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Thursday's Mini-Report, 8.3.17

08/03/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Afghanistan: "Two U.S. service members were killed by a suicide truck bomber in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday, the Defense Department said, underscoring the danger to U.S. troops as the Trump White House struggles with a decision on the way forward there."

* EPA: "One day after getting sued by 15 states, Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt reversed his earlier decision to delay implementation of Obama-era rules reducing emissions of smog-causing air pollutants."

* Russia scandal: "Congressional investigators are interested in obtaining phone records pertaining to Donald Trump Jr.'s June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer, CBS News has confirmed."

* Missouri: "The state of Missouri has earned the dubious distinction of being the first ever state to have a travel advisory issued against it by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), due to a recent string of both directly and indirectly state-sanctioned racist and discriminatory incidents."

* On a related note: "A forthcoming Missouri law that would make it harder to sue a business for race discrimination -- which prompted the NAACP to issue a travel advisory for African-Americans in the state -- was sponsored by a lawmaker whose business is being sued for race discrimination"

* Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had originally said he'd delay the start of the chamber's summer recess until the end of next week. But with health care stalled, McConnell changed his mind -- and senators left town today.

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Then FBI Director Robert Mueller arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 16, 2012, to testify during a hearing.

Mueller reportedly impanels Russia scandal grand jury

08/03/17 04:27PM

Robert Mueller only took over the federal investigation into the Russia scandal in mid-May, following Donald Trump's decision to fire then-FBI Director James Comey in the hopes of derailing the ongoing probe. But it appears the special counsel and his team have already made considerable progress.

The Wall Street Journal reports this afternoon, for example, that Mueller has impaneled a grand jury as part of the investigation, "a sign that his inquiry is growing in intensity and entering a new phase."

The grand jury, which began its work in recent weeks, is a sign that Mr. Mueller's inquiry is ramping up and that it will likely continue for months. [...]

Grand juries are powerful investigative tools that allow prosecutors to subpoena documents, put witnesses under oath and seek indictments, if there is evidence of a crime. Legal experts said that the decision by Mr. Mueller to impanel a grand jury suggests he believes he will need to subpoena records and take testimony from witnesses.

At this point, the Wall Street Journal appears to be the only major outlet with this report, and the story has not yet been confirmed by NBC News.

That said, if the WSJ's reporting is correct, it's a major development. The newspaper spoke to Thomas Zeno, a federal prosecutor for 29 years, who said the grand jury is "confirmation that this is a very vigorous investigation going on." Zeno went on to say, "This doesn't mean he is going to bring charges. But it shows he is very serious. He wouldn't do this if it were winding down."

Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas, added, "This is yet a further sign that there is a long-term, large-scale series of prosecutions being contemplated and being pursued by the special counsel. If there was already a grand jury in Alexandria looking at [former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn], there would be no need to reinvent the wheel for the same guy. This suggests that the investigation is bigger and wider than Flynn, perhaps substantially so."

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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

The White House has thrown its credibility away

08/03/17 03:56PM

In early February, White House sources first leaked word that Donald Trump's first phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm had been a disaster. The American president, by all accounts, clashed bitterly with the longtime U.S. ally over a refugee policy Trump thought he understood, but didn't. It was the first meaningful evidence that the Republican was poised to do serious harm to American diplomacy and our standing in the world.

A day later, however, Trump insisted on Twitter that he had a "very civil conversation" with the Australian prime minister and accounts to the contrary were falsehoods created by the "fake news media." We know now, of course, that Trump was lying -- because a leaked White House transcript proves it.

What's astounding, of course, is how routine this has become. On an almost comically regular basis, the president and his White House deny the accuracy of various stories, only to soon after confirm that their earlier denials were wrong and the stories were correct.

For example, one of Donald Trump's private attorneys, Jay Sekulow, said the president wasn't involved in drafting his son's deceptive statement about a meeting last year with Russian nationals. And yet, as the Washington Post reported:

The White House directly contradicted President Trump's own attorney on Tuesday. It confirmed that the president was involved in that misleading Donald Trump Jr. statement about his meeting with a Russian lawyer after Trump's attorney, Jay Sekulow, had issued two unmistakable comments asserting Trump wasn't.

The headline on the Post's piece yesterday read, "7 times the Trump team denied something -- and then confirmed it." This morning, it was updated to read, "8 times the Trump team denied something -- and then confirmed it." This afternoon, as more examples came to the fore, it reads, "9 times the Trump team denied something -- and then confirmed it." There's no reason to believe it won't be updated again.

The point, of course, is that anytime the president and the White House deny something, there's simply no reason to accept the claim at face value. Members of Trump World have earned a reputation for lying reflexively, and they've been caught too many times for anyone to consider them credible.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

Leaked transcripts offer a peek behind the Oval Office curtain

08/03/17 12:48PM

Not long after Donald Trump became president, he did what all new presidents do: he held introductory phone calls with many foreign leaders. We had a sense that some of these calls went very badly for the Republican, but it wasn't until today that we learned just how disastrous some of these conversations were.

The Washington Post obtained transcripts of the discussions Trump had with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull -- the fact this information leaked is itself extraordinary -- and perhaps the most striking revelation had to do with the American president's argument about his precious border wall.

President Trump made building a wall along the southern U.S. border and forcing Mexico to pay for it core pledges of his campaign.

But in his first White House call with Mexico's president, Trump described his vow to charge Mexico as a growing political problem, pressuring the Mexican leader to stop saying publicly that his government would never pay.

"You cannot say that to the press," Trump said repeatedly, according to a transcript of the Jan. 27 call obtained by The Washington Post. Trump made clear that he realized the funding would have to come from other sources but threatened to cut off contact if Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto continued to make defiant statements.

Reading the transcript, it's hard not to notice Trump's desperation. He seems to understand that Mexico won't pay for the wall -- despite what he repeatedly promised voters -- but he pleads with the Mexican president not to make him look bad. "[I]f you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that," Trump said.

Remember, Trump's claim to fame is his supposedly unrivaled ability to strike amazing deals. And that's one of the reasons this peek behind the Oval Office curtain is so important: the transcript offers us a chance to see the Master Negotiator in action on one of his top campaign priorities.

Of course, in this case, Trump's deal-making abilities involved pleading with a foreign president not to acknowledge reality, facing resistance, and not knowing what to do next. Trump seemed to realize that he'd painted himself into a corner by making promises he couldn't keep, and he apparently expected the Mexican president to rescue him.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.3.17

08/03/17 12:00PM

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

* In Arizona, a new survey from Public Policy Polling shows Sen. Jeff Flake (R) with an approval rating of just 18%. The same poll shows Donald Trump with a 44% rating in the Grand Canyon State, which the president narrowly won last fall.

* The AARP, which was staunchly opposed to Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, has launched new ads thanking Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and John McCain for opposing their party's health care legislation.

* Republican Rep. Diane Black, a four-term congresswoman, kicked off her gubernatorial campaign in Tennessee yesterday, and is well positioned to be the 2018 frontrunner.

* With Rep. Lou Barletta (R) almost certain to run for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania next year, Rep. Mike Kelly (R) announced yesterday he's passing on the statewide race and will run for re-election to the House instead.

* Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) picked up her first challenger this week, with state Rep. Geoff Diehl (R) kicking off his campaign. Diehl is perhaps best known for helping lead Donald Trump's campaign in Massachusetts -- a state the president lost by 27 points.

* In South Carolina, gubernatorial hopeful Catherine Templeton (R) raised a few eyebrows this week declaring at a forum that she's "proud of the Confederacy" and pledging not to "rewrite history" by removing Confederate monuments.

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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)

For the third time, a court uses Trump's own words against him

08/03/17 11:20AM

The Miranda warning read to criminal suspects is familiar to anyone who's watched police dramas on television: people have the right to remain silent, and they should know anything they say may be used against them in court.

Donald Trump should probably be aware of this, too, not because he's been charged with a crime -- at least not yet -- but because the president's words keep coming back to haunt him in court.

The Washington Post highlighted the latest example, which came this week from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Shortly after the bulk of the [Affordable Care Act] went into effect in 2014, House Republicans sued the Obama administration to stop [cost-sharing reduction] payments, which are central to upholding the law and the health of the insurance markets that participate. Now, Democratic attorneys general will sue the Trump administration to keep the federal subsidies.

Trump has openly considered whether to just stop paying those subsidies, which could put him on tricky constitutional and political ground. And health policy experts predict that stopping the payments would cripple the health insurance market and end Obamacare.

Democratic attorneys general from several states argued they should be able to intervene in the litigation before the Trump administration derails the case altogether. The appellate court agreed, in part because the states would directly suffer if the White House tried to sabotage the system, and in part because of "accumulating public statements by high-level officials."

As Nicholas Bagley put it, "In other words, President Trump's loose lips have once again created problems for his lawyers."

If it seems like this keeps happening, it's because this keeps happening.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

New chief of staff tries to make it harder to manipulate Trump

08/03/17 10:47AM

Among Donald Trump's most important flaws as a president is how awful he is at consuming information. Any president has to be adept at recognizing what reports are important, which ones are dubious, which should be taken seriously, and which require further study.

As a candidate, Trump struggled spectacularly in this area, embracing all kinds of nonsense he'd find in supermarket tabloids and fringe websites. As a president, the problem is vastly worse. Politico reported in May, "Aides sometimes slip him stories to press their advantage on policy; other times they do so to gain an edge in the seemingly endless Game of Thrones inside the West Wing. The consequences can be tremendous.... A news story tucked into Trump's hands at the right moment can torpedo an appointment or redirect the president's entire agenda."

As we discussed at the time, this is an insane way for a White House to operate. By all appearances, a president lacking in critical thinking skills has been manipulated by staffers -- some bent on mischief, some with their own agendas -- who've discovered how easy it is to exploit their gullible boss' ignorance.

New White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has apparently recognized the problem, and Politico reports today the retired general is determined to curtail "bad information getting into the president's hands."

Since starting this week, Kelly has told aides that anyone briefing the president needs to show him the information first. The Trump West Wing tradition of aides dropping off articles on the president's desk -- then waiting for him to react, with a screaming phone call or a hastily scheduled staff meeting, must stop. He will not accept aides walking into the Oval Office and telling the president information without permission -- or without the information being vetted. [...]

In the West Wing, many of the president's most controversial decisions have been attributed to bad information, partially because the president is easily swayed by the last person he has talked to -- or the last thing he has read.

So far, so good. Kelly has recognized an important problem -- Trump is routinely thrown wildly off track by someone handing him nonsense -- and has begun to take steps to address that problem.

And while I certainly wish the chief of staff luck, there's a piece to this puzzle that Kelly can't fully control.

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Image: NKOREA-US-MISSILE-DIPLOMACY

Team Trump struggles to keep its story straight on North Korea

08/03/17 10:06AM

A few months ago, Donald Trump offered public praise for Kim Jong Un and expressed a willingness to engage in direct talks with the North Korean dictator. "If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it," Trump said in May.

But White House support for diplomacy towards North Korea waned in the months that followed, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley declared this past weekend that she's "done" talking about North Korea.

Three days later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who's routinely not on the same page as Haley, seemed to take a very different position, saying that "at some point" U.S. officials "would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

Yesterday, the administration apparently switched gears again.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence rejected the notion of holding direct talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un aimed at curbing the nation's nuclear weapons program, saying the right strategy doesn't involve "engaging North Korea directly."

Instead, Mr. Pence said he favored economic and diplomatic pressure while pushing China to use its clout with Pyongyang.

So to recap, the Trump administration is for, and against, and for, and against direct diplomatic discussions with North Korea.

The president, meanwhile, insists he has this all figured out.

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin responds to US President Donald Trump ordering missile strikes on Syria

Trump blames Congress, not Russia, for deteriorating relations

08/03/17 09:20AM

Vice President Mike Pence spoke to reporters this week in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, and said U.S. relations with Russia would improve when officials in Moscow change course on several fronts, including Ukraine, Syria, and North Korea. Pence added that when it comes to new U.S. sanctions on Russia, the Trump administration and lawmakers in Congress are "speaking with a unified voice."

As is often the case, the president and vice president have presented the world with two competing messages. While Pence wants everyone to believe the United States is "speaking with a unified voice," Donald Trump has taken to Twitter to blame Americans in Congress for deteriorating relations with Russia:

"Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can't even give us HCare!"

This comes a day after Trump grudgingly signed new Russian sanctions, approved by overwhelming, bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate, into law. The president added a statement, however, that was deeply critical of Congress.

The broader context here is truly extraordinary. Congress approved new sanctions against Russia because the Putin government attacked our election -- but when presented with evidence of this by U.S. intelligence agencies, Trump has been more inclined to believe the Russian president than American intelligence professionals.

Now, with Russia expelling an unprecedented number of people from the U.S. embassy and other consular offices throughout Russia, Trump has literally nothing critical to say about the diplomatic affront from the foreign adversary, but the American president can't stop whining about American lawmakers -- including members of his own party -- targeting Moscow.

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Image: Donald Trump, Andrzej Duda

Officials start to ignore the Incredible Shrinking President

08/03/17 08:40AM

Donald Trump hasn't been shy in recent weeks about publicly slamming his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, mocking him as "very weak." Asked whether Sessions would remain at his post, the president was recently non-committal, saying only that "time will tell."

And yet, new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly reached out to the attorney general directly over the weekend, reassuring Sessions that his position is safe, Trump's rhetoric notwithstanding.

We don't know exactly how Kelly put it, but given the circumstances, it's likely the retired general told Sessions not to worry too much about what the president says. As CNBC's John Harwood wrote yesterday, there's a lot of this going around.

Increasingly, federal officials are deciding to simply ignore President Donald Trump.

As stunning as that sounds, fresh evidence arrives every day of the government treating the man elected to lead it as someone talking mostly to himself.

On Tuesday alone, the commandant of the Coast Guard announced he will "not break faith" with transgender service members despite Trump's statement that they could no longer serve. Fellow Republicans in the Senate moved ahead with other business despite the president's insistence that they return to repealing Obamacare. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, "we certainly don't blame the Chinese" for North Korea's nuclear program after Trump claimed, "China could easily solve this problem." And Vice President Mike Pence said the president and Congress speak in a "unified voice" on a bipartisan Russia sanctions bill Trump has signed, but not publicly embraced.

Harwood noted a recent LawFare piece from Jack Goldsmith, a top Justice Department official in the Bush/Cheney administration, who wrote, "What is most remarkable is the extent to which his senior officials act as if Trump were not the chief executive. Never has a president been so regularly ignored or contradicted by his own officials.... The President is a figurehead who barks out positions and desires, but his senior subordinates carry on with different commitments."

This isn't limited to the executive branch. Trump is ostensibly the head of the Republican Party, in addition to being president, working with like-minded allies who control Congress, but on Capitol Hill, GOP leaders also treat Trump's directives as instructions that are easily ignored.

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Image: Donald Trump

Donald Trump's support plummets to historic new depths

08/03/17 08:00AM

Eric Trump, who's ostensibly steering clear of politics and helping run his father's business, appeared on Fox News this week and boasted about Donald Trump's broad popularity. "My father has the voice of this country," he said. "The people of this country love him."

There's quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. In the latest Gallup daily tracking poll, released yesterday, Trump's approval rating fell to 36%, tying his lowest support to date. His disapproval rating, meanwhile, climbed to 60%, which is unheard of for a president who's only been in office for six months.

A Quinnipiac poll, also released yesterday, pointed in an even more discouraging direction for the White House.

President Donald Trump plunges to a new low as American voters disapprove 61 - 33 percent of the job he is doing, according to a Quinnipiac University national poll released today. White men are divided 47 - 48 percent and Republicans approve 76 - 17 percent. White voters with no college degree, a key part of the president's base, disapprove 50 - 43 percent.

Today's approval rating is down from a 55 - 40 percent disapproval in a June 29 survey by the independent Quinnipiac University. This is President Trump's lowest approval and highest disapproval number since he was inaugurated.

The closer one looks at the results, the worse they appear. Quinnipiac found that most Americans say they are embarrassed to have Trump as president, believe Trump is abusing the powers of his office, and see Trump as positioning himself as above the law.

In terms of the president's personal characteristics, the same survey found a majority of Americans agreeing that Trump is not levelheaded, not honest, lacking in leadership skills, and unconcerned with average Americans.

And while it's generally true that it's best not to focus too heavily on any individual poll, FiveThirtyEight found this week that Trump's average approval rating across all polling reached an all-time low, while his disapproval reached an all-time high.

The president himself recently insisted that his public standing is "not bad." That's plainly wrong.

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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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