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Steve Bannon, appointed chief strategist and senior counselor to President-elect Donald Trump, arrives for the Presidential Inauguration of Trump at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Saul Loeb/Getty Images)

The 'Breitbart-ization' of Trump World continues

01/24/17 10:42AM

When then-candidate Donald Trump brought on Steve Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart News, to help guide his campaign's message, it marked a turning point in the president's political trajectory. Breitbart earned a reputation for publishing highly provocative, right-wing content -- routinely causing headaches for the Republican Party's establishment -- and positioning Bannon to help lead the team spoke volumes about Trump's radicalism and embrace of the fringe.

In the months that followed, the political amateur and his supporting staff never looked back. Bannon helped write Trump's convention speech; he took over the role of campaign chairman; he became the new White House's chief strategist after the election; and it was Bannon's voice that came through in Friday's inaugural address.

Now, what was once described as "the Breitbart-ization of Trump's campaign" has led to the Breitbart-ization of Trump's White House. The Washington Post reported yesterday:
When House Speaker Paul D. Ryan's redbrick Georgian revival house in Janesville, Wis., was surrounded last July by women whose children were murdered by undocumented immigrants, conservative writer Julia Hahn published a scathing report and a blurry snapshot of Ryan's departing SUV.

The headline: "Paul Ryan flees grieving moms trying to show him photos of their children killed by his open borders agenda."

Three months later, Hahn wrote a 2,800-word story alleging that Ryan (R-Wis.) was the ringmaster for a "months-long campaign to elect Hillary Clinton." It was just one of a torrent of posts over the past year that cast Ryan as a "globalist" who is cozy with corporations and an enemy of Donald Trump-style populism.
Now, Hahn is joining the White House's staff as an aide to Bannon -- a move, according to the Post's article, that "alarmed and angered" House Speaker Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) allies.

It's easy to understand why. From her Breitbart perch, Hahn not only excoriated congressional GOP leaders, she also slammed the right-wing House Freedom Caucus for not being tough enough when taking on Ryan and the Republican establishment.
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Announcing a new policy, the White House flubs the key details

01/24/17 10:00AM

On his first full weekday as president, Donald Trump moved forward on a variety of executive orders and actions, including a freeze on federal hiring, which wasn't exactly a surprise. The directive states that "no vacant positions existing at noon on January 22, 2017, may be filled and no new positions may be created, except in limited circumstances."

Jobs related to national security are exempt from the policy.

This wouldn't have been especially notable, except for White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's explanation for why Team Trump embraced this change: the move "counters the dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years."

As the Washington Post reported, that doesn't make any sense.
In both raw-number and percentage terms, this is an inaccurate statement. According to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 2.8 million employees on the federal payroll as of December. The number has risen slightly since May 2014, when there were roughly 2.7 million federal employees (part of the reason may be an accelerated pace of hiring in anticipation of a new presidential administration). That represents an increase of about 3 percent.

By contrast, the total civilian workforce, excluding federal employees, grew by about 4.9 percent over the same period.

In raw-number terms, the number of federal employees is nearly the same today (2.8 million) as it was when Barack Obama took office (2.79 million). It is also similar to the number of federal employees at the end of the Clinton administration (2.75 million) and lower than at any time during the Reagan administration (when it peaked at 3.15 million).
Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I put together the above chart, showing the trajectory of the federal workforce since 1939, when the government started keeping track. That spike on the left side of the image points to World War II, and those intermittent spikes appearing every 10 years reflect temporary federal hiring for the Census.

The image is pretty straightforward: there has been no "dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years."
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The disapproval ratings matter just as much as the approval ratings

01/24/17 09:20AM

Several national polls in recent weeks show Donald Trump is the least popular new president since the dawn of modern American polling. A new report from Gallup, released yesterday, reinforces the larger trend: the newly inaugurated Republican is the first president in the pollster's history to enter the White House with an approval rating below 50%.

And Gallup has been doing this for more than seven decades.

Looking closer, we can also examine new presidents' net approval ratings -- approval minus disapproval -- and find that Trump trails each of his modern predecessors by more than 30 percentage points.

But what I found especially notable were the disapproval numbers. From Gallup's report:
President Donald Trump is the first elected president in Gallup's polling history to receive an initial job approval rating below the majority level. He starts his term in office with 45% of Americans approving of the way he is handling his new job, 45% disapproving and 10% yet to form an opinion. Trump now holds the record for the lowest initial job approval rating as well as the highest initial disapproval rating in Gallup surveys dating back to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
To be sure, Trump's 45% approval rating in this poll is higher than any other recent survey, so to this extent, the Gallup report isn't all bad for the new president. But it's that 45% disapproval that sticks out like a sore thumb.

I put together the above chart to help drive the point home. (Gallup's report didn't include Truman's numbers from 1945, but I included the data by way of a FiveThirtyEight analysis.)
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White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivers his first statement in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017.

What Donald Trump's White House considers 'demoralizing'

01/24/17 08:41AM

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer held a bizarre press briefing on Saturday, lambasting journalists for accurately reporting on Donald Trump's presidential inaugural, and declaring without proof, "This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period."

Yesterday, Spicer moved the goal posts a bit, conceding that the new president's in-person audience didn't set a record -- Trump's stated plans to break that record notwithstanding -- but if we count inaugural attendees, add viewers who watched online and on television, and include an international audience, then the total viewership is the most ever.

By all appearances, that claim is also wrong.

But even putting aside the factual details, it's worth appreciating the fact that this was the fourth straight day Trump and his White House team have talked about his inauguration's crowd size -- in a presidency that's only existed for four days.

And with this in mind, a reporter asked during yesterday's White House press briefing why Trump and his aides remain preoccupied with the subject. Spicer's answer was extraordinary, but not in a good way. After rambling a bit about Trump winning states in November he was expected to lose, the press secretary explained:
"We want to have a healthy dialogue, not just with you but the American people because he's fighting for jobs, he's fighting to make this country safer. But when you're constantly getting told that can't be true, we doubt that you can do this, this won't happen, and that's the narrative when you turn on television every single day, it's a little frustrating. [...]

"It's not about one tweet. It's not about one picture. It's about a constant theme. It's about sitting here every time and being told, 'No. well, we don't think he can do that, he'll never accomplish that, he can't win that, it won't be the biggest, it's not gonna be that good. The crowds aren't that big, he's not that successful.' The narrative -- and the default narrative is always negative and it's demoralizing."
In all, Spicer used the word "demoralizing" three times in his answer, and the word "frustrating" five times.

In other words, roughly 72 hours after Trump's inauguration, the pressure, the criticisms, and the media narratives are taking a toll on those working in the West Wing.
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Image: *** BESTPIX *** President-Elect Donald Trump Holds Press Conference In New York

Trump won't let go of one of his most important lies

01/24/17 08:00AM

Three weeks after winning the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump was struggling badly to accept the fact that he received far fewer votes than his opponent. The Republican's discomfort was so intense, he started making up claims that bordered on delusion.

"In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide," Trump said, referring to a landslide that exists only in his imagination, "I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally." He soon after started referring to "the so-called popular vote."

Two months later, the new president still has a tenuous relationship with reality.
At the top of President Donald Trump's agenda for his discussion with congressional leaders Monday night: relitigating the campaign, including saying "illegals" voting deprived him of a victory in the popular vote.

The claim of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 presidential election, which Trump argued in late November, has been widely debunked.

Two sources confirmed to NBC News that Trump spent about the first 10 minutes of his bipartisan meeting with congressional leaders at the White House talking about the campaign and about how 3 million to 5 million "illegals" voted in the election, causing him to lose the popular vote.
The rationale for the president's brazen lying is easy to understand. Americans were given a choice between two major-party candidates; Trump lost by nearly 3 million votes; and he lacks the tools necessary to deal with the implications of the results.

As a result, the president apparently finds it necessary to keep reality at arm's length, because the truth hurts his feelings. It leads him to embrace a comforting, albeit ridiculous, lie -- or to use the Trump White House's preferred parlance, alternative facts.

That said, this is the sort of lie that should give pause to all Americans, including Trump's most ardent Republican followers.
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Monday's Mini-Report, 1.23.17

01/23/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Deadly storms: "A severe storm that brought destructive tornadoes with it killed at least 19 people over the weekend as it moved south from Georgia and Mississippi into the Florida Panhandle."

* Good idea: "Senate Democrats are formally asking Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to have a second confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, President Trump's education nominee, arguing that they need an opportunity to further scrutinize her potential conflicts of interests and preparedness to lead the Education Department."

* I hope Trump doesn't punish NOAA for this: "A new report, released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the last day of Barack Obama's presidency, presents a series of updated estimates for future sea-level rise, both in the United States and worldwide. It suggests that, under extreme future climate change, global sea levels could rise by more than eight feet by the end of the century -- one of the highest estimates yet to be presented in a federal report."

* SCOTUS: "The Supreme Court rejected on Monday an appeal from Texas officials seeking to restore the state's strict voter ID law.... The Texas law, enacted in 2011, requires voters seeking to cast their ballots at the polls to present photo identification, like a Texas driver's or gun license, a military ID or a passport. Federal courts have repeatedly ruled that the law is racially discriminatory."

* The election is having consequences in the Middle East: "The city of Jerusalem, emboldened by anticipated support from the Trump administration, on Sunday authorized the construction of some 560 new homes in areas of the city claimed by the Palestinians as a capital of their future state."

* I don't expect this bill to go anywhere, but the fact that it was even introduced is unfortunate: "A proposed House Resolution would set the stage for the United States to remove itself from the United Nations. The proposed 'American Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2017' is sponsored by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL).."
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Image: Trump, flanked by Kushner, Pence and Porter, welcomes reporters into the Oval Office for him to sign his first executive orders at the White House in Washington

Surrounded by men, Trump takes aim at family planning policy

01/23/17 04:38PM

In his first full weekday as president, Donald Trump kept quite busy, moving forward on a series of executive orders and actions -- an approach to governing Republicans seemed to find offensive when there was a Democrat in the White House.

But one of the many policies Trump acted on today stood out as especially important.
Trump ... acted Monday to reinstate the so-named "Mexico City policy" first instituted by Ronald Reagan. That directive essentially barred recipients of U.S. foreign aid from promoting abortion as a method of family planning. In the early days of his presidency, Bill Clinton reversed the Reagan-backed policy; President George W. Bush reinstated it shortly after his election; and President Barack Obama revoked it -- each in their first few days as president.
One of the striking aspects of today's directive was the story the visuals told: in a scene reminiscent of the House Republicans' all-male panel on birth control in early 2012, the Republican president re-imposed the global gag rule today in the Oval Office while surrounded by a group of men.

But even more important, of course, is the policy itself.
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FBI Director James B. Comey listens to a question from a reporter during a media conference in San Francisco, Calif., Feb. 27, 2014. (Photo by Ben Margot/AP)

Trump thanks the FBI director accused of helping his campaign

01/23/17 01:00PM

There was a White House reception yesterday to thank law enforcement officers and first responders who worked on Donald Trump's inauguration, and the new president seemed especially eager to thank one person in particular. The Washington Post reported:
FBI Director James B. Comey, who infuriated Democrats during the campaign drama over Hillary Clinton's email, got a pat on the back Sunday from President Trump. [...]

"He's become more famous than me," Trump said to those ringing the room as Comey strode in his direction. The two men shook hands and as Comey leaned in toward Trump, the president patted him on the back a few times.
If you watch the clip closely, it seems as if Trump may have blown Comey a kiss before encouraging him to cross the room for a presidential embrace.

It wasn't surprising that Trump's principal concern was on Comey's "fame" -- the new president seems to prefer to have headlines to himself -- but the scene was nevertheless an awkward one.
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Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn arrives at Trump Tower, Nov. 17, 2016. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and high level positions for the new administration. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Counterintelligence investigation into Team Trump casts a wide net

01/23/17 12:30PM

The morning of Donald Trump's presidential inauguration, the New York Times published a striking front-page report: multiple U.S. agencies "are examining intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links" between Russian officials and Trump's close associates.

According to the reporting, the counterintelligence investigation is focused on contacts between Moscow and members of Trump's campaign team, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort, former foreign policy adviser Carter Page, and longtime Republican operative Roger Stone.

NBC News added later in the day that the FBI is not only part of a multi-agency investigation into Russia's alleged intervention in the American presidential campaign, but U.S. officials are also "examining how the operation was paid for and whether any Americans were involved."

The report went on to say, "One former intelligence official briefed on the matter said the investigation is looking into whether certain former Trump campaign aides had improper contacts with the Russians."

It's against this backdrop that the Wall Street Journal pushed this story forward overnight.
U.S. counterintelligence agents have investigated communications that President Donald Trump's national security adviser had with Russian officials, according to people familiar with the matter.

Michael Flynn is the first person inside the White House under Mr. Trump whose communications are known to have faced scrutiny as part of investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and Treasury Department to determine the extent of Russian government contacts with people close to Mr. Trump.

It isn't clear when the counterintelligence inquiry began, whether it produced any incriminating evidence or if it is continuing. Mr. Flynn, a retired general who became national security adviser with Mr. Trump's inauguration, plays a key role in setting U.S. policy toward Russia.
[Update: CNN is reporting that the investigation into Flynn's talks with Russia is ongoing.]

If the reporting is accurate, it's a major development. While Manafort, Page, and Stone played key roles in Trump's campaign operation, none of them has an official role in the White House now. Flynn, however, is also allegedly being investigated -- and he has an office in the West Wing.

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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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