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FBI Director James B. Comey listens to a question from a reporter during a media conference in San Francisco, Calif., Feb. 27, 2014. (Photo by Ben Margot/AP)

Trump thanks the FBI director accused of helping his campaign

01/23/17 01:00PM

There was a White House reception yesterday to thank law enforcement officers and first responders who worked on Donald Trump's inauguration, and the new president seemed especially eager to thank one person in particular. The Washington Post reported:
FBI Director James B. Comey, who infuriated Democrats during the campaign drama over Hillary Clinton's email, got a pat on the back Sunday from President Trump. [...]

"He's become more famous than me," Trump said to those ringing the room as Comey strode in his direction. The two men shook hands and as Comey leaned in toward Trump, the president patted him on the back a few times.
If you watch the clip closely, it seems as if Trump may have blown Comey a kiss before encouraging him to cross the room for a presidential embrace.

It wasn't surprising that Trump's principal concern was on Comey's "fame" -- the new president seems to prefer to have headlines to himself -- but the scene was nevertheless an awkward one.
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Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn arrives at Trump Tower, Nov. 17, 2016. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and high level positions for the new administration. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Counterintelligence investigation into Team Trump casts a wide net

01/23/17 12:30PM

The morning of Donald Trump's presidential inauguration, the New York Times published a striking front-page report: multiple U.S. agencies "are examining intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links" between Russian officials and Trump's close associates.

According to the reporting, the counterintelligence investigation is focused on contacts between Moscow and members of Trump's campaign team, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort, former foreign policy adviser Carter Page, and longtime Republican operative Roger Stone.

NBC News added later in the day that the FBI is not only part of a multi-agency investigation into Russia's alleged intervention in the American presidential campaign, but U.S. officials are also "examining how the operation was paid for and whether any Americans were involved."

The report went on to say, "One former intelligence official briefed on the matter said the investigation is looking into whether certain former Trump campaign aides had improper contacts with the Russians."

It's against this backdrop that the Wall Street Journal pushed this story forward overnight.
U.S. counterintelligence agents have investigated communications that President Donald Trump's national security adviser had with Russian officials, according to people familiar with the matter.

Michael Flynn is the first person inside the White House under Mr. Trump whose communications are known to have faced scrutiny as part of investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and Treasury Department to determine the extent of Russian government contacts with people close to Mr. Trump.

It isn't clear when the counterintelligence inquiry began, whether it produced any incriminating evidence or if it is continuing. Mr. Flynn, a retired general who became national security adviser with Mr. Trump's inauguration, plays a key role in setting U.S. policy toward Russia.
If the reporting is accurate, it's a major development. While Manafort, Page, and Stone played key roles in Trump's campaign operation, none of them has an official role in the White House now. Flynn, however, is also allegedly being investigated -- and he has an office in the West Wing.
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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.23.17

01/23/17 12:00PM

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

* White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted the other day that Trump has gone "above and beyond" to address his conflicts of interest. A new federal lawsuit will test that assertion.

* On Fox News yesterday, Chris Wallace asked White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to explain why Donald Trump said his inaugural crowd stretched from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. Priebus defended the bogus claim, saying the crowd really was that big. When the host patiently pointed to reality, Priebus wouldn't budge, adding, "I was sitting there looking."

* Already assuming he's going to win another term, the president told his new White House team yesterday, "We're going to do some great things over the next eight years."

* On a related note, Trump told supporters and donors the other day that he intends to win in 2020 "the old-fashioned way." He didn't explain exactly what that meant, but presumably it would include winning more votes than his opponent, which he failed to do in 2016.

* Asked Friday for his reaction to the new president's inaugural address, Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) said, "I've heard some very inspiring speeches that speak to the best of the whole country over the years -- and someday I may again."

* I'm not saying Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is running for anything, but his recent moves suggest he may be running for something.
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Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 17, 2014.

GOP skeptics fall in line to support Trump's State nominee

01/23/17 11:30AM

During his latest Sunday show appearance, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos yesterday he has the utmost confidence in members of Donald Trump's cabinet. The host quickly followed up with a good question.

"You say you have utmost confidence in his team," Stephanopoulos noted. "Do you have utmost confidence in President Trump?" McCain replied, "I do not know, George. I do not know, because he has made so many comments that are contradictory."

The exchange was largely overlooked, but it's worth appreciating the circumstances: the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee was asked whether he has confidence in his own party's sitting president. Twice, the senator said he didn't know. It's been quite a while since Americans were confronted with such a scenario.

But as striking as this moment was, McCain nevertheless said he'll vote to confirm former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump's choice for Secretary of State. Soon after, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement he'll do the same.

Earlier this month, after Trump tapped Russia's top American ally to be the country's chief diplomat, McCain was asked whether there was a "realistic scenario" in which he'd vote for Tillerson's confirmation. "Sure," the Arizona Republican replied at the time. "There's also a realistic scenario that pigs fly."

And what of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the last undecided Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? The Washington Post reports he's no longer undecided.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) will vote for President Trump's nominee for secretary of state, he announced Monday, resolving the final major question surrounding Rex Tillerson's bid to be confirmed as the nation's top diplomat. [...]

"Given the uncertainty that exists both at home and abroad about the direction of our foreign policy, it would be against our national interests to have this confirmation unnecessarily delayed or embroiled in controversy," Rubio said in a lengthy statement posted on Facebook. "Therefore, despite my reservations, I will support Mr. Tillerson's nomination in committee and in the full Senate."
I'm not sure that explanation makes sense -- waiting for a qualified nominee is better for the nation's interests in the long term than rushing through an unqualified nominee -- but Rubio is falling in line, as partisans usually do, and just as Rubio's critics predicted he'd do.
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Image: Trump, flanked by Kushner, Pence and Porter, welcomes reporters into the Oval Office for him to sign his first executive orders at the White House in Washington

Trump starts making policy without Congress

01/23/17 11:01AM

Before his election, Donald Trump made all kinds of promises about the sweeping agenda he'd impose on his first day in office. By and large, the new president largely ignored those promises over his first three days.

But Trump has nevertheless started to exercise some of his office's considerable power. On Friday, for example, one of the new president's first acts was to overturn an Obama administration policy that made it easier for first-time home buyers and low-income borrowers to afford a mortgage. Soon after, he signed an executive order related to the Affordable Care Act, which was unusually vague, and which experts are still trying to unravel.

The New York Times reported that Americans should expect to see quite a bit more along these lines.
President Trump plans to take executive action on a nearly daily basis for a month to unravel his predecessor's legacy and begin enacting his own agenda, his aides say, part of an extended exercise of presidential power to quickly make good on his campaign promises.

But in a reflection of the improvisational style that helped fuel his rise, he has made few, if any, firm decisions about which orders he wants to make, or in which order. That is a striking break from past presidents, who have entered office with detailed plans for rolling out a series of executive actions that set a tone for their presidencies and send a clear message about their agendas.
Today's changes will reportedly include executive orders on renegotiating NAFTA and withdrawing the United States from the Trans Pacific Partnership. [Update: the president's actions today also included a federal hiring freeze and new restrictions on international family planning.]

Also yesterday, Kellyanne Conway said the new president is prepared to possibly stop enforcing a part of federal health care law he doesn't like -- the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act -- which would likely have the effect of causing serious harm to the overall system.

And while each of these policies deserve to be evaluated on their individual merits, I can't help but wonder where the Republican complaints are about presidential policymaking by fiat.
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History mandates presidential candidates release tax returns, but not how many

Team Trump: Americans will not see the president's tax returns

01/23/17 10:32AM

When a politician and his team change their story, it's usually evidence of a problem. Take Donald Trump and his tax returns, for example.

As recently as May, the then-candidate said that he'd "like to" disclose the tax documents, "hopefully before the election," but his campaign never followed through. Initially, Team Trump said the decision was the result of an audit, which may nor may not exist. Soon after, the defense for secrecy evolved to include odd claims about the returns detracting from Trump's message and arguments about the materials' complexity.

Of course, that was before Election Day, when Trump and his team were clearly afraid the information on his tax returns would hurt his chances of success, making him the first major-party nominee since Watergate to insist on unexplained secrecy. How about now that he's actually the president?
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, said Sunday that the president would not be releasing his tax returns, reversing months of repeated campaign-trail promises to do so after an audit is completed.

Conway's comments came in response to a Whitehouse.gov petition with more than 200,000 signatures calling on Trump to release his tax returns. Any petition on the site that receives 100,000 signatures in 30 days receives a response from the White House; this petition reached twice that in two days.

"The White House response is that he's not going to release his tax returns," Conway said in an interview on ABC's "This Week."
Conway added, "We litigated this all through the election. People didn't care."

There's ample evidence to the contrary.
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Kellyanne Conway, a senior advisor to President-Elect Donald Trump, takes questions from the media at Trump Tower on Nov. 21, 2016 in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Kevin Hagen/Getty)

With 'alternative facts,' Trump World swimming in a sea of dishonesty

01/23/17 10:00AM

When George Orwell wrote "1984," he meant it as a warning, not an instruction guide.
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, said the White House press secretary gave "alternative facts" when he inaccurately described the inauguration crowd as "the largest ever" during his first appearance before the press this weekend.
It fell to "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd to explain to the White House aide, "Alternative facts are not facts. They're falsehoods."

To be sure, the new president and his team have already adopted some amazing new words and phrases that are quickly defining the Trump era -- "unpresidented," "American carnage," "bigly" -- but "alternative facts" is truly special. As the Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan noted yesterday, its use makes it clear "we've gone full Orwell."

In late 2004, Ron Suskind ran a lengthy, much-discussed piece on the Bush/Cheney administration, which featured an exchange between the reporter and an unnamed White House aide, rumored to be Karl Rove. The aide said journalists were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality."

The White House staffer added, "That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

More than 12 years later, a new Republican administration has power, and its approach to creating its own reality is arguably even more twisted.
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White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivers his first statement in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017.

White House press secretary makes an unfortunate first impression

01/23/17 09:30AM

Thousands of times, presidential press secretaries have appeared behind the podium in the White House briefing room. But never before have we witnessed a display comparable to Sean Spicer's tantrum on Saturday.
President Donald Trump's press secretary on Saturday slammed what he called inaccurate tweets and reporting that suggested the size of the crowd at Trump's inauguration was smaller than at past occasions.
Spicer, on his first full day as the president's chief spokesperson, told reporters that the inaugural crowd only appeared smaller because Friday was "the first time in our nation's history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the Mall." That wasn't true. He said security measures interfered with attendees trying to make it onto the Mall. That wasn't true, either.

Spicer added, "All of this space [from Trump's platform to the Washington Monument] was full when the president took the oath of office." That wasn't true, either.

Finally, the press secretary, with a straight face, declared, "This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration -- period." And that, of course, is quite literally unbelievable.

But even if we put aside Spicer's unfortunate imitation of Baghdad Bob, there's an important larger context to all of this.
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A man crosses the Central Intelligence A

Trump's speech to the CIA broke new presidential ground

01/23/17 09:01AM

For his first major event on his first full day as president, Donald Trump went to the Central Intelligence Agency, which made a fair amount of sense. The new president repeatedly attacked the CIA and the intelligence community before taking the oath of office -- two weeks ago, he went so far as to compare them to Nazis -- so it stands to reason that Trump would want to invest some energy into undoing the damage he's done.

But on Saturday, the new president spoke in front of a memorial wall at CIA headquarters and delivered one of the strangest presidential speeches in modern history. Slate's report captured the flavor nicely:
[The speech began with Trump expressing support for the CIA's work], but before long, he turned to what remain his favorite topics: himself and the "dishonest media." He complained that while, as far as he could tell, 1 million to 1.5 million people filled the National Mall to watch his inaugural address, the media reported that just 200,000 turned out for the event. [...]

Trump then rambled -- as if this were a campaign rally instead of a morale-boosting speech in front of the agency's most sacred spot -- about how smart he is (citing as proof the fact that a brilliant uncle taught at MIT) and about how he's been on the cover of Time magazine more often than anybody. (In fact, the title is held by Richard Nixon, which says something about what gets a president on a lot of Time magazine covers.)
Watching the speech was surreal, as if the lines between the actual president of the United States and a satirical caricature were effectively blurred out of existence.

In remarks that were supposed to be about the CIA and the intelligence community, Trump found it difficult to stop talking about himself. "They say, 'Is Donald Trump an intellectual?'" the president asked, quoting no one in particular. "Trust me. I'm, like, a smart person."

In a relatively brief appearance, he whined incessantly about journalists who told the truth about his inaugural crowd size. Trump pretended he hadn't feuded with the intelligence community for months. He even credited God for preventing rain at his inauguration, despite the fact that it rained at his inauguration.

And then the new president suggested Americans might need to prepare themselves for another war in the Middle East.
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President Elect Donald Trump arrives on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan.20, 2017 in Washington, DC. In today's inauguration ceremony Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Why the paltry crowd for Trump's inaugural matters

01/23/17 08:30AM

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president in Donald Trump's White House, talked to ABC' News' George Stephanopoulos yesterday and was quick to dismiss the underwhelming crowd that showed up for the new president's inauguration late last week.

"The crowd size is actually not a very animating topic to me," Conway said, adding that inaugural crowd sizes are not how presidents are judged.

It might be a more compelling point if her boss didn't disagree so strenuously.

Throughout his rise to power, Trump has made crowd sizes a key element of his political identity. At his pre-inaugural press conference, the new president, referring to himself in third person, declared, "Nobody has ever had crowds like Trump has had. You know that." Just two days before taking the oath of office, Trump told an audience, "[T]hey've just announced we're going to have record crowds" coming to the inauguration.

It's still not clear who "they" are, but their imaginary "announcement" was obviously mistaken. Trump said he intended to "set the all-time record" for attendance at a presidential inaugural, but it became plainly obvious on Friday that he failed spectacularly. Politico noted:
For someone preoccupied with the size of his audiences, President Donald Trump appeared to draw an anemic one on Friday.

In the run-up to the inauguration, Trump had promised an "unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout," but early evidence suggests the festivities in Washington fell far short of that mark.
By most estimates, roughly 250,000 people attended Trump's inauguration, compared to 1.8 million who showed up for President Obama's first inaugural. The side-by-side pictures and videos drive home the point in striking visuals: the crowd for Friday's event was rather pathetic.

I'd be far more sympathetic to arguments that this is little more than a trivial curiosity if Trump and the new White House team weren't going out of their way to make the opposite argument.
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Demonstrators arrive at Union Station for the Women's March on Washington on Jan. 21, 2017, in Washington, DC.

An unmistakable message: 'Welcome to your first day; we will not go away'

01/23/17 08:00AM

Almost immediately after Donald Trump's election, tens of thousands of Americans in cities nationwide took to the streets to denounce the nation's new president. Last week, there were comparable events in support of the Affordable Care Act. A couple of weeks earlier, much of the public howled when Republicans took aim at congressional ethics rules, forcing GOP lawmakers to quickly retreat.

But while these displays of progressive activism were impressive, it's been many years since Americans have seen events on the scale we saw the day after Trump's inauguration.
In a global exclamation of defiance and solidarity, millions rallied at women's marches in the nation's capital and cities around the world Saturday to send President Donald Trump an emphatic message on his first full day in office that they won't let his agenda go unchallenged.

"Welcome to your first day, we will not go away!" marchers in Washington chanted.
This wasn't just impressive, it was also important. By most measures, roughly 250,000 people attended Trump's inauguration in D.C. on Friday, but an estimated 3 million people participated in the women's march worldwide on Saturday -- including tripling the new president's crowd in the nation's capital alone.

The traditional conservative retort is to dismiss progressive activism as being limited to coastal elites in major urban areas. Not this time. Marchers and protesters made their voices heard in literally every state - including the reddest of red states.

As the events wrapped up, many on the right were quick to dismiss their significance. White House senior advisor Kellyanne Conway said yesterday the events didn't seem to have a "point."

That's ridiculous.
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Launched in 2008, “The Rachel Maddow Show” follows the machinations of policy making in America, from local political activism to international diplomacy. Rachel Maddow looks past the distractions of political theater and stunts and focuses on the legislative proposals and policies that shape American life - as well as the people making and influencing those policies and their ultimate outcome, intended or otherwise.

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