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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.

Trump wastes little time trying to exploit Barr's reckless 'spy' talk

04/15/19 10:43AM

It was just five days ago when Attorney General William Barr decided to extend his imprimatur to one of Donald Trump's favorite conspiracy theories, telling senators about his concerns about U.S. officials "spying" on Donald Trump's 2016 campaign. The Republican A.G. went on to specifically tell senators, "I think spying did occur."

Barr was already struggling with questions about his credibility and political independence from the White House, but he nevertheless needlessly endorsed highly provocative rhetoric -- which was not and is not rooted in fact -- undermining his standing further.

The attorney general has since tried to walk back his comments, though the damage is already done.

Indeed, the president who handpicked Barr for his post is now making matters worse by exploiting the attorney general's endorsement of the presidential conspiracy theory. Trump has been talking and tweeting about being the victim of "spying," and it wasn't long before his political operation tried to monetize the manufactured outrage.

The Trump campaign on Friday sent a fundraising email and several text messages to supporters misquoting Attorney General William Barr, claiming that he had confirmed the existence of "unlawful" spying on President Trump's campaign during the 2016 election.

In the email sent Friday afternoon, the Trump campaign claimed falsely that "Attorney General William Barr said what the president has thought all along: He believes "'unlawful spying did occur' against Donald J. Trump's presidential campaign."

Part of the problem is that, in reality, there's no evidence of "unlawful spying." The other part of the problem that Team Trump is adding insult to injury by dealing irresponsibly with Barr's irresponsible rhetoric.

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During a campaign rally Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reads a statement made by Michelle Fields, on March 29, 2016 in Janesville, Wis. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)

White House: Trump 'was making a joke' about WikiLeaks in 2016

04/15/19 10:07AM

Just hours after Julian Assange's arrest, Donald Trump fielded a question from reporters about the developments. "I know nothing about WikiLeaks," the president replied. "It's not my thing."

Even by Trump standards, this was ridiculously untrue, and the lie led to ample coverage of the Republican's enthusiastic embrace of WikiLeaks -- which was very much his "thing" -- when it was disseminating materials stolen by Russia in order to help Trump gain power.

Vice President Mike Pence tried to defend Trump's nonsensical stance, arguing that the president simply "welcomed information" from WikiLeaks, but never endorsed it. Not surprisingly, this defense didn't exactly prove persuasive.

And so the president's press secretary rolled out a new defense yesterday.

President Donald Trump was just joking when commented during his campaign that he "loved" WikiLeaks, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Sunday.

"Look, clearly the president was making a joke during the 2016 campaign," Sanders told "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace about Trump's past praise for WikiLeaks. "Certainly we take this serious."

According to the transcript, the White House press secretary added, "The president was making a joke during the campaign and was talking about the specifics of the case at that moment."

If there's one thing we know about Donald J. Trump, it's that his comedic stylings are unrivaled, right?

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Image: Donald Trump

Perhaps Trump should try working with Congress on policymaking

04/15/19 09:20AM

Donald Trump, concerned about conditions at the U.S./Mexico border, this morning published a familiar refrain on Twitter.

"Congress should come back to D.C. now and FIX THE IMMIGRATION LAWS!"

I'm not entirely sure why he's insisting that lawmakers "come back to D.C. now" since Congress is already scheduled to be in session today, and House and Senate members will be on Capitol Hill.

But it's the larger point that struck me as notable: the president believes the nation's immigration laws are in need of reform, and he wants lawmakers to take up the issue. At face value, that's not an unreasonable position. Indeed, Trump's two most recent predecessors -- one Democrat, one Republican -- also pushed Congress to approve comprehensive immigration reform. Both efforts failed in the face of intractable GOP opposition.

But both the Bush administration and the Obama administration championed specific legislative proposals, which the respective White House teams helped write, shape, and lobby on behalf of. Both presidents were actively and personally involved in engaging Congress in the hopes of advancing legislation, the details of which they helped negotiate.

When Donald Trump, however, presses lawmakers to "fix the immigration laws," he's not referring to a legislative package -- because there is no legislative package. This president prefers profound passivity, barking orders from the Oval Office, and hoping Congress will simply figure something out.

And while it's obviously true that it's up to the legislative branch to debate and pass bills, in the American policymaking process, there's generally an expectation that a sitting president will help take the lead, especially on issues of great importance to the White House, to help turn an administration's goal into reality.

Therein lies one of the core problems with the Trump presidency: America's first amateur president doesn't know how to engage Congress to get what he what he wants, and he's surprisingly incurious about learning.

As things stand, the president wants an immigration reform bill. Has he presented a plan? No. Has he hosted White House talks? No. Has he opened negotiations with congressional leaders? No.

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Image: Donald Trump

Does Trump realize his 'sanctuary cities' plan would make matters worse?

04/15/19 08:40AM

It started with reporting from the Washington Post and NBC News that seemed hard to believe: Donald Trump's White House has engaged in behind-the-scenes efforts to pressure U.S. immigration authorities to "release detainees onto the streets of 'sanctuary cities' to retaliate against President Trump's political adversaries."

As we discussed on Friday, according to the purported plan, the White House envisioned a system in which officials would detain immigrants and then transport them to targeted "Democratic strongholds," including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's district in San Francisco.

Within hours, the story turned farcical. The White House said the plan was discarded and dead; Trump said the opposite. Administration officials said the plan was illegal and impractical; Trump said the opposite. The president even proceeded to lie publicly about official responses to his childish gambit.

The New York Times reported this morning, meanwhile, that Trump only started pushing this absurdity "in part, people close to him said, to distract from" the release of the redacted Mueller report.

And while that should effectively end this bizarre conversation, such as it is, there was one other related point that's worth acknowledging before we collectively move on. I've seen a handful of people make the observation, but Mother Jones' Kevin Drum summarized it nicely:

Trump would be loudly proclaiming that if you come to the United States to seek asylum, we will put you into a comfy American bus and send you to a city where you will be given food and shelter. Everyone there will try to help you find work and provide lawyers to help with your asylum request.

Exactly. On the one hand, the president wants fewer people trying to enter the United States through the southern border. On the other, he's now aggressively and publicly talking up a policy in which his administration would transport new arrivals -- for free -- to diverse and welcoming American cities, with large immigrant communities.

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White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds the daily briefing at the White House, September 12, 2017.

Sanders: Congress not 'smart enough' to understand Trump's tax returns

04/15/19 08:00AM

To date, neither Donald Trump nor anyone on his team has ever come up with a coherent explanation for why his tax returns must be kept hidden from the public. After facing the question repeatedly for years, it's tempting to think they'd have come up with something compelling by now, but so far, we've heard little but unpersuasive evasiveness.

More recently, the president and his team have also failed to explain why the administration must also be allowed to ignore federal law in this area.

Yesterday, the White House's chief spokesperson decided to rationalize Trump's insistence on secrecy by questioning the intellect of lawmakers seeking the documents.

Speaking with "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said she wouldn't "trust" members of Congress to fully grasp the contents of the president's returns.

"And frankly, Chris, I don't think Congress, particularly this group of congressmen and women, are smart enough to look through the thousands of pages that I would assume President Trump's taxes will be," Sanders said. "My guess is most of them don't do their own taxes, and I certainly don't trust them to look through the decades of success the president's had and determine anything."

Putting aside how unfortunate it is to hear this president and his team question anyone's intellectual prowess, it's worth pausing to appreciate the evolution of the argument. After all, Trump's original position was that he'd be happy to share his tax returns. In time, for reasons that have never fully been explained, this posture was abandoned and replaced with a series of odd claims about audits, public attitudes, and the administration's perceived limits of congressional authority.

Team Trump has now been reduced to arguing that lawmakers aren't smart enough to understand the president's tax returns, which might very well be the most foolish defense yet, since (a) Congress can always consult with experts; (b) more than a few accountants have already been elected; and (c) Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) is already in Congress.

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Friday's Mini-Report, 4.12.19

04/12/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A new approach: "House Oversight and Reform Committee Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) is moving to issue a subpoena to obtain 10 years of President Donald Trump's financial records from accounting firm Mazars USA, the chairman told members of the panel in a memo on Friday."

* The Acosta controversy isn't going away: "Senate Democrats are demanding the Department of Justice disclose the full results of an investigation into whether U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta is guilty of "professional misconduct" in his handling of a sex crime prosecution against billionaire Jeffrey Epstein over a decade ago."

* The Sudanese military takes control: "As Sudan's military announced at lunchtime on Thursday that it had finally unseated President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, a brief burst of joy exploded outside the military headquarters in Khartoum where huge throngs of protesters had massed.... But the euphoria quickly soured when the protesters realized who had replaced Mr. al-Bashir."

* An unnecessary step backwards: "Three years after the Obama administration told transgender individuals they could serve openly and have access to gender-affirming medical and psychological care, the Trump administration has reversed course. The Pentagon on Friday began to implement a controversial new policy that critics say is essentially a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy for trans service members."

* A case we've been following closely: "A federal judge on Friday sentenced lobbyist W. Samuel Patten to 36 months of probation for funneling $50,000 from foreign nationals to President Donald Trump's inaugural committee. Patten, 47, a longtime Washington operative, will also be required to pay a $5,000 fine and serve 500 hours of 'hands-on' community service."

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President Donald Trump talks with reporters as he reviews border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego.

Did Trump offer a possible pardon to a top US border official?

04/12/19 04:51PM

We're aware of Donald Trump abusing his pardon power. We're also aware of reports about the president telling people that following the law is optional. Today, CNN published a report that seemed to combine these two dynamics.

During President Donald Trump's visit to the border at Calexico, California, a week ago, where he told border agents to block asylum seekers from entering the US contrary to US law, the President also told the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, Kevin McAleenan, that if he were sent to jail as a result of blocking those migrants from entering the US, the President would grant him a pardon, senior administration officials tell CNN.

Two officials briefed on the exchange say the President told McAleenan, since named the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, that he "would pardon him if he ever went to jail for denying US entry to migrants," as one of the officials paraphrased.

The CNN report, which hasn't been independently verified by NBC News or MSNBC, received a denial from a DHS spokesperson who said Trump never "indicated, asked, directed or pressured the Acting Secretary to do anything illegal." It's also possible that the president was trying to be funny.

But stories like these are so easy to believe because of their familiarity. This reporting is very much in line with everything else we've learned about this president, his manic recent border efforts, and his indifference to the rule of law.

Indeed, the CNN report coincides with a related new report from the New York Times, which added, "President Trump last week urged Kevin McAleenan, whom he was about to name as acting secretary of homeland security, to close the southwestern border despite having just said that he was delaying a decision on the step for a year, according to three people briefed about the conversation."

The Times' article went on to note that Trump raised the prospect of -- you guessed it -- a presidential pardon in the event of McAleenan facing legal jeopardy as a result of Trump's directive.

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Image: YEAR IN FOCUS - NEWS (1 of a set of 85) Republican National Convention: Day Two

What happened to the Trumps' promise to separate business and politics?

04/12/19 04:08PM

Donald Trump clearly raised a few eyebrows with his comments to The Atlantic about various government posts for which he's considered Ivanka Trump, but the president had some related thoughts on two of his other adult children.

In our conversation, the president wanted to be clear: He was very proud of all his children.... "Don is, uh, he's enjoying politics; actually, it's very good. And Eric is running the business along with Don, and also very much into politics. I mean, the children -- the children have been very, very good."

On the surface, the president's comments hardly seem surprising. Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. are prominent public figures, especially in the political sphere, where they frequently make media appearances and speeches as part of the family's political agenda. With this in mind, it's only natural that their father would acknowledge the degree to which they're "very much into politics."

But just below the surface, there's a meaningful ethical dilemma. Trump's adult sons are running his business, making new investments, serving as presidential surrogates, and playing partisan politics -- all at the same time.

Weren't we told the First Family would avoid doing this?

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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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