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Trump-Russia scandal developments raise the prospect of a crisis

07/21/17 08:00AM

There was no shortage of striking developments overnight in the Trump-Russia scandal, but perhaps the most important was the Washington Post's reporting that Donald Trump and his lawyers have had conversations about "the president's authority to grant pardons."

Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe, according to one of those people. A second person said Trump's lawyers have been discussing the president's pardoning powers among themselves.

Trump's legal team declined to comment on the issue. But one adviser said the president has simply expressed a curiosity in understanding the reach of his pardoning authority....

Ah, yes, our "curious" president. Trump hasn't decided to start handing out pardons like candy on Halloween; he's just interested in learning more about whether he could -- you know, in case the circumstances should arise.

The same article added that the president was "especially disturbed" after learning that Special Counsel Bob Mueller "would be able to access several years of his tax returns."

It's almost as if Trump has something to hide.

Also overnight, the New York Times reported that the president's team has begun "scouring the professional and political backgrounds" of members of Mueller's team, "looking for conflicts of interest they could use to discredit the investigation -- or even build a case to fire Mr. Mueller or get some members of his team recused."

With both of these articles in mind, the prospect of a genuine political crisis is becoming increasingly real. Congressional Republicans, who've largely been willing to look the other way in response to the scandal, need to start preparing themselves for the possibility of a president not only waging a political war against the special counsel and his investigation, but also issuing highly provocative pardons to derail an ongoing federal investigation.

If GOP officials were to respond to such developments with a collective shrug, the impact on our system of government would be incalculable.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 7.20.17

07/20/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Apparently, Sessions isn't resigning: "President Trump still has confidence in Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the White House said Thursday, despite the president's blunt comments that he would've chosen a different person for the top Department of Justice job had he known Sessions was going to recuse himself."

* Tillerson's recent past follows him: "Exxon Mobil Corp. showed 'reckless disregard' for U.S. sanctions on Russia while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the oil giant's CEO, the Treasury Department said Thursday. The U.S. fined the company $2 million."

* Sen. John McCain "has been diagnosed with brain cancer, the Mayo Clinic said Wednesday in a statement released on behalf of the senator and his family."

* An ostensible U.S. ally: "US officials accused Turkey Wednesday of putting US troops at risk after Turkey’s state-owned news agency published the locations of 10 previously secret US military outposts in Syria."

* The latest on Manafort: "Financial records filed last year in the secretive tax haven of Cyprus, where Paul J. Manafort kept bank accounts during his years working in Ukraine and investing with a Russian oligarch, indicate that he had been in debt to pro-Russia interests by as much as $17 million before he joined Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign in March 2016."

* Pay attention to Poland: "Step by step, the Polish government has moved against democratic norms: It increased government control over the news media, cracked down on public gatherings and restricted the activities of nongovernmental organizations. Now the party in power is moving aggressively to take control of the last major independent government institution, the courts, drawing crowds into the streets and possible condemnation by the European Union."

* Sam Clovis: "President Donald Trump on Wednesday nominated an open climate change skeptic with no credentials in agricultural research, science or medicine for the top scientific post at the U.S. Department of Agriculture."

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Trump's FBI pick gets treated as if these were normal times

07/20/17 04:45PM

Just yesterday, while trashing the impudence of the Justice Department, Donald Trump told the New York Times that he believes the director of the FBI reports directly to the president. He called this "interesting," before adding, "I think we're going to have a great new FBI director."

Matthew Miller, a former DOJ spokesperson, explained on the show last night that Trump badly misstated the facts, adding that Trump "wanted Jim Comey to operate as if he reported to him. He wanted Jim Comey to be loyal to him, and follow his whims. When [Comey] wasn't, [Trump] fired him. And I think [the president is] making clear he wants his next FBI director to do what Jim Comey wouldn't do."

Given this, it might be worth pausing for a moment, taking a breath, and considering how best to proceed with the White House's choice to lead the bureau. And yet, as Politico reported, the Senate doesn't seem to agree.

Christopher Wray, President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the FBI, easily cleared a key Senate committee Thursday -- even following an explosive Trump interview in The New York Times that prompted Democrats to raise renewed concerns of political interference with the Department of Justice.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 20-0 in favor of Wray, a former Justice Department official who has been in private practice for the past dozen years. His nomination now goes to the Senate floor, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated he intends to have Wray confirmed before the August recess.

What we're witnessing is a process in which the Senate is treating Trump's nominee as if these were normal circumstances -- but they're not.

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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)

Trump sees enemies at the Department of Justice

07/20/17 12:58PM

Over the course of his six-month tenure as president, Donald Trump has already fired an FBI director, an acting attorney general, and dozens of federal prosecutors, all while lashing out repeatedly at federal courts who've dared to rule against him. Trump has not, in other words, demonstrated a real commitment to the rule of law.

But in the president's interview with the New York Times yesterday, the broader story took a more sinister turn. Consider Trump's latest enemies list:

* Attorney General Jeff Sessions: By recusing himself from the investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal, Sessions isn't in a position to steer the probe in a way the White House likes. This, in Trump's mind, is an outrage.

* Special Counsel Robert Mueller: Trump accused Mueller of leading a team filled with conflicts of interest, and added that if the special counsel examines Trump's finances, the president may fire him.

* Former FBI Director James Comey: Trump suggested at one point that Comey may have been effectively trying to blackmail him, accused Comey of lying about their interactions, and insisted that the former director "illegally" leaked information. None of this is to be taken seriously.

* Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein: Trump suggested the deputy A.G. is not to be trusted because he may not be a loyal Republican. "Rod Rosenstein, who is from Baltimore," the president said. "There are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any. So, he's from Baltimore." (Rosenstein is not actually from Baltimore, though he served as a Bush-appointed U.S. attorney in Maryland.)

* Acting FBI director Andrew McCabe: Trump, probably taking his cues from conservative media outlets, thinks McCabe is suspect because his wife was a Democratic candidate in Virginia.

Putting aside questions about personality -- Trump came across in the interview as someone preoccupied with a sense of grievance and paranoia -- this is an inordinate number of enemies for a president to have at the Department of Justice.

And all of this seems to extend from Trump's apparent belief that federal law enforcement is there to serve his, not the nation's, interests. It's one of the awkward consequences of electing an inexperienced president who sees himself as the nation's CEO: Trump seems to assume everyone in the executive branch is part of his team, and the idea of independence between the Justice Department and the White House is an inconvenient fiction, better left ignored.

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House Republican dismisses Trump as 'a distraction'

07/20/17 12:05PM

Donald Trump was sworn in as the nation's president exactly six months ago today, and it's not exactly a secret that his tenure has been burdened by a series of failures, scandals, and mistakes. At this point, the nation's first amateur president hasn't been able to deliver on much of anything.

And the congressional Republican majority, poised to take its summer break, isn't pleased. Politico had a good piece today on widespread GOP discontent over the party's ongoing inability to govern, and the article included a striking quote.

"I don't even pay any attention to what is going on with the administration because I don't care. They're a distraction. The family is a distraction, the president is a distraction," complained Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). "At first, it was 'Well yeah, this is the guy we elected. He'll learn, he'll learn.' And you just don't see that happening."

According to a Politico reporter, Simpson's quote went on to say, "Quite frankly, I'm starting to wonder if anyone in the family knows what the truth is."

It's worth noting that Simpson isn't a moderate, troubled by Trump's radicalism. On the contrary, the Idaho congressman is a conservative Republican from one of the nation's "reddest" states.

But that hasn't stopped him from growing exasperated with his party's president -- and saying so on the record.

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Then FBI Director Robert Mueller arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 16, 2012, to testify during a hearing.

Special counsel reportedly examining Trump's finances

07/20/17 11:32AM

In his interview with the New York Times yesterday, Donald Trump lashed out at an alarmingly wide number of officials in the Justice Department and the FBI, most notably former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who's overseeing the investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal.

Among other things, the president accused Mueller of overseeing an investigatory team rife with conflicts of interest and, as the Times' report noted, warned that Mueller and his team shouldn't examine Trump's finances. The president didn't specify what would prompt him to fire the special counsel, but when asked about an examination of his finances, Trump said, "I think that's a violation."

Comments like those make it all the more significant to see reports like this one from Bloomberg Politics, which said the special counsel's investigation is, in fact, examining "a broad range of transactions involving Trump's businesses as well as those of his associates."

FBI investigators and others are looking at Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, Trump's involvement in a controversial SoHo development with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and Trump's sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008, the person said.

Agents are also interested in dealings with the Bank of Cyprus, where Wilbur Ross served as vice chairman before he became commerce secretary. They are also examining the efforts of Jared Kushner, the President's son-in-law and White House aide, to secure financing for some of his family's real estate properties.

This reporting has not been independently confirmed by NBC News.

As Rachel noted on last night's show, there was also a New York Times report on Deutsche Bank, the president's biggest lender, and one of the few financial institutions that stuck with Trump even when other major banks weren't interested in doing business with him.

The Times reported, "Banking regulators are reviewing hundreds of millions of dollars in loans made to Mr. Trump's businesses through Deutsche Bank's private wealth management unit, which caters to an ultrarich clientele." The German bank, the article added, has already been "in contact with federal investigators about the Trump accounts," and expects it will "eventually have to provide information" to Mueller and the special counsel's investigators.

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin responds to US President Donald Trump ordering missile strikes on Syria

Trump at odds with his national security team over pro-Russia moves

07/20/17 10:42AM

The Washington Post reported yesterday that Donald Trump is scrapping "the CIA's covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling the government of Bashar al-Assad." As luck would have it, that's precisely what Vladimir Putin's Russian government wanted the American president to do.

This wasn't an isolated development. As we discussed last week, Trump has also tried to weaken sanctions, isolated the United States diplomatically, fractured Western alliances, diminished the influence of the State Department (which is now led by Putin's closest American ally), and largely ignored Russia's attack on the U.S. elections -- all of which serve Moscow's strategic goals. As Rachel noted on Tuesday's show, the list of actions in D.C. that Putin is certain to like keeps growing.

It's against this backdrop that the Associated Press reports that some officials close to the U.S. president have noticed the recent pattern, and they're not pleased.

President Donald Trump's persistent overtures toward Russia are placing him increasingly at odds with his national security and foreign policy advisers, who have long urged a more cautious approach to dealing with the foreign adversary.

The uneasy dynamic between the president and top aides has been exacerbated by the revelation this week of an extended dinner conversation between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the recent summit in Germany. The previously undisclosed conversation, which occurred a few hours after their official bilateral meeting, raised red flags with advisers already concerned by the president's tendency to shun protocol and press ahead with outreach toward Russia, according to two U.S. officials and three top foreign officials.

The AP article added that American diplomats and intelligence officials are "dumbfounded" by the president's approach, and that White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is among those urging Trump not to trust the Russian autocrat.

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Image: Members of the United States Congress are hosted by US President Donald J. Trump at the White House

Trump trips over his own ignorance on health care

07/20/17 10:01AM

A couple of months ago, Donald Trump sat down with Time magazine and boasted that once the debate over health care started in earnest, "In a short period of time, I understood everything there was to know about health care."

He didn't appear to be kidding. In fact, after meeting with Senate Republicans yesterday to urge them to pass some kind of health care bill, the president told the New York Times, "[T]hese guys couldn't believe it, how much I know about it. I know a lot about health care."

I wish that were true. It's not.

During the public portion of yesterday's White House meeting, Trump made a series of bizarre claims about his party's proposal, making clear that he had absolutely no idea what he was talking point. He said the Republican proposal would offer "better coverage for low-income Americans" than the Affordable Care Act, which isn't even close to being true. Trump added that the GOP plan is "more generous than Obamacare," which is bonkers.

Towards the end of his public remarks, the president added, "Your premiums will be down 60 and 70 percent. People don't know that. Nobody hears it. Nobody talks about it." In reality, people don't know that or talk about it because it's spectacularly untrue.

At a meeting among federal policymakers on overhauling the nation's health care system, the most ignorant person in the room was also the one leading the discussion -- which generally isn't a good sign.

In the New York Times interview that soon followed, Trump offered this gem:

"So pre-existing conditions are a tough deal. Because you are basically saying from the moment the insurance, you're 21 years old, you start working and you're paying $12 a year for insurance, and by the time you're 70, you get a nice plan. Here's something where you walk up and say, 'I want my insurance.' It's a very tough deal, but it is something that we're doing a good job of."


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Automatic voter registration expands to its ninth state

07/20/17 09:20AM

As recently as early 2015, a grant total of zero states had automatic voter registration. As of yesterday, however, AVR is now the law in nine states.

Gov. Gina Raimondo has signed a bill that allows qualified voters to automatically register.

The new law would provide automatic voter registration for eligible citizens when they're obtaining or renewing a driver's license, unless the person chooses to opt out.... The bill passed last month in the House and Senate and had bipartisan support. Rhode Island becomes the ninth state to put in place automatic voter registration.

Illinois appears likely to become the 10th state to adopt the policy, with the legislature already having approved AVR and Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) is expected to sign it. What's more, the issue will be on the statewide ballot in Nevada next year, and the consensus is it's likely to pass.

Circling back to our previous coverage, this is a policy that's tough to argue against. When it comes to registering to vote in the United States, the burden has traditionally been on the individual: if you’re eligible to vote, it’s up to you to take the proactive steps needed to register.

Automatic voter registration, which already exists in many of the world's democracies, flips that model. The idea is exactly what it sounds like: states would automatically register eligible voters, shifting the burden away from the individual. Those who want to withdraw from the system can do so voluntarily without penalty, but otherwise, Americans would be added to the voters rolls automatically.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, May 17, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

CBO shines a brutal light on latest Republican health care plan

07/20/17 08:40AM

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) unveiled a health care plan a month ago, with the hopes of passing it before the 4th of July. Lacking Republican votes, it failed.

So, McConnell tweaked his bill and tried again. This week, it too fell short. "Regretfully, it is now apparent that the effort to repeal and immediately replace the failure of Obamacare will not be successful," the GOP leader said in a statement.

McConnell then said he'd move forward with a "repeal and delay" plan in which Congress would eliminate the Affordable Care Act, and then take two years to try to think of something to replace it with. This proposal, dubbed the "Obamacare Repeal Reconciliation Act," was scrutinized by the Congressional Budget Office, which released its report late yesterday.

A Republican Senate bill to repeal Obamacare would cause 17 million fewer people to have insurance within one year, premiums to jump by 25 percent, and insurers to pull out of counties across the country, according to a new report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. [...]

After 2020, the CBO estimates, half of the nation’s population would live in a county where there were no insurers at all in the individual market. By 2026, 32 million fewer people would have insurance compared to Obamacare and premiums would have doubled.

The full report from the CBO is online here. It is, not surprisingly, brutal.

This is, however, the plan Mike Pence publicly endorsed last week. Donald Trump, meanwhile, generally seems to have no idea what he's saying from one day to the next, but he also backed this approach two weeks ago and again this week.

White House support notwithstanding, there's simply no way this proposal can pass. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) told reporters yesterday he questions whether such a bill could get 40 votes in the chamber.

He was describing the bill McConnell said he intends to bring to the floor next week.

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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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