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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 3.7.18

03/07/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Wow: "A former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned by a nerve agent in England this week, the British authorities said on Wednesday, heightening suspicions that the episode was an assassination attempt by a national government, amid rampant speculation that Russia was responsible."

* This was inevitable: "European Union officials unveiled an array of tariffs on Wednesday that they would place on American-made goods if the United States followed through on President Trump's plan to impose penalties on imported steel and aluminum, raising the specter of a trade war."

* An interesting case out of the 6th Circuit: "A federal appeals court on Wednesday ruled that a Michigan funeral home broke federal law when it fired a transgender woman, while tossing out the employer's claim that a religious objection created a legal loophole to terminate her."

* I hope you saw Rachel's segment on this: "An adviser to the United Arab Emirates with ties to current and former aides to President Trump is cooperating with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and gave testimony last week to a grand jury, according to two people familiar with the matter."

* In related news: "Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has requested documents and interviewed witnesses about incidents involving Michael Cohen, the longtime lawyer for President Trump whose wide-ranging portfolio has given him a unique vantage point into Trump's business, campaign and political activities."

* The Justice Department "sued California late Tuesday, escalating the battle between the Trump administration and local governments over the issue of providing sanctuaries from a crackdown on immigration enforcement."

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On tariffs, Trump's indifference to substance gets in the way

03/07/18 04:42PM

Much of Donald Trump's economic team told him tariffs on steel and aluminum would undermine the economy. The president's national security team told him the tariffs would run counter to our national security interests. His diplomatic team concluded the policy would be bad for U.S. foreign policy.

And yet, Trump nevertheless concluded that these tariffs are a great idea. The process behind his announcement was a mess, even by this White House's standards: Trump made this decision without any internal review by government lawyers or his own staff. NBC News reported, "No one at the State Department, the Treasury Department or the Defense Department had been told that a new policy was about to be announced or given an opportunity to weigh in in advance."

Even Trump's allies in Congress weren't told anything about the policy before it was announced.

What's more, as Rachel noted on the show last night, Trump himself seemed to blurt out the specific size of the tariffs to reporters, almost as an afterthought, reinforcing the impression that the president and his team have just been winging it on an important economic policy.

The Washington Post's Greg Sargent added yesterday that the stated legal justification for the tariffs "is deeply dubious, and the substantive case for it that Trump himself has offered is based on absurdities."

All of which leads to an awkward fact about contemporary American governance: there's no reason to assume the president has any idea what his policy is, what it means, how and why it'll be implemented, or what it will do once the policy is in place.

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Image: President Trump announces steep tarrifs on imported steel and aluminum

Trump wants 'credit' for non-existent efforts to shield elections

03/07/18 12:45PM

At yesterday's White House press conference with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, a reporter asked Donald Trump about Russian efforts to influence American elections. His response rambled a bit and mainly focused on his belief that Republicans will do well in the 2018 midterms. Trump acted as if he didn't understand the question.

And so, the reporter again asked whether the American president is "worried about Russia trying to meddle" in this year's elections. Trump replied:

"No, because we'll counteract whatever they do. We'll counteract it very strongly. And we are having strong backup systems. And we've been working, actually -- we haven't been given credit for this, but we've actually been working very hard on the '18 election and the '20 election coming up."

Note, in Trump's mind, it's important to always stress that he and his team be given "credit" for their efforts -- because in this White House, effective public service is not its own reward.

But even putting that aside, the problem, whether the president understands this or not, is that he and his team haven't been "working very hard" on this at all. In fact, by all appearances, the exact opposite is true.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.7.18

03/07/18 12:00PM

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

* For an overview of yesterday's primary results in Texas, the Texas Tribune had a useful report. The statewide turnout numbers for Democrats were of particular interest.

* With a week to go before the congressional special election in Pennsylvania's 18th district, the National Republican Congressional Committee has invested another $600,000, bringing the NRCC's new total for this race to around $3.5 million.

* On a related note, the NRCC's final attack ad has nothing to do with tax cuts, and everything to do with Conor Lamb (D) and guns.

* GOP leaders, including Donald Trump, really want Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) to appoint himself to retiring Sen. Thad Cochran's (R) seat, but the governor's office reiterated yesterday that this will not happen.

* In Florida, Deborah Gibson, one of the women who accused Alabama's Roy Moore of sexual misconduct, is now running for a state House seat. Gibson was a Republican, but she's now left the party and will run as a Democrat.

* Dems have done well in many recent state legislative special elections, but they don't win them all. Yesterday, a Republican cruised to a landslide victory in an Oklahoma state House race.

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Republicans can't let go of their dubious Carter Page claims

03/07/18 11:20AM

The principal point of the Republicans' recent "Nunes memo" was to prove that federal law enforcement officials had been unfair toward Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. That GOP effort failed spectacularly, and the memo was quickly discredited.

But Republicans apparently can't yet let go of the idea that the Justice Department violated Page's rights -- to the point that a special counsel is now needed to investigate the FBI. Politico  reported yesterday:

Two powerful House Republicans are pressuring Attorney General Jeff Sessions to appoint a prosecutor to investigate the FBI's 2016 decision to spy on Carter Page, a former campaign aide to President Donald Trump.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy sent a letter Tuesday to Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, urging them to name a special counsel to review Republicans' allegations that the FBI misled a federal judge to obtain a warrant to conduct surveillance of Page, whose contacts with Kremlin-connected Russians had drawn agents' scrutiny.

The likely underlying point of this isn't exactly subtle. For Republicans, the investigation into the Russia scandal poses an enormous threat to their party's president, so it's become politically necessary to call for an investigation into the investigators. If there's a special counsel probing the real scandal for the Justice Department, some GOP lawmakers evidently believe there should be another special counsel probing the Justice Department itself.

Common sense suggests the request is better left ignored. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, explained in a statement yesterday, "The federal regulation on Special Counsels is clear -- the Department of Justice must determine that a 'criminal investigation of a person or matter is warranted.' In this case, it is difficult to see what crime the Republicans are alleging."

It is, indeed. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes' (R-Calif.) memo was effectively supposed to serve as an indictment, documenting the Justice Department's wrongdoing, but since the document ultimately proved the opposite, the case for a new special counsel is built on a foundation of sand.

But perhaps more important is the larger context: Republicans have tied themselves to Carter Page in ways they may regret.

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Senator Ted Cruz addresses delegates on day three of the Republican National Convention at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on July 20, 2016. (Photo by Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty)

Despite his record, Cruz targets his Dem rival over his nickname

03/07/18 10:42AM

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) generally isn't seen as one of the year's vulnerable incumbents, but now that the general-election season has apparently begun in the Lone Star State -- statewide primaries were yesterday -- the Republican senator feels the need to go on the offensive against his Democratic rival.

As CNN noted, however, Cruz has picked a curious point to emphasize in his first attack ad.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's first shot at his expected Democratic challenger, Rep. Beto O'Rourke? Mocking his name.

As Tuesday's primaries were closing, Cruz's campaign released a 60-second radio ad that was a country music jingle prodding O'Rourke for going by "Beto" rather than "Robert."

"Liberal Robert wanted to fit in, so he changed his name to Beto and hid it with a grin," the song says.

It's true that Beto O'Rourke's given first name is Robert, but he prefers Beto. This shouldn't be especially noteworthy, since plenty of prominent political figures use nicknames. Mitt Romney's given first name isn't Mitt. Rick Perry's given first name isn't Rick. Newt Gingrich's given first name isn't Newt. No one really cares, since people should be called whatever they want to be called.

That's not the funny part. Rather, what makes this interesting -- aside from the fact that a Texas Republican feels the need to go on the offensive against a Democrat in the first place -- is that Ted Cruz's given first name isn't Ted.

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Image: President Trump attends Republican policy luncheon at the US Capitol

McConnell faces new questions about his Russia attack response

03/07/18 10:13AM

Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff under Barack Obama, was asked about the Democratic administration's response to Russia's 2016 election attack and whether Obama and his team did enough. Not surprisingly, McDonough shifted the focus back to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) indifference at the time.

The comments led McConnell to face a new round of questions, which as the Washington Post  reported yesterday, the Republican leader was quick to dismiss out of hand.

"This is the same old thing they've been saying for weeks," he told reporters at a weekly media availability. "I've issued a statement on that a couple of weeks ago and I'd be happy to send it to you again."

There is no specific statement from a couple of weeks ago, according to McConnell's top spokesman, Don Stewart. Instead, his office provides responses whenever reporters inquire about accusations like McDonough's, he said.

Asked whether he wished he'd handled the accusations about Russian interference differently ahead of the 2016 elections, McConnell said, "No, I'm perfectly comfortable with the steps that were taken back then."

I suspect the GOP leader really is "perfectly comfortable" with his actions -- or lack thereof -- but isn't that the problem?

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Image: Donald Trump, Stefan Lofven

Trump relies on warm and fuzzy labels, including 'loving' tariffs

03/07/18 09:20AM

At a brief White House press conference yesterday, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven explained his belief that increased tariffs, such as the ones Donald Trump intends to impose, "will hurt us all in the long run." Naturally, that left the American president in an awkward position, having to defend a controversial economic policy, opposed by U.S. allies, including the official standing a few feet to his right.

And so, Trump did his best to present his policy as a gentle economic imposition.

"We're going to straighten it out. And we'll do it in a very loving way. It will be a loving, loving way. They'll like us better and they will respect us much more."

I honestly don't know whether the American president was trying to be funny -- with Trump, it's often hard to tell -- but the fact that he used the word "loving" three times in reference to his tariff policy suggested he expected people to believe it.

Which isn't likely to happen. In practical terms, a trade tariff is a tax applied to imports. Trump may want to implement the policy in "a very loving way," but this isn't the sort of thing in which politeness or service with a smile makes a difference. Those paying the tax -- and/or imposing their own retaliatory tariffs -- won't much care if the American president is being friendly about the new economic burden.

But there's also a larger context to this: have you noticed how frequently Trump turns to warm and fuzzy rhetoric to defend the most controversial aspects of his agenda?

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Image: White House news conference with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Director Gary Cohn

Cohn's exit intensifies Trump's White House 'staffing crisis'

03/07/18 08:40AM

Shortly after Donald Trump defended racist protesters in Charlottesville, Gary Cohn, the chairman of the White House National Economic Council and the president's top adviser on economic policy, made clear he wasn't pleased. Trump, who expects unflinching loyalty from those in his orbit, responded by refusing to make eye contact with Cohn for a while.

It led to an interview in early September in which Cohn was asked why he remained a part of Team Trump. The standard answer in any White House is for an official to say something like, "I believe in this president and his vision, and it's an honor to be part of his team." Cohn, however, said, "Look, tax cuts are really important to me."

Six months later, the Republican tax plan is law, and the president no longer seems to care about Cohn's advice on economic policy. The next step was unavoidable.

Gary Cohn, President Donald Trump's top economic adviser, resigned Tuesday after a dispute with the president over tariffs.

The departure -- following reports that Cohn, the National Economic Council director, had opposed Trump's plan for large tariffs on imported steel and aluminum -- was the latest in a string of exits by top officials in the administration.

Note, this is the second major departure from the White House National Economic Council in recent months, following Deputy Director Jeremy Katz's resignation in December. Under normal circumstances, we might expect to see an NEC deputy director stick around, waiting for the NEC director to step down, in the hopes of getting a promotion. On Team Trump, however, nearly everyone seems to run away.

And therein lies the problem.

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Image: Stormy Daniels Hosts Super Bowl Party At Sapphire Las Vegas Gentlemen's Club

Why Stormy Daniels' new lawsuit against Donald Trump matters

03/07/18 08:00AM

Donald Trump and his White House team have said effectively nothing about the Stormy Daniels controversy, though that may not be sustainable now that the porn star is suing the president.

Adult film star Stormy Daniels sued Donald Trump Tuesday, alleging that he never signed the nondisclosure agreement that his lawyer had arranged with her.

The civil suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court and obtained by NBC News, alleges that her agreement not to disclose her "intimate" relationship with Trump is not valid because while both Daniels and Trump's attorney Michael Cohen signed it, Trump never did.

The lawsuit tells a story that's consistent with the contours of the controversy as we know it: Trump and Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, allegedly began an intimate relationship in the summer of 2006, and their affair lasted "well into" 2007. When Daniels prepared to share the details of the alleged affair during Trump's presidential campaign, she accepted $130,000 as part of what the civil suit describes as a "hush agreement."

The porn star's lawyers are now asking a California court to declare the deal "invalid, unenforceable, and/or void under the doctrine of unconscionability."

I'll leave it to legal experts to reflect on the strength of the case -- NBC News' report goes into more detail -- but at this point, the lawsuit's existence tells us something important: Stormy Daniels is eager to talk.

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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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