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Monday's Mini-Report, 2.5.18

02/05/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* I'll look forward to Trump's tweets: "The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 1,175 points, as the market bet on more interest rate hikes, the same day that a new Federal Reserve chairman was sworn in. The Dow recovered after briefly dropping 1,500 points, the largest intraday drop in the index's history, to break below the psychologically important level of 25,000."

* I'll have more on this tomorrow: "The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to stop Pennsylvania from having to draw new maps for its congressional elections, turning down an appeal from Republicans who said there wasn't time to do it ahead of this year's primary."

* White House lawyers "have been reminding President Trump's staff not to use encrypted messaging apps for official government business as the administration seeks to dismiss a lawsuit accusing it of violating federal records laws."

* Kathleen Hartnett White was a ridiculous choice: "The White House late Saturday confirmed plans to withdraw the nomination of a climate change skeptic with ties to the fossil fuel industry to serve as President Donald Trump's top environmental adviser."

* A worthwhile reminder: "A group of Democratic senators is warning President Trump that he lacks the 'legal authority' to carry out a preemptive strike on North Korea, amid questions over whether the White House is considering a risky 'bloody nose' attack."

* An underappreciated detail: "Key points from the disputed GOP-Rep. Devin Nunes intelligence memo appeared to have been released to news outlets friendly to the White House before being widely available to other media organizations."

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Image: SWITZERLAND-ECONOMY-POLITICS-DIPLOMACY-DAVOS-SUMMIT

Trump takes aim at public trust in democratic institutions

02/05/18 02:11PM

It went by largely without notice, but about a month ago, Donald Trump's administration lost a court fight in the 9th Circuit. The president did not take the news well, declaring after the ruling that the American judicial system is "broken and unfair."

This kind of rhetoric may not be unusual for Trump, but it is unusual for the United States: we don't generally see national leaders take deliberate steps to undermine public confidence in their own country's courts. For this president, however, it's become quite common.

Similarly, as a Washington Post  analysis noted the other day, Trump has adopted a related posture toward federal law enforcement.

[Trump's finger-pointing] takes a page from authoritarians, such as Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, who systematically seek to sow doubt about democratic institutions that might stand in their way.

"I think it's a disgrace what's happening in our country," Trump said Friday when asked about release of the memo from Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee claiming abuses in the Russia investigation. "A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves and much worse than that," Trump told reporters.

The president's latest confrontation assails the credibility and impartiality of the nation's justice system, or at least the part connected to the ongoing investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and potentially improper links between Trump associates and the Russian government.

It came on the heels of the president declaring via Twitter, "The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans -- something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago."

The argument was plainly ridiculous for all sorts of reasons, but Trump nevertheless felt comfortable suggesting to the public that Americans shouldn't necessarily trust top officials at the FBI and the Justice Department. (The fact that this president appointed the top officials at the FBI and the Justice Department is apparently a detail Trump forgot.)

Jon Chait noted this morning, "Cultivating distrust in institutions that are designed to play a neutral, mediating role is one of the central functions of conservative politics." That's especially true of Donald Trump's politics -- because he wants and expects to be the sole authority on truth.

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Image: Rep. Devin Nunes Briefs Press On House Intelligence Cmte Russia Investigation

Stuck in a hole, Nunes finds a shovel, keeps digging

02/05/18 12:42PM

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) based much of his notorious "memo" on the idea that Carter Page, a former Donald Trump adviser and suspected agent of a foreign adversary, should not have been the subject of federal surveillance. That line of argument has not worked out well.

And so, this morning, Nunes shifted his focus a bit, questioning scrutiny of George Papadopoulos, another former foreign policy adviser to Trump's 2016 campaign. Here's what the California congressman told Fox News this morning:

"I would say that if Papadopoulos were such a major figure, why didn't you get a warrant on him? Papadopoulos was such a major figure, you had nothing on him, you know, the guy lied. As far as we can tell, Papadopoulos never even knew who Trump -- you know, never even had met with the president.

"And look, getting drunk in London and talking to diplomats saying that you don’t like Hillary Clinton is, really — I think it’s kind of scary that our intelligence agencies would take that and use it against an American citizen."

The assertion that Trump and Papadopoulos never met might be a better talking point if the Trump campaign hadn't already released a picture of Trump hosting a "national security meeting" in 2016 -- with Papadopoulos.

It's probably the sort of detail the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee should know before peddling bogus claims to a national television audience.

Nunes' broader point, however, was that (a) Papadopoulos was an unimportant and peripheral figure in Trump's political operation; and (b) officials' scrutiny of Papadopoulos should be seen as suspect.

This is, to be sure, what the White House wants its partners to say. Indeed, it's likely why the president himself tweeted this morning, "Representative Devin Nunes, a man of tremendous courage and grit, may someday be recognized as a Great American Hero for what he has exposed and what he has had to endure!"

Reality, however, is stubborn.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.5.18

02/05/18 12:00PM

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

* House Speaker Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) political action committee will reportedly distribute $5,000 campaign checks this morning to 143 House Republican incumbents seeking re-election this fall. The combined $715,000 constitutes the PAC's "largest one-time transfer of the year."

* On a related note, House Republicans are settling on a 2018 strategy, which will apparently focus -- once again -- on complaining about House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) a lot.

* Rep. Devin Nunes' (R-Calif.) top Democratic challenger, Andrew Janz, had a significant fundraising boost on Friday after the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee released his "memo."

* Speaking of fundraising, NBC News highlighted an interesting tidbit late last week: "At least 45 Democratic challengers in 34 districts raised more money last quarter than the Republican member of Congress they're hoping to defeat in November, according to new campaign finance reports."

* The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC affiliated with the Senate Republican leadership, is launching a new ad in Nevada targeting Sen. Dean Heller's (R) primary rival, Danny Tarkanian. That's not a good sign for the incumbent: it suggests the party has reason to believe Heller faces a real threat.

* Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) personally appealed to Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) to be prepared to appoint himself to the Senate in the event Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) could no longer serve. Bryant apparently declined.

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U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) on his way back to his office Jan. 28, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

Trump takes aim at leading House Dem ahead of key vote

02/05/18 11:30AM

Donald Trump tweets attacking perceived foes are about as common as the sunrise, but when the president took aim at House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) this morning, there was a little more to it than just random whining.

"Little Adam Schiff, who is desperate to run for higher office, is one of the biggest liars and leakers in Washington, right up there with Comey, Warner, Brennan and Clapper! Adam leaves closed committee hearings to illegally leak confidential information. Must be stopped!"

Let's quickly dispense with some of the more obvious problems with Trump's latest tweet. It's clear, for example, that the president is getting lazy when it comes to crafting derisive nicknames. For that matter, given Trump's track record of near-uncontrollable lying, he should probably steer clear of questioning others' honesty.

And if we're going to talk about people who leak classified information, we really ought to start with Donald Trump.

While we're at it, there's no reason that Americans should get accustomed to a sitting president casually accusing lawmakers, without proof, of committing felonies -- which is precisely what Trump did this morning to Schiff.

But it's the timing of the president's tweet that seems especially important, because when Trump wrote that Schiff "must be stopped," it's possible he was referring to something specific.

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Sen. Joseph McCarthy's (R-Wis) at a March 9, 1950 session of a hearing on  McCarthy's charges of Communist infiltration in the state department. McCarthy, testifying before a senate foreign relations subcommittee, termed the subcommittee a "Tool" of...

Trump Jr. picks an unfortunate fight over 'McCarthyism'

02/05/18 11:01AM

After the Republicans' Nunes memo was released to the public, former FBI Director James Comey had the same reaction many neutral observers had: "That's it?"

The message came a day after Comey, whom Donald Trump fired last year in the hopes of derailing the investigation into the Russia scandal, wrote, "American history shows that, in the long run, weasels and liars never hold the field, so long as good people stand up. Not a lot of schools or streets named for Joe McCarthy."

It wasn't a throwaway reference. As Trump and his allies have gone after federal law enforcement with increased vigor, the parallels to '50s-era McCarthyism have become clearer: the Wisconsin Republican falsely claimed to have secret evidence of communists, lurking in the executive-branch shadows, actively trying to undermine the United States. Now it's a new group of Republicans, falsely claiming to have secret evidence of Trump opponents, lurking in the executive-branch shadows, actively trying to undermine the White House.

Politico ran an interesting piece last week from Norm Eisen, Caroline Fredrickson, and Noah Bookbinder, which argued, among other things, "Let's be clear about what's happening here: This memo is the latest escalation in an eight-month effort to tarnish the Russia investigation that might be the most significant smear campaign against the executive branch since Joe McCarthy."

Evidently, the president's oldest son believes the president's critics have this backwards.

President Donald Trump's oldest son suggested on Saturday that claims by Democrats of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia are ironic, since such accusations resemble McCarthyism.

"You see the Democratic senators [saying] 'This is McCarthyism.' I'm like what? You have a guy screaming, 'Russia, Russia, Russia' with no evidence," Donald Trump Jr. said during an interview with Fox News Channel's Jesse Watters Saturday night. "All this shade for 18 months, screaming about McCarthyism. I mean the irony is ridiculous at this point."

And because Trump Jr. may not fully understand the nuances of "irony," after suggesting his father's critics are guilty of McCarthyism, he added that Democrats "are left of commie right now."

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A voter steps into a voting booth to mark his ballot at a polling site for the New Hampshire primary, Feb. 9, 2016, in Nashua, N.H. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)

Trump can't let go of a made-up voter-fraud conspiracy theory

02/05/18 10:30AM

A year ago this week, Donald Trump hosted a meeting at the White House with 10 senators to discuss Neil Gorsuch's Supreme Court nomination. The president, for reasons that weren't altogether clear, took the opportunity to tell the lawmakers at the meeting that he would've won New Hampshire had it not been for widespread voter fraud.

According to a Politico report, after Trump insisted illegal votes were cast by people "brought in on buses," there was "an uncomfortable silence" in the room.

It's easy to understand why. There was, of course, literally no evidence to support any of the president's odd assertions, and the claims faced fierce pushback from New Hampshire's secretary of state and attorney general. The former chairman of the state Republican Party even offered to pay $1,000 to anyone with any evidence of even one voter being bused into the Granite State to cast an illegal ballot.

No one ever collected.

And yet, there was the president last week, speaking at a Republican National Committee dinner, and returning to the subject once again.

[Trump] argued that he would have won New Hampshire in 2016 had it not been for voter fraud, saying that liberal voters were bussed in from Connecticut and Massachusetts.

I had to double-check the date on the Politico piece to make sure it wasn't an old story. It wasn't: in February 2018, Trump was still repeating made-up nonsense about losing in New Hampshire in November 2016.

And while it's difficult to understand why a sitting president would behave this way in public, there's a broader self-defeating angle to all of this that's also worth appreciating.

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Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson poses for a photograph before speaking with The Associated Press in his home in Upperco, Md., Dec. 23, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP)

Ben Carson voluntarily requests HUD probe of his ethics mess

02/05/18 10:00AM

As if Ben Carson's tenure as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development hadn't been rocky enough, the Washington Post  reported last week that the cabinet secretary is at the center of a deeply problematic ethics mess.

According to the allegations, Carson ignored warnings from HUD attorneys and permitted his son to organize an official agency event in Baltimore -- where Carson's son is a local businessman. Ben Carson Jr. and his wife ended up "inviting people with whom they potentially had business dealings," and then invited those people to contact his father's deputies after the event.

For months, there have been questions about Carson blurring the lines between his agency and his family members, but the cabinet secretary appears to have ignored those concerns.

Late last week, Carson requested an investigation into his alleged ethical lapses.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has called on his department's inspector general to "review" the role his family members have played there, tweeting Friday evening that he has been "under attack." [...]

The HUD secretary tweeted Friday that given the questions about his family's ethics, "I have openly asked for an Independent Investigation to put to rest these unfounded biases."

The tweet included a reference to a line from the book of Exodus: "The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace."

As of now, there's been no official confirmation that the HUD inspector general will launch an investigation -- though with Carson formally requesting a probe, it's likely the matter will receive scrutiny from within the agency. That said, if Carson's alleged conflict-of-interest controversy is investigated, he'll have all kinds of company.

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Image: House Votes On Trump's American Health Care Act

Devin Nunes hints at his next move: more partisan memos

02/05/18 09:30AM

At first blush, it's tempting to assume House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) would be burdened by overwhelming embarrassment right about now. He's not only proven himself incapable of leading one of Congress' most important panels, but Nunes was also caught hyping a memo, based on intelligence he hadn't read, that has become one of this Congress' ugliest fiascoes.

What does the California Republican have planned for an encore? Apparently, more memos.

Nunes talked to Fox News' Bret Baier on Friday afternoon, and this exchange from the interview stood out:

BAIER: Are there other memos that are going to come out? Are there other memos? You said that this was Phase One.

NUNES: Yeah, so this completes just the FISA abuse portion of our investigation. We are in the middle of what I call Phase Two of our investigation, which involves other departments, specifically the State Department and some of the involvement they've had in this.... And we continue to work towards finding answers and asking the right questions to try to get to the bottom of what exactly the State Department was up to in terms of this Russia investigation.

Or put another way, Nunes (a) is no longer even maintaining the pretense that he wants his committee to investigate the most serious attack on the United States since 9/11; (b) failed spectacularly in the "FISA abuse portion" of his efforts; and (c) has a new conspiracy theory to work on.

Axios reported over the weekend that Republicans close to the GOP committee chairman say "there could be as many as five" additional memos. Obviously, this is misguided. When one memo turns out to be nonsense, the solution is not to shovel more nonsense onto the fire.

But even putting that aside, it's hard not to get the feeling that Nunes is confused about how the House Intelligence Committee is supposed to work.

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U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks during his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept.22, 2016. (Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Paul Ryan's misplaced boast about a $1.50 weekly raise

02/05/18 09:00AM

By some measures, the politics of the Republicans ' regressive tax law have changed since it passed two months ago. There's some polling, for example, that suggests the policy, once wildly unpopular, has seen its public standing improve, and it's worth appreciating why.

Indeed, the Associated Press highlighted over the weekend some of the Americans who are at least somewhat pleased with the recent effects of the tax changes. It included this anecdote:

Julia Ketchum, a secretary at a public high school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said she was pleasantly surprised her pay went up $1.50 a week. She didn't think her pay would go up at all, let alone this soon. That adds up to $78 a year, which she said will more than cover her Costco membership for the year.

It's an interesting insight. Much of the country, especially those in the working class, expected to see no change to their income. They're now discovering that they are, in fact, receiving a little more in their paychecks -- in this case of this secretary in Pennsylvania, an extra $1.50 a week.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), one of the key architects of the Republican plan, published a tweet over the weekend, touting this woman's story, apparently as evidence of the law's merits.

And then the Wisconsin congressman deleted the tweet without explanation. I have a hunch we know the reason the missive quietly disappeared.

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New letter shows Trump adviser bragging about advising Kremlin

02/05/18 08:30AM

As part of the coordinated Republican pushback against the Russia investigation, Donald Trump's GOP allies have become heavily invested in Carter Page. That was almost certainly unwise.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), for example, defended his party's antics last week, telling reporters, "There are legitimate questions about whether an American's civil liberties were violated." He was referring to Page, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump's presidential campaign.

On Friday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the key player behind the discredited partisan memo, told Fox News, "I don't believe that somebody like Mr. Page should be a target of the FBI."

Keep this in mind when reading the piece Time magazine published over the weekend:

Former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page bragged that he was an adviser to the Kremlin in a letter obtained by TIME that raises new questions about the extent of Page's contacts with the Russian government over the years.

The letter, dated Aug. 25, 2013, was sent by Page to an academic press during a dispute over edits to an unpublished manuscript he had submitted for publication, according to an editor who worked with Page.

"Over the past half year, I have had the privilege to serve as an informal advisor to the staff of the Kremlin in preparation for their Presidency of the G-20 Summit next month, where energy issues will be a prominent point on the agenda," the letter reads.

If you're starting to think Republicans haven't fully thought through their entire gambit, you're not the only one.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Despite reality, Trump boasts about being 'totally' vindicated

02/05/18 08:00AM

It's genuinely difficult to find an angle to the House Republicans' "Nunes memo" that helps its intended beneficiary: Donald Trump. Every key argument the president and his allies hoped to advance has fallen apart, and after weeks of over-the-top hype, Republicans are actually worse off than they were before the previously classified materials were released to the public.

In fact, over the weekend, the memo's credibility actually managed to move backward. The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal each reported independently that the FBI did, in fact, notify a FISA judge to the political motivations surrounding Christopher Steele's dossier. (The underlying allegation from Trump's allies is wrong -- information from politically motivated sources can be used to obtain a warrant -- but the underlying charge is now dubious.)

Even if you strip the Republican memo of its context and ridiculous motivations, and consider it solely as a document intended to highlight an alleged FISA court abuse, the document fails miserably.

It's against this backdrop that the president declared that he's been "vindicated."

"This memo totally vindicates 'Trump' in probe. But the Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on. Their was no Collusion and there was no Obstruction (the word now used because, after one year of looking endlessly and finding NOTHING, collusion is dead). This is an American disgrace!"

Oh dear.

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The sun rises behind the steeple of a church, Aug. 23, 2015, in Plains, Ga. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)

This Week in God, 2.3.18

02/03/18 08:27AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a look at faith-based developments in the Trump administration, which are the basis for culture-war controversies happening largely outside of public view.

When we think about the Department of Health and Human Services in the Trump era, we tend to think of the administration's efforts to deliberately undermine the Affordable Care Act. Politico published a report recently, however, pointing at a very different kind of effort underway at HHS.

A small cadre of politically prominent religious activists inside the Department of Health and Human Services have spent months quietly planning how to weaken federal protections for abortion and transgender care -- a strategy that's taking shape in a series of policy moves that took even their own staff by surprise.

Those officials include Roger Severino, an anti-abortion Catholic lawyer who now runs the Office of Civil Rights and last week laid out new protections allowing health care workers with religious or moral objections to abortion and other procedures to opt out.

It would appear some career officials at HHS aren't altogether pleased -- since Politico talked to "more than a dozen" current and former staffers at the cabinet agency about Trump's political appointees and their religio-political agenda.

And what an agenda it is. The article added that in October, Shannon Royce, one of HHS's devout Christian leaders who heads the agency's Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, launched a "vast outreach initiative to religious groups ... asking how to serve them better."

The result, Politico added, is an initiative that began "a rulemaking process that could culminate in a rollback of Obama-era protections for transgender patients and allowing health providers more protections to deny procedures like abortion."

Royce reportedly neglected to mention the outreach initiative to others at HHS, including members of her own staff. Royce "put it together with Roger Severino and jammed it out the door," one staffer told  Politico, who noted that the center had never issued a request for information before.

This dovetails a bit with last week's installment of This Week in God: why is the religious right prepared to look the other way when the president is accused of, among other things, paying hush-money to a porn star with whom he allegedly had an affair? Because for politically conservative evangelical Christians, policy advances like the ones they're seeing at HHS make the trade-off worth it.

Also from the God Machine this week:

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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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