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Friday's Mini-Report, 2.15.19

02/15/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Today's mass shooting in Illinois: "Multiple people have been injured at a manufacturing plant in Aurora, Illinois, on Friday and a shooter has been apprehended, authorities said."

* Look for oral arguments in this case in April: "The U.S. Supreme Court said Friday that it will take up the battle over a citizenship question for the coming census, agreeing to hear and decide the case before the court's term ends in late June."

* In related news: "U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg returned to the court on Friday for the first time after weeks of recuperating from lung cancer surgery and missing oral arguments in January, a court official said on Friday."

* Roger Stone's case: "A federal judge issued a gag order in the Roger Stone case Friday, saying attorneys and witnesses for the former Trump campaign adviser and prosecutors working for special counsel Robert Mueller may not speak publicly about Stone's prosecution for lying, witness tampering and obstruction.'

* This was unexpected: "White House press secretary Sarah Sanders acknowledged on Friday that she's been interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's office."

* This will probably be interesting: "A Connecticut judge has ruled that Infowars host Alex Jones must undergo a sworn deposition in the defamation case brought against him by family members of Sandy Hook school shooting victims."

* Fortunately, this faced no opposition: "The Senate on Thursday unanimously backed a bill to make lynching a federal crime, a step cast as righting a historic wrong after nearly 100 years of failed attempts."

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Does Trump's indifference to the rule of law reach the 'crisis' level?

02/15/19 04:34PM

For those whose principal concern is preventing government shutdowns, Donald Trump's emergency declaration probably doesn't look like bad news. As of a couple of months ago, the president's position was that Congress had to approve funding for his border wall -- and if lawmakers balked, he'd end federal operations until his demands were met.

The emergency declaration, to an unsettling degree, is acting as a pressure valve. Trump gets to pursue his absurd goal; the governments gets to function; and the whole mess will eventually be resolved in the courts.

But for those whose principal concern is the rule of law, avoiding another shutdown comes at a high price. James Hohmann had a good piece along these lines this morning.

“White House lawyers have told Trump he could reprogram money without calling an emergency,” Fred Barbash, Ellen Nakashima and Josh Dawsey report. “But Trump … has been determined to declare an emergency, partially for fear of looking weak.”

This is just the latest, and possibly starkest, illustration of Trump’s disdain for the rule of law, as well as the premium he places on political expediency over constitutional norms and legal guardrails.

In the abstract, there's nothing wrong with a president starting with a specific goal and working backwards to determine how best to get there. The trouble arises when someone tells the president, "That may not be legal," and the person legally required to protect and defend the Constitution replies, "I don't care."

William Banks, a Syracuse University law professor, told the New York Times, "This is a real institutional threat to the separation of powers to use emergency powers to enable the president to bypass Congress to build a wall on his own initiative that our elected representatives have chosen not to fund."

Banks added, "It sets a precedent that a president can, without regard to an actual existence of an emergency, use this tool to evade the normal democratic process and fund projects on his own."

There's a school of thought, which I'm generally sympathetic toward, which says there are two kinds of constitutional crises. The first arises when officials turn to the law for answers, but the law is silent. When Woodrow Wilson had a stroke, for example, and he physically couldn't fulfill his duties, officials looked to the Constitution. The 25th Amendment didn't yet exist, so the result was a sort of crisis: the law offered no guidance on how the government was supposed to function.

The second is when the Constitution establishes a legal framework, but those in positions of authority chose to operate outside those boundaries.

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Image: U.S. President Donald Trump walks along the Rose Garden as he returns from a day trip to Atlanta on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S.

A quote Trump may come to regret: 'I didn't need to do this'

02/15/19 12:38PM

Donald Trump delivered a series of rambling comments this morning about his emergency declaration, which was then followed by a rambling press conference. And while the president made a series of odd claims, and repeated some familiar lies, it was his response to a question from NBC News' Peter Alexander that was probably the one thing Trump will regret saying.

In reference to border-wall construction, the Republican explained why he's circumventing Congress and the legislative appropriations process.

"I want to do it faster. I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn't need to do this, but I'd rather do it much faster.... I just want to get it done faster, that's all."

He quickly added that this isn't about his re-election bid, because he's "already done a lot of wall." This is, of course, a rather delusional lie.

But Trump's answer included an element of truth: "I didn't need to do this."

The president's own explanation left little doubt that there's no pressing "emergency" demanding unprecedented emergency action. Trump effectively admitted that he sees this as a matter of convenience: the American policymaking process would take time, and he'd "rather do it much faster."

If you're thinking these unscripted comments might be used against the White House in future litigation, you're not alone. Indeed, it won't be the first time.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.15.19

02/15/19 12:00PM

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

* In New Hampshire this morning, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld (R) launched a presidential exploratory committee, becoming Donald Trump's first primary challenger. For the record, since Watergate, every incumbent president who's faced a credible primary rival went on to lose the general election. (Whether Weld proves to be credible remains to be seen.)

* Sen. Kamala Harris' (D-Calif.) presidential campaign picked up an important endorsement yesterday, when Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, threw her support behind the senator.

* Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas), weighing a possible presidential campaign, has lined up a couple of events in Wisconsin and Illinois -- which is probably not the sort of thing someone eyeing a Senate campaign in Texas would do.

* Speaking of the Lone Star State, MJ Hegar, whose Democratic congressional campaign came up short in November, but who nevertheless impressed many with her candidacy, is leaving the door open to a possible Senate race next year against Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

* The Democratic Party has unveiled a detailed new plan on how presidential hopefuls will qualify for the upcoming debates, and DNC Chair Tom Perez spoke with Rachel about the plan on last night's show.

* With less than two weeks remaining before Chicago's mayoral race, a new poll from the local NBC affiliate shows a very competitive, multi-candidate race.

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Image: 58th U.S. Presidential Inauguration

On emergency declaration, Pelosi reminds GOP it won't always be in power

02/15/19 11:21AM

By the time House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spoke to reporters yesterday afternoon, the White House had already confirmed Donald Trump's plan: the president would sign the bipartisan spending bill, thereby preventing another shutdown, and then issue an emergency declaration to build a wall.

The California Democrat quickly turned her attention to one of Republican lawmakers' top concerns: what future presidents might do with the same power Trump is claiming today.

"I know the Republicans have some unease about it no matter what they say, because if the president can declare an emergency on something that he has created as an emergency, an illusion that he wants to convey, just think of what a president with different values can present to the American people.

"You want to talk about a national emergency? Let's talk about today, the one-year anniversary of another manifestation of the epidemic of gun violence in America. That's a national emergency. Why don't you declare that emergency, Mr. President? I wish you would.

"But a Democratic president can do that. Democratic president can declare emergencies as well. So, the precedent that the president is setting here is something that should be met with great unease and dismay by the Republicans."

Of course, Pelosi wasn't just speaking hypothetically. There are already some Republicans feeling "great unease" over this.

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Image: Donald Trump, Andrzej Duda

Trump's emergency declaration represents a special kind of surrender

02/15/19 10:44AM

If you spend any time following politics on Twitter, you've probably encountered the phrase, "There's always a tweet." The expression derives from the fact seemingly every time Donald Trump takes a provocative step, his critics discover a tweet from his recent past in which he's condemned that same step.

The president's lengthy Twitter archive, in other words, is little more than an elaborate hypocrisy trap.

Occasionally, however, we're confronted with extreme examples of the phenomenon. USA Today  noted overnight, for example:

There's always a tweet.

In 2014, President Donald Trump railed against then President Barack Obama over his use of executive power on immigration. Fast forward five years and Trump is expected to do the same thing.

"Repubs must not allow Pres Obama to subvert the Constitution of the US for his own benefit & because he is unable to negotiate w/ Congress," Trump said in a tweet on Nov. 20, 2014.

It's those last few words in the tweet that are of particular interest: in Trump's mind, Obama only took executive actions because he lacked the necessary skills to negotiate with lawmakers. If Obama understood how to strike deals, executive actions on issues like immigration wouldn't be necessary.

Indeed, it's common knowledge that Trump sold himself to voters in 2016 as the world's foremost expert on negotiating and deal-making, but it's less understood that this also became one of his central lines of attack against the Obama presidency.

The Republican seemed to recognize public frustrations over gridlock in the nation's capital, so he seized on that to advance his ambitions: Obama lacked the wherewithal to bring people together and negotiate agreements, he argued, but a Trump presidency would deliver where his predecessor fell short. Every executive action from Obama was evidence, Trump said, of the kind of failure that he wouldn't repeat if elected.

Except, of course, we now know the promise was a sham.

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President Donald Trump reviews border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego.

With emergency declaration, Trump ignores public will (among other things)

02/15/19 10:07AM

When Donald Trump issues an emergency declaration in order to build a border wall, he'll do so while ignoring the will of the American mainstream.

In January, two-thirds of Americans -- including more than a quarter of Trump's own party -- expressed opposition to a national emergency declaration in Quinnipiac University polling.

A CNN poll earlier this month had a similar result. A Fox News poll released Wednesday showed slightly more support for a national emergency declaration, but nearly 1 in 5 of those who voted for Trump in 2016 opposed his taking this action. Overall, support for the move in the Fox poll was similar to a poll the network conducted in January.

A Post-ABC News poll released in January makes another point clear: Opposition to using a national emergency to build the wall is actually higher than opposition to the wall in general.

When the president issues an emergency declaration, he'll do so while ignoring the advice of White House attorneys, who still aren't sure this gambit is legal.

When he issues an emergency declaration, he'll do so while ignoring the advice of congressional Republicans, who've warned him for weeks not to do this.

When he issues an emergency declaration, he'll do so while ignoring history and American governing norms.

When he issues an emergency declaration, he'll do so while ignoring the meaning of the word "emergency."

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

GOP criticisms of Obama's 'lawlessness' appear increasingly ironic

02/15/19 09:20AM

Halfway between Donald Trump's 2016 election victory and the Republican's presidential inauguration, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) appeared on "60 Minutes," and talked to CBS News' Scott Pelley about his expectations for the new administration.

Ryan said he and Trump had spoken "extensively" about constitutional limits and the separation of powers, and he felt optimistic about the road ahead. The GOP lawmaker added that the incoming president "feels very strongly, actually, that under President Obama's watch, he stripped a lot of power away from the Constitution, away from the legislative branch of government. And we want to reset the balance of power."

Pelley, somewhat surprised, asked, "You don't think [Trump] thinks he's going to run this country the way he wants to?" Ryan responded, "No, I think he understands there's a Constitution."

More than two years later, it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

The partisan whining was generally difficult to take seriously, but for much of Barack Obama's presidency, Republicans somehow convinced themselves that the Democrat was an out-of-control tyrant, hellbent on institutional limits and the rule of law.

When the Democrat used his authority to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) wrote an op-ed condemning the "imperial presidency of Barack Obama." Then-Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) went so far as to blame Obama's dictatorial tendencies for street crime.

"Whether it is New York, Chicago or San Francisco, it is happening everywhere," Christie said on MSNBC in June 2016. "The president has encouraged this lawlessness."

In 2014, Paul Ryan declared, "We have an increasingly lawless presidency where he is actually doing the job of Congress, writing new policies and new laws without going through Congress."

The then-House Speaker called such an approach to governing "dangerous."

It was obvious at the time that the hysterical criticisms of Obama were not to be taken seriously. Love the former president or hate him, he was clearly not a dictatorial tyrant, eager to destroy the norms of American governing.

But those criticisms of Obama have quietly made the transition from silly to ironic.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Spending deal brings Trump's latest embarrassing failure into focus

02/15/19 08:40AM

When Donald Trump issues an emergency declaration later this morning, granting himself the power to redirect funds toward a border wall, the political world's focus will shift to an extraordinary new fight. In the coming weeks, there will considerable drama as Congress takes up a measure to block the White House's new gambit, which will coincide with a series of contentious lawsuits.

But before we collectively go too far down that road, it's worth pausing to acknowledge a simple truth: Trump picked a high-profile fight two months ago, and it's now obvious that the amateur president failed spectacularly.

The New York Times had a good piece along these lines earlier in the week, before the White House officially said the Republican would sign the spending bill and prevent another shutdown.

In pursuit of a wall, President Trump ran into one. A single-minded drive to force Congress to finance his signature campaign promise has left Mr. Trump right back where he started, this time seeking a way to climb over the political barrier in his way after trying to charge through it did not work.

As he inched closer to reluctantly accepting a bipartisan spending compromise without the money he demanded for his border wall, Mr. Trump offered no acknowledgment on Wednesday that his pressure tactics had failed even as aides sought to minimize the damage by tamping down criticism on the right.

Making matters a little worse, to say Trump is "right back where he started" is probably a little too generous: the president is actually slightly worse off than he was when he first picked this fight in December.

Though it's unlikely we'll ever hear him admit it, Trump knows that the bipartisan spending bill he'll sign today is his latest stinging defeat. As recently as yesterday, the president was so opposed to the bill that he toyed with the possibility of rejecting it, prompting yet another shutdown.

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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (L), R-KY, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-WI, look on during a meeting with congressional leadership in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on November 28,

With emergency declaration, Trump divides GOP, unites Dems (again)

02/15/19 08:00AM

Later this morning, Donald Trump is scheduled to announce a rather extraordinary emergency declaration. The Republican president, desperate to construct an unnecessary and unpopular border wall, will grant himself emergency powers, redirect tax dollars away from their intended purpose, and begin a new effort to build a medieval vanity project in defiance of Congress' wishes.

Naturally, there will be litigation. In fact, there will be a lot of litigation. As for whether the courts will tolerate the White House's gambit, as regular readers know, there's been considerable debate of late over whether Trump can reasonably expect to get away with his scheme. NBC News published a good report the other day on where the experts tend to fall on this question.

But the judiciary may not be the president's principal problem, at least not at first. Trump is abusing something called the National Emergencies Act -- a post-Watergate reform measure -- which explicitly offers Congress an opportunity to block a White House action.

At this point, some readers are probably thinking, "So what? The House Democratic majority will vote to stop Trump, at which point the Senate Republican majority will let the bill wither on the vine." In practice, however, it's not that simple.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will, almost certainly, advance a bill, called a "joint resolution of termination," to curtail the president's plan. At that point, thanks to the specific language of the National Emergencies Act, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will have no choice but to hold a vote of his own. The Washington Post's Greg Sargent recently explained:

Elizabeth Goitein, who has researched this topic extensively for the Brennan Center for Justice, tells me that if Pelosi exercises this option, it will ultimately require the Senate to vote on it in some form as well. The NEA stipulates that if one chamber (Pelosi's House) passes such a resolution, which it easily could do, the other (McConnell's Senate) must act on it within a very short time period -- forcing GOP senators to choose whether to support it.

Alternatively, Goitein notes, the Senate could vote not to consider that resolution or change its rules to avoid such a vote. But in those scenarios, the Senate would, in effect, be voting to greenlight Trump's emergency declaration.

And it's at that point where this is likely to get even more interesting.

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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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