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Image: Jeff Sessions

Trump takes aim at a longtime ally, AG Jeff Sessions

07/20/17 08:00AM

In March, when the House Republicans' health care bill initially failed, White House aides told Politico that Donald Trump was largely unfazed. The president, the staffers said, was far more upset about Attorney General Jeff Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election.

In an interview with the New York Times yesterday, Trump made clear he hasn't let this go.

President Trump said on Wednesday that he never would have appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions had he known Mr. Sessions would recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation that has dogged his presidency, calling the decision "very unfair to the president."

In a remarkable public break with one of his earliest political supporters, Mr. Trump complained that Mr. Sessions's decision ultimately led to the appointment of a special counsel that should not have happened. "Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else," Mr. Trump said.

Let's back up for a minute. When Sessions took over as attorney general, the Justice Department was already pursuing a counter-espionage investigation into Russia's election attack. The probe included scrutiny of the Trump campaign and its interactions with Russian nationals, which created an obvious problem for Sessions: he not only played a role in the Trump campaign, he also had previously undisclosed conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

Sessions' recusal, in other words, was a no-brainer.

But the president is nevertheless convinced the attorney general's decision was "very unfair" and "extremely unfair" to him. Based on what the Times has published, Trump didn't explain why he believes this, but figuring this out is a rather straightforward exercise.

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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 7.19.17

07/19/17 05:32PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Trump continues to make Putin happy: "President Trump has decided to end the CIA's covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling the government of Bashar al-Assad, a move long sought by Russia, according to U.S. officials."

* Trump's Muslim ban: "The U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday cleared the way for a broader list of family exceptions to President Trump's ban on issuing visas to people in six Muslim-majority countries."

* We knew this would happen, but that doesn't make it any easier to accept: "The Justice Department announced on Wednesday that it will be restarting a federal asset forfeiture program that had been shut down by the previous administration."

* The closer one looks, the more interesting this story becomes: "A group of House Democrats are seeking information about Ivanka Trump's security clearance after her husband and fellow White House adviser, Jared Kushner, failed to report dozens of contacts with foreign officials, including meetings with Russian officials, during last year's presidential campaign."

* For those keeping score, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) also opposed the most recent iteration of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) plan, bring the total of GOP "no" votes to five.

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A voter marks a ballot for the New Hampshire primary inside a voting booth at a polling place, Feb. 9, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)

Trump's top voting commissioner questions 2016 popular vote

07/19/17 04:47PM

American voters were given a choice last year between two major-party presidential candidates, and to the annoyance of the White House, Donald Trump came in second. In fact, Hillary Clinton not only earned roughly 3 million more votes than her Republican rival, she had the strongest performance of any American candidate ever who wasn't inaugurated.

This not only denied Trump a credible claim to a mandate for his regressive agenda; it also hurt his feelings. And with this in mind, the GOP president responded to the election results by repeatedly telling people that he secretly won the popular vote, pointing to evidence that exists only in his imagination.

He is, however, not the only one thinking along these lines. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), the voter-suppression pioneer who's helping lead Trump's "voter integrity" commission, spoke today with MSNBC's Katy Tur, and it led to an interesting exchange:

TUR: Do you believe Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 to 5 million votes because of voter fraud?

KOBACH: We'll probably never know the answer to that question, because even if you could prove that a certain number of votes were cast by ineligible voters, for example, you wouldn't know how they voted.

The host, seeking clarification, added, "So, again, you think that maybe Hillary Clinton did not win the popular vote." The Kansas Republican responded, "We may never know the answer to that question." Tur, incredulous, said what I was thinking. "Really?" she asked.

But this led to an equally interesting exchange, looking at the absurd conspiracy theory from the opposite direction:

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Donald Trump, Kris Kobach

Trump's controversial 'voter integrity' commission gets to work

07/19/17 01:10PM

Donald Trump, apparently still annoyed that he received far fewer votes than his principal rival, is moving forward with his "voter integrity" commission, whose members will be tasked with finding evidence of widespread "voter fraud," which doesn't actually exist.

The panel, led in large part by Kansas' Kris Kobach, a voter-suppression pioneer, held its first formal meeting at the White House today, where the president gave a spirited endorsement of the commission's work.

President Donald Trump spoke Wednesday at the first public hearing of his vote fraud commission and raised the possibility that substantial voter fraud had occurred in the 2016 election, but he did not repeat past claims that millions of illegal ballots were cast.

"This issue is very important to me because throughout the campaign, and even after, people would come up to me and express their concerns about voter inconsistencies and irregularities, which they saw," Trump said. "In some cases, having to do with very large numbers of people in certain states."

None of this should be taken seriously by anyone. Voters may have expressed concern to Trump about "irregularities," but that's because conservatives have been conditioned to believe, without proof, that fraud is a scourge on our democracy.

Indeed, it's largely self-fulfilling: Trump tells people there are "very large numbers of people" casting illegal ballots, which his followers accept as true, which leads conservatives to "express concerns" about the imagined problem they've been told to accept.

As part of the scheme, Trump has created a commission to bolster the conspiracy theory that the president believes because (a) it makes him feel better about coming in second; and (b) he's looking for some kind of justification to impose new voting restrictions.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.19.17

07/19/17 12:00PM

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

* Democratic success in state legislative special elections continued last night in New Hampshire, where Kris Schultz easily won a state House race. The seat was already "blue," so it doesn't change the makeup of the Granite State's legislature.

* The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shows Democrats leading Republicans on the generic congressional ballot, 52% to 38%, among registered voters. Among likely voters, Dems still lead, but the advantage slips to 50% to 41%.

* This findings are roughly in line with Public Policy Polling's latest survey, which found Democrats ahead nationally on the generic ballot, 50% to 40%.

* That same poll found congressional Republican leaders are not at all popular nationwide: House Speaker Paul Ryan's approval rating is 24%; Mitch McConnell's approval rating is 18%; and support for the GOP-led Congress is just 11%.

* PPP also found that a third of Trump voters don't believe Donald Trump Jr. met with a Kremlin-linked lawyer during the campaign, despite the fact that participants in the meeting don't deny its existence.

* Paul Ryan's re-election campaign is apparently concerned about Randy Bryce's (D) challenge to dispatch trackers to one of the Democrat's campaign events. Bryce said he hopes the trackers receive health care benefits as part of their employment.

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Image: Donald Trump, Andrzej Duda

Trump struggles to make up his mind about health care

07/19/17 11:28AM

For a while, Donald Trump was a fan of the House Republicans' far-right health care bill, until it became unpopular, at which point the president discarded it. The House proposal, Trump decided, was "mean" and "cold-hearted."

Which led to the Senate Republicans' bill, which Trump also liked, until it couldn't pass, at which point the president endorsed a different bill. As recently as Monday night, Trump threw his support behind a "repeal and delay" proposal, in which Congress would repeal the Affordable Care Act now and then come up with an alternative plan in two years.

Yesterday, Trump changed gears again, saying he wants to "let Obamacare fail,"  which he insisted would be "easier" than Republicans trying to legislate on the issue.

This morning, Trump switched positions once again, declaring in a pair of tweets that he's back on board with the Senate GOP plan, which he expects to somehow improve this afternoon.

"I will be having lunch at the White House today with Republican Senators concerning healthcare. They MUST keep their promise to America!

"The Republicans never discuss how good their healthcare bill is, & it will get even better at lunchtime."

There's no shortage of problems with this, including Trump's own broken promises on health care, and the irony of him complaining about Republicans "never discussing" the merits of a plan he hasn't read, doesn't understand, and has made no effort to promote.

But even putting that aside, it's hard not to notice that the president's approach to health care has changed repeatedly -- including three different positions from Monday night to Wednesday morning.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) listens to a question during a press conference following the weekly policy meeting at the U.S. Capitol Dec. 1, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

After failing on health care, McConnell's reputation takes a hit

07/19/17 10:59AM

When Donald Trump sat down with the Christian Broadcasting Network last week, TV preacher Pat Robertson noted in passing, "Mitch McConnell is a tactician of great skill."

This is certainly the reputation the Senate Majority Leader has cultivated over the course of many years. McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator, knows the institution and its procedures as well as anyone, and knows how to navigate difficult legislative waters. For months, many have assumed that Republicans would eventually pass a far-right health care bill, largely because of McConnell's skills.

But with the party's gambit apparently collapsing, Politico noted just how "serious" a defeat this is for the Senate Republican leader.

It's ... a blow to McConnell's reputation as a master legislator and raises doubts in the White House about what Senate Republicans can actually deliver for President Donald Trump. McConnell, like Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), finds himself caught between the factions in his own party. And like Ryan, McConnell hasn't demonstrated that he knows how to resolve the dispute.

"This is an impossible hand," said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), McConnell's closest ally, of the party's fragile majority.

Well, not really. Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House, and they created a process in which their long-sought priority could advance with 50 votes instead of 60. As has become clear, that's challenging, but calling it "impossible" is a stretch.

Regardless, McConnell, his reputation as a legislative mastermind notwithstanding, couldn't make it happen. His task was to thread a political needle, satisfying competing constituencies within his party, and the Majority Leader couldn't find a way.

Along the way, McConnell managed to not only undermine his reputation, but also to alienate some of his allies. When an NBC News reporter asked Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) yesterday whether he still has faith in McConnell as the Senate GOP's leader, the Wisconsin senator wouldn't say. “I don’t know what’s going to happen moving forward,” Johnson answered.

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Congresswoman Barbara Lee speaks during the 2015 amfAR Capitol Hill Conference at U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on March 24, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty)

AUMF measure takes a step backward, despite bipartisan support

07/19/17 10:10AM

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Congress easily approved an AUMF -- an Authorization for the Use of Military Force -- empowering the Bush/Cheney administration to respond to those responsible for the terrorist strikes. At the time, the vote was nearly unanimous, but not quite: Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) opposed the measure, fearing the AUMF was too broad and would be used to justify foreign interventions that had nothing to do with 9/11.

In hindsight, her concerns were well grounded. As Rachel noted on the show a few weeks ago, since the measure's passage in 2001, this AUMF has served as the legal basis for at least 37 different U.S. military operations in at least 14 different countries -- many of which have no meaningful connection to 9/11 or al Qaeda.

As the years have progressed, calls from Barbara Lee and others for a new AUMF related to counter-terrorism have grown louder, for rather obvious reasons: stretching the 9/11 measure is legally suspect, and as our security challenges have changed, it makes sense to revisit and improve the old framework.

And so, it came as a very pleasant surprise last month when the House Appropriations Committee reached a bipartisan consensus on the issue. With near unanimity, Democrats and Republicans on the committee adopted an amendment from Barbara Lee -- an amendment she's offered year after year for the past decade -- which would repeal the old AUMF and open the door for a new one, to be passed within the next eight months.

When the measure actually passed the committee, giving Barbara Lee a victory years in the making, the number of people saying, "Wow" was audible throughout the room. There was even spontaneous applause.

All of which was quite heartening, until last night.

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

White House blames Democrats for Trumpcare's collapse

07/19/17 09:23AM

The Republicans' health care gambit failed, at least for now, because the party couldn't overcome its partisan divisions. The GOP majority in the House and Senate is large enough to pass the legislation, but as is now obvious, there aren't enough Republican members prepared to back their party's regressive and unpopular bill.

And yet, consider this exchange from yesterday's White House press briefing, where Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted intra-party divisions aren't the real problem.

Q: First, who is responsible, primarily responsible for what appears to be the failure of this healthcare legislation?

SANDERS: I would say Democrats.

Yes, of course. Democrats have effectively no role in the federal policymaking process -- in the case of this health care bill, they couldn't even filibuster -- which is controlled by a Republican House, Republican Senate, and Republican White House. And yet, Trump World see Democrats as the reason for Trumpcare's apparent demise.

In a way, it's almost a compliment: the White House apparently sees Democrats as enormously powerful, despite being in the minority.

Asked for an explanation, Sarah Huckabee Sanders argued, among other things, that congressional Dems are "responsible for being unwilling to work with Republicans in any capacity."

This is an increasingly common GOP talking point. It's not altogether coherent -- several Republicans balked at their own party's legislation because Democrats wouldn't negotiate? -- but it appears to make the White House and GOP leaders feel better.

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

Trumpcare's demise proves the rules of political gravity still exist

07/19/17 08:44AM

Over the last couple of years, it felt like the rules of American politics were being rewritten, in real time, in ways that were difficult to explain. There was no way Donald Trump could win the Republican nomination, just as there was no way he'd overcome the series of controversies that seemingly made his candidacy so ridiculous, just as there was no way he'd actually win the presidency.

Two years ago, the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato, a prominent political scientist, co-authored a piece on Trump's electoral prospects. "If Trump is nominated," the analysis said, "then everything we think we know about presidential nominations is wrong. History has shown that presidential nominations tend to follow a certain set of 'rules.'"

The "rules" as we knew them no longer seemed to apply.

It's against this backdrop that NBC News' Benjy Sarlin raised a good point yesterday about the demise of the Republican health care plan:

One notable aspect of repeal failure is that it's among the first times political gravity has felt "normal" since Trump wins scrambled it.

Quite right. GOP leaders put together a pernicious piece of legislation, which was poorly structured and substantively incoherent. Republican officials struggled to explain why they were pushing the plan and what they hoped to accomplish with it. Making matters worse, their entire blueprint was based largely on falsehoods and broken promises.

The result was a bizarre political fight in which major health care legislation, written in secret without consultation from experts, drew opposition from doctors, nurses, hospitals, patient advocates, and insurers. What's more, governors from both parties condemned the Republican bill in no uncertain terms.

And perhaps no one hated the bill more than the American people. It is no exaggeration to say the GOP health care proposal was the most unpopular bill considered by Congress in the last three decades.

You don't need to be a political scientist to know this is a recipe for failure. The "rules" of American politics tell us when a poorly written health care bill, lacking in purpose, is vehemently opposed by industry stakeholders, governors, and voters, that bill dies.

And as of yesterday, the "rules" worked. What was supposed to happen, in fact, happened. The laws of "political gravity," to borrow Sarlin's phrase, have not yet been repealed.

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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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