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

On Russia and campaign 'collusion,' Trump picks the wrong fight

12/15/17 01:09PM

The original talking point from Trump World was that the Republican president and his political operation didn't collude with Russia last year during its attack on the American elections. More recently, as the Robert Mueller's investigation into the Russia scandal intensified, Team Trump shifted gears, insisting that even if there was collusion, that wouldn't necessarily be illegal.

This morning, Donald Trump decided to switch back to the original argument, saying "no collusion" five times over the course of about a minute.

"Let's put it this way: There is absolutely no collusion. That has been proven. When you look at the committees, whether it's the Senate or the House, everybody -- my worst enemies, they walk out, they say, 'There is no collusion but we'll continue to look.' They're spending millions and millions of dollars.... That was a Democrat hoax...

"There is absolutely no collusion.... So now even the Democrats admit there's no collusion. There is no collusion -- that's it."

For what it's worth, I'm not aware of any Democrats who've made any such "admission," though Trump has been known to embrace imaginary ideas as if they were true.

What Democrats are actually saying is largely the opposite. House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) explained over the weekend, for example, "The Russians offered help. The campaign accepted help. The Russians gave help. And the president made full use of that help."

And by some measures, those details -- which have already been thoroughly documented, and are not in dispute -- amount to a fairly obvious case of collusion.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.15.17

12/15/17 12:00PM

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

* Alabama's Roy Moore (R) still hasn't conceded the Senate race he lost a few days ago, but even Donald Trump thinks he should.

* In the meantime, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is launching a digital ad campaign, using Moore's radicalism go after vulnerable 2018 Republican candidates.

* As Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette (R) moves forward with his gubernatorial campaign, the Detroit Free Press reports he's "loaded his taxpayer-funded office payroll with Republican campaign activists."

* After his federal corruption case ended in a mistrial, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ahead of his 2018 re-election campaign, is practically daring prosecutors to try again.

* Though next year's U.S. Senate race in Mississippi looks like a longshot for Democrats, party leaders have a candidate in mind whom they believe can compete in the statewide race: Brandon Presley, the Mississippi public service commissioner.

* In nearly every controversy involving politicians and sexual misconduct, the accused is a man, but in Kansas, congressional hopeful Andrea Ramsey (D) is ending her candidacy "after the Kansas City Star asked her about accusations in a 2005 lawsuit that she sexually harassed and retaliated against a male subordinate who said he had rejected her advances."

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Image: U.S. President Trump speaks to reporters before departing the White House for New York in Washington

Trump says he's not 'yet' ready to talk about a Flynn pardon

12/15/17 11:24AM

It's been two weeks since Michael Flynn, the former general who briefly served as Donald Trump's White House National Security Advisor, pleaded guilty in federal court to lying to the FBI about his communications with Russia. As part of his plea agreement, Flynn is now cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

With this in mind, Donald Trump made some news this morning from the South Lawn of the White House.

REPORTER: About Michael Flynn, would you consider a pardon for Michael Flynn?

TRUMP: I don't want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet. We'll see what happens. Let's see.

That "yet" qualifier sure stands out, doesn't it? Indeed, I wonder what Flynn himself will think when he hears this. It's almost as if the president were sending a message to his former aide, effectively saying, "No matter what the special counsel's office is telling you, I still have pardon power."

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Republican senator publicly embarrasses Trump judicial nominee

12/15/17 10:50AM

This hasn't been a great week for Donald Trump's judicial nominees. Confronted with bipartisan opposition, the White House had no choice but to pull Brett Talley's and Jeff Mateer's nominations, both of which were bizarre and difficult to defend.

Yesterday, as the Washington Post  reported, things got a little worse.

Nomination hearings for U.S. district judges tend to be dry affairs that offer little in the way of mass entertainment — in other words, they're not typically the stuff of viral videos.

But a clip of one of President Trump's federal judicial nominees struggling to answer rudimentary questions about the law garnered well more than 1 million views in a matter of hours on Thursday night and stoked speculation that another of the president's nominations might get derailed.

At issue is Trump's nomination of Matthew Petersen, perhaps best known for his work opposing many campaign-finance limits as a Bush-appointed commissioner on the Federal Election Commission. Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) decided to ask Peterson some basic questions about trial procedures -- things a would-be judge should ostensibly be aware of -- as a test of his qualifications for a lifetime position on the federal bench.

The video went viral in legal circles for a reason: Petersen did not pass the senator's quiz. (For the record, I wouldn't have passed the quiz, either, but I'm not a lawyer and no one's nominated me to serve on the federal judiciary.)

But as remarkable as the exchange was yesterday, I think there's a broader significance to this story beyond one nominee's embarrassment.

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

Church politicking provision stripped from GOP tax plan

12/15/17 10:03AM

Donald Trump has long promised his religious right allies that he'd deliver on one of the movement's top priorities: changing the law to allow houses of worship to engage in partisan activities without fear of losing their tax-exempt status. It was therefore of great interest when House Republicans added the idea of repealing the "Johnson Amendment'" to their tax plan.

Indeed, as regular readers know, GOP lawmakers shaped their proposal in such a way as to allow any non-profit entity to engage in partisan political activities, including endorsing candidates and political parties, without inviting IRS penalties.

In practical terms, this change wouldn't just empower the religious right in its drive to turn churches into a political machine; it would also open the door to tax-deductible money laundering.

The Senate tax plan didn't include this provision, leading to uncertainty about the initiative's future. Yesterday as the Wall Street Journal reported, the push to repeal the Johnson Amendment through the Republican tax package died.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) says the chamber's parliamentarian has blocked a proposal to let churches and charities engage in partisan politics, keeping it out of the final tax bill set to be unveiled Friday.

The repeal of the Johnson Amendment was in the House tax bill but not in the Senate's version, and it was a priority for President Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.

For those concerned with the integrity of the nation's campaign finance laws, and advocates of church-state separation, this is clearly good news. But I think it's probably premature to say the entire effort is dead.

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Image: Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan retirement rumors jolt politics in the Capitol

12/15/17 09:20AM

At a press conference on Capitol Hill yesterday, a reporter asked House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) if he's "quitting anytime soon." The Republican leader shook his head, chuckled, and replied, "No, I'm not."

The answer wasn't surprising, but it's worth taking a moment to understand why the question came up in the first place.

On Wednesday night, the HuffPost's Matt Fuller, who's very well sourced in Congress, quoted an unnamed Republican lawmaker saying, "There's a whole lot of rumors and speculation that the speaker may step aside." A number of other GOP lawmakers conceded they'd heard similar chatter.

Yesterday, Politico's Tim Alberta and Rachael Bade, who are also well sourced, moved the ball forward.

Despite several landmark legislative wins this year, and a better-than-expected relationship with President Donald Trump, Ryan has made it known to some of his closest confidants that this will be his final term as speaker. [...]

In recent interviews with three dozen people who know the speaker -- fellow lawmakers, congressional and administration aides, conservative intellectuals and Republican lobbyists -- not a single person believed Ryan will stay in Congress past 2018.

AshLee Strong, a prominent spokesperson for Ryan, said in response to the report, "This is pure speculation. As the speaker himself said today, he's not going anywhere any time soon."

Of course, "soon" is a relative term. If the speaker were to retire after next year's midterms, he'd still have over a year in office remaining.

And while I'm generally reluctant to pay too much attention to Capitol Hill scuttlebutt -- either the speaker will retire or he won't, and we'll all find out soon enough -- I also think it's worth appreciating why this week's reporting on Ryan's future is so easy to believe.

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Image: APEC Summit 2017 in Vietnam

Trump's 'personal insecurities' impair US response to a security threat

12/15/17 08:44AM

Donald Trump's delicate sensibilities are easily triggered, which has caused frequent difficulties for the president in his first year in office. But an extraordinary Washington Post  piece, published yesterday, pointed at the national security implications of Trump's "personal insecurities."

Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump continues to reject the evidence that Russia waged an assault on a pillar of American democracy and supported his run for the White House.

The result is without obvious parallel in U.S. history, a situation in which the personal insecurities of the president -- and his refusal to accept what even many in his administration regard as objective reality -- have impaired the government's response to a national security threat. The repercussions radiate across the government.

Rather than search for ways to deter Kremlin attacks or safeguard U.S. elections, Trump has waged his own campaign to discredit the case that Russia poses any threat and he has resisted or attempted to roll back efforts to hold Moscow to account.

Just as alarming, current and former officials told the Washington Post that Trump's daily intelligence update -- the presidential daily brief, or PDB -- "is often structured to avoid upsetting him."

Complicating matters is the fact that the president's team appears to work from the assumption that Trump, an incurious former television personality, does not read. The article added, "Russia-related intelligence that might draw Trump's ire is in some cases included only in the written assessment and not raised orally, said a former senior intelligence official familiar with the matter. In other cases, Trump's main briefer -- a veteran CIA analyst -- adjusts the order of his presentation and text, aiming to soften the impact."

In other words, a year after a foreign adversary launched the most important attack on the United States since 9/11, Americans have an emotionally fragile president who not only doesn't want to respond -- signaling to the world that attacks against the U.S. will draw no meaningful reaction -- but is inclined to throw a tantrum when confronted with evidence about the attackers.

The result is a national security dynamic in which intelligence professionals have to walk on eggshells around the Commander in Chief, hiding and/or downplaying information about the foreign adversary that launched an espionage operation that helped put Trump in power.

The portrait that emerges is obviously alarming. But it raises a related question that warrants further scrutiny,

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Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks to media outside his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 22, 2016. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP)

With Rubio balking, future of Republican tax plan is in doubt

12/15/17 08:00AM

Two weeks ago, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) recommended an important change to the Republican tax plan: by reducing the corporate tax rate to about 21%, instead of 20%, the legislation could expand the child tax credit. GOP leaders refused, saying the 20% corporate rate was necessary and non-negotiable.

This week, however, those same Republican leaders effectively extended their middle finger at the Florida senator, deciding they could live with a 21% corporate tax rate so long as the additional resources were directed at another tax break for the wealthiest Americans.

As NBC News reported, Rubio responded the way a senator is supposed to respond -- by walking away from the bill.

Just days before an expected vote, the sweeping Republican tax bill's fate was up in the air Thursday, with few details confirmed and key senators withholding support unless changes were made.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., announced he would oppose the bill unless it expanded a child tax credit to millions of lower income families by making a larger portion refundable against payroll taxes.

"I want to support tax reform and it's important for the country, but I think this needs to be part of it," Rubio told reporters.

The legislative arithmetic is straightforward: there are currently 52 Republican senators, which means the party can lose no more than two of its own members or the regressive and unpopular tax plan dies. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) already voted against the bill once, and it sounded yesterday like he isn't changing his mind.

If Rubio joins him -- a big "if," to be sure -- that would shrink the number of GOP votes for the still-unreleased plan to 50, which would be enough for passage, but would leave Republican leaders with no margin for error.

It's against this backdrop that Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who partnered with Rubio on the idea of an expanded child tax credit, said he's also unsure about how he'll vote. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), meanwhile, haven't yet committed to supporting the proposal, and two more GOP senators -- Arizona's John McCain and Mississippi's Thad Cochran -- are dealing with some health concerns.

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TRMS is going to law school

12/14/17 07:44PM

We are doing something special on the show Friday.

Pretty much every day, as we gather as a show to try to decipher the day's latest news, we end up wishing we had a lawyer handy to help clarify the latest developments in the Trump Russia scandal.

Well! For Friday night's show, we are bringing in some heavy legal firepower to help us understand the kind of potential legal jeopardy the White House might be worried about right now after the Michael Flynn guilty plea.

Are there matters of law or legal procedure that you have questions about when it comes to the special counsel and the White House? Are there things that have happened thus far in the special counsel's investigation that seem to make sense only to people who have gone to law school, and you would like to understand them, too?

Here's your chance to join us in accessing some of the best legal minds in the country on this subject without incurring any billable hours for doing so.

Email your questions to us at Rachel@msnbc.com. Send us your questions about the law and the courts and a president's rights when it comes to this White House and the Mueller investigation. We cannot promise that we will pose your question on the air, but we will get to some of them.

Rachel@msnbc.com!

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 12.14.17

12/14/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Over the skies of Syria: "Two U.S. fighter jets intercepted two Russian planes in Syria on Wednesday after the Russians crossed a 'deconfliction line,' and the U.S. fired chaff and warning flares in a confrontation that lasted 40 minutes, an American military spokesman said Thursday."

* Somalia: "A suicide bomber disguised as a policeman blew himself up inside a police training camp in Somalia's capital Mogadishu on Thursday and killed at least 15 officers, officials said."

* It's hard not to think of Colin Powell getting Iraq wrong on days like this: "The Trump administration accused Iran on Thursday of violating United Nations resolutions, unveiling what U.S. officials said was proof that Iran is exporting missiles and other military hardware to a rebel group in Yemen."

* RT: "New filings with the Justice Department show that the original US distribution company for RT, also known as Russia Today, is in the process of 'winding down' and has been since earlier this year."

* The Dan Johnson story is stunning in so many ways: "A Kentucky state representative who had denied allegations of sexually assaulting a teenage girl in 2013 died Wednesday in a probable suicide, the county coroner said."

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A person man uses a laptop. (Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa/AP)

FCC's Republican members kill net neutrality

12/14/17 02:00PM

Following up on our previous coverage, when Donald Trump chose a fierce opponent of net neutrality to lead the Federal Communications Commission, it was obvious that it was only a matter of time before the very idea of an open internet came under fire.

That time is now.

Net neutrality, the set of rules requiring internet service providers to treat all traffic as equal, is dead.

The five members of the Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday 3-2 along party lines to scrap Obama-era net neutrality rules, returning to a "light touch" approach and ending what Chairman Ajit Pai has called the federal government's "micromanaging" of the internet.

As we discussed in November, it’s important to understand that what Pai describes as “micromanagement” are existing safeguards, established by the Obama administration, mandating that all online content be treated equally by service providers. Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, has long opposed those safeguards, and Donald Trump has empowered him to rewrite the rules.

You may not have realized last year that your internet access was on the presidential ballot, but it was, and we’re now facing a rather severe elections-have-consequences moment.

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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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