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Friday's Mini-Report, 1.20.17

01/20/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Remember all the times Donald Trump complained that the media never showed enough of his crowds? Given the paltry attendance at his inauguration, he'd probably want the opposite today.

* As for the crowd for Trump's inaugural concert last night, the in-person audience for Obama's inaugural concert was 40 times larger.

* Capitol Hill: "Senate Democrats and Republicans are tussling over how many of President Donald Trump's nominees can be confirmed on his first day in office, with Republicans threatening to work through the weekend to break the logjam."

* Final remarks before taking a break: "Walking out to chants of 'yes, we can!' and leaving to chants of 'yes, we did!' President Barack Obama gave final remarks at a farewell gathering of staff at Joint Base Andrews before boarding his last flight on the military aircraft that ferries presidents on their travels."

* On a related note, Obama.org launched today.

* Gambia's political crisis: "Defeated Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh has agreed to cede power to the country's newly inaugurated leader, a Senegalese government official confirmed late Friday."

* Obama's last counter-terrorism strike: "A U.S. air strike killed an al Qaeda leader in Syria on Tuesday, the Pentagon said in a statement on Thursday. Mohammad Habib Boussadoun al-Tunisi, a Tunisian who was involved in 'external operations and has been connected to terrorist plots to attack Western targets,' was killed in the strike near Idlib in Syria, the statement said."

* El Chapo: "The epic quest to bring Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman to the United States culminated Friday in a New York courtroom, where the feared former leader of the Sinaloa cartel appeared in a navy jail uniform to face charges that could keep him behind bars for the rest of his life."
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President Barack Obama speaks at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., Dec. 6, 2016. (Photo by Monica Herndon/Tampa Bay Times/Pool/AP)

A presidential giant exits the stage

01/20/17 04:30PM

Presidents are often judged by a historical shorthand that highlights their most historic achievements. Abraham Lincoln, for example, won the Civil War and signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Franklin Roosvelet created the New Deal, rescued the country from the Great Depression, created Social Security, and won World War II.

These are the kinds of successes that put a president in the pantheon of American leaders of legendary consequence.

As President Obama becomes former President Obama, the debate can now begin in earnest about his tenure. When that historical shorthand is applied to his terms, what will it include? How will it compare to those who came before him?

I'm reminded of a piece Paul Krugman wrote in the fall of 2014, a month before the GOP took complete control of Congress, when Obama's standing wasn't nearly as strong as it is now.
...Obama faces trash talk left, right and center -- literally -- and doesn't deserve it. Despite bitter opposition, despite having come close to self-inflicted disaster, Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history. [...]

This is what a successful presidency looks like. No president gets to do everything his supporters expected him to. FDR left behind a reformed nation, but one in which the wealthy retained a lot of power and privilege. On the other side, for all his anti-government rhetoric, Reagan left the core institutions of the New Deal and the Great Society in place. I don't care about the fact that Obama hasn't lived up to the golden dreams of 2008, and I care even less about his approval rating. I do care that he has, when all is said and done, achieved a lot. That is, as Joe Biden didn't quite say, a big deal.
My friends at the Washington Monthly recently published a list of Obama's top accomplishments and it's a pretty extraordinary inventory of one of the most successful presidents of modern times. Rachel had a related segment last night, and watching the list of historic breakthroughs, it's hard not to notice that Obama exits the stage as the most accomplished president, of either party, since FDR.
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President Elect Donald Trump arrives on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan.20, 2017 in Washington, DC. In today's inauguration ceremony Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In his inaugural address, Trump vows to end 'American carnage'

01/20/17 01:42PM

The story of Donald Trump's political trajectory is one of a series of "pivots" that were predicted but never seen.

After Trump's belligerent campaign kickoff in June 2015, many observers said he'd soon pivot towards a more responsible campaign message in order to extend his appeal to more Republican constituencies. That didn't happen.

After he secured the Republican Party's presidential nomination, many assumed Trump would pivot away from his primary persona and become a general-election candidate with a message that resonated nationally. That didn't happen, either.

After Trump won the election, much of the country expected him to pivot from campaign mode to governing mode as he prepared for the awesome responsibilities of the American presidency. That didn't happen, either.

After he actually became president this afternoon, Trump was supposed to pivot, embracing the fact that he now represents the nation and its people, and recognizing that the time for deliberate divisiveness has passed.

But like every other predicted pivot, Trump had other ideas. The new president delivered a bleak, almost angry inaugural address that was effectively indistinguishable from the Republican's campaign rhetoric:
"Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

"This American carnage stops right here and stops right now. [...]

"For many decades, we've enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military; we've defended other nation's borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We've made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.

"One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions upon millions of American workers left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world."
As a factual matter, the portrait of America the new president painted is largely unrecognizable, and as a political vision, the dystopian nightmare Trump presented in his infamous convention speech in July 2016 is no different from the one he described today.
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Image: President Elect Trump Continues His "Thank You Tour" In Grand Rapids, Michigan

As power shifts, Trump's team remains unprepared to govern

01/20/17 11:08AM

When one U.S. administration transfers power to another, it's not uncommon for various officials to remain at their posts for a while, which is why this Associated Press report, published yesterday, may not have seemed especially surprising.
President-elect Donald Trump has asked roughly 50 senior Obama administration appointees to remain in their posts after his inauguration to ensure continuity in government, his incoming White House press secretary said Thursday.

The officials include the highest-ranking career officials at key national security agencies like the Pentagon and State Department.
Just on the surface, there is a certain irony to the appeals: much of Trump's campaign platform was predicated on the idea that President Obama's team was an incompetent and disastrous failure, unfit for power, who must be replaced by people hand-picked by the Republican amateur.

Evidently, as of yesterday, Trump decided Obama administration officials aren't so bad after all -- because the people he spent a year bashing are now being asked to keep doing their jobs a while longer.

Note, we're not just talking about random, low-level officials in obscure government offices. Team Trump has pleaded with top members of Obama's team -- professionals who work on highly sensitive tasks related to national security, for example -- to stick around, for an indefinite amount of time, while the incoming administration gets its act together.

And therein lies the broader point. Trump and his team have known for months they needed to prepare a vast executive-branch team to take the reigns of power this afternoon -- and they blew it badly. The Republicans didn't just ask dozens of Obama appointees to keep going to work because of the officials' competence; Trump World is also scrambling because it's desperate.
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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)

Trump facing foreign policy 'uprising' within his own team

01/20/17 10:11AM

It's alarmingly difficult to identify the scariest member of Donald Trump's team, but a credible case can be made for National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

As regular readers know, Flynn has peddled bizarre conspiracy theories; he shared classified information with foreign officials without permission; his ties to Russia haven’t been explained in any real detail; and he was on the Turkish government’s payroll while serving as a top adviser to the Trump campaign without ever publicly disclosing that fact.

But as Trump World assumes control over the executive branch, Flynn isn't just worrying Trump's detractors. The Wall Street Journal reported overnight that the president-elect is trying to "quell an uprising within his own defense and foreign-policy team," with Flynn at the center of the dispute.
His pick for national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has long clashed with the intelligence-community establishment over the U.S. fight against global terrorism, and is now butting heads with members of Mr. Trump's team, including Rex Tillerson, Mr. Trump's pick for secretary of state, [Gen. James Mattis, the defense secretary pick] and [Mike Pompeo, his pick to run the Central Intelligence Agency].

Officials inside and close to the transition said that Gen. Flynn has been pushing various people for jobs at State and Defense, and is perceived as overreaching in his role as national security adviser.
The Journal's piece added that it fell to Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon to meet with Tillerson, Mattis, and Pompeo, and "soothe concerns" about the incoming National Security Advisor.

This isn't exactly reassuring. First, the amateur president-elect's chosen Secretary of State, Defense Secretary, and CIA chief are already unhappy with Trump's top advisor on matters of national security. The team hasn't even taken the reigns yet -- we don't yet know for sure whether Tillerson will be confirmed -- and there's already infighting.

Second, that infighting is significant enough that officials in Trump World are dishing to the media the day before Inauguration Day.
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Image: U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a "Thank You USA" tour rally in Grand Rapids

Trump World tries to explain away broad unpopularity

01/20/17 09:22AM

As President Obama passes the torch to President-elect Trump, Americans are witnessing all sorts of firsts, including the largest-ever gap in popularity from one leader to his successor.

Obama is exiting the stage on a high note, with an approval rating at 60% or higher in several new surveys. Donald Trump, meanwhile, is the least popular new president since the dawn of modern polling, with the latest CBS News poll giving an approval rating of just 37% and a favorability rating of just 32%. A Fox News poll released last night showed similar results.

For his part, Trump seems to believe there's a giant media/polling conspiracy underway -- he insisted this week that the polls are "rigged" -- and his team is under the impression that the data doesn't matter.
Mr. Trump's advisers said privately that his unexpected rise to power showed that such traditional barometers did not matter as much anymore. If polls were to be believed, he would not have been president, they said.
It's not quite that simple. Polls were right when they showed Trump dominating in the Republican presidential primaries, and they were right again when they showed Trump trailing Hillary Clinton in the popular vote by millions.

For that matter, polling on approval and favorability ratings is vastly easier than putting together polling screens on who's likely to cast a ballot. When every independent poll shows a politician is unpopular, it means he really is unpopular. Most members of Congress, who'll be asked to endorse Trump's widely disliked agenda, will be on the ballot next year, and it's safe to assume they'll be far less cavalier about Americans' attitudes.

But just as notable is the fact that Trump World's attitudes towards polls may carry alarming consequences.
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This photo made during an escorted visit and reviewed by the US military, shows the razor wire-topped fence at the abandoned "Camp X-Ray" detention facility at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba April 9, 2014. (Photo by Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty)

On his last day, Obama shrinks Guantanamo population to new low

01/20/17 08:41AM

Congress made it effectively impossible for President Obama to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, but lawmakers couldn't stop the outgoing president from coming close to his goal.
The Obama administration's long and fitful effort to wind down the Guantánamo Bay wartime prison came to a close on Thursday with an announcement that it had transferred four more men out of the detention complex. Their departures are expected to be the last before President Obama leaves office on Friday.

The transfer of the four detainees means that President-elect Donald J. Trump, who has called for an end to such transfers, will inherit the fates of 41 men there, 31 of whom are being held without charges or trial.
"As president, I have tried to close Guantánamo," Obama said in a letter to congressional leaders yesterday. "When I inherited this challenge, it was widely recognized that the facility -- which many around the world continue to condemn -- needed to close. Unfortunately, what had previously been bipartisan support for closure suddenly became a partisan issue. Despite those politics, we have made progress."

That's quantitatively true. Updating the tally we've been keeping an eye on, the detention facility's population peaked in 2003 with 680 prisoners. The Bush/Cheney administration began moving detainees out in its second term, and by the time President Obama took office, the population was down to 242 prisoners.

Now, as Obama exits the stage, the total is down to 41. Two weeks ago, Donald Trump, who's never demonstrated any real understanding of this issue, declared, "There should be no further releases from Gitmo." Fortunately, the current president ignored him.

As we discussed in April, the point of the gradual reductions, obviously, is to reduce the overall population, but it's also intended to appeal to Republicans' sense of fiscal sanity: the smaller the number of detainees, the harder it is to justify the massive expense of keeping open a detention facility that houses so few people. Even if congressional Republicans are inclined to ignore every other consideration, the hope is that GOP lawmakers will at least care about wasteful spending.

At least, that is, if the Guantanamo prisoner population remains low. There's a real possibility that the incoming president will reverse the progress and start adding to the detainee totals.
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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump poses for a photo after an interview with Reuters in his office in Trump Tower, in the Manhattan borough of New York, N.Y., May 17, 2016. (Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

New details from investigation cast cloud over Trump inauguration

01/20/17 08:00AM

It's safe to assume that Donald Trump and his team aren't pleased that this is on the front page of the New York Times the morning of Inauguration Day.
American law enforcement and intelligence agencies are examining intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, current and former senior American officials said.

The continuing counterintelligence investigation means that Mr. Trump will take the oath of office on Friday with his associates under investigation and after the intelligence agencies concluded that the Russian government had worked to help elect him.
U.S. intelligence agencies have already concluded that Russian agents, by way of an illegal espionage operation, intervened in the American presidential election, in part to help put Trump in the White House. We don't yet know whether, or to what extent, the intercepted communications relate to the previous findings.

According to the Times' reporting, however, the counterintelligence investigation is focused on contacts between Russia 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.

The inclusion of Page is of particular interest. Just last week, incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters, "Carter Page is an individual whom the president-elect does not know." According to Trump, that wasn't true: last year, during an interview with the Washington Post, Trump singled out Page as one of only a handful of people who were advising him on matters of foreign policy.

TPM's Josh Marshall summarized the landscape nicely: "Just to state this clearly, that means that on the eve of Trump's inauguration, the nation's top law enforcement and intelligence agencies are pursuing a counter-intelligence probe of contacts and payments between key members of his campaign and Russia. We have not been here before."

Several members of Team Trump, including the president-elect himself, have said there were no contacts between the campaign and Russia before Election Day. We don't yet know whether those claims were true.

As for the timing of this news, that's nearly as interesting as the reporting itself.
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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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