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A man crosses the Central Intelligence A

Trump's CIA choice burdened by Bush-era torture scandal

03/13/18 12:40PM

A little more than a year ago, the New York Times published a no-nonsense lede about a key personnel decision that Donald Trump had just announced.

As a clandestine officer at the Central Intelligence Agency in 2002, Gina Haspel oversaw the torture of two terrorism suspects and later took part in an order to destroy videotapes documenting their brutal interrogations at a secret prison in Thailand.

On Thursday, Ms. Haspel was named the deputy director of the C.I.A.

The elevation of Ms. Haspel, a veteran widely respected among her colleagues, to the No. 2 job at the C.I.A. was a rare public signal of how, under the Trump administration, the agency is being led by officials who appear to take a far kinder view of one of its darker chapters than their immediate predecessors.

A year later, Donald Trump has gone a step further, moving CIA Director Mike Pompeo to the State Department and elevating Haspel to the intelligence agency's top job.

In the Obama era, there was a reluctance on the part of the Democratic White House to dwell on Bush-era scandals. The then-president spoke frequently in 2009 about "turning the page" on the previous administration's alleged crimes, including its embrace of torture.

But as the Trump era got underway, a New Yorker  piece noted, "[T]he past, as Obama well knows, never goes away. With the prospect of American torture looming again, I wonder if Obama regrets his decision. After all, people like Haspel, quite plausibly, could have gone to prison."

And now Haspel is the president's choice to be the director of the CIA.

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A voter steps into voting booth, Nov. 5, 2013, in Philadelphia, Pa.

Political world's focus turns to Pennsylvania's special election

03/13/18 12:00PM

Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district, south of Pittsburgh in the Keystone State's southwest corner, can safely be described as a Republican stronghold. John McCain won here by 11 points in his presidential campaign in 2008; Mitt Romney fared even better four years later, winning by 17 points; and Donald Trump carried the district by a 20-point margin.

The area's former congressman, Republican Tim Murphy, ran unopposed in the last two election cycles -- because no local Democrats saw any point in going up against him.

With this recent history in mind, it was a bit jarring to see this  Politico piece yesterday.

The chairman of Pennsylvania's Republican Party said Monday the special election in which Democrat Conor Lamb is running neck-and-neck with Republican Rick Saccone is in a "Democrat district," even though it was represented by a Republican for more than a decade and President Donald Trump won it handily in 2016.

"The other reason it's so tight is, you have to remember, this is a Democrat district, notwithstanding the fact that the president won this by 20 points," Pennsylvania GOP chairman Val DiGiorgio told Fox News on Monday.

Putting aside grammatical concerns -- I'll assume the state GOP chairman meant "Democratic" district -- it's a tough sell.

That said, there's no great mystery as to why Republicans are saying things like this. When Tim Murphy resigned in the wake of a sex scandal, GOP officials assumed the seat would remain in Republican hands. But the more Conor Lamb (D) proved to be an excellent candidate, and the more Rick Saccone proved to be an inept candidate, the more competitive the race became, to an extent few expected.

In fact, a Monmouth University poll released yesterday showed Lamb with a modest lead.

The result has been an awkward dynamic: Republican officials are pulling out all the stops, investing an enormous amount of resources in this decidedly "red" district, while simultaneously trying to lower expectations, trashing Saccone's skills as a candidate, and preparing for the possibility of defeat.

Indeed, the pressure seems to be getting to Saccone: at his final pre-election rally last night, the Republican told supporters that "the other side" hates the United States and God. Confident candidates don't usually fly off the handle like this.

So, why should voters outside of Southwest Pennsylvania care?

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Roger Stone Addresses Women's Republican Club Of Miami

Roger Stone faces new questions about alleged WikiLeaks connections

03/13/18 11:07AM

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative and informal adviser to Donald Trump, seemed to have unique insights into developments that had not yet occurred. Stone, for example, on more than one occasion, teased anti-Clinton revelations from Wikleaks and its founder, Julian Assange, before the public saw them.

As the Russia scandal intensified, Stone backed off those claims, insisting that his insights were speculative and that he hadn't actually been in communications with Assange. The Washington Post  reports today that there's reason to question the veracity of those denials.

[Stone told someone over the phone in the spring of 2016 that] he had learned from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that his organization had obtained emails that would torment senior Democrats such as John Podesta, then campaign chairman for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The conversation occurred before it was publicly known that hackers had obtained the emails of Podesta and of the Democratic National Committee, documents that WikiLeaks released in late July and October. The U.S. intelligence community later concluded the hackers were working for Russia.

The Post has two sources. One is Sam Numberg, a former Trump aide, who told the newspaper on the record that he heard from Stone directly about the contacts with Assange. Just as importantly, Numberg said he conveyed all of this to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team.

The Post's second source is someone the paper has not identified by name.

Stone stands by his denial, though it's worth noting that when the GOP operative testified before the House Intelligence Committee in the fall, he reportedly did not directly answer questions under oath about his suspected Assange contacts.

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Maybe the last one out of Trump's White House can turn off the lights

03/13/18 10:18AM

We know Donald Trump has ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from the cabinet. There's still some question, however, about how and why.

According to the White House, Tillerson was notified late last week about his fate. According to the State Department, that's not true. Indeed, NBC News' Andrea Mitchell reports that Tillerson didn't learn about his firing until he saw Donald Trump's tweet this morning.

It's enough to make one wonder if yesterday's disagreement between Tillerson and the White House over Russia had something to do with the developments.

Complicating matters, this may not be the most unusual personnel news out of Trump World today. The Wall Street Journal reports:

President Donald Trump's personal assistant, John McEntee, was escorted out of the White House on Monday, two senior administration officials said. The cause of the firing was an unspecified security issue, said a third White House official with knowledge of the situation. [...]

Mr. McEntee wasn't as well known as the others, but had been a constant presence at Mr. Trump's side for the past three years. He made sure Mr. Trump had markers to sign autographs, delivered messages to him in the White House residence and, over the weekend, ensured that the clocks in the White House residence were adjusted for daylight-saving time.

In other words, McEntee was Trump's "body man." If you watched "The West Wing" television show, McEntee was Charlie. (Or, for "Veep" fans, he was Gary.)

According to the WSJ's piece, McEntee was removed from the White House grounds yesterday "without being allowed to collect his belongings." Indeed, he "left without his jacket."

Well, that certainly sounds serious. But CNN reported that almost immediately after McEntee was removed from the White House, he joined Trump's re-election campaign team "as a senior adviser for campaign operations."

So let me get this straight. McEntee's "security issue" was serious enough that he had to be escorted from the White House complex without his belongings, but he could still get a good job on the president's campaign team?

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Image: Trump Designates North Korea as State Sponsor of Terror During Cabinet Meeting

Trump ousts Tillerson, taps Pompeo to move from CIA to State

03/13/18 09:27AM

Throughout his tenure, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been on the periphery of the Trump administration's foreign policy apparatus, routinely contradicting the White House line. At times, it's seemed as if Donald Trump and his chief diplomat have had entirely different visions of the United States' role in the world.

How would the administration reconcile the conflict? Apparently, by replacing Tillerson.

President Donald Trump asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to step aside, the White House confirmed Tuesday, replacing him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

In a tweet, Trump thanked Tillerson for his service and said Pompeo "will do a fantastic job."

Gina Hapsel, the deputy director at the CIA, will reportedly succeed Pompeo at the intelligence agency. That's rather alarming given her background in Bush-era torture policies.

Tillerson is the second cabinet secretary to leave the Trump administration, following former HHS Secretary Tom Price, who resigned last year in the wake of a controversy over his use of private jets.

While we didn't know when this shake-up might happen, it doesn't come as a complete surprise. Axios reported way back in October that the White House had roughly this plan in mind: Pompeo would move from the CIA to the State Department, while Tillerson would exit the administration. The New York Times had a related report around Thanksgiving.

But that forewarning doesn't make the news any less dramatic.

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White House pressed to respond after spy's poisoning in the UK

03/13/18 08:42AM

This was among the biggest stories in the world yesterday.

British Prime Minister Theresa May says her government has concluded it is "highly likely" Russia is responsible for the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent.

May told British lawmakers on Monday that Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were exposed to a nerve agent known as Novichok, a weapon developed in the Soviet Union in the end of the Cold War.

By some estimates, hundreds of local people may have been exposed to the dangerous nerve agent.

In case this isn't obvious, the United Kingdom, a pillar of NATO and a nuclear-armed state, came awfully close to saying Russia launched an attack on their sovereign soil. Indeed, the British prime minister specifically declared yesterday, "Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others."

And so, naturally, attention then turned to the United States. Would Donald Trump's White House stand arm-in-arm with one of America's closest allies after an apparent Russian attack?

A reporter yesterday asked the president's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, if there will be "any repercussions for Russia from the United States, in coordination with its British allies." Sanders replied that the United States condemns the attack, adding, "We stand by our closest ally and the special relationship that we have."

Pressed further, however, Sanders refused to say that Russia was behind the incident. The White House spokesperson also wouldn't endorse Theresa May's conclusions.


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Image: Rep. Devin Nunes Briefs Press On House Intelligence Cmte Russia Investigation

'The fix was in': House Republicans abruptly end their Russia investigation

03/13/18 08:00AM

As recently as yesterday afternoon, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee thought their investigation into the Russia scandal was ongoing. What they didn't know was that their Republican colleagues had ended their probe, drawn their conclusions, and even prepared their report.

And wouldn't you know it, Donald Trump's partisan allies managed to say exactly what the White House wanted them to say.

House Republicans investigating foreign interference in the 2016 election say they have found no evidence that Russians colluded with any members of the Trump campaign and dispute a key finding from the intelligence community that Russia had developed a preference for the Republican nominee during the election.

Those are the initial conclusions of a 150-page report from GOP members of the House Intelligence Committee, who are formally bringing the panel's yearlong investigation to an end over the fierce objection of Democrats.

We know how this is supposed to work. The House Intelligence Committee, which used to go out of its way to operate in a nominally non-partisan fashion, is supposed to conduct a thorough investigation. After its completion, members from both parties are supposed to review their findings and methodically prepare a detailed report.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a close Trump ally, and his cohorts decided to pursue a very different course. NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell called the GOP lawmakers' actions "pretty stunning," adding, "The fix was in from the start."

And now, according to House Republicans, the chamber's examination of Russia's attack on U.S. elections is over.

It's worth taking a moment to consider who and what GOP lawmakers chose to ignore as part of this ridiculous process:

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Monday's Mini-Report, 3.12.18

03/12/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* I'll have more on this tomorrow: "British Prime Minister Theresa May says her government has concluded it is 'highly likely' Russia is responsible for the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent."

* This is a major Kushner story: "Qatari officials gathered evidence of what they claim is illicit influence by the United Arab Emirates on Jared Kushner and other Trump associates, including details of secret meetings, but decided not to give the information to special counsel Robert Mueller for fear of harming relations with the Trump administration, say three sources familiar with the Qatari discussions."

* Texas: "One person has been killed and two injured in two separate blasts just miles apart in Austin, Tex., on Monday. In both attacks, the residents of the homes found a package outside their door that contained a powerful explosive device."

* As Rachel explained on Friday's show, Robert Mueller has this letter; "Donald Trump was so eager to have Vladi­mir Putin attend the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow that he wrote a personal letter to the Russian president inviting him to the event, according to multiple people familiar with the document."

* Never mind that stuff he said: "Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide, spent several hours testifying before a federal grand jury in Washington Friday, after reversing earlier statements that he wouldn't cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election."

* It's not just presidential palaver: "The Trump administration is studying new policy that could allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drug dealers, according to people with knowledge of the discussions, a sign that the White House wants to make a strong statement in addressing the opioid crisis."

* Trump's ATF: "In the wake of the mass shooting last month at a high school in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump vowed to use his executive authority to enact gun control through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. But over the past year, the ATF has been moving in the opposite direction, delaying new gun-safety rules developed under the Obama administration."

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump

Trump mistakenly brings renewed attention to his unpopularity

03/12/18 01:30PM

Donald Trump's poor poll numbers tend not to generate as much attention as they used to. The president is unpopular; we all know he's unpopular; and there's no reason to make a fuss about routine, predictable news.

Trump, however, wants to talk about it anyway.

"Rasmussen and others have my approval ratings at around 50%, which is higher than Obama, and yet the political pundits love saying my approval ratings are 'somewhat low.' They know they are lying when they say it. Turn off the show - FAKE NEWS!"

Well, someone's lying, but in this case, I don't think it's political pundits.

Let's start with some basics: no recent national poll has the president's approval rating "around 50%." Even Rasmussen, the Republican-friendly pollster that Trump singled out, puts the president's most recent support at 44%. Some major national pollsters, including Gallup, Monmouth, and Quinnipiac, each show Trump below 40%.

And then there's the hilarious idea that Trump's support is "higher than Obama." While I realize this president tends to see most political developments through an Obama-centric lens, the truth is, Trump's poll numbers, at least at this stage, are the lowest of any president in the modern era. Trump isn't especially close to where Obama was at this point in the Democrat's presidency.

In other words, by objective, verifiable metrics, everything Trump said on the subject is demonstrably untrue. What I think is more interesting, however, is why the president is calling attention to his unpopularity.

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Image: File Photo: Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing

DeVos embarrasses herself (and the 50 senators who voted to confirm her)

03/12/18 01:00PM

Those who keep a close eye on Capitol Hill have seen some rough confirmation hearings, but after Donald Trump tapped Betsy DeVos -- by most fair measures, an opponent of public education -- to lead the Department of Education, she struggled in highly memorable ways.

One senator, for example, asked about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and DeVos seemed to have no idea it was current law. Another asked for her opinions on the difference between evaluating education proficiency and growth, one of the more common areas of debate in the field. DeVos made it clear she was clueless. Another senator asked about guns in schools, and the nominee raised the prospect of grizzly bears going after children in Wyoming.

The Washington Post put together a video at the time of "head-scratching moments" from DeVos' hearing, and it wasn't a short clip.

Soon after, two Senate Republicans said they simply couldn't confirm DeVos to a post she was obviously unqualified to hold, but Vice President Mike Pence intervened to break a 50-50 tie and DeVos was confirmed.

We learned last night that the Education secretary has not spent the last year doing her homework. BuzzFeed explained:

Betsy DeVos, President Trump's polarizing education secretary, gave a cringe-worthy interview Sunday on 60 Minutes, in which she fumbled through questions about school safety, sexual assault on campus, inequality, and school choice, the agenda she has fastened her reputation and expertise upon. [...]

The education secretary stumbled through basically the entire thing and people watching were shocked and more than slightly concerned.

CBS published the clip and the transcript of the interview, which is worth checking out if you missed the segment, but if I were to try to summarize the problem in one sentence, I'd say DeVos struggled because she had no idea what she was talking about.

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Trump's 'intuition' is a poor substitute for evidence and reason

03/12/18 12:30PM

Peter Navarro has become a prominent adviser to Donald Trump on trade issues, and he told Bloomberg Politics the other day how he approaches his role in the White House.

Speaking to Bloomberg on March 7, Navarro heaped praise on his boss and described his own role as that of an enabler.

"This is the president's vision. My function, really, as an economist is to try to provide the underlying analytics that confirm his intuition. And his intuition is always right in these matters," Navarro said.

Perhaps it's worth pausing to note what an "adviser" to the president is supposed to do: advisers advise. They offer guidance based on research, judgment, and subject-matter expertise. An economist, in particular, is not supposed to start with someone's intuition and then work backwards to bolster the preconceived idea. It's a classic example of post-policy thinking.

But in this White House, this dynamic has become the norm. When shaping life-changing policy, Trump and his team could rely principally on evidence, data, facts, and reason, or they can go with what strikes them as "intuitively" true. They keep going with the latter. It's the difference between technocratic governing and listening to the gut of a 71-year-old amateur with no background in government, public policy, or public service.

And it comes up all the time. The Washington Post  reported over the weekend that White House aides provided Trump with data on the effects of Bush-era steel tariffs in 2002, which did not have the intended effect. "The president considered the advice," the article said, "but said that he was skeptical of economists and their data."

Of course. Why consider facts when the president has "intuition" and aides who tell him his hunches are always true?

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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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