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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 5.16.17

05/16/17 05:37PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Awkward diplomacy: "President Donald Trump welcomed Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan Tuesday to the White House amid tensions over the U.S. arming Kurdish militias in Syria to help push ISIS out of Raqqa and Turkish extradition demands for Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric accused of organizing last year's failed coup."

* Seems reasonable: "A growing number of Republican and Democratic lawmakers are calling on President Trump to hand over the transcript of the White House meeting last week in which he revealed highly classified information to Russia's foreign minister and ambassador, according to current and former U.S. officials."

* Replacing Comey, Part I: "After interviewing to lead the FBI -- and the nation's investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia -- on Saturday, Sen. John Cornyn pulled his name from consideration Tuesday. He drops out amid a flurry of explosive reports that the president gave highly classified intelligence to Russian diplomats."

* Replacing Comey, Part II: "Rep. Trey Gowdy took himself out of the running to be the new FBI director, saying Monday that he doesn't feel like he'd be the right pick."

* North Carolina: "Gov. Roy Cooper (D) vowed Tuesday to issue an executive order 'pretty soon' to increase protections for LGBTQ people in the state. The pledge follows the state's partial repeal of HB2, a law barring local governments from passing any anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay and transgender people."

* All is not well at the State Department: "The White House issued a statement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after the publication of a Washington Post report saying that Trump had revealed highly sensitive intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak in the course of a conversation about ISIS. The only issue: State Department officials had no idea the statement had come out, learning about it only from CNN."
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Image: National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster

Trump's National Security Advisor comes up with the wrong defense

05/16/17 04:59PM

Nine times. White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster hosted a press briefing today in which he said, nine times, that Donald Trump sharing classified information with Russian officials in a private meeting was "wholly appropriate."

As the Washington Post noted, that wasn't much of an argument.
Here's the thing: It's very likely that what Trump did in that meeting with Russia was legal ... but that's not the same as saying that it was appropriate or helpful or not damaging to national security. The president has broad authority to declassify information that he feels the need to share, but sharing this information willy nilly with adversarial foreign powers -- including one with very different goals in Syria -- would seem to raise obvious red flags.

The standard put forward by McMaster for what is not only legal but also appropriate means that basically anything the president might share is appropriate, simply by virtue of it coming from the president.... To take this to a ridiculous extreme: If Trump decided to broadcast the nuclear codes live on Fox News, by McMaster's logic, as long as Trump deemed this necessary for national security purposes, it would be appropriate.
But in between incessant references to what he thinks may be "wholly appropriate," the president's national security advisor seemed to accidentally add an important detail: Trump, McMaster said, wasn't even "aware of where this [intelligence] came from. He wasn't briefed on the source of this information."

Moments later, McMaster said he had to go, and as a result, there was no follow-up Q&A.
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Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks to the media on June 3, 2016 in Doral, Fla. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

Republicans change their tune on the mishandling of classified info

05/16/17 04:17PM

On July 5, 2016, then-FBI Director James Comey said Hillary Clinton wouldn't be indicted over her email server protocols, but Comey nevertheless said the former secretary of state had been "extremely careless" in the way in which she handled classified information. For Republicans, that criticism was a launching pad.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), for example, almost immediately said Clinton's "mishandling of classified information was disgraceful and unbecoming of someone who aspires to the presidency. There is simply no excuse.... Her actions were grossly negligent, damaged national security and put lives at risk."

Asked today about Donald Trump sharing highly sensitive secrets with Russia, Rubio said the president's careless is "less than ideal," but the Florida Republican added, "It is what it is."
Hmm. It's almost as if Rubio has two entirely different standards. [Update: See below]

Two days after Rubio's Clinton condemnation, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) called for intelligence agencies to deny Clinton intelligence briefings for the rest of the campaign season. The message was straightforward:
"It's simple: Individuals who are ‘extremely careless’ [with] classified info should be denied further access to it."
The day before Ryan's declaration, 14 Republican senators introduced legislation to revoke Clinton's security clearance and demand that anyone in the executive branch who shows "extreme carelessness" in their handling of classified information be denied access to that information.

The same day, then-RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said those who've mishandled classified information "have had their security clearances revoked, lost their jobs, faced fines, and even been sent to prison." Soon after, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked, "What do I say to the marines in my district when Hillary Clinton handles classified information in a careless way yet has no ramifications?"

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) argued in the fall that even the possibility of exposing sensitive intelligence to foreign adversaries is "treason."

And then, of course, there's Donald J. Trump.
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Image: First Lady Melania Trump Hosts A Celebration Of MilitaryMothers Event

Scandals prompt discussion about the future of Trump's presidency

05/16/17 12:53PM

There was a great moment on "Saturday Night Live" over the weekend, with a sketch in which "Donald Trump" was being interviewed by "Lester Holt" -- both portrayed by actors, of course -- and the subject turned to the president's firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Trump, in the sketch, said he fired Comey because of the investigation into the Russia scandal, which led to this exchange:
HOLT: But that's obstruction of justice.

TRUMP: Sure, OK.

HOLT: Wait, so, did I get him? Is this all over? [Finger to earpiece, as if talking to a producer] Oh, no, I didn't? Nothing matters? Absolutely nothing matters anymore?
The truth at the core of the sketch is hard to overlook. There are some important complexities to the Russia scandal, but last week's revelations were straightforward: the president of the United States, furious about an intensifying investigation into his political operation, fired the FBI director in order to help end the investigation. This followed revelations that the president also personally pressed Comey to be loyal to Team Trump -- during Comey's counter-espionage investigation into Team Trump.

As Vox's Dylan Matthews added yesterday, "[W]ithout any more information than we already have, we already know Trump's conduct is almost as outrageous as what [Richard] Nixon acknowledged in the smoking gun tape."

Last week, to this extent, was a turning point: we saw a confused president who doesn't know enough about his office or its constraints to lie effectively about his own misconduct. Trump effectively told the world, "My obstructions of justice are tremendous. They're huge. Some people say I'm obstructing justice better than anyone ever."

The cliche about smoke and fire has little value in a case like this. We've already arrived at the flame, watching a president stand over it, match in hand, eager to boast that no one could've set a more impressive blaze.

And just in case this weren't quite enough to send voters to Google, looking for information on how a president can be removed from office, Trump also appears to have shared highly classified secrets with Russia for reasons no one has yet explained.

Which, naturally, has sparked another round of conversation about whether Trump's presidency will reach January 20, 2021.
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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.16.17

05/16/17 12:00PM

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

* In the new Public Policy Polling survey, the Democratic advantage on the generic congressional ballot has reached double digits: 49% to 38%. That's up from a six-point advantage last month. A Quinnipiac poll released last week showed Dems with a 16-point lead on the generic ballot.

* Hillary Clinton has launched a new organization called Onward Together, which is intended to encourage progressives "to get involved, organize, and even run for office."

* In Georgia's congressional special election, much of the Republican message against Jon Ossoff (D) has focused on his out-of-state support. It was therefore a little odd to hear his opponent, Karen Handel (R) boast to supporters about her out-of-state supporters.

* In Virginia's gubernatorial primary, a new Washington Post-Schar School poll shows Ed Gillespie, a former RNC chair and George W. Bush aide, with "a commanding lead." The primary is scheduled for June 13.

* The same poll found that Donald Trump's approval rating in Virginia is down to just 36%.

* Speaking of the Commonwealth, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer will headline a fundraiser on Thursday for the Republican Party of Virginia. The event will be held at a Trump-owned venue, raising ethical questions Team Trump prefers to ignore.
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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)

U.S. ally 'might stop sharing intelligence' after Trump's leak

05/16/17 11:03AM

Donald Trump's first overseas trip as president was already poised to be awkward. Foreign Policy magazine reported yesterday that our NATO allies are "scrambling" to tailor their upcoming meeting "to avoid taxing President Donald Trump's notoriously short attention span."

A source briefed extensively on the meeting's preparations explained, "It's kind of ridiculous how they are preparing to deal with Trump. It's like they're preparing to deal with a child -- someone with a short attention span and mood who has no knowledge of NATO, no interest in in-depth policy issues, nothing.... They're freaking out."

And that was before our NATO partners learned that Trump apparently shared highly classified secrets with Russia for unknown reasons. The Associated Press reported today that U.S. allies "have anxiously wondered" if America's strange amateur president could be trusted with sensitive national security information, and now those countries have "new reasons to worry."
A U.S. official said Trump revealed highly classified information about an Islamic State plot to senior Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting last week. The information had been obtained by a U.S. partner and shared with Washington, according to the official.

"If it proves to be true that the American president passed on internal intelligence matters, that would be highly worrying," Burkhard Lischka, a senior German lawmaker, said in a statement to The Associated Press.

A second European official told the AP that their country might stop sharing intelligence with the United States as a result of Trump's disclosure to Russia.
Consider the scope of this fiasco. On the one hand, we have U.S. intelligence agencies -- the target of frequent Trump attacks for unknown reasons -- which will now have an incentive to keep sensitive information from the White House in order to safeguard it from the president's reckless incompetence.

On the other hand, we have allied governments abroad, which were already worried about Trump's trustworthiness, and which are now weighing even less intelligence sharing with the United States.
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Sen. Bob Corker

Republican senator: Trump White House in 'a downward spiral'

05/16/17 10:16AM

A pattern has started to emerge in the immediate aftermath of reports on Donald Trump's latest scandals, which tend to arise at a head-spinning pace. First, we check to see if the story appears legitimate. Second, we pry our palms from our foreheads and our jaws from the floor.

And third, we tend to ask, "Maybe now Republicans will finally break with this president?"

The answer to that question, at least so far, has consistently been, "Of course not." Even after Trump practically confessed to obstructing justice, GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill dutifully stuck by their leader.

Today, however, these Republicans face a new test. Trump reportedly shared highly sensitive intelligence with Russia, which compromised national security, infuriated an ally, and sent a signal to the world that the United States, at least in the Trump era, cannot be trusted to safeguard secrets. Any GOP lawmakers prepared to jump ship in light of the news?

Not really. Some congressional Republicans have stuck to a legalistic defense, emphasizing the fact that a president can declassify secrets whenever he or she wants. There was some criticism, however, most notably from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bon Corker (R-Tenn.).
"Obviously, they're in a downward spiral right now and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that's happening," Corker told reporters.

"You know, the shame of it is there's a really good national security team in place and there are good productive things that are under way through them and through others, but the chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating an environment -- it creates a worrisome environment."
Let's note for context that Corker is a conservative senator from a red state, who votes with Trump more than 92% of the time, and who was considered for a leading cabinet post in the Trump administration.

There's nothing especially wrong with the Tennessee Republican's statement. On the contrary, it's rare to hear a prominent GOP lawmaker speak this way about a White House controlled by his ostensible partisan allies.
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Image: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer Holds Daily Press Briefing

Trump's 'tapes' have suddenly become even more important

05/16/17 09:20AM

Not surprisingly, congressional Democrats weren't pleased to learn that Donald Trump reportedly shared highly sensitive secrets with Russian officials for no good reason. For an American president to casually undermine national security and cause an international incident tends to make the president's detractors uncomfortable.

But one statement jumped out at me as especially interesting.
House Democrats Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, and John Conyers, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, released a joint statement arguing that "Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives need a briefing from the national security adviser and the directors of our nation's intelligence agencies to get to the bottom of these allegations."

The congressmen added that if audio recordings exist of the meeting, "Congress needs to obtain them immediately."
Ah yes, the "tapes." The president himself raised the prospect last week of secret recordings he's made of White House conversations, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer didn't contradict him, refusing to confirm or deny the existence of such recordings. By late Friday, Trump said he "can't talk about" the subject, but by then, it was too late -- because he'd already raised the question we didn't know to ask.

Those recordings, if they exist, were already a key part of the controversies surrounding Trump, and they may help prove whether the president obstructed justice as part of the Russia scandal. But last night, the possibility of these recordings took on an added significance: they may also shed light on the president providing a foreign adversary with highly classified intelligence.
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Image: Trump Hosts Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi At The White House

Donald Trump steps on his aides' narrative (again)

05/16/17 08:40AM

Last week, after Donald Trump fired the FBI director overseeing an investigation into Trump's Russia scandal, White House aides, including Vice President Mike Pence, were quick to insist the two stories were completely unrelated. The president himself said soon after that he was motivated to dismiss James Comey because of the investigation, making his own team look ridiculous and dishonest.

This morning, it's happened again, this time on the matter of Trump sharing highly sensitive secrets with Russian officials.

Last night, as Team Trump scrambled to contain the damage of its latest self-imposed scandal, the White House insisted the reports were wrong. Dina Powell, a deputy national security advisor, insisted, "This story is false. The president only discussed the common threats both countries faced." Soon after, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both made similar attempts to knock down the allegations. The president, they insisted, didn't do anything of the kind.

And once again, Trump has decided to step all over his team's narrative by sharing his thoughts via Twitter.
President Donald Trump argued Tuesday morning that he has the "absolute right" to share certain information with Russia after bombshell reports emerged that he revealed highly classified intelligence with Russian officials last week.

"As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism," he said in a pair of tweets.
A Washington Post report added, "Trump's tweets undercut his administration's frantic effort Monday night to contain the damaging report."

They do, indeed. After the White House tried to convince everyone the reporting was wrong, Trump decided this morning to suggest in poorly written missives that the reporting was right -- but it doesn't matter because he has the "absolute right" to disclose secrets to foreign adversaries if he wants to.
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This file handout photo taken on May 10, 2017 made available by the Russian Foreign Ministry shows shows US President Donald J. Trump (C) speaking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and Russian Ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak.

Why Trump would share highly classified secrets with the Russians

05/16/17 08:00AM

Three months ago today, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. intelligence officials "have withheld sensitive intelligence from President Donald Trump because they are concerned it could be leaked or compromised." This was about competence, not politics: U.S. intelligence had serious concerns about the American president's "trustworthiness" and "discretion."

As you may have heard, the Washington Post published a stunning report late yesterday that suggests those fears were well grounded.
President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said Trump's disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.

The information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said.
It's difficult to overstate just how serious developments like these are. The Wall Street Journal -- one of several major U.S. outlets to confirm the accuracy of the story -- added, "According to one U.S. official, the information shared was highly sensitive and difficult to acquire and was considered extraordinarily valuable."

And yet, the president apparently gave it away to an adversary in exchange for nothing. In the process, Trump compromised national security, mishandled extremely sensitive information, infuriated an ally, and sent a signal to the world that the United States, at least in the Trump era, cannot be trusted to safeguard secrets.

Trump's meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak -- a Oval Office gathering that took place at Vladimir Putin's request -- was already controversial. Evidently, we didn't know the half of it.

What we need to know now, however, is why the president of the United States would put lives at risk by recklessly ignoring his responsibilities.
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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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