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Monday's Mini-Report, 10.23.17

10/23/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Presidential rhetoric matters: "The long-awaited sentencing of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was delayed Monday after a legal battle erupted over the word 'but' in President Donald Trump's most recent remarks about the case."

* When it comes to this Congress, keep expectations low: "All three committees looking into Russian interference -- one in the House, two in the Senate -- have run into problems, from insufficient staffing to fights over when the committees should wrap up their investigations."

* Scott Pruitt's EPA: "The Environmental Protection Agency has canceled the speaking appearance of three agency scientists who were scheduled to discuss climate change at a conference on Monday in Rhode Island, according to the agency and several people involved."

* In related news: "The Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of expanding its security fleet for Administrator Scott Pruitt with the hiring of an additional 12 officers, which moves the total number of agents guarding Pruitt to 30, CNN reported Monday."

* I know this seems like inside baseball, but it's kind of shocking: "The Trump administration is pushing the limits of an obscure federal law that restricts nominees from serving in federal positions before they're approved by the Senate."

* Will Trump respond? "Sen. John McCain seemed to hit President Donald Trump during an interview about the Vietnam War on Sunday, criticizing Americans from 'the highest income level' who were able to obtain draft deferments for ailments like a 'bone spur.'"

* Betsy DeVos does it again: "The Education Department has rescinded 72 policy documents that outline the rights of students with disabilities as part of the Trump administration's effort to eliminate regulations it deems superfluous."

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

Donald Trump pushes back against fallen soldier's widow

10/23/17 12:31PM

Donald Trump last week dodged a question about the deadliest combat mission of his presidency last week, and instead touched off a week-long controversy. David Petraeus told ABC News' Martha Raddatz yesterday that he's known White House Chief of Staff John Kelly for years, and he assumes Kelly is "trying to figure out how to turn down the volume, how to get this behind us."

I get the sense Kelly's boss has other plans.

Today's developments started with a striking interview with the widow of one of the four American soldiers killed earlier this month in Niger, an attack the president still hasn't acknowledged.

The pregnant widow of Sgt. La David Johnson said Monday that the phone call she received from President Donald Trump before meeting her husband's body at Dover Air Force Base made her more upset as the president struggled to remember her spouse's name.

"I heard him stumbling on trying to remember my husband's name, and that's what hurt me the most because if my husband is out there fighting for our country and he risked his life for our country, why can't you remember his name?" Myeshia Johnson told ABC's "Good Morning America." "And that made me cry even more."

Soon after the ABC segment aired, Trump turned to Twitter to declare, "I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!"

So, the president wants us to believe his version of events, rejecting the word of a grieving widow -- who's account is bolstered by a car full of witnesses, who heard the conversation on speaker. Or put another way, Trump's message of the morning is that Myeshia Johnson is lying.

And that leads me to two questions for the White House to consider.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.23.17

10/23/17 12:00PM

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

* With just two weeks remaining before Virginia's gubernatorial race, the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity has decided to invest "at least $1 million" in an attempt to defeat Ralph Northam, the Democratic nominee. The message will reportedly focus in part on Northam's opposition to school vouchers.

* On a related note, the Voter Participation Center is poised to spend a similar amount to boost Democratic turnout in the commonwealth.

* As for this year's other gubernatorial race, Hillary Clinton was in New Jersey yesterday, headlining a fundraiser in support of Phil Murphy, the Democratic nominee. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, will campaign with Murphy at an event tomorrow.

* To no one's surprise, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) will run for re-election in Vermont next year as an independent. Though the senator caucuses with Democrats, and ran for the party's presidential nomination, Sanders never actually joined the party, and that apparently won't change over the next year.

* The Vermonter's announcement came on the heels of Democratic National Committee members rejecting a measure that would've pushed Sanders to "register or affiliate with the Democratic Party" next year.

* At an event in California over the weekend, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's former chief strategist, went after George W. Bush following his recent speech that seemed to criticize the current president. "President Bush, to me, embarrassed himself," Bannon said. "It's clear he didn't understand anything he was talking about.... He has no earthly idea whether he's coming or going, just like it was when he was president of the United States."

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The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stands in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

Trump gives chemical industry insider power on regulating chemicals

10/23/17 11:21AM

Up until fairly recently, Nancy Beck was an executive at the American Chemistry Council, the trade association for the nation's chemical industry. As the New York Times reported over the weekend, however, Donald Trump's administration has given Beck a job at the EPA -- helping lead the agency's toxic chemical unit.

For years, the Environmental Protection Agency has struggled to prevent an ingredient once used in stain-resistant carpets and nonstick pans from contaminating drinking water.

The chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, has been linked to kidney cancer, birth defects, immune system disorders and other serious health problems.

So scientists and administrators in the E.P.A.'s Office of Water were alarmed in late May when a top Trump administration appointee insisted upon the rewriting of a rule to make it harder to track the health consequences of the chemical, and therefore regulate it.

It was, of course, Beck, the former American Chemistry Council executive, who demanded the revision. Voters who supported Donald Trump because they hoped he'd "drain the swamp," preventing corporate insiders from helping call the shots in government agencies, are getting the exact opposite of what they wanted.

But just to twist the knife a little more, consider what the political appointees at Trump's EPA had to say when the New York Times called for a comment.

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Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Dallas Church Choir speaks as he introduces President Donald Trump during the Celebrate Freedom event at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, Saturday, July 1, 2017.

The controversial pastor Trump considers 'wonderful'

10/23/17 10:41AM

When Donald Trump uses his Twitter account to promote a supporter's book release, it's worth pausing to note exactly who it is the president is trying to help. The L.A. Times  reported on Friday night:

President Trump promoted a book written by Robert Jeffress, an evangelical megachurch pastor and Fox News contributor who was also a strong Trump backer during the 2016 presidential campaign.

In a tweet sent Friday, Trump praised "A Place Called Heaven: 10 Surprising Truths About Your Eternal Home," and called Jeffress "a wonderful man."... Trump's tweet came less than an hour after Jeffress appeared on Fox Business Network's "Lou Dobbs Tonight" to discuss criticism of Trump leveled by Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.).

In other words, this looks like a dynamic in which Jeffress defended Trump, so Trump promoted Jeffress' book.

But beyond this clumsy reciprocation, there's the question of why the president cozies up to someone like Jeffress in the first place.

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Image: President Trump Meets With The National Association of Manufacturers

Why it matters if Trump pays his aides' legal bills

10/23/17 10:12AM

Despite his considerable wealth, Donald Trump is not paying for his own legal team. As the investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal continues, the president has several attorneys representing his interests, but it's the Republican National Committee -- and by extension, its donors -- paying the tab.

The same is reportedly true of Donald Trump Jr., who helps lead the president's private enterprise, and who's supposed to be steering clear of politics altogether.

And what about the officials throughout the White House who also face legal scrutiny? Up until very recently, it's been assumed they're on their own, but the Washington Post reported that they may have a rich benefactor: their boss.

President Trump plans to spend at least $430,000 of his personal funds to help cover the mounting legal costs incurred by White House staff and campaign aides related to the ongoing investigations of Russian meddling in last year's election, a White House official said. [...]

The arrangement drew immediate criticism from Walter Shaub, the former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, who suggested on Twitter that it is rife with potential conflicts.

"A potential witness or target of an investigation (and boss of investigators) paying for legal fees of other potential witnesses or targets?" Shaub wrote.

Axios' original report on this used the words "pledge" and "promise" to describe the president's intention to defray the costs of his aides' legal representation.

I'm highlighting the specific verbs because Trump's credibility in this area is something of a joke. This is, after all, a president who's been caught lying about contributions to veterans' charities. Sure, he may say he's prepared to use his own money to help cover the legal costs of his team, but what Trump says and what Trump does often have little to do with one another.

But just for the sake of conversation, let's say the "plan" is legitimate. Let's assume that Trump will follow through on this vow, grab his checkbook, and start writing checks to his staffers' law firms. That brings us back to Walter Shaub's concerns.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump keeps rejecting plans to pay for his proposed tax cuts

10/23/17 09:21AM

Republicans remain eager to pass a massive tax plan, which still doesn't actually exist. That said, GOP lawmakers continue to consider some provocative ideas to help offset the costs of the package they have in mind.

The New York Times  reported the other day, for example, that Republicans are "considering a plan to sharply reduce the amount of income American workers can save in tax-deferred retirement accounts." According to the lobbyists who are working with GOP lawmakers -- Democrats have been excluded from the process -- Republicans have weighed capping "the annual amount workers can set aside to as low as $2,400 for 401(k) accounts," far less than the $18,000 a year most Americans can put in their 401k without paying taxes upfront.

This would only cover about a tenth of the cost of the GOP tax plan, but it's a start. Or, it might have been a start if Donald Trump hadn't just rejected the idea in his latest morning tweet. The Washington Post reported:

President Trump vowed on Monday that his tax cuts plan would not include any changes to tax-deferred retirement accounts such as 401(k)s, following reports last week that House Republicans were weighing a sharp reduction in the amount of income American workers could save through such programs.

Trump tweeted Monday morning: "There will be NO change to your 401(k). This has always been a great and popular middle class tax break that works, and it stays!"

I'm going to take a wild guess and say the president didn't run this by Capitol Hill negotiators before announcing his opposition to the idea.

And while I can appreciate why this may seem like dry policy minutiae, this morning's developments are actually kind of amazing for a couple of reasons.

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin responds to US President Donald Trump ordering missile strikes on Syria

Donald Trump's 'blind spot on Russia' isn't going away

10/23/17 08:41AM

After Congress approved new economic sanctions against Russia, Donald Trump grudgingly signed the bill into law, but not before blaming lawmakers -- including members of his own party -- for undermining the U.S. relationship with the Putin government.

But the story took a strange turn recently when the public learned that the sanctions still haven't been implemented, despite the deadline included in the law. On "Meet the Press" yesterday, NBC's Chuck Todd sought an explanation from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a proponent of the sanctions.

TODD: [Y]ou've come on this show numerous times and said, "Russia needs to be punished." You passed a tough sanctions bill. You passed it in July. The president signed it in early August. There was a deadline of October 1st. It is not October 1st. It is October 20th and the sanctions have not been implemented. Why?

GRAHAM: I think that the Trump administration is slow when it comes to Russia. They have a blind spot on Russia I still can't figure out.

Really? You still can't figure it out? It's just a total mystery as to why this president might have a "blind spot" when it comes to the foreign adversary that launched an espionage operation that helped put Donald Trump in power?

Is it really that difficult to wager a guess?

For his part, the president isn't done trying to downplay the significance of the scandal. On Saturday, for example, Trump took aim at the dossier put together by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence operative, insisting it's been "discredited." In reality, as Rachel has noted on the show, the document has stood up pretty well to scrutiny.

Soon after, Trump suggested that Moscow's investment in campaign-related ads on Facebook was "tiny," adding, "What about the billions of dollars of Fake News on CNN, ABC, NBC & CBS?"

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

Evidence contradicts Trump claims on calls to soldiers' families

10/23/17 08:00AM

Donald Trump's timing could've been better. When Sgt. La David Johnson's remains arrived at Dover Air Force Base, the president was golfing. On Saturday, Johnson was laid to rest, and Trump spent part of Saturday morning tweeting not about the fallen hero ahead of his funeral, but taking juvenile  shots at Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), who mentored Johnson and is close with his family.

And then the president went golfing again.

Complicating matters is Trump's demonstrable dishonesty on his interactions with the families of American soldiers killed in action. As part of his self-aggrandizing boasts last week, the president told Fox News Radio, "I have called, I believe, everybody -- but certainly I'll use the word virtually everybody." The Associated Press found soon after that of the 20 families who lost loved ones since Trump took office, half had not heard from the president.

Roll Call reported late last week that the White House apparently knew that Trump's boast wasn't true.

In the hours after President Donald Trump said on an Oct. 17 radio broadcast that he had contacted nearly every family that had lost a military servicemember this year, the White House was hustling to learn from the Pentagon the identities and contact information for those families, according to an internal Defense Department email.

The email exchange, which has not been previously reported, shows that senior White House aides were aware on the day the president made the statement that it was not accurate -- but that they should try to make it accurate as soon as possible, given the gathering controversy.

Not only had the president not contacted virtually all the families of military personnel killed this year, the White House did not even have an up-to-date list of those who had been killed.

What's more, The Atlantic reported over the weekend that, in a mad dash to deal with the president's false claim, the Trump administration has begun "rush-delivering letters from the president to the families of servicemembers killed months ago."

In other words, Trump World is trying to make true what clearly was not true.

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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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