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Burdened by scandals, school shooting offered Trump World a 'reprieve'

02/20/18 08:00AM

Donald Trump's White House team faced daunting challenges last week, burdened by multiple controversies at once. The president and his aides found it difficult to answer questions, for example, about whether they tried to cover for a staff secretary accused of violence toward women. Rumors were rampant that the White House chief of staff was on his way out.

At the same time, the Russia scandal was becoming more serious; Trump confronted reports of two adulterous affairs with women from the adult-entertainment industry; and two cabinet members struggled to explain taxpayer-financed trips.

Against this backdrop, the Washington Post  reported overnight, some in the White House apparently felt some relief after a mass murder pushed West Wing controversies off the front page.

[A] gun massacre at a Florida high school last Wednesday, which left 17 dead, seemed to shift the media glare away from the Trump scandals and gave embattled aides an opportunity to re­focus on handling a crisis not of their own making. While the White House mourned the loss of life in Parkland, Fla., some aides privately acknowledged that the tragedy offered a breather from the political storm.

"For everyone, it was a distraction or a reprieve," an unnamed White House official told the Post. "A lot of people here felt like it was a reprieve from seven or eight days of just getting pummeled."

He or she added, "But as we all know, sadly, when the coverage dies down a little bit, we'll be back through the chaos."

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Monday's Mini-Report, 2.19.18

02/19/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Problematic: "The president's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., is making what's been dubbed an unofficial visit to India to promote his family's real estate projects. But he's also planning to deliver a foreign policy speech on Indo-Pacific relations at an event with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi."

* Yesterday's mass shooting: "Police were seeking a suspect after a 6-year-old boy and three adults were shot in the parking lot of a popular San Antonio steakhouse. San Antonio Police Chief William McManus says two of the adults' injuries are life-threatening. The boy was shot in the leg and is expected to survive."

* Look for more on this on tonight's show: "White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly announced Friday that beginning next week, the White House will no longer allow some employees with interim security clearances access to top-secret information -- a move that could threaten the standing of Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law."

* The national scourge: "Vermont police on Friday said they thwarted a potential attack on a high school and had arrested an 18-year-old after receiving what they said were credible threats he planned to, in his words, 'shoot up' Fair Haven Union High School."

* A fight worth watching: "The Commerce Department recommended Friday that President Trump restrict soaring imports of steel and aluminum, saying that relying upon foreign sources for such critical materials poses a threat to national security."

* The right thing to do: "Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has reportedly apologized for defending his former chief of staff Rob Porter, who recently resigned from President Donald Trump's administration following allegations that he abused his two ex-wives."

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

Scholars' rankings offer good news for Obama, bad news for Trump

02/19/18 02:26PM

In honor of Presidents' Day, the New York Times published the results of an interesting survey today. Members of the American Political Science Association's Presidents and Executive Politics section -- 170 scholars, in total -- ranked each of the presidents from best to worst. (There are, to be sure, more than one set of rankings, and they always make for fun conversation pieces.)

Here, for example, is the new top 10 list:

1. Lincoln
2. Washington
3. F.D. Roosevelt
4. T. Roosevelt
5. Jefferson
6. Truman
7. Eisenhower
8. Obama
9. Reagan
10. L.B. Johnson

And here's the list of the bottom 10:

35. Taylor
36. Hoover
37. Tyler
38. Fillmore
39. Harding
40. A. Johnson
41. Pierce
42. W.H. Harrison
43. Buchanan
44. Trump

OK, a few things:

1. When the scholars are broken down by party affiliation, Trump ranks #44 among Democratic scholars, #43 among independents, and #40 among Republican scholars. In other words, according to scholars of every stripe, our current president is off to a truly abysmal start and is well on his way to historical ignominy.

2. I consider Trump's election and presidency a profound failure of the American political system, which will haunt us for a generation, and even I'm not sure I'd put him at #44 just yet. Buchanan's ineptitude led to the Civil War, for goodness' sake.

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Man holds a gun in the exhibit hall of the George R. Brown Convention Center, the site for the NRA's annual meeting in Houston, Texas

As Trump takes an interest in background checks, there's reason for skepticism

02/19/18 12:42PM

At first blush, the news today will probably seem encouraging for gun-safety advocates, but I'd recommend caution.

The White House supports efforts to strengthen background checks for gun purchases in the wake of last week's shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said President Donald Trump is open to bipartisan legislation to shore up the background checks system, which is supposed to prevent people with severe mental illness and serious criminal records from purchasing firearms.

"The President spoke to Senator Cornyn on Friday about the bipartisan bill he and Sen. Murphy introduced to improve Federal Compliance with Criminal Background check Legislation. While discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered, the President is supportive of efforts to improve the Federal background check system," Sanders said in a statement.

Right off the bat, note that this is not an explicit endorsement of a pending proposal. Rather, the president is now saying he's "supportive of efforts" to strengthen background checks.

But that's not the reason for skepticism.

1. Trump and the White House are unfortunately unreliable sources of information as it relates to the president's future plans. It's entirely possible that Trump will say the exact opposite of today's vague statement in a tweet later this evening. Or he'll chat with some far-right policymaker who'll convince him it was his idea to weaken existing background checks.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.19.18

02/19/18 12:00PM

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

* The Movement for Black Lives launched a voter-registration campaign over the weekend, tied to the national release of the "Black Panther" film. This strikes me as a very smart move.

* Al Hoffman Jr., a prominent Republican donor in Florida, told GOP leaders over the weekend he intends to keep his wallet closed until the party passes new measures to restrict gun access.

* With Sen. Bob Corker (R) weighing whether to reverse course on his upcoming retirement in Tennessee, far-right Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) has made clear she's staying in the Senate race, whether Corker runs again or not.

* After downplaying connections between the state party and the online Maine Examiner outlet, Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, has finally admitted "to a state ethics panel that he is the owner and operator" of the secretive website.

* Sixteen months after the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump asked over the weekend, "[W]asn't I a great candidate?" (The answer, for what it's worth, is that great candidates generally don't lose the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots.)

* In New York late last week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) formally accepted the state party's re-nomination for a second term. Asked if she intends to serve a full six-year term, the New Yorker, rumored to be interested in the 2020 presidential race, said, "I do.... I really want to serve in the U.S. Senate."

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Image: President Trump attends Republican policy luncheon at the US Capitol

McConnell's response to Russian attack is back in the spotlight

02/19/18 11:20AM

Donald Trump insisted again yesterday that Barack Obama "did nothing" about the threat posed by Russia's attack on U.S. elections in 2016. This is an odd thing for the Republican president to say.

After all, Trump -- the direct beneficiary of Moscow's intelligence operation -- has spent the better part of two years pretending Russia wasn't responsible for the attack; he's done nothing to punish Russia for its intervention in our elections; and he hasn't taken steps to protect us from further attacks.

But of particular interest is the idea that Trump's predecessor sat on his hands and let the intervention happen. There's certainly room for debate about whether Obama could have gone further, but it's factually wrong to say he "did nothing." What the Democratic president did was try to generate bipartisan support for an American response to a foreign attack -- which did not happen in large part because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn't want it to.

Republican strategist John Weaver, who helped run John McCain's and John Kasich's presidential campaigns, said over the weekend that it's time to "revisit why [McConnell] refused to join [Obama] in warning America the Russians had attacked us." Former Vice President Joe Biden recently raised related concerns.

Former Vice President Joe Biden says he and President Barack Obama decided not to speak out publicly on Russian interference during the 2016 campaign after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to sign a bipartisan statement condemning the Kremlin's role.

Speaking on Tuesday at the Council on Foreign Relations, Biden said the Obama administration sought a united front to dispel concerns that going public with such accusations would be seen as an effort to undermine the legitimacy of the election.

However, McConnell "wanted no part of having a bipartisan commitment saying, essentially, 'Russia's doing this. Stop,' " he said.

I'm glad this comes up from time to time, because it's an under-appreciated part of the larger controversy.

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Image: Donald Trump

Trump's dubious pitch: Russian interference was inconsequential

02/19/18 10:42AM

The day after the Justice Department announced criminal indictments against 13 Russian operatives accused of attacking American elections, White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster spoke at a security conference in Munich, and freely acknowledged reality.

The evidence against Russia, the three-star general said, "is now really incontrovertible and available in the public domain."

Alas, McMaster's boss wasn't pleased. The White House national security advisor, Donald Trump declared on Saturday night, "forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians."

Of course, McMaster didn't "forget" this point. He simply had no reason to repeat a claim with no basis in fact.

It's occasionally worth pausing to find the goalposts. When reports first surfaced of Russian intervention in the American elections, Trump and his team said there was no Russian meddling. Trump World then shifted and said they didn't communicate with Russians during the attack. When that was shown to be a lie, they changed their line again, saying there was no cooperation between Russia and the campaign.

Now that we know Russia did attack the elections, and took steps to help put Trump in power, and Team Trump was in communication with Russia during the attack, and top members of Trump's inner circle welcomed Moscow's intervention, the emphasis has shifted anew: the attack was ultimately inconsequential, the argument goes, because Russia's intervention didn't affect the outcome of the race.

In other words, the president and his team desperately want you to forget all those other, discredited talking points, and believe the foreign adversary's intelligence operation simply didn't matter in practical terms.

Trump is pushing the line. So is Vice President Mike Pence. So is White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Some members of Trump World have gone so far as to insist U.S. intelligence agencies have endorsed the talking point -- which isn't even close to being true.

But that's not the only reason you should be skeptical of the president's latest pitch.

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Image: Students are evacuated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during a shooting incident in Parkland

Exploiting tragedy, Trump connects Parkland shooting, Russia probe

02/19/18 10:00AM

Occasionally, those who watch Donald Trump's presidency reach a familiar conclusion. "He's reached rock bottom," observers say. "Trump has abandoned basic human decency to such a brazen degree, he can't stoop lower." I'm personally inclined to point to his post-Charlottesville comments as a unique low point for the modern American presidency.

But just when it seems Trump couldn't possibly go any lower, over the weekend he hit the bottom of the barrel, drilled a hole, and found a way to reach new depths.

Over the weekend, for example, the president thought it'd be a good idea to connect the mass murders at a Parkland, Fla., high school to the federal investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal.

"Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable," Trump said in a Tweet shortly after 11 p.m.

"They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign -- there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud!" the president said on Twitter.

To the extent that reality still has any meaning, it's worth pausing to note that the complaint is substantively absurd. The current Federal Bureau of Investigation employs approximately 35,000 people. The idea that the FBI lacks the personnel to conduct a counter-intelligence investigation and investigate possible mass murders is outrageously foolish, even for this president. The bureau doesn't have to choose one priority or the other.

For that matter, Trump's incessant insistence that there was "no collusion" is still very much at odds with all the evidence pointing to collusion.

But relevant factual details aside, what stands out as especially noteworthy about Trump's missive is its utter moral depravity.

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Image: TOPSHOT-GERMANY-G20-SUMMIT

Trump's whopper: 'I never said Russia did not meddle in the election'

02/19/18 09:22AM

We're pretty accustomed to Donald Trump throwing occasional Twitter tantrums, but his avalanche of nonsense over the weekend was startling, even for him. You've heard the phrase, "Never let 'em see you sweat"? Following Friday's indictments against the president's Russian benefactors, Trump ignored the adage in rather profound ways.

But of particular interest was a curious denial. "I never said Russia did not meddle in the election," he tweeted. "I said 'it may be Russia, or China or another country or group, or it may be a 400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer.'"

At face value, the president is trying to suggest he sliced the truth thin: he didn't explicitly say Russia was innocent, the argument goes, so much as he raised the possibility that Russia may not be guilty. As such, Trump -- who likes to pretend he's incapable of saying something that's incorrect -- wasn't technically wrong.

That's a nice try, I suppose, but reality is stubborn.

Mr. Trump is referring to comments he made during the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, 2016. But as The New York Times reported in a fact-check in June, Mr. Trump has also explicitly disagreed with the assessment of various intelligence agencies or cast doubt on Russia's role in the vote.

The Times' article documents eight examples of Trump telling the public that he did not believe Russia intervened in the 2016 election, including the unambiguous assertion, "I don't believe they interfered."

The list isn't intended to be comprehensive, and it omitted plenty of related examples, many of which CNBC flagged. One of my personal favorites came during the presidential transition period, when the Republican, confronted with a U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia intervened on Trump's behalf, called the findings "ridiculous," adding, "I don't believe it."

It was one of several instances in which Trump rejected the findings of U.S. intelligence professionals, whom he's routinely mocked and publicly criticized for daring to, we now know, tell the truth about a foreign adversary's intelligence operation.

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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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