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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during a news briefing at the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017.

Sarah Sanders' credibility reaches the point of no return

04/19/19 08:30AM

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has been caught saying untrue things many times, but she's often relied on a convenient excuse. "We give the best information that we have at the time," has long been a go-to line for Donald Trump's chief spokesperson.

The subtext, which has never been especially subtle, has always been that Sanders doesn't necessarily lie, so much as she's lied to. When the White House press secretary passes along information that proves to be false, it's not her fault if she's merely a conduit for others' falsehoods.

This defense won't help Sanders when responding to her latest mess.

On May 10, 2017, Sarah Sanders, then the White House deputy press secretary, told reporters that "countless" FBI agents had told the White House that they had lost confidence in James Comey, who had been fired as FBI director the day before by President Donald Trump.

But special counsel Robert Mueller's report, released Thursday, says that she simply made the assertion up.

The report says Sanders, since promoted to press secretary, told investigators she had no evidence to make that claim.

It was not the only example of the Mueller report shining a light on deceptions from one of Trump's press secretaries, but it was the most dramatic instance -- in large part because Sanders effectively admitted to investigators that she made up her claim.

The presidential spokesperson would probably face an unpleasant grilling if she still hosted routine press briefings, but instead, Sanders turned to Fox News' Sean Hannity last night and said she had "a slip of the tongue."

As a rule, that's reserved for routine slip-ups, such as saying "Iran" when one meant to say "Iraq." Making up conversations with FBI officials, in order to justify the improper firing of an FBI director, is generally something altogether different.

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Where the Mueller report and the boiling frog meet

04/19/19 08:00AM

The New York Times published an interesting overview of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report, which included a notable challenge to readers: "Imagine reading this report cold."

Prosecutors describe a president who was preoccupied with ending a federal investigation, a White House that repeatedly told misleading and changing stories, and a presidential campaign that was in repeated contact with Russian officials for reasons that are not always clear.

Even though prosecutors concluded that didn't amount to provably criminal conduct, the report is astounding in its sweep. Yet it is also a reminder of how much the public has learned over the past two years about Mr. Trump's conduct.

If the American public or members of Congress were learning these things for the first time, the political fallout would normally be devastating. The consequences of the report remain to be seen, but if people are not surprised or shocked by the revelations, then Mr. Trump may have benefited by the steady drip of news stories he has so loudly criticized.

It brings us back to the cruel fable about boiling a frog, which came to the fore shortly after Mueller first submitted his findings to Attorney General Bill Barr.

The idea, as regular readers may recall, is straightforward: if someone were to throw a live frog into a pot of boiling water, the shock would be immediate and the frog would leap out.

But if the frog is placed in tepid water, and the temperature increased gradually, the frog would slowly acclimate to the hotter temperatures -- until it's too late.

Putting aside whether the fable is true, it offers some parallels to the revelations surrounding the Russia scandal. Reading the Mueller report yesterday, some of the disclosures were familiar because we'd learned of them before, by way of investigative reporting from major news organizations.

Despite the recent wave of condemnations about "the media" getting the Russia scandal wrong, journalists actually got nearly all of the story right. Coverage the White House condemned as "fake news" has since been corroborated.

For Donald Trump and his followers, the fact that the special counsel didn't indict the president effectively ends the conversation. The scandal was a mirage, they say, and those who took it seriously fell for a "hoax."

To believe this is plainly absurd, but it's also evidence of people who've chosen to play the role of the frog.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 4.18.19

04/18/19 05:29PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* That sounds about right: "Had President Donald Trump been left to his own devices, the findings in special counsel Robert Mueller's report released Thursday would have likely been far more damning for him."

* The opposition: "Congressional Democrats on Thursday highlighted portions of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 campaign that appeared to contradict President Donald Trump's assertion that it represents 'total exoneration,' pointing to examples within the document that they said demonstrate that the president had obstructed justice."

* We don't yet know if Mueller will accept the invitation: "House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., called on special counsel Robert Mueller to testify before his committee 'no later than May 23.'"

* AMI sold Trump's favorite tabloid for $100 million: "The National Enquirer, the supermarket tabloid linked closely to President Donald Trump, has been sold to newspaper retailer James Cohen, both sides announced Thursday."

* Rick Perry's future: "The Department of Energy on Wednesday night denied a report that Rick Perry is planning to leave his position as secretary of the agency."

* NAFTA 2.0: "President Trump's new North American trade deal will have an almost imperceptible effect on the U.S. economy, boosting the $20 trillion economy by just 0.35 percent and giving an even smaller jolt to the labor market, according to an independent expert analysis by the International Trade Commission."

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Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-ELECTIONS-TRUMP

Remember all the times Trump denied he was under investigation?

04/18/19 04:11PM

For much of his presidency, Donald Trump has seemed preoccupied with whether he was personally under investigation -- and telling people that he wasn't. In November 2017, for example, he declared, "As far as I'm concerned, I haven't been told that we're under investigation, I'm not under investigation."

The phrasing remains entertaining -- as far as Trump is "concerned," all kinds of fictional claims may seem true -- but it was part of a series of related comments. As recently as August 2018, the president told the Wall Street Journal, "Of course they say it's not an investigation. You know, in theory I'm not under investigation."

I'm still not sure what any of that was supposed to mean, exactly, but reading Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report, there can be no doubt that Trump became only the third sitting president to face a criminal investigation while in office. From the document:

Although the series of events we investigated involved discrete acts, the overall pattern of the President's conduct towards the investigations can shed light on the nature of the President's acts and the inferences that can be drawn about his intent. In particular, the actions we investigated can be divided into two phases, reflecting a possible shift in the President's motives

The first phase covered the period from the President's first interactions with Comey through the President's firing of Comey. During that time, the President had been repeatedly told he was not personally under investigation. Soon after the firing of Comey and the appointment of the Special Counsel, however, the President became aware that his own conduct was being investigated in an obstruction-of-justice inquiry.

At that point, the President engaged in a second phase of conduct, involving public attacks on the investigation, non-public efforts to control it, and efforts in both public and private to encourage witnesses not to cooperate with the investigation.

All of this is clearly quite relevant to the obstruction allegations -- when a sitting president encourages witnesses not to cooperate with an investigation in which he's the subject, there's a problem -- though it's also worth acknowledging that when Trump told the public he wasn't under investigation, he was lying.

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Image: Senate Judiciary Committee

Mueller report details Trump's efforts to undermine Russia scandal probe

04/18/19 03:02PM

As you've probably heard, the Justice Department released a redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report late this morning, and while it's impossible to summarize a 448-page document in two sentences, this Associated Press report struck me as quite compelling.

Public at last, special counsel Robert Mueller's report revealed to a waiting nation Thursday that President Donald Trump tried to seize control of the Russia probe and force Mueller's removal to stop him from investigating potential obstruction of justice by the president.

Mueller laid out multiple episodes in which Trump directed people around him to try to influence or curtail the Russia investigation after the special counsel's appointment in May 2017.

Broadly speaking, we're dealing with an investigation that explored three central questions: did Russia attack American elections, did our adversaries have partners in Donald Trump's political operation, and did Trump obstruct the investigation into what transpired.

The first question appears to have been answered in definitive fashion. Literally, the second sentence of the Mueller report says, "The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion." It's a detail the Republican president has never acknowledged, at least not publicly, and it's an assessment that skeptics of the Russia scandal have long resisted, but by fair measure, the debate over this has run its course.

On a related note, the Mueller report went on to note that the investigation "established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome." That, too, is a fairly obvious detail that both the president and other skeptics of the scandal have long resisted.

On the second question, related to possible cooperation between the Russian attackers and the campaign they were determined to help, the Mueller report also noted Trump's political operation "expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts."

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Attorney General nominee William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019.

In bizarre press conference, Barr said what Trump wanted to hear

04/18/19 10:48AM

All Attorney General Bill Barr had to do was release Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report. That's it. Donald Trump's handpicked attorney general could've simply let the document, its findings, and its conclusions speak for themselves.

But that apparently wasn't good enough for Barr. Instead, the attorney general scheduled a press conference to discuss the report, hours before the release of a redacted version of the document, to effectively pre-spin what the Republican lawyer wants the public to believe about Mueller's findings.

The result was a bizarre spectacle in which the nation's chief law enforcement officer, whose credibility and political independence have already been called into question, positioned himself as a defense attorney for the president who appointed him.

Consider this excerpt from Barr's prepared remarks, in which he seemed to justify his conclusion that Trump didn't cross the legal line into obstruction of justice.

"In assessing the president's actions discussed in the report, it is important to bear in mind the context. President Trump faced an unprecedented situation. As he entered into office, and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office, and the conduct of some of his associates. At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president's personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion.

"And as the special counsel's report acknowledges, there is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.

"Nonetheless, the White House fully cooperated with the special counsel's investigation, providing unfettered access to campaign and White House documents, directing senior aides to testify freely, and asserting no privilege claims. And at the same time, the president took no act that in fact deprived the special counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation."

I'm at a loss as to how anyone could take this seriously. Trump may have obstructed justice, but it's all right because he felt "frustrated and angered"? There was "relentless speculation in the news media," so we should shrug our shoulders in response to evidence of the president's alleged misconduct?

As for the idea that the White House "fully cooperated" with the investigation, and the president "took no act" to deprive investigators of access to witnesses, Barr conveniently overlooked the fact that Trump himself refused to be interviewed.

The president also publicly dangled pardons and publicly criticized the very idea of witnesses cooperating with law enforcement.

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Image: G20 Summit in Hamburg

Ivanka Trump says she passed on opportunity to lead the World Bank

04/18/19 09:21AM

Donald Trump recently conceded that he considered one of his adult daughters, White House aide Ivanka Trump, to lead the World Bank. In fact, the president told The Atlantic that he also saw her as a possible ambassador to the United Nations, but also thought she'd be a good fit at the World Bank because, as he put it, "she's very good with numbers."

It now appears the president did more than just contemplate this possibility.

White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump says her father asked her if she was interested in taking the job of World Bank chief but she passed on it.

In an Associated Press interview, President Donald Trump's daughter said Wednesday she was happy with her current role in the administration. She spoke during a trip to Africa to promote a global women's initiative.

Ivanka Trump says her father raised the job with her as "a question" and she told him she was "happy with the work" she's doing.... Asked if her father had approached her about other top jobs, Ivanka Trump said she'd "keep that between" them.

There's still some question as to the exact nature of the discussion. There's a qualitative difference between a president asking, "Is this a position you might be interested in?" and a president saying, "I'm offering you this job."

But in either case, we're looking at a very strange dynamic.

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Image: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with President Donald Trump

North Korean weapons test makes Trump's policy look even worse

04/18/19 08:40AM

Donald Trump has given North Korea's Kim Jong-un -- a rogue dictator the American president says he loves, respects, and trusts -- a striking number of concessions. The Republican gave the North Korean leader the bilateral talks he wanted. And the international legitimacy he wanted. And the cessation of military exercises he wanted. And the propaganda opportunities he wanted.

What has the United States received in return? One year ago this week, Trump said he'd scored three major accomplishments: a North Korean agreement to denuclearization, the closure of North Korean nuclear sites, and an end to North Korean weapons testing.

The first point turned out to be wrong; the second turned out to be backwards; and while the third was largely true for a while, that's no longer the case.

...North Korea said that it had test-fired a new type of "tactical guided weapon," its first such test in nearly half a year.

The test, which didn't appear to be of a banned mid- or long-range ballistic missile that could scuttle negotiations, allows Pyongyang to show its people it is pushing ahead with weapons development while also reassuring domestic military officials worried that diplomacy with Washington signals weakness. [...]

NBC News could not independently verify North Korea's claim, and it wasn't immediately clear what had been tested. The White House said it was aware of the report and had no comment.

North Korean state-run media also said yesterday that officials in Pyongyang no longer want Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to participate in nuclear talks, instead calling for someone who "is more careful and mature in communicating."

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William Barr testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination to be attorney general of the United States on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 15, 2019.

AG Barr's latest plan accused of 'stinking to high heaven'

04/18/19 08:00AM

At this point yesterday, the road ahead seemed relatively clear. Attorney General Bill Barr's office would release a redacted version this morning of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report, shedding new light on the Russia scandal, while the congressional fight to obtain a complete version of the document continued.

But by early evening, the landscape grew considerably more complex. The attorney general announced plans, for example, for a morning press conference, to be held hours before the release of Mueller's findings. We also learned that neither the special counsel himself nor anyone from his team would be available -- just Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Complicating matters, the Justice Department told a federal court yesterday that Barr intended to make a different version of the Mueller report -- with fewer redactions -- available to a select group of congressional lawmakers. There was, however, a catch: they wouldn't be able to take a copy with them, and the attorney general's office hadn't mentioned any of this to key members.

The New York Times then took the controversy in an even more startling direction.

Justice Department officials have had numerous conversations with White House lawyers about the conclusions made by Mr. Mueller, the special counsel, in recent days, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. The talks have aided the president's legal team as it prepares a rebuttal to the report and strategizes for the coming public war over its findings.

So, the president faced accusations of criminal misconduct, and the Justice Department thought it'd be a good idea to give the president's team private, undisclosed briefings on the investigation into that alleged misconduct, letting them know about the findings before anyone else?

On last night's show, Rachel spoke with Neal Katyal, the former acting U.S. solicitor general who wrote the Justice Department's regulations that define the office of the special counsel. He explained that he's never heard of a situation in which the Justice Department provided a special briefing for the subject of an investigation, calling it a "breach of precedent" and a "breach of common sense."

Katyal added that all of this "stinks to high heaven."

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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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