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U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen speaks to reporters after she, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats briefed members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Despite evidence, DHS's Nielson still isn't sure Russia favored Trump

07/19/18 12:56PM

This has been a dramatic week in American politics, which has driven home some core truths. Near the top of the list is a simple fact: Russian President Vladimir Putin favored Donald Trump's Republican ticket in 2016, and his government took steps to attack our democracy in order to help put the current American president in office.

And yet, somehow, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen still isn't sure.

"I haven't seen any evidence that the attempt to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party," Nielsen responded when asked about Russia's intentions Thursday during the Aspen Security Forum.

"What we've seen on the foreign influence side is they were attempting to intervene and cause chaos on both sides," she continued.

I've watched the clip of her comments a few times, trying to find a way to give Nielsen the benefit of the doubt, but I'm at a loss. Indeed, the DHS chief went on to say that she believes Russian interference was intended to "sow discord and get us all to fight against each other." [Update: see below.]

But we already know better. Last week's indictment from Special Counsel Robert Mueller spells out in great detail what Russian intelligence officials did, and Putin himself admitted on Monday that he wanted Trump to win the election.

This bolstered the intelligence assessment from the FBI, CIA and NSA, which also pointed to Moscow's preference for Trump.

All of which raises the obvious question of why in the world the Homeland Security chief would say she hasn't "seen any evidence" that's already readily available.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.19.18

07/19/18 12:00PM

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

* With just five days remaining before Georgia's Republican gubernatorial primary runoff, Donald Trump has thrown his support behind Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Much of the party establishment prefers Casey Cagle, Georgia's current lieutenant governor.

* Former First Lady Michelle Obama has reportedly agreed to play a prominent role in a non-partisan voter registration initiative in the coming months.

* In a newly unearthed recording, Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) used misogynistic language during his radio show, wondering aloud why he shouldn't be able to call women "sluts." Lewis, running in a competitive Minneapolis-area district, also defended Rush Limbaugh's criticisms of Sandra Fluke over the issue of health plans covering contraception. The on-air comments pre-date the Republican's congressional career.

* Are Republicans concerned about Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey's (R) re-election chances? The Republican Governors Association is launching some new attack ads targeting two of the top Democratic contenders.

* Speaking of Arizona, while much of the GOP establishment is backing Rep. Martha McSally (R) in this year's Senate race, former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R) picked up her first congressional endorsement yesterday from far-right Rep. Paul Gosar (R). The primary is Aug. 28.

* After appearing on Alex Jones' radio show, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) conceded this week that he'd made a mistake. The far-right congressman, and close Trump ally, said that a member of Congress "should not grace that platform and legitimize it."

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Report: Trump was told of Putin's role in election attack in Jan. 2017

07/19/18 11:20AM

NBC News' First Read team this morning highlighted a provocative new report from the New York Times about an intelligence briefing Donald Trump received in early 2017, shortly before his inauguration.

Two weeks before his inauguration, Donald J. Trump was shown highly classified intelligence indicating that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had personally ordered complex cyberattacks to sway the 2016 American election.

The evidence included texts and emails from Russian military officers and information gleaned from a top-secret source close to Mr. Putin, who had described to the C.I.A. how the Kremlin decided to execute its campaign of hacking and disinformation.

According to the report, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, Trump met on Jan. 6, 2017, at Trump Tower with then-CIA Director John Brennan, then-DNI James Clapper, and Adm. Michael Rogers, the then-director of the National Security Agency.

At the briefing, the intelligence chiefs reportedly told the Republican president-elect, among other things, about the evidence pointing to Vladimir Putin's direct role in Russia's election interference. Their presentation, according to the Times, included a reference to a highly-sensitive piece of information: the United States had learned from human sources about Putin's role, suggesting American intelligence had come directly from someone close to the Russian president.

We now know, of course, that Trump chose not to believe what he learned from that briefing, and for months -- including this week -- the American president continued to suggest he believed Putin's denials.

So, here's my question: why did this sensitive information suddenly leak now, 18 months after that Trump Tower briefing?

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

The problem with Trump's proof of being 'tough' toward Russia

07/19/18 10:41AM

Donald Trump was still on the defensive yesterday, after siding with Russia's Vladimir Putin over the United States on Monday, but the Republican president nevertheless felt comfortable boasting at the White House yesterday, "There been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia."

For proof, Trump said, "Look at ambassadors not there." (He probably meant "diplomats," not "ambassadors," but the president isn't great with details.)

A couple of hours later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed the point, arguing that Trump "has been tougher on Russia than anybody," and pointing specifically to the fact that the administration has "expelled 60 Russian operatives from the United States."

If it seems as if this keeps coming up, it's not your imagination. Last week, during a press conference alongside British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump also bragged about having expelled 60 Russian diplomats, adding, "And Germany did three, as an example. So Germany -- big country, powerful country -- they did three. The fake news doesn't want to talk about it."

OK, let's talk about it.

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke delivers a speech billed as "A Vision for American Energy Dominance" at the Heritage Foundation on September 29, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Interior's Zinke faces investigation from internal watchdog

07/19/18 10:03AM

With Scott Pruitt gone from the EPA, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke should probably be seen as the most controversial member of Donald Trump's cabinet. Indeed, Politico  reported yesterday on the Montana Republican facing a new investigation.

The Interior Department's internal watchdog has launched a full investigation into a real estate deal involving a foundation established by Ryan Zinke and developers including Halliburton Chairman David Lesar, which was first reported by POLITICO last month, according to a letter the office sent to House Democrats on Wednesday.

The inspector general's probe will focus on whether Zinke violated conflict of interest laws, the latest official inquiry of Zinke's activities in his 16 months helming the department.

Circling back to our previous coverage, the story involves David Lesar, the Halliburton chairman, who's planning a commercial development in Ryan Zinke's hometown. A foundation created by the cabinet secretary and his wife -- which his wife still oversees -- is trying to make the project happen, and the Zinkes stand to benefit if the development comes to fruition.

It creates an awkward dynamic: the cabinet secretary's wife runs a foundation; the foundation is backing a project launched by the chairman of Halliburton; the cabinet secretary stands to benefit personally from the project; and Halliburton stands to benefit from decisions made by the cabinet secretary.

Politico recently spoke to Marilyn Glynn, who led the Office of Government Ethics in the Bush/Cheney era, who said all of this appears inappropriate and should prompt Zinke to recuse himself from Halliburton-related policy decisions.

Glynn added, "In a previous administration, whether Bush or Obama, you'd never run across something like this.... Nobody would be engaging in business deals" with executives whose companies they regulate.

Making matters slightly worse, Politico also ran a follow-up report last month on Zinke hosting a meeting with Lesar and other developers about the project at Interior Department headquarters last summer, raising further questions about blurred ethical lines.

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A twenty dollar bill. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty)

Team Trump's assurances about the deficit suddenly look quite a bit worse

07/19/18 09:20AM

A couple of months ago, Larry Kudlow, the director of the Trump White House's National Economic Council, boasted that the U.S. budget deficit "is coming down, and it's coming down rapidly." This was, of course, spectacularly wrong. Though the deficit shrunk during Barack Obama's presidency, it's grown considerably larger since Donald Trump took office.

Asked soon after how he managed to get reality backwards, Kudlow conceded that the deficit isn't really coming down now, but he believes it will start shrinking in the near future as Republican economic policies continue to kick in.

Maybe he ought to take a fresh look at this. The Wall Street Journal  reported yesterday:

The Trump administration expects annual budget deficits to rise nearly $100 billion more than previously forecast in each of the next three years, pushing the federal deficit above $1 trillion starting next year. [...]

The White House budget office now estimates that the deficit will rise to nearly $1.1 trillion in the fiscal year that begins this October, or 5.1% of gross domestic product, up from $984 billion projected in February's budget proposal.

According to the White House budget blueprint from February, the Trump administration expected to add $7.1 trillion in cumulative deficits to the national debt over the next 10 years. This new revision has increased that total to $8 trillion.

These latest figures tell us a few important things. First, Larry Kudlow's track record for accuracy on issues like these really is embarrassing. Second, Donald Trump's campaign commitments about balancing the budget should probably be near the top of the list of his broken promises.

Third, every Republican who said the GOP tax breaks for the wealthy would pay for themselves ought to face some renewed questioning about how very wrong they were.

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Image: FINLAND-US-RUSSIA-POLITICS-DIPLOMACY-SUMMIT

Coming to terms with Trump's new 'agreements' with Russia's Putin

07/19/18 08:42AM

The Washington Post  reported the other day that in the days leading up to Donald Trump's summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, White House officials repeatedly told European allies "not to worry" about the talks amounting to anything substantive. The article added that the White House told our allies that "no deals would be made between Putin and Trump."

Those assurances may have been wrong. The Associated Press reported yesterday:

Russia's Defense Ministry says it's ready to boost cooperation with the U.S. military in Syria, following talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The ministry said in a statement Tuesday that it's ready for "practical implementation" of agreements reached by Trump and Putin.

To which the appropriate response was, "What agreement reached by Trump and Putin?" There has been no official announcement from the Trump administration about a new agreement on policy toward Syria, though Moscow is apparently under the impression that some kind of deal was reached.

The trouble, of course, is that we don't really know what was discussed behind closed doors for nearly two-and-a-half hours, largely because the two presidents met for a one-on-one session in Helsinki without aides.

But as far as Russia is concerned, this wasn't just a friendly chat. Russia's ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told reporters yesterday that Trump and Putin struck "important verbal agreements" on, among other things, issues related to national security.

The Washington Post  reported this morning, however, that "officials at the most senior levels across the U.S. military, scrambling since Monday to determine what Trump may have agreed to on national security issues in Helsinki, had little to no information Wednesday."

The article added, "At the Pentagon, as press officers remained unable to answer media questions about how the summit might impact the military, the paucity of information exposed an awkward gap in internal administration communications."

Given the circumstances, "awkward" seems like an exceedingly polite adjective.

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Image: APEC Summit 2017 in Vietnam

Trump admin considers Putin request to question American diplomat

07/19/18 08:00AM

It's increasingly difficult to be surprised by Donald Trump's presidency, but once in a while, the White House manages to take a position that seems truly bonkers, even by 2018 standards.

The White House is reviewing a request by Russian President Vladimir Putin to allow Russian investigators to question a number of Americans they say are implicated in criminal activity, including a former U.S. ambassador, a spokeswoman said.

At the top of Moscow's wish list, evidently, is Michael McFaul, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration (and who spoke with Rachel about these latest developments on the show last night).

Note, we're not talking about information from an anonymous source, leaking word of a ridiculous behind-the-scenes plan. On the contrary, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke about this, on the record, during yesterday's briefing.

A reporter asked, "Russian authorities yesterday named several Americans who they want to question, who they claim were involved in Bill Browder's 'crimes,' in their terms, including a former ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. Does President Trump support that idea? Is he open to having U.S. officials questioned by Russia?"

Sanders responded that the president "is going to meet with his team" on this, adding that "there was some conversation" about this between Trump and Putin.

So to recap, Russia's authoritarian president has an obsessive grudge against a former U.S. ambassador, and wants access to this American for questioning. America's president, who seems unnervingly eager to make his Russian counterpart happy, should've dismissed the idea out of hand, but he's instead considering the possibility.

This all stems from what Trump considered an "incredible offer" from Putin.

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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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