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Donald Trump's campaign manager Kellyanne Conway speaks to the media while entering Trump Tower on Nov. 14, 2016 in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty)

Kellyanne Conway burdened by her own ethics mess

02/15/17 09:20AM

The White House's Republican allies are prepared to look the other way in response to all kinds of Team Trump controversies, but even GOP lawmakers weren't pleased with Kellyanne Conway last week.

Donald Trump's presidential counselor, speaking from the West Wing, appeared on national television and encouraged the public to buy Ivanka Trump's merchandise. Conway, a public official whose salary is paid by taxpayers, was pushing back against retailers who'd dropped the president's daughter's product line following poor sales.

Or put another way, a White House official did a little on-air testimonial in support of her boss' daughter's business -- despite laws that appear to prohibit such behavior. No wonder the Office of Government Ethics is unimpressed.
The Office of Government Ethics warned the White House there is "strong reason" to believe presidential aide Kellyanne Conway violated ethics rules and that disciplinary action is warranted in a letter made public on Tuesday.

OGE Director Walter Shaub said Conway's urging of Americans to buy Ivanka Trump's products during a television interview from the White House briefing room "would establish a clear violation of the prohibition against misuse of position."
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters the day after the incident that Conway had been "counseled" -- he didn't elaborate on what that entailed, exactly -- but Shaub's letter added that his office was unaware of any disciplinary action.

"Executive branch officials should use the authority entrusted to them for the benefit of the American people and not for private profit," he wrote, adding that he recommends "the White House investigate Ms. Conway's actions and consider taking disciplinary action against her."
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Image: FILE PHOTO: Trump speaking by phone with Putin in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington

Why Sean Spicer was right to use the word 'unbelievable'

02/15/17 08:51AM

On Jan. 26, less than a week into Donald Trump's nascent presidency, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates notified the White House of an alarming revelation: the Justice Department had evidence that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn lied about his post-election talks with Vladimir Putin's government and may be vulnerable to a Russian blackmail campaign.

Within days, Trump took decisive action -- by firing Yates. Flynn, however, remained in place, guiding the White House's policies on national security.

Late Monday night, Flynn stepped down from his powerful position, and yesterday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the NSA's ouster was a result of the revelations three weeks ago. It led, as Spicer put it yesterday, to an "evolving and eroding level of trust" between the president and Flynn.

The trouble, of course, is the gap on the calendar. A reporter asked Spicer yesterday what in the world took so long. If the White House was notified about Flynn on Jan. 26, and the president was briefed right away, why not show Flynn the door on Jan. 27, instead of waiting until Feb. 13?

Spicer responded that Trump, "from day one, from minute one, was unbelievably decisive."

I'm delighted the press secretary used the word "unbelievably," because in this case, it's literally true.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

New questions surround Team Trump's pre-election talks with Russia

02/15/17 08:00AM

We learned this week that Donald Trump's former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, was in communications with Vladimir Putin's government during the 2016 presidential election, while Russia was in the midst of an illegal espionage operation to help hand Trump the presidency.

The New York Times published a report last night noting that Flynn wasn't the only one.
Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.

American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said. The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.
CNN had a related report this morning, noting that "high-level advisers" close to Trump were in "constant communication" with Russian officials during the American election season. Investigators, the CNN report added, were struck by "the frequency and the level of the Trump advisers involved."

It's worth emphasizing that the Times' reporting added that U.S. investigators have found "no evidence" of cooperation between the Republican campaign and Moscow, at least not yet.

And for Trump allies and much of the right, that effectively ends the conversation. Russia may have been trying to intervene on Trump's behalf during the campaign, the argument goes, and Trump's aides may have been talking to Russian officials at the time, but so long as Republicans weren't actively colluding with Putin's agents, the importance of the communications is limited.

But while this calculus may make Trump World feel better, it overlooks a key detail.
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Can Americans get an impartial Trump inquiry?

Can Americans get an impartial Trump inquiry?

02/14/17 09:30PM

Rep. Adam Schiff, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, talks with Rachel Maddow about how and whether government institutions can be counted on to investigate the Donald Trump campaign's interactions with the Russian government when Republicans control Congress and Jeff Sessions refuses to recuse himself on any related matters. watch

Tuesday's Mini-Report, 2.14.17

02/14/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* If only the White House were prepared for a move like this: "Russia has secretly deployed a new cruise missile despite complaints from American officials that it violates a landmark arms control treaty that helped seal the end of the Cold War, administration officials say."

* North Korea: "The half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un died suddenly at an airport in Malaysia's capital on Tuesday, local officials told Reuters. Police said they were investigating the cause of death of Kim Jong Nam after he fell ill at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, according to the news agency."

* Northern California: "Officials in California were racing against the weather Tuesday, struggling to shore up the Oroville Dam's emergency spillway before more rains pummel the area and place the structure under even greater stress."

* In an interview this morning, Kellyanne Conway offered this memorable gem: "I can't reveal what the White House knew or didn't know and who in the White House knew or didn't know."

* This probably isn't the kind of support that will help Michael Flynn's case: "The strongest support for Flynn came from Moscow on Tuesday morning."

* Trump will name his successor: "The head of the Secret Service announced Tuesday that he was retiring. Joseph Clancy, a career agent who'd first left the federal protection force in 2011 for a job in the private sector, returned in 2014 to restore credibility to the scandal-plagued agency."

* Remember, the White House considers these "attacks" against the First Family: "The list of retailers dumping some Trump products continues to grow. Sears and Kmart announced over the weekend that they're removing 31 items in the 'Trump Homes' brand from their websites, though many remain."
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Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn arrives at Trump Tower, Nov. 17, 2016. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and high level positions for the new administration. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Russian ambassador confirms pre-election talks with Michael Flynn

02/14/17 04:06PM

Much of the recent discussion surrounding Michael Flynn, Russia, and Donald Trump's team have focused on the events that unfolded after the election. It's easy to understand why.

Flynn spoke to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition; the two apparently spoke about U.S. sanctions; White House officials spent quite a bit of time telling the nation things about those conversations that weren't true; and the National Security Advisor was forced to resign after three weeks on the job.

But let's not overlook what happened before the election.

Multiple reports indicated late last week that Michael Flynn spoke to the Russian ambassador before Americans cast their ballots. This is consistent with what Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in the fall, when he said "there were contacts" between the Russian government and Trump's campaign team ahead of Nov. 8.

The latest Washington Post report, published overnight, includes a rare official confirmation from the Russian ambassador that he did, in fact, speak with Flynn before the U.S. Election Day.
U.S. intelligence reports during the 2016 presidential campaign showed that Kislyak was in touch with Flynn, officials said. Communications between the two continued after Trump's victory on Nov. 8, according to officials with access to intelligence reports on the matter.

Kislyak, in a brief interview with The Post, confirmed having contacts with Flynn before and after the election, but he declined to say what was discussed.
That's no small acknowledgement.
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Night falls over the U.S. Capitol.

GOP claims Russia scandal has 'taken care of itself'

02/14/17 12:56PM

A wide variety of congressional Republicans, many of whom are usually quite loquacious, have suddenly grown quite shy in the wake of Michael Flynn's White House resignation. The scandal involving Donald Trump's up-until-last-night National Security Advisor is raising all kinds of important questions, and for now, GOP lawmakers don't appear eager to ask or answer them.

This morning, Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) was asked on CNN why his fellow Republicans are so quiet this morning. "Well, uh, it's Valentine's Day," the New York congressman and Trump ally said, "and I guess they're having breakfast with their wives." Collins proceeded to say the phrase "move on" four times in 37 seconds.

And as cringe-worthy as the GOP lawmaker's argument was, it wasn't necessarily the worst thing we heard from congressional Republicans this morning.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), for example, said he appreciates the fact that the White House forced Flynn out "as soon as" Team Trump realized the NSA hadn't been truthful. That, of course, suggests the Speaker isn't paying attention to even the most basic of details surrounding this story -- because the whole point of last night's revelations is that the White House learned about Flynn's falsehoods weeks ago and did nothing.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), meanwhile, told NBC News' Kasie Hunt, in response to a question about the possibility of a bipartisan investigation of Flynn scandal, "That situation has taken care of itself."

No, seriously, that's what he said.

And what about House Intelligence Committee Chairman David Nunes (R-Calif.), a Trump cheerleader who late yesterday dismissed the allegations against Flynn as unimportant and expressed his enthusiastic confidence in the NSA? The Washington Post published this piece this morning:
So far, Nunes is shunning the idea of investigating the Flynn situation, citing something he mentioned Monday -- conversations between Flynn and the president, which Nunes asserted are protected by executive privilege.
Instead of demanding answers on the Trump White House's Russia scandal and Flynn's role, the California congressman said he's going to demand answers about the leaks from the Justice Department that have shed so much light on the controversy.
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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.14.17

02/14/17 12:00PM

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

* On the heels of Donald Trump cancelling an event in Milwaukee, the president has now scrapped a scheduled appearance in eastern Ohio, which had been set for Thursday. In both cases, the White House did not explain the reason for the cancellations.

* Omarosa Manigault, a former reality-show personality who helped Trump's campaign and now works in the White House, reportedly had a heated confrontation last week with reporter April Ryan just steps from the Oval Office. According to a Washington Post report, Ryan said Manigault "made verbal threats, including the assertion that Ryan was among several journalists on whom Trump officials had collected 'dossiers' of negative information."

* In Massachusetts, former gubernatorial candidate Evan Falchuk spent nearly five years building up the United Independent Party. Last week, he changed course and became a Democrat. "Politics has changed. It's really time to take sides," Falchuk told the Boston Globe. "We don't have the luxury of spending decades to build a new political party."

* The president claimed the other day that billionaire Mark Cuban backed his candidacy "big-time," but Trump added he "wasn't interested in taking all of his calls." Cuban was a prominent Hillary Clinton supporter during the 2016 campaign.

* With two weeks remaining until Democrats choose their new party chair, none of the candidates have secured the support "of anywhere close to a majority of the 447 committee members who will decide the race."

* How much have Sean Spicer and his White House team changed press briefings? Spectacularly wrong right-wing blogs, known for spreading ridiculous hoaxes, are starting to get credentials.

* Officials with Organizing for Action, which grew out of President Obama's campaign, told NBC News the group is "ramping back up for the Trump era with a focus on defending the Affordable Care Act and training grassroots organizers."
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U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) on his way back to his office Jan. 28, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

Leading Dem says more info on Russia scandal is on the way

02/14/17 11:23AM

In the late 19th and early 20th century, men often worked in factories, where they wore boots and other heavy shoes. After work, they'd return to tenements with hard-wood floors, take off their boot, which landed with a loud thud.

For people living below and alongside those residents, that sound tended to be jarring, and after hearing that initial smack of the shoe against the floor, people became accustomed to waiting anxiously for the inevitable sound that soon followed from the other foot.

In other words, many Americans of that era became accustomed to waiting for the other shoe to drop.

It's a helpful idiom generations later. Politico reported this morning:
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told House Democrats Tuesday that the recent revelations about former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn's conversations with the Russians are only the beginning, and more information will surface in the coming days, according to multiple sources in a closed party meeting.

Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, also said that any conversations that Flynn had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Donald Trump took office would not be covered by executive privilege, potentially making some information subject to congressional investigations. Republicans have so far balked at probing this matter.
The phrase of the day in Republican circles is "move on" -- as if Flynn's resignation effectively ends the White House's scandal. That doesn't make sense in its own right -- there are still far too many questions in need of answers -- and it's especially misguided if there's additional information related to the controversy on the way.
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A laptop in use. (Photo by TEK/Science Photo Library/Corbis)

White House staffers turn to 'secret chat app' for private messages

02/14/17 10:50AM

An item in Slate the other day introduced me to an app I'd never heard of.
On Wednesday, Axios reported that, spooked by the Democratic National Committee hack, "numerous senior GOP operatives and several members of the Trump administration" are using Confide, an encrypted messaging app. Confide self-destructs messages once they are read, promising that they will be "gone forever" -- or at least wiped from your device and from Confide's servers.
The preferred technology of "senior GOP operatives" is of little interest, but if "several members of the Trump administration" are using communications apps that delete their messages instantly, there's a potential problem. As the Slate piece added, "At the White House, all official business correspondence is supposed to take place over White House email for preservation purposes."

But are members of Donald Trump's team honoring what's "supposed to" happen? By some accounts, no. The Washington Post reported overnight:
Upset about damaging leaks of his calls with world leaders and other national security information, Trump has ordered an internal investigation to find the leakers. Staffers, meanwhile, are so fearful of being accused of talking to the media that some have resorted to a secret chat app -- Confide -- that erases messages as soon as they're read.
Seriously? We just finished a presidential campaign in which Hillary Clinton's communications were considered the single most important issue confronting the nation, and three weeks into the Trump administration, White House staffers are already using tools that may help them circumvent the Presidential Records Act?
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Image: President Trump Arrives In West Palm Beach With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe For Weekend At Mar-a-Lago

What Donald Trump considers the 'real story'

02/14/17 10:17AM

Donald Trump, who has a voracious appetite for cable news and media chatter, is clearly aware of the scandal surrounding his White House, his up-until-last-night National Security Advisor, and Vladimir Putin's Russian government. The president himself hasn't much to say about the matter specifically, however, and Trump called on conservative media figures at recent press conferences in order to avoid awkward questions.

With that in mind, the president's tweet this morning raised a few eyebrows.
"The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?"
This may actually be the best line he can come up with, so let's unpack it a bit.

First, up until quite recently, Trump loved illegal leaks related to Hillary Clinton and the DNC, and blamed Democrats for not taking better care of their secrets. Were it not for illegal leaks, the president would almost certainly not be in the White House today.

Second, we're not entirely dependent on leaks in this scandal. Michael Flynn acknowledged, in writing, that the information he shared with his colleagues was not exactly true. That and the related scandal is "the real story," whether Trump likes it or not.

And finally, the president wants to know if there will be additional leaks as he deals with North Korea. I can't say for sure, of course, but it's a distinct possibility: Trump responded to North Korea's ballistic missile launch by holding an impromptu meeting, at an outdoor terrace, surrounded by civilians, while reading sensitive materials by cell-phone light.

Maybe it's a little late in the game for Trump to raise concerns about North Korea-related leaks?
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Donald Trump's campaign manager Kellyanne Conway speaks to the media while entering Trump Tower on Nov. 14, 2016 in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty)

White House claims about Flynn, Russia scandal draw fresh scrutiny

02/14/17 09:29AM

Aboard Air Force One on Friday, a reporter asked Donald Trump to respond to reports that his then-National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, had discussed sanctions with Russia before taking office. "I don't know about it," the president said. "I haven't seen it. What report is that?"

Reminded about the news accounts dominating the political conversation, Trump continued to claim ignorance. "I haven't seen that," he added. "I'll look into that."

So, four days later, it's worth asking whether the president straight-up lied in his answer.

According to multiple reports, the Justice Department informed the White House in late January -- at least two weeks ago -- about its concerns that Michael Flynn could be subject to blackmail from Russian officials. A Washington Post report last night added an interesting detail:
A senior Trump administration official said before Flynn's resignation that the White House was aware of the matter, adding that "we've been working on this for weeks."
Hmm. So the Trump White House has known for weeks about Flynn's apparent lies, and Trump aides have spent weeks working on forcing Flynn out of the administration. But as recently as Friday, the president himself was completely in the dark about the controversy?

It creates an awkward political dynamic for the president. Trump either (a) knew what was going on, lied on camera, and was prepared to ignore the scandal indefinitely; or (b) was a hopelessly inept manager who had no idea what was going on around him with his top aides, including one who's accused of having potentially illegal conversations with a foreign adversary.

I'm eager to hear from the White House which of these scenarios is true.
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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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