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The 'worst-run White House of modern times' loses another prominent official

07/12/18 10:08AM

The White House's legislative affairs director is usually a low-profile position. Traditionally, directors prefer to work behind the scenes, quietly twisting arms on Capitol Hill, hoping lawmakers consider a president's wishes.

Marc Short, however, Donald Trump's legislative affairs director, has put the job in the spotlight. For example, Short has made 15 Sunday-show appearances since this president took office, which is unheard of for someone in his position.

Nevertheless, next week, he's leaving his post. Politico  reported this morning:

President Donald Trump's legislative affairs director is heading for the exits just as the White House gears up for a major Supreme Court nomination battle and approaches a daunting midterm election landscape. [...]

Short, who declined to comment on the record, is taking a position at Guidepost Strategies consulting firm and will teach at the University of Virginia's business school, where he received his MBA, and will also serve as a senior fellow at the university's Miller Center.

A Washington Post  report added, "His departure ... was confirmed by a White House official who requested anonymity to discuss a personnel move that has not been formally announced."

Short's departure comes on the heels of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's resignation, among other major departures from Trump World.

And while I'm not inclined to update the absurdly long master list, I am reminded of a New Yorker piece from last week, in which Susan Glasser described this as possibly "the worst-run White House of modern times," in which "no one is really in charge."

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Image: APEC Summit 2017 in Vietnam

Trump on Russian election interference: 'What am I going to do?'

07/12/18 09:26AM

It was exactly one year ago today that Donald Trump suggested he was prepared to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin's denials about attacking American elections.

Trump said he'd spoken directly with Putin about the scandal, telling Reuters, "I said, 'Did you do it?' And he said, 'No, I did not. Absolutely not.' I then asked him a second time in a totally different way. He said, 'Absolutely not.'"

This, evidently, helped convince the American president that he should trust his Russian counterpart's word over that of U.S. intelligence agencies.

That was July 12, 2017. On July 12, 2018, as this week's NATO summit wrapped up, Trump hosted a press conference and addressed the issue anew. The Washington Post  reported:

President Trump pledged Thursday that will "of course" raise the issue of Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election at his summit next week with the country's leader, Vladimir Putin, but insisted that there was little he could do if -- as expected -- Putin denies that Russia interfered.

"Look, he may. What am I going to do? He may deny it," Trump said. "All I can do is say, 'Did you?' And, 'Don't do it again.' But he may deny it. You'll be the first to know."

The American president doesn't appear to appreciate how pathetic a line this is. From Trump's perspective, confronted with overwhelming evidence that Putin's government launched an unprecedented attack on the United States' democracy, the president can ask the Russian leader for an explanation. If Putin denies responsibility, Trump can ask again. As the Republican put it this morning, it's "all" he can do.

He'd make quite a police interrogator, wouldn't he? "Did you commit the crime? No, really, did you commit the crime? No? Well, I guess that's that. I gave it my best shot."

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FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2017, file photo, from left, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, confer before a news conference at the Capitol in Washington.

On the same day, GOP lawmaker approved tax cuts, bought yacht

07/12/18 08:40AM

The Institute on Taxation and Economic and Policy, a progressive think tank, published a new report this week on the Republicans' tax plan, and the degree to which it will benefit the wealthiest of the wealthy.

"If you look at the richest 1 percent, they're getting more than the bottom 60 percent of Americans," Steve Wamhoff, director of federal tax policy at the institute and one of the report's authors, told Vox this week.

And some of those wealthy folks are apparently taking advantage of the windfall. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Rep. Vern Buchanan's (R-Fla.) hometown newspaper, reported overnight:

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan is drawing criticism for purchasing an expensive yacht on the same day he voted in favor of a major tax cut package that could save him a substantial amount of money.

A recent financial disclosure form shows Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, bought an Ocean Alexander yacht last year on Nov. 16. The boat cost between $1 million and $5 million according to the form.

That same day the GOP-controlled House pushed through a major tax cut that critics deride as disproportionately benefiting wealthy individuals such as Buchanan, whose minimum net worth the Associated Press recently estimated at $80 million.

The yacht purchase was first reported by the Florida Politics website.

The timing is less than ideal for the Republican congressman: on Nov. 16, 2017, Buchanan joined his GOP colleagues in supporting a regressive package of tax cuts that disproportionately benefits the wealthy. Also on Nov. 16, 2017, Buchanan bought his new yacht.

And while we're at it, on the exact same day, Nov. 16, 2017, Buchanan issued a press release insisting that the Republican tax package he'd just voted for would benefit "middle-class families," all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

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U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) arrives at a news conference Nov. 4, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

Trump's GOP detractors placated by hollow, symbolic gesture

07/12/18 08:00AM

Donald Trump's controversial trade policies have plenty of Republican critics on Capitol Hill, and a few weeks ago, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) decided he'd do something about it. In a seemingly bold move, the retiring Arizona senator said he'd use his leverage to block the president's judicial nominees until he was satisfied that Congress was addressing his concerns.

The trouble is, Flake is too easily satisfied. The Wall Street Journal  reported overnight:

With the Trump administration announcing a new round of tariffs on China, the Senate took a symbolic step Wednesday toward asserting its power over levies that President Donald Trump has already imposed. [...]

Senators voted Wednesday, 88-11, to instruct the lawmakers appointed to iron out differences with the House over a spending bill to also insert a provision giving a role to Congress when the executive branch decides to impose tariffs on the basis of national-security concerns. The measure doesn't offer any specifics about that role.

In other words, the Senate passed a non-binding resolution, with no force of law, that effectively says it'd be nice if Congress limited some of Trump's abuses on tariffs in an upcoming spending bill.

And with that complete, Flake said the Senate can once again start confirming the White House's far-right judicial nominees.

It's at least mildly refreshing when some of Trump's GOP detractors show a willingness to stand up to their party's president, but I don't think these folks fully appreciate how leverage works.

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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 7.11.18

07/11/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Sure, why not: "During the president's remarks today at the NATO summit he suggested that countries not only meet their commitment of 2 percent of their GDP on defense spending, but that they increase it to 4 percent," White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

* Sarah Huckabee Sanders also said White House Chief of Staff John Kelly looked unhappy during Donald Trump's anti-Germany comments this morning "because he was expecting a full breakfast and there were only pastries and cheese."

* Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill: "House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Wednesday that the 29-member international alliance was 'indispensable' and the House passed a non-binding resolution expressing support for NATO by unanimous voice vote in the afternoon. The Senate had approved a similar resolution Tuesday."

* This will probably get worse before it gets better; "The Trump administration escalated its trade dispute with China on Tuesday, saying it would impose tariffs on roughly $200 billion worth of Chinese fish, petroleum, chemicals, handbags, textiles and other products if Beijing does not change its trade practices."

* Nevada: "Hours before Nevada was set to carry out the country's first lethal injection using the powerful opioid fentanyl, a judge on Wednesday halted the execution due to a challenge from a drug company that objects to the state's plan to use one of its products as a sedative for the procedure."

* Cambridge Analytica is back in the news: "Britain's information regulator said on Wednesday she intends to fine Facebook for breaches of data protection law as her office investigates how millions of users' data was improperly accessed by consultancy Cambridge Analytica."

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A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)

Why Trump's choice to lead the DOJ's criminal division is so controversial

07/11/18 01:00PM

When it comes to controversial nominations, much of the political world is understandably focused on Judge Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination, but the Senate is scheduled to vote today on a very different nominee that also deserves attention.

Senate Democrats are pushing back against President Trump's nominee for assistant attorney general, citing concerns over his past work for a Russian bank.

A number of Democrats issued statements on Tuesday raising red flags about the nomination of Brian Benczkowski to lead the Department of Justice's criminal division. They cited his lack of prosecutorial experience, as well as his ties to a Russian bank.

Brian Benczkowski, a former aide to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions before the Alabama Republican became attorney general, probably isn't a household name, and the fight over his nomination hasn't exactly captured the political world's attention, but if you watch The Rachel Maddow Show, you know why his nomination matter.

And if you don't, it's time to get up to speed.

Leading the Justice Department's criminal division is an important and high-profile job, which involves overseeing hundreds of federal prosecutors as well as all federal criminal prosecutions at the DOJ.

Which is why Benczkowski was a curious choice for Donald Trump to make: Benczkowski has never prosecuted a criminal case. He's never prosecuted a civil case. He's never even filed a motion in a federal court.

So what is Benczkowski's experience?

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.11.18

07/11/18 12:00PM

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

* Seth Grossman, the Republican congressional hopeful in New Jersey under pressure to quit over his racist rhetoric, appears to be digging his heels in. Yesterday, the GOP candidate said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers is the one who should resign for failing to do more to support Donald Trump's agenda.

* With the Trump administration's trade policies hitting the Midwest especially hard, Vice President Mike Pence is launching a campaign swing through the region this week, with stops in Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa. Politico  reports that Pence is, among other things, "quietly setting up one-on-one meetings with major Midwestern donors."

* Rep. Kevin Cramer, the Republican Senate hopeful in North Dakota, said this week that he recently gave the president some guidance on choosing a Supreme Court nominee: "I said my only preference would be don't succumb to the pressure to make this some sort of an affirmative action pick."

* Trump yesterday promoted an Emerson College "ePoll," which he said found that most Americans "feel that they are better off under President Trump than they were under President Obama." That's not quite what the poll found.

* California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), wrapping up his second term and not making plans to run for any other office, still has nearly $15 million in his campaign coffers. Asked about his plans for the money, the Democratic governor said, "Having a fund increases one's relevance. You want me to spend it and have no more money and nobody is going to call anymore? That's really dumb."

* Sen. Dean Heller (R), facing a tough re-election fight in Nevada, has launched a fundraising appeal over Democratic opposition to Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's conservative Supreme Court nominee. Though the Republican senator is now condemning "obstructionist behavior," Heller joined the GOP blockade against Merrick Garland two years ago.

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Lawyer and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani at a press conference after appearing in court to call for the dismissal of a lawsuit filed against video game giant Activision in Los Angeles, Calif., Oct. 16, 2014. (Photo by Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Rudy Giuliani raises eyebrows by maintaining foreign clients

07/11/18 11:20AM

Since joining Donald Trump's legal defense team, Rudy Giuliani has been more than just a presidential lawyer. The former New York City mayor has taken on a variety of responsibilities beyond looking out for Trump's legal interests, taking on related roles.

For example, Giuliani has spoken publicly in recent weeks on matters related to foreign policy, covering provocative topics such as U.S. foreign policy toward North Korea and Iran, all while presumably helping oversee the president's defense in the Russia scandal.

It's against this backdrop that the Washington Post  reports that Giuliani also "continues to work on behalf of foreign clients both personally and through his namesake security firm."

Giuliani said in recent interviews with The Washington Post that he is working with clients in Brazil and Colombia, among other countries, as well as delivering paid speeches for a controversial Iranian dissident group. He has never registered with the Justice Department on behalf of his overseas clients, asserting it is not necessary because he does not directly lobby the U.S. government and is not charging Trump for his services.

His decision to continue representing foreign entities also departs from standard practice for presidential attorneys, who in the past have generally sought to sever any ties that could create conflicts with their client in the White House.

The Post's report added that among the clients represented by Giuliani's consulting firm is the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine, whose mayor "was a leading figure in ... the Russia-friendly political party at the center of the federal conspiracy prosecution of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

For his part, Giuliani told the Post he's "never lobbied" Trump, doesn't bring up his other clients with the president, and he doesn't represent foreign interests "in front of the U.S. government."

I'm not in a position to know whether those claims are true, but the arrangement nevertheless seems problematic.

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U.S. Sen. John Tester (D-MT), listens to testimony during a Senate Homeland Security hearing on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2013 in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony on border security as some are calling for an overhaul of immigration...

Ahead of key Senate race, the Green Party loses its spot on the ballot

07/11/18 10:40AM

One of the first sign of trouble in Montana was when one of the Green Party's candidates for the U.S. Senate was a guy who was on the state Republican Party's payroll. It suggested some of Sen. Jon Tester's (D) GOP opponents intended to use the Green Party's ballot slot to undermine the incumbent and elect Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale.

As of this week, those efforts have suffered a setback. The Independent Record in Helena reported:

A Helena judge is ordering the Montana Green Party removed from the ballot this fall, saying the group did not submit enough valid signatures to qualify.

Helena District Court Judge James Reynolds on Monday signed an order directing the Secretary of State to take the Montana Green Party off the ballot after he invalidated signatures gathered through a petition process.

Apparently, in order for the Montana Green Party to appear on the statewide ballot, it had to gather 5,000 signatures from at least 34 of the state House districts. According to Montana Democrats, the Green Party fell several districts short, and this week, a state judge agreed, adding that some of the collected signatures were invalid.

This will likely help Tester, who can't afford to lose progressive votes if he's going to keep Republicans from taking his seat, but I'm still curious about how the Montana Green Party collected its signatures in the first place.

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The Queen Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben) is reflected in a puddle as a man walks by on June 27, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/AFP/Getty)

Americans in the UK advised to keep a 'low profile' during Trump's trip

07/11/18 10:01AM

Donald Trump is scheduled to arrive in the U.K. tomorrow for what a BBC diplomatic correspondent described as "the most controversial visit ever made by an American president to Britain."

A significant anti-Trump demonstration is planned for Friday in London, complete with a giant "Trump Baby" balloon flying above the Palace of Westminster, which was approved by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, whom the American president has attacked many times.

The Washington Post, meanwhile,  reported that Trump's hosts have arranged to keep the American leader "a discreet distance" from his angriest British critics.

The U.K., of course, is one of our closest international allies -- the "special relationship" sill matters -- and the fact that an American president is so spectacularly unpopular there is itself extraordinary. Complicating matters, however, is the effects Trump may have on foreign impressions of Americans in general. CNBC reported this morning:

Ahead of President Donald Trump's high-profile visit to the U.K., the American government's representatives in the country are warning U.S. citizens to lay low during what is planned to be three days of large-scale protests.

Several demonstrations are scheduled across the U.K. from July 12 to 14 to voice widespread opposition to Trump and his policies. They're expected to be attended by thousands and will mandate a large police presence and several road closures. Though mostly concentrated in central London, some protests will take place in the Scottish cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, among others.

The U.S. embassy in London listed on its website a number of actions to take this week, including keeping "a low profile."

Americans in Israel received a similar alert after Trump announced plans to move the U.S. embassy in the country to Jerusalem, but that was easier to understand, since the threat of possible unrest was tied directly to a controversial policy.

This week in London, Americans have been asked to maintain "a low profile" simply because Trump will be in the U.K.

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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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