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Image: Attorney General Jeff Sessions Receives Award From The Sergeants Benevolent Association of New York City

Jeff Sessions moves forward with his regressive drug war

06/13/17 10:42AM

As Rachel noted on last night's show, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has become a key player in Donald Trump's Russia scandal, and his Senate testimony this afternoon will hopefully bring some answers to important unanswered questions. But it's against this backdrop that the far-right A.G. remains focused on his core priorities.

And in Sessions' case, that means going after people who smoke pot. The Washington Post reports today that the nation's attorney general recently urged congressional leaders to scrap protections for medical marijuana that received bipartisan approval in 2014.

The protections, known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, prohibit the Justice Department from using federal funds to prevent certain states "from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana."

In his letter, first obtained by Tom Angell of and verified independently by The Washington Post, Sessions argued that the amendment would "inhibit [the Justice Department's] authority to enforce the Controlled Substances Act."

Sessions' letter, sent in May, insists that the nation is "in the midst of an historic drug epidemic," which is why he wants the Justice Department to "use all laws available to combat" the problem.

Of course, the idea that the addiction epidemic has anything to do with medical marijuana is, if we're being charitable, very difficult to take seriously. Indeed, the Post's report added, "[R]esearch strongly suggests that cracking down on medical marijuana laws, as Sessions requested, could perversely make the opiate epidemic even worse."

So why is Sessions doing this? Because he really, really hates marijuana.

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Image: U.S. President Trump's lawyer Kasowitz delivers a statement in Washington

Did Trump's personal lawyer help fire a key U.S. attorney?

06/13/17 10:09AM

There's no shortage of important unanswered questions surrounding Donald Trump's White House, but as we discussed yesterday, one of the more important lines of inquiry is why the president fired dozens of U.S. attorneys without notice or explanation.

Of particular interest are the circumstances surrounding Preet Bharara, who served as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, which made him one of the most important and highest profile federal prosecutors in the United States, tackling cases ranging from terrorism to Wall Street to government corruption. After the 2016 election, Bharara wanted to stay at his post, and both Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the same commitment: the New York prosecutor could stay right where he was.

In March, Trump reversed course and fired Bharara anyway, and the federal prosecutor still has no idea why. Pro Publica reports this morning on one possible explanation.

Marc Kasowitz, President Donald Trump's personal lawyer in the Russia investigation, has boasted to friends and colleagues that he played a central role in the firing of Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, according to four people familiar with the conversations.

Kasowitz told Trump, "This guy is going to get you," according to a person familiar with Kasowitz's account.

Kasowitz, it's worth emphasizing, is an ally of the president who's represented Trump in a variety of lawsuits, including the fraud allegations surrounding Trump University. He's now responsible for overseeing the defense of the president, despite his lack of experience in cases like these, and by all appearances, he's off to a rough start.

It's entirely possible that Kasowitz was boasting to his friends and colleagues in a dubious way, exaggerating his influence to make his White House reach sound more impressive. That said, it's at least plausible that Kasowitz would've been in a position to offer Trump occasional advice on legal matters, and he may have seen Bharara as a potential threat to his pal in the Oval Office.

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Image: President Donald Trump waves before delivering keynote address

Reflecting on his record, Trump is convinced of his own awesomeness

06/13/17 09:22AM

Donald Trump hosted a deeply unsettling cabinet meeting yesterday -- his first full cabinet meeting as president -- featuring a display for the cameras in which every member of Trump's team took turns effusively praising their leader. It was unlike any cabinet meeting ever witnessed, at least in this country.

But before Trump listened to his cabinet chiefs express their adoration for him, the president took some time to reflect on how impressed he is with how awesome his tenure has been thus far.

"[W]hen I ran, it was make America great again, and that's what we're doing, believe me. We're doing it and we're doing it at a much faster pace than anyone thought. I would say that never has there been a president, with few exceptions -- in the case of FDR, he had a major depression to handle -- who's passed more legislation, who's done more things than what we've done, between the executive orders and the job-killing regulations that have been terminated, many bills, I guess over 34 bills Congress signed, a Supreme Court justice who's going to be a great one, going to be a great Supreme Court justice, and many other things.

"We've achieved tremendous success. And I think we've been about as active as you can possibly be, and at a just about record-setting pace."

Maybe there's a broader political strategy behind such boasts. It's quite likely, for example, that Trump is aware of how woefully unpopular he is. His White House is gripped by crisis and scandal; there are credible allegations that Trump personally obstructed justice; and his presidency is an international laughingstock. Perhaps, Trump has come to the conclusion that if he tells people he's an extraordinary success, some marks might actually believe it.

The trouble is, reality is stubborn.

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Without mentioning Donald Trump by name, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., denounced Trump's recent remarks about restricting Muslim travel during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Dec. 8, 2015. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The scandalous secrecy surrounding the Republican health care gambit

06/13/17 08:41AM

A group of Senate Republican men have been meeting in secret for weeks, trying to craft their own health care plan, which is reportedly near completion. Once it's done, the GOP blueprint will, oddly enough, remain a secret, Axios reported yesterday:

Senate Republicans are working to finish their draft health care bill, but have no plans to publicly release it, according to two senior Senate GOP aides.

"We aren't stupid," said one of the aides.

It's important to understand the sentiment behind the comment. The Senate Republican aide was effectively conceding that the GOP proposal will be awful and unpopular, and it'd be "stupid" to let the public see it because the scrutiny would risk derailing the entire effort.

The plan, therefore, is for conservative senators to finalize a plan, quietly share it with the Congressional Budget Office, and then rush it onto the floor for a vote. There would no hearings, no amendments, no expert testimony, no input from industry stakeholders, no bipartisan negotiations, and no transparency.

The word "un-American" is probably used a bit too often, usually to impugn others' patriotism, but in the case of Republicans overhauling the nation's health care system, the process is un-American in a rather literal sense. In the United States, we have a legislative system elected officials are supposed to use to pursue their goals and policy priorities. In 2017, however, Congress' GOP majority has decided to abandon the American policymaking model, without defense or explanation, while pushing life-or-death legislation affecting one-sixth of the world's largest economy.

There is nothing like this in the American tradition. Republican leaders are being so secretive about their health care overhaul that even other GOP senators have no idea what they'll soon be asked to pass. Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said yesterday's he's "curious" what's in his party's proposal, before adding, "It's not a good process."

You don't say.

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FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee June 19, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation."  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty...

Would Trump fire the special counsel investigating the Russia scandal?

06/13/17 08:00AM

Donald Trump already fired an FBI director overseeing the investigation into the Russia scandal. Would the president raise the stakes and fire former FBI Director Bob Mueller, the special counsel who's now leading the probe?

As Rachel noted on the show last night, one of Trump's confidants said publicly that the move is a possibility.

The friend, Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media, who was at the White House on Monday, said on PBS's "NewsHour" that Mr. Trump was "considering, perhaps, terminating the special counsel."

"I think he's weighing that option," Mr. Ruddy said.

The comment raised more than a few eyebrows -- Ruddy has been privy to Trump's thinking on many issues for several years -- and raised the prospect of another Watergate-like development in the Russia affair.

Taking a step back, there are three broad questions to consider: can Trump fire the special counsel, would Trump fire the special counsel, and what would the consequences be if Trump does fire the special counsel.

On the first point, the answer is an unambiguous yes. Mueller is overseeing the ongoing investigation, but he's not entirely independent, and if the president wanted to get rid of him, Trump could order the Justice Department's leadership to fire him. If DOJ officials refused and/or resigned, the president could simply work his way down the department's hierarchy until he found someone willing to follow his orders.

What's more, because the special counsel exists as a result of executive-branch regulations -- as opposed to federal law -- Trump could also repeal those regulations and effectively strip Mueller of his authority to act.

Which leads us to whether Trump would take such a dramatic step. As a rule, looking back over the last several years, we've confronted the question multiple times, in multiple contexts: "He wouldn't go that far, would he?" In more instances than not, Trump has managed to surprise skeptics with his radicalism.

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Monday's Mini-Report, 6.12.17

06/12/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Afghanistan: "Three U.S. soldiers were killed and one other was wounded Saturday in eastern Afghanistan when an Afghan soldier opened fire on them, U.S. officials confirmed to NBC News. The shooter -- identified as a member of the Afghan National Army's Commando Forces -- was killed in return fire, officials added."

* 9th Circuit: "A trio of federal appellate judges in San Francisco on Monday ruled against President Donald Trump's second try at imposing a so-called 'travel ban' that would restrict refugees and people from six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S."

* Russia: "A wave of antigovernment demonstrations rolled across Russia on Monday as thousands of people gathered in scores of cities to protest corruption and political stagnation despite vigorous attempts by the authorities to thwart or ban the rallies. The police detained the architect of the national protests, the Kremlin critic Aleksei A. Navalny, as he emerged from his apartment building to attend a rally that he had forced into the center of Moscow."

* Somalia: "The United States military said on Sunday that it had carried out a drone strike in southern Somalia against the Shabab, the Qaeda-linked insurgent group — apparently the first such strike since President Trump relaxed targeting rules for counterterrorism operations in that country in March."

* There probably aren't any tapes: "The U.S. Secret Service has no audio copies or transcripts of any tapes recorded within President Donald Trump's White House, the agency said on Monday. The agency's response to a freedom of information request submitted by The Wall Street Journal doesn't exclude the possibility that recordings could have been created by another entity."

* Should be interesting: "Bowing to pressure from Democrats, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has agreed to testify in public Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has scheduled a hearing for 2:30 p.m."

* Trump's outside counsel, Marc Kasowitz, has begun giving legal advice to White House officials who aren't his client. That's not good.

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Image: Trump Hosts Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi At The White House

Trump's first full cabinet meeting was surprisingly creepy

06/12/17 03:34PM

Presidential cabinet meetings are, as a rule, dull. We generally see a president offer some brief remarks for the cameras, while his cabinet members watch on. Soon after, a president may answer a question or two from reporters, at which point the press is ushered out, the doors close, and the meeting begins in earnest.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, hosted his first full cabinet meeting this morning, and it wasn't like anything we've ever seen, at least in the United States. The Washington Post reported:

President Trump on Monday used his first full-fledged Cabinet meeting to try to make a case that, despite the Russian investigation and other distractions, his administration is racking up accomplishments at a record clip.

"Never has there been a president, with few exceptions -- case of FDR, he had a major depression to handle -- who has passed more legislation and who has done more things than what we've done," Trump, referring to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, said during the meeting at the White House.

It seems entirely plausible to me that Trump has no idea what "legislation" means, and when he signs executive orders and glorified press releases, he thinks he's breaking major new policy ground.

But if you watch the C-SPAN video from the cabinet room, note that after the president's odd praise for himself, Trump went around the room, offering each member of his cabinet an opportunity to talk about how much they like him and are proud to serve in his administration. With few exceptions, that's precisely what they did.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, whose job is reportedly in jeopardy, went so far as to declare, with arms raised, "We thank you for the opportunity and blessing to serve your agenda."

As cabinet members went around the room, singing the president's praises, Trump simply nodded in agreement, basking in his underlings' adulation.

Cabinet meetings have been periodically televised since Eisenhower, but no one has ever seen one quite as creepy as Trump's display this morning.

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

Trump's legal team features some unexpected members

06/12/17 01:00PM

Donald Trump realized recently that his Russia scandal had reached the point at which outside legal representation was necessary. Finding a lawyer, however, turned out to be easier said than done: Yahoo News recently reported that the White House reached out to several major firms in D.C., and "at least four" said no.

As we discussed last week, that left the president with Marc Kasowitz, a civil litigator with no background in constitutional cases, who represented the president in a variety of lawsuits, including the fraud allegations surrounding Trump University. Kasowitz has already given indications that he may not be the best person for the job.

But there are others on the president's legal team. Indeed, far-right attorney Jay Sekulow appeared on ABC News yesterday to defend Trump's legal position. And if you're wondering, "Who's Jay Sekulow?" I'm glad you asked.

Let's take a brief stroll down memory lane. After his failed Republican presidential bid in 1988, radical TV preacher Pat Robertson parlayed his donor list into a potent political force. The religious right movement was growing into one of the dominant factions in GOP politics, and Robertson took full advantage of his notoriety -- cultivating a mini-empire featuring an activist organization (the Christian Coalition), a college (Regent University), an annual political gathering (the Christian Coalition's "Road to Victory" conference), and a broadcast presence (the Christian Broadcasting Network).

But Robertson also wanted a legal group intended to serve as a right-wing rival to the ACLU, so he created the ACLJ -- the American Center for Law and Justice -- to advance the religious right's agenda in the courts.

Jay Sekulow was the chief counsel for the radical televangelist's legal group. Now he has a leadership role on Donald Trump's legal team.

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Image: FILE PHOTO: Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, attends a news conference in New York

Watching Comey, fired U.S. attorney experiences 'deja vu'

06/12/17 12:33PM

In the Obama administration, Preet Bharara was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, which made him one of the most important and highest profile federal prosecutors in the United States, tackling case on matters ranging from terrorism to Wall Street to government corruption.

After the 2016 election, Bharara wanted to stay at his post, and both Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the same commitment: the New York prosecutor could stay right where he was.

In March, however, Trump fired Bharara and 45 other federal prosecutors without explanation. Bharara, in his first television interview since his dismissal, sat down yesterday with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos and reflected on his experiences with Trump, starting with his reactions to Trump calling him while the Republican was still president-elect.

BHARARA: When I've been reading the stories of how the president has been contacting Jim Comey over time, felt a little bit like deja vu. And I'm not the FBI director, but I was the chief federal law enforcement officer in Manhattan with jurisdiction over a lot of things including, you know, business interests and other things in New York.

The number of times that President Obama called me in seven-and-a-half years was zero. The number of times I would have been expected to be called by the president of the United States would be zero because there has to be some kind of arm's length relationship given the jurisdiction that various people had.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What did he say?

BHARARA: So he called me in December, ostensibly just to shoot the breeze and asked me how I was doing and wanted to make sure I was OK. It was similar to what Jim Comey testified to with respect to a call he got when he was getting on the helicopter. I didn't say anything at the time to him. It was a little bit uncomfortable, but he was not the president, he was only the president-elect. He called me again two days before the inauguration, again seemingly to check in and shoot the breeze and then he called me a third time when he -- after he became president and I refused to return the call.

The former U.S. attorney went on to note that Trump, through his outreach, appeared to be "trying to cultivate some kind of relationship" with the federal prosecutor.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 6.12.17

06/12/17 12:00PM

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

* A few weeks after he assaulted a reporter, Rep.-elect Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) plans to plead guilty in court today. Note, immediately after the incident, Gianforte's team told reporters it was the journalist who initiated the physical confrontation. Evidently, that was a lie that literally added insult to injury.

* Donald Trump hosted a fundraiser at his private club in New Jersey over the weekend in support of Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), who almost single-handedly rescued the House Republicans' far-right health care legislation. MacArthur has faced a local backlash, in part because the GOP plan would take a severe toll on New Jersey.

* Though for decades the press has been permitted to attend presidential fundraisers, Trump's event for MacArthur was closed to the media and no transcript of the president's remarks was made available.

* In a bit of a surprise, Rep. Jared Polis (D) is giving up his U.S. House seat and launching a gubernatorial campaign in Colorado. He joins a crowded Democratic primary, which also includes his congressional colleague, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D).

* Virginia's gubernatorial primaries are tomorrow, and the final poll from Hampton University Center for Public Policy shows former Rep. Tom Perriello (D) and former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie (R) leading their respective contests.

* Voters in Puerto Rico voted overwhelmingly in support of U.S. statehood over the weekend. It was, however, a non-binding vote, and the Republican-led Congress is likely to ignore the results.

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Image: White House news conference with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Director Gary Cohn

A debt-ceiling deadline adds a wrinkle to a challenging landscape

06/12/17 11:30AM

The national political landscape isn't exactly tranquil right now. The White House is facing crisis conditions; the president's political operation is facing a counter-espionage investigation; the president himself may be facing obstruction-of-justice allegations; U.S. allies are giving up on American leadership in ways without modern precedent; and Congress' agenda is in peril.

It's against this backdrop that policymakers have to prepare to raise the debt ceiling.

Technically, the nation reached its limit in March, but at that point, the Treasury Department's "extraordinary measures" kicked in, giving Congress a little breathing room. Nevertheless, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin urged lawmakers more than three months ago to raise the debt ceiling "at the first opportunity."

Congress has so far ignored the appeal, prompting Mnuchin to announce on Friday that he has "plans and backup plans for funding the government" into at least September if Congress does not raise the debt ceiling before its August recess. The Washington Post reported:

Asked at the news conference what sort of powers or backup plans he has if the debt ceiling isn't raised, Mnuchin said with a smile, "Treasury secretary superpowers." He didn't respond to questions about whether this included plans to sell off U.S. assets, such as the gold reserve.

"We will be fine, okay, if they don't do it beforehand," Mnuchin said, "but I would emphasize that I think the sooner they do it, the less uncertainty there is in the market, and it is important to send a clear signal to the market that, again, this is not an issue."

Mnuchin's intended audience was almost certainly investors and global markets. "Don't worry," Donald Trump's Treasury secretary seemed to be saying. "Everything's fine. The paperwork will be taken care of. There's certainly no reason for anyone to start ringing any alarms."

The truth, however, isn't quite so straightforward.

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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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