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Thursday's Mini-Report, 6.22.17

06/22/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Quite a sight: "Capitol Police forcibly removed protesters gathered outside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office on Thursday, with at least one photo showing drops of blood on the hallway floor."

* Missile defense: "An American attempt to gauge the military's ability to shoot down medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles and counter potential threats from North Korea failed Wednesday night, according to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency and the Japan Ministry of Defense."

* Quite a swamp: "More than 100 former federal lobbyists have found jobs in the Trump administration, despite President Trump's campaign pledge to restrict the power of special interests in Washington, according to a tally provided to USA TODAY by a Democratic group."

* On a related note: "One of President Donald Trump's newest appointees is a registered agent of Saudi Arabia earning hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby on the kingdom's behalf, according to U.S. Department of Justice records reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity."

* This really was weird: "President Trump blasted wind power during a rally in Iowa Wednesday night despite the fact that the state gets nearly a third of its power from the alternative energy source."

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With the health care system threatened, Obama speaks up

06/22/17 04:49PM

In the American tradition, former presidents tend to say very little about their successors. And with this in mind, while Barack Obama has no doubt been tempted in recent months to condemn Donald Trump and his actions, Obama has been restrained, giving the new president a wide berth.

But just a couple of days before Trump's inauguration, Obama acknowledged that while the White House and Congress would make their own determinations about the nation's direction in the coming years, and he intended to stay out of it, that principle is not absolute.

"There's a difference," Obama said, "between that normal functioning of politics and certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake."

Less than two weeks after leaving office, this led Obama to issue a statement responding to the Trump White House's proposed Muslim ban. This afternoon, with the American health care system in peril, the former president spoke up again, this time via social media.

The Democrat's 1,000-word statement is worth reading in its entirety, and it clearly has more than one audience in mind. Part of Obama's message clearly intends to encourage health care advocates and their allies to remain engaged and fight to prevent the nation from falling backwards.

But the other part of the message appears to be a challenge to Republican policymakers to do the right thing:

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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz attends a Penn. campaign kickoff event held on N.Y. presidential primary night at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Penn. on April 19, 2016. (Photo by Charles Mostoller/Reuters)

Four far-right senators balk at GOP health plan, for now

06/22/17 04:15PM

The arithmetic for Senate Republicans is pretty straightforward: they have 52 members in the chamber, and their far-right health care overhaul will need 51 votes to pass.

If one or two GOP senators break ranks and decide they can't support the bill, that won't be enough to change the outcome: Vice President Mike Pence would break the tie and advance the legislation. If three or more Republicans oppose the plan, it dies.

And that, in turn, gives a group of four GOP senators a fair amount of influence.

Four Republican senators have announced that they will not vote for the GOP health care bill unless changes are made, putting passage of the bill at risk just hours after it was unveiled. [...]

The four conservative GOP senators -- Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Ted Cruz of Texas -- released a joint statement outlining their concerns:

"Currently, for a variety of reasons, we are not ready to vote for this bill, but we are open to negotiation and obtaining more information before it is brought to the floor," the four conservatives said in a written statement. "There are provisions in this draft that represent an improvement to our current healthcare system but it does not appear this draft as written will accomplish the most important promise that we made to Americans: to repeal Obamacare and lower their healthcare costs."

This isn't exactly a hard-hitting threat. On the contrary, it's a lukewarm, almost mealy-mouthed statement. It's one thing for a group of senators to announce their opposition; it's something else when senators say in the first sentence of their statement that they're "open to negotiation and obtaining more information."

Still, it's a warning shot of sorts: Senate Republican leaders are apparently going to have to move the bill to even further to the right, at least some tangible ways, to pick up these four far-right members.

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Image: Donald Trump

Donald Trump comes clean, admits he doesn't have tapes

06/22/17 02:25PM

Six weeks ago, Donald Trump had one of the more consequential Twitter tantrums of his career. The president, for reasons that have never been explained, wrote in a warning to the former director of the FBI, "James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"

This 19-word missive, which came shortly before Comey's scheduled testimony on Capitol Hill, sparked a chain reaction that included, among other things, the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Trump's Russia scandal.

But against the dramatic background, there's been an open question as to whether or not the "tapes" Trump referred to exist in reality. Asked at a press conference two weeks ago, the president said, cryptically, "Well I'll tell you about that sometime in the very near future." Evidently, he decided to come clean this afternoon.

President Donald Trump on Thursday tweeted that he did not record his conversations with then-FBI Director James Comey, putting to rest one of the biggest lingering mysteries surrounding the drama between the president and the FBI head he later dismissed.

Specifically, the president wrote in another pair of tweets, "With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea whether there are 'tapes' or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings."

Note, the first half of this message seems designed to suggest some nefarious forces may have recordings of Trump, while the second half is his carefully worded -- no doubt lawyer approved -- denial.

Why it took the president six weeks to bring clarity to this simple question is something the White House has not yet explained.

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New Republican health care plan focuses on tax cuts, Medicaid cuts

06/22/17 01:12PM

The Senate is expected to vote in a week on a massive overhaul of the American health care system. After weeks of secretive deliberations, we can finally read what Republicans have in mind.

Senate Republicans have unveiled a draft of their legislation to revamp the government's role in the nation's health care system, a proposal that includes big reductions to Medicaid, eliminates the Obamacare mandate requiring individuals to purchase insurance and offers tax credits to help people afford insurance while slashing taxes for the wealthy.

The major change to health care comes in the form of Medicaid. The bill winds down the expanded Medicaid program under Obamacare after 2020 -- a longer timeline than the House health care bill that was passed in May. But it also makes deeper cuts to the program in the long run, by 2025, through changing the federal funding allocation formula for states to receive fewer federal dollars for Medicaid recipients.

The 142-page bill, which is being described as a "discussion draft," is online in its entirety here. (It is, fortunately, searchable.)

Scrutinizing any health care bill should always start with the same question: what is the problem the proposal intends to solve? In this case, GOP senators appear to be working from the premise that the nation needs a big tax cut.

And so, at its core, this new Republican legislation is effectively an income-redistribution plan: it intends to cut Medicaid deeply, and apply the bulk of those saving to tax breaks.

As for the details, we'll have a better sense of the projected impact of the bill -- which GOP senators have ironically called the "Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017" -- after the Congressional Budget Office releases a score, which is expected early next week, just a few days before the scheduled vote. But in the meantime, here are some tidbits to keep in mind:

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Image: Senate Republicans Address The Press After Their Weekly Policy Luncheon

The GOP's political incentives on health care are a mess

06/22/17 11:26AM

The Senate Republicans' secret health care bill is, as of this morning, no longer a secret. Though the website GOP senators created for the proposal doesn't appear to be working perfectly, the bill is now available for public scrutiny -- with only a week to go before a scheduled floor vote.

But as we start digging in on the blueprint, and await a report from the Congressional Budget Office on its impact, it's worth taking a moment to think about the strange political incentives surrounding the entire initiative.

Because, frankly, I find them baffling.

Senate Republicans have kept the bill-writing process secret, in large part because they recognize how deeply controversial and unpopular their efforts are. GOP leaders have been reluctant to even talk about their own policy ideas, effectively telling their own members, "We better pass this now before anyone realizes how horrible the plan is."

But then what? What exactly do Republicans expect to happen once their regressive ideas are imposed on the nation?

In 2009 and 2010, Democrats wanted the public to know as much about their health care proposal as possible. Dems were desperate for Americans to learn the details, in part because Democratic officials believed people would like what they saw, but also because Dems wanted the facts to counteract the nonsensical rumors and brazen lies touted by the ACA's opponents. What's more, once "Obamacare" was law, Dems were confident that the law's popularity would eventually grow -- which is largely what's happened.

In 2017, however, all of this is reversed. Republicans plainly don't want Americans to get too close a look at their unpopular legislation, and have no real confidence that the public will actually like what GOP officials came up with behind closed doors.

All of which leads to a question that isn't asked often enough: why in the world are they doing this? Or more to the point, why aren't they concerned about a political backlash? As Vox's Ezra Klein put it the other day, "If their plan is so unpopular they can't defend it in theory, how will they defend it in practice? Each day this goes on, it seems less like a legislative process and more like a form of madness."

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North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un attends a photo session with the participants of a meeting of Korean People's Army (KPA) in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on Nov. 5, 2014. (KCNA KCNA/Reuters)

Trump says his original North Korea policy 'has not worked out'

06/22/17 10:46AM

For reasons that still aren't altogether clear, Donald Trump published a curious tweet about U.S. foreign policy this week that raised a few eyebrows:

"While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!"

The American president, you'll recall, was originally convinced that he should blame Beijing for North Korea's provocations, and that China could easily get Kim Jong-un and his regime under control if it wanted to. In April, however, Trump said he had a conversation with China's Xi Jinping about the geopolitical challenge.

"After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it's not so easy," Trump conceded. "I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power" over North Korea, he said. "But it's not what you would think."

The result was a clumsy sort of policy in which Trump, relying largely on his perceived bond with the Chinese president, would wait for Beijing to rein North Korea in. That never happened. In fact, by all appearances, Xi Jinping briefly humored Trump, before largely ignoring the American president's appeals and continuing with the same policy China has maintained for years.

Trump may feel inclined to declare, "At least I know China tried!" but in reality, that didn't happen. Whether Trump knows and/or understands any of this is unclear. (In China, Trump has already been the target of mockery and ridicule following a series of embarrassing reversals.)

But what I'm concerned about is what happens now.

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2011 Ford Motor Co. Flex sport utility vehicles (SUV) sit on display at the Capital Ford dealership in Raleigh, N.C. on Feb. 26, 2011. (Photo by Jim R. Bounds/Bloomberg/Getty)

Ford's production decision causes a political headache for Trump

06/22/17 10:03AM

In early February, just a couple of weeks into his presidency, Donald Trump appeared on Fox News and boasted about Ford Motor Company's decision not to expand production at a new plant in Mexico.

"We're losing our jobs to Mexico," Trump argued, adding, "And I have to tell you I've turned it around, already I've turned it around, you see that. Ford has been phenomenal. They canceled the plan."

What the president neglected to mention is Ford's new plan. The New York Times reported that the American auto giant will "build its next-generation small car in China rather than in the United States or Mexico."

Last year, the company said it planned to shift Focus production to a plant under construction in Mexico, primarily because of lower labor costs. But Ford canceled the project in January after it met stiff opposition from President Trump, who had repeatedly criticized the company for investing in Mexican jobs at the expense of American ones.

Now Ford, the nation's second-largest automaker, after General Motors, is centralizing much of its small-car production in China, where it has available capacity.

This appears to have been a straightforward business decision, unrelated to political pressures. A Wall Street Journal report noted that Ford expects to save $500 million by building its next-generation Focus in China, as compared to the original Mexican plan.

And while it wouldn't be fair to blame the White House for the auto maker's latest move, it does create a political headache for the president who was a little too eager to boast about Ford scrapping its plans south of the border.

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Image: Donald Trump, Neil Gorsuch, Anthony Kennedy

Trump vows to pursue new immigration law that already exists

06/22/17 09:20AM

At his campaign rally in Iowa last night, Donald Trump received a very warm welcome from his audience, but one of the president's ideas received an especially rapturous standing ovation.

Reading from his trusted teleprompter, Trump declared, "The time has come for new immigration rules which say that those seeking admission into our country must be able to support themselves financially and should not use welfare for a period of at least five years."

Recognizing the popularity of what he'd just said, the president added, "We'll be putting in legislation to that effect very shortly."

As it turns out, that won't be necessary. The Hill reported that this idea already exists in a law created 20 years ago.

Known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), the legislation was passed during the administration of former President Bill Clinton and said that an immigrant is "not eligible for any Federal means-tested public benefit" for 5 years, which starts on the date the immigrant enters the country.

There are exceptions under the law as to what qualifies as a federal-means tested public benefit. Some exceptions include certain medical assistance, "in-kind emergency disaster relief," and public health assistance for some vaccines.

I suppose it's possible Trump intends to "put in legislation" to change the restrictions that already exist, but it seems more likely that the president is simply unaware of current federal policy.

And those Iowans who stood to cheer the proposal, many of whom have been conditioned to believe the worst in response to the words "welfare" and "immigrants," probably didn't know about the existing restrictions, either.

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Trump's efforts to 'monetize the presidency' grow more audacious

06/22/17 08:40AM

Donald Trump's bid to win a second term as president was well underway before his first term even began. Ahead of his Inauguration Day, Trump's 2020 campaign already had a campaign office, campaign staff, and even an official slogan. The campaign apparatus has hosted a series of campaign rallies -- three-and-a-half years early -- including one last night in Iowa.

And like every modern campaign, Trump's re-election effort is eager to fill its campaign coffers. The New York Times reported a couple of months ago that the Republican "is raising money toward a bid for a second term earlier than any incumbent president in recent history, pulling in tens of millions of dollars in the months after his election and through his inauguration."

But what's amazing about this isn't just the fact that Trump is scrambling for campaign cash; it's also where he's choosing to do so. The Associated Press reported late yesterday on the president headlining a D.C.-fundraiser at his own hotel.

Trump can see the Trump International Hotel from the White House lawn, making it a premier and convenient location for the June 28 major-donor event, his campaign director Michael Glassner said.

But the choice also raises ethics questions, according to conflict of interest attorneys who have been critical of Trump's decision not to cut financial ties with his global business empire.

Norm Eisen, the Obama White House's chief ethics attorney, told the AP that Trump is "becoming more and more brazen in his efforts to monetize the presidency."

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Image: President Donald Trump waves before delivering keynote address

Trump defends economic team: 'I just don't want a poor person'

06/22/17 08:00AM

After last fall's presidential election, as Donald Trump's team took shape, it was hard not to notice that the new administration would be led in part by several Wall Street billionaires. Last night, the Trump campaign hosted a rally in Iowa, where the president shed some light on his perspective.

"So somebody said, 'Why did you appoint a rich person to be in charge of the economy," Trump said to a group of his supporters at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids. "I said, 'Because that's the kind of thinking we want ... because they're representing the country. They don't want the money."

"And I love all people -- rich or poor -- but in those particular positions, I just don't want a poor person," Trump continued.

As the Washington Post's report added, in context, "those particular positions" referred to Trump's secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, whom he called a "the legendary Wall Street genius," and Gary Cohn, his economic council director who was the president of Goldman Sachs -- a title that Trump repeated four times.

It's quite a change in perspective in light of what Trump told voters before the election. As regular readers may recall, during the Republican presidential primaries, one of Trump's most common attacks against Sen. Ted Cruz was blasting the Republican senator’s ties to – you guessed it – Goldman Sachs. “Is Cruz honest?” Trump asked in January. “He is in bed w/ Wall St. & is funded by Goldman Sachs.” Trump added,  "Goldman Sachs owns [Cruz], he will do anything they demand. Not much of a reformer!"

In the general election, the fact that Hillary Clinton once gave a speech to Goldman Sachs was also a central line of attack, with Trump claiming the investment giant has “total control” over her.

Now, however, the president has surrounded himself with a half-dozen Goldman Sachs alum -- a point Trump believes is worth bragging about. The swamp, I'm afraid, isn't being drained.

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About The Rachel Maddow Show

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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