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Monday's Mini-Report, 12.4.17

12/04/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The Supreme Court this afternoon "allowed the third version of the Trump administration's travel ban to go into effect while legal challenges against it continue. The decision was a victory for the administration after its mixed success before the court over the summer, when justices considered and eventually dismissed disputes over the second version."

* I'll have more on this tomorrow: "President Donald Trump announced the reduction of two national monuments in Utah Monday, lambasting past administrations for overreach in a decision likely to touch off a battle with conservation groups and Native American tribes."

* Korean peninsula: "Two dozen U.S. stealth jets were among hundreds of aircraft involved in war games in South Korea on Monday intended as a show of strength to neighboring North Korea.... North Korea described the exercises as a 'grave provocation,' claiming in its state-run media Monday that they could escalate the situation 'to the brink of nuclear war.'"

* It wasn't long ago when the United States tried to lead: "President Donald Trump has decided to boycott a global conference on migration scheduled to begin Monday in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, sending a blunt signal that the United States is no longer interested in forging a concerted response to the world's burgeoning migration crises."

* Tax debate: "Before Senate Republicans passed their tax bill early Saturday, GOP leaders boasted that it would be a huge boon for the US economy. Goldman Sachs does not agree."

* I'm eager to hear more about how this is going to work: "Federal authorities sought to take back guns from thousands of people the background check system should have blocked from buying weapons because they had criminal records, mental health issues or other problems that would disqualify them."

* Something to keep an eye on tomorrow: "The defamation suit filed in January in the New York State Supreme Court by [Summer] Zervos, a short-lived contestant on 'The Apprentice,' has reached a critical point, with oral arguments over Trump's motion to dismiss scheduled for Tuesday, after which the judge is expected to rule on whether the case may move forward."

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Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton walks off the stage as Republican nominee Donald Trump remains at his podium after their third and final 2016 presidential campaign debate in Las Vegas, Nev., Oct. 19, 2016. (Photo by Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Even now, Trump's focus drifts toward prosecuting Hillary Clinton

12/04/17 01:00PM

Donald Trump was an unusual presidential candidate in a wide variety of ways, but one of the things that made the Republican truly special was his stated desire to investigate, prosecute, and incarcerate his opponent.

Indeed, as the GOP nominee, Trump wasn't especially subtle on this point. In the second presidential debate, he declared his intention to order the Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton after the election -- with the hopes of putting her "in jail." As we discussed last fall, it was the first time in American history a major-party presidential candidate vowed to a national audience he'd lock up his opponent if elected.

As we now know, Trump won anyway, and his former Democratic rival is not behind bars. But it's hard not to notice that the president can't stop himself from returning to the subject, over and over again.

On Saturday, for example, Trump turned to Twitter to write, "Many people in our Country are asking what the 'Justice' Department is going to do" about the email account of "totally Crooked Hillary."

At face value, it certainly looked like a statement in which the president was lobbying the Justice Department to investigate one of his political critics.

This morning, asked about last week's indictment of his former White House National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, Trump's mind once again went to his former opponent.

"Well, I feel badly for General Flynn. I feel very badly. He's led a very strong life, and I feel very badly, John.

"I will say this: Hillary Clinton lied many times to the FBI and nothing happened to her. Flynn lied and they destroyed his life. I think it's a shame. Hillary Clinton, on the Fourth of July weekend, went to the FBI, not under oath -- it was the most incredible thing anyone has ever seen. She lied many times. Nothing happened to her. Flynn lied, and it's like they ruined his life. It's very unfair."

To the extent that reality still has any meaning, Hillary Clinton didn't lie to the FBI. The FBI has already acknowledged as much. The president's comments this morning were the latest example of Trump just making stuff up.

But it's the underlying message that should make the country nervous.

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Image: Embattled GOP Senate Candidate In Alabama Judge Roy Moore Continues Campaigning Throughout The State

Trump, McConnell take dramatic new postures on Roy Moore

12/04/17 12:31PM

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had been a rather vocal critic of Roy Moore's radical Senate candidacy in Alabama. It was just a couple of weeks ago that the GOP leader said the Alabama Republican, accused of, among other things, child molestation, is "obviously not fit to be in the United States Senate."

McConnell acknowledged at the time that he and his colleagues were exploring way "to prevent" Moore from joining the chamber.

And with this in mind, it was a little jarring to see McConnell on ABC News yesterday, saying in reference to Moore, "I'm going to let the people of Alabama make the call."

Evidently, he's not the only prominent Republican who's changing his posture.

President Donald Trump on Monday offered his strongest support yet to embattled Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore.

"Democrats refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts is why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama. We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A., Judges 2nd Amendment and more. No to Jones, a Pelosi/Schumer Puppet," Trump tweeted in the first of two posts.

At face value, Trump described a less-than-ideal posture for his party: tax cuts for the wealthy are great, so elect the alleged child molester.

It's also problematic for the president to make the case that "stopping crime" is a priority, which is why he wants voters to support a candidate accused of sexual assault over a former federal prosecutor.

But it's also worth pausing to appreciate the evolution of Trump World's thinking on the scandal.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.4.17

12/04/17 12:00PM

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

* In Alabama's U.S. Senate special election, a new Washington Post-Schar School poll found Doug Jones (D) narrowly leading Roy Moore (R), 50% to 47%. Most recent statewide surveys in Alabama show Jones trailing.

* On a related note, a new CBS News poll shows Moore with a six-point advantage over Jones, 49% to 43%. The election is a week from tomorrow.

* The chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee called on Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.) to resign in response to sexual harassment allegations. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has also said the freshman Nevadan should step down.

* In a bit of a surprise, Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) announced over the weekend that he's retiring at the end of this Congress. Levin has served on Capitol Hill for 35 years.

* Donald Trump is reportedly taking a direct role in urging Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to run for re-election again next year. According to Politico, this is part of the president's effort to deny Mitt Romney a Senate seat.

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Budget Battle

The fight over the Republican tax plan isn't over just yet

12/04/17 11:33AM

When 51 Senate Republicans approved their regressive tax plan at 1:36 a.m. on Friday night/Saturday morning, it felt like the end of a difficult fight. But that's not quite right.

One of two things will now happen. Either the Republican-led House will simply take up the Senate bill, as is, in the hopes of sending it on to the White House for Donald Trump's signature, or there will be a conference committee in which House and Senate negotiators work on reconciling the bill's differences and crafting one final version.

Though there's been some scuttlebutt about the former -- I wouldn't rule out the possibility just yet -- it's more likely House and Senate negotiations will get underway fairly soon. GOP leaders appeared optimistic over the weekend that the process will be fairly easy, but at least in theory, this is going to require some effort.

Because while both plans are built around a massive, permanent corporate tax break, Vox noted the other day that there are still "some big differences."

The House bill makes its changes to the individual tax code permanent; the Senate bill would allow many major provisions to expire after 2025 in order to comply with Senate rules that limit how much a bill that can’t be filibustered can increase the federal deficit.

The House and Senate have also structured their tax cuts for “pass-through” businesses, like LLCs or partnerships, completely differently. The pass-through issue almost derailed the Senate tax bill, so it will be an area to watch closely as the chambers work out a new bill.

That's really just the start. The Senate bill scraps the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, while the House version wasn't nearly as ambitious in its anti-health care goals. The Senate plan doesn't entirely repeal the estate tax, while the House bill does. The House plan shrinks the number of income-tax brackets to four, while the Senate maintains the seven brackets that already exist.

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Image: FILE PHOTO: Senator Susan Collins talks to reporters

On taxes, what in the world was Susan Collins thinking?

12/04/17 11:00AM

On Oct. 1, the Republican tax plan faced a major problem. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), just a few days after announcing his retirement, appeared on "Meet the Press" and laid down a marker on his party's signature goal.

In unequivocal comments to NBC's Chuck Todd, the Republican senator said, "If it looks like to me, Chuck, that we are adding one penny to the deficit, I'm not going to be for it."

At the time, this spelled trouble for the GOP gambit: if Corker honored his commitment, many assumed at the time, the tax bill would likely fail. After all, it'd only take three Senate Republicans to break ranks, and if Corker joined the handful of GOP moderates in opposition to the regressive plan, Republican leaders would fall short of a majority.

But that's not how it worked out. Corker, to his credit, followed through on his pledge and voted against his party's plan, but literally every other Senate Republican supported the proposal.

That included Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ostensibly the most moderate member of her caucus, who could've voted "no" -- the plan would have passed anyway -- but who nevertheless stuck with her far-right colleagues. As the Bangor Daily News noted yesterday, this didn't sit well with many of Collins' constituents who saw her as a likely ally.

After U.S. Sen. Susan Collins voted early Saturday morning in support of the Republican bill to overhaul the tax code, some Mainers broke out in protest over the weekend, calling Collins' vote a betrayal.

Gathered outside Collins' Portland office Friday night before the vote, Mainers for Accountable Leadership co-founder Gordon Adams told Portland-based ABC affiliate WMTW that Collins, who came out in support of Senate the tax bill, "has really let the people of Maine down."

With news that Collins had voted overnight in support of the bill, more gathered across the state, including at the Bangor International Airport, in case Collins flew home from Washington, D.C. Voters stood with their backs turned, claiming " Her vote turned her back on ME," according to a Mainers for Accountable Leadership Facebook post.

As it turns out, the Maine senator didn't see those protesters at the airport -- she remained in D.C. over the weekend -- but it's still hard not to wonder what in the world Susan Collins was thinking.

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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 lawyer argues a president 'cannot obstruct justice'

12/04/17 10:43AM

Defense attorneys routinely have a choice in strategies. They can argue, "My client didn't do x," or they can make the case, "Maybe my client did x, but it shouldn't matter."

When it comes to the Trump-Russia scandal, the president's allies have long struggled with this dynamic, to the point that they routinely end up making both arguments. For example, many on the right used to say Donald Trump and his campaign didn't collude with Russia during its attack on the United States' election, though some ended up arguing that collusion is permissible, so even if the Republican is guilty, we should all just look the other way.

Similarly, as the president faces allegations that he obstructed justice, the usual line from the right has been that he's innocent. Now, however, Trump World is shifting its posture, suggesting that even if the president did obstruct justice, it shouldn't matter.

John Dowd, who's helping lead Trump's legal defense, got into a little trouble over the weekend with a tweet he claims to have written for his client, but Dowd went much further in an interview with Axios.

John Dowd, President Trump's outside lawyer, outlined to me a new and highly controversial defense/theory in the Russia probe: A president cannot be guilty of obstruction of justice.

The "President cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer under [the Constitution's Article II] and has every right to express his view of any case," Dowd claims.

On a related note, Trump tweeted this morning that Alan Dershowitz's segment on Fox News this morning was "a must watch." And what exactly did Dershowitz have to say? "You cannot charge a president with obstruction of justice for exercising his constitutional power," he argued.

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In this Jan. 29, 2015 file photo, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/File/AP)

Grassley blasts working class for spending on booze, women, and movies

12/04/17 10:00AM

When Republicans talk up their tax plans, they usually make an effort to mention the middle class. The evidence shows that the current GOP proposals, when fully implemented, would actually raise taxes on millions of middle-class households, but at least in their public talking points, Republican officials try to avoid sounding plutocratic.

GOP efforts to repeal the estate tax, however, make the political push tricky -- because literally no one in the middle class pays the tax that applies only to estates worth more than $5.49 million. The standard Republican line is that the estate tax is bad for farmers, but the Des Moines Register published a good piece over the weekend, noting that a "review of federal tax data and nonpartisan research on the subject shows that family farmers and small business owners represent a tiny share of estate tax payers, and that the taxes they owe rarely force them to sell land or quit farming."

The data apparently hasn't swayed Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), an ardent opponent of the estate tax.

In a Nov. 29 interview, Grassley was adamant about the need for change, even if farmers and small business owners represent a tiny minority of estate tax payers. The reason, he said, is as much philosophical as practical.

An estate tax effectively and unfairly taxes a person's earnings twice, he argued: first when they earn it and again when they die. And, he added, it penalizes savers without touching spenders.

"I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing," Grassley said, "as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it's on booze or women or movies."

It's rare to see prominent politicians celebrate elitism with such candor. To hear Grassley tell it, multi-millionaires and billionaires -- and their heirs -- deserve an expensive tax break. If the rest of us spent our paychecks in ways Iowa's millionaire senator approves of, perhaps we'd be millionaires, too.

In other words, if you're not rich enough to qualify for the estate tax, it's probably your fault -- which is why congressional Republicans don't see the need to "recognize" you.

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A crest of the Federal Bureau of Investi

Under pressure, Trump takes aim at the FBI (again)

12/04/17 09:30AM

On Saturday morning, reporters asked Donald Trump for his reaction to his former National Security Advisor pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about his communications with Russia. The president said he and his team are "very happy" because "what has been shown is no collusion, no collusion."

First, in reality, what's "been shown" is all kinds of collusion. Second, I don't really believe Trump is "very happy" at all. In fact, the president seemed quite unhappy.

President Trump issued a fresh denial Sunday that he asked then-FBI Director James B. Comey to halt an investigation into the conduct of his dismissed national security adviser Michael Flynn.

"I never asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn," Trump said in a pre-dawn message on Twitter. "Just more Fake News covering another Comey lie!"

Comey delivered congressional testimony, under oath, that Trump did pressure him about the Flynn investigation. In fact, the firmer FBI director has contemporaneous notes that quoted Trump saying in February, in reference to Flynn, "I hope you can let this go."

It leaves the political world with a choice: believe Comey's sworn testimony and contemporaneous materials, or believe the president, who's strained relationship with the truth often borders on pathological.

But Trump didn't just target Comey; he also shared some related thoughts on the bureau Comey used to lead. On Twitter, the president went on to say that the FBI's reputation is "in Tatters" and is now the "worst in History." (Trump still struggles with capitalization for reasons no one can explain.)

He added that "we" will restore the FBI "to greatness."

A year ago, Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote, "When you're attacking FBI agents because you're under criminal investigation, you're losing." It's funny how the salience of that message continues to resonate.

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Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio and rival candidate Donald Trump argue at the same time at the debate in Detroit, Mich., March 3, 2016. (Photo by Jim Young/Reuters)

On taxes, Trump signals a willingness to ignore his 'red line'

12/04/17 09:00AM

Donald Trump initially demanded that the Republican tax plan drop the corporate tax rate to 15%, but even GOP officials, as irresponsible on this issue as they are, told the president the goal was unrealistic. They could do 20%, but no lower.

Trump was grudgingly satisfied, but he made clear that Congress shouldn't even consider pushing the corporate rate any higher in the legislation. The president declared publicly that the 20% rate was "very much a red line" he would not cross. Trump's Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, added soon after, "The president's number one issue that is not negotiable is 20% corporate taxes."

The rigidity of the White House's position created all kinds of problems for the president's congressional allies, but Republican lawmakers honored Trump's demands -- even if it meant killing popular ideas and writing a plan that raised taxes on millions of middle-class families. For all intents and purposes, the 20% corporate was the point of the legislation.

And so, it came as something of a surprise when the president suggested over the weekend that he'd consider crossing his own red line. The Washington Post reported:

Hours after the pre-dawn passage of a $1.5 trillion tax cut, President Trump suggested for the first time Saturday that he would consider a higher corporate rate than the one Senate Republicans had just endorsed, in remarks that could complicate sensitive negotiations to pass a final bill.

On his way to New York for three fundraisers, Trump told reporters that the corporate tax rate in the GOP plan might end up rising to 22 percent from 20 percent.

Referring to the corporate rate, the president said, "It could be 22% when it comes out, but it could also be 20%. We'll see what ultimately comes out."

So much for the "red line" that's "not negotiable." No wonder some Republicans weren't pleased.

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Image: U.S. President Trump speaks to reporters before departing the White House for New York in Washington

Who is the GOP tax plan for? Trump fundraiser hints at the answer

12/04/17 08:30AM

Senate Republican leaders hoped to wrap up work on their tax plan on Thursday night, but it quickly became apparent that they hadn't yet locked up the votes. As members left Capitol Hill that night, they faced a challenge: the GOP bill was too expensive, and making it cheaper wouldn't be easy.

And so, they didn't try. Instead of making the legislation more affordable, Republicans decided to make it more expensive, throwing in all kinds of 11th-hour treats benefiting the wealthy. Slate highlighted one especially notable last-minute addition to the GOP plan.

Senate Republicans are getting ready to pass their tax bill any minute now -- but not before tacking on one last gift for their donors.

University of San Diego law professor Victor Fleischer spotted the early Christmas present in a leaked list of the amendments Republicans are planning to include in the bill. It comes courtesy of Texas Senator John Cornyn. In essence, it lets the partners of giant private equity firms like Blackstone and Apollo Global Management, as well as a number of energy companies, take advantage of the bill's big tax cut for pass-through businesses, which aren't subject to the corporate rate.

A New York Times report quoted USC professor Edward Kleinbard, a former chief of staff for the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, saying, "The Senate went out of its way to confirm that passive investors in these publicly traded investment vehicles get the benefit of the pass-through discount tax rate. This is a working definition of a tax boondoggle."

But that's not the punchline. This is the punchline.

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U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement from the Roosevelt Room next to the empty chairs of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (L), D-New York, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (R), D-California, after they cancelled their meeting at the Whi

Trump stumbles into new questions about obstruction of justice

12/04/17 08:00AM

Donald Trump's official line has been that he fired his first White House National Security Advisor, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, because Flynn lied to Mike Pence about his communications with Russia. There are, as Rachel noted on Friday's show, plenty of questions surrounding the reliability of this official line, but that was the president's story and he stuck to it.

Over the weekend, however, Trump published a tweet that pointed to an important change in the president's posture.

"I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!"

It was the kind of message that generated all kinds of questions -- why would Flynn lie if there was "nothing to hide"? -- but the key phrase that stood out in the tweet was "and the FBI."

Taken at face value, Trump's tweet made it sound as if he knew Flynn lied to the FBI, which is why he "had to fire" Flynn from his important White House post. To put it mildly, that raised the possibility of an important legal problem for the president: it suggested Trump fired Flynn on Feb. 13 for lying to the FBI, and then asked James Comey, the then-FBI director, to go easy on Flynn literally one day later, on Feb. 14.

Matt Miller, a former Justice Department spokesperson and an MSNBC analyst, wrote after seeing the president's tweet, "Oh my god, he just admitted to obstruction of justice. If Trump knew Flynn lied to the FBI when he asked Comey to let it go, then there is your case."

Susan Hennessey, Lawfare's executive editor, added, in reference to Trump's message, "This is a pretty substantial confession to essential knowledge elements of an obstruction of justice charge."

Walter Shaub, the former head of the Office of Government Ethics, went a little further, writing, “Before we slipped into an alternate universe of unabashed corruption, this tweet alone might have ended a Presidential administration."

Allegations that the president may have obstructed justice are not new, but his tweet certainly appeared to make matters significantly worse. And so, the White House came up with a curious explanation.

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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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