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Maria Butina, suspected Russian agent, pleads guilty to conspiracy

12/13/18 12:52PM

As Rachel joked on the show last night, "It's Advent calendar season, which means every day, you open a new tiny door to discover a new bit of wonder." Yesterday's door led to Michael Cohen's prison sentence and revelations surrounding AMI implicating Donald Trump in a felony.

Today's door opens to show us Maria Butina's guilty plea.

Russian operative Maria Butina, who is accused of infiltrating politically powerful U.S. organizations, including the National Rifle Association, in an effort to push Moscow's agenda, pleaded guilty Thursday to a conspiracy count.

Butina has agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors and pleaded guilty in a Washington, D.C., courtroom to one count of conspiracy to violate the law governing foreign agents operating in the United States. [...]

Thursday's guilty plea means she is admitting to conspiring with an unnamed American to act at the direction of a Russian official "to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics ... for the benefit of the Russian Federation," according to a plea agreement.

The person she conspired with, we've recently learned, was Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican operative, who was apparently romantically involved with Butina.

Her guilty plea caries a five-year prison term, though she's hasn't yet been sentenced and we don't yet know whether the Russian will receive the maximum penalty.

Of course, the fact that Butina has struck a deal with prosecutors is a rather remarkable development: it's not every day that an accused covert Russian agent agrees to cooperate with U.S. prosecutors, and if she's forthcoming, Butina is in a position to answer more than a few interesting questions.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.13.18

12/13/18 12:00PM

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

* A federal judge this morning rejected Rep. Bruce Poliquin's (R) lawsuit challenging Maine's ranked-choice voting system, which led to his defeat in the state's 2nd congressional district last month. "To the extent that the Plaintiffs call into question the wisdom of using RCV, they are free to do so but ... such criticism falls short of constitutional impropriety," Judge Lance Walker wrote.

* Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reached a term-limits agreement with some of her intra-party critics last night, and in the process, secured the votes she'll need to reclaim the House Speaker's gavel.

* Remember the FBI probe of officials in Tallahassee, Fla., which Republicans used to undermine Andrew Gillum's (D) U.S. Senate campaign? It turns out, Gillum was right and he wasn't under investigation after all.

* State lawmakers in North Carolina approved a new elections-related measure yesterday, with some provisions that may affect the scandal unfolding in the state's 9th congressional district. Among other things, the bill opens the door to new primaries for voters in the district.

* Elected officials switching parties is quite rare, so it stood out to see Kansas state Sen. Barbara Bollier end her affiliation with the Republican Party.

* We can apparently add Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) to the list Democrats eyeing the 2020 presidential race. Despite some controversies over her positions, the Hawaii congresswoman told MSNBC yesterday, "I'm thinking through it very carefully. I'm thinking through it very carefully."

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Senate candidate, Rep. Bill Cassidy, left, talks to the media in Shreveport, La. on Oct. 14, 2014.

GOP senator says he's 'concerned' Trump was 'involved in a crime'

12/13/18 11:21AM

If you've been waiting for a Republican member of Congress to concede, out loud and on the record, that Donald Trump may have broken the law, I have some good news for you. NBC News has a report that included a quote that more or less qualifies.

Some Republican lawmakers have signaled cracks in what has been a solid wall of support for Trump amid intensifying federal investigations after prosecutors said Friday that Trump directed Cohen to arrange illegal payments to two women alleging affairs.

"Am I concerned that the president might be involved in a crime? Of course," Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana told reporters Tuesday. "The only question is, then, whether or not this so-called hush money is a crime," he added.

The pre-election payoff was obviously hush money, and according to federal prosecutors, there's no real doubt it was a crime. If that's "the only question" the Louisiana senator has, I'll be eager to see what he does with the answer.

But putting aside these relevant details, what's most striking to me about Bill Cassidy's quote is that it exists at all.

The GOP lawmaker said he's "of course" concerned about the president being implicated in a crime, as if this were an obvious position to take, but the fact remains that Cassidy has gone further than practically any other congressional Republican in response to Trump's precarious position.

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel walk along a section of the recently-constructed fence at the U.S.-Mexico border on Feb. 26, 2013 in Nogales, Ariz. (Photo by John Moore/Getty)

DHS memo touts border wall construction that doesn't exist

12/13/18 10:47AM

At the start of his meeting with Democratic congressional leaders this week, Donald Trump repeated one of his favorite lies. "Tremendous amounts of wall have already been built," the president said, referring to his border project.

He added, "A lot of wall has been built. We don't talk about that, but we might as well start, because it's building -- it's being built right now, big sections of wall."

We've heard nearly identical rhetoric from Trump countless times in recent months, despite the fact that it's demonstrably ridiculous. Congress approved funding for border-security measures, including resources to replace old fencing, but lawmakers haven't approved a penny of the president's plan to build a giant wall along the U.S./Mexico border.

Given the absurdity of our current political circumstances, when the president lies like this, it hardly seems notable. Trump has told this lie before, he'll tell it again, and there's no longer much of a point to making a fuss about it.

Yesterday, however, the Department of Homeland Security published a new memo, insisting that the Trump administration is, in fact, building a border wall. The headline on the DHS piece was, simply, "Walls Work."

DHS is committed to building wall and building wall quickly. We are not replacing short, outdated and ineffective wall with similar wall. Instead, under this President we are building a wall that is 30-feet high.

FACT: Prior to President Trump taking office, we have never built wall that high.

Once funding was provided, DHS began construction of border wall exceptionally quickly....

Look, I think reasonable, objective observers can agree that Trump's credibility evaporated quite a while ago. Much of the country realizes that the president has a strained relationship with reality, and his boasts are generally seen through that lens.

But Americans still need to have some confidence in the Department of Homeland Security, so when it peddles Trump's fiction as if it were fact, it's undermining the credibility of an agency we're supposed to be able to trust in the event of an emergency.

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The end of an error: House GOP crusade against Clinton to end

12/13/18 10:12AM

On Nov. 9, 2016, literally the day after the election, then-House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said his pre-election plans had not changed: he would continue to use the levers of congressional power to vigorously pursue Hillary Clinton.

"We can't just simply let this go," Chaffetz told Fox News in December 2016.

The Utah Republican ended up resigning from Congress, accepting a job at Fox News, but his former colleagues on the Hill were only too pleased to pick up the mantle, keeping the focus on the former secretary of state who left office six years ago.

Last week, for example, House Republicans pressed former FBI Director James Comey for answers on Clinton's use of a private email server, and this morning, a House Oversight Committee panel will hold yet another hearing on the Clinton Foundation.

Clinton herself has joked, "It appears they don't know I'm not president."

Today's hearing, however, is a last gasp of sorts. The Republicans' House majority, won in 2010, will come to an end in a few weeks, and it's unlikely that the new Democratic majority will share the GOP's preoccupation with Clinton conspiracy theories.

TPM's Tierney Sneed had a good piece this morning, highlighting the ignominious end of the House Republicans' partisan crusade.

As their time in the majority comes to an end, and their parting shot at the Clintons is a subcommittee hearing on the Clinton charity, some House Republicans are frustrated that they haven't been able to capture their great white whale before they hand over the gavel -- and subpoena power -- to the Democrats. [...]

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a rising star among President Trump's most devout allies in the House, said Tuesday that "low energy leadership" stopped House Republicans from gaining traction on their investigations in recent years.... "I think we should have pushed harder."

It's a curious perspective: some anti-Clinton partisans, apparently frustrated by how little they have to show for their years of effort, look back at the last several years and believe Republicans just weren't anti-Clinton enough.

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Image: *** BESTPIX *** US District Court Holds Hearing On Trump Lawyer Michael Cohen's Search Warrants

Trump breaks silence, says Cohen's crimes 'were not criminal'

12/13/18 09:30AM

Even as his former personal attorney was sentenced to three years in prison, Donald Trump had very little to say yesterday, and his White House issued no formal statements in response to the developments. This morning, however, the president published a trio of tweets, offering his reaction to the news. (I'm adding the paragraph breaks in the hopes of making the message slightly more readable.)

"I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law. It is called 'advice of counsel,' and a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made. That is why they get paid.

"Despite that many campaign finance lawyers have strongly stated that I did nothing wrong with respect to campaign finance laws, if they even apply, because this was not campaign finance. Cohen was guilty on many charges unrelated to me, but he plead to two campaign charges which were not criminal and of which he probably was not guilty even on a civil basis.

"Those charges were just agreed to by him in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence, which he did-including the fact that his family was temporarily let off the hook. As a lawyer, Michael has great liability to me!"

Evidently, it took the president nearly a full day to come up with this.

There's probably no point in scrutinizing every error of fact and judgment in the message, but there were two things that jumped out at me. The first is Trump's continued insistence that the hush-money payoffs to his alleged former mistresses were "not campaign finance."

The evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. Indeed, American Media Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer tabloid, admitted it paid off one of Trump's alleged former mistresses, "in concert with" the Trump campaign, in order to "suppress the woman's story so as to prevent it from influencing the election."

But perhaps even more interesting is the president's assertion that his former fixer pleaded guilty to two "campaign charges which were not criminal."

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U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham talks to a reporter as he arrives at Capitol Hill in Washington U.S. on May 10, 2016. (Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Despite revelations, Lindsey Graham still excuses Trump

12/13/18 08:42AM

In August, Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's former personal attorney, directly implicated the president in a felony. The White House's Republican allies shrugged.

Last week, federal prosecutors directly implicated the president in a felony. Again, the GOP was underwhelmed. One Republican went so far as to explicitly say he simply didn't care whether the president committed crimes or not.

We learned yesterday that American Media Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer tabloid, admitted it paid off one of Trump's alleged former mistresses. The hush-money, according to the company, was made "in concert with" the Trump campaign, in order to "suppress the woman's story so as to prevent it from influencing the election."

And yet, the president's allies are still underwhelmed. Here's what Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told CNN's Manu Raju last night:

"You'd have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the payment was designed to benefit the campaign exclusively and there was no other reason. So I think that would be somewhat of a challenge for a prosecutor."

Remember, we know there was a pre-election payoff. We know Trump's lawyer said it was made in order to help Trump's campaign. We know federal prosecutors, who've seen all of the evidence, believe the payment was made in order to help Trump's campaign. We know the company that wrote the check has admitted that the payment was made in order to help Trump's campaign.

But Lindsey Graham isn't sold. Maybe he wants to see "we're conspiring to break campaign-finance laws" written in the memo section of the check.

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Image: FILE PHOTO: Donald Trump walks with former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani through the new Trump International Hotel in Washington

As pressure rises, Giuliani presses Mueller 'to wrap the damn thing up'

12/13/18 08:00AM

Donald Trump's legal defense team originally predicted that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation would end by Thanksgiving -- of 2017. When Rudy Giuliani joined the president's legal defense in April, he suggested he could help wrap up the process in "a couple of weeks."

That was eight months ago.

It's against this backdrop that the former New York City mayor made an unprompted call to Yahoo News, making the case that the probe needs to end.

Giuliani said the Trump legal team is focused on encouraging Mueller to end his investigation into whether the president's campaign colluded with Russian intervention efforts in the 2016 election. He further suggested that Mueller lacks the authority to prosecute Trump.

"Our strategy is ... to do everything we can to try to convince Mueller to wrap the damn thing up, and if he's got anything, show us," Giuliani said. "If he doesn't have anything, you know, write your report, tell us what you have, and we'll deal with it. He can't prosecute him [Trump]. All he can do is write a report about him, so write the goddamned thing and get it over with now."

If I didn't know better, I might think the pressure is starting to get to these guys.

Giuliani's call for the special counsel to "wrap the damn thing up" echoes similar assessments from some of the president's Republican allies in Congress, who've also argued that the investigation end, even as new information further implicates Trump in wrongdoing.

But there is a degree of irony to Giuliani's posture, because if Team Trump wants to see Mueller's probe come to an end, there are steps the president and his allies could take to make that happen.

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Case against Trump progeny clearer after Cohen, AMI deals

Case against Trump progeny clearer after Cohen, AMI deals

12/12/18 09:28PM

Rachel Maddow shows the legal exposure of Don Jr, Eric, and Ivanka Trump as the only Trump Organization executives with check-writing authority who aren't protected by an immunity deal as federal prosecutors appear to be focusing on the trail of the hush money Donald Trump paid to allegedly keep infidelity accusations from hurting his... watch

Wednesday's Mini-Report, 12.12.18

12/12/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* I'm not sure who else would want her job: "Prime Minister Theresa May survived an effort to oust her as head of Britain's ruling Conservative Party on Wednesday, leaving her standing but wounded as the government scrambles to negotiate Brexit just months before the U.K. is due to leave the European Union."

* I'm not sure who'd want Kelly's job, either: "President Trump has told Rep. Mark Meadows, considered one of the front-runners for the White House chief of staff job, that he wants him to remain in Congress, a White House official said on Wednesday."

* I wish he understood why comments like these cause so much trouble: "U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday he would intervene with the U.S. Justice Department in the case against a Chinese telecommunications executive if it would help secure a trade deal with Beijing."

* On a related note: "U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that he stood by Saudi Arabia's crown prince despite a CIA assessment that he ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and pleas from U.S. senators for Trump to condemn the kingdom's de facto ruler."

* Stories like these don't inspire confidence in Team Trump: "The Trump Organization, the family real estate interests of presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and Trump friend Richard LeFrak, a New York developer, could all benefit from a new federal program that has designated 'opportunity zones' in 'economically distressed' areas around the country and offers tax benefits for developers."

* This will die in the House, but I was glad to see it pass anyway: "The Senate passed legislation Wednesday to reverse a Trump administration policy limiting donor disclosure requirements for political nonprofits in a rare rebuke to the White House."

* Seriously, Michigan? "The state's chief medical executive is facing a jury trial on Flint water crisis criminal charges including involuntary manslaughter but that hasn't prevented her from securing a new job -- one that pays well and has civil service protections."

* It's about time: "More than a year after the #MeToo era began, the House and Senate reached a deal Wednesday to change their policies on sexual harassment, paving the way for reforms to take effect when the new Congress convenes in January."

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This July 12, 2017, file photo shows the cover of an issue of the National Enquirer featuring President Donald Trump at a store in New York.

Why the prosecutors' deal with National Enquirer parent is so important

12/12/18 04:16PM

Michael Cohen receiving a 36-month prison sentence is unwelcome news for his former boss, Donald Trump. But today's revelations, also from prosecutors in New York, about the president's former tabloid, are almost certainly worse.

The company that publishes the National Enquirer admitted that it paid $150,000 hush money to silence alleged mistresses of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump prior to the 2016 election, prosecutors said Wednesday.

American Media Inc. will avoid prosecution by stipulating that it worked with Trump's campaign to buy the silence of women -- who have identified themselves as adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal -- ahead of the vote two years ago, prosecutors said.

In a press statement, federal prosecutors explained the terms of agreement with AMI -- the National Enquirer's parent company -- in connection with the company admitting making the hush-money payoff to one of Trump's alleged former mistresses.

Specifically, prosecutors said AMI also admitted it made the payment "in concert with" the Trump campaign, in order to "suppress the woman's story so as to prevent it from influencing the election."

The company would apparently be facing prosecution for campaign-finance crimes, were it not for "its substantial and important assistance in this investigation."

All of this is coming to light now, despite the agreement between the company and prosecutors being reached months ago, because the case against Cohen included his work with AMI to make the illegal payment to Karen McDougal.

As for why today's revelations are so important, there are a few angles to keep in mind as the story continues to unfold. First, this represents additional evidence of Donald Trump's political operation acting outside the law before the president's election.

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