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65 years later, Trump nominees balk at Brown v Board questions

05/17/19 10:00AM

It was exactly 65 years ago today that the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous, landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, striking down school segregation, and making clear that "separate but equal" is inherently unequal. It was one of the most important judicial rulings in American history.

More recently, however, Donald Trump judicial nominees have been reluctant to say whether the justices got it right.

As regular readers may recall, the first sign of trouble came a year ago, when Wendy Vitter, one of the president's choices for the federal bench, was asked by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) whether Brown was "correctly decided." She didn't want to give a definitive answer. Andrew Oldham, a Trump nominee for the Fifth Circuit of Appeals, was asked the same question and answered the same way.

The Republicans' Senate majority seemed unfazed, narrowly confirming Oldham last year, and doing the same with Vitter's nomination this week. But as Laura Meckler and Robert Barnes noted in a new piece for the Washington Post, this has quickly become an unexpected norm.

For months, a Democratic senator has been asking Trump judicial nominees what appears to be a straightforward question: Was Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark decision that ended legalized school segregation, properly decided?

Legal scholars across the ideological spectrum say the answer is clearly yes. Still, more than two dozen nominees have declined to answer the question at a time when many schools remain segregated by race.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, I can appreciate at some level why would-be jurists want to convey their impartiality, especially during Senate confirmation hearings. One never knows what kind of cases might arise in his or her courtroom, so judicial nominees tend to be understandably cautious about taking sides on controversial issues.

Except in 2019, there's no reason to see state-sanctioned segregation as a controversial issue.

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During a campaign rally Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reads a statement made by Michelle Fields, on March 29, 2016 in Janesville, Wis. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)

New poll points to possible trouble for Trump's re-election

05/17/19 09:20AM

Three weeks ago, the latest economic data pointed to surprisingly strong economic growth. A week later, the unemployment rate in the United States reached a 50-year low. It was around this time that some of Donald Trump's media admirers started making the case that the president is not only on track to win a second term, he's likely to do so with relative ease.

And if economic data were the only factor shaping the next election's outcome, that might be a compelling argument. But it's not nearly that simple.

For one thing, it's difficult to say what economic conditions will be like a year and a half from now. For another, if the economy were the only metric that matters, Republicans wouldn't have been shellacked in the 2018 midterms, losing control of, among other things, the U.S. House.

What's more, if low unemployment were enough to bolster the president's support, Trump's approval rating would be 62%, not 42%.

But as important as these elements are, there's also all kinds of polling evidence that suggests the Republican incumbent is nowhere near where he should be at this point in the process. The New York Times reported this week that the Trump campaign's internal polling of 17 competitive states found the president trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in a head-to-head match-up.

A Fox News poll released yesterday pointed in a similarly discouraging direction for the Republican.

Among all registered voters, [Biden] leads Trump by 11 points (49-38 percent), up from a 7-point advantage in March. Biden's is the only lead outside the margin of sampling error in the matchups tested -- and he is the only Democrat to push Trump's support below 41 percent.

[Bernie] Sanders tops Trump by 5 points (46-41 percent) and [Elizabeth] Warren is up by two (43-41 percent), while [Kamala] Harris ties Trump (41-41 percent) and [Pete] Buttigieg trails him by one (40-41 percent).

The same poll found 28% of voters saying they're "definitely" prepared to vote for the president next year, as compared to 46% who "definitely" plan to vote against him.

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Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a primary night campaign event, May 3, 2016, in Indianapolis. (Photo by Darron Cummings/AP)

Ted Cruz defends Space Force plan by warning of space 'pirates'

05/17/19 08:40AM

Donald Trump's plan for a Space Force, which the president admits began as something of a joke, has somehow transformed into a serious proposal. In fact, Congress is weighing a proposal from the administration to create a Space Force as part of the Air Force (which, incidentally, already has a Space Command).

The plan has faced quite a bit of resistance from lawmakers, including some leading conservatives on Capitol Hill, but Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is fully on board with the idea. In fact, he made a pitch for a Space Force this week during a Senate Subcommittee on Aviation and Space hearing. The Texan told his colleagues:

"Since the ancient Greeks first put to sea, nations have recognized the necessity of naval forces and maintaining a superior capability to protect waterborne travel and commerce from bad actors. Pirates threaten the open seas, and the same is possible in space.

"In this same way, I believe we too must now recognize the necessity of a Space Force. To defend the nation, and to protect space commerce and civil space exploration."

It wasn't long before the political world learned of Cruz's pirate-related concerns, and not surprisingly, there was no shortage of mockery -- including from my colleagues here at MSNBC.

So, the senator followed up yesterday on Twitter, writing, "Sure, a frigate w/ skull & crossbones in space is unlikely anytime soon, but what MSNBC conveniently omits is the threat of piracy, espionage & violence from rogue & rival NATIONS is very real."

Well, sure, but I'm not aware of anyone denying the legitimacy of the threat of "piracy, espionage, and violence from rogue and rival nations." What people found funny, however, was Cruz's prepared comments about creating a Space Force, in part to address the prospect of space pirates.

When the ridicule continued, the Republican senator complained to Twitter that "snarky leftists" were getting too much attention on the social-media platform, which led to a rather entertaining exchange involving Cruz, Chris Hayes, and pirates devouring the MSNBC host's liver.

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Image: President Trump and Prime Minister Abe Press Conference at White House

Congressional connection adds striking new twist to Flynn scandal

05/17/19 08:00AM

For those following the scandal surrounding Michael Flynn, Donald Trump's original White House national security adviser, yesterday afternoon was a revelatory moment in time. A newly unredacted court filing shed new light on all sorts of things -- including a question we didn't previously know to ask.

As Rachel explained on the show last night, we now have vastly more information about how Flynn cooperated with federal law enforcement, what he cooperated about, and the nature of Team Trump's intimidation tactics. As part of the same proceedings, the judge in the case said he wants the recording of a voicemail Michael Cohen left for Flynn's lawyer, a recording of Flynn's conversations with Russian officials, and redacted portions of the Mueller report to be released to the public.

It was, in other words, an illuminating early evening.

And then there was the one twist that no one knows quite what to make of, which NBC News highlighted in a report last night.

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn told investigators that people linked to the Trump administration and Congress reached out to him in an effort to interfere in the Russia probe, according to newly-unredacted court papers filed Thursday.

The court filing from special counsel Robert Mueller is believed to mark the first public acknowledgement that a person connected to Capitol Hill was suspected of engaging in an attempt to impede the investigation into Russian election interference.

"The defendant informed the government of multiple instances, both before and after his guilty plea, where either he or his attorneys received communications from persons connected to the Administration or Congress that could've affected both his willingness to cooperate and the completeness of that cooperation," the court papers say.

The court materials are frustratingly silent on the "connected to ... Congress" angle, but the prospect of someone associated with Capitol Hill interfering with a federal investigation raises some tantalizing possibilities.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 5.16.19

05/16/19 05:29PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The national pattern isn't subtle: "Missouri's Senate has passed what its authors call one of the nation's most stringent anti-abortion bills, which would outlaw nearly all abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy. The Republican-led Senate passed the bill, dubbed Missouri Stands With the Unborn, 24-10 early Thursday morning."

* In related news: "The top House Republican said Thursday that Alabama's new state law banning almost all abortions goes too far. California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, told reporters that the law, which doesn't allow exceptions for abortions in cases of rape and incest, 'goes further than I believe.'"

* Oversight: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., blasted the White House on Thursday for asserting that it would not comply with a range of requests from the House Judiciary Committee, arguing that Congress needs certain information to perform its oversight duties and guide any moves toward impeachment."

* Presidential finances: "[T]he Trump presidency has been taking a modest economic toll on his businesses, according to annual financial disclosure forms released Thursday."

* Economic news: "The U.S. economy got off to a sluggish start in the second quarter, with both consumers and manufacturers pulling back in April amid trade tensions, a global slowdown and waning effects of the 2017 tax cuts."

* Maybe Trump ought to tune in: "Live, from a tiny parlor in the Capitol, House Democrats are reading aloud nearly 400 pages of special counsel Robert Mueller's report. The marathon is likely to stretch into the wee hours of Friday. The duty will be split among more than two dozen lawmakers."

* That's not something to brag about: "U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told a panel of U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday that he has not lost sleep over record amounts of carbon dioxide recorded in the Earth's atmosphere, which scientists warn are altering the global climate."

* Remember him? "Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and his staff spent nearly $124,000 on unnecessary first- and business-class air travel during 10 months in 2017, according to a new report from the EPA's Office of the Inspector General."

* Eric Blankenstein: "A senior Consumer Financial Protection Bureau employee whose racially charged blog posts sparked an uproar last year is leaving the agency at the end of the month."

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Author of pro-Trump book gets presidential pardon from Trump

05/16/19 02:57PM

In late 2015, Conrad Black wrote a piece for a conservative magazine, praising then-candidate Donald Trump. The future president proudly promoted the article via Twitter, adding at the time, "I won't forget!"

Yesterday, Trump followed through.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday pardoned former newspaper mogul Conrad Black, who was convicted in 2007 on charges that he swindled shareholders in his media empire out of $6 million, the White House announced.

Black was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison in 2007, and a federal judge at sentencing said the millionaire member of the British House of Lords violated his duty to Hollinger International shareholders, the Associated Press reported at the time. Black was found guilty of three counts of mail fraud and one count of obstruction of justice for spiriting documents out of his Toronto office in defiance of a court order.

The official White House statement on Trump's executive grant of clemency added that Black, an enthusiastic supporter of the president, is "the author of several notable biographies and works of history." What it neglected to mention is that one of Black's biographies was published last year. It was titled "Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other."

Around the same time, the White House also announced executive clemency for Patrick Nolan, a former Republican state lawmaker in California, who's a friend of Jared Kushner, and a critic of the Mueller investigation.

To be sure, Trump is not the first president to issue provocative pardons. Bill Clinton's Marc Rich pardon, for example, was the basis for a significant controversy in 2001. Nineteen years earlier, George H.W. Bush's Christmas Eve pardons for several officials at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal were among the most scandalous pardons in American history.

But the volume and brazenness of Trump's pardons -- for Dinesh D'Souza, Joe Arpaio, Scooter Libby, et al -- tell us a great deal about how the Republican approaches his responsibilities and the rule of law.

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Debate over Trump's new immigration plan is over before it starts

05/16/19 12:47PM

The broad contours of a bipartisan immigration package have been obvious for quite a while. Democrats want protections for undocumented immigrants already in the United States, while Republicans want increased funding for border security. A compromise deal would bring together both priorities, leaving both sides with what they want.

It's a solution Donald Trump continues to avoid.

President Donald Trump will roll out a two-pronged immigration proposal on Thursday that would make sweeping changes to the legal immigration system -- including requiring a civics test -- and enhance border security, senior administration officials said Wednesday.

The plan, which Trump is expected to announce during an afternoon speech, avoids some of the most hot-button immigration issues of the day -- including a growing backlog of asylum-seekers and the status of so-called Dreamers -- and is almost certainly doomed on Capitol Hill.

The White House's new plan is the result of months of work from Jared Kushner, the president's young son-in-law, who's twice presented his blueprint to unimpressed Republican senators.

Skepticism from GOP lawmakers, however, is just the start of Trump's troubles. As Trump and his team must understand by now, Democrats -- who have a significant House majority -- aren't interested in an immigration plan that ignores Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.

The White House took that knowledge and came up with a plan that ignores Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters this morning that DACA was omitted from the plan "on purpose" because, as far as the White House is concerned, it's divisive. Sanders added that previous reform bills that included protections for Dreamers failed in Congress, so this new effort is intended to be something new.

But that's a terrible argument: recent attempts at immigration reform failed because far-right lawmakers weren't willing to compromise. Ignoring DACA will make those Republicans happy, but it won't move the process forward in any kind of constructive way.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.16.19

05/16/19 12:00PM

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

* If you were hoping to see the largest field of presidential candidates get even bigger, I have some good news for you: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) kicked off his White House bid this morning.

* On a related note, it's worth noting for context that the Democratic mayor's constituents haven't exactly endorsed his ambitions: a Quinnipiac poll last month found a whopping 73% of Democrats in New York City said de Blasio should not run for president. Evidently, he disagrees.

* Montana Gov. Steve Bullock's Democratic presidential campaign raised $1 million in its first day, which is a pretty respectable haul for a late entrant with a modest national profile.

* We can apparently add Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) to the list of Democratic presidential hopefuls who will not participate in a town-hall forum on Fox News.

* Speaking of the California senator, Harris also announced plans yesterday to use executive action in 2021 to ban the importation of assault weapons, if Congress fails to act on the issue.

* Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) unveiled his "Evergreen Economy" plan this morning, focused on job creation and economic development through combating the climate crisis.

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Afghan former Taliban fighters are photographed holding weapons before they hand them over as part of a government peace and reconciliation process at a ceremony in Jalalabad on Feb. 8, 2015. (Photo by Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty)

Did the Trump admin seek taxpayer funds to reimburse the Taliban?

05/16/19 11:05AM

When American and Taliban negotiators began the latest round of negotiations a couple of weeks ago in Qatar, it was the latest step in a lengthy diplomatic process. There may have been a point in years past at which direct talks between U.S. officials and the Taliban would've been politically controversial, especially on the right, but that's clearly no longer the case.

What is new, however, is the idea that the United States would reimburse the Taliban for its travel expenses. Roll Call raised a few eyebrows with this report late yesterday:

The Trump administration asked Congress earlier this year for funds to reimburse Afghanistan's Taliban for expenses the insurgent group incurs attending peace talks, according to a spokesman for the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

The money would cover the Taliban's costs for expenses such as transportation, lodging, food and supplies, said Kevin Spicer, spokesman for Indiana Democrat Peter J. Visclosky, in a statement for CQ Roll Call.

"The Defense Department requested fiscal 2020 funding to support certain reconciliation activities, including logistic support for members of the Taliban and, in March 2019, they sent a notification letter to the Committee on using fiscal year 2019 funds for similar activities," Spicer said.

This reporting has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News.

That said, I think it's probably fair to say talking to the Taliban about how best to end an 18-year war is one thing, while using taxpayer funds to reimburse the Taliban for its travel expenses is something else.

Indeed, if the Roll Call report is correct, the Trump administration's request was not well received on Capitol Hill. In fact, the House Appropriations panel yesterday approved its Defense spending bill that did the opposite of what the Pentagon requested.

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