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Friday's Mini-Report, 2.10.17

02/10/17 05:32PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* This won't make the issue go away: "Still regrouping from a federal appeals court's refusal to reinstate President Trump's controversial ban of nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries, White House lawyers are working on a rewrite of his executive order that could pass legal muster, NBC News has learned."

* This guy's in trouble: "National Security Advisor Mike Flynn discussed hacking-related sanctions with the Russian ambassador before the Trump administration took office, contrary to the public assertions of Vice President Mike Pence and White House spokesman Sean Spicer, a U.S. intelligence official told NBC News."

* This was a strange White House event: "President Donald Trump on Friday praised the U.S.-Japan relationship, calling the country an 'important and steadfast ally.'"

* Quite a start: "Newly confirmed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had to enter a middle school in Southwest Washington through the back door after protesters blocked the front entrance."

* In the middle of the night, the Senate voted to confirm Tom Price to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. Every Republican voted for him; every Democrat voted against him.

* Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) "postponed eight executions on Friday, two weeks after a federal judge ruled that the state's lethal injection method might be too painful to be legal."

* How badly did Trump screw up the One China fiasco? Chinese state-run media is now openly trolling him on Twitter.
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Image: U.S. President-elect Donald Trump talks to members of the media at Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida

Trump voter-fraud allegations start to look 'deranged'

02/10/17 05:00PM

The fact that Donald Trump continues to talk incessantly about the election from three months ago doesn't bother me. The fact that Donald Trump continues to embrace and repeat delusional conspiracy theories about the election worries me a great deal.
On Thursday, during a meeting with 10 senators that was billed as a listening session about Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, the president went off on a familiar tangent, suggesting again that he was a victim of widespread voter fraud, despite the fact that he won the presidential election.

As soon as the door closed and the reporters allowed to observe for a few minutes had been ushered out, Trump began to talk about the election, participants said, triggered by the presence of former New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who lost her reelection bid in November and is now working for Trump as a Capitol Hill liaison, or "Sherpa," on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch.
According to the Politico article, the president told attendees that he and Ayotte would have won New Hampshire -- both narrowly lost in reality -- were it not for "thousands" of "illegally" cast ballots. Trump reportedly added that he believes these voters were "brought in on buses" from neighboring Massachusetts.

There was, according to one of Politico's sources, "an uncomfortable silence" in the room after Trump made the comment.

Which is the proper response under the circumstances. As MSNBC's Chris Hayes put it, these ridiculous presidential assertions, bolstered by literally no evidence, are clearly "deranged."

Worse, they're part of a pattern.
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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

What happened to Donald Trump's Russia scandal?

02/10/17 04:15PM

For a while, it looked like the biggest political scandal in at least a generation. Russian officials, acting at Vladimir Putin's behest, intervened in the American presidential election, in order to put a pro-Russian candidate in the White House.

As recently as Inauguration Day -- three weeks ago today -- we saw reports that a U.S. counter-intelligence investigation was ongoing, "examining intercepted communications and financial transactions" between Moscow and associates of Donald Trump."

Trump's presidency was already dogged by questions of legitimacy given that nearly 3 million more Americans voted for his opponent, but the idea that a foreign adversary helped tip the scales in his direction raised the volume on those concerns. There was every reason to believe this scandal would help define Trump's time in office.

And yet, the story has generally faded from front pages, replaced with other, newer Trump-related controversies, failures, and mistakes. Mother Jones' David Corn noted yesterday that we're talking about "the biggest election-related scandal since Watergate," but it's "largely disappeared from the political-media landscape."
It is true that the intelligence committee probes are being conducted secretly, and there are no public hearings or actions to cover.... Still, in the past, pundits, politicians, and reporters in Washington have not been reluctant to go all-out in covering and commenting upon a controversy subjected to private investigation.

In this instance, the president's own people may be under investigation, and Trump has demonstrated no interest in holding Putin accountable for messing with US elections in what may be considered an act of covert warfare. Still, there has been no loud demand from the DC media (or most of the GOP) for answers and explanations. This quietude is good news for Putin -- and reason for him to think he could get away with such an operation again.
It's a good point, though it's worth emphasizing that the story is far from finished -- and if Trump supporters are hoping the scandal has simply faded away, they're likely to be disappointed.
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Republican nominee Donald Trump is seen during the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York on Sept. 26, 2016. (Photo by Joe Raedle/AFP/Getty)

Trump slowly realizes he can't run the government like a business

02/10/17 12:56PM

Just two days after winning the presidential election, Donald Trump had a private meeting with President Obama in the White House, where the Democrat started walking the Republican through some of his duties. Trump, according to the Wall Street Journal's sources, "seemed surprised by the scope" of the presidency.

It relates to an important detail that went largely overlooked during the 2016 race: Donald Trump, the only president in American history with literally no background in public service, not only has little understanding of current events and government institutions, but he's also never really understood the presidency itself. As ridiculous as it may sound, Trump applied for a job -- by some measures, one of the most difficult jobs on the planet -- he knew precious little about.

If his posturing and rhetoric are any indication, the New York Republican seemed to believe he already had the necessary skill set because of his private-sector background, and he may have assumed he could run the executive branch like he ran his business. Politico reports today that Trump is slowly realizing that doesn't work, and he's "growing increasingly frustrated."
In interviews, nearly two dozen people who've spent time with Trump in the three weeks since his inauguration said that his mood has careened between surprise and anger as he's faced the predictable realities of governing, from congressional delays over his cabinet nominations and legal fights holding up his aggressive initiatives to staff in-fighting and leaks. [...]

Trump often asks simple questions about policies, proposals and personnel. And, when discussions get bogged down in details, the president has been known to quickly change the subject -- to "seem in control at all times," one senior government official said -- or direct questions about details to his chief strategist Steve Bannon, his son-in-law Jared Kushner or House Speaker Paul Ryan. Trump has privately expressed disbelief over the ability of judges, bureaucrats or lawmakers to delay -- or even stop -- him from filling positions and implementing policies.
Everyone who's ever held the presidency has grown frustrated with the institutional limits and constraints, but it's Trump's "disbelief" that's notable. It's as if, in his mind, the power of the presidency is vast enough that he should be able to do as he pleases, simply by making a decision.

One of the most common and underappreciated phrases he used during the campaign was "very quickly" -- he used to describe how he'd resolve a wide variety of challenges -- because as Trump imagined the presidency, he'd simply bark orders and implement his vision, without excessive thought or study.

Little did he know there are whole other branches of government that play a role -- made more complicated by federal agencies with their own ideas.
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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.10.17

02/10/17 12:00PM

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

* The Republican National Committee has already launched a fundraising campaign hoping to capitalize on the 9th Circuit's ruling against Donald Trump's Muslim ban.

* Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, may represent one of the most Republican districts in the nation, but when the Utah Republican hosted a forum last night with constituents, he faced aggressive pushback from local citizens, many of whom chanted, "Do your job!"

* On a related note, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) has cancelled an upcoming event for constituents, because, according to his communications director, the event had been "re-branded by a group of liberal activists."

* Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) also cancelled a local event this week, which had been billed as a "town hall" gathering that was free and open to the public.

* Public Policy Polling has published online the full report that Rachel featured exclusively on last night's show. Long story short: Trump and his agenda aren't doing well.

* Moving with incredible speed, Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) was sworn in yesterday afternoon as the new U.S. senator from Alabama, filling Jeff Sessions' vacancy.

* With Mike Pompeo giving up his congressional seat to lead the CIA, Kansas Republicans chose a nominee to succeed him last night, rallying behind state Treasurer Ron Estes. The special election will be held April 11, and Democrats are not expected to seriously compete.
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Image: US President Trump signs executive order to allow Dakota,. Keystone pipelines

Some Trump orders are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

02/10/17 11:20AM

Since taking office three weeks ago, Donald Trump hasn't spent much time signing bills into law, at least not yet, but he's been quite aggressive with executive orders, actions, and directives. Some, such as his controversial Muslim ban, have had an enormous policy impact, affecting thousands of people.

Others, however, appear almost meaningless. The New York Times reported yesterday on the latest batch from the Oval Office.
At an Oval Office ceremony for the swearing in of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, President Trump announced that he was also going to sign three executive orders "designed to restore safety in America," to "break the back" of cartels and "stop as of today" violence against the police. [...]

[A]bout 45 minutes later, when the White House released the actual text of the three orders, they turned out to contain few specific policy steps.
One of the orders noted Trump's disapproval of international criminal cartels. The other two ordered the attorney general's office to look for ways to reduce crime rates (which the president continues to describe in demonstrably wrong ways).

In other words, Trump put on a little show in the White House, with leather-bound documents and a well-covered signing ceremony, to sign executive directives that don't actually do anything, other than send rhetorical signals about the new administration's priorities.

Or put another way, we're talking about glorified press releases. These actions may help pave the way for future actions -- I'd expect Republicans to take up some kind of "Blue Lives Matter" legislation in this Congress -- but that doesn't mean the orders themselves carry real policy weight.
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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

On civility, GOP picks the wrong messengers for the right message

02/10/17 10:40AM

During the debate over Jeff Sessions' attorney general nomination, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tried to read a letter from the late Coretta Scott King, only to get shut down by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who said the letter was, in effect, too mean to be read on the Senate floor.

The incident ended up generating some renewed interest in political civility, with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) arguing, for example, "We have to treat each other with respect or this place is going to devolve into a jungle." The Utah Republican added that Jeff Sessions' Senate critics "ought to be ashamed" of their harsh rhetoric towards a colleague, reminding Democrats to "think of his wife."

It was, however, literally last week when Hatch called his Democratic Senate colleagues "idiots." Hatch is also on record describing progressives as "dumbass liberals."

So much for treating people with "respect."

A day later, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza celebrated floor remarks from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who also used the Warren/McConnell dispute as a springboard to talk about political civility.
Rubio's speech was a plea for civility in the Senate, a warning that if civilized debate dies in the Senate, it will die in the broader society too. It's an important address — and one well worth spending eight minutes of your life listening to.

"We are becoming a society incapable of having debate anymore.... We are reaching a point in this republic where we are not going to be able to solve the simplest of issues because everyone is putting themselves in a corner where everyone hates everybody.

"What's at stake here tonight ... is not simply some rule but the ability of the most important nation on earth to debate in a productive and respectful way the pressing issues before it."
I don't have a problem with the message. I take issue with the messengers.
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Las Vegas Sands Corporation Chairman Sheldon Adelson speaks to students at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada in Las Vegas, April 26, 2012.

A Republican megadonor and the 'perfect little puppet'

02/10/17 10:03AM

Exactly three weeks ago, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the nation's 45th president, delivering a widely panned inaugural address in which he vowed to transfer power from the nation's capital "back to you, the people."

Seated behind Trump were members of Congress, members of the new president's family, former presidents, and one Republican Party megadonor: billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. It was the first time in recent memory a new president welcomed a major campaign contributor literally onto the inaugural dais. Soon after, Adelson attended an exclusive luncheon with Trump and congressional leaders at the Capitol.

It's the same Republican megadonor who also joined Trump for dinner last night at the White House. The Washington Post reported yesterday about the presidential gathering:
Republican financier Sheldon Adelson will dine with President Trump on Thursday night at the White House, according to a Trump adviser who was not authorized to speak publicly. Other White House officials and Trump associates are also expected to attend the dinner, the adviser said.

Adelson, who has an estimated net worth of $29.6 billion, and his wife, Miriam, were major Trump donors last year, and continue to have a close relationship with the president.
Evidently. The casino magnate contributed tens of millions of dollars to help put Trump in the White House, which appears to have bought him the kind of access "you, the people" don't enjoy.

At face value, the idea that a sitting president would break bread with a major donor isn't that unusual -- every modern president has done the same thing -- but it's Trump's previous comments about Adelson in particular that make this relationship noteworthy.
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Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn arrives at Trump Tower, Nov. 17, 2016. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and high level positions for the new administration. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

New Russia revelations pose new problems for Trump's NSA

02/10/17 09:22AM

Michael Flynn, Donald Trump's National Security Advisor, has maintained close ties to Moscow in recent years, even getting paid by the Kremlin's propaganda outlet. It therefore caused quite a stir a month ago, when the Washington Post noted that Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak "several times" on Dec. 29, one day after President Obama retaliated against Russia for its role in the election hacking scandal.

The question, of course, was why Flynn made those calls. If he tried to undermine U.S. sanctions, for example, urging Russia not to retaliate because the Trump administration would pursue a more favorable policy, the communications may have been illegal under the Logan Act.

Team Trump said these were routine and uncontroversial calls, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Flynn and Kislyak merely spoke to coordinate upcoming conversations between the American and Russian presidents. As the Washington Post reported overnight, the White House's denials may have been false.
National security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country's ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials, current and former U.S. officials said.

Flynn's communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election.
As recently as Wednesday, Flynn insisted, on the record, that he did not discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador. Yesterday, however, the White House national security advisor said though a spokesperson that Flynn "indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn't be certain that the topic never came up."

And that not-so-subtle shift has the potential to be a very serious problem.
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Xi Jinping

In striking reversal, Trump tells China what it wants to hear

02/10/17 08:40AM

Less than a month after winning the presidential election, Donald Trump spoke directly with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, which not only stunned international observers, but also undermined the "One-China" policy, uprooting decades of carefully crafted, delicate diplomacy that had been honored by both parties.

When many speculated that the Republican bumbled into this by accident, the White House quickly pushed back, insisting that Trump -- who likes to present himself as master negotiator and strategic genius -- was executing a brilliant plan, keeping China on its toes.

"I fully understand the One-China policy," Trump said on Dec. 11. "But I don't know why we have to be bound by a One-China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things."

As of last night, the new president has dramatically changed course.
President Donald Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping in a phone call Thursday that he intends to honor the so-called "One China" policy, after earlier suggesting it was open for negotiation in comments that rankled Beijing, the White House said.

"The two leaders discussed numerous topics and President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our 'one China' policy," the statement said, which described the talks as "extremely cordial."
Note the oddity of the phrasing: Trump didn't just endorse the One China policy; he did so "at the request" of the Chinese president. In other words, Xi Jinping told Trump he wanted the White House to reiterate its support for the policy -- publicly and in writing -- and the U.S. president effectively responded, "Sure thing."

It's hard not to see this as a humiliating moment for Trump, who seriously thought he could play diplomatic hardball with Beijing, only to fail spectacularly with a gambit that was clearly not thought out well.
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Image: Donald Trump

Trump has no one to blame but himself for Muslim ban's failures

02/10/17 08:00AM

A few weeks before Election Day, with fraud allegations dogging Donald Trump and his dubious "university," the Republican's lawyers started worrying that the presidential candidate's provocative campaign rhetoric may undermine their legal defense. Trump's attorneys argued to the judge that everything he said publicly about the case during campaign shouldn't count.

That argument didn't prove persuasive.

This came to mind last night when a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled unanimously against the Trump administration's Muslim ban, pointing in part to the GOP president's own rhetoric about the White House's executive order. From the ruling:
"The States argue that the Executive Order violates the Establishment and Equal Protection Clauses because it was intended to disfavor Muslims. In support of this argument, the States have offered evidence of numerous statements by the President about his intent to implement a 'Muslim ban' as well as evidence they claim suggests that the Executive Order was intended to be that ban, including sections 5(b) and 5(e) of the Order. It is well established that evidence of purpose beyond the face of the challenged law may be considered in evaluating Establishment and Equal Protection Clause claims."
In other words, the administration's lawyers were forced to argue, in effect, "Let's all agree to overlook what Trump said about Trump's policy." To which the 9th Circuit effectively replied, "Um, no."

To be sure, this is a multi-faceted case, and the White House lost on a variety of grounds, but I'm struck by the fact that Donald Trump continues to be Donald Trump's biggest enemy. As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent explained last week, the president not only talked up his Muslim ban as a candidate, Trump also spoke in some depth about his policy being "deliberately discriminatory in intent and effect."

All the plaintiff's counsel had to do was point to the president's own record, which the 9th Circuit considered highly relevant to putting Trump's policy in a broader legal context.
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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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