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A small boat crosses in front of an oil drilling rig as it arrives in Port Angeles, Wash. on April 17, 2015. (Photo by Daniella Beccaria/

Trump admin ignores dangers, unveils coastal drilling plan

01/05/18 10:00AM

One of the striking things about the Trump administration's new plan for coastal drilling is just how broad the opposition is. The Washington Post  reported:

The Trump administration unveiled a controversial proposal Thursday to permit drilling in most U.S. continental-shelf waters, including protected areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic, where oil and gas exploration is opposed by governors from New Jersey to Florida, nearly a dozen attorneys general, more than 100 U.S. lawmakers and the Defense Department.

Under the proposal, only one of 26 planning areas in the Arctic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean would be off limits to oil and gas exploration, according to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. He said the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management has identified 47 potential areas where industry companies can buy leases between 2019 and 2024, when the proposed period would begin and end.

Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), who votes with Donald Trump's position more than 98% of the time, said, "As the state with the longest coastlines in the continental United States, Florida is especially vulnerable to oil spills. Have we forgotten so soon the devastating damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010?"

I suppose the answer depends on what the Republican congressman means by "we." The Trump administration announced last week it's scaling back the drilling industry's safeguards created after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Yesterday was the second half of the one-two punch.

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White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stands beside monitors showing US President Donald J. Trump delivering a statement on the economy, at the beginning of a news conference in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, January

Pay some attention to that man behind the curtain

01/05/18 09:20AM

Towards the end of "The Wizard of Oz," Dorothy and her friends finally made their way to the Wizard, whose projected image appeared menacing, and who made odd and self-aggrandizing boasts, but who was actually just a weak man hiding behind a curtain, reluctant to confront people in person.

The famous scene came to mind towards the beginning of yesterday's White House press briefing, when Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders introduced a special guest -- from down the hall via video.

"The president's economic agenda of lower taxes, less regulation, and more opportunity for all is already paying off, and American families and workers are the big winners.

"With that in mind, we have a message from a special guest that I'd like to share with you. With that, I'll ask you to tune into the screens, and then I'll continue from there."

At that point, Sanders played a video of Donald Trump talking about how much he likes his tax plan.

For those unfamiliar with the layout of the White House, the president's Oval Office is in the West Wing, down a fairly short hallway from the press briefing room. I mention this because Trump could've simply taken a short stroll down the hall and told the reporters about his affection for the regressive Republican tax policy, but he preferred to remain behind the curtain.

As NBC News' Ali Vitali put it, "More than a few D.C. residents opted to work remotely Thursday, looking to dodge potential commuting headaches as one of the strongest winter storms in recent history hit the East Coast. The president of the United States did the same -- even though his commute would have been just a few dozen feet. And completely indoors."

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Job growth slows to a six-year low in Trump's first year

01/05/18 08:43AM

Those hoping to see the U.S. job market end 2017 on an encouraging note are going to be disappointed.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today that the economy added 148,000 jobs in December, which is down a fair amount from the previous two months, and falls short of expectations. That said, the unemployment rate held steady at 4.1%, which is very low.

The revisions from the previous two months were mixed, with October's totals revised down and November's totals revised up. Combined, they pointed to a net loss of 9,000 jobs, which adds to the discouraging nature of today's report.

Providing some additional context, now that we have data for all of the previous calendar year, we can note that the U.S. added 2.09 million jobs in 2011, 2.14 million jobs in 2012, 2.3 million in 2013, 2.99 million in 2014, 2.71 million in 2015, 2.24 million in 2016, and 2.05 million in 2017.*

Or put another way, while Donald Trump's first year as president has been pretty good overall for job creation, Americans nevertheless saw the slowest job growth in six years. (Note, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will revise the 2017 data once more, making the available figures preliminary.)

Above you'll find the chart I run every month, showing monthly changes in total jobs since the start of the Great Recession. The image makes a distinction: red columns point to monthly changes under the Bush and Trump administrations, while blue columns point to monthly job changes under the Obama administration.

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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

Obstruction allegations against Trump come into sharper focus

01/05/18 08:00AM

One of the key elements of the Trump-Russia scandal is the question of whether the president is personally liable for potentially obstructing the investigation. And to that end, Donald Trump's alleged pressure of then-FBI Director James Comey, who's claimed the president tried to get him to back off of specific lines of inquiry, is critical to understanding whether the president is criminally liable.

It's therefore necessary for Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team to, if possible, substantiate Comey's claims. As Rachel noted at the top of last night's show, the New York Times  reports that Mueller has done exactly that.

Mr. Mueller has ... substantiated claims that Mr. Comey made in a series of memos describing troubling interactions with the president before he was fired in May.

The special counsel has received handwritten notes from Mr. Trump's former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, showing that Mr. Trump talked to Mr. Priebus about how he had called Mr. Comey to urge him to say publicly that he was not under investigation.

The fact that Priebus took handwritten notes, which are now in the hands of the special counsel's office, is a striking new detail.

And while that's an important detail, it's not the only reason to care about the new front-page Times piece.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 1.4.18

01/04/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Elections continue to carry consequences: "The Trump administration unveiled a controversial proposal Thursday to permit drilling in most U.S. continental-shelf waters, including protected areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic, where oil and gas exploration is opposed by governors from New Jersey to Florida, nearly a dozen attorneys general, more than 100 U.S. lawmakers and the Defense Department."

* Pakistan: "The Trump administration will suspend most security assistance to Pakistan, the State Department said on Thursday, expanding its retribution over militant safe havens that U.S. officials blame for ongoing violence in Afghanistan."

* On a related note, Trump's tweets aren't helping: "Even by the standard of their tumultuous relationship, the growing feud between the United States and Pakistan is unusually serious, with the potential to trigger a breakdown in ties that could threaten cooperation on intelligence, nuclear safety and America's war in Afghanistan."

* The threats against "Fire and Fury" obviously didn't work: "The publisher of a new book about President Donald Trump's first year in office apparently isn't cowed by demands to halt publication — it is moving up the date the book comes out."

* Remember, we're supposed to think it's a well-oiled machine: "White House staffers and guests will no longer be able to use their personal cellphones in the West Wing, the Trump administration said Thursday."

* Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello "announced on Thursday the formation of a task force to examine the number of deaths related to Hurricane María. The group is expected to report its findings, including any revised numbers, in 90 days."

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump lawyers scramble to block publishers from releasing a book

01/04/18 03:17PM

Donald Trump has a curious habit of threatening lawsuits. FiveThirtyEight counted the number of times during the 2016 presidential campaign that the Republican threatened to sue various people or organizations, and found 20 separate incidents -- including the time Trump vowed to sue the women who accused him of sexual misconduct once the election was over.

The threats have been less common now that Trump is president, though this week is proving to be an exception. Yesterday, the president's lawyers sent a "cease and desist" letter to Steve Bannon, the former chief White House strategist, and NBC News reports today on a new effort today.

President Donald Trump's lawyers are expanding their crusade against a new book that gives a behind-the-scenes account of the White House.

In a letter sent Thursday to "Fire and Fury" author Michael Wolff and his publisher, Trump attorney Charles Harder demanded that the book, which reached No. 1 on the Amazon best-seller list Wednesday, not be published or disseminated. A copy of the letter obtained by NBC News cites defamation, libel and "actual malice" among the alleged wrongdoings in the book, which is due to be released on Tuesday.

As a legal matter, it's difficult to imagine the book's publisher and author backing down in the face of this threat. As a practical matter, I'm not sure it matters: the book has already reached quite a few major news organizations, which have highlighted excerpts for the public.

While we're at it, let's not forget that Trump World gave quite a bit of access to Michael Wolff himself, who was in the White House many times while collecting material for his bestseller.

But even putting all of this aside, presidents don't generally try to block publication of books that criticize them -- at least not in this country.

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Image: Jeff Sessions

AG Jeff Sessions to reverse recent progress on pot

01/04/18 12:45PM

In the Obama era, there were some historic breakthroughs on U.S. drug policy, with voters in several states approving ballot measures to legalize recreational or medicinal marijuana use. As regular readers know, those state-based policies were allowed to proceed because the Obama administration extended its approval.

But it didn't have to. Under federal law, officials could have ignored voters' will and blocked those policies from advancing. State experimentation has been allowed to flourish because Barack Obama and his team took a progressive approach to the issue.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a more regressive policy in mind.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is giving U.S. attorneys the green light to aggressively enforce federal laws against marijuana -- even in states where pot is legal.

In doing so, Sessions is reversing an Obama administration policy that shielded legalized marijuana from federal intervention and enabled the pot industry to flourish, a senior Justice Department official told NBC News on Thursday.

How this will play out in practical terms is still unclear. As NBC News' report makes clear, the Justice Department established a policy five years ago that directed federal prosecutions to focus on "cases of peddling pot to minors, selling marijuana across state borders or growing pot on federal land, or when it involved gangs or organized crime." Otherwise, federal law enforcement adopted a largely hands-off posture on the issue.

Jeff Sessions is now scrapping that 2013 policy, opening the door to federal prosecutors possibly pursuing marijuana cases anew.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.4.18

01/04/18 12:00PM

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

* After a Virginia court yesterday rejected a legal challenge from the Democratic candidate, the commonwealth's undecided House of Delegates race was settled this morning by choosing a name out of a bowl. The Republican won, which means there will be a GOP majority -- even though most Virginia voters voted Democratic.

* As Donald Trump and Steve Bannon effectively go to war, some Republican candidates who touted Bannon's support are suddenly running in the opposite direction. That includes former Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), who saw Bannon as a key part of his comeback bid.

* In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) seems like a safe bet for re-election, but he'll first have to withstand a primary challenge. Jan Morgan, perhaps best known for owning a gun range that excludes religious minorities she doesn't like, kicked off a Republican gubernatorial campaign on New Year's Eve.

* Those of us who've grown accustomed to reading Gallup's daily tracking poll will have to go without: the longtime pollster is discontinuing its daily tracking poll. Going forward, it will, however, report on presidential approval ratings once per week.

* The American Action Network, a group with close ties to Congress' Republican leadership, is reportedly investing $2 million in television ads to promote the GOP tax plan. The Washington Post  reports the ad buy is "the first salvo in a $10 million campaign."

* Ahead of her re-election campaign, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) already has $12.8 million in her campaign coffers. Politico  reports that's more than "nearly any other incumbent senator ever has at this point in an election cycle."

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'I think the rest of the world will never see us quite the same'

01/04/18 11:20AM

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said something in a radio interview yesterday that's worth remembering.

SiriusXM's Pete Dominick asked Haass, who used to be a preeminent voice in Republican foreign policy circles before taking over the non-partisan CFR, about how foreign officials perceive Donald Trump's presidency. Haass briefly reflected on international bewilderment before concluding:

"I think the rest of the world will never see us quite the same. I know that sounds quite strong, but if this could happen once, why couldn't it happen again?

"I think the rest of the world will never put so many eggs in America's basket again. I think the rest of the world will adopt something of a hedging strategy -- because if this happened once, how do they know that there won't be elements of this again in our future?"

This struck a chord with me, because I think about it all the time.

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