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People walk down Wall Street in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty)

Trump's odd defense of his trade war: 'We're playing with the bank's money'

07/23/18 12:35PM

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting report a few weeks ago on the Trump administration's perspective on a looming trade war: the health of the U.S. economy gives the White House some "leeway" to pursue the risky policies the president seems to prefer.

At the risk of over-simplifying, Donald Trump seems to be working from the assumption that even if his tariffs and related policies undermine economic growth in his own country, the economy is strong enough to effectively create a buffer. If his trade plans shave a point or two off the GDP, the argument goes, it still wouldn't push us into a recession.

The president lent his voice to this posture in a CNBC interview the other day, making the case that the relative strength of the stock market empowers him to take risks with his trade agenda.

"This is the time. You know the expression we're playing with the bank's money," he told CNBC's Joe Kernen in a "Squawk Box" interview aired Friday.

The president has a big cushion. The S&P 500 is up 31 percent since Trump's win on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2016, through Thursday. The market's gain has slowed this year as the administration has implemented new tariffs on countries, with the benchmark index up 4.9 percent for 2018 through Thursday.

Trump added the market would likely be much higher if he didn't escalate the trade issues with China and the rest of the world.

If you've ever wondered how Donald Trump managed to lose money running a casino, he occasionally helps answer the question.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.23.18

07/23/18 12:00PM

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

* A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows Democrats leading Republicans on the generic ballot, 49% to 43%. That six-point Dem advantage is down from 10 points from the same poll last month.

* Republicans in Georgia will choose their gubernatorial nominee tomorrow, and in the wake of Donald Trump endorsing Secretary of State Brian Kemp, Vice President Mike Pence appeared alongside Kemp at a rally over the weekend.

* On a related note, a SurveyUSA poll for the NBC affiliate in Atlanta found Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams trailing both of the GOP candidates in hypothetical general-election match-ups, but only by two points, reinforcing the impression that this will be a competitive contest.

* In Virginia's U.S. Senate race, incumbent Sen. Tim Kaine (D) debated Corey Stewart (R) over the weekend, and when the Republican said Donald Trump "is standing up to the Russians," there was audible laughter from some in the audience.

* In Missouri, the far-right Club for Growth Action is launching a $2 million ad campaign attacking Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

* Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) isn't just having to explain misogynistic rhetoric he used on his radio program before joining Congress; the Minnesota Republican also reportedly used racist rhetoric, claiming, among other things, that black people have an "entitlement mentality."

* Though Republicans have made Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) one of their top 2018 targets, the incumbent senator is airing a new ad showing thanks he's received from Donald Trump.

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Image: Trump Hosts Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi At The White House

On foreign policy, do we listen to Trump or the Trump administration?

07/23/18 11:30AM

In the days following Donald Trump's meeting with Vladimir Putin last week, Russian officials began talking publicly about implementing some of the "agreements" the two presidents reached. U.S. officials seemed to be caught off-guard -- because Trump hadn't told them anything about what was said at the meeting.

The Washington Post  reported last week that "officials at the most senior levels across the U.S. military" were still scrambling without information two days after the summit in Helsinki. A day later, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said he didn't know what was said at the presidential meeting, either.

Susan Glasser had a striking piece in the New Yorker, explaining that top members of the White House team had "literally zero" information about possible commitments Trump may have agreed to with Putin -- because "unlike Putin, Trump did not brief his own diplomats."

As Glasser put it, "We are witnessing nothing less than the breakdown of American foreign policy.... Even if we don't know the full extent of what was said and done behind closed doors in Helsinki, here's what we already do know as a result of the summit: America's government is divided from its President on Russia; its process for orderly decision-making, or even basic communication, has disintegrated."

The day after that piece ran, Trump's Defense Department announced new plans to provide security support to Ukraine. "Russia should suffer consequences for its aggressive, destabilizing behavior and its illegal occupation of Ukraine," Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a statement, delivering a message that was in no way similar to his boss' rhetoric.

It's against this backdrop that the New York Times, pointing to assessments from current and former American officials, reported that the "disconnect between the policies aimed at curbing Russia and the president's position has never been wider."

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Xi Jinping

China doesn't want to defeat us, it wants to 'replace' us

07/23/18 11:00AM

A leading CIA expert of Asia-Pacific said something at the Aspen Security Forum on Friday that raised a few eyebrows, and for good reason. NBC News reported:

Beijing does not want to go to war with the U.S. but is attempting to undermine Washington's global position by using all avenues available to it, said Michael Collins, deputy assistant director of the CIA's East Asia mission center.

"I would argue ... that what they're waging against us is fundamentally a cold war -- a cold war not like we saw during THE Cold War [between the U.S. and the Soviet Union] but a cold war by definition," he told the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

"The Chinese fundamentally seek to replace the United States as the leading power in the world," Collins added.

I think this assessment sounds about right. I also think Donald Trump is creating the conditions necessary to help Beijing achieve its goals.

If there's a race underway for 21st-century international primacy, what more could the Republican president do to cede the United States' leadership role?

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U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a press conference after the meeting of U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2

Team Trump says another Putin meeting 'makes enormous sense' (but it doesn't)

07/23/18 10:30AM

The day after the White House said Donald Trump would host another meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin -- this time at the White House, sometime this fall -- a reporter asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday what the United States has to gain from another meeting between the two leaders.

The Republican's answer was frustratingly vague. "It is incredibly valuable to the people of the United States of America that President Putin and President Trump continue to engage in dialogue to resolve the difficult issues our countries face between each other," Pompeo said. "I think this makes enormous sense."

He never got around to saying precisely what the country has to gain from another Trump-Putin meeting, especially on the heels of the fiasco at last week's summit in Helsinki. Maybe it's because, Pompeo's rhetoric notwithstanding, this doesn't make "enormous sense." A Washington Post analysis called the president's approach "baffling."

Trump's decision to meet with Putin again is baffling from a PR perspective, but it is even more incomprehensible from a counterintelligence perspective. Trump's own spy chief, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, didn't even know Trump had invited Putin. Cameras caught Coats's very candid reaction Thursday when he found out. He did not seem to approve.

Coats had just told NBC News's Andrea Mitchell that he did not think Trump should have met privately with Putin in the first place. "If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted, I would have suggested a different way," he said.

Implicit in that criticism is that a person charged with keeping the country safe thinks what Trump did was unwise. And Trump is going to do it again.

The context to all of this couldn't be more important. Ahead of last week's meeting in Finland, the White House struggled to explain why, exactly, Trump was so eager to have these talks.

Indeed, common sense suggested it makes sense to isolate Putin, not reward him. And yet, Trump agreed to bilateral talks in exchange for nothing.

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Image: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with President Donald Trump

Trump slowly starts to realize his North Korea gambit is failing

07/23/18 10:00AM

Publicly, Donald Trump pretends his policy toward North Korea is a historic success. The Republican president has assured the American public that he's "solved" the problem posed by the rogue nuclear state, to the point that North Korea is no longer a threat.

"President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem," Trump declared last month. "No longer -- sleep well tonight!”

Privately, however, it's a different story. The Washington Post  reported over the weekend:

The lack of immediate progress, though predicted by many analysts, has frustrated the president, who has fumed at his aides in private even as he publicly hails the success of the negotiations. [...]

[L]ate last week in meetings with his aides, Trump bristled about the lack of positive developments in the negotiations.

In a bizarre way, I find this is oddly reassuring. The reality is that the president's gambit is failing, just as experts predicted. Confronted with these facts, Trump can either accept reality and launch a public-deception campaign in the hopes of convincing voters he's succeeding, or he can pretend reality is what he wants it to be and genuinely believe the nonsense he's peddling.

If the Post's reporting is accurate, the president has chosen the former over the latter. And while the lying is obviously a problem, I take some comfort in the fact that Trump realizes his policy isn't working.

Because it really isn't. From the Post's article:

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Image: Director Of Nat'l Intelligence Daniel Coats Testifies To Senate Armed Services Committee On Worldwide Threats

After going 'rogue,' top intel official tries to mollify Trump White House

07/23/18 09:30AM

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats appeared last week with NBC News' Andrea Mitchell for an interview at the Aspen Security Forum, and their chat was more lively -- and newsworthy -- than many expected.

As Rachel noted on the show last week, Coats made headlines when he was caught completely off-guard by news, which broke during the interview, that Donald Trump had invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to the White House for a visit this fall. At the same event, Coats expressed some concern about the American president siding with Putin over U.S. intelligence; Coats conceded he was opposed to Trump's insistence on a private one-on-one meeting between the two presidents; and he acknowledged that it wasn't a good idea for Trump to welcome two Russian officials into the Oval Office last year, at a meeting in which Trump leaked sensitive intelligence.

Taken together, it was hard not to get the impression that the nation's chief intelligence official doesn't always see eye-to-eye with his boss. Indeed, the Washington Post reported that White House officials "were in an uproar" over Coats' interview, in part because it seemed at times as if the DNI was "laughing at the president." One said Coats had "gone rogue."

Greg Sargent made a compelling case that Team Trump's perspective was needlessly skewed: the president's aides were bothered by Coats' tone, but what should've concerned them was the substantive disagreements between the DNI's warnings and the administration's actions.

And yet, there was Coats over the weekend, apparently trying to mollify the White House by clarifying his earlier comments.

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Image: US-POLITICS-JUSTICE-TRUMP

Why it matters that Kavanaugh questioned a key Watergate ruling

07/23/18 09:00AM

Judge Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination is controversial for a variety of reasons, but near the top of the list are the conservative jurist's views related to the power of the American presidency.

As has been well-documented, Donald Trump's choice for the high court is on record arguing that sitting presidents shouldn't have to deal with "time-consuming and distracting" lawsuits and investigations. In Kavanaugh's vision, a president shouldn't have to deal with civil suits, criminal probes, or even questions from federal prosecutors.

But the scope of the judge's thinking on the subject is still coming into focus. The Associated Press reported over the weekend:

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh suggested several years ago that the unanimous high court ruling in 1974 that forced President Richard Nixon to turn over the Watergate tapes, leading to the end of his presidency, may have been wrongly decided.

Kavanaugh was taking part in a roundtable discussion with other lawyers when he said at three different points that the decision in U.S. v. Nixon, which marked limits on a president's ability to withhold information needed for a criminal prosecution, may have come out the wrong way.

In a 1999 round-table discussion, Kavanaugh seemed to recognize just how provocative his perspective was -- he characterized his own comments as legal "heresy" -- but he nevertheless suggested that Richard Nixon may have had the authority to hide incriminating evidence from federal investigators.

During the same discussion, Kavanaugh added that U.S. v. Nixon maybe ought to be "overruled."

Let's note for context that U.S. v. Nixon was an 8-0 ruling in 1974 -- William Rehnquist, having worked in Nixon's Justice Department, recused himself in the case -- that said the then-president had to honor a subpoena from a special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal. In the decades since, the consensus view is that the Supreme Court's historic decision was the right one.

It appears to be a consensus that Kavanaugh is not a part of.

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New documents shed light on surveillance of former Trump adviser

07/23/18 08:30AM

Donald Trump's congressional allies have invested a considerable amount of time and energy into a curious idea: U.S. surveillance of Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign, was an outrageous abuse. The argument has never really made any sense, but it was nevertheless the motivation behind the laughable "Nunes memo," prepared by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and his team.

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a report on newly available materials that shed new light on the controversy.

The Trump administration disclosed on Saturday a previously top-secret set of documents related to the wiretapping of Carter Page, the onetime Trump campaign adviser who was at the center of highly contentious accusations by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee that the F.B.I. had abused its surveillance powers.

On Saturday evening, those materials -- an October 2016 application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to wiretap Mr. Page, along with several renewal applications -- were released to The New York Times and other news organizations that had filed Freedom of Information Act lawsuits to obtain them. Mr. Trump had declassified their existence earlier this year.

The president declassified them in order to help advance the since-discredited Nunes memo.

The fact that the FISA application, even in redacted form, is available to the public at all is an extraordinary development unto itself: U.S. officials have traditionally been reluctant to even mention the existence of documents such as these, much less release them. And yet, for the first time since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was passed 40 years ago, here it is.

The application documents the fact that the FBI considered Page -- by October 2016, a former Trump foreign policy adviser -- someone who'd been "the subject of targeted recruitment by the Russian government."

The Times' report added, "Visible portions showed that the F.B.I. in stark terms had told the intelligence court that Mr. Page 'has established relationships with Russian government officials, including Russian intelligence officers'; that the bureau believed 'the Russian government's efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with' Mr. Trump's campaign; and that Mr. Page 'has been collaborating and conspiring with the Russian government.'"

Despite GOP claims, there was no abuse: four judges, each appointed by Republican presidents, signed off on the Page surveillance, persuaded that there was probable cause.

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As Trump threatens war with Iran, few know whether to take it seriously

07/23/18 08:00AM

Welcome to Monday morning, Americans. Your president published a series of tweets overnight, directed at Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, raising the prospect of a war.

In the nearly all-caps tweet, Trump directly warned the Iranian president to "NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN," adding that any new ones would bring "CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE."

Trump's tweet came hours after Rouhani's own warning over the weekend, reported by Iranian state news agency IRNA, that Trump was playing "with the lion's tail."

"America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars," Rouhani said.

Trump called the comments "DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!"

Under normal circumstances, when a sitting American president threatens a possible war with a foreign adversary, it would be a development of great international significance. But Donald Trump's presidency offers little in the way of normal circumstances.

It's an awkward feeling. On the one hand, the Commander in Chief of the world's strongest military is publicly raising the prospect of a deadly conflict, and it seems irresponsible to just shrug that off as background noise. On the other hand, most observers realize that Trump is an erratic amateur with the temperament of an elementary-school bully, who finds joy in chest-thumping bluster, and whose occasional tantrums frequently amount to very little.

The former suggests last night's presidential tweets were important. The latter suggests we should roll our eyes and focus our attention elsewhere.

The uncertainty is itself an issue the nation needs to come to terms with. When a sitting American president threatens a war, and no one's sure whether to take it seriously, there's a problem.

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The sun rises behind the steeple of a church, Aug. 23, 2015, in Plains, Ga. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)

This Week in God, 7.21.18

07/21/18 08:00AM

First up from the God Machine this week is the latest effort from congressional Republicans to empower houses of worship to engage in partisan politicking without fear of consequence. Politico  reported the other day:

The House voted Thursday to make it harder for the government to punish churches that get involved in politics.

In a 217-199 vote, lawmakers approved legislation barring the IRS from revoking the tax-exempt status of churches that back political candidates, unless it is specifically approved by the commissioner of the agency.

The provision, buried in a budget measure setting IRS funding for the upcoming year, amounts to a backdoor way around the so-called Johnson amendment, a half-century-old prohibition on nonprofits getting involved in political campaign activities.

The House vote came just three days after the Trump administration made it easier for dark-money entities to keep their largest donors hidden from public scrutiny.

To be sure, Republicans have spent much of the last year and a half targeting the Johnson amendment through a variety of vehicles -- it was nearly included in the GOP's massive tax-cut package late last year -- but those efforts involved trying to rewrite the relevant portion of the tax code.

This latest measure takes a different approach, leaving the letter of the law in place, but neutering the policy by making it vastly more difficult for the Internal Revenue Service to impose penalties that deter religious leaders from breaking the law.

And as of Thursday, a majority of the House signed off on the change, voting to create a system in which churches and other ministries could engage in partisan politicking, confident in the knowledge that their tax-exempt status would likely be left alone.

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“I am not the candidate named in the indictment. We found out about the compromising of Ashford’s documents at the same time as everyone else, through the media. My supporters and I worked tirelessly in 2016, knocking on over 122,500 doors and speaking to the people of the Second District.”

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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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