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Monday's Mini-Report, 3.19.18

03/19/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Austin's serial bomber: "The fourth explosion in less than three weeks in Austin, Texas, appears to be the work of a serial bomber, officials said Monday. Authorities warned that the devices appear to be getting more sophisticated and asked residents of one neighborhood to stay indoors until 2 p.m. local time (3 p.m. ET) Monday."

* Did anyone doubt what would happen? "Russian President Vladimir Putin won a landslide re-election victory Sunday, a widely anticipated win that will see him extend his rule over the world's largest country into a third decade."

* Does anyone doubt what they'll find? "Russia's Investigative Committee said on Friday it had opened a criminal investigation into the attempted murder of Yulia Skripal, daughter of former double agent Sergei Skripal, and what it said was the murder of another Russian in Britain."

* Kushner story #1: "The Kushner Cos. routinely filed false paperwork with [New York City] declaring it had zero rent-regulated tenants in dozens of buildings it owned across the city when, in fact, it had hundreds."

* Kushner story #2: "A real estate investment company that partnered with the Trump Organization on an office tower project in India has been accused of defrauding its foreign investors of at least $147 million, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post."

* Kushner story #3: "Jared Kushner's father met with Qatar's finance minister three months after President Trump's inauguration, a New York City session at which funding for a financially troubled real estate project was discussed, the company acknowledged Sunday."

* And speaking of Kushner, the Office of American Innovation doesn't appear to be doing anything.

* An astonishing report: "Black boys raised in America, even in the wealthiest families and living in some of the most well-to-do neighborhoods, still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds, according to a sweeping new study that traced the lives of millions of children."

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Image: Donald Trump

Trump's new defense attorney burdened by a controversial past

03/19/18 03:03PM

It was just last week when we learned Donald Trump was eyeing an addition to his legal defense team. The New York Times  reported that the president had already had discussions with Emmet Flood, a veteran D.C. attorney with an exceptional reputation who has exactly the right kind of background Trump needs given the seriousness of the Russia scandal.

The president insisted soon after, however, that the report was wrong and that he was "VERY happy" with his current lawyers. (My personal hunch is that Flood turned the president down.)

As it turns out, Trump has hired added a member to his legal defense team -- but it's not someone of Emmet Flood's caliber.

President Trump has decided to hire the longtime Washington lawyer Joseph E. diGenova, who has pushed the theory on television that Mr. Trump was framed by F.B.I. and Justice Department officials, to bolster his legal team, according to three people told of the decision.

Mr. diGenova is not expected to take a lead role but will instead serve as a more aggressive player on the president's legal team.

Though Trump hasn't directly confirmed the news, Jay Sekulow, another member of the president's defense team, told NBC News, "I have worked with Joe for many years and have full confidence that he will be a great asset in our representation of the president."

At this point, I imagine some of you are asking, "Who's Joe diGenova?" And I'm very glad you asked.

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Image: U.S. President Donald Trump walks along the Rose Garden as he returns from a day trip to Atlanta on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S.

Non-disclosure agreements for Trump aides described as 'crazy'

03/19/18 12:30PM

Even before he was elected, Donald Trump made no secret of his support for non-disclosure agreements. It was nearly two years ago that the then-candidate stated his belief that White House officials should sign NDAs.

Evidently, he meant it. Trump required confidentiality agreements of his campaign staff, his transition staff, and according to the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus, his White House staff.

This is extraordinary. Every president inveighs against leakers and bemoans the kiss-and-tell books; no president, to my knowledge, has attempted to impose such a pledge. And while White House staffers have various confidentiality obligations -- maintaining the secrecy of classified information or attorney-client privilege, for instance -- the notion of imposing a side agreement, supposedly enforceable even after the president leaves office, is not only oppressive but constitutionally repugnant.

Unlike employees of private enterprises such as the Trump Organization or Trump campaign, White House aides have First Amendment rights when it comes to their employer, the federal government. If you have a leaker on your staff, the cure is firing, not suing.

Marcus spoke to attorney Debra Katz, who has represented numerous government whistleblowers and negotiated nondisclosure agreements, who described Trump's NDAs as "crazy," adding, "The idea of having some kind of economic penalty is an outrageous effort to limit and chill speech. Once again, this president believes employees owe him a personal duty of loyalty, when their duty of loyalty is to the institution."

The Post columnist obtained a draft of the agreement, which restricts not only what aides can say during their tenures at the White House, but also "at all times thereafter." The NDA goes so far as to include "works of fiction."

There's a lot to this, but three questions come to mind.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.19.18

03/19/18 12:01PM

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

* In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal  poll, Democrats now lead Republicans on the generic congressional ballot, 50% to 40%. That 10-point margin is up from a six-point lead Dems had in the same poll in January.

* At Donald Trump's urging, Danny Tarkanian ended his Republican primary race against Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada. Tarkanian will instead run in the state's 3rd congressional district, which is an open-seat contest. Heller, meanwhile, generally seen as the nation's most vulnerable Senate incumbent, will no longer have a primary rival.

* Speaking of Nevada, Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.) recently wavered on his 2018 plans, but after facing sexual-harassment allegations, the freshman Democrat has ruled out a re-election bid.

* Ahead of tomorrow's primaries in Illinois, the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, generally seen as a far-right group that supports Republicans, is supporting Rep. Dan Lipinski in his Democratic primary with a "six-figure investment."

* And speaking of Illinois, NBC News' First Read reported the other day that candidates in the state's gubernatorial race have already spent more than $65 million -- and the general-election phase hasn't even begun in earnest yet. It may become the most expensive non-presidential race in American history.

* In Hawaii, former Rep. Charles Djou announced today that he's no longer a member of the Republican Party. His announcement comes almost exactly a year after Rep. Beth Fukumoto, once considered a rising star in the Hawaii GOP, became a Democrat.

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The NRA-ILA Leadership Forum in Louisville, Ky. on May 20, 2016. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC)

Possible NRA, Russia connections draw fresh scrutiny

03/19/18 11:31AM

The fact that the National Rifle Association took a keen interest in the 2016 elections is, at least on the surface, uninteresting. What's far more important is how much the far-right group invested and from whom the NRA received the money.

As we discussed a couple of months ago, the NRA took a keen interest in the 2012 election cycle, spending $10 million to boost Mitt Romney's candidacy. Four years later, however, the organization spent triple that to support Donald Trump. What's more, most of money the group spent on the election was spent by part of the NRA's operation that isn't required to disclose its donors.

McClatchy News reported in January that the FBI is exploring whether "a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money" to the NRA to help Trump win the presidency. Of particular interest are the activities of Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia's central bank, a close Putin ally, and someone who's faced allegations of money laundering and connections to organized crime.

McClatchy also reported last week that Cleta Mitchell, a former NRA board member, had "concerns" about the group's ties to Russia "and its possible involvement in channeling Russian funds into the 2016 elections." Mitchell later described the reporting as a "complete fabrication."

And then there was this  Politico report late Friday:

The Federal Election Commission has launched a preliminary investigation into whether Russian entities gave illegal contributions to the National Rifle Association that were intended to benefit the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election, according to people who were notified of the probe.

The inquiry stems in part from a complaint from a liberal advocacy group, the American Democracy Legal Fund, which asked the FEC to look into media reports about links between the rifle association and Russian entities, including a banker with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It's far too early to say what the inquiry may uncover, though a Slate piece on this added that if FEC investigators "find compelling evidence to suggest wrongdoing the FEC could possibly refer any findings to Special Counsel Robert Mueller."

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The actress Stephanie Clifford, who uses the stage name Stormy Daniels, performs at the Solid Gold Fort Lauderdale strip club on March 9, 2018 in Pompano Beach, Florida.

Trump no longer keeping his distance from Daniels scandal

03/19/18 11:00AM

In general, Donald Trump lashes out, almost instinctively, against all perceived foes. It doesn't much matter who wrongs him -- politicians, athletes, entertainers, foreign officials, et al -- because the president will respond to practically any slight with an attack of his own.

Except, oddly enough, Stormy Daniels. To date, the president has said literally nothing -- not even a brief tweet -- about the adult-film actress who received $130,000 in hush money from his personal attorney. On this one issue, if no other, Trump has somehow managed to become the model of message discipline, maintaining total silence.

The president's lawyers, however, appear to have plenty to say.

President Donald Trump and his personal attorney are trying to get a lawsuit by adult film star Stormy Daniels transferred to federal court -- and they claim she's on the hook for at least $20 million for violating a secrecy agreement signed just before the election.

An attorney for the actress accused the Trump team of "bullying tactics" for the legal maneuver, which is aimed at pushing the dispute into private arbitration.

As Rachel noted on Friday's show, Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, has already sued Trump in state court, hoping to get out of the non-disclosure agreement that prevents her from talking about her alleged "intimate" relationship. It's the president's lawyer in this case, Charles Harder, who filed a motion to move the case to federal court, likely as a way of increasing the chances the matter will be resolved by private arbitration.

And who's Charles Harder? He's the lawyer who oversaw the case that put Gawker out of business.

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A laptop in use. (Photo by TEK/Science Photo Library/Corbis)

Cambridge Analytica, the Trump's campaign's data firm, faces new controversy

03/19/18 10:30AM

When it comes to the controversies surrounding Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, questions surrounding Cambridge Analytica may seem peripheral -- they're not as high profile as, say, the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russians -- but they're actually quite important.

We first started talking in earnest about Cambridge Analytica, a firm Steve Bannon helped create and the digital arm of Trump's 2016 political operation, last fall, when the Wall Street Journal  reported that Trump donor Rebekah Mercer asked Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix "whether the company could better organize the Hillary Clinton-related emails being released by WikiLeaks," which allegedly received stolen documents from Russian operatives.

Over the weekend, questions surrounding the data firm became quite a bit more serious with this  New York Times report.

As the upstart voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica prepared to wade into the 2014 American midterm elections, it had a problem.

The firm had secured a $15 million investment from Robert Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor, and wooed his political adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, with the promise of tools that could identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behavior. But it did not have the data to make its new products work.

So the firm harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network's history. The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump's campaign in 2016.

Wait, it gets a little worse.

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Image: Jeff Sessions

AG Sessions' testimony on Russia outreach faces new questions

03/19/18 10:01AM

It wasn't long after Attorney General Jeff Sessions was sworn in when he faced a scandal over possible perjury. In fact, we learned a year ago this month that during the 2016 campaign, the Alabama Republican had meetings with Russian officials -- for reasons that have never been altogether clear -- which he failed to disclose during his Senate confirmation hearings.

Indeed, he was asked specifically about possible evidence tying members of Trump's campaign team to the Russian government during Russia's election attack. "I'm not aware of any of those activities," Sessions said, adding "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians."

Sessions did, however, have communications with the Russians.

That was the first time the attorney general faced questions about false testimony. Reuters reported yesterday on the second.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' testimony that he opposed a proposal for President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign team to meet with Russians has been contradicted by three people who told Reuters they have spoken about the matter to investigators with Special Counsel Robert Mueller or congressional committees.

Sessions testified before Congress in November 2017 that he "pushed back" against the proposal made by former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos at a March 31, 2016 campaign meeting. Then a senator from Alabama, Sessions chaired the meeting as head of the Trump campaign's foreign policy team.

Sessions, who has already been interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team, clearly said in his sworn congressional testimony that he pushed back against suggested meetings between campaign officials and Russians.

There now appears to be reason to question Sessions' version of events. According to Reuters' report, three people who were on hand for the March 2016 campaign meeting disputed his claims.

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Image: Former Deputy Director of the FBI McCabe fired by Attorney General Sessions

Seeing Andrew McCabe as a potential 'significant witness'

03/19/18 09:32AM

Andrew McCabe, fired by the Justice Department on Friday night before he could retire 28 hours later, was many things to the White House. McCabe, for example, was the deputy director the FBI -- the first to ever be fired. He was also one of the first officials to scrutinize the connections between Donald Trump's presidential campaign and its Russian benefactors.

But I was especially interested in something McCabe told  Politico.

"[A]t some point, this has to be seen in the larger context," said McCabe, 49, who says he has voted for every Republican presidential nominee until he sat out the 2016 contest entirely. "And I firmly believe that this is an ongoing effort to undermine my credibility because of the work that I did on the Russia case, because of the investigations that I oversaw and impacted that target this administration."

"They have every reason to believe that I could end up being a significant witness in whatever the special counsel comes up with, and so they are trying to create this counter-narrative that I am not someone who can be believed or trusted," McCabe added. "And as someone who has been believed and trusted by really good people for 21 years, it's just infuriating to me." [emphasis added]

Seeing McCabe as a witness is a detail that may be familiar to regular readers and TRMS viewers. Early on in Trump's presidency, the president allegedly asked then-FBI Director James Comey to go easy on Michael Flynn, the former White House national security advisor. Comey, recognizing the importance of a president possibly obstructing justice during an ongoing investigation, informed a small group of officials.

Comey, obviously, was part of the small circle, and he was fired as part of the president's effort to derail the Russia investigation. Then there's Jim Baker, the former FBI general counsel who's still with the FBI, but who's also been ousted from his senior position at the bureau. There's also Jim Rybicki, a two-time chief of staff to the FBI director, who was pushed out earlier this year.

And there's Andrew McCabe, who was fired as part of an apparent political vendetta.

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Then FBI Director Robert Mueller arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 16, 2012, to testify during a hearing.

Will Republicans agree to protect Mueller from Trump?

03/19/18 09:00AM

Last August, there was at least some bipartisan support for Senate legislation intended to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller from Donald Trump. At the time, there was considerable chatter about the president possibly trying to fire the head of the Russia investigation -- possibly touching off a political crisis -- and several members saw value in proactive steps to shield the probe from White House interference.

Soon after, however, Republicans lost interest. In October, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a co-sponsor of one of the bills, said, "I don't feel an urgent need to pass that law until you show me that Mr. Mueller is in jeopardy." A few months later, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), the co-sponsor of a related measure, also said his proposal could wait.

Now that Trump is going after Mueller by name, and one of the president's attorneys is calling for an end to the investigation, those who prefer passivity have a difficult case to make. House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) made a compelling case yesterday on ABC's "This Week":

When asked what Congress should do if President Trump opts to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Schiff responded saying, "I would hope that it would prompt all Democrats and Republicans in the House to pass an independent counsel law and reinstate Bob Mueller. This would undoubtedly result in a constitutional crisis and I think Democrats and Republicans need to speak out about this right now," continuing, "Members need to speak out now, don't wait for the crisis."

And while there was no shortage of other Democrats saying the same thing over the weekend, the question, of course, is whether the Republican majority is inclined to agree.

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Image: Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe

Why the FBI's Andrew McCabe was fired

03/19/18 08:30AM

Never before has the deputy director of the FBI been fired. Late Friday night, the Trump administration broke new ground.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions late Friday night accepted the recommendation that former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who took the reins of the agency during the turbulent days after the abrupt firing of James Comey, be terminated -- two days before he was to retire and become eligible for full pension benefits.

Though McCabe -- who has been attacked by President Donald Trump -- stepped down as deputy director in late January, he remained on the federal payroll, planning to retire on Sunday. The firing places his federal pension in jeopardy.

The official rationale is that the Justice Department's inspector general identified wrongdoing on McCabe's part as part of the FBI's investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails.

And while it's entirely possible McCabe took steps he shouldn't have -- the full report has not yet been made available to the public -- it's difficult to take the official line seriously after seeing Donald Trump's taunting end-zone dance over the weekend. The president's critics responded to McCabe's firing by arguing that the move appeared to be part of a politically motivated vendetta orchestrated by the Oval Office -- and Trump took steps to prove his critics right.

The president celebrated McCabe's firing as "a great day for democracy," adding, "Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!" Trump also published a tweet with some demonstrably false Clinton-related conspiracy theories, insisting that McCabe was "caught, called out and fired."

The FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility may have proposed the termination, but the president himself seemed to have no use for the fig leaf. Indeed, he never has: Trump has targeted McCabe personally for months. Friday night was simply the culmination of a petty and corrupt vendetta.

There's no shortage of angles to this story, but as the dust starts to settle, here are  a few things to keep in mind:

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Image: Senate Judiciary Committee

Team Trump takes a dramatic turn, goes on offensive against Mueller probe

03/19/18 08:00AM

For months, Donald Trump and his legal team have been extremely cautious in its confrontations with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. When pressed, the president's defense attorneys have generally pressed Mueller and his investigation, all while vowing to cooperate with the probe.

That was the old posture. The new posture emerged over the weekend.

President Trump's personal lawyer John Dowd called Saturday for an end to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference, citing "recent revelations" and the late-night firing of former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe as a basis to end the probe.

In a statement to NBC News, Dowd said he hopes Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will choose to end the investigation "on the merits" of the FBI Inspector General's recommendation to fire McCabe.

Though Dowd clarified he wasn't calling for Mueller's ouster, the president's attorney did say he prays that Rod Rosenstein brings "an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe's boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier."

To the extent that reality is in any way relevant, Dowd's argument was bizarre -- the dossier hasn't been discredited and we already know it wasn't responsible for launching the investigation -- but this shift was less about making credible arguments and more about going on the offensive again the special counsel's ongoing investigation.

It's a campaign Donald Trump himself seemed eager to join.

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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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