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Friday's Mini-Report, 5.19.17

05/19/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein "gave two separate briefings to House and Senate members this week to discuss his role in the firing of FBI Director James Comey, his decision to appoint a special counsel to investigate Russian interference in last year's election and any possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia."

* A question in need of an answer: "Was [Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan] personally involved in his bodyguards' attacks on protesters in D.C.?"

* Watch this one closely: "President Donald Trump has told advisers he wants to end payments of key Obamacare subsidies, a move that could send the health law's insurance markets into a tailspin, according to several sources familiar with the conversations."

* Dana Rohrabacher is known as Putin's favorite congressman: "The F.B.I. warned a Republican congressman in 2012 that Russian spies were trying to recruit him, officials said, an example of how aggressively Russian agents have tried to influence Washington politics."

* NAACP: "The national board of the N.A.A.C.P. voted Friday to dismiss the organization's president, Cornell William Brooks, after only three years, pledging a 'systemwide refresh' at the nation's largest and most storied civil rights group in order to confront President Trump more vigorously."

* I wonder if the chat was recorded: "President Donald Trump convened his legal team on Thursday to discuss the escalating investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election."

* Uncertainty: "From the standpoint of creating economic uncertainty, the election of Donald Trump has been more tumultuous than the 1987 stock market crash and the 2008 financial crisis."
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This file handout photo taken on May 10, 2017 made available by the Russian Foreign Ministry shows shows US President Donald J. Trump (C) speaking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and Russian Ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak.

Trump: Comey was a 'nut job' and his firing relieved 'pressure'

05/19/17 04:51PM

Last week, Donald Trump welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergei Kislyak into the Oval Office -- at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting has proven controversial for all kinds or reasons, not the least of which is the American president's decision to share highly classified intelligence with his guests for reasons that are still unclear.

But a New York Times report published this afternoon has uncovered an entirely new reason last week's White House chat is turning into one of the most consequential conversations of Trump's young presidency.
President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, had relieved "great pressure" on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting.

"I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job," Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."
Remember, when Trump fired the then-FBI director, the official White House line was that the president's decision was unrelated to the investigation into the Russia scandal, which Comey was overseeing. And yet, here we're confronted with fresh evidence to the contrary -- with Trump admitting to Russian officials that he dismissed Comey because of the "pressure" caused by the Russia scandal.

What's more, as the Times' report makes clear, this is not mere scuttlebutt from anonymous sources. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer "did not dispute the account," and the report was based on "the official account of the meeting" adopted by the Trump administration.

To be sure, the president effectively admitted his reasoning for firing Comey -- a confession that carried a whiff of obstruction of justice -- in an NBC News interview last week, but now we have additional evidence of Trump conceding that the original White House line wasn't true, and his genuine motivations only add to the severity of the scandal.

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

Investigation into Russia scandal reaches inside the White House

05/19/17 04:17PM

As the Russia scandal has intensified, much of the focus has been on individuals who played prominent roles on Donald Trump's campaign team. Figures such as Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Carter Page had Trump's ear in 2016, and while Flynn was briefly part of the president's White House operation, none of these figures currently has a job at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

It's what makes this new report from the Washington Post so stunning.
The law enforcement investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign has identified a current White House official as a significant person of interest, showing that the probe is reaching into the highest levels of government, according to people familiar with the matter.

The senior White House adviser under scrutiny by investigators is someone close to the president, according to these people, who would not further identify the official.
There was a point during Watergate when the investigation made the leap from Richard Nixon's political operation to Nixon's White House team. We appear to have arrived at a related point with Donald Trump's Russia scandal.
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Image: U.S. President Trump celebrates with Republican House members after healthcare bill vote at the White House in Washington

House Republicans may have to vote on their health care plan again

05/19/17 12:44PM

Two weeks ago, House Republicans dragged their regressive and unpopular health care bill across the finish line, just barely eking out a majority. GOP lawmakers then celebrated like they'd just won the Super Bowl, laughing it up in the Rose Garden with Donald Trump.

It was simply assumed at the time that the House would follow the normal procedures, send the bill to the Senate for consideration, and wait to see what happens in the upper chamber. That, however, did not happen.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said this morning that the House would "probably" send the bill that's already passed over to the Senate "in a couple of weeks."

Why not send it now? Indeed, why hasn't it been sent already? As NBC News reported, it's because the House may have to pass the bill again.
Republicans are using the budget "reconciliation" process to pass their health care bill, which allows them to push legislation through the Senate with a simple majority. But that depends on the bill meeting certain requirements -- and one of them is that it reduces the deficit by at least $2 billion over the next decade.

The trouble is that Republicans voted on their House bill without waiting for the Congressional Budget Office, the federal agency that evaluates legislation, to finish its projections, which are expected next week.
Chances are, the House will not need to vote again, but there's a chance the Congressional Budget Office's report, which is scheduled to  be released on Wednesday, will find that the current GOP legislation doesn't meet the standards for reconciliation.

Ashlee Strong, a spokeswoman for Paul Ryan, told NBC News, "The bill is just being held until CBO issues its final score,"

That's funny, it seems like just two weeks ago that Ashlee Strong was pretending the CBO has already scored the Republican plan.
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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.19.17

05/19/17 12:04PM

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

* With less than a week to go before Montana's congressional special election, Republican Greg Gianforte is facing questions about why he contributed to a white nationalist's legislative campaign last year. "I was unaware of some of his views," Gianforte said Wednesday.

* On a related note, the House Democrats' House Majority PAC, is making a last-minute $25,000 ad buy in support of Rob Quist's campaign. In case it's not obvious, that's not much of an investment.

* Quist, meanwhile, announced yesterday that he raised $5 million for his campaign, which is a pretty impressive haul for a Democrat in a red state's special election.

* Speaking of congressional special elections, the DNC is hiring 10 new field staffers to help give Jon Ossoff's campaign a boost in Georgia. The special election is a month from tomorrow.

* Donald Trump is helping inspire Democratic donors to open their wallets: the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has "already raised more money in online contributions this year ahead of the midterms than they did during all of 2015."

* A Monmouth University poll released yesterday showed Trump's approval rating dropping to just 39%. The same poll found that a 48% plurality believe the president's approach towards Russia represents "a threat to national security."
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Image: Ryan Speaks on Trump's Leaking of Classified Information to Russians, James Comey

Paul Ryan reflects on his party's challenges: 'Blah blah blah'

05/19/17 11:20AM

With Donald Trump flailing, the Republican agenda struggling, and polls showing a considerable public appetite for a change in direction, it seems likely GOP leaders are wondering what the near future has in store for them.

The line for public consumption, however, is a little more lackadaisical.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Friday brushed off talk of a possible Democratic wave sweeping Republicans out of Congress in 2018.

"Blah blah blah blah blah is what I think about that stuff," the usually measured and articulate Speaker told conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt.
I don't think that's true. Paul Ryan spends quite a bit of time raising money for his party's 2018 efforts, and he's traveled recently in support of Republican candidates in congressional special elections. If this wasn't an important area of concern for the Wisconsin congressman, he probably wouldn't invest quite so much energy in next year's midterm cycle.

What strikes me as funnier, however, is the rich recent history in Republican politics of the specific phrase Ryan used this morning.
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Pedro Rojas holds a sign directing people to an insurance company where they can sign up for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, before the February 15th deadline on Feb. 5, 2015 in Miami, Fla.  (Joe Raedle/Getty)

Trump administration tries playing hardball with health insurers

05/19/17 10:47AM

It's been an odd week for the debate over health care policy.

On the one hand, there's encouraging evidence about the real-world benefits of the current system. Bloomberg Politics reported that the Affordable Care Act is helping Americans detect cancer earlier, which saves lives and money. A day earlier, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a new report that showed the nation's uninsured rate dropping to the lowest point on record.

On the other hand, Donald Trump is president. He told the nation yesterday, "Obamacare is collapsing. It's dead; it's gone. There's nothing to compare anything to because we don't have health care in this country.... We don't have health care. Obamacare is a fallacy. It's gone."

As is too often the case, Trump's little tirade was at odds with reality. The status quo under the ACA is not without challenges, but (a) the system is not "collapsing"; (b) the Republican plan would make matters far worse; and (c) Trump and his team appear to be taking steps to sabotage the American system as part of the GOP's political ambitions.

The Los Angeles Times had an important piece along these lines yesterday:
The growing frustration with the Trump administration's management -- reflected in letters to state regulators and in interviews with more than two dozen senior industry and government officials nationwide -- undercuts a key White House claim that Obamacare insurance marketplaces are collapsing on their own.

Instead, according to many officials, it is the Trump administration that is driving much of the current instability by refusing to commit to steps to keep markets running, such as funding aid for low-income consumers or enforcing penalties for people who go without insurance.
Privately, the report added, "many executives, including chief executives of major health plans, offered withering criticism of the Trump administration's lack of leadership."
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Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill, on Sept. 29, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty)

Jason Chaffetz faces questions as he resigns from Congress

05/19/17 10:05AM

As recently as November, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) asked voters in Utah's 3rd congressional district to send him back to Congress for another two-year term. It was around the same time that  the Utah Republican told the Washington Post that he was eagerly looking forward to overseeing "years" of congressional oversight hearings.

But then something changed. Just three months into the new Congress, Chaffetz announced he wouldn't seek re-election. Yesterday, he went further, announcing that he'll resign from the House altogether on June 30.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chair of the powerful House Oversight Committee, announced Thursday he will leave Congress at the end of next month. [...]

The Utah Republican announced last month he would not seek re-election in 2018. He cited time away from home and his willingness to return to the private sector as reasons why he made the decision.
Chaffetz hasn't said what his next steps will be, though there are rumors that he's eyeing a job at Fox News.

But as the GOP lawmaker prepares to walk away from Capitol Hill after nearly eight years in Congress, it's hard not to wonder what prompted Chaffetz to change the direction of his career so dramatically. He does, after all, have a powerful post and a high-profile position. Why would a lawmaker start the year raring to go, only to very quickly thereafter decide to quit?
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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP-DEPARTS

Trump's foreign hosts make unusual preparations for his visit

05/19/17 09:20AM

Donald Trump will embark on his first foreign trip as president, and by all appearances, no one is especially pleased with his travel plans. The New York Times reported this week, for example, that the president himself "has expressed dread about the trip," and asked White House aides to shrink the time abroad from nine days to five.

The same report added that Trump's aides aren't looking forward to this, either: the president's intense schedule "could produce unscripted, diplomatically perilous moments."

And then, of course, there are Trump's foreign hosts. The New York Times reports today that leaders abroad are "trying to figure out the best way to approach an American president unlike any they have known." They've come up with a few ideas.
After four months of interactions between Mr. Trump and his counterparts, foreign officials and their Washington consultants say certain rules have emerged: Keep it short -- no 30-minute monologue for a 30-second attention span. Do not assume he knows the history of the country or its major points of contention. Compliment him on his Electoral College victory. Contrast him favorably with President Barack Obama.

Do not get hung up on whatever was said during the campaign. Stay in regular touch. Do not go in with a shopping list but bring some sort of deal he can call a victory.
A related report from the Associated Press noted, "At NATO and the Group of 7 summits, foreign delegations have gotten word that the new U.S. president prefers short presentations and lots of visual aids."

The piece added that Trump's aides have been careful to "build daily downtime" into his schedule.
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Image: US-POLITICS-FBI-CONGRESS-COMEY

Trump takes a big risk with a categorical denial on Comey

05/19/17 08:47AM

Towards the end of yesterday's White House press conference, Donald Trump was asked a good yes-or-no question.
Q: Did you at any time urge former FBI Director James Comey in any way, shape, or form to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn?

TRUMP: No. No. Next question.
The trouble, of course, is that James Comey wrote a contemporaneous memo, documenting a meeting he had with the president in which Trump allegedly told the then-FBI director, in reference to the Russia investigation and Michael Flynn's role, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."

The existence of this memo -- and others that are reportedly like it -- make Trump's direct, on-camera denial incredibly risky. The president could've hedged, used imprecise language, or even said he couldn't comment on such matters because they're part of an ongoing federal investigation, but he instead offered a categorical answer.

And that reminded me of a story about Ken Starr.
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Image: Donald Trump

In Russia scandal, Trump looks out for Number One: himself

05/19/17 08:00AM

Midway through Donald Trump's White House press conference yesterday with Colombia's Juan Manuel Santos, there was an exchange on the Russian scandal that offered an interesting peek into the American president's thinking.
Q: Mr. President, I'd like to get your reaction to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's decision to appoint a special counsel to investigate the Russian interference in the campaign.  Was this the right move, or is this part of a "witch hunt"?

TRUMP:  Well, I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt.  And there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself -- and the Russians, zero.
The president's mastery of English often falls short, and this was a rather dramatic example of Trump saying what he didn't mean. I'm pretty sure he intended to say was that there was "no collusion between" him and Russia, but he can only "speak for" himself.

There was a similar exchange last week when the president sat down with NBC News' Lester Holt and declared, "I know that I'm not under investigation. Me. Personally. I'm not talking about campaigns; I'm not talking about anything else; I'm not under investigation." For emphasis, he repeated the phrase a half-dozen times.

What's more, there's the latest New York Times reporting, which Rachel highlighted on the show last night, which noted that Trump personally called then-FBI Director James Comey, soon after taking office, to ask "when federal authorities were going to put out word that Mr. Trump was not personally under investigation."

A not-so-subtle picture is starting to emerge. The president seems to realize that people around him -- officials at the highest levels of his political operation during the campaign -- may be brought down by the Russia scandal, but Trump is prepared to throw them under the bus and keep driving, as quickly as possible, to protect himself. He likely assumes that so long as there's no evidence of him personally chatting with Vladimir Putin, helping coordinate Russia's attack on the U.S. election, then Trump is personally in the clear.

If leading figures from Trump World aren't as fortunate, in the president's mind, that's their problem. He can only "speak for" himself.

This is not a sound plan.
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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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