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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 1.17.18

01/17/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* FBI agents "showed up at Steve Bannon’s Washington home last week intent on serving him with a subpoena to appear before a grand jury investigating possible ties between President Donald Trump's campaign and Russia, according to a source familiar with the proceedings."

* This won't end well: "The Trump administration on Tuesday cut tens of millions of dollars in money for Palestinian refugees, demanding that the U.N. agency responsible for the programs undertake a 'fundamental re-examination,' the State Department said."

* Trump's EPA: "The Environmental Protection Agency is shifting course under the Trump administration on how it assesses new chemicals for health and environmental hazards, streamlining a safety review process that industry leaders say is too slow and cumbersome."

* This is an unbelievable story: "A former CIA officer who was charged Tuesday with unlawful possession of secrets is suspected of a much worse crime: betraying U.S. informants in China, sources familiar with the case told NBC News."

* That was quite an interview Chris Hayes had last night: "Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) slammed Haiti on Tuesday, saying the country is covered with garbage and that conditions there are 'disgusting.'"

* It wasn't easy, but the Section 702 bill is going to pass: "The Senate narrowly voted Tuesday to advance a bill to extend a powerful government authority to conduct foreign surveillance on U.S. soil, after leading Democrats joined senators opposing the legislation for not providing better protections for Americans."

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Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., stops to speak with a reporter as he arrives for the Senate Republicans' policy luncheon, May 12, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP)

GOP's Flake: Trump 'uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin'

01/17/18 02:58PM

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has been more outspoken than most in his party when criticizing Donald Trump and the direction of the Republican Party under this president's leadership. As Trump prepares to give out "Fake News Awards," the retiring Arizona senator took the floor again today to condemn the president's attacks on the nation's free press.

"2017 was a year which saw the truth -- objective, empirical, evidence-based truth -- more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine 'alternative facts' into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted.

"'The enemy of the people,' was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017.

"Mr. President, it is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies. It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase 'enemy of the people,' that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of 'annihilating such individuals' who disagreed with the supreme leader.

"This alone should be a source of great shame for us in this body, especially for those of us in the president's party. For they are shameful, repulsive statements. And, of course, the president has it precisely backward -- despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot's enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn't suit him 'fake news,' it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press."

That's very well said. Flake's punch may have been telegraphed -- the senator started sharing excerpts from his remarks days in advance -- but that doesn't detract from its potency. Trump's hostility for the First Amendment has been one of his presidency's most alarming developments, and it's heartening to see a high-profile senator from his own party call him out on it.

And yet, the praise for Flake must come with caveats.

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Image: US House of Representatives passes short-term measure to fund the government

With time running out, the shutdown threat is very real

01/17/18 12:57PM

There's never been a government shutdown when one party controls the White House and both chambers of Congress. That may change in two days.

President Donald Trump is confident that Democrats will take the blame if the government shuts down this weekend or Congress fails to find a fix to prevent DACA recipients from being deported. But Republicans on Capitol Hill aren't so sure.

Many of them fear that voters will fault the GOP after looking at Trump's decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, his past flirtation with letting federal funding expire and the fact that Republicans are in control of the White House, the Senate and the House.

In theory, one might expect lawmakers to prevent a shutdown by simply approving another stopgap spending measure -- Congress' fourth in as many months -- to keep the government's lights on for a few weeks while work continues on a broader agreement.

In practice, it's not that easy. After Trump created an immigration mess by taking steps to end DACA, Dreamers are facing deadlines that require swift action by Congress. With that in mind, congressional Democrats expect DACA protections to be part of the bill that prevents a shutdown.

Indeed, Dems are so committed to that goal that they struck a bipartisan deal with Senate Republicans that gives the White House much of what it wants -- to my mind, perhaps too much -- in order to clean up the DACA mess that Trump created. Nevertheless, the president who said he'd back any bipartisan agreement, no matter what's in it, has been persuaded by the far-right to reject the deal, making a shutdown more likely.

But this is a machine with a lot of moving parts, and the fight isn't limited to immigration.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.17.18

01/17/18 12:00PM

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

* Republicans suffered another Senate recruiting setback yesterday when former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) announced he will not run in this year's Senate special election.

* While yesterday's state legislative special election in Wisconsin clearly didn't go the GOP's way, Republican candidates fared better in special elections in Iowa and South Carolina, holding onto "red" seats.

* I'm not sure why a Democratic candidate would announce his gubernatorial plans on "Fox and Friends," but that's what former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) did this morning.

* In related news, Republicans reportedly hoped to persuade Youngstown State University President Jim Tressel, a former football coach, to run for governor. In a tweet this week, Tressel seemed uninterested.

* DNC Chairman Tom Perez conceded to Politico, "I knew it was a turnaround job when I ran, but I undeniably underestimated the depth of the turnaround job. We had to rebuild almost every facet of the organization, and equally importantly, we had to rebuild trust."

* Republicans have struggled to find a top-tier candidate willing to take on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) this year, and the two-term incumbent governor's financial advantage won't make the GOP's job any easier: Cuomo "has now amassed a $30.5 million campaign chest."

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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's Interior secretary can't seem to stay out of trouble

01/17/18 11:20AM

As 2017 came to a close, the Interior Department published a "comprehensive list of accomplishments" in its first year under Secretary Ryan Zinke's leadership, which according to the cabinet agency, demonstrated "a conservation stewardship legacy" that's "second only to Teddy Roosevelt."

The Huffington Post took a closer look at the list and found that Zinke and his team were taking credit for developments they had little, if anything, to do with.

Yesterday, the Interior secretary faced more bad news, as NBC News reported.

Nine of the 12 members of the National Park System Advisory Board have resigned, saying the Interior Department has ignored it since President Donald Trump took office a year ago, the board's chairman said Tuesday.

In an interview with Alaska Public Radio, the board's chairman since 2010, Tony Knowles, a former Democratic governor of Alaska, confirmed a report in The Washington Post that he and eight other members of the advisory panel quit on Monday out of frustration that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke hadn't met with them even once.

"The department showed no interest in learning about or continuing to use the forward-thinking agenda of science" when it comes to "the effect of climate change, protection of the ecosystems, education," Knowles told Alaska Public Radio.

This, of course, comes on the heels of an unrelated controversy in which Zinke agreed to a special, arbitrary exemption for Florida from the administration's coastal-drilling plan -- all while gushing about Gov. Rick Scott (R), the White House's preferred Senate candidate in the Sunshine State this year.

That followed a separate story about Zinke's mistakenly using wildfire preparedness funds to pay for one of the secretary's unrelated helicopter tours. (There’s already an investigation underway into Zinke’s dubious use of public money for his official travel, and this won’t help.)

But as regular readers know, there's no reason to stop there.

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Adult-movie star Stormy Daniels stops at Rooster's Country Bar in Delhi, La. on Friday, July 3, 2009.

New details emerge surrounding Trump's Stormy Daniels controversy

01/17/18 10:41AM

It's been nearly a week since the Wall Street Journal first reported that Donald Trump's lawyer "arranged a $130,000 payment to a former adult-film star a month before the 2016 election as part of an agreement that precluded her from publicly discussing an alleged sexual encounter with Mr. Trump." The story, which was met with a series of denials that I detailed on Friday, is still producing new details.

The New York Times  reported, for example, that Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, was in talks with ABC's "Good Morning America" before the election about sharing her story. CNN reported yesterday, meanwhile, that Fox News had the story, including an on-the-record statement from Clifford's manager, confirming a sexual relationship, "but the story never saw the light of the day."

Slate's Jacob Weisberg, meanwhile, published a detailed account yesterday about his own work on the story, including a series of phone conversations and text exchanges he had with Daniels between August and October of 2016.

Daniels told me she'd gone to Trump's hotel room after meeting him at a celebrity golf tournament in Nevada in 2006. There they'd begun a sexual relationship, which continued for nearly a year. [...]

In our conversations, Daniels said she was holding back on the juiciest details, such as her ability to describe things about Trump that only someone who had seen him naked would know.... Daniels said she had some corroborating evidence, including the phone numbers of Trump's longtime personal assistant Rhona Graff and his bodyguard Keith Schiller, with whom she said she would arrange rendezvous. While she did not share those numbers with me, I did speak to three of Daniels' friends, all of whom said they knew about the affair at the time, and all of whom confirmed the outlines of her story.

As for why she was willing to share this with Weisberg, Daniels was reportedly concerned that Trump would betray her. The Slate piece added that Trump "had negotiated to buy her silence," but Daniels began having conversations with the media in case the Republican failed to follow through on the alleged financial commitment. The more Trump stalled, the story went, the more Daniels shared.

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Image: Eric Greitens

Following sex scandal, GOP governor faces pressure to resign

01/17/18 10:06AM

The details of Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens' (R) sex scandal make it more damaging than most. The Republican governor concedes he had an extra-marital affair, which occurred the year before he launched his campaign for statewide office, but as part of the story, Greitens is also accused of trying to blackmail his former mistress to keep their relationship secret.

Indeed, though the governor denies this part of the story, there's an audio recording of the woman in question claiming Greitens took nude photographs of her, while she was blindfolded and her hands were tied, which was followed by an alleged verbal threat. (The recording has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News.)

The governor's strategy, at least at first, was to respond to the scandal by keeping a low public profile, and quietly reaching out to Missouri lawmakers, hoping to salvage his career. But as an investigation into the matter gets underway -- a St. Louis prosecutor began scrutinizing the allegations last week -- Greitens' efforts are facing serious headwinds. The Kansas City Star  reported overnight:

At least five Republican lawmakers are calling for Gov. Eric Greitens to resign after allegations that he blackmailed a woman in an effort to keep her quiet about an extramarital affair. [...]

Democratic lawmakers called for the governor to resign within hours of the initial report.

I won't pretend to be an expert in Missouri politics, but as a rule, when a sitting governor faces bipartisan pressure to resign, that governor's future is not bright.

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White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds the daily briefing at the White House, September 12, 2017.

White House: The 'American people love' Trump

01/17/18 09:20AM

At yesterday's White House press briefing, a reporter asked Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to clarify what, exactly, Donald Trump said at last week's meeting when he reportedly referred to "shithole countries." She conceded she wasn't in the room during the infamous discussion, though Sanders nevertheless bragged about the president not being "politically correct."

Sanders added, "I think that's one of the reasons the American people love him."

The American people do not, in fact, love him.

This is a record not to be coveted: Donald Trump is wrapping up a year in office with the lowest average approval rating of any elected president in his first year.

That's according to polling by Gallup, which shows that Trump has averaged just a 39 percent approval rating since his inauguration. The previous low was held by Bill Clinton, whose first-year average stood 10 points higher than Trump's, at 49 percent.

The White House press secretary apparently isn't the only one who's confused about this. The president has also apparently convinced himself that he's wildly popular, boasting at a Jan. 6 press conference, "Hard to believe, my poll numbers have gone way up." In reality, it's "hard to believe" because it's not true: going from 37% to 39% is not "way up."

And yet, Trump seems determined to keep the charade going, even suggesting a few weeks ago that his support is effectively the same as Barack Obama's at this point in the Democrat's presidency -- despite the fact that this isn't even close to being true.

This week, however, the president took this line a bit further, boasting that his approval rating among African Americans has "doubled," which he sees as proof of ... something.

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US Department of Homeland Security employees work in front of US threat level displays inside the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center as part of a guided tour in Arlington, Va. June 26, 2014. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen makes an awkward first impression

01/17/18 08:40AM

It's easy to forget just how massive the Department of Homeland Security is. The nation's newest cabinet agency, created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, has nearly a quarter of a million employees, tackling a wide variety of tasks: DHS includes everything from FEMA to Customs and Border Protection to the Secret Service.

It's therefore important for Americans to have confidence, not only in the department, but in its leadership. With this in mind, yesterday was an important day for Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who's only been on the job for a month, and who was confirmed to the important post despite a controversial record stemming from her tenure in the Bush/Cheney administration.

When Nielsen testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, it was, for all intents and purposes, the public's first real opportunity to meet the new head of this important cabinet agency.

I don't think it went especially well. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank highlighted one of the most memorable moments from the hearing:

I knew that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, when she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, would deny that Trump said what the whole world knows he said: that he wants immigrants from Norway rather than from "shithole" countries in Africa.

What I was not expecting was that Nielsen would raise a question about whether Norwegians are mostly white.

Yes, Nielsen, who was in the room during Trump's racist comments last week, faced a series of exchanges, in which she clumsily tried to defend her boss while not lying under oath. At one point, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) noted that the president supports immigration from Norway, which has a largely white population.

After fumbling a bit, the DHS secretary -- whose name, again, is Kirstjen Nielsen -- replied, "I actually do not know that, sir."

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Protesters gather outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011.

Republicans get a 'wake-up call' in pro-Trump Wisconsin district

01/17/18 08:00AM

Democrats fared quite well in special elections in 2017, and as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel  reported overnight, the party appears to be starting 2018 on the right foot, too.

Democrats snagged a GOP-leaning state Senate seat in western Wisconsin on Tuesday, buoying progressive hopes that they could ride a wave of victory this fall.

Patty Schachtner, the chief medical examiner for St. Croix County, will take the seat that had been held for 17 years by former Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls). Harsdorf stepped down in November to take a job as GOP Gov. Scott Walker's agriculture secretary.

As a legislative matter, the Democratic candidate's surprise win has a limited impact: Republicans still control all of the levers of power in the Badger State, including an 18-14 advantage in the state Senate.

But that doesn't make yesterday's upset any less dramatic. This is a gerrymandered district, where voters backed Donald Trump by 17 points -- Mitt Romney won here by six points -- featuring a GOP candidate who received quite a bit of financial support from the right, including Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin.

In other words, this is a race Republicans should have won without breaking a sweat -- and yet the Dem won easily. Gov. Scott Walker (R) called it a "wake-up call" for his party ahead of the 2018 elections, when he'll be seeking a third term.

And while that's true, it's the broader pattern that reverberates beyond Wisconsin. Since Trump's election, Democrats have now flipped 34 state legislative districts, according to a tally from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

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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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