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Storm clouds fill the sky over the U.S. Capitol Building, June 13, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

With clouds hanging overhead, GOP moves forward on Trump's cabinet

01/09/17 12:30PM

About eight years ago, when the Democratic-led Senate was moving forward on President Obama's cabinet nominees, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) laid out his standards that he expected all nominees to meet. They're surprisingly relevant now.

There were eight benchmarks in total, but at the top of the list was McConnell's insistence that senators have a chance to review the nominees' FBI background check and the Office of Government Ethics' vetting letter.

Senate Republicans, of course, are now in the majority, getting ready to advance on an incoming Republican administration's cabinet, but McConnell's standards from 2009 are no longer being applied. The New York Times reported over the weekend:
As Senate Republicans embark on a flurry of confirmation hearings this week, several of Donald J. Trump's appointees have yet to complete the background checks and ethics clearances customarily required before the Senate begins to consider cabinet-level nominees. [...]

In a letter to Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the leader of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter M. Shaub Jr., said on Friday that "the announced hearing schedule for several nominees who have not completed the ethics review process is of great concern to me."

He said the packed schedule had put "undue pressure" on the office to rush its reviews of the nominees and he knew of no other occasion in the office's four decades when the Senate had held a confirmation hearing before the review was completed.
The Times quoted Richard Painter, an ethics lawyer in the Bush/Cheney administration, saying the Senate shouldn't vote on cabinet nominees with an incomplete vetting, while Norman Eisen, his counterpart in the Obama administration, called the current situation "totally unheard-of."

A Washington Post report added, "Ethics experts from both political parties expressed dismay at the possibility that confirmation hearings would proceed before the OGE reviews are completed." Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission who has served as counsel to several Republican presidential candidates and Cabinet nominees in the past, told the Post the current GOP plan is "unprecedented."

I can appreciate why this may seem like a dry and procedural flap, but there's more to this than just the surface-level details.
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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.9.17

01/09/17 12:00PM

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

* Kellyanne Conway said this morning she's "concerned" about Meryl Streep "inciting people's worst instincts" through the movie star's platform. One wonders if Conway is familiar with how Donald Trump used his platform over the last eight years.

* On a related note, Conway pushed back against CNN's Chris Cuomo's assertion that the president-elect is "sheltering Russia." The incoming White House aide responded, "He's not sheltering Russia, and don't you say that again." (Dear Kellyanne, it's not up to incoming White House personnel to dictate what media professionals can and cannot say.)

* In Ohio, state Republican activists elected Trump's choice to serve as state party chair, rejecting Gov. John Kasich's (R) preferred candidate.

* Speaking of replacements, BuzzFeed reports that Charlie Brotman, who "has been the announcer for every presidential Inauguration parade since President Dwight Eisenhower," has been replaced with a former Trump campaign volunteer. "I was demoralized, absolutely demoralized," Brotman told BuzzFeed over the weekend. He added, "I've been doing this for 60 years and for somebody to take over the announcing duties from me, I was devastated."

* Monica Crowley, a far-right media personality who'll soon join Trump's national security team, appears to be caught up in a new plagiarism controversy. It's not the first time Crowley has confronted allegations about presenting others' work as her own.

* Trump may have vowed to weaken the influence of lobbyists in Washington, but "a growing number" of close Trump allies, including Stuart Jolly, Corey Lewandowski, and Jim Murphy "are rushing straight to K Street to cash in." Politico's report added that Paul Manafort is also "flirting with a lobbying comeback."
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Kellyanne Conway, a senior advisor to President-Elect Donald Trump, takes questions from the media at Trump Tower on Nov. 21, 2016 in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Kevin Hagen/Getty)

Conway: Look at Trump's heart, not 'what's come out of his mouth'

01/09/17 11:30AM

Kellyanne Conway, who'll soon become a senior advisor to the president in Donald Trump's White House, came up with a brand new defense for her boss' aversion to the truth: Americans should be prepare to look past "what's come out of his mouth."

The Huffington Post highlighted Conway's appearance on CNN this morning, where Chris Cuomo pressed her on Trump lying about his mockery of journalist Serge Kovaleski and the reporter's physical disability. It led to an amazing exchange:
...Cuomo called out Trump for mocking a disabled New York Times reporter during a 2015 rally. But Conway insisted that's not what he was doing. "That is not what he did and he has said that 1,000 times," she said Monday morning. "Why can't you give him the benefit of the doubt?"

Cuomo shot back, "He can say it a million times but look at the video... he's making a disgusting gesture on video."

"Why is everything taken at face value?" she asked. "You can't give him the benefit of the doubt on this and he's telling you what was in his heart, you always want to go with what's come out of his mouth rather than look at what's in his heart."
It's a remarkable approach to defending the indefensible, and it's hard to imagine Conway seriously believing her own rhetoric. It's the closest I've ever seen a political figure come to literally asking, "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"

As a rule, "the benefit of the doubt" is earned, not given. In this case, we have the video of Trump, who has a track record of jaw-dropping dishonesty, mocking a disabled reporter. For the president-elect and his team to say that didn't happen, when we can all plainly see the evidence, is genuinely bizarre.

But it's every bit as amazing to see Conway suggest we should all look past the words that come out of Trump's mouth -- because it's "his heart" that matters.
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Meryl Streep accepts the Cecil B. DeMille Award during the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards

Feuding with Meryl Streep, Trump can't avoid obvious falsehoods

01/09/17 11:00AM

At the Golden Globes ceremony last night, Meryl Streep used part of her time in the spotlight to denounce Donald Trump, focusing specifically on the Republican's mockery of journalist Serge Kovaleski and the reporter's physical disability during the campaign.
"It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I can't get it out of my head, because it wasn't in a movie. It was real life," Streep said. "And this instinct, to humiliate, when it's modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody's life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing.

"Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose," she added. "We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call him on the carpet for every outrage."
The president-elect spoke to the New York Times overnight, telling the paper he didn't see Streep's remarks, but he denies the underlying allegation. "I was never mocking anyone," Trump said. "I was calling into question a reporter who had gotten nervous because he had changed his story.... People keep saying I intended to mock the reporter's disability, as if Meryl Streep and others could read my mind, and I did no such thing."

Trump made the same points via Twitter this morning, dismissing Streep as "overrated," and again saying he would "never" mock someone with disabilities. The president-elect added he simply called out Serge Kovaleski for having "totally changed" a story he wrote.

The back and forth has sparked quite a bit of chatter this morning, much of it focused on progressive attitudes among wealthy celebrities in the entertainment industry. (It's an odd thing for Republicans to complain about: they just elected a billionaire game-show host.)

And while the larger societal conversation is interesting, the root problem remains the same: Trump's lying.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump points at supporters after speaking at rally at the Verizon Wireless Center in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 8, 2016. (Photo by Justin Lane/EPA)

Trump denounces 'witch hunt,' shortly before calling for one

01/09/17 10:30AM

A few years ago, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) heard congressional Democrats denounce the Republicans' Benghazi committee as a "witch hunt." The Texas Republican, unimpressed, argued in response, "Well, Mr. Speaker, that must mean there is a witch somewhere."

Three years later, GOP confusion about the meaning of the phrase appears to be spreading.
Mr. Trump, who has consistently expressed doubts about the evidence of Russian hacking during the election, did so again on Friday. Asked why he thought there was so much attention being given to the Russian cyberattacks, the president-elect said the motivation was political.

"They got beaten very badly in the election. I won more counties in the election than Ronald Reagan," Mr. Trump said during an eight-minute telephone conversation. "They are very embarrassed about it. To some extent, it's a witch hunt. They just focus on this."
That really doesn't make sense. A serious crime was committed. It targeted an American presidential election. According to 17 U.S. intelligence agencies and a bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill, those responsible for the crime have been identified.

Coming to terms with the facts is not a "witch hunt."

There is some irony to Trump's whining, however, because the president-elect appears surprisingly eager to launch a witch hunt of his own.
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People photograph Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump with their smart phones as he speaks to guests during a campaign rally at the Gerald W. Kirn Middle School on Jan. 31, 2016 in Council Bluffs, Iowa. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty)

Trump embraces a title: 'The Ernest Hemingway of Twitter'

01/09/17 10:00AM

The Washington Post had a piece the other day on a week's worth of Donald Trump tweets, which ultimately "stoked anxiety, moved markets and altered plans." What stood out for me, however, was this:
For Trump, his online dominance is a source of pride. He boasts to friends, aides and journalists alike about the quality of his writing -- pointed, pungent and memorable -- and claims that people call him "the Ernest Hemingway of Twitter."
Now, when it comes to the alleged "quality" of Trump's writing, it's obviously a subjective matter. I'm of the opinion that the president-elect generally comes across like an intemperate tween -- complete with unfortunate typos and an unhealthy reliance on exclamation points, scare quotes, and needlessly capitalized letters -- but it's admittedly a matter of taste.

More interesting is the idea that Donald Trump believes unnamed "people" have begun referring to him as "the Ernest Hemingway of Twitter."

I'd like to know who these people are.
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Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) emerges from a closed-door weekly policy meeting with Senate Republicans, at the U.S. Capitol, May 10, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Rand Paul says Trump backs him, not GOP leaders, on health care

01/09/17 09:30AM

At least for now, congressional Republican leaders have a strategy in mind on health care: "repeal and delay." As we discussed last week, the idea, roughly speaking, involves GOP lawmakers using their majority status to quickly pass legislation that repeals the Affordable Care Act, while also leaving the law -- or at least most of it -- intact for years while Republicans work on their alternative.

But to pass "repeal and delay," GOP leaders will need near-unanimity from Republicans in the House and Senate, and they're not yet close. In fact, as many as six GOP senators -- more than enough to derail the gambit -- have publicly questioned the strategy, instead pushing for an approach in which Republicans repeal "Obamacare" and approve its replacement simultaneously.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is among the most enthusiastic proponents of "repeal and replace" -- instead of "repeal and delay and eventually think of something to maybe replace it with" -- and as Politico noted, the Kentucky Republican says Donald Trump has privately endorsed Paul's approach.
Sen. Rand Paul on Friday said President-elect Donald Trump "fully supports" his plan to simultaneously repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

"I just spoke to [Trump] and he fully supports my plan to replace Obamacare the same day we repeal it," the Kentucky senator tweeted.
I don't doubt that Paul and Trump had this conversation. What's more, I have no reason to believe the senator is in any way exaggerating what the president-elect told him. It's very likely the Kentucky Republican sketched out his preferred strategy and Trump offered his spirited support, leaving Paul feeling quite encouraged.

The problem, however, is that Trump has no idea what he's talking about.
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Federal government forms for applying for health coverage.

NC's Cooper pushes for Medicaid expansion before it's too late

01/09/17 09:00AM

Almost immediately after taking office last year, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) adopted Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, making his state the 31st in the nation to embrace the policy. To date, Louisiana's policy has worked very well, and hundreds of thousands of low-income Louisianans have been able to receive affordable coverage.

In light of the results of the presidential election, the question now is whether there will be a 32nd state to do the same thing.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) wanted his state to embrace the policy, but he faced resistance from his own party, and in mid-November, following a conversation with Vice President-elect Mike Pence, Daugaard gave up on the idea.

But with time running out on the Obama administration, one more state may be able to take advantage of one of the ACA's most important opportunities. WRAL in Raleigh reported:
North Carolina's new Democratic governor on Friday formally started his effort to expand Medicaid to more of the poor and middle class lacking insurance, even as Republicans in Washington bear down on repealing the federal health care law that offers this coverage option.

[Roy] Cooper's office said he sent a letter to federal regulators alerting them of his intentions to seek changes that could provide health care to more than 500,000 people starting in January 2018.
It's an unexpected turn of events in one of the nation's most politically volatile states. In fact, Roy Cooper, who was narrowly elected by North Carolinians two months ago, is well aware of the fact that the Republican-run state legislature -- which recently scurried to gut the powers of the governor's office -- has prohibited North Carolina from adopting Medicaid expansion.

Cooper, however, is moving forward anyway, telling a group of business leaders last week that the state's 2013 law blocking Medicaid expansion was an unlawful infringement on the authority of the governor's office -- and so he's going behind legislators' backs to help the state, whether Republicans like it or not.
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People stand outside the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in Washington, Tuesday, June 14, 2016. (Photo by Paul Holston/AP)

Team Trump: Blame Democrats for Russia stealing their documents

01/09/17 08:30AM

According to U.S. intelligence agencies, Russian agents, acting on Vladimir Putin's orders, stole Democratic materials to be used in a propaganda campaign, all in the hopes of putting Donald Trump in the White House. The latest talking point from Trump World is a doozy: let's blame Democrats.

Last week, the president-elect said "somebody" launched a cyber-attack on the DNC -- Trump still doesn't like to acknowledge the suspected role of his allies in Moscow -- but questioned why Dems did not have a "'hacking defense' like the RNC" used. Soon after, Trump lamented the DNC's "careless" technological defenses.

On Friday night, just minutes after Fox News' Sean Hannity accused the Democratic National Committee of "gross negligence," Trump tweeted:
"Gross negligence by the Democratic National Committee allowed hacking to take place. The Republican National Committee had strong defense!"
Trump alluded to a similar point in his written statement following his intelligence briefing. On "Fox News Sunday" yesterday, the RNC's Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, insisted the DNC "allowed itself to be hacked" -- a point he reiterated four times during the interview.

To the extent that the transition office cares about relevant details, let's note that U.S. intelligence agencies found that Russia did, in fact, collect stolen materials from "some Republican-affiliated targets," but Putin's agents kept under wraps because they wanted to help Trump win.

But even putting these truths aside, for Trump and his allies to blame the victim in this scandal is bonkers. It's amazing Nixon didn't try this 45 years ago during Watergate. "Why didn't the DNC put better locks on their headquarters' doors?"
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Then, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Cleveland, Ohio, on Oct. 22, 2016. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

On the Russia scandal, Trump's lies start to pile up

01/09/17 08:00AM

Almost immediately after Donald Trump met with U.S. intelligence officials on the Russian hacking scandal, the president-elect issued a written statement that claimed, among other things, that he'd learned "there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election."

The next morning, Trump was even more explicit about the point he wants to emphasize, arguing that the intelligence he received "stated very strongly there was absolutely no evidence that hacking affected the election results."

As Rachel explained on the show, Donald Trump clearly lied.
"Here's what's actually in the report: 'We did not make an assessment of the impact Russian activities had on the outcome of the election.'

"So, our president-elect is lying to us.  He says this report concluded that Russian hacking had no impact on the election.  This report did not conclude that -- and now we know because we can read it ourselves."
Note the series of events: Trump lied on Friday in his written statement, got called out for his public deception, and then repeated the identical lie on Saturday morning.

On Sunday, Kellyanne Conway, who'll soon be a senior advisor in the Trump White House, elaborated on the same lie, telling CNN's Jake Tapper, "If you read the full report, [U.S. intelligence officials] make very clear -- Mr. Clapper in his testimony made very clear on Thursday under oath -- that any attempt, any aspiration to influence our elections failed."
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Congress Struggles With Funding Repairs To U.S. Capitol Dome

This Week in God, 1.7.17

01/07/17 08:34AM

First up from the God Machine this week, despite ample evidence that the American public has become more religiously diverse over the last couple generations, there's new evidence that the faith traditions of Americans' elected representatives in Congress haven't changed much over the last half-century.

The New York Times reported this week:
Despite the steady decline in the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian, the proportion of congressional members who say they are Christian has remained very close to what it was in the early 1960s, according to a new report.

The report, released on Tuesday by Pew Research Center, found that 91 percent of the members of the new session of Congress, the 115th, identified as Christian. More than half a century ago, in 1961, 95 percent of United States representatives and senators said that they were Christian, the report said.
That's obviously a very modest shift over the course of nearly six decades, which doesn't reflect changes to the electorate overall. Aleksandra Sandstrom, the report's author, told the Times, "That really is telling, especially with the changing U.S. population and the very big change in the presidency. Congress is really, at least religiously, staying very, very steady."

There are some partisan differences. Among congressional Republicans, 99.3% identify as Christians, while among Democrats, 80% are Christian, while the remaining fifth are Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or religiously unaffiliated. By way of comparison, 71% of Americans consider themselves Christians.

The Pew Research Center's full report, which digs much deeper into the data, including an interesting breakdown by chamber, is online here.

Also from the God Machine this week:
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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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