulting: "Mississippi lawmakers on Thursday passed what is likely to be the nation's most restrictive abortion law, making the procedure illegal after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The House voted 75-34 in favor of the measure, and Gov. Phil Bryant has said he will sign it."

* Manafort: "Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort pleaded not guilty to a new indictment on Thursday and will have to wear a second ankle-monitoring bracelet until his trial, which could begin as early as July. As he left court, a protester threw a Russian flag at him and shouted: 'Traitor! Show us your bracelet.'"

* It's genuinely weird to see a president talk like this: "President Donald Trump said Thursday he suspected departing aide Gary Cohn would be back, saying the National Economic Council director 'may be a globalist, but I still like him.'"

* Jared Kushner with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, but he "did not invite the American ambassador -- Roberta S. Jacobson, a diplomat with more than 30 years of experience in the region -- to join him in the meetings."

* I guess the story can get weirder: "A day before she resigned as White House communications director, Hope Hicks told the House Intelligence Committee last week that one of her email accounts was hacked, according to people who were present for her testimony in the panel's Russia probe."

* Quite a story: "Lawyers for the alleged USS Cole bombing mastermind quit the capital case after discovering a microphone in their special client meeting room and were denied the opportunity to either talk about or investigate it, the Miami Herald has learned."

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

Automatic voter registration poised to reach another state

03/08/18 12:51PM

As recently three years ago, automatic voter registration did not exist in any of the nation's states. As the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law noted yesterday, the policy will soon be the law in a fifth of the states.

Washington is set to become the latest state to automatically register citizens to vote at state agencies. The State House and Senate agreed on language and passed the legislation today. [...]

Under the bill, Washingtonians who apply for or renew an enhanced driver's license at the Department of Licensing will automatically be registered to vote unless they decline. The bill also requires public assistance agencies to move toward automatic voter registration, and for the state's health benefit exchange to implement electronic voter registration.

According to the Brennan Center, the bill in the state of Washington is now headed to Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who is expected to sign it into law.

The Evergreen State will then join Oregon, California, Alaska, Colorado, Illinois, Georgia, West Virginia, Rhode Island, and Vermont as states that have adopted AVR.

Don't be surprised if Nevada is next:  automatic voter registration will be on the statewide ballot, and most observers expect it to pass.

Also keep an eye on New Jersey, where the Democratic-led legislature already approved the policy once, though it was vetoed by then-Gov. Chris Christie (R). The Garden State's new governor, Phil Murphy (D), is on record supporting AVR, so it's probably only a matter of time.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.8.18

03/08/18 12:00PM

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

* In light of the latest developments in the Russia scandal involving Blackwater founder Erik Prince, it's kind of amazing that Prince is scheduled to host a fundraiser for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Congress' most pro-Putin member.

* Trump World continues to go all out to rescue Rick Saccone's campaign in Pennsylvania's congressional special election next week, with White House counselor Kellyanne Conway scheduled to appear with the GOP candidate in the 18th district today. (Conway was cited earlier this week for improperly using her position for partisan political ends.)

* Brad Parscale, Donald Trump's 2020 campaign manager, backed Robert Stovall's Republican congressional campaign in Texas's 21st district this week. Stovall, however, "finished sixth in a crowded Republican primary."

* I'm not sure this is legal, but Maryland's Democratic-led legislature is moving forward with a proposal to require presidential candidates to release their tax returns in order to be eligible for the state's ballot. The state Senate approved the plan yesterday on a 28-to-17 vote.

* A national Quinnipiac poll released yesterday showed Democrats with a 10-point advantage on the generic congressional ballot, 48% to 38%. That's slightly better than the Dems' nine-point advantage in a Quinnipiac poll from early February, but not as a high as the party's 15-point lead two weeks ago.

* The latest Monmouth University poll, meanwhile, found Democrats ahead on the generic ballot by nine points, 50% to 41%.

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Image: US House of Representatives passes short-term measure to fund the government

House Republicans show how not to investigate a scandal

03/08/18 10:51AM

On Tuesday night, the New York Times published online an important story about Lebanese-American businessman George Nader, an adviser to the United Arab Emirates, who is now a witness cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe of the Russia scandal. The article, which appeared on the Times' front page yesterday, was a doozy.

Not only is Mueller apparently "examining the influence of foreign money" in the 2016 campaign, but Nader also helped arrange the controversial January 2017 meeting in the Seychelles -- a meeting that featured a prominent Trump supporter and a Russian official close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Yesterday, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) reportedly told a CBS News reporter, "I don't have any clue who George Nader is."

At face value, that may not seem especially notable, except Mike Conaway is a member of the House Intelligence Committee -- and he's ostensibly helping lead the investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal. Even if he'd missed the front-page scoop in the New York Times, it stands to reason he'd know who George Nader is, simply by virtue of his own familiarity with the details of his own probe.

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Xi Jinping

Why Trump's latest request to China didn't make any sense

03/08/18 10:00AM

The U.S. trade deficit is steadily growing, and as Reuters reported yesterday, "the shortfall with China widening sharply." Donald Trump's vow to shrink the trade deficit quickly clearly isn't on track for success.

It's against this backdrop that the American president published an odd tweet yesterday.

"China has been asked to develop a plan for the year of a One Billion Dollar reduction in their massive Trade Deficit with the United States. Our relationship with China has been a very good one, and we look forward to seeing what ideas they come back with. We must act soon!"

Putting aside some grammatical concerns, this was a puzzling missive. The U.S. trade deficit with China last year was a little over $375 billion. We can certainly have a conversation about whether that's good or bad, but for Trump to ask Beijing to "develop a plan" to shrink that deficit by $1 billion is practically silly -- because even if China had an incentive to help the White House on this, what difference would it make to reduce the shortfall by a fraction of a percentage point?

Indeed, after Trump's strange tweet, it was only natural to wonder just how confused the president really is. Did the administration actually submit such a request? Was the $1 billion figure the result of some kind of negotiation? Was Trump just publishing random thoughts unrelated to any real policies?

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Image: Stormy Daniels Hosts Super Bowl Party At Sapphire Las Vegas Gentlemen's Club

Trump lawyer tries to silence porn star Stormy Daniels

03/08/18 09:20AM

Stormy Daniels, the adult-film star who allegedly had a sexual relationship with Donald Trump and received $130,000 not to talk about it before the 2016 election, filed a lawsuit this week. The basis for the case is pretty straightforward: Daniels wants to talk about the alleged affair and is trying to break the "hush agreement" that seems to require her silence.

What we didn't know until late yesterday was that Michael Cohen, Trump's personal attorney who facilitated the pre-election porn-star payment, has also taken some fresh legal steps of his own.

President Donald Trump's lawyer is trying to silence adult-film star Stormy Daniels, obtaining a secret restraining order in a private arbitration proceeding and warning that she will face penalties if she publicly discusses a relationship with the president, NBC News has learned.

As NBC News' report explained, Cohen obtained a temporary restraining order against Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, from a private arbitrator. The order "bars her from disclosing 'confidential information' related to the nondisclosure agreement signed in October 2016, just two weeks before Election Day.

Why Cohen didn't go to a court, with public proceedings, is unclear.

Meanwhile, for the first time, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders yesterday addressed the scandal, insisting that Trump denies the adulterous relationship, and adding, "I've had conversations with the president about this, and as I outlined earlier, that this case has already been won in arbitration."

It's not altogether clear what case the president's spokesperson was referring to -- getting a temporary restraining order isn't the same thing as "winning" a case -- and Daniels' attorney suggested Sanders' claim is false.

What's more, the White House press secretary was less than categorical in response to questions about whether Trump knew about the apparent hush money, with the Washington Post characterizing Sanders' posture as "suspiciously coy."

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In Russia probe, Mueller examines infamous Seychelles meeting

03/08/18 08:40AM

The first report about Trump World seeking backchannel communications with Russia came nearly a year ago. The Washington Post  reported last May that Jared Kushner, Michael Flynn, and then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak had a private meeting in early December -- during the Trump presidential transition process -- at Trump Tower in New York.

At the meeting, Kushner reportedly "discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump's transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring." (That didn't work: Kislyak shared Kushner's offer with his superiors in Russia, and those communications were intercepted by U.S. intelligence officials.)

And now we're learning about another related effort. The Washington Post moved the ball forward overnight with this report:

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has gathered evidence that a secret meeting in Seychelles just before the inauguration of Donald Trump was an effort to establish a back channel between the incoming administration and the Kremlin -- apparently contradicting statements made to lawmakers by one of its participants, according to people familiar with the matter.

In January 2017, Erik Prince, the founder of the private security company Blackwater, met with a Russian official close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and later described the meeting to congressional investigators as a chance encounter that was not a planned discussion of U.S.-Russia relations.

A witness cooperating with Mueller has told investigators the meeting was set up in advance so that a representative of the Trump transition could meet with an emissary from Moscow to discuss future relations between the countries, according to the people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

If you saw Rachel's segment on Tuesday, or Ari's report last night, you know the cooperating witness is Lebanese-American businessman George Nader, who's proving to be a key player in this story. It was Nader who not only attended the pre-inaugural Seychelles meeting, he also helped organize it.

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Image: Donald Trump

Trump ignores legal advice, talks with witnesses about Russia case

03/08/18 08:00AM

About a week ago, Politico  reported that Donald Trump's lawyers have given him good advice about Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Russia scandal: the president should not discuss details of the probe "with anyone outside his legal team."

The same piece added, however, that when it comes to this scandal, Trump "often fails to observe boundaries." It's a point driven home by the latest reporting from the New York Times.

The special counsel in the Russia investigation has learned of two conversations in recent months in which President Trump asked key witnesses about matters they discussed with investigators, according to three people familiar with the encounters. [...]

The episodes demonstrate that even as the special counsel investigation appears to be intensifying, the president has ignored his lawyers' advice to avoid doing anything publicly or privately that could create the appearance of interfering with it.

On the show last night, MSNBC's Ari Melber did a nice job summarizing some of the possible reasons the president would do this. It's possible, for example, that Trump simply doesn't care about his own lawyer's advice. Maybe he doesn't fully appreciate the possible risks. Perhaps the president recognizes the risk, but he believes it's a gamble worth making.

Or maybe Trump, lacking in impulse control, just can't help himself.

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Pursuit of Kremlin link by Trump backer eyed by Mueller: WaPo

Pursuit of Kremlin link by Trump backer eyed by Mueller: WaPo

03/07/18 09:23PM

Sari Horwitz, national reporter for The Washington Post, talks with Ari Melber about Trump backer Erik Prince trying to set up a back channel of communication with the Kremlin at a secret Seychelles meeting with a Russian official close to Vladimir Putin, officials from the UAE, and UAE adviser George Nader, who is reportedly cooperating with... watch