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Monday's Mini-Report, 4.24.17

04/24/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A stunning death toll in Afghanistan: "Afghanistan's defense minister and army chief stepped down Monday amid growing outrage over the deaths of more than 100 soldiers in one of the deadliest Taliban attacks of the 16-year war."

* Related news: "U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Afghanistan for a surprise visit on Monday, just hours after the resignations of his Afghan counterpart and the army chief of staff following the deadliest attack by insurgents on government forces since the war began in 2001."

* Syria: "The Trump administration on Monday said it was imposing sanctions on 271 employees of the Syrian government agency that produces chemical weapons and ballistic missiles, blacklisting them from travel and financial transactions in the wake of a sarin attack on civilians this month."

* It's tough to blame them: "With the future of Europe in French hands, the continent's leaders have cast aside their tradition of staying out of each other's elections and weighed in with some unsolicited advice: Pick the candidate who wants to make the European Union stronger, not the one who wants to blow it up."

* He was careful not to mention his successor: "Former President Barack Obama said Monday that his post-White House work will focus heavily on encouraging young people to become politically involved during his first public event since leaving office."

* Filling the swamp: "Former campaign aides, fundraisers and others with ties to President Trump and Vice President Pence have attracted dozens of new lobbying clients in Washington, raking in more than $2.2 million in lobbying fees in the first months of the administration, a USA TODAY analysis shows."

* I neglected to mention this on Friday: "The Treasury Department said Friday that it would not issue any waivers to U.S. companies -- including ExxonMobil -- seeking to do oil and gas drilling with Russia in violation of current economic sanctions."
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen in a television cameras view finder during a press conference at the Trump National Golf Club Jupiter on March 8, 2016 in Jupiter, Fla. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

The pipeline between cable news and the Trump White House

04/24/17 04:51PM

A couple of months ago, Fox News' Heather Nauert announced her support for Ivanka Trump's branded merchandise. Between that kind of endorsement, and Nauert's role on the "Fox and Friends" program the president likes to promote, I suppose it shouldn't come as too big a surprise that Nauert has now joined Donald Trump's administration as the official spokesperson for the State Department.
"Heather's media experience and long interest in international affairs will be invaluable as she conveys the Administration's foreign policy priorities," the department said in a statement.

The "top-rated morning cable news show" Nauert anchored, as glowingly described by the State Department, is one of President Donald Trump's favorites.
In late November, Rachel had a segment about all of the people who were up for positions on Trump's team because the Republican had seen them on TV. A month later, the list was even longer, and now it's longer still. (Note, in February, Fox News' Jonathan Wachtel was named the spokesperson for the U.S. mission to the United Nations.)

The Washington Post joked a few months ago, "The Trump revolution won't just be televised. It will be led by television talking heads." It's even truer now than it was then.

What's especially notable is the scope and scale of this dynamic. It's amazing that Team Trump hires those whose on-screen appearances impress the White House, but this goes well beyond who gets hired.
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Image: Donald Trump, Jens Stoltenberg

Donald Trump's ignorance keeps getting in the way

04/24/17 12:54PM

There's much to discuss in Donald Trump's stunning interview with the Associated Press, but it's worth pausing to pay special attention to the president's explanation for his criticism of NATO.
"They had a quote from me that NATO's 'obsolete.' But they didn't say why it was obsolete. I was on Wolf Blitzer, very fair interview, the first time I was ever asked about NATO, because I wasn't in government. People don't go around asking about NATO if I'm building a building in Manhattan, right? So they asked me, Wolf ... asked me about NATO, and I said two things. NATO's obsolete -- not knowing much about NATO, now I know a lot about NATO -- NATO is obsolete, and I said, 'And the reason it's obsolete is because of the fact they don't focus on terrorism.'"
For now, let's put aside NATO's counter-terrorism work and instead focus on Trump's welcome concession: when he first started publicly discussing his perspective on the alliance, he didn't "know much" about NATO. After all, his focus was on New York real estate, not international affairs.

He did, however, pontificate anyway, criticizing NATO while seeking the nation's highest office.

We could, of course, focus on why a presidential candidate didn't "know much about NATO" in 2016 -- it seems like the sort of thing a would-be national leader would have firm opinions on before launching a White House bid -- but I'm just as intrigued by the idea that Trump was comfortable publicly criticizing one of the key pillars of global security in recent generations without actually knowing what he's talking about.

It's an epistemological mess: Trump is asked a question, then he answers it, then he learns something about the subject matter. At the risk of sounding picky, that's not the order in which this is supposed to go.
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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.24.17

04/24/17 12:00PM

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

* In France's closely watched presidential election, centrist Emmanuel Macron is headed for a runoff he's likely to win against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. It's the first time in France's history that the major party's candidates will not be in contention for the presidency.

* Following a brief hullabaloo last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) issued a statement on Friday saying he believes it's "imperative" that Jon Ossoff win Georgia's congressional special election. "I applaud the energy and grassroots activism in Jon's campaign," Sanders said. "His victory would be an important step forward in fighting back against Trump's reactionary agenda."

* In Montana's congressional special election, Greg Gianforte (R) is basing much of his message on the idea that "federal bureaucrats" may soon try to take people's guns if his Democratic opponent has his way.

* The new plan Republican leaders are pushing on their members is to de-nationalize next year's congressional elections. "Every member should be focusing on local issues -- it's not a cliche," Corry Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, told National Journal.

* On a related note, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) was asked yesterday whether he'd welcome campaign help in his district from Donald Trump. Issa was noticeably reluctant to answer the question.

* And speaking of California, is Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) running for re-election next year? She hasn't officially announced her intentions, and the incumbent said last week she's "waiting for some family health issues to be resolved" before announcing her election plans.
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Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., leaves a closed-door GOP caucus luncheon at the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 14, 2014.

Senate investigation into Russia scandal faces GOP resistance

04/24/17 11:30AM

Nearly a month ago, the top two officials on the Senate Intelligence Committee held a press conference to discuss their probe of the Russia scandal, and one could almost hear the sigh of relief from the political world. Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Ranking Member Mark Warner (D-Va.), acting very much like grown-ups, said their investigation was on track, and operating in a cooperative, methodical, and bipartisan way.

The point wasn't subtle: while Rep. Devin Nunes' (R-Calif.) bizarre antics had derailed the House Intelligence Committee's efforts, Burr and Warner wanted to reassure the public that we could have confidence in the Senate Intelligence Committee's work.

So much for that idea. Yahoo News' Michael Isikoff reports today that the Senate's probe has not only failed to make progress, but it's also "increasingly stymied by partisan divisions that are jeopardizing the future of the inquiry."
The committee has yet to issue a single subpoena for documents or interview any key witnesses who are central to the probe, the sources said. It also hasn't requested potentially crucial evidence -- such as the emails, memos and phone records of the Trump campaign -- in part because the panel's chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has so far failed to respond to requests from the panel's Democrats to sign letters doing so, the sources said.

"The wheels seem to be turning more slowly than the importance of the inquiry would indicate," said Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the 9/11 commission and former Watergate prosecutor, one of a number of veteran Washington investigators who have begun to question the lack of movement in the probe.
Democrats on the panel are "privately complaining" that the investigation is underfunded and understaffed, and it appears that those concerns are becoming less private.

Making matters worse, Burr has strictly limited committee members' access to materials. The North Carolina Republican has also not yet signed letters to key members of Team Trump, seeking documents related to the probe.
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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP-DEPARTS

The 'Never-Mind-What-Trump-Said' foreign policy endures

04/24/17 11:00AM

In his second week as president, Donald Trump spoke to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull via phone, and the call should've been one of the easier moments of the Republican's initial attempts at international diplomacy.

It was, however, a disaster. Trump, when he wasn't bragging to the Australian about his imagined electoral-college landslide, thought it'd be a good idea to lash out at Turnbull over a refugee agreement. The call was supposed to last an hour, but Trump abruptly hung up after 25 minutes.

The American president soon turned to Twitter to declare, "Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!"

In reality, Trump didn't really know anything about the agreement, and as the New York Times reported over the weekend, "this dumb deal" has now been reaffirmed by Trump's administration.
Vice President Mike Pence assured Australian leaders on Saturday that the United States was committed to the countries' "strong and historic alliance," and he reaffirmed that the Trump administration would honor a refugee deal that President Trump disparaged in a January phone call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. [...]

On Saturday, Mr. Pence confirmed that the deal was still on. "Whatever reservations the president may have about the details of agreements reached by the prior administration, we'll honor this agreement, out of respect for that enormously important alliance," he said at a joint news conference with Mr. Turnbull in Sydney.
It's quite sad to see this play out in real time. Trump, confused and intemperate, insulted one of the United States' closest allies for no reason, and suggested he might tear up a bilateral agreement. It fell to Mike Pence to travel abroad and quietly tell our allies not to pay too much attention to the nonsense coming from the Oval Office.

Two months ago, I described the 'Never-Mind-What-Trump-Said' foreign policy, and it's discouraging to note the degree to which it endures.
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DHS's Kelly takes an evolving line on Trump's border wall

04/24/17 10:30AM

Few officials in Donald Trump's administration have been as candid in downplaying talk of a border wall as Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. Soon after taking over the cabinet agency, for example, Kelly acknowledged that an actual wall won't be built.

During his confirmation hearings a few weeks earlier, Kelly, a retired Marine general, sounded a skeptical note about the entire concept, testifying that "a physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job." Despite his boss' promises, Kelly also told Congress earlier this month that the idea of a full border wall, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, is "unlikely" to ever be built.

Donald Trump, of course, strenuously disagrees with this -- a point Kelly has apparently been reminded of. Consider this exchange on CBS's "Face the Nation" yesterday between host John Dickerson and Secretary Kelly.
DICKERSON: Mr. Secretary, I want to start with the government, which is going to run out of money next week. One of the items of debate is, the president wants money for the border wall. Is a border wall so important right now that it is worth risking a government shutdown?

KELLY: Well, I certainly think a border wall is essential, as do almost everyone that lives along the border. So, yes, I think it's certainly worth hard negotiation over.
I can appreciate why the DHS secretary is in an awkward spot. As a retired general, Kelly is well aware of the chain of command, and the fact that the president is at the top. Trump wants a wall, and Kelly has a choice between following the president's directions or stepping down from his post.

The trouble is, this dynamic has led Kelly to make pronouncements he doesn't seem to believe.
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As his 100th day nears, Trump grades himself on a generous curve

04/24/17 10:02AM

Last weekend, Donald Trump, annoyed by national protests about his secret tax returns, declared, "The election is over!" A day later, Kellyanne Conway argued that Democrats should move forward "instead of still talking about the election."

You probably know what's coming next. In a pair of tweets, there was the president yesterday, responding to the latest national polling by pretending they offer flattering news.
"New polls out today are very good considering that much of the media is FAKE and almost always negative. Would still beat Hillary in popular vote. ABC News/Washington Post Poll (wrong big on election) said almost all stand by their vote on me & 53% said strong leader."
Hmm. I'm not at all sure what Trump means by "still" in his claim about the popular vote. My fear is the president continues to work from the assumption that he actually received more votes than Hillary Clinton, which is obviously demonstrably wrong.

I can appreciate why Trump feels insecure about the legitimacy of his presidency: not only did more Americans choose his rival, but he was elevated to the office thanks to the help of a foreign adversary's illegal espionage operation. (I've been told that an increasing number of D.C. Democrats often joke among themselves, "Twinkle, twinkle little czar; Putin put you where you are.") But ridiculous claims about the popular vote aren't going to help matters.

What's more, the ABC News/Washington Post poll wasn't really "wrong big" about the 2016. Its final tally showed Clinton ahead by 4 percentage points national, and she won by just over 2 points. It was, in other words, pretty close.

But the key takeaway is the president's belief that the latest survey results are "very good" for him. They're really not.
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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

The select few who have Donald Trump's ear

04/24/17 09:30AM

Politico reported over the weekend that Donald Trump likes to leave large blocks of "private time" on his presidential schedule, which are regularly devoted to "spontaneous meetings and phone chats with ex-aides, friends, media figures, lawmakers and members of his Cabinet." For most modern presidencies, this isn't exactly a normal practice, but it's the way Trump has operated for years.

Whether or not this is a good thing appears to be a matter of perspective, and Politico spoke to members of Team Trump who were "split on whether the freewheeling set-up, which can allow friends and unofficial advisers to whisper in the president’s ear on policy issues, is productive."

It matters quite a bit who, exactly, is doing the whispering. With this in mind, the New York Times had an interesting piece over the weekend.
As Mr. Trump’s White House advisers jostle for position, the president has turned to another group of advisers -- from family, real estate, media, finance and politics, and all outside the White House gates -- many of whom he consults at least once a week. [...]

Mr. Trump’s West Wing aides, like President Bill Clinton’s staff two decades before, say they sometimes cringe at the input from people they can’t control, with consequences they can’t predict. Knowing these advisers -- who are mostly white, male and older -- is a key to figuring out the words coming from Mr. Trump’s mouth and his Twitter feed.
The Times did a nice job breaking down the list of 20 presidential confidants -- each of whom, at least for now, works outside the White House -- and the role they play in Trump's orbit. The piece even breaks them down into convenient categories.

Of the 20, 18 are men, 20 are white, and most are roughly the president's age. The demographic characteristics are very likely to make a difference in how Trump sees the world and what challenges most deserve his attention.

But there's one other common thread tying together much of the list that jumped out at me.
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Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) speaks at the National Rifle Association's NRA-ILA Leadership Forum during the NRA Convention at the Kentucky Exposition Center on May 20, 2016 in Louisville, Ky. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)

Trump administration can't keep its story straight on 'Dreamers'

04/24/17 09:00AM

While individual deportations are rarely the basis for national news, last week's story about Juan Manuel Montes was different. The 23-year-old Montes, who's lived in the United States since age 9, was taken into custody last week and returned to Mexico -- making him the first example of a "Dreamer" to be deported since Donald Trump became president.

As USA Today reported, Montes was "twice granted deportation protections" under the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which Trump has so far left in place, but which didn't seem to protect the young man last week.

It therefore came as something of a surprise late last week when the Republican president said "Dreamers" -- who get their name from the "Dream Act" that GOP lawmakers blocked in Congress -- should "rest easy" about his immigration policies. Trump told the Associated Press that he's "not after the Dreamers, we are after the criminals." He added, "That is our policy."

Trump might want to let his attorney general know.
[Attorney General Jeff Sessions], in an exclusive interview Sunday on "This Week," told ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos, "There's no doubt the president has sympathy for young people who were brought here at early ages."

He also said the Department of Homeland Security's "first and strongest priority -- no doubt about it" is to arrest unauthorized immigrants who have committed crimes. "They're focusing primarily on that," he said.
"Primarily" seemed to be doing a lot of work in that sentence.

Asked specifically about the fate of "Dreamers," the far-right attorney general, "Well, we'll see. I believe that everyone who enters the country illegally is subject to being deported."

Oh. Literally two days after the president said these young people can "rest easy," Jeff Sessions, the man Trump and Senate Republicans made the nation's chief law-enforcement official, told these same young people not to rest easy -- because as far as the attorney general is concerned, they're "subject to being deported."
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Image: March For Science in New York

March for Science reflects awakening of civic consciousness

04/24/17 08:30AM

The timing was striking. On Friday afternoon, for no apparent reason, the Trump administration asked U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to resign. This was not a case in which Obama-era officials are replaced with new political appointees after an election; the surgeon general serves a four-year term, and Murthy still had roughly two years remaining.

Why would Donald Trump dismiss an accomplished and successful physician without explanation? Perhaps because the president lacks a meaningful appreciation for science -- a point that was driven home nicely the day after Murthy was shown the door.
Lovers of science got their day in the rain Saturday as they rallied around their passions, delivering applause for the technology that brought their smart phones to the obvious theme of climate change on Earth Day. And while the March for Science was on the surface nonpartisan, politics bubbled up again and again. [...]

Because it was a march, protest signs abounded, from the funny ("I just came for the pi" and "Without science, it's just fiction") to the sincere ("Science Saves Lives").
There's no official count of how many participated in the event at the National Mall in D.C., but the NBC News estimate was that "at least 10,000 turned out" in dreary weather.

And while that may sound like a modest total, let's not forget that (1) this was one of over 600 satellite Marches for Science around the world, many of which also brought out thousands of people; and (2) this total, if accurate, would mean Saturday's March for Science in the nation's capital was on par with the largest Tea Party rallies held at the height of the so-called conservative "movement."

There's also the context to consider. In the immediate aftermath of Trump's unexpected election, Americans took to the streets in protest of the Republican and his agenda, and in recent months, the civic engagement has been unlike anything seen in at least a generation: the historic Women's March, the recent Tax Day March, well attended national events in support of the Affordable Care Act, and now the March for Science.
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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

White House makes an offer Dems can easily refuse

04/24/17 08:00AM

This Friday at midnight, current funding for the federal government will expire. Without some kind of agreement, Americans will see the latest government shutdown -- and the first in which Congress and the White House are held by the same party.

There's more than one dividing line in this dispute, but increasingly, the fight is coming down to one thing: Donald Trump's demand that Congress appropriate money for his border wall. As hard as this may be to believe, it appears the White House is quite serious about this, as evidenced by this exchange between ABC News' George Stephanopoulos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions yesterday:
STEPHANOPOULOS: As you know, the president is trying to get a down payment for the border wall in the government funding bill that needs to pass this week. Democrats insist it's a nonstarter. So is the president going to insist on that funding even if it means a government shutdown?

SESSIONS: I can't imagine the Democrats would shut down the government over an objection to building a down payment on a wall that can end the lawlessness.
There are all kinds of substantive problems with such a posture -- including the idea that Dems will be to blame if Republicans shut down the government -- but given the circumstances, Sessions may need a greater imagination.

If the Trump administration sticks to its guns, a shutdown is inevitable, because there's simply no way Democrats will agree to spend taxpayer money on a border wall few outside the White House actually want. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal had an interesting piece the other day noting that among lawmakers who represent districts along the U.S./Mexico border -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- literally none of them support the president's wall proposal.

But Team Trump believes it's identified an area of possible negotiation, which is actually more accurately seen as a clumsy hostage strategy. Slate reported late Friday:
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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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