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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump talks with press on Sept. 5, 2016, aboard his campaign plane, while flying over Ohio, as Vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence looks on. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

The Goldman Sachs vet who has Trump's ear on the economy

02/13/17 11:00AM

The White House Council of Economic Advisers has, traditionally, been a pretty big deal. As Slate noted the other day, since its creation in 1946, the CEO has "acted as a sort of in-house think tank for presidential administrations, ready to answer any and all questions related to the dismal science. Typically led by a renowned academic economist ... it provides input on policy, produces the annual Economic Report of the President, briefs POTUS on developments like the monthly jobs report, and more. At times, it has been deeply influential."

It's been so influential that the CEA's chair has traditionally held a cabinet-level role in the White House, helping directly guide the president's thinking on economic matters. Donald Trump's team will have a very different model: the Wall Street Journal reported last week that the new president has demoted the Council of Economic Advisers.

OK, so who will have Trump's ear on economic policy? The New York Times reported over the weekend that former Goldman Sachs CEO Gary Cohn appears to have the dominant voice in Trump World. The report noted a recent, pre-inauguration meeting in which Cohn urged Trump to find private-sector partners as part of the administration's infrastructure plans to help keep government costs down.
That got Mr. Trump's attention. The president-elect turned to the other people in the room — his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon; his chief of staff, Reince Priebus; and Steven T. Mnuchin, his campaign's chief fund-raiser and Mr. Trump's nominee to be Treasury secretary -- surprised that his infrastructure ideas had such a potential downside.

"Is this true?" Mr. Trump asked the group, according to those people. Heads nodded. "Why did I have to wait to have this guy tell me?" he demanded.
Perhaps because everyone on Team Trump assumed he was already aware of such an obvious detail?
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View of the U.S. - Mexico border wall on November 19, 2014 in Calexico, California.

The politics of Trump's border wall start to catch up with him

02/13/17 10:30AM

Donald Trump declared with pride last week, "The wall is getting designed right now." The president was referring, of course, to his administration's proposed border wall between the United States and Mexico -- one of Trump's signature campaign issues -- which the president says he fully intends to pursue.

The boast was, however, almost certainly untrue. Before a federal infrastructure project reaches the design phase, there are all kinds of procedural hurdles that need to be cleared, and with the dubious project still in the rhetorical starting blocks, it's implausible to think the wall is already "getting designed."

No, Mr. President, drawing a big rectangle on the back of a cocktail napkin doesn't count as a "design."

Of course, before the blueprint of such a project can take shape, officials will need to have some sense of cost, and a Reuters report on Friday put a striking price tag on Trump's wall.
President Donald Trump's "wall" along the U.S.-Mexico border would be a series of fences and walls that would cost as much as $21.6 billion, and take more than three years to construct, based on a U.S. Department of Homeland Security internal report seen by Reuters on Thursday.

The report's estimated price-tag is much higher than a $12-billion figure cited by Trump in his campaign and estimates as high as $15 billion from Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.... The report is expected to be presented to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly in coming days, although the administration will not necessarily take actions it recommends.
A Politico report, citing estimates from Capitol Hill sources, added that some lawmakers believe the price "could be as high as $50 billion when all is said and done."

For his part, Donald Trump isn't denying the reports, so much as he's arguing that his magical negotiating abilities will change the calculus.
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China's President Xi Jinping walks during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta October 2, 2013.

Following a fiasco, Trump now looks like 'a paper tiger' to China

02/13/17 10:00AM

On Friday, China Xinhua News, the official news organization of the Chinese government, published a tweet asking a provocative question. In a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the message read, Donald Trump "agreed to honor" the One-China policy, "though he had publicly challenged it. What has changed his mind?"

Yes, Trump's fiasco was so severe, he found himself being trolled by Chinese state-run media. (The message wasn't intended for a Chinese audience -- Twitter is banned in the country.)

The New York Times reported over the weekend that the rookie president managed to avert a more serious confrontation with Beijing, but Trump also made a lasting impression on China that beneath all of his posturing, the American president is quite weak.
"Trump lost his first fight with Xi and he will be looked at as a paper tiger," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, in Beijing, and an adviser to China's State Council. "This will be interpreted in China as a great success, achieved by Xi's approach of dealing with him."

Mr. Trump's reversal on Taiwan is likely to reinforce the views of those in China who see him as merely the latest American president to come into office talking tough on China, only to bend eventually to economic reality and adopt more cooperative policies. That could mean more difficult negotiations with Beijing on trade, North Korea and other issues. [...]

American leadership was damaged by Mr. Trump staking out a position and then stepping back, said Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University and the author of "The China Choice," a book that argues that the United States should share power in the Pacific region with China.
White told the Times that the Chinese will now see Trump as "weak" as a result of his handling of the dispute.

The White House can take some comfort in the fact that an entirely different scandal -- Michael Flynn's controversial chats with Vladimir Putin's Russian government -- is such a dominant issue, because if more people heard about this One China disaster, it'd be even more humiliating for the amateur president.
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A voter marks a ballot for the New Hampshire primary inside a voting booth at a polling place, Feb. 9, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)

White House clings to non-existent evidence of voter fraud

02/13/17 09:30AM

For those concerned about Donald Trump's stability as a president, last week did little to settle frayed nerves. In a meeting with several senators, Trump, fresh off his lies about secretly winning the popular vote, insisted that he would've won New Hampshire were it not for "thousands" of "illegally" cast ballots.

Trump reportedly added that he believes these voters were "brought in on buses" from neighboring Massachusetts. There was "an uncomfortable silence" in the room after the president made the delusional comments.

The reality-based pushback was swift. WMUR in New Hampshire reported:
The New Hampshire Secretary of State's Office said Monday that there's no indication of widespread voter fraud in the Granite State, despite a tweet from President-elect Donald Trump that there was.

Officials said that if Trump has any evidence, he should present it.
The New Hampshire Attorney General's office said something similar, as did a former Republican state A.G., who called the White House's lies "shameful." The former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, meanwhile, offered to pay $1,000 to anyone with any evidence of even one Massachusetts voter being bused into the Granite State to cast an illegal ballot last year.

So far, no one's stepped up to claim the money.

And yet, Stephen Miller, a top White House aide, insisted yesterday that fiction is fact, and the public should believe the president's nonsense.
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President-elect Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump arrive to the "Make America Great Again Welcome Concert" at the Lincoln Memorial, Jan. 19, 2017, in Washington. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

Trump aide: 'Powers of the president ... will not be questioned'

02/13/17 09:00AM

Shortly after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously against the Trump administration in the controversy surrounding the president's Muslim ban, Donald Trump himself declared on Twitter, "SEE YOU IN COURT."

In a brief exchange with NBC News soon after, the president added, when asked about his reaction to the court ruling, "Well, we will see them in court." Asked about his plans for an appeal, Trump added, "We'll see them in court. It's a political decision and we're going to see them in court.... We look forward, as I just said, to seeing them in court."

Even at the time, the reaction didn't make sense. "See you in court" is something a person says before litigation begins, not after having lost at the district and appellate levels. (Trump's vow also may be factually wrong: the White House hasn't decided on its appeal plans.)

With this in mind, the president switched rhetorical gears a bit over the weekend.
President Trump on Saturday morning increased his attacks on the judiciary, declaring on Twitter that "our legal system is broken!"

"Our legal system is broken! "77% of refugees allowed into U.S. since travel reprieve hail from seven suspect countries." (WT)  SO DANGEROUS!" he tweeted, quoting a Washington Times article published Thursday.
Soon after, Trump whined about a "court breakdown."

We could emphasize that the president seems alarmingly unaware of the fact that refugees from the "suspect" countries have committed a combined grand total of zero terrorist attacks on American soil.

But let's put that aside for now and instead focus on the fact that the sitting president of the United States has publicly declared the nation's legal system is, in his eyes, "broken."

We've had plenty of presidents who've lost important cases in the courts, but no modern chief executive has ever said anything along these lines.
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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)

Questions surround Team Trump's pre-election talks with Russia

02/13/17 08:30AM

White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn's alleged talks with Russia in December are the basis for an important ongoing scandal. But the latest revelations also shed light on a separate, parallel controversy that may end up being every bit as important.

As part of its reporting on Flynn's communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the Washington Post noted on Friday:
The talks were part of a series of contacts between Flynn and Kislyak that began before the Nov. 8 election and continued during the transition, officials said. [Emphasis added]
A New York Times report added:
[C]urrent and former American officials said that conversation -- which took place the day before the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia over accusations that it used cyberattacks to help sway the election in Mr. Trump's favor -- ranged far beyond the logistics of a post-inauguration phone call. And they said it was only one in a series of contacts between the two men that began before the election and also included talk of cooperating in the fight against the Islamic State, along with other issues. [Emphasis added]
It's hard to overstate the significance of this detail, which risks doing real harm to Donald Trump's White House.

Let's back up a minute to provide some context.
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Image: President Trump and Prime Minister Abe Press Conference at White House

The White House's Michael Flynn problem reaches a tipping point

02/13/17 08:00AM

Multiple reports from late last week indicate that White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, despite repeated denials from leading members of Donald Trump's team, spoke to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about U.S. sanctions before Inauguration Day. Flynn, who previously insisted no such conversations took place, is now saying he's not sure whether sanctions came up during his calls with Kislyak or not.

The scandal is starting to snowball, and as the Washington Post's David Ignatius, who first broke the news of Flynn's calls a month ago, noted in a new column over the weekend, there's no shortage of questions in need of answers.
Michael Flynn's real problem isn't the Logan Act, an obscure and probably unenforceable 1799 statute that bars private meddling in foreign policy disputes. It's whether President Trump's national security adviser sought to hide from his colleagues and the nation a pre-inauguration discussion with the Russian government about sanctions that the Obama administration was imposing.

"It's far less significant if he violated the Logan Act and far more significant if he willfully misled this country," said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, in a telephone interview late Friday. "Why would he conceal the nature of the call unless he was conscious of wrongdoing?"
That's a good question, and it's one of many.

Why did Vice President Mike Pence, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer tell the public Flynn didn't talk about sanctions with the Russian ambassador?

There are really only two possibilities: Either Flynn told his colleagues a lie, which they repeated because they believed him, or Flynn told them the truth, and they chose to help cover up his alleged wrongdoing.

For his part, Pence and his office have gone out of their way to say that the vice president relied entirely on Flynn's word when he addressed the subject publicly. In other words, the VP is arguing that he was lied to, not that he did the lying.

If the White House national security advisor misled his own West Wing colleagues, how can he keep his job?
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Actor Leslie Odom Jr., actor-composer Lin-Manuel Miranda (R) and cast of "Hamilton" perform on stage during "Hamilton" GRAMMY performance for The 58th GRAMMY Awards at Richard Rodgers Theater, Feb. 15, 2016. (Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage/Getty)

Following principled appeal, Trump demands 'Hamilton' apology

02/13/17 12:23AM

The fact that Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of "Hamilton" on Broadway wouldn't have been especially notable, were it not for the hullabaloo that followed -- including some unexpectedly robust whining from Pence's running mate.

During a Friday-night curtain call, Pence was headed for the exits when actor Brandon Victor Dixon, one of the show's co-stars, appealed to the far-right Republican directly. "We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our friends, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights," Dixon said, reading off a piece of paper. "But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us."

Donald Trump, who was not in attendance, was apparently outraged.
Donald Trump is demanding an apology from the cast of "Hamilton" after Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of the Broadway show Friday night — and was greeted with a chorus of boos from the audience.

"The Theater must always be a safe and special place," Trump tweeted Saturday morning, after videos of the jeering emerged on social media. "The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!"
Trump also tweeted Saturday morning that Pence was "harassed" at the show -- there's no evidence of this actually happening -- before adding, "The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior."

Yesterday, Trump was still complaining about the Broadway show, complaining about "very inappropriate" remarks directed at the incoming vice president.

Now, I could note that the theater, for centuries, has been a place for political and societal commentary. I could also note that conservatives aren't supposed to show concern for "safe spaces." We could take a moment to mention that Donald J. Trump, given his cringe-worthy record, should avoid complaining about rudeness. We might also mention that the "Hamilton" cast was actually quite polite towards Pence, making Trump's little tantrum that much more peculiar.

But while all of these relevant details are worth keeping in mind, let's put all of that aside and shine a light on the overarching problem: Trump is a thin-skinned crybaby who has an alarming aversion to public dissent.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers the convocation at the Vines Center on the campus of Liberty University Jan. 18, 2016 in Lynchburg, Va. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

This Week in God, 10.15.16

02/13/17 12:23AM

After a hiatus, the God Machine is back this week, and first up is a story about one of the nation's more politically active evangelical colleges, which is facing a familiar schism.

Virginia's Liberty University, founded by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell, is now run by his son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., who also happens to be one of Donald Trump's most loyal and enthusiastic allies. Indeed, during the Republican presidential primaries, while many social conservatives and leaders of the religious right movement were rallying behind Ted Cruz, Falwell bucked the trend and offered his spirited support (no pun intended) a secular, thrice-married adulterer and casino owner who's never really demonstrated any interest in, or knowledge of, matters of faith.

Even this week, after Trump was heard boasting about sexual assault and accused by a variety of women of sexual misconduct, Falwell continued to express his enthusiastic support for the Republican nominee. The interesting twist, however, came when Liberty students -- a conservative, evangelical bunch -- balked. The Washington Post reported this week:
Students at Virginia's Liberty University have issued a statement against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as young conservatives at some colleges across the country reconsider support for his campaign.

A statement issued late Wednesday by the group Liberty United Against Trump strongly rebuked the candidate as well as the school's president, Jerry Falwell Jr., for defending Trump after he made vulgar comments about women in a 2005 video. [...] The students at Liberty University wrote that they felt compelled to speak out in light of Falwell's steadfast support for Trump even after the candidate's comments about women and sexual assault.
The statement, released under the Liberty United Against Trump name, read, "Donald Trump does not represent our values and we want nothing to do with him.... He has made his name by maligning others and bragging about his sins. Not only is Donald Trump a bad candidate for president, he is actively promoting the very things that we as Christians ought to oppose."

As of Thursday, the total number of Liberty students, alumni, and faculty who signed on to the letter stood at more than 1,300.

Falwell called the statement, among other things, "incoherent and false."
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Donald Trump introduces Trump University at a press conference in Trump Tower, New York, May 2005. (Photo by Dan Herrick/KPA/ZUMA)

After vowing to do the opposite, Trump settles fraud case

02/13/17 12:23AM

One week from today, President-elect Donald Trump was scheduled to take the stand in a fraud case surrounding his scandal-plagued "Trump University," which has been accused of ripping off students and making ridiculous claims about the value of its lessons. The Republican was poised to be the first president-elect to ever give sworn testimony in his own fraud case.

As it turns out, Trump won't have to take the stand after all. As Politico reported, the controversial businessman who vowed not to settle this case ended up settling this case.
President-elect Donald Trump, who once declared "I don't settle lawsuits," took to Twitter Saturday to justify his decision to pay $25 million to settle fraud lawsuits over his now-defunct Trump University real estate seminar program. He also hinted that had he not been so busy preparing to take office, he might not have settled.

"The ONLY bad thing about winning the Presidency is that I did not have the time to go through a long but winning trial on Trump U. Too bad!," Trump tweeted.
The settlement resolves a class-action case and an investigation launched by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Note, as recently as March, Trump boasted during a GOP debate, "This is a case I could have settled very easily, but I don't settle cases very easily when I'm right." After boasting that the Better Business Bureau gave Trump University an "A" rating -- a claim that turned out to be a brazen lie -- Trump added, "Again, I don't settle cases. I don't do it because that's why I don't get sued very often, because I don't settle, unlike a lot of other people."

The assertion that doesn't "get sued very often" also turned out to be a demonstrable falsehood, as was the boast about never settling.

To the extent that reality still matters, it's worth remembering that the case against Trump was quite strong. The Washington Post reported in September that the New York Republican was the namesake of a "university," where students sometimes "max[ed] out their credit cards to pay tens of thousands of dollars for insider knowledge they believed could make them wealthy."
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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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