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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 7.12.17

07/12/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Look for more on this story on tonight's show: "U.S. intelligence agencies starting in the spring of 2015 detected conversations in which Russian government officials discussed associates of Donald Trump, several months before he declared his candidacy for president, according to current and former U.S. officials."

* This, too: "Investigators at the House and Senate Intelligence committees and the Justice Department are examining whether the Trump campaign's digital operation -- overseen by Jared Kushner -- helped guide Russia's sophisticated voter targeting and fake news attacks on Hillary Clinton in 2016."

* As a matter of legislative procedure, this is very significant: "Senate Republicans have won an argument before the parliamentarian that will allow a House-passed health care reconciliation bill to be taken up and amended in the Senate next week without any obstacle, CQ Roll Call has learned."

* Expect confirmation: "Christopher Wray, President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Federal Bureau of Investigations, said Wednesday that he did not consider the probe into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election to be a "witch hunt," disagreeing with the president's own assessment of the matter."

* This story, involving Mohsen Dehnavi, demands some explanation: "An Iranian cancer researcher who traveled to the US with his family on a valid visa has been sent back to his home country two weeks after Donald Trump's revised travel ban came into force."

* Nearly the size of Delaware: "One of the largest icebergs ever recorded broke off from an ice shelf in Antarctica, British scientists announced Wednesday.... Project MIDAS said there is no evidence to directly link the calving of the iceberg to climate change. However, it is widely accepted that warming ocean and atmospheric temperatures have been a factor in earlier disintegrations of ice shelves elsewhere on the Antarctic Peninsula."

* Worthy activism: "Major internet companies are preparing to launch online protests Wednesday over Republican efforts to roll back Obama-era net neutrality rules, employing a tactic that influenced policy in past years."

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

Trump attorney says collusion scandal is 'not a legal issue'

07/12/17 01:01PM

Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for the religious right movement who's now part of Donald Trump's legal team, appeared on several morning shows today, hoping to dismiss the relevance of the Russia scandal and this week's revelations. In an exchange with CNN's Chris Cuomo, Sekulow made the case that the developments with Donald Trump Jr. aren't that important, in part because there's no allegation of a crime.

"Look, here's what I look at. I look at the law. Was there any illegality? Was there any legal difficulty, legal problem with this issue and it's not a legal issue."

Of course it's a legal issue. Rachel talked to Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney, about this on the show last night and it seemed quite obvious that this is a legal issue. NBC News published a related piece on the legal questions surrounding the controversy. The New York Times published a piece of its own today from Norm Eisen and Richard Painter, who served as the top ethics attorneys in the last two administrations, exploring some of the unresolved legal controversies that are still being investigated.

If, however, Sekulow wants to argue that this isn't only a legal issue, I'd be far more inclined to agree. As one observer put it yesterday, "A presidential campaign enthusiastically courting secret sponsorship by a foreign government is a problem bigger than the criminal law."

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.12.17

07/12/17 12:00PM

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

* In Oklahoma yesterday, Democrats won in two state legislative special elections -- one in the state House, the other in the state Senate -- in districts that had been held by Republicans. According to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee these are the third and fourth times, respectively, that Dem candidates have flipped GOP seats in state legislatures so far this year.

* Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) was sworn in as a member of Congress yesterday, after winning a special election in his Los Angeles district last month. There is now only one congressional vacancy: Utah's Jason Chaffetz resigned two weeks ago.

* The AP reported yesterday on new voting restrictions in New Hampshire, imposed by the state's Republican-led government: "A new law in New Hampshire requires that voters moving to the state within 30 days of an election provide proof that they intend to stay and subjects them to an investigation if they can't provide the proof and want to vote in future elections."

* In Maryland's 2018 gubernatorial race, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is throwing his support to Ben Jealous (D). Jealous, the former head of the NAACP, backed the Vermont senator's presidential campaign last year.

* Speaking of Bernie Sanders, the independent lawmaker has a new book coming out, and he's headed to Iowa to help promote it -- which, naturally, is leading to speculation about the senator's 2020 plans.

* In Oklahoma, former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is so displeased that Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) is breaking his term-limits pledge that he's threatening to support a primary challenge to the congressman next year.

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Image: FILE PHOTO: Donald Trump Jr. gives a television interview at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland

The White House treats Donald Trump Jr. as part of the team

07/12/17 11:20AM

NBC News' First Read team published a good piece this morning, noting four essential questions related to this week's Trump-Russia scandal revelations. Among the most notable is the one the White House didn't want to answer yesterday: "Why does Jared Kushner still have a security clearance?"

The challenge, of course, is knowing where to stop once the questions start. For example, I'd also like to know why White House aides and the president are involved in Donald Trump Jr.'s public-relations strategies.

The New York Times reported today on Trump World's response to the newspaper's reporting on last summer's meeting with the Russian lawyer offering campaign assistance from Moscow. The article noted that Trump Jr. issued a written response over the weekend, but he wasn't its author.

As Air Force One jetted back from Europe on Saturday, a small cadre of Mr. Trump’s advisers huddled in a cabin helping to craft a statement for the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., to give to The New York Times explaining why he met last summer with a lawyer connected to the Russian government. Participants on the plane and back in the United States debated how transparent to be in the statement, according to people familiar with the discussions. [...]

The original statement, drafted aboard Air Force One by advisers and then approved by Mr. Trump, said only that the Russian lawyer had discussed adoption policy during the meeting, without mentioning that the meeting had been offered as a chance to provide information about Mrs. Clinton's dealings with Russia. Only after The Times followed up in preparation for another article did the younger Mr. Trump issue a second statement acknowledging that.

We've noted this week that it's of interest that Trump Jr.'s story changed from one day to the next, which is an automatic red flag. But what we didn't know is how that story was crafted in the first place.

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Image: First Lady Melania Trump Hosts A Celebration Of MilitaryMothers Event

What Donald Trump knew and when he knew it

07/12/17 10:48AM

This week's Russia scandal revelations are a different kettle of fish: Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort met with a Kremlin-linked lawyer offering campaign help from the Russian government, and Team Trump was eager to receive it. The details, including incriminating emails, have led much of the political world to start updating their timelines, noting other developments around the time of the Trump Tower chat.

But of all the attempts to connect various dots, this one, highlighted by the Huffington Post, stood out for me.

Donald Trump promised a "major speech" attacking campaign rival Hillary Clinton last June, just hours after his son, Donald Trump Jr., set up a meeting with a Russian lawyer he was told had compromising information on the Democratic candidate.

In a speech on June 7, 2016, first flagged by Washington Post reporter Philip Bump, then-candidate Trump promised vaguely to discuss "all the things that have taken place with the Clintons."

"I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week, and we're going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons," Trump said at the time. "I think you're going to find it very informative and very, very interesting."

The Republican made this announcement around 9 p.m. on June 7. Around 5 p.m. on June 7, Trump Jr. confirmed a scheduled meeting with the Russian lawyer whom, the campaign believed, had damaging information about Clinton, provided by the Russian government.

And what about the speech the then-candidate promised to deliver the following week, "discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons"? The one that we'd find "very, very informative"? It didn't happen. Trump instead delivered a speech in New Hampshire on national security.

All of this matters, of course, because it's important to understand what, if anything, the president was told about his campaign's cooperation with Russia. The timing in this instance is awfully coincidental.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) bows his head in prayer during an event on Capitol Hill, Feb. 24, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Does McConnell regret doing nothing about the Russian attack?

07/12/17 10:01AM

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appears principally focused on passing a regressive health care plan this summer, but with the Russia scandal intensifying, NBC News' Kasie Hunt asked the Kentucky Republican a good question yesterday.

HUNT: Mr. Leader, you were briefed on this intelligence report surrounding Russian meddling back in the fall before the election. And there was a decision not to put that out in public. Now there are emails that show that Donald Trump Jr. was aware that this may have been damaging information from the Russian government. Do you regret your course of action?

MCCONNELL: What I have a lot of confidence in is the Intelligence Committee handling this whole investigation. Senator Burr and Senator Warner have ball control, and we'll hear from them later.

There is no meaningful relationship between the question and the answer -- the Intelligence Committee's investigation is unrelated to McConnell's personal culpability -- but I'm glad Kasie asked anyway because I continue to believe this angle to the story is underappreciated.

As The New Republic's Brian Beutler noted yesterday, "McConnell ran interference for Trump during the campaign to stop Obama from warning the country about things Trump was lying publicly about."

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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz attends a Penn. campaign kickoff event held on N.Y. presidential primary night at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Penn. on April 19, 2016. (Photo by Charles Mostoller/Reuters)

A closer look at Ted Cruz's interest in Russian 'appeasement'

07/12/17 09:20AM

There were some fascinating exchanges yesterday between reporters and congressional Republicans on the Trump-Russia scandal, but for my money, it's tough to top the interview NBC News' Kasie Hunt had with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in a Capitol Hill hallway.

HUNT: Is Russia an enemy of the United States?

CRUZ: Russia is a significant adversary. Putin is a KGB thug.

HUNT: Do you think that Trump is treating them that way?

CRUZ: I think that we have had eight years of Barack Obama showing nothing but appeasement towards Russia

HUNT: President Trump is not appeasing Russia?

The Texas Republican, reluctant to answer the question directly, kept trying to complain about Obama -- because some habits evidently die hard. Hunt ultimately reminded Cruz that Trump is trying to water down a bill on Russian sanctions that Cruz (and 96 other senators) voted for.

The GOP lawmaker responded, "The policies of the Obama administration were constant weakness and appeasement...."

Sure, this was unpleasant to watch. It was also rather predictable: despite Trump targeting Cruz's wife and father during their race for the Republican presidential nomination, the Texas senator votes with the White House's position more than 95% of the time and is eager to carry Trump's water.

But if Cruz sincerely wants to talk about Russian appeasement, he may not like where the conversation ends up.

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Image: U.S. President Trump celebrates with Republican House members after healthcare bill vote at the White House in Washington

Russia scandal presents congressional Republicans with a choice

07/12/17 08:43AM

About a week before Iowa's presidential caucuses last year, Donald Trump delivered a memorable line while boasting about the loyalty of his allies. "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, okay?" the Republican bragged. "It's, like, incredible."

This was, in a way, prescient. At the time, Trump was referring to the unflinching support he enjoyed from much of the GOP base, but a year and a half later, it's hard not to wonder if he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and he wouldn't lose any congressional Republicans, either.

Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) said Monday evening that he would have done the same as Donald Trump Jr. in meeting with a Russian lawyer offering damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

"Do I think it's appropriate? I think I probably would have done the same thing," Yoho told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "I mean, it's opposition research. Anybody that's been in an election, you're always looking to get the upper hand."

The Florida Republican added, "I stand on the side of the president 100 percent on this."

There's a lot of this going around. While yesterday seemed to present the nation with a smoking gun -- we now know the Trump campaign knew about and welcomed Russia's intervention in the American election -- congressional Republicans were largely indifferent to the developments. The Washington Post reported, "What Democrats saw as a break in the Trump/Russia investigation was processed by many Republicans, and much of conservative media, as one more distraction that was likely being overhyped."

Vox, which ran a helpful quote collection, added, "Everybody at the US Capitol was rocked Tuesday by revelations that Donald Trump Jr. had accepted a meeting with someone whom he had been told was a representative of the Russian government, who had promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Everybody, that is, except Senate Republicans."

GOP lawmakers are not blind to the revelations. They know Russia launched the most serious attack on the United States since 9/11. They know Trump and his team lied about their contacts with Russian nationals. They know Trump fired an FBI director because of the president's opposition to an ongoing investigation in the Russia scandal. They know the Trump campaign was eager to accept support from a foreign adversary.

Congressional Republicans, however, by and large, simply don't care.

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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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