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In this Oct. 23, 2015, file photo, Jay Sekulow speaks at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va.

Trump lawyer keeps making headlines for all the wrong reasons

02/15/18 10:15AM

When Donald Trump took steps to assemble a legal team as the Russia scandal intensified, the president made a series of strange decisions -- though none were as curious as bringing Jay Sekulow onto his team.

Sekulow, who has no experience as a defense or criminal attorney, and is perhaps best known for leading a radical televangelist's legal group and overseeing a highly dubious fundraising scheme that benefits several members of his immediate family. (My hunch is, Trump hired him solely because he saw Sekulow making lots of appearances on Fox News.)

The attorney has struggled at times since joining Team Trump -- it's hard to forget Sekulow arguing on national television that the president is and isn't under investigation -- but Politico this week highlighted something else Trump's lawyer is doing that's rather ... unique.

As President Donald Trump's legal team privately debates its strategy for dealing with special counsel Robert Mueller, the president's most visible lawyer has publicly gone on the attack.

In recent weeks, Trump personal attorney Jay Sekulow has turned the live weekday talk-radio show he hosts into a regular forum for trashing the legitimacy of the federal probes into Trump's Russia connections.

Fourteen of the past 19 episodes of "Jay Sekulow Live" have involved freewheeling conversations about the Trump-Russia saga and what he calls the "deep state" bureaucrats out to get the president. Sekulow also piles on during his regular appearances on Fox News.

This isn't illegal. It's also not unethical. But it's nevertheless deeply bizarre behavior for a lawyer who's helping defend a sitting president from a scandal of historic significance.

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Trump finds a tax he wants to raise: the one you pay at the pump

02/15/18 09:20AM

Donald Trump's long-awaited infrastructure plan was finally unveiled this week, and it immediately landed with a thud. Among it's many problems: the White House doesn't know how to pay for it.

The Washington Post  reports, however, that the president has apparently warmed up to a provocative idea.

President Trump tried Wednesday to persuade his fellow Republicans to raise the gas tax. In a closed-door meeting on infrastructure with members of both parties, Trump pitched the idea of a 25-cent increase in the gas tax, which hasn't been raised since 1993.

There's a growing rift among Republicans about whether it's worth considering a tax hike to fund much-needed upgrades to America's roads and bridges.... Republicans, who just passed major legislation to reduce taxes on businesses and families, are lukewarm on the idea of turning around and raising taxes at the pump. Last month, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said he has "complete confidence" that the gas tax won't go up. It's currently 18.4 cents a gallon.

According to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who attended yesterday's discussion, the president emphasized the idea of a 25-cent increase in the gas tax "several times throughout the meeting."

Would a GOP-led Congress seriously consider a gas-tax increase on the heels of the Republicans' regressive tax breaks for the wealthy and big corporations? I rather doubt it.

But unlike so much of what we hear from this White House, what Trump is recommending isn't crazy.

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Image: Students are evacuated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during a shooting incident in Parkland

Why Trump's response to Florida's school shooting is so inadequate

02/15/18 08:43AM

A gunman using a semiautomatic rifle killed at least 17 people in a Florida high school yesterday, wounding 14 others, five of whom suffering life-threatening injuries. Though modern presidents often offer words of consolation in response to deadly tragedies of this scale, Donald Trump has said very little since the school massacre took place.

He did, however, publish a tweet this morning.

"So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!"

First, part of the problem with this is the subtext: the president's message gives the impression that the suspected gunman's "neighbors and classmates" should have done more to prevent yesterday's violence. In case the reality of this dynamic isn't already obvious, let's make it plain: the Parkland shooting wasn't their fault.

Second, let's say we take Trump's rhetoric at face value, and communities report instances of disturbed individuals to authorities "again and again." Then what? Would the Republican White House and its allies in Congress support new restrictions on those individuals' access to firearms? Are they prepared to make significant new investments in a robust mental-health network?

What is it, exactly, the president believes should happen after Americans go to authorities "again and again"?

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump

After demanding a deal, Trump rejects another immigration compromise

02/15/18 08:00AM

It seems like ages ago, but it was just last month when Donald Trump hosted immigration talks at the White House and shared his vision for the road ahead. In fact, the president surprised many by saying he'd sign a bipartisan agreement -- no matter what's in it.

"I'm not going to say, 'Oh, gee, I want this or I want that.' I'll be signing it," Trump said. He added that if lawmakers negotiate a policy "with things that I'm not in love with," he'd embrace it anyway.

Someone apparently changed his mind.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday urged senators to vote against any immigration proposal other than his own plan, courting a showdown with Republican and Democratic senators who oppose the White House's desire to curb family-based migration and would like to cut a narrower deal. [...]

Mr. Trump's stance amounted to a demand that the Senate significantly cut legal immigration as part of any legislation.

That Wall Street Journal report coincided with a Politico  article that said the president has urged lawmakers to reject any proposal "that does not mirror his own."

The timing of Trump's posture was especially important because a bipartisan group of senators, calling themselves the "Common Sense Caucus," unveiled another bipartisan package last night that gives the White House much of it wants.

No matter. The Washington Post  reported, "In an interview late Wednesday, a senior administration official denounced the bipartisan bill, calling it a 'giant amnesty' that did nothing to secure the border, and vowed the White House would strongly lobby against it Thursday."

The article quoted the senior administration official saying, "We're doing everything in our power" to block the bipartisan bill.

For those keeping score, Trump -- who, a month ago, said he'd sign practically anything put in front of him -- has now rejected (1) the Graham-Durbin bipartisan agreement; (2) the McCain-Coons bipartisan agreement; (3) the bipartisan agreement Trump negotiated with Democratic leaders last fall; (4) the bipartisan framework Trump negotiated with Chuck Schumer last month; (5) the Gardner-Bennet bipartisan agreement; (6) and the Common Sense Caucus' bipartisan agreement.

The president has, however, endorsed a Republican plan that would give him everything he's asked for without exception.

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Once unimaginable gun massacres become familiar

Once unimaginable gun massacres become familiar

02/14/18 09:17PM

Rachel Maddow reports on the latest developments in the deadly gun tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and notes the elements that have become familiar in gun massacres, including the deflection of gun questions by politicians with vague answers about mental health. watch

Wednesday's Mini-Report, 2.14.18

02/14/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The latest school shooting: "A gunman opened fire at a South Florida high school on Wednesday afternoon, killing multiple people, officials said. The Broward County Sheriff's Office tweeted that there were 'at least 14 victims' after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. It was not immediately clear how many of those victims were injured and how many had died."

* Today's other notable shooting: "Three people were injured Wednesday when intruders in an SUV tried to ram through a barrier at the Maryland military base where the National Security Agency is headquartered -- and gunfire broke out, officials said."

* This took a while: "President Donald Trump spoke out against domestic violence on Wednesday, a week after Rob Porter resigned as White House staff secretary over allegations that he abused his two ex-wives."

* Shulkin controversy: "U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado is calling for the resignation of Veterans Administration chief David Shulkin in the aftermath of a watchdog report that found Shulkin used much of an official 10-day trip to Europe last summer for sightseeing."

* Senate debate: "After two days of the equivalent of a legislative staring contest, the Senate has decided to move along toward immigration legislation. But this is just the beginning, and feelings are a little raw over how things have unfolded so far. The chamber approved, by voice vote Wednesday morning, a motion to proceed to the expected legislative vehicle for an immigration overhaul."

* A story worth watching: "The judge in the USS Cole terrorism case ordered prosecutors Tuesday to draft warrants instructing U.S. Marshals to seize two civilian defense attorneys who have quit the case and ignored his orders and a subpoena to appear at the war court by video link."

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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)

VP Mike Pence repeats discredited claim about Russia scandal

02/14/18 02:40PM

Last summer, Donald Trump insisted -- in a written statement and in a tweet -- that the foreign attacks on the 2016 election had "no effect on the outcome of the election." That is not, however, what U.S. intelligence agencies said.

A few months later, Trump's CIA director, former Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo, said during a public event, "[T]he intelligence community's assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election." That wasn't true and Pompeo soon after had to walk back his claim.

If we're being charitable, we'll assume Vice President Mike Pence somehow missed these stories.

Vice President Mike Pence said it is the "accepted view" that despite efforts, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election was not impacted by foreign meddling.

"Irrespective of efforts that were made in 2016 by foreign powers, it is the universal conclusion of our intelligence communities that none of those efforts had any impact on the outcome of the 2016 election," Pence said at an event in downtown Washington on Wednesday.

That is most certainly not the universal conclusion of our intelligence communities.

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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP

White House official describes John Kelly as 'a big, fat liar'

02/14/18 01:51PM

The controversy surrounding former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter is important for a variety of reasons, but one of the angles that's likely to be the most consequential is the fact that officials appear to have turned on Chief of Staff John Kelly in a dramatic way.

The L.A. Times  reported this week, for example, "Over and over again the past few days, various White House aides have buttonholed reporters to tell them -- anonymously -- that they think Kelly either lied to them or tried to get them to lie about what he knew when." Axios had an item that described the Porter mess as "the Kelly cover-up."

A Washington Post  report published overnight painted an even bleaker picture:

...Kelly does not enjoy the confidence of an increasing number of his subordinates, some of whom said they believe that the retired four-star Marine Corps general has misled them.

Kelly is "a big fat liar," said one White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a candid opinion. "To put it in terms the general would understand, his handling of the Porter scandal amounts to dereliction of duty."

Reince Priebus did not necessarily command broad respect during his tenure in the West Wing, but we didn't see quotes like these during his time as the president's chief of staff.

It's not a sustainable dynamic.

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VA chief latest Trump cabinet secretary to face ethics mess

02/14/18 12:40PM

It's been tough to keep up with all of the various controversies and investigations into members of Donald Trump's cabinet.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s actions have become the subject of more than one official investigation. There was also HHS Secretary Tom Price, who was also under investigation, right up until the scandal forced his resignation.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is under investigation. So is HUD Secretary Ben Carson. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was investigated for violating the Hatch Act. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been caught up in so many controversies, it’s been difficult to keep up with all of them.

The president himself appears to be the subject of an obstruction-of-justice probe.

And it's against this backdrop that the spotlight today turns to VA Secretary David Shulkin, who appears to have an ethics mess of his own on his hands. USA Today  reported:

Investigators determined Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets and airfare for his wife during a European trip last summer that ultimately cost taxpayers more than $122,000, according to a VA inspector general report released Wednesday.

His chief of staff, Viveca Wright Simpson, made false representations to a VA ethics lawyer and altered an official email to secure approval for taxpayer funding of Shulkin's wife's flights, which cost more than $4,000, the VA inspector general found.

The cabinet secretary told investigators that the Wimbledon tickets came from a personal friend. Ethics officials concluded that wasn't true. Making matters worse were the inspector general's findings that Shulkin spent nearly half of an official 10-day trip in Europe on sightseeing, amounting to a "misuse" of official VA resources.

Shulkin has denied any wrongdoing and described the conclusions as "outrageous" and "totally inaccurate." That said, the VA secretary will reimburse the department for the travel expenses in question.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.14.18

02/14/18 12:00PM

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

* The new Public Policy Polling survey, released this morning, shows Democrats leading Republicans on the generic congressional ballot, 49% to 41%. That eight-point margin is down a bit from the Dems' 11-point advantage in a PPP poll in December.

* Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D), as expected, rejected the latest gerrymandered map crafted by the state legislature's Republican leadership. Barring an 11th-hour compromise, the matter will be resolved by the state Supreme Court.

* Recent polling suggests Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is favored to win another term in November, but her principal rival, state Senate leader Kevin de León (D) picked up a big endorsement yesterday from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

* Bob Hugin, a multimillionaire pharmaceutical executive, kicked off a Republican Senate campaign in New Jersey yesterday. He's the first credible contender to announce plans to take on incumbent Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).

* For much of 2017, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) kept Republicans on edge while considering whether to run against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.). Last month, he said he'd skip the race. This week, however, Cramer said he's "mildly reconsidering" his plans.

* On a related note, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) also recently said he'd skip this year's Senate race, preferring to retire, though he too is reconsidering his options.

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