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Friday's Mini-Report, 2.8.19

02/08/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A scandal in Virginia takes a more serious turn: "A woman said Friday she was raped by Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) in a 'premeditated and aggressive' assault in 2000, while they both were undergraduate students at Duke University."

* In related news: "Last fall, after Vanessa C. Tyson began a prestigious fellowship at Stanford, she told a gathering of colleagues in a behavioral sciences program that she had been sexually assaulted years earlier, citing personal experience to illustrate a larger point involving sexual violence."

* Also in Richmond: "Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, still facing calls to resign as governor a week after the revelation that his page in a medical school yearbook features a racist photograph, is now tightly focused on coming up with plans to survive."

* Following up on a story we've reported on: "Federal prosecutors in New York are probing whether the National Enquirer's parent company violated a cooperation agreement in its handling of the story regarding Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos."

* Donald Trump hired even more undocumented immigrants than we previously knew.

* A giant exits the stage: "Former Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest-serving member of Congress who played a key role in many pieces of landmark legislation, has died. He was 92. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year."

* On a related note, Dingell dictated one final op-ed shortly before his passing.

* The latest Manafort news: "A newly released transcript reveals that former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort continued working for a political client in Ukraine into 2018, after he had already been indicted in Robert Mueller's probe -- and that prosecutors think Manafort may have told one lie to up his chances of a pardon."

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New accusation emerges in scandal surrounding Trump inaugural committee

02/08/19 04:35PM

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a former federal prosecutor, noted the criminal investigation into Donald Trump's presidential inaugural committee this week, and raised an unexpected observation.

"The Southern District of New York investigation presents a much more serious threat to the administration, potentially, than what Bob Mueller is doing," Christie said.

At face value, that seems hard to believe. After all, the special counsel's investigation into the Russia scandal has already led to felony convictions against a variety of people in the president's orbit. Christie thinks this unrelated criminal probe might be "much more serious"?

As far-fetched as that may seem, there's no denying the fact that the investigation into the president's inaugural committee keeps taking serious turns.

Federal prosecutors in New York are circling Donald Trump's inaugural committee as part of a wide-ranging investigation into possible money laundering, illegal contributions and cash-for-access schemes. Now, WNYC and ProPublica have identified evidence of potential tax law violations by the committee.

A spokesman confirmed that the nonprofit 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee paid the Trump International Hotel a rate of $175,000 per day for event space -- in spite of internal objections at the time that the rate was far too high. If the committee is deemed by auditors or prosecutors to have paid an above-market rate, that could violate tax laws prohibiting self-dealing, according to experts.

Tax law violations tend to be complex, but this one's actually pretty simple. The inaugural committee was a non-profit entity created to oversee Trump's swearing-in ceremony and related festivities. If it deliberately used its funds to overpay Trump's hotel, in the process helping Trump's business, it may have run afoul of the law.

Unfortunately, it's not the only possible transgression of interest. In addition to the possible money laundering, illegal contributions, pay-to-play schemes, and tax-law violations, the new reporting from WNYC and ProPublica added that the inaugural committee spent "at least $1.5 million" at a hotel in which the committee's chairman, Tom Barrack, held a financial stake.

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In a Tuesday, May 2, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump walks with aide Keith Schiller to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.

RNC pays Trump's former bodyguard a surprisingly generous sum

02/08/19 03:24PM

Keith Schiller's role on Team Trump has long been a little hard to explain. As regular readers may recall, Schiller used to serve as the head of Donald Trump's private security detail, until early 2017, when he became the president's "full-time physical gatekeeper." I'm not entirely sure what duties that entailed.

In May 2017, it was Schiller who personally went to FBI headquarters to deliver the paperwork firing then-director James Comey, who was in California at the time.

Four months later, Schiller left the White House, at which point the Republican National Committee began paying his private security firm, KS Global Group, $15,000 a month for "security services." Specifically, as CNBC reported at the time, Schiller's contract was for "security consulting on the site selection process for the 2020 Republican National Convention."

CNBC reports today that Schiller has now received $225,000 in RNC money.

Schiller was originally hired by the RNC to help select a site for the 2020 convention. But once the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, was announced in July, Schiller's firm was kept on to "work on other security needs for the committee," a party official told CNBC, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to share information that was not included in campaign filings.

The official declined to go into detail about what the committee's security needs might be but confirmed that the work is ongoing. [...] Now that the original task of selecting a convention site is complete, and Schiller is still on the payroll, the issue of what Trump's former bodyguard is being paid to do is not clear.

It's also not clear, by the way, whether Schiller's private-sector firm has any other private-sector clients.

Dave Levinthal of the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, said last year, "It pays to be in Donald Trump's circle of trust." Evidently, that may be literally true.

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Image: Devin Nunes, Eric Swalwell, Jim Himes

Why Trump is accusing Schiff of 'stealing people from the White House'

02/08/19 12:41PM

As part of a tirade yesterday in which he suggested investigations of his scandals shouldn't be "allowed," Donald Trump argued via Twitter, "Dems and their committees are ... even stealing people who work at White House!"

I had no idea what that meant. When a CNN reporter asked the White House about the president's tweet, an unnamed staffer, pointing to the new chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, responded, "Ask Adam Schiff what that means."

The answer has since come into focus.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff has hired former National Security Council staffers to work for him as he launches a sweeping new investigation into President Donald Trump's finances and foreign connections. [...]

Schiff appears to have hired at least one staff member who served on the National Security Council under Trump. The staff member, Abigail Grace, is listed in a House directory as Democratic staff on the intelligence panel. A person familiar with the committee's staff confirmed that she's working for the panel and used to work for the NSC.

For what it's worth, it's not altogether clear why Trump and his team would find this so upsetting. There's a limited universe of officials who have the experience, skills, and clearance necessary to work on highly sensitive intelligence matters. The idea of aides having a stint at the National Security Council, before making the transition to the staff at the House Intelligence Committee, isn't especially odd.

Indeed, the inverse happens, too. Kashyap Patel, who helped co-author the unintentionally  hilarious "Nunes memo," recently left his staff job on Capitol Hill to join -- you guessed it -- the National Security Council.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.8.19

02/08/19 12:00PM

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

* Just four months after barely winning re-election, Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) announced yesterday that he'll retire at the end of this term. His suburban-Atlanta district backed Donald Trump in 2016 by six points, but it also backed Stacey Abrams' (D) gubernatorial campaign last year by one point.

* I found this analysis from Politico on former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Sherrod Brown to be quite compelling: "They're chasing the same potential supporters, touting the same themes and even using some of the same language to go after President Donald Trump. And Brown, kicking off a pre-campaign tour of key presidential voting states last week, made clear that if he gets into the race he intends to run, essentially, as Biden without the baggage."

* Nevertheless, ahead of a possible candidacy, Biden continues to reach out to congressional Democrats about their support, including recent conversations with Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.), and Bob Casey (D-Pa.).

* I'm skeptical of the idea that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) will be vulnerable during his re-election bid next year, but if anyone can launch a credible challenge against him, it's former S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison, who's kicking off an "exploratory committee" today.

* The Associated Press reported yesterday that Priorities USA, one of the nation's leading outside groups associated with Democratic politics, is launching a $30 million effort to "register voters, push ballot measures that expand voter rights and fight Republican-backed laws in court that restrict ballot access."

* State election laws in New Jersey would allow Sen. Cory Booker (D) to run for president and for re-election to the U.S. Senate simultaneously. For now, however, he says he's not prepared to make a firm decision about whether to pursue such a course.

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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP

A new reason to find Mar-a-Lago controversial: Trump hires his customers

02/08/19 10:50AM

It's surprisingly difficult to count all of the controversies surrounding Donald Trump's' Mar-a-Lago golf resort in south Florida. Do we start with the ethical mess? The hidden visitor logs? The security lapses? The cost to taxpayers? The H-2 visa hires?

Or how about the fact that the president keeps giving jobs to his customers?

This first arose as an issue last fall, when the Palm Beach Post  reported that couture handbag designer Lana Marks, a Mar-a-Lago member, was Trump's choice to serve as ambassador to South Africa. The same article noted some other club members who were also offered diplomatic posts in the Trump administration.

USA Today published a related report today taking stock of just how many of the president's customers have also been beneficiaries of jobs on his team.

Membership rolls of Trump's clubs are not public. USA TODAY identified members through interviews, news accounts and a website golfers use to track their handicaps.

Since he took office, Trump has appointed at least eight people who identified themselves as current or former members of his club to senior posts in his administration. USA TODAY identified five of those appointees in mid-2017, prompting criticism from ethics watchdogs that the selections blurred the boundary between his public duties and his private financial interests.

That does not appear to include at least two other Trump customers who were offered ambassadorships, but who declined the nominations.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump finds new ways to falsely claim exoneration in Russia scandal

02/08/19 10:19AM

In March 2018, Donald Trump published an all-caps tweet in which he claimed the House Intelligence Committee had completely exonerated him in the Russia scandal. That wasn't what happened. In reality, the president's Republican allies on the committee published a one-party report echoing the White House's talking points, following a ridiculous investigation that no one could take seriously.

Three months later, the Justice Department inspector general's office shredded practically every claim Trump had made against federal law enforcement, making the president look quite foolish in the process. Trump nevertheless told reporters, "I think that the report yesterday, maybe more importantly than anything, it totally exonerates me."

His claim could charitably be described as gibberish. The president pointed to non-existent answers to questions the Justice Department's IG didn't even ask.

This morning, Trump published a trio of tweets, apparently in response to something he saw on Fox News, once again claiming exoneration.

"Highly respected Senator Richard Burr, Chairman of Senate Intelligence, said today that, after an almost two year investigation, he saw no evidence of Russia collusion. 'We don't have anything that would suggest there was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia.' Thank you!

"Not only did Senator Burr's Committee find No Collusion by the Trump Campaign and Russia, it's important because they interviewed 200 witnesses and 300,000 pages of documents, & the Committee has direct access to intelligence information that's Classified. @GreggJarrett

"The mainstream media has refused to cover the fact that the head of the VERY important Senate Intelligence Committee, after two years of intensive study and access to Intelligence that only they could get, just stated that they have found NO COLLUSION between 'Trump' & Russia...."

Let's take a minute to unpack this.

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History mandates presidential candidates release tax returns, but not how many

While trying to keep Trump's tax returns secret, GOP pushes a dubious line

02/08/19 09:20AM

The basic contours of the controversy surrounding Donald Trump's tax returns are pretty straightforward. In 2016, Trump ignored historical norms and his own promises to become the first modern major-party presidential candidate to refuse to disclose his tax returns. In the first two years of his presidency, congressional Democrats took steps to force transparency, but Trump's Republican allies shielded him.

Now that Dems are in the House majority, the White House is quite nervous that the opposition party will be able acquire the documents the president has gone out of his way to keep secret (for reasons he has not yet explained).

Democrats, however, have proceeded with some caution -- too much, to hear some progressive voices tell it. The party could just use raw political force to acquire Trump's tax returns, but they instead appear determined to methodically build a case to justify the move. To that end, Congress saw its first hearing on the subject yesterday.

President Donald Trump exhibited "aggressive tax planning" prior to his 2016 election and "could have eliminated his taxes for a couple of decades" by claiming millions in business-related losses, tax expert Steven Rosenthal told a congressional panel Thursday.

"There is a lot to find," said Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center who has scrutinized portions of Trump's 1995 and 2005 returns last year in partnership with the New York Times.

Rosenthal was among several nonpartisan tax experts who testified at the first Democratic-run House Ways and Means Committee hearing on Trump's taxes. The hearing was intended to begin "building the public case for why the American people deserve to know something — anything -- about Trump's finances," said a Democratic leadership aide who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Not surprisingly, the White House's GOP allies on Capitol Hill remain determined to help Trump keep his materials under wraps, and House Ways and Means Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-Texas) and House Oversight Subcommittee Ranking Member Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) yesterday sent a letter to Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), urging him to back off.

Their argument included one notable claim that stood out.

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This July 12, 2017, file photo shows the cover of an issue of the National Enquirer featuring President Donald Trump at a store in New York.

At the intersection of Jeff Bezos and Donald Trump's favorite tabloid

02/08/19 08:45AM

Once in a while, we're confronted with a story that's so unusual, it's tough to know where to start. In this case, it's probably best to start with the end and work backwards.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos accused the National Enquirer's parent company, American Media Inc., of "extortion and blackmail" on Thursday for threatening to publish scandalous photos of him and his girlfriend if he didn't drop an investigation into how the tabloid obtained text messages exposing his extra-marital affair.

According to the emails that Bezos published, which have not been independently reviewed by NBC News, AMI threatened to publish texts from Bezos and his girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, that included photos of a sexual nature. In exchange for withholding the photos, AMI demanded that Bezos stop the Washington Post, which he owns, from reporting about political motivations behind the National Enquirer's initial reports about his relationship with the former TV anchor.

Bezos explained these developments in a lengthy blog post published at Medium, which appeared to include the written messages he'd received from AMI. American Media Inc., led by a prominent Donald Trump ally named David Pecker, has not yet commented.

But to appreciate the significance of all of this, we're going to have to back up a bit.

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U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts arrives prior to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill on Jan. 28, 2014. (Larry Downing/Pool/Getty)

Why the Supreme Court's latest move on abortion is so important

02/08/19 08:00AM

Louisiana passed a law in 2014 that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their practice. The practical effects of the measure were significant: as NBC News reported, the Center for Reproductive Rights concluded that the state law, if implemented, would leave just one New Orleans doctor who could legally perform the procedure.

In a state where 10,000 women seek abortion services every year, Louisiana's measure would severely limit reproductive choices statewide -- which was almost certainly the point of the law.

Local physicians filed suit, making the case that Louisiana's measure was medically unnecessary, at odds with legal precedent, and a thinly veiled effort to close abortion clinics. Late last night, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened, agreeing to block the law, at least for now.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday blocked Louisiana from enforcing a law that women's groups said would leave only a single doctor legally allowed to perform abortions in the state.

By a 5-4 vote, the court said the restrictions must remain on hold while challengers appeal a lower court decision in favor of the law. Chief Justice John Roberts voted with the court's liberal members.

It's important to note that this was not a ruling on the constitutionality of the state law. Rather, the justices weighed in on whether the Louisiana measure could be implemented while lower courts evaluated the law on its merits.

If the U.S. Supreme Court had gone the other way, and said the Louisiana measure could be enforced immediately, some legal experts have said it would have singled the beginning of the end of the Roe v. Wade precedent.

But in June Medical Services v. Gee, Justices Roberts, Ginsburg, Kagan, Sotomayor, and Breyer went the other way. The result tells us quite a bit.

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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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