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Image: Donald Trump

Trump creates uncertainty by contradicting his Secretary of State

06/12/17 10:30AM

Last week, a new diplomatic challenge emerged on the international stage, which carried with it sweeping consequences. In an unexpected development, five Middle Eastern countries -- Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen -- broke off ties with Qatar, hoping to isolate the country politically and economically. The countries said they were isolating Qatar over its alleged support for terrorism.

For the United States, the complexities required a delicate touch. After all, countries on both sides of the dispute are our allies, and we have 10,000 American military personnel stationed in the country that's found itself isolated.

The U.S. State Department offered to be a neutral arbiter, helping to possibly negotiate a resolution, which Donald Trump soon after made impossible by denouncing Qatar and endorsing Saudi Arabia's move.

MSNBC later reported that Trump, according to White House sources, "may not have known" about the American troops based in Qatar when he took sides in the dispute.

Late last week, it happened again. The Washington Post reported:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on a Saudi Arabia-led bloc of Arab nations Friday to immediately ease their blockade of Qatar and urged all involved in the week-long Persian Gulf dispute to quickly resolve their differences, remarks that President Trump seemed to undercut less than an hour later.

Trump began a Rose Garden news conference with the visiting president of Romania by saying that the Saudi-led action against Qatar was "hard but necessary." He said he had been consulted in advance by nations that "spoke to me about confronting Qatar," a country he said historically has been a "funder of terrorism at a very high level."

Tillerson, who's been ignored by the White House before, even as the Secretary of State tries to develop greater credibility on the international stage, had invested considerable energy in trying to persuade Saudi Arabia and its allies to relax their blockade. He then looked pretty foolish less than an hour later when his boss sent the opposite signal at a White House press conference.

It was the second time in a week that Tillerson tried to deescalate the Middle East crisis while Trump took public steps to escalate it.

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Image: Donald Trump

A 'track record for lying' likely to pose fresh challenges for Trump

06/12/17 10:00AM

On Friday afternoon, Donald Trump hosted a relatively brief press conference with Romania's Klaus Iohannis, and the two presidents were asked if they discussed the visa waiver program for Romania. Trump quickly responded, "We didn't discuss it. We didn't discuss it."

A couple of seconds later, Iohannis, who has his own domestic politics to consider, said the opposite, telling reporters that they did discuss it: Iohannis brought up the issue during his White House meeting, Trump's denial moments earlier notwithstanding.

In other words, the American president wasn't telling the truth -- which, when it comes to Donald J. Trump, is a familiar problem.

All of this came to mind yesterday, when former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, in his first television interview since being fired without explanation by the president, sat down with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, who asked for Bharara's prosecutorial perspective: when it comes to the competing version of events between Trump and former FBI Director James Comey, "what gets this beyond a 'he said/he said' case?" Bharara replied:

"[Y]ou have this in court all the time. And look at the surrounding circumstances and the indicia of truthfulness and those things include contemporaneous statements to other people. They include the track record of the witness. They include whether or not one of the 'hes' in the 'he said/he said' has a track record for lying or not both on the air and in legal proceedings like depositions, and I believe there is such a track record with respect to one of the parties."

The former federal prosecutor didn't come right out and say, "The president has earned a reputation for brazen lying," but I think the point was nevertheless quite clear.

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Image: James Comey Testifies At Senate Hearing On Russian Interference In US Election

Ratings for Comey hearing reflect broader civic awakening

06/12/17 09:30AM

Donald Trump takes great pride in generating large television audiences, which is why he has yet another reason to be angry with James Comey right now. The New York Times reported:

It was the testimony of a once-obscure former law enforcement official. Before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. At 10 in the morning. On a workday. Not your usual ratings gold.

No matter. Roughly 19.5 million Americans tuned in on Thursday to watch James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, unspool the tale of his awkward, unsettling and, at times, ethically questionable encounters with President Trump.

That is about the same number of people who watched Game 2 of this week's N.B.A. finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Note, that 19.5 million figure is a low estimate. It doesn't account for people who watched on PBS or C-SPAN, those who attended viewing parties, or those who tuned in online.

And given the fact that the hearing was at 10 a.m. (ET) on a weekday -- a time when millions of Americans were already at work -- it's likely that the online audience was considerable.

All of this certainly reflects an enormous public appetite for information related to the president's Russia scandal, but I also believe this is emblematic of a broader civic awakening that's quite encouraging.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump faces 'put up or shut up' moment over possible secret tapes

06/12/17 09:00AM

Donald Trump didn't just accuse James Comey of lying to the public; the president also argued his new nemesis lied to Congress while under oath. That's no small charge: when a sitting president effectively says the former director of the FBI committed perjury, it requires some follow-up.

More specifically, it requires that president to back up those allegations in some meaningful way. In this case, that means Trump could deliver his own sworn testimony, which the president has said he's prepared to do. On CBS News' "Face the Nation" yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, "I would like to invite the president to testify before the Senate. I think we could work out a way it could be dignified, public, with questions, with [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell."

Trump could also, meanwhile, turn over White House recordings of the president's conversations -- if they exist. Asked about the possibility of such tapes, Trump told reporters on Friday, "Well, I'll tell you about that maybe sometime in the very near future." What that means is anybody's guess. (A day earlier, a White House spokesperson, asked if such recordings have been made, replied, "I have no idea.")

Congress is starting to take the possibility of such tapes quite seriously. Politico reported:

Leaders of the House Intelligence Committee are asking the White House to produce any tapes that might exist of President Donald Trump's conversations with ousted FBI director James Comey.

Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the lawmakers leading the investigation, asked White House counsel Don McGahn on Friday to confirm whether any tapes exist, and if so, to produce them for the committee by June 23.

They aren't alone.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, May 17, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Senate Republicans inch closer to far-right health care overhaul

06/12/17 08:30AM

About a week ago, health care advocates had reason to feel optimism. Senate Republicans publicly conceded that their efforts to craft their own health care blueprint weren't going especially well.

Asked if there will be a Senate-passed version of the GOP health care plan by the end of the year, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) conceded, "I don't think there will be. I just don't think we can put it together among ourselves." Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) added that he believed it's "unlikely" a Republican bill would pass.

But while those comments offered hope to health care proponents, as the week progressed, the winds began to shift direction. Vox's report on Friday afternoon is consistent with everything I've heard about the state of the debate.

Behind closed doors, the Senate is drawing closer to passing a health care bill that looks a lot like the widely disliked version that cleared the House.

Any agreement currently on the table would almost certainly result in millions fewer Americans having health coverage, including low-income workers on Medicaid. It could roll back some Obamacare protections for people with pre-existing health conditions.

This is a big story with a lot of moving parts, so it'll probably be easier to go through this in a Q&A.

I feel like I haven't heard much about health care lately.

That's because you haven't, and part of that is by design. Certainly, Donald Trump's Russia scandal is dominating the headlines, and for good reason, but Senate Republicans have created a "working group" that's writing their bill in secret, entirely behind closed doors. They've been quite effective in keeping details out of the public eye, knowing that the more Americans learned of their ideas, the more controversial their plan would become.

Is there a Senate GOP bill?

Not yet, but by all accounts, the Senate's legislation is coming together, and it's a safe bet they'll have a final version fairly soon.

Assuming there's legislation, is it true GOP leaders will simply skip over committee hearings and bring the secret bill directly to the floor for a vote?

Yes. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last week invoked Rule XIV, which allows him to expedite the legislative process and bypass every relevant committee. This is, of course, the opposite of how Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010.

But if they skip past committee hearings, how will anyone have a chance to scrutinize the bill?

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Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump is greeted by his family after the third and final debate with Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in Las Vegas, Nev., Oct. 19, 2016. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Reuters)

Trump's Comey claims contradicted by president's own son

06/12/17 08:00AM

At a White House press conference last month, a reporter asked Donald Trump, "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 replied, "No. No. Next question."

Comey, we now know, testified under oath that the president did talk to the then-FBI director about the Flynn case, encouraged him to back off the former White House National Security Advisor, and in the process, added weight to the allegations that the president may have obstructed justice.

By all accounts, there were two people in the Oval Office at the time, creating a "he said, he said" dynamic -- at least at first blush. We obviously have Comey's version of events, bolstered by a contemporaneous memo he prepared at the time. He also shared the details of his interactions with the president with FBI leaders at the time.

But about Trump's denials? According to one of the president's adult sons, who helps run Trump's business and who plays a prominent role in promoting Trump's political interests, Comey's version of events may be the accurate one. The Washington Post reported over the weekend:

Soon after former FBI director James B. Comey testified that President Trump told him that he "hoped" the FBI would drop its investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, the president's personal lawyer flatly denied that accusation and said Trump "never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone."

But Donald Trump Jr. -- the president's eldest son -- seemed to confirm Comey's version of events in a Saturday interview on Fox News as he tried to emphasize the fact that his father did not directly order Comey to stop investigating Flynn.

Trump Jr. specifically said on the air, "When he tells you to do something, guess what? There's no ambiguity in it, there's no, 'Hey, I'm hoping. You and I are friends: Hey, I hope this happens, but you've got to do your job.' That's what he told Comey."

It is?

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Friday's Mini-Report, 6.9.17

06/09/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Anarchy in the U.K.: "Political turmoil gripped Britain on Friday after an election in which no party won enough seats to form a government -- forcing Prime Minister Theresa May to cozy up to ultra-conservative lawmakers to retain power. The shock result plunged the country into uncertainty just 10 days before complex and high-stakes talks with Europe over Brexit are due to begin."

* He keeps contradicting his Secretary of State: "President Donald Trump on Friday accused Qatar of being a 'funder of terrorism at a very high level,' issuing a warning that the country must 'do more' to combat terror."

* A high-profile Hatch Act violation: "White House social media director Dan Scavino violated a federal law that prohibits government officials from using their authority to influence elections, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said in a letter to a government watchdog group."

* A little "Infrastructure Week" show: "During a press briefing, Trump flipped through thick binders of what he said were unnecessary and burdensome environmental reviews holding up a highway project. He flopped them around the table until microphones picked up an audible 'thunk' and then dropped them to the ground."

* Maybe our nation's leaders should take the climate crisis seriously: "A rapidly advancing crack in Antarctica's fourth-largest ice shelf is getting close to a full break, according to scientists. It has accelerated this year in an area already threatened by warming temperatures, and is now only about eight miles from the edge of the ice shelf."

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Trump accuses Comey of lying, offers to talk to Special Counsel

06/09/17 05:10PM

Donald Trump and his team already seemed prepared to move towards a contest of credibility with former FBI Director James Comey, but at a White House press conference this afternoon, the president took the dispute to a whole new level.

A reporter asked Trump why he feels "vindicated" by Comey's Senate testimony, and asked about whether the president has tapes of his interactions, as Trump has previously suggested. On the issue of recordings, the president said, cryptically, "Well I'll tell you about that sometime in the very near future," before adding:

"But in the meantime, no collusion, no obstruction, he's a leaker, but we want to get back to running out great country.... Yesterday showed no collusion, no obstruction. We are doing really well. That was an excuse by the Democrats, who lost an election they shouldn't have lost. [He then talked about the electoral college for a while.] So it was just an excuse. But we were very, very happy and, frankly, James Comey confirmed a lot of what I said. And some of the things that he said just weren't true."

Oh. So, according to the president -- who seemed to be glancing down at some notes while speaking -- we should believe the parts of Comey's testimony that Trump liked, but we should believe the former FBI director perjured himself on the parts that Trump didn't like.

Later in the press conference, the president again insisted that Comey's claims -- specifically on whether Trump pressed Comey on letting up on Michael Flynn and the question of whether Trump demanded loyalty -- weren't true, and it led to an awkward exchange:

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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP-KASOWITZ

Trump's outside counsel gets a little desperate targeting Comey

06/09/17 12:57PM

Given the seriousness of the Russia scandal, Donald Trump had little choice but to hire outside legal representation, but that wasn't exactly an easy task. Yahoo News reported this week that top attorneys with "at least four major law firms rebuffed White House overtures" to represent the president -- some because Trump has a habit of not paying his bills, while others feared their client would ignore their legal advice.

The result left Trump 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.

Is Kasowitz the best person for the job? Perhaps not. Rachel noted on the show last night that the president's outside counsel had a difficult day -- he made a specific claim about the timeline surrounding FBI Director James Comey's memos, which turned out to be completely wrong -- and today doesn't appear to be going any better.

President Donald Trump's outside counsel will file a leak complaint regarding former FBI Director James Comey's leaked memos with the Department of Justice, a source close to the outside legal team tells NBC News.

Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz will file the complaint with the DOJ's Inspector General and the Senate Judiciary Committee after Comey testified Thursday that he allowed a personal friend to leak an unclassified memo of his conversations with the president to news outlets in hopes it would trigger the appointment of a special counsel.

Kasowitz's intentions come against a backdrop in which the president himself said via Twitter this morning, "WOW, Comey is a leaker!"

This is all a bit silly.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 6.9.17

06/09/17 12:00PM

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

* Just hours after James Comey wrapped up his public testimony on Capitol Hill yesterday, the Republican National Committee used the Senate hearing as the basis for a new fundraising appeal.

* In Georgia's congressional special election, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released this morning found Jon Ossoff (D) leading Karen Handel (R), 51% to 44%. The election is June 20, which is a week from Tuesday.

* A separate poll from WSB in Atlanta, also released yesterday, showed Ossoff with a narrower, two-point advantage over Handel. Both surveys were conducted after the candidates' debate earlier this week.

* In Kansas, Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), who's gained national notoriety as a fierce opponent of voting rights and undocumented immigrants, announced yesterday he hopes to succeed Sam Brownback as the state's next governor.

* With time running out in Virginia's competitive Democratic gubernatorial primary, the editorial board of the Washington Post published an endorsement this week for Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. Primary Day is Tuesday, June 13.

* In New Hampshire, New England's most competitive electoral battleground, Republican control of the state government has led to new voting restrictions.

* Alabama's John Archibald, an AL.com columnist who's been a TRMS guest several times, suggested yesterday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is having so many troubles, he should consider stepping down and running for the Senate seat he just vacated. I think Archibald was only half-kidding.

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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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