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Political mess surrounds Jeff Sessions, FBI Director Wray

01/23/18 08:00AM

Donald Trump's efforts to pressure former FBI Director James Comey are well documented and appear to be the subject of an ongoing investigation. Indeed, there's reason to believe Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team are examining whether the president obstructed justice when he leaned on the then-bureau chief before firing him.

The new question, as Rachel explained on last night's show, is the political pressure Comey's successor may now be facing. The Washington Post  reported overnight:

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray has been resisting pressure from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to replace the bureau's deputy director, Andrew McCabe, a frequent target of criticism from President Trump, according to people familiar with the matter. [...]

Sessions, Republican lawmakers and some members of the Trump administration have argued for weeks that Wray should conduct some kind of housecleaning by demoting or reassigning senior aides to his predecessor, Comey, according to people familiar with the matter. These people added that Sessions himself is under tremendous political pressure from conservative lawmakers and White House officials who have complained that the bureaucracy of federal law enforcement is biased against the president.

The trouble, of course, is that this Republican campaign against FBI and Justice Department officials -- one GOP lawmaker recently called for a "purge" of officials who may be insufficiently deferential to the White House -- is absurd.

This is especially true of McCabe, who was part of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email protocols and whom Trump and the far-right have targeted as a compromised partisan because his wife ran for state office in Virginia as a Democrat. The FBI scrutinized the allegations and determined the deputy director didn't have any conflicts of interest.

And yet, the partisan push to create more favorable conditions for Trump among federal law enforcement officials continues -- up to and including reported pressure from the attorney general to the director of the FBI.

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Monday's Mini-Report, 1.22.18

01/22/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The latest school shooting: "A teenage girl was wounded at a Texas high school Monday morning after a 16-year-old suspect opened fire with a semi-automatic handgun, authorities said."

* Afghanistan: "The Taliban's bloody, 14-hour siege on a major hotel in Kabul ended on Sunday, after six assailants terrorized much of the city with explosions and gunfire."

* This seems like a bad idea: "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to scale back or discontinue its work to prevent infectious-disease epidemics and other health threats in 39 foreign countries because it expects funding for the work to end, the agency told employees."

* An incredible story: "The arrest last week of a former CIA officer suspected of spying for China exposed one of the most significant intelligence breaches in American history. But the damage is even worse than first reported, sources familiar with the matter tell NBC News."

* White House: "A year into Donald Trump's presidency, records show five of his top staffers still have not secured final approval of their financial reports -- disclosures that are required by law to ensure Americans that these senior officials aren't personally benefiting from their White House jobs."

* DOJ: "Usually, when the FBI arrests a terrorist and the Justice Department charges them, it's a big deal. Combatting terrorism is one of the Justice Department's top priorities, and terror cases are a great way for federal prosecutors and agents to make names and build careers. The press and the public are very interested. Officials will typically blast out a press release, and, if it's a big takedown, might even hold a press conference. The Justice Department didn't do any of that when federal prosecutors unsealed terrorism charges last week against Taylor Michael Wilson."

* I still find this so strange: "Rene Boucher, 58, was charged on Friday with assaulting a member of Congress, a felony, months after his sneak attack on Sen. Rand Paul in November, according to officials. Federal prosecutors said Boucher 'had enough' after he witnessed Paul stack brush into a pile on his own lawn, but near Boucher's property."

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Republican U.S. vice presidential nominee Mike Pence speaks at a campaign rally, Oct. 22, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Pence offers a curious defense of Trump's Stormy Daniels scandal

01/22/18 04:28PM

In his capacity as vice president, Mike Pence has repeatedly stuck his neck out, putting his reputation on the line while pushing White House talking points, only to run into trouble when Trump World's claims turned out to be wrong.

In each instance, Pence said he hadn't been caught lying; he'd simply passed along information he thought was true at the time.

With this in mind, it amazes me that the vice president hasn't learned anything from his mistakes. The Associated Press reported:

The vice president also dismissed an adult film star's account of a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006, questioning its validity.

"I'm just not going to comment on the latest baseless allegations against the president," Pence said.

OK, but how does Pence know the allegations are baseless?

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Congress Struggles With Funding Repairs To U.S. Capitol Dome

The shutdown may be ending, but the fight is far from over

01/22/18 01:17PM

As government shutdowns go, this one was quite brief. The 2013 shutdown, for example, lasted 17 days. The one that started in December 1995 and ended in January 1996 took a month to resolve. The last three-day shutdown was way back in 1990.

That will apparently be the length of this one, too.

The three-day government shutdown is on the verge of ending after enough Senate Democrats joined Republicans to advance a three-week extension of funding in exchange for GOP assurances that Congress would take up a larger immigration bill in that time.

The stopgap funding measure, which needed 60 votes to clear a key procedural hurdle, was approved 81 to 18.

A pair of Republicans -- Utah's Mike Lee and Kentucky's Rand Paul -- joined 16 Democrats in opposing the measure. (Note, among the Democrats voting "no" were all of the senators rumored to be interested in a 2020 presidential campaign.)

It's worth emphasizing that members didn't vote for the exact same bill that passed the House on Friday. The bill that Congress is passing today reauthorizes for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for the next six years, and it also extends funding for the government until Feb. 8, instead of Feb. 16.

In other words, this is a three-week continuing resolution (CR), instead of a four-week measure.

The bill will still have to be approved by the House, where most Democrats are expected to balk, but the Republican majority is likely to pass it and send to Donald Trump for a signature. And at that point, we can basically start the clock on the next shutdown deadline.

So, what's changed since before the shutdown?

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.22.18

01/22/18 12:00PM

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

* Donald Trump couldn't make it to the high-dollar fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago on Saturday night, but Eric Trump, Lara Trump, and RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel headlined the event in the president's place.

* The new Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Democrats with a 12-point advantage on the generic congressional ballot, 51% to 39%, among registered voters. Among likely voters, the Democratic advantage is even larger.

* On the other hand, the news was better for Republicans in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal  poll and CNN poll, both of which showed the Democratic generic-ballot lead in single digits.

* The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which helps elect Democratic U.S. House candidates, raised $105.4 million in 2017. In 2015, the last non-election year, the DCCC raised $68.2 million.

* CBS's John Dickerson asked House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) yesterday about his possible retirement plans. The Republican leaders said he and his wife would discuss his plans "in late spring."

* How annoyed are some Illinois Democrats with incumbent Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.)? Two of his in-state colleagues from his own party -- Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Luis Gutierrez -- have endorsed Lipinski's primary challenger, Marie Newman.

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke delivers a speech billed as "A Vision for American Energy Dominance" at the Heritage Foundation on September 29, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Trump administration hedges on Florida's special drilling deal

01/22/18 11:20AM

It's been nearly two weeks since Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced that Florida would be exempt from the Trump administration's new coastal oil-drilling plan, touching off a controversy that led many governors -- from both parties and both coasts -- to demand equal treatment.

Complicating matters, it now appears the Trump administration may not honor Zinke's promise to Gov. Rick Scott (R). The New York Times  reported:

In a surprise statement undercutting Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's announcement last week that he was exempting Florida from President Trump's offshore drilling plan, a senior Interior Department official said Friday that Florida's coastal waters had not been excluded after all. [...]

On Friday, the head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Interior Department agency that manages offshore leasing, said Mr. Zinke's Florida decision was not final.... Instead, the bureau was pushing ahead with the required review of resources off the nation's shores, including Florida's, he said. A decision on whether to offer leases off Florida as part of the administration's offshore program would come after that analysis.

Walter Cruickshank, the bureau's acting director, told a House Committee on Natural Resources panel on Friday that Zinke's statement was "not a formal action." Cruickshank added that he didn't know anyone at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management whom Zinke had consulted before announcing special treatment for Florida.

In other words, the controversial cabinet secretary had effectively shared his opinion, but he didn't announce an official policy -- though it looked at the time as if Zinke had done exactly that.

Do you ever get the feeling that, a year into the Trump era, these guys really don't know what they're doing? That the president and his cabinet members are just winging it, making up bold policy moves on the fly without a whole lot of thought or discussion?

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Rep. Patrick Meehan

Key GOP rep removed from ethics panel after harassment settlement

01/22/18 10:40AM

Any time there are allegations of sexual harassment against a person in a position of authority, it's a story that deserves to be taken seriously, but given the broader context, the New York Times' report on Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) is especially important.

Representative Patrick Meehan, a Pennsylvania Republican who has taken a leading role in fighting sexual harassment in Congress, used thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to settle his own misconduct complaint after a former aide accused him last year of making unwanted romantic overtures to her, according to several people familiar with the settlement.

A married father of three, Mr. Meehan, 62, had long expressed interest in the personal life of the aide, who was decades younger and had regarded the congressman as a father figure, according to three people who worked with the office and four others with whom she discussed her tenure there.

But after the woman became involved in a serious relationship with someone outside the office last year, Mr. Meehan professed his romantic desires for her -- first in person, and then in a handwritten letter -- and he grew hostile when she did not reciprocate, the people familiar with her time in the office said.

According to the Times' reporting, the woman found it necessary to begin working from home, before ultimately quitting. She initiated the complaint process with the congressional Office of Compliance and received a settlement from the Pennsylvania Republican's congressional office fund.

Meehan's office denies the allegations, but when the Times asked why the lawmaker agreed to the settlement and the confidentiality provision if the allegations were false, the congressman's spokesperson did not respond.

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U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement from the Roosevelt Room next to the empty chairs of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (L), D-New York, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (R), D-California, after they cancelled their meeting at the Whi

Trump aims low, falsely claims Dems are 'complicit' in murders

01/22/18 10:00AM

As the federal government shut down as Friday night turned to Saturday morning, the White House issued a formal written statement that referred to Senate Democrats as "obstructionist losers." One might ordinarily expect to see such rhetoric on a far-right Twitter feed, not official statements from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Soon after, the White House changed its voicemail message. "Thank you for calling the White House," the recorded voice said. "Unfortunately, we cannot answer your call today because congressional Democrats are holding government funding, including funding for our troops and other national security priorities, hostage to an unrelated immigration debate."

In Donald Trump's America, standards have clearly fallen. Indeed, it's important to understand just how low this president is prepared to go.

After the government shutdown went into full swing this weekend, Trump's campaign operation released a brutal advertisement slamming Democrats as "complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants" if they stand in the way of the administration's attempts at curbing illegal immigration.

I'm not aware of any previous instance in which a sitting president accused a major political party of being "complicit" in murders. Indeed, the fact that Trump World's new, 30-second ad isn't a massive national outrage is evidence that we're all getting a little too inured to this president debasing the political discourse and destroying American norms.

What's more, on a substantive level, the point of the ad isn't just to attack Democrats; it's also to persuade the public to be afraid of immigrants. Vox explained, "It’s important to note that despite the White House’s fear-mongering on the dangers of illegal immigrants, there is no proof immigrants raise crime rates in America or are particularly prone to crime. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary showing immigrants — both legal and unauthorized — are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. There is not extensive data on the exact number of homicides committed by undocumented immigrants."

But to fully appreciate the absurdity of the circumstances, one had to have seen "Meet the Press" yesterday.

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House Members-Elect Pose For Group Photo At The U.S. Capitol

Democratic veteran takes aim at 'Cadet Bone Spurs'

01/22/18 09:20AM

In the runup to the current government shutdown, Donald Trump tweeted  almost  obsessively  about the military, attacking Democrats' patriotism by arguing that failing to endorse the Republican proposal would hurt U.S. troops. It's a cheap line about an issue the president doesn't understand.

And as the L.A. Times  reported, it wasn't just Trump.

Speaking to U.S. troops involved in bombing Islamic State militants in Syria, Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday launched a broadside at Democrats over the government shutdown, accusing the opposition party of "playing politics with military pay."

It is unusual for a sitting vice president to use a meet-and-greet with service members to make political attacks.

We could note at this point that Pence, a fringe congressman in the not-too-distant past, used to be rather enthusiastic about his support for government shutdowns. Or we could note how dangerous it is for national officeholders to take steps like Pence's to mix partisan politics and military service. (Phillip Carter wrote last summer, "This is what leaders do in banana republics: Instruct the people with guns to join the political fray.")

But perhaps the most important detail is the simple fact that Pence appeared to be brazenly lying to servicemen and women. Almost immediately after the shutdown began, it was a Democrat -- Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) -- who sought support for a measure that would protect the troops' paychecks from the effects of the shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) rejected it. Yesterday, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) pushed the same idea, and again Republicans balked.

This stands in sharp contrast to the 2013 shutdown. On the first day of the shutdown, Barack Obama not only signed a bipartisan measure to protect military paychecks, he also recorded a video message to the troops to assuage their concerns.

This year, Trump has made no comparable message to the military, has signed no legislation to protect servicemembers' paychecks, and watched his vice president play politics with the troops in ways that pushed the boundaries of propriety.

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Image: Hundreds of thousands march down Pennsylvania Avenue during the Women's March in Washington

As millions participated in Women's Marches, Trump sought credit

01/22/18 08:40AM

Donald Trump was probably feeling a little antsy on Saturday. On the first anniversary of his presidential inaugural, the Republican expected to be at his private club in Florida, but was instead stuck at the White House, detached from the process surrounding the government shutdown, pretending to be busy.

Assuming Trump turned on the television -- as is his wont -- the president likely saw coverage of a shutdown he helped create, but was powerless to end, coupled with coverage of massive national protests, featuring legions of activists who are resisting his agenda.

So, naturally, Trump thought it'd be a good idea to take credit for the progressive activism. "Get out there now to celebrate the historic milestones and unprecedented economic success and wealth creation that has taken place over the last 12 months," the president declared.

In reality, of course, Trump's presidency hasn't had any "historic milestones" -- at least none that he should be bragging about -- and the health of the economy has plenty of precedent. But even putting that aside, if Trump wasn't clear on the motivation behind the events over the weekend, he wasn't paying close enough attention.

Demonstrators and activists gathered in cities worldwide on Sunday for a second day of Women's Marches, a year after millions worldwide rallied to highlight women's issues and challenge the presidency and policies of Donald Trump. [...]

The largest demonstrations [on Saturday] appeared to take place in Los Angeles, where authorities said there were about 600,000 attendees, and in New York, where about 200,000 people participated. Tens of thousands has also gathered in Oakland and San Diego, according to authorities. Demonstrators also rallied in Milwaukee, Denver, Dallas, as well as Montgomery, Alabama, and many other towns and cities all over the country.

The NBC affiliate in Chicago put the estimated total of participants in the city's Women's March at 300,000, a figure that "exceeded both expectations on turnout as well as the attendance at last year's march, organizers said."

One of the core messages of the marches from last January was participants declaring, "We will not go away." Twelve months later, it's clear they've honored that commitment: this is a movement that endures.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump hosts former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

As the shutdown continues, Trump relegated to bystander status

01/22/18 08:00AM

In Barack Obama's first term as president, many of his critics embraced a curious line of criticism. New Jersey's Chris Christie (R) insisted in 2011, for example, that the Democrat "stop being a bystander in the Oval Office."

It wasn't long before other presidential detractors echoed the sentiment. Charles Krauthammer pushed the "bystander" line on Fox News, and even the Washington Post's Dana Milbank said he too saw Obama as a "bystander."

The reproach always struck me misguided, if not bizarre, given Obama's actual record, but it turns out the "bystander" thesis was simply too early: Donald Trump is in the White House during a government shutdown he helped create, and instead of working on a deal to resolve the problem, the Republican president is doing effectively nothing.

The Washington Post reported that Trump, at least for now, prefers a "hide-and-tweet strategy" that White House officials like because it means he won't work on an agreement the far right disapproves of. CNN added that the president has already told congressional leaders that they should work out a deal on their own and present it to him once it's done -- as opposed to Trump taking a hands-on role in the negotiations.

And the New York Times  reports that Trump has very little understanding of the current debate and is passively disinterested in getting up to speed. Worse, the article suggested the "unusually disengaged" president isn't really in control of the White House's role in the process.

As the government shutdown continued for its second day on Sunday, one thing was clear to both sides of the negotiations to end it: The president was either unwilling or unable to articulate the immigration policy he wanted, much less understand the nuances of what it would involve.

Both sides have reason to be confused. Each time Mr. Trump has edged toward compromise with Democrats, he has appeared to be reined in by his own staff, which shares the hawkish immigration stance that fueled his campaign. And Republican leaders, bruised by past experience with a president who has rarely offered them consistent cover on a politically challenging issue, are loath to guess at his intentions.

MSNBC's Kasie Hunt added over the weekend that the "stunning reality" is that the president isn't even on the same page as his own White House team.

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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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