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Trump's Iran policy takes a head-shaking turn toward incoherence

09/12/19 10:51AM

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke at a media briefing this week and argued that he, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Donald Trump are "completely aligned on our 'maximum pressure' campaign" against Iran. Mnuchin added that the policy is "absolutely working."

The policy is absolutely not working. After the president walked away from the international nuclear agreement with Iran, the foreign adversary has become more dangerous, not less, As the Associated Press reported this week, "The United Nations' atomic watchdog confirmed Monday that Iran is preparing to use more advanced centrifuges, another breach of limits set in the country's slowly unraveling nuclear deal with major powers."

There's no great mystery behind the broader dynamic: Trump took a policy that was working as intended and abandoned it for reasons he struggled to explain. Iran responded, as expected, by accelerating the nuclear program that the JCPOA policy had kept in check. As Colin Kahl, an Obama administration veteran, recently explained, "Trump's 'maximum pressure' campaign was supposed to induce Iran to scrap its nuclear program (which was already contained by the 2015 nuclear deal). Instead, Trump's actions have incentivized Iran to restart it, creating a completely unnecessary crisis."

Trump's plan -- to the extent that his whims can be credibly characterized as a "plan" -- has been to use sanctions to force Iran to the negotiating table in order to reach a deal to limit its nuclear program. Once that happens, Trump believes, he can offer Iranian officials economic incentives to entice them into an agreement.

Or put another way, the Republican hopes to do what Barack Obama already did several years ago, striking a deal that Trump rejected.

Yesterday, as the New York Times reported, Trump sent an entirely different kind of signal.

President Trump appeared to take a step back from his administration's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran on Wednesday, leaving open the possibility of easing economic sanctions before starting new nuclear negotiations with Tehran.

Although he also warned Iran against restarting production of the material necessary to make a nuclear bomb -- as the clerical government in Tehran has threatened -- Mr. Trump made clear he was ready for diplomatic talks.

After the American president referenced sanctions on Iran, a reporter asked whether he'd consider easing the sanctions as part of a diplomatic olive branch. Trump didn't rule it out, saying, "We'll see what happens."

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Can a campaign that never ended really start anew?

09/12/19 10:00AM

After the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Donald Trump with a 38% approval rating, while also showing him trailing each of the top Democratic contenders by sizable margins, the Republican published a curious response to the data on Twitter:

"This is a phony suppression poll, meant to build up their Democrat partners. I haven't even started campaigning yet, and am constantly fighting Fake News like Russia, Russia, Russia. Look at North Carolina last night. Dan Bishop, down big in the Polls, WINS. Easier than 2016!"

Much of this is easily dismissed nonsense. Major American news organizations, for example, do not concoct polling results as part of a political conspiracy. The Russia scandal was not, and is not, "fake." Rep.-elect Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) was not actually "down big" in the polls ahead of this week's congressional special election.

But it was that other phrase that stood out for me: "I haven't even started campaigning yet."

As Trump really ought to know by now, in order for a lie to have its intended effect, it has to be at least somewhat plausible. If most of the people who hear a claim respond by quizzically responding, "Um, what?" then the attempt at deception has fallen short.

In this case, the idea that the president hasn't started campaigning yet is bizarre. As we discussed several months ago, Trump's focus on the 2020 election has been a constant of his presidency, including his decision to file a re-election letter with the Federal Election Commission on Jan. 20, 2017 -- literally the first day of his term.

The president also began fundraising for the 2020 cycle before he was even sworn in, “pulling in tens of millions of dollars in the months after his election and through his inauguration.”

There’s no modern precedent for such an aggressive fundraising schedule, but Trump did it anyway. Indeed, the Republican hasn't just been raising money, he's been spending it: according to the Federal Election Commission, as of this morning, Trump's re-election campaign has already spent more than $75 million. For context, note that this total is more than Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg have spent combined.

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In this April 23, 2014, file photo, a man smokes an e-cigarette at Vape store in Chicago. (Photo by Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Trump vows 'very strong' regulations on vaping, noncommittal on guns

09/12/19 09:20AM

Vaping has caught the White House's attention.

The Trump administration said Wednesday it plans to ban the sale of non-tobacco-flavored electronic cigarettes amid a vaping crisis.

"The Trump Administration is making it clear that we intend to clear the market of flavored e-cigarettes to reverse the deeply concerning epidemic of youth e-cigarette use that is impacting children, families, schools and communities," Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement. "We will not stand idly by as these products become an on-ramp to combustible cigarettes or nicotine addiction for a generation of youth."

Donald Trump briefly addressed the issue at an Oval Office event yesterday, telling reporters that vaping is "causing a lot of problems, and we're going to have to do something about it."

The president went on to say, "There have been deaths and there have been a lot of other problems," and that he and his team are eying "very strong rules and regulations."

In curious comments, Trump also pointed to First Lady Melania Trump and her concerns over vaping, telling reporters, in apparent reference to his own youngest child, "I mean, she's got a son -- together -- that is a beautiful, young man, and she feels very, very strongly about it."

And while that's a tough one to unpack, it was also interesting to contrast the president's comments about vaping with his comments about guns at the same White House Q&A.

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Trump tries (and fails) to deflect blame for the John Bolton mess

09/12/19 08:40AM

A reporter asked Donald Trump in the Oval Office yesterday about why he and former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton parted ways. The president's case suggested he knew he needed to criticize Bolton, but he wasn't altogether sure how.

"So, John is somebody that I actually got along with very well. He made some very big mistakes. When he talked about the Libyan model for Kim Jong Un, that was not a good statement to make. You just take a look at what happened with Qaddafi. That was not a good statement to make, and it set us back.... We were set back very badly when John Bolton talked about the Libyan model. And he made a mistake. And as soon as he mentioned that, the Libyan model, what a disaster."

There may be some truth to this. Bolton really did talk up "the Libya model" for North Korea, suggesting he envisioned a dynamic in which Kim Jong Un would give up his nuclear program, at which point the dictator would face a domestic rebellion, be forced from power, before ultimately being killed.

The trouble, though, is that Bolton made these comments in April 2018. Trump made it sound yesterday like this was an important example of the national security adviser's disastrous incompetence, but the president kept Bolton at his post for nearly 19 months after he made the comments -- which seems to suggest they weren't too significant a problem.

That led to the president's second argument: "And, frankly, [Bolton] wanted to do things -- not necessarily tougher than me. You know, John is known as a tough guy. He's so tough, he got us into Iraq."

It's true that Bolton, one of the nation's most caustic and notorious hawks, has a dreadful record on national security judgments, including his assessments about the war in Iraq. But his catastrophic misjudgments about the conflict were in 2002 and 2003 -- and Trump tapped him for the powerful White House post in 2018.

Or put another way, if Trump was so unimpressed with Bolton's failed foreign policy discernments, it raises the question of why in the world he hired the guy in the first place.

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The North Carolina state legislature building is seen in Raleigh, N.C., on Monday, May 9, 2016.

Reaching new depths, NC Republicans show 'contempt for democracy'

09/12/19 08:00AM

In recent years, Republican state lawmakers in North Carolina haven't exactly honored basic norms of American governance. We are, after all, talking about a group of GOP officials who've imposed sweeping voting restrictions, redrawn district lines in ways that were later deemed racist and illegal, and stripped an incoming Democratic governor of his powers, before he took office, because he had the audacity to win an election.

At times, it's seemed as if North Carolina Republicans went out of their way to identify the democratic norms that undergird our political system, so that they'd know specifically which principles to attack.

Take yesterday, for example. The News & Observer in Raleigh reported:

In an early-morning move that shocked and angered Democrats in the chamber, the N.C. House of Representatives voted to override Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of the state budget. Just over half of the 120 members were present to vote.

Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican, made the motion to reconsider the state budget, and chaos in the chamber quickly ensued. Democrats in the chamber vehemently objected to the bill being brought up, saying they were told there would be no votes during the 8:30 a.m. session and that the session was just a formality so work could begin.

Thanks to aggressive gerrymandering, Republicans maintain a sizable majority in the North Carolina House, but Democrats made gains in the 2018 elections, which ended the GOP's supermajority in the chamber. As a result, veto-override votes in the state House are far more difficult.

It's against this backdrop that Republicans yesterday reportedly told lawmakers there would be no legislative action in yesterday morning. With few Democrats in the chamber, GOP leaders reversed course, hatched a secret plan, brought up the budget Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed earlier this year, and overrode him.

The governor was attending a 9/11 memorial at the time and, like other North Carolina Democrats, had no idea about the stunt the GOP intended to pull.

The editorial board of the Charlotte Observer was understandably unrestrained in its condemnation of the Republican lawmaker's maximalist tactics, describing GOP leaders as being "beyond shame."

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Medically fragile immigrant appeals to Congress in fight for life

Medically fragile immigrant appeals to Congress in fight for life

09/11/19 09:23PM

Maria Isabel Bueso talks with Rachel Maddow about fighting for her own life and the lives of others who are dependent on medical deferred action for continued life-saving medical treatments in the U.S., and her advocacy in Congress today in the hope that legislators will prevent the Trump administration from deporting sick children to their deaths. watch

Wednesday's Mini-Report, 9.11.19

09/11/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Opioid crisis: 'Purdue Pharma and its owners, members of the Sackler family, have tentatively reached the first comprehensive settlement with lawyers representing thousands of municipal governments, tribes and states nationwide that are suing the pharmaceutical industry for the devastation resulting from the opioid epidemic."

* I'll look forward to hearing an explanation for this: "The U.S. will not grant temporary protected status to people from the Bahamas displaced by Hurricane Dorian, an administration official told NBC News."

* An important hearing: "Federal immigration officials are being questioned by House lawmakers over the Trump administration's decision to stop considering requests from immigrants seeking to defer deportation for medical treatment and other hardships."

* I'll have more on this tomorrow: "The federal government will act to ban thousands of flavors used in e-cigarettes, President Donald Trump said Wednesday, responding to a recent surge in underage vaping that has alarmed parents, politicians and health authorities nationwide."

* The obviously right decision: "North Dakota doctors will not be compelled to lie to their patients thanks to a federal court decision on Tuesday that blocked the state's "abortion reversal" law."

* For the record, that's our money: "Ground transportation for Vice President Mike Pence's stay at President Donald Trump's Doonbeg, Ireland, resort cost taxpayers nearly $600,000, according to State Department receipts."

* The climate crisis doesn't affect every part of the planet the exact same way: "A Washington Post analysis of multiple temperature data sets found numerous locations around the globe that have warmed by at least 2 degrees Celsius over the past century. That's a number that scientists and policymakers have identified as a red line if the planet is to avoid catastrophic and irreversible consequences. But in regions large and small, that point has already been reached."

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Man walks past as the Tribute in Light is illuminated on the skyline of lower Manhattan during events marking the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York

Trump adds to his record of problematic 9/11 claims

09/11/19 03:53PM

Donald Trump spoke at the Pentagon this morning at a 9/11 observance ceremony, at which he reflected on his own memories from the attacks that occurred 18 years ago this morning.

"I was looking out of a window from a building in Midtown Manhattan, directly at the World Trade Center, when I saw a second plane, at a tremendous speed, go into the second tower. It was then that I realized the world was going to change. I was no longer going to be -- and it could never, ever be -- that innocent place that I thought it was.

"Soon after, I went down to Ground Zero with men who worked for me to try to help in any little way that we could."

It's difficult to accept these claims at face value, not only because there's so little evidence of him "trying to help" at Ground Zero, and not only because Trump Tower is four miles from Ground Zero, but also because of Trump's highly problematic track record on the issue.

As we discussed a few months ago, the day of the attacks, the future president seemed principally focused on how the destruction of the Twin Towers affected his ability to boast about the height of one of his nearby properties.

As a candidate in 2016, Trump frequently referenced the 9/11 attacks, though as the Washington Post reported at the time, “[S]everal of Trump’s statements about what he witnessed that day appear to be greatly exaggerated or false.”

That includes an incident in which the New York Republican claimed he helped clear rubble and search for survivors in the aftermath of the terrorism, and another incident in which he falsely said he watched people jump from the World Trade Center.

As a rule, lying about 9/11 is the sort of thing that can cause trouble for a politician, though Trump ended up winning anyway.

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Mick Mulvaney

Reported White House involvement takes NOAA scandal to new level

09/11/19 02:16PM

With a deadly hurricane approaching his own country, Donald Trump was fixated on a bogus warning he issued to Alabama, inviting escalating mockery as he took "Sharpie-gate" to new levels of absurdity.

The controversy became a lot less funny when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a written statement endorsing the president's false claims and criticizing professionals at the National Weather Service for having told the truth.

The New York Times reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department includes the NOAA, threatened to fire top employees at the federal scientific agency on Friday unless the NOAA agreed to endorse the president's false claims. And while Ross' office denies the accuracy of the report, if the Times is right, it raises a series of questions about public safety, scientific integrity, Trump's war on reality, and weaponizing federal resources for political reasons.

But there was something about the details that seemed odd: late last week, Wilbur Ross wasn't even in the United States. He was in Greece for meetings and it seems implausible that he'd, out of the blue, interrupt his trip to lobby the NOAA leadership. If the reporting is correct and Ross made the threat, who directed him to intervene in the first place?

The New York Times shed light on this angle this afternoon:

The White House was directly involved in pressing a federal scientific agency to repudiate the weather forecasters who contradicted President Trump's claim that Hurricane Dorian would probably strike Alabama, according to several people familiar with the events.

Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, told Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration publicly disavow the forecasters' position that Alabama was not at risk. NOAA, which is part of the Commerce Department, issued an unsigned statement last Friday in response, saying that the Birmingham, Ala., office was wrong to dispute the president's warning.

White House involvement moves this away from a silly story about a childish president crudely drawing on a hurricane map, and toward a legitimate scandal involving political abuses of power.

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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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