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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 3.6.19

03/06/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Today, Michael Cohen gave lawmakers documents "that show edits to the false written statements he made to Congress in 2017 about talks on a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow, a source familiar with the matter told NBC News."

* Strike two: "The Trump administration's decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. census 'threatens the very foundation of our democratic system,' a federal judge said Wednesday. Judge Richard Seeborg said the commerce secretary's decision to add the question was arbitrary and capricious and would violate a constitutional requirement that the census count everyone in the country."

* Ohio: "A sprawling General Motors assembly plant near Youngstown will be idled on Wednesday after more than 50 years producing cars and other vehicles, a move that will eliminate nearly 1,700 hourly positions by month's end. GM announced late last year that Lordstown along with three plants in the U.S. and one in Canada would close by early next year."

* Unnecessary secrecy: "In the latest step toward rolling back Obama-era rules for targeted killings, President Donald Trump will no longer require U.S. intelligence officials to publicly disclose the numbers of people killed in drone strikes and other attacks on terrorist targets outside of war zones."

* A heartbreaking story: "Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a retired Air Force colonel and the first female fighter pilot to fly a combat mission, revealed on Wednesday that she was raped by a superior officer while in the military."

* In pursuit of pay equity: "A federal judge ruled on Monday that the Trump administration must reinstate an Obama-era requirement for companies to report how much they pay their employees, along with their gender and race — a move supporters say would address pay disparities among workers of different groups."

* Escalating trade tensions (again): "President Trump has decided to strip India of a special status that exempts billions of dollars worth of Indian exports from American tariffs, raising new trade tensions with the world's second most populous country."

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The J. Edgar Hoover Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) building stands in Washington, D.C., Aug. 8, 2013. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

Scrutiny intensifies into Trump's role in FBI headquarters controversy

03/06/19 04:12PM

Donald Trump has been accused of different kinds of financial corruption since becoming president, but his role in the FBI headquarters controversy stands out for a reason. It makes sense that Democratic committee chairs are demanding answers.

Today, the Chairs of five House Committees and Subcommittees sent a letter demanding documents that are currently being withheld by the Trump Administration relating to the decision to block the longstanding plan to relocate the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) headquarters to a suburban location -- which would have allowed commercial developers to acquire the existing site and compete directly with the Trump Hotel across the street on Pennsylvania Avenue -- and instead raze and rebuild at the existing location.

For those who might need a refresher, let's recap how we reached this point.

As regular readers know, Trump’s keen interest in the FBI’s headquarters has been at the center of a controversy for nearly a year. Axios reported last summer, for example, that there was a contentious debate about whether to leave the FBI where it is or relocate the bureau’s headquarters to a nearby suburb.

The president made it clear he was “dead opposed to plans to move it out of D.C.”

Asked for an explanation, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters in October, “The president wanted to save the government money,” which is why he directly intervened in the project. As the Wall Street Journal reported in November, Sanders’ argument wasn’t true.

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A twenty dollar bill. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty)

Evidence shreds GOP argument that tax cuts pay for themselves

03/06/19 12:48PM

It may seem like ancient history, but a decade ago, when Democrats controlled the levers of federal power, Republicans were hysterical about the need to balance the budget. GOP officials not only wanted to amend the Constitution to prohibit deficits, they also condemned any proposal, no matter how beneficial to the public, if it added so much as a penny to the budget shortfall.

It was, even at the time, a ridiculous approach to economic policy. In the midst of a jobs crisis, Republicans saw a debt crisis. When the economy desperately needed more capital, GOP policymakers fought tooth and nail to take capital out of the economy.

Thankfully, the Democratic economic agenda worked, the Great Recession ended, the unemployment rate dramatically improved, and toward the end of Barack Obama's second term, the deficit had shrunk by roughly a trillion dollars.

That was then, this is now.

The federal budget deficit ballooned rapidly in the first four months of the fiscal year amid falling tax revenue and higher spending, the Treasury Department said Tuesday, posing a new challenge for the White House and Congress as they prepare for a number of budget battles.

The deficit grew 77 percent in the first four months of fiscal 2019 compared with the same period one year before, Treasury said.

The total deficit for the four-month period was $310 billion, Treasury said, up from $176 billion for the same period one year earlier.

There's no great mystery as to the contributing factors. The Republican tax plan slashed the corporate tax rate, and as the Washington Post's report added, the Treasury Department "noted a major reduction in corporate tax payments over the first four months of the fiscal year."

In case this isn't obvious, current economic conditions -- healthy growth, very low unemployment -- suggest the deficit should be shrinking, not growing. Indeed, when Donald Trump spent months leading up to Election Day bragging that he knew how to eliminate -- not just reduce, but eliminate -- the nation's budget deficit "easily" and "quickly," these are precisely the conditions he was referring to.

But the Republican tax cuts make that impossible -- because they don't pay for themselves.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.6.19

03/06/19 12:00PM

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

* Though it was widely assumed that the Democrats' 2020 presidential field would be the largest in history, this week's announcements, including Michael Bloomberg bowing out yesterday, suggest the field won't reach record levels.

* Despite decades of independence, and a brief association with Vermont's Liberty Union Party, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) yesterday signed a DNC statement committing himself to the Democratic Party.

* In North Carolina's 9th congressional district, four election workers who tried to help the Republican nominee as part of an illegal election-fraud scheme last fall have now been arrested.

* In eastern Kentucky yesterday, Republicans flipped a state Senate seat from "blue" to "red" in a local special election, expanding their lead in the chamber.

* The news was less good for the GOP in Rhode Island yesterday, where a Democratic candidate won a state House special election, keeping a "blue" seat in Democratic hands.

* Former astronaut Mark Kelly is running for the Democratic nomination in Arizona's U.S. Senate race, but his relationship with the party is apparently very new. According to the Arizona Republic, Kelly switched his voter registration to Democratic just three months ago, and as recently as 2012, he voted in the Republican presidential primary.

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A Hanjin Shipping Co. ship is seen stranded outside the Port of Long Beach, Calif. on Sept. 8, 2016. (Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

As the trade deficit soars, Trump fails by his own metric

03/06/19 11:20AM

Donald Trump has long been obsessed with the nation's trade deficit. I'm not at all sure he knows what those words mean -- he frequently talks about the trade deficit in a way that suggests he's badly confused -- but the president has nevertheless labeled it an economic scourge that he's determined to address.

Indeed, in late July, the Republican assured Fox News that, thanks to the wisdom of his economic agenda, the U.S. trade deficit would soon be cut in half.

Yeah, about that....

The Commerce Department said Wednesday that -- despite more than two years of President Trump's "America First" policies -- the United States last year posted a $891.2 billion merchandise trade deficit, the largest in the nation's 243-year history.

The trade gap with China also hit a record $419 billion, underscoring the stakes for the president's bid to reach a deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping as soon as this month.

Keep in in mind, just last week, the Republican boasted to reporters in Hanoi, "You saw trade deficits went down last month and everyone's trying to figure out why. Well, we're taking a lot of tariff money. And it has reduced the trade deficit."

Not in this reality is hasn't. In fact. six days later, Trump's rhetoric looks even more ridiculous. As Glenn Kessler explained the other day, "The president keeps seizing on scraps of data -- a month here or a quarter there -- to falsely claim the trade deficit is being reduced. But over the course of the year, it kept growing. Attributing a small one-month shift to tariffs is especially silly."

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Image: Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell

McConnell suggests voting-rights proposal is 'socialist'

03/06/19 10:47AM

The House Democrats’ top priority for this Congress is a democracy-reform package called the For the People Act (HR 1), which is quite ambitious in its scope. As regular readers may recall, the bill is intended to create significant ethics and lobbying reforms, end partisan gerrymandering, expand voting rights, and improve government transparency.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made clear that he's not a fan of the proposal, recently condemning a specific provision -- making Election Day a national holiday -- as a "power grab" that would help Democrats. (In the GOP leader's mind, it's apparently not fair to Republicans if more Americans are able to cast ballots.)

But as the House debate on the For the People Act gets underway today, McConnell spoke from the Senate floor yesterday with a new criticism of the Democratic bill.

"Like many Americans, I've spent the last several weeks watching with interest as prominent leaders in the Democratic Party have engaged in a political footrace. They're sprinting as far left as possible, as quickly as possible, trying to outdo one another. The result is that one of our two major political parties has begun embracing one radical, half-baked socialist proposal after another. It's really a sight to see.

"First came the Democrat Politician Protection Act, a sweeping Washington D.C. takeover of what Americans can say about politics and how they elect their representatives. Speaker Pelosi and her House colleagues were ready with that from day one of this new Congress. They chose it as their ceremonial first bill of the year -- H.R. 1. And let me say, this is quite a piece of legislation to hold up as the defining product of the new Democrat House majority."

Look, I realize the Senate Republican leader is never going to allow his chamber to vote on HR 1. The contemporary GOP is simply too hostile toward voting rights and election reforms to even consider legislation like this.

But to characterize the package as a "radical, half-baked socialist proposal" is emblematic of a larger problem: Republicans are so preoccupied with instigating some kind of red scare, they no longer know or care what their own rhetoric means.

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U.S.  President Obama meets with President-elect Trump in the White House Oval Office in Washington

Pressed on security clearances, Trump lies about Obama White House

03/06/19 10:03AM

In late January, the New York Times asked Donald Trump if he ever overruled national security officials' concerns to give security clearances. The president insisted he didn't and wouldn't do that, adding that he was "never involved" in the process.

It now appears Trump was lying. When U.S. officials balked at giving Jared Kushner a security clearance, the president ordered John Kelly, the White House chief of staff at the time, to help Trump's son-in-law anyway, which led Kelly to write a contemporaneous memo on what transpired.

According to a new CNN report, the president also "pressured his then-chief of staff John Kelly and White House counsel Don McGahn to grant his daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump a security clearance against their recommendations."

Not surprisingly, the House Oversight Committee has requested information from the White House about possible abuses. Yesterday White House Counsel Pat Cipollone balked, writing in a letter that the committee's request for the information was "without legal support, clearly premature, and suggests a breach of the constitutionally required accommodation process."

Yesterday, Trump himself weighed in on the subject, arguing that his team was simply following the precedent set by his predecessor.

"President Obama, from what they tell me, was under a similar kind of a thing -- didn't give one letter. They didn't do anything. They didn't give one letter of the request. Many requests were made; they didn't give a letter."

At face value, that might seem rather compelling. If Congress made document requests to the Obama White House, and the Democratic officials refused to comply, it's hard to blame the Republican White House for adopting the same posture.

The trouble, however, is that Trump was lying again.

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Trump nominates, and the GOP confirms, the nation's youngest federal judge

03/06/19 09:23AM

Keeping up on every conservative judicial nominee confirmed by Senate Republicans would be a dizzying task. Donald Trump's White House and the GOP majority in the upper chamber have prioritized moving the federal judiciary sharply to the right, and with Senate Democrats effectively powerless to stop the crusade, Republicans are taking full advantage of the opportunity.

Some of these judges, however, stand out as unique. Jennifer Bendery had this report earlier this week.

Senate Republicans voted Monday night to advance the nomination of Allison Jones Rushing, yet another of President Donald Trump's judicial nominees who is troubling for a number of reasons.

Rushing worked for Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization that has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. She has argued that there were "moral and practical" reasons for banning same-sex marriage.

But it's her age that may be most notable: She is 37.

That's neither an exaggeration nor a typo. Donald Trump nominated a 36-year-old lawyer to be appellate judge last year, but the Senate wasn't able to confirm her before the end of the last Congress. Republicans did, however, hold her confirmation hearings during the lame-duck session -- only a handful of senators participate -- clearing the way for her re-nomination and yesterday's 53-44 confirmation vote.

Literally every Senate Republican voted for the nominee, making her the nation's youngest federal judge.

Her previous association with the right-wing Alliance Defending Freedom was a key concern for Democrats, but the young lawyer's inexperience was just as jarring: according to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Rushing has only tried four cases to verdict, and she wasn't the lead counsel on any of them.

Nominating someone this young and inexperienced for the district court bench would've been audacious, but Trump chose for the appellate bench, the level of the judiciary just below the U.S. Supreme Court.

And since our system provides lifetime appointments for federal judges, it stands to reason that Allison Jones Rushing may be on the federal bench for the next half-century.

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Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former personal attorney, is sworn in to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on February 27, 2019.

It's not just Trump's checks to Cohen, it's when they were signed

03/06/19 08:40AM

It's a realization that seems hard to digest: the sitting president of the United States financed an illegal cover-up. And yet, given the publicly available information, that allegation is very easy to believe.

Michael Cohen made an illegal hush-money payment on Donald Trump's behalf; that payment broke federal campaign-finance laws; and the president reimbursed his former fixer with a series of checks. Federal prosecutors have already effectively labeled Trump as an unindicted co-conspirator in the scheme.

Today, however, the New York Times advances the story a bit more. After having seen most of the 11 checks Trump to Cohen, the newspaper started lining up the dates with the presidential calendar.

At the heart of last week's congressional testimony by Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump's former lawyer, was the sensational accusation that the sitting president of the United States financed an illegal cover-up from inside the White House. The dates on the newly available checks shed light on the parallel lives Mr. Trump was living by this account -- at once managing affairs of state while quietly paying the price of keeping his personal secrets out of the public eye. [...]

The president hosted a foreign leader in the Oval Office, then wrote a check. He haggled over legislation, then wrote a check. He traveled abroad, then wrote a check. On the same day he reportedly pressured the F.B.I. director to drop an investigation into a former aide, the president's trust issued a check to Mr. Cohen in furtherance of what federal prosecutors have called a criminal scheme to violate campaign finance laws at the direction of Mr. Trump.

There's more than one angle to this. The documentary evidence, obviously, directly implicates the president in a criminal scheme. What's more, it's also clear that Trump lied to the public when he said he didn't know anything about the payments.

But the Times' report raises a related point about presidential distraction. On the one hand, Trump was overseeing the executive branch of the world's preeminent superpower. On the other, he was simultaneously writing monthly checks to his fixer, reimbursing him for the hush-money scheme that was hatched to help get him elected.

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Image: President Trump meets GOP senators at the White House

National poll: American majority sees Trump as a criminal

03/06/19 08:00AM

In the new national Quinnipiac poll, Donald Trump's approval rating stands at just 38%, which has to be discouraging for the White House, but which is not the most striking result in the survey.

President Donald Trump committed crimes before he became president, American voters say 64 - 24 percent in a Quinnipiac University National Poll released today. [...]

But U.S. voters are divided 45 - 43 percent on whether Trump committed any crimes while he has been president.

In polls like these, results are sometimes shaped by a sense of tribalism: those who hold this president in contempt, for example, may be reflexively inclined to think of him as a criminal, whether those beliefs are supported by evidence or not.

But in this case, recent coverage of Trump's alleged crimes may be reaching the public. Note that in the Quinnipiac data, even a third of Republicans believe the president committed crimes before taking office.

Making matters worse for the White House, a plurality of Americans believe Trump also committed crimes during his presidency. Why is his approval rating so weak at a point when the economy is healthy? Perhaps because roughly half the country suspects the Leader of the Free World is a criminal.

As if this weren't quite enough, the same Quinnipiac poll asked respondents whom they believe more: Trump or his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen. It wasn't especially close: 50% believe Trump's former fixer, while 35% believe the president.

It's the sort of result that twists the knife a bit, since Cohen will soon report to prison for, among other things, lying to Congress. And yet, Americans still see him as more credible than his former boss. (The poll found 65% of the public does not believe Trump is honest.)

All of this is rather embarrassing for the president, but a poll like this may have practical implications, as well.

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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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