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FBI Director James Comey testifies during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, March 1, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

White House connects Comey firing, 'conclusion' of Russia probe

05/11/17 04:40PM

This was probably not a smart thing to say given the circumstances.
The White House said Thursday that removing FBI Director James Comey from his post may hasten the agency's investigation into Russian meddling.

"We want this to come to its conclusion, we want it to come to its conclusion with integrity," said deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders, referring to the FBI's probe into Moscow's interference in last year's election. "And we think that we've actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen."
CNN's report characterized this as a "surprising admission from the White House that Comey's sudden dismissal on Tuesday may have an effect on the Russia probe."

That's right.

In terms of the context, the White House's contradictions reflect a degree of internal chaos. Two days ago, in a Fox News interview, Sanders, the president's principal deputy press secretary, said the White House wants the investigation into the Russia scandal to end. "It's time to move on," she argued.

A day later -- which is to say, yesterday -- during the White House press briefing, Sanders changed direction, saying the president wants the investigation to keep going. Trump, she said, wants Justice Department officials "to continue with whatever they see appropriate and sees fit, just the same as he's encouraged the House and Senate committees to continue any ongoing investigations."

And today, she changed back, saying the White House wants the investigation to "come to its conclusion."

But looking past the inconsistencies, the more serious concern is the White House linking Comey's firing to Team Trump's desire to see the probe end.
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Trump contradicts his own White House team on Comey firing

05/11/17 03:02PM

On Tuesday night, in a written statement, the White House said Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey "based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions." The same evening, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the decision was the Justice Department's.

On Wednesday morning, Sarah Sanders added that Trump "made a decision based on" the DOJ's recommendations, and in light of Rosenstein's memo, the president had "no choice" but to fire Comey. Kellyanne Conway made similar comments to a national audience.

According to Donald Trump, his own White House is wrong. The president sat down today with NBC News' Lester Holt, who asked about how Trump's decision came to fruition. Here was the exchange:
HOLT: Monday you met with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein--

TRUMP: Right.

HOLT: Did you ask for a recommendation [on Comey]?

TRUMP: What I did is, I was going to fire [Comey]. My decision, it was not--

HOLT: You had made the decision before they came in the room.

TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey.
When the NBC anchor noted the White House's written claim about the recommendations from the Justice Department, Trump couldn't have been clearer about his intentions.

"Oh, I was gonna fire regardless of [the] recommendation," the president said.
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A crest of the Federal Bureau of Investi

With Comey firing, Trump delivers 'a gut punch' to the FBI

05/11/17 12:42PM

Throughout much of the last year, before and after Election Day, Donald Trump took jaw-dropping shots at U.S. intelligence agencies, questioning their competence, judgment, and professionalism. At one point, the Republican even compared American intelligence professionals to Nazis.

For a president to launch these kinds of rhetorical attacks was outrageous on its face, and it creates a dangerous governing dynamic. But Trump's tantrums were also at odds with his own self-interest. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told Rachel earlier this year, "You take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday of getting back at you. So even for a practical supposedly hard-nosed businessman, he's being really dumb to do this."

The comment came to mind reading the Washington Post's report on Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey, and how the news was received by Comey's former colleagues.
Within the Justice Department and the FBI, the firing of Comey has left raw anger, and some fear, according to multiple officials. Thomas O'Connor, the president of the FBI Agents Association, called Comey's firing "a gut punch. We didn't see it coming, and we don't think Director Comey did anything that would lead to this.''

Many employees said they were furious about the firing, saying the circumstances of his dismissal did more damage to the FBI's independence than anything Comey did in his three-plus years in the job.

One intelligence official who works on Russian espionage matters said they were more determined than ever to pursue such cases. Another said Comey's firing and the subsequent comments from the White House are attacks that won't soon be forgotten. Trump had "essentially declared war on a lot of people at the FBI," one official said. "I think there will be a concerted effort to respond over time in kind."
At a press briefing yesterday, White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters, "[T]he rank-and-file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director." There's very little evidence to back that up, but perhaps we're about to learn whether the rank-and-file of the FBI have lost confidence in their president.
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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.11.17

05/11/17 12:00PM

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

* In the latest national Quinnipiac poll, released yesterday, Donald Trump's approval rating is just 36%, while only 33% consider him honest. The poll was conducted before the president fired FBI Director James Comey.

* On a related note, the same poll found Democrats leading Republicans on the generic congressional ballot, 54% to 38%. The Dems' 16-point advantage, the report noted, is "the widest margin ever measured for this question in a Quinnipiac University poll."

* The Congressional Leadership Fund, the House Republican leadership's super PAC, has a new attack ad in Georgia's congressional special election, slamming Jon Ossoff's (D) out-of-state support. The irony, of course, is that this commercial will air locally thanks to Republicans'  out-of-state support.

* Rep. Raúl Labrador (R), one of Congress' most far-right stalwarts, announced this week that he's running for governor in Idaho next year. Labrador considered running for the job in 2014, but passed.

* Mark Salter, a former campaign adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), raised a few eyebrows yesterday when he said via Twitter that "the security of the United States might now depend on electing a Democratic Congress in 2018." These are, Salter said, words he "thought I'd never say."

* A Republican narrowly won a state House special election this week, which wouldn't ordinarily be especially notable, except the two-point margin of victory came as a big surprise. Last November, Trump won this same district by 50 points.
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Image: President Trump Meets With The National Association of Manufacturers

The White House's official line on Comey's firing unravels

05/11/17 11:14AM

One of the more alarming aspects of Donald Trump's Russia scandal is how guilty White House officials are acting. As we discussed yesterday, people who are innocent -- those who expect to be fully exonerated -- don't usually try to end ongoing investigations, lash out at witnesses, and suppress questions.

They also tend not to change their story.

It hasn't yet been two full days since the president fired FBI Director James Comey, who was overseeing a counter-espionage investigation into the Russia scandal. The Washington Post's Aaron Blake had an excellent piece this morning noting a key problem with the White House's explanation: it keeps changing.
It has been 36 hours since the White House announced that President Trump had fired James B. Comey as FBI director. And its rationale and explanations for that move continue to fall apart.
Team Trump said on Tuesday that Comey's ouster was the Justice Department's decision, only to say the opposite on Wednesday. Team Trump said on Tuesday that the memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein forced the president's hand, only to acknowledge on Wednesday that Trump told Rosenstein to write the memo.

Team Trump said on Tuesday that the firing was the result of Comey's handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails, only to abandon that story on Wednesday.

Team Trump said on Wednesday that the president "had lost confidence in Comey from the day he was elected." Team Trump said the exact opposite as recently as last week.
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Image: Donald Trump, Neil Gorsuch, Anthony Kennedy

Trump's Oval Office meeting with Russian officials grows more alarming

05/11/17 10:11AM

At face value, it looked ridiculous. The day after Donald Trump fired the FBI director overseeing the investigation into the Russia scandal, the president welcomed Russian officials into the Oval Office for a chat. Soon after, the world was treated to photographs from the Russian Foreign Ministry -- not the White House or U.S. news organizations -- of Trump shaking hands with Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

It wasn't long before many started wondering why American journalists were barred from the event, but Russia's official news agency was allowed in.

The Washington Post took this a step further, highlighting the possibility of a security breach.
A photographer for a Russian state-owned news agency was allowed into the Oval Office on Wednesday during President Trump's meeting with Russian diplomats, a level of access that was criticized by former U.S. intelligence officials as a potential security breach.

The officials cited the danger that a listening device or other surveillance equipment could have been brought into the Oval Office while hidden in cameras or other electronics. Former U.S. intelligence officials raised questions after photos of Trump's meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were posted online by the Tass news agency.... Other former intelligence officials also described the access granted to the photographer as a potential security lapse, noting that standard screening for White House visitors would not necessarily detect a sophisticated espionage device.
Former deputy CIA director David S. Cohen was asked on Twitter yesterday whether it was wise to allow a Russian government photographer and his equipment into the Oval Office.

"No," Cohen replied, "it was not."

So why in the world did Team Trump let this happen?
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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin responds to US President Donald Trump ordering missile strikes on Syria

Advocates of an independent Russia scandal inquiry have options

05/11/17 09:22AM

A friend asked me the other day why there isn't a Ken Starr-like independent counsel investigating the Russia scandal. The short answer is, that's not an option -- because the independent counsel statute that made Starr's Clinton-era investigation possible expired nearly two decades ago.

But that doesn't mean an independent examination of the Donald Trump's Russia scandal is impossible. On the contrary, there are quite a few options.

1. The Justice Department can appoint a special counsel.

There's been quite a bit of talk recently about the appointment of a special prosecutor, but what folks are really referring to is a special counsel. Ordinarily, such a figure would be appointed by the attorney general, but with Jeff Sessions having recused himself from the matter, the responsibility falls to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who's found himself under quite a bit of pressure.

The trouble is, under the system that's in place, even if Rosenstein were to name a special counsel to examine the Russia scandal, he or she wouldn't be entirely independent: he or she would still answer to the Justice Department's leadership, and could still be fired by the president.

2. Congress could create an independent commission.

There have been many such panels in recent decades -- the 9/11 Commission is probably the most notable modern example -- and they're usually led by commissioners who are not currently in public office. They tend to have their own budgets and work independently from other branches.

To have such a commission, however, would take an act of Congress, and since Congress is led by Republicans, there's effectively no chance of this happening.

3. Congress could create a special committee of its own.

The House and Senate Intelligence Committees have already taken an interest in the Russia scandal, but congressional leaders could create their own select committee to focus exclusively on the controversy. This has been done many times on many issues, most recently a panel to investigate GOP conspiracy theories surrounding Benghazi.
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Trump fired Comey at key juncture in Russia scandal investigation

05/11/17 08:46AM

We learned yesterday that FBI Director James Comey, just days before his firing, requested more staff and money to better investigate the Russia scandal, suggesting that probe was ramping up, not winding down.

The Wall Street Journal moved the story forward in important ways overnight.
In the weeks before President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, a federal investigation into potential collusion between Trump associates and the Russian government was heating up, as Mr. Comey became increasingly occupied with the probe.

Mr. Comey started receiving daily instead of weekly updates on the investigation, beginning at least three weeks ago, according to people with knowledge of the matter and the progress of the Federal Bureau of Investigation probe. Mr. Comey was concerned by information showing possible evidence of collusion, according to these people.
That's quite a bombshell, actually. If the reporting is correct, Comey believed the investigation was advancing in important ways -- right up until the president, whose campaign is accused of possible collusion with a foreign adversary, decided to fire the FBI chief.

This suggests Comey wasn't seeking additional resources because he was looking for something, but rather, because he'd found something.
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Without mentioning Donald Trump by name, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., denounced Trump's recent remarks about restricting Muslim travel during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Dec. 8, 2015. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Following Trump's Comey firing, Republicans flunk their test

05/11/17 08:00AM

For months, one of the overarching questions in American politics has been directed at congressional Republicans: "How far does Donald Trump have to go before GOP lawmakers have the courage to denounce him?"

With this in mind, Republicans were presented with an opportunity yesterday. The president had just fired FBI Director James Comey, who was overseeing an investigation into Team Trump's alleged collusion with Russia. One need not be a rabid partisan to recognize the seriousness of the president's abuse, and all GOP lawmakers had to do was be honest about the seriousness of the circumstances.

Republicans, in other words, were confronted with a test, which they failed. NBC News reported:
Some grumbled, they made grave expressions of concern, and they called for answers. But, so far at least, Republican in the Senate have stopped short of calling for an independent investigation into Russian meddling in U.S. politics after President Donald Trump's abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey Tuesday.

Democrats, who question whether Comey's termination was an attempt to quash the FBI's probe into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian agents, renewed their call for a special prosecutor or independent 9/11-style commission.

But other than a handful of Republicans in the House, however, the GOP was largely united against the idea.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who's done as much as anyone to shield Trump from any kind of accountability in the Russia scandal, said, "Today, we'll no doubt hear calls for a new investigation, which could only serve to impede the current work being done."

Oh. We're apparently supposed to believe investigating the scandal would interfere with an investigation of the scandal.

McConnell isn't alone. The entire Republican leadership in both chambers has decided to endorse Trump's actions, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who broke his silence yesterday afternoon to endorse the White House's position.

Asked yesterday about parallels between Trump and Richard Nixon during Watergate, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told Fox News, "Suck it up and move on."
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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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