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Friday's Mini-Report, 2.17.17

02/17/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A tough choice to defend: "The U.S. Senate Friday confirmed Oklahoma attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the EPA in a party-line 52-46 vote. Democrats did all they could to delay the final vote, holding another all-night session to highlight their opposition to the Oklahoma attorney general for his past battles with the regulatory agency he is now tasked to run."

* A nervous Europe: "European leaders Friday fired a salvo of warnings against Washington, cautioning it against hurting EU cohesion, abandoning shared values and seeking a rapprochement with Russia behind the backs of its allies."

* One of Flynn's many controversies: "The Pentagon hasn't found any documents indicating that Mike Flynn received authorization to accept money from a foreign government before traveling to Moscow in 2015 for a paid Russian state TV event, according to a letter from the acting Secretary of the Army."

* The right call: "A florist who refused to sell flowers for a same-sex wedding cannot claim religious belief as a defense under the state's anti-discrimination laws, Washington's high court said Thursday, in a case that has been watched around the nation by religious and civil rights groups."

* Also the right call: "Florida lawmakers violated the First Amendment when they passed a law prohibiting doctors generally from asking patients if they owned guns, a federal appeals court ruled on Thursday."

* A South Carolina man "was arrested in connection with planning a violent white supremacist attack 'in the spirit of Dylann Roof,' the FBI said in a complaint Thursday."
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen during a press conference at Los Pinos on Aug. 31, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/LatinContent/Getty)

Attacking news organizations, Trump sees an 'enemy' of the people

02/17/17 05:15PM

About an hour ago, Donald Trump published a tweet, which he deleted soon after. "The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @CNN, @NBCNews and many more) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people. SICK!"

The fact that it was discarded led some to hope that the president realized that the language may have had fascist overtones, which he reflected on and deleted accordingly. Those hopes were quickly dashed when Trump re-published the nearly identical message with slight edits:
"The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!"
How nice. He removed the all-caps "sick" reference the second time around, though he was more inclusive when attacking networks.

There is no doubt that every president has had conflicts with news organizations, but I hope it's obvious that no president has ever tried to label many of the nation's largest independent news organizations "the enemy" of the people.

Authoritarians speak this way; elected leaders in democracies do not. Trump isn't just demonstrating a contempt for American journalism and First Amendment principles; he's also playing a dangerous game by positioning himself as an authority figure who gets to label those who try to hold him accountable "the enemy."
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U.S. President-elect Donald Trump (L) meets with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) (C) and Vice-President elect Mike Pence on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 10, 2016. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Why the 25th Amendment is suddenly getting so much attention

02/17/17 04:02PM

Reflecting on recent events, the New York Times' David Brooks' latest column noted, "I still have trouble seeing how the Trump administration survives a full term. Judging by his Thursday press conference, President Trump's mental state is like a train that long ago left freewheeling and iconoclastic, has raced through indulgent, chaotic and unnerving, and is now careening past unhinged, unmoored and unglued."

This is not an uncommon sentiment. During Donald Trump's press conference yesterday, a variety of reporters in the room were overheard whispering among each other about the "insane" nature of president's performance. There was a similar reaction on Capitol Hill: NBC News' Kasie Hunt said lawmakers from both parties watched the event with their "jaws on the floor."

Earlier in the week, the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne Jr. asked a question many have pondered, but few have spoken aloud: "What is this democratic nation to do when the man serving as president of the United States plainly has no business being president of the United States?" His colleague, Dana Milbank, recently conceded, "My worry is the president of the United States is barking mad."

Ordinarily, conversations along these lines lead to questions about possible impeachment proceedings and congressional options for removing a president from office. But if my email inbox is any indication, there's growing interest in the options available through the 25th Amendment -- which has a Wikipedia page that's apparently being referenced more and more all the time.

In fact, The Atlantic's David Frum joked after the election, "Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. Article 4. We're all going to be talking a lot more about it in the months ahead."

So, what's Article 4 to the 25th Amendment? In the abstract, the amendment itself is about presidential succession, and includes language about the power of the office when a president is incapacitated. But Digby recently highlighted the specific text of growing relevance:
"Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President."
And what does that mean exactly?
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R. Alexander Acosta

Trump's latest cabinet nominee has a controversial record of his own

02/17/17 12:49PM

On Tuesday, the "fine-tuned machine" that is Donald Trump's White House had yet another breakdown. Andy Puzder, the president's choice to lead the Labor Department, was forced to withdraw in the face of multiple scandals and bipartisan opposition.

The Trump administration did not, however, wait long to name his successor. The president announced yesterday that Alex Acosta, the dean of Florida International University's law school in Miami, is Trump's choice to be the next secretary of labor. His nomination -- Trump's first and only Latino for his cabinet -- has generally been greeted by a collective shrug by much of the political world, which makes his confirmation more likely.

But there are some aspects of Acosta's background that should make for interesting questions during his confirmation hearings.

I published an item for my old, old blog 10 years ago about Acosta's role in a voter-suppression scheme in Ohio. McClatchy reported at the time:
Four days before the 2004 election, the Justice Department's civil rights chief sent an unusual letter to a federal judge in Ohio who was weighing whether to let Republicans challenge the credentials of 23,000 mostly African-American voters.

The case was triggered by allegations that Republicans had sent a mass mailing to mostly Democratic-leaning minorities and used undeliverable letters to compile a list of voters potentially vulnerable to eligibility challenges.

In his letter to U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott of Cincinnati, Assistant Attorney General Alex Acosta argued that it would "undermine" the enforcement of state and federal election laws if citizens could not challenge voters' credentials.
At issue was a "vote-caging" scheme, launched by Ohio Republicans trying to boost the Bush/Cheney re-election campaign. The Justice Department wasn't part of the case, and the judge didn't request federal officials' perspective, but Acosta decided on his own to weigh in anyway with his unsolicited pitch, urging the court to side with Ohio Republicans.
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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.17.17

02/17/17 12:03PM

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

* The Trump campaign sent a survey to its mailing list yesterday, described as  the "Mainstream Media Accountability Survey." Among the questions were gems such as, "Do you believe that the media purposely tries to divide Republicans against each other in order to help elect Democrats?" and "Do you believe that the media creates false feuds within our Party in order to make us seem divided?"

* The mailing comes shortly before Trump's 2020 campaign hosts its first rally, which is scheduled for tomorrow in Florida.

* As Tom Perez makes the case that he's the leading candidate in the race for the DNC chairmanship, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) sent a letter to Democratic National Committee members, insisting that the race isn't surging in Perez's direction.

* Mike Dubke, the founder of a Republican consulting firm called Crossroads Media, is reportedly poised to become the White House communications director. Jason Miller was supposed to get the job, but he resigned before Inauguration Day with personal troubles.

* A new progressive PAC, called We Will Replace You, is warning Democrats to oppose Trump at every possible opportunity or risk a primary challenge.

* In Virginia, which hosts a gubernatorial race this year, a new Quinnipiac poll shows the top Democratic candidates leading the top Republican candidates in hypothetical match-ups.

* The same poll showed former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie as the frontrunner in the Republicans' gubernatorial primary, while among Democrats, former Rep. Tom Perriello and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam are tied.
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Trump's confusion about the 'mess' he inherited matters

02/17/17 11:20AM

In 2009, President Obama took office under the worst circumstances of any modern president, but he wasn't supposed to mention it. Any references to his predecessor or the crises he found waiting for him in the Oval Office were met with swift rebukes from Republicans and much of the media: Obama was to look forward and solve problems, not point at George W. Bush.

Eight years later, Donald Trump shared a message with reporters.
"To be honest, I inherited a mess -- it's a mess -- at home and abroad. A mess. Jobs are pouring out of the country. You see what's going on with all of the companies leaving our country, going to Mexico and other places -- low-pay, low-wages. Mass instability overseas, no matter where you look. The Middle East, a disaster. North Korea -- we'll take care of it, folks. We're going to take care of it all. I just want to let you know I inherited a mess."
Stephen Colbert joked last night, in a message to the president, "No, you inherited a fortune. We elected a mess."

To be sure, there's no point in fact-checking every individual detail Trump struggles to understand, but it's worth emphasizing a simple truth: the president doesn't know how good he has it. Trump took office at a time of low unemployment, steady economic growth, the lowest uninsured rate on record, low crime, low inflation, a modest deficit, a rising stock market, and a country that's broadly respected around the world.

Obama, in effect, handed his successor a gift, complete with a nice little bow on top. That's not to say the nation isn't facing real challenges, or that there aren't many communities in need of assistance, but broadly speaking, these are conditions most new presidents would be thrilled to inherit.

But listening to Trump whine incessantly yesterday about circumstances he should appreciate but doesn't, I started to wonder what will happen when the next time national conditions are an actual "mess."
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen through the audience before participating in a roundtable event, Sept. 27, 2016, in Miami. (Photo by John Locher/AP)

Donald Trump's unpopularity runs into 'Limbaugh Standard'

02/17/17 10:50AM

Shortly after the 2014 midterms, federal policymakers were facing a funding deadline and a possible government shutdown. Some on the far-right believed President Obama was so weakened by the election results that GOP lawmakers should push him to accept conservative demands.

Rush Limbaugh told Fox News' Chris Wallace at the time, "]T]he Republicans are running around like a fool saying the American people are not going to like them if they shut down the government is absurd. Barack Obama's approval is in the 30s."

Limbaugh's assessment wasn't actually true at the time, and Congress ultimately didn't take his advice, but the radio host's rhetoric was nevertheless memorable. If a president's approval rating dips below 40%, according to the Limbaugh Standard, that president is by definition weak and vulnerable.

This came to mind yesterday when reviewing the new polling report from the Pew Research Center.
Overall, 39% say they approve of how Trump is handling his job as president, while 56% say they disapprove and 6% do not offer a view. Job ratings for Trump are more negative than for other recent presidents at similar points in their first terms.
To be sure, there are plenty of other polls offering a range of data, but the Pew results are roughly in line with the latest Gallup daily tracking poll, which yesterday put the president's approval rating at 40%. [Update: The newest Gallup data, published after this piece originally went live, shows Trump sinking to 38%.]

In case this isn't obvious, since the dawn of modern polling, no new president has been this unpopular, this early in his presidency.

Why does this matter? A couple of reasons. First, Donald Trump, elected in such a way that raise questions about his presidency's legitimacy, is governing as if he earned a mandate by winning in a landslide. Public-opinion data, however, is a reminder that Americans are, at least at this point, wildly unimpressed with their new Republican leader.
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House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) sits in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill March 19, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Ignoring Trump, Chaffetz seeks charges related to Clinton emails

02/17/17 10:14AM

On Nov. 9, literally the day after the election, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said his pre-election plans had not changed: he remained focused on Hillary Clinton and her email server management. In December, he said it again. In January, he said it again.

Yesterday, as the Associated Press reported, the Republican congressman took the next ridiculous step.
The Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, who has refused Democratic requests to investigate possible conflicts of interest involving President Donald Trump, is seeking criminal charges against a former State Department employee who helped set up Hillary Clinton's private email server.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday asking him to convene a grand jury or charge Bryan Pagliano, the computer specialist who helped establish Clinton's server while she was secretary of state.
So let me get this straight. There's evidence that Russia launched an illegal espionage operation to help put Donald Trump in the Oval Office. There's evidence that Team Trump was in communications with officials in Vladimir Putin's government at the time. There's evidence that leading members of Team Trump lied about these contacts. There's evidence that the communications continued during the presidential transition process, which Trump administration officials lied about, and which led to the White House National Security Advisor resigning.

There's evidence that this entire scandal, possibly the most serious since Watergate, is part of an ongoing U.S. counter-espionage investigation.

It's against this backdrop that Jason Chaffetz, just yesterday, contacted the Justice Department seeking criminal charges related to ... wait for it ... Hillary Clinton's email server.

Do you ever feel like you're stuck in a deeply stupid nightmare?
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Trump struggles to give a straight answer on Russia scandal

02/17/17 09:20AM

Last summer, when Republican officials were putting together the party platform, Donald Trump and his campaign team were completely indifferent towards the document and the process -- with one notable exception.

The only thing Team Trump quietly pushed was a subtle change to make the Republican platform more in line with Russia's foreign policy preferences. One GOP congressman was quoted saying soon after that the "most under-covered story" of the Republican convention" was Team Trump's efforts to change the party platform to be more pro-Putin.

About a month later, ABC News' George Stephanopoulos asked the then-candidate about this. "I wasn't involved in that," Trump said. "Honestly, I was not involved." Told that members of his team were responsible for pushing the platform in a direction Russia wanted, Trump added, "Yeah. I was not involved in that."

It was an awkward moment, but it was also oddly clarifying. In Trump's mind, if he wasn't personally involved in doing Moscow's bidding, that effectively ended the conversation. His aides, staffers, and associates may have done all sorts of things, but like Reagan during the Iran-Contra affair, Trump remained "out of the loop" -- blissfully ignorant of what was going on around him.

This came to mind yesterday when the president was asked about the latest developments in Trump's Russia scandal. A reporter asked, "Can you say definitively that nobody on your campaign had any contacts with the Russians during the campaign?" Trump avoided the question, which led to this exchange:
Q: The first part of my question on contacts. Do you definitively say that nobody --

TRUMP: Well, I had nothing to do with it.
He then started talking about Hillary Clinton getting a question to a primary debate last March.

In other words, in Trump's mind, he personally "had nothing to do with" contacting Vladimir Putin's government, which should serve as a persuasive answer.

It's not. There are now multiple reports indicating that while Russia was illegally intervening in our election, trying to help put Trump in the White House, several people from Team Trump were in regular contact with Putin's government -- a fact that Trump and other White House officials appear to have lied about repeatedly.

"I had nothing to do with it" isn't much of an answer.
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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

Trump's choice for National Security Advisor turns him down

02/17/17 08:42AM

When Michael Flynn resigned from the White House this week, it was good news for the nation overall for an important reason: Flynn was a ridiculous choice for National Security Advisor. His departure opened the door for a more qualified and sensible choice.

When we learned this week that retired Navy Vice Adm. Robert Harward was offered the job, there were bipartisan sighs of relief. Harward is broadly respected, highly qualified, and exactly the kind of person who would help set minds at ease in this otherwise volatile and erratic administration.

It was therefore an important development yesterday when Harward turned down the job.

Officially, the retired military leader cited family obligations, but a Financial Times report suggested conditions at the increasingly troubled White House played an important role in Harward's thinking.
...Mr Harward is said to have turned Mr Trump down. "Harward is conflicted between the call of duty and the obvious dysfunctionality," said one person with first hand knowledge of the discussions between Mr Trump and Mr Harward.
CNN's Jake Tapper, quoting a source close to Harward, said he was reluctant to join Team Trump because the White House seems so chaotic. Harward reportedly characterized the job offer as a "s**t sandwich."

At this point, it's understandable for Trump's critics to feel a sense of schadenfreude. The flailing White House is in so much trouble that its breakdowns are becoming a self-perpetuating cycle: Trump World is failing to govern, which creates chaos, which creates a need for mature officials to fill key positions of authority, which can't happen because capable people see Trump World failing to govern and run in the opposite direction. That in turn creates chaos, which creates a need for mature officials....

The consequences of this, however, are real and alarming.
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Donald Trump holds a press conference with his VP Choice, Gov. Mike Pence, July 16, 2016. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC)

Trump's minority outreach efforts take a painful step backwards

02/17/17 08:00AM

Donald Trump managed to win the 2016 presidential election, despite receiving far fewer votes than his opponent, thanks to the strong support of his overwhelmingly white base. By his own admission, the Republican president would like to expand his group of backers, making inroads with communities that have rejected him.

For example, Trump has predicted that when he runs for re-election, he expects to receive 95% of the African-American vote -- up from the 8% he received in 2016.

It's safe to say the president should start lowering his expectations. Two weeks ago, Trump hosted an event in which he referenced Frederick Douglass, while making clear he had no idea who the legendary abolitionist is (or the fact that Douglass is dead). Yesterday, he asked an African-American reporter to help set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus -- apparently working from the assumption that all black people know each other.

Trump added:
"I would love to meet with the Black Caucus. I think it's great, the Congressional Black Caucus. I think it's great. I actually thought I had a meeting with Congressman [Elijah] Cummings, and he was all excited. And then he said, 'Well, I can't move, it might be bad for me politically. I can't have that meeting." I was all set to have the meeting. You know, we called him and called him. And he was all set. I spoke to him on the phone, very nice guy.

"He wanted it, but we called, called, called and can't make a meeting with him. Every day I walk and say I would like to meet with him because I do want to solve the problem. But he probably was told by Schumer or somebody like that, some other lightweight. He was probably told -- he was probably told 'don't meet with Trump. It's bad politics.' And that's part of the problem in this country."
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who is black, later explained that Trump simply made all of this up.

But let's not forget that African Americans aren't the only ones the president is offending.
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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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