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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 4.17.18

04/17/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Diplomacy: "U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday the United States has been having direct talks with North Korea 'at extremely high levels' to try to arrange a summit between him and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un."

* Unexpected: "The Supreme Court said Tuesday that part of a federal law that makes it easier to deport immigrants who have been convicted of crimes is too vague to be enforced. The court's 5-4 decision -- an unusual alignment in which new Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the four liberal justices -- concerns a catchall provision of immigration law that defines what makes a crime violent."

* This apparently has to do with the governor's charity: "Attorney General Josh Hawley announced Tuesday that his office has uncovered potential criminal wrongdoing by Gov. Eric Greitens, a fellow Republican, and has turned that evidence over to the St. Louis prosecutor."

* Starbucks: "Amid outcry over the arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks, the coffee chain announced Tuesday it will close more than 8,000 U.S. stores for an afternoon next month to train workers in 'racial-bias education.'"

* He's fitting right in: "President Donald Trump's new national economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, on Tuesday used Republicans' go-to tactic for responding to the Congressional Budget Office's analysis of the GOP tax cut law."

* Donald Trump's re-election campaign paid "$93,000 to a law firm earlier this year to fight back against Michael Wolff's hotly debated White House tell-all book, 'Fire and Fury.' Harder LLP -- founded by Charles Harder, who represented pro wrestler Hulk Hogan in his case against Gawker -- received two payments for its efforts on Trump's behalf."

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A woman places her vote into the ballot box on March 5, 2016 in Bowling Green, Ky. (Photo by Austin Anthony/Daily News/AP)

Automatic voter registration expands its reach even further

04/17/18 03:03PM

It was only a matter of time before automatic voter registration reached another state, though I thought it'd take more than a week.

More than a half million New Jersey residents could soon become New Jersey voters.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation Tuesday that will automatically register people to vote if they apply for a driver's license or non-driver ID card in the Garden State.

New Jersey is the 13th state to have automatic voter registration. The new law could register nearly 600,000 people, according to the Center for American Progress, a progressive research group.

The news comes just five days after Maryland also adopted AVR. New Jersey and Maryland join (in alphabetical order) Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia.

Nevada is likely next: AVR will be on the statewide ballot this fall, and most observers expect it to pass.

Not bad for a policy that didn't exist in any state as recently as three years ago.

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Image: Michael Cohen, attorney for The Trump Organization, arrives at Trump Tower in New York City

Trying to put distance between Trump and Cohen won't work

04/17/18 12:46PM

On Air Force One yesterday, a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, "Is Michael Cohen still the president's personal attorney?" She replied, "I believe they've still got some ongoing things, but the president has a large number of attorneys, as you know."

Hogan Gidley, another White House spokesman, used very similar language on CNN last night, emphasizing Donald Trump's "many" lawyers, of which Cohen was merely one.

And just like that, the effort to put some distance between the scandal-plagued president who's under investigation and the scandal-plagued lawyer who's under investigation got underway. The Washington Post's Aaron Blake highlighted the problem: this is never going to work.

Come on. Trump certainly has a lot of lawyers -- especially given his special counsel investigation problem -- but Cohen was the only one negotiating hush-money payments with porn stars, appearing on TV as a surrogate, and to whom Trump regularly referred as "my attorney." Cohen is the guy who has expressed unflinching and complete loyalty to Trump.

Cohen isn't just another lawyer. In fact, "lawyer" doesn't begin to describe his closeness to Trump.

Quite right. Any effort to put some distance between Trump and Cohen may be hilarious, but it's also doomed. Axios today accurately described Cohen as Trump's "make-it-go-away guy," adding, "Cohen ... is the only person on earth intertwined in Trump's professional, political, personal, legal and family life"

Try Googling "Trump," "Cohen," and "fixer." The list of results isn't short.

The trouble is, the White House appears to have a playbook featuring exactly one play: "Let's pretend Trump isn't close with the guy in trouble, if he knows the guy at all."

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.17.18

04/17/18 12:00PM

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

* The already lengthy list of congressional resignations is about to grow: Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who was already poised to retire at the end of this Congress, will now walk away from Capitol Hill "in the coming weeks."

* Though the results should probably be taken with a grain of salt, an Emerson College poll in Arizona's 8th congressional district found Hiral Tipirneni (D) narrowly leading Debbie Lesko (R), 46% to 45%, in a heavily "red" district. The congressional special election is a week from today.

* On a related note, according to a Daily Kos analysis, the National Republican Congressional Committee's independent expenditure arm "just dropped another $250,000 on ads attacking Tipirneni," bringing the NRCC's total outlay in Arizona's 8th to $383,000.

* A Monmouth University poll released yesterday showed Democrats with a 19-point advantage over Republicans in the generic congressional ballot among voters in New Jersey. The Garden State's congressional delegation currently includes five Republicans, but if the Dems' advantage is this large, several of those seats will be in play in November.

* True to form, Mitt Romney's Republican Senate campaign in Utah is benefiting from generous support from his Wall Street and corporate allies.

* In Tennessee, retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R) is officially supporting Marsha Blackburn (R), the right-wing House member running to succeed him, but Corker has announced he won't campaign against her opponent, former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D).

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In this March 10, 2016 photo, Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General, gestures as he speaks during an interview in Oklahoma City, Okla. (Photo by Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Why would an EPA chief need a car with 'Kevlar-like seat covers'?

04/17/18 11:20AM

Yesterday was not a good day for embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. We've known for a while that the Oklahoma Republican spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on a soundproof phone booth for reasons that have never made any sense, but we learned yesterday that as far as the Government Accountability Office is concerned, the purchase violated federal spending laws.

But that doesn't mean things can't get worse for the far-right EPA chief. Take this new Washington Post report, for example.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt upgraded his official car last year to a costlier, larger vehicle with bullet-resistant covers over bucket seats, according to federal records and interviews with current and former agency officials.

Recent EPA administrators have traveled in a Chevrolet Tahoe, and agency officials had arranged for Pruitt to use the same vehicle when he joined the administration in February. But he switched to a larger, newer and more high-end Chevy Suburban last June.

The article added that the head of Pruitt's security detail "subsequently approved the addition of Kevlar-like seat covers to the vehicle at a cost of hundreds of dollars."

That's the same security official, Pasquale "Nino" Perrotta, who's reportedly "clashed -- at least once physically -- with top E.P.A. officials who challenged Mr. Pruitt's spending, and has steered at least one E.P.A. security contract to a business associate."

This is what's become of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Donald Trump era.

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke delivers a speech billed as "A Vision for American Energy Dominance" at the Heritage Foundation on September 29, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Interior Secretary claims to be a geologist, despite the evidence

04/17/18 10:44AM

It's been challenging trying to keep up with all of the various controversies surrounding Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, but CNN uncovered a new one that's surprising, even for one of the most scandal-plagued members of Donald Trump's cabinet.

If you've heard Zinke speak on his work at Interior, you've probably heard him talk about being a geologist. He's made the boast dozens of times since joining the president's cabinet, including during congressional testimony while under oath, often as a way of bolstering the weight of his policy decisions. As the argument goes, Zinke must be right about everything from climate change to endangered species to oil drilling -- because he's a geologist.

But what if he's used the label about his professional background in a misleading way?

Zinke, however, has never held a job as a geologist. In his autobiography, Zinke wrote that he majored in geology at the University of Oregon, which he attended on a football scholarship, and chose his major at random.

"I studied geology as a result of closing my eyes and randomly pointing to a major from the academic catalog, and I never looked back. I am just glad I did not find electronics," he wrote, adding that he was focused and a good student, and earned an outstanding academic achievement award his senior year.

After getting his degree 34 years ago, Zinke considered a career in geology, but instead chose a military path before entering politics.

Or put another way, despite his frequent claims to being a geologist, Zinke doesn't appear to have ever done any real work in geology, at least not since randomly choosing to be a geology major a few decades ago as an undergraduate.

This is a pretty remarkable thing for a cabinet secretary to make dubious claims about, but it's not the only embarrassing story Zinke is dealing with right now.

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Image: Donald Trump

On China, Trump tries and fails to keep his story straight

04/17/18 10:00AM

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump seemed quite animated on the issue of China and its alleged currency manipulation. He vowed to label China a currency manipulator literally on his first day in office.

The president quickly broke that promise, but the Republican nevertheless railed against Beijing after taking office. In March 2017, Trump blasted China as the "grand champions" of currency manipulation. Soon after, he called China the "world champion" of currency manipulation. It was therefore kind of amusing when Trump declared a year ago that China actually isn't manipulating its currency.

It was around this time that China's state-run media published headlines such as, "Trump slaps self in face, again."

Six months later, it was again time for the American president to make a designation on China, and again, Trump said China wasn't manipulating its currency. The pattern continued late last week.

The Trump administration, which has been on the verge of a trade war with China, opted on Friday not to label the country a currency manipulator, breaking a key campaign promise by President Trump to punish a government he has called the "greatest currency manipulators ever."

The Treasury Department, in its biannual currency exchange report, scolded China for its lack of progress in reducing the bilateral trade deficit with the United States, but did not find that it was improperly devaluing its currency, known as the renminbi.

At face value, the disconnect is jarring. Before and after the 2016 election, Trump went after Beijing aggressively on currency manipulation, only to quietly slink away when it came time to put his policies where his mouth was.

But complicating matters further is the president's willingness to ignore his own administration.

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Image: U.S. President Trump celebrates with Republican House members after healthcare bill vote at the White House in Washington

Republicans expected their tax plan to be popular by now (but it's not)

04/17/18 09:20AM

Pointing to nothing in particular, Donald Trump declared this morning, "So many people are seeing the benefits of the Tax Cut Bill. Everyone is talking, really nice to see!"

In reality, of course, everyone isn't talking about the Republican tax plan, and there's nothing especially "nice" about public attitudes on the subject. Perhaps someone should show the president the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal  poll.

The new poll found that 27% of respondents thought the law was a good idea, while 36% thought it was a bad idea. Opinion split largely along party lines, but even among Republicans support was far from unanimous: 56% of Republicans thought the law was a good idea.

"If this is a signature accomplishment Republicans are hoping to run on in November, this is obviously not a good starting point,'' said Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster who helped conduct the survey with Republican Bill McInturff.

It's not the only evidence to consider. Gallup also released a new report yesterday that pointed in a similar direction: "The poll finds no change in Americans' reaction to the law since the last update in February, with 39% saying they approve of it, and little improved over Gallup's initial post-passage reading in January, when 33% approved. The majority, 52%, disapprove of the law."

So where does that leave the law's GOP proponents? Nowhere good.

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An election worker checks a voter's drivers license at a polling place in Charlotte, N.C. March 15, 2016. (Photo by Chris Keane/Reuters)

Wisconsin Republican connects voter ID, GOP wins

04/17/18 08:40AM

It's not exactly a secret that many Republican officials have pushed voting restrictions in recent years as part of a sustained partisan campaign. The most common voter-suppression tactic, of course, are voter-ID laws.

To hear proponents tell it, these measures are simply intended to prevent fraud, and are completely unrelated to helping one party's candidates over another. Once in a while, though, someone will slip up and offer some accidental candor. Mother Jones' Ari Berman reported yesterday afternoon:

Election officials and Democrats in Wisconsin have repeatedly argued that the state's strict voter ID law allowed Donald Trump to win the state in 2016 by keeping thousands of voters -- predominantly in Democratic-leaning areas -- from the polls. Now a top Republican official in the state is saying the same thing.

"We battled to get voter ID on the ballot for the November '16 election," Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, who defended the law in court, told conservative radio host Vicki McKenna on April 12. "How many of your listeners really honestly are sure that Sen. [Ron] Johnson was going to win re-election or President Trump was going to win Wisconsin if we didn't have voter ID to keep Wisconsin's elections clean and honest and have integrity?"

To the extent that reality matters, there was nothing wrong with Wisconsin's elections before Republicans imposed their voter-ID law on the state. The "problem" GOP lawmakers set out to "fix" didn't exist.

And with this in mind, there's no reason to accept that part of Brad Schimel's boast at face value. The state's voter-suppression measure didn't keep Wisconsin's elections any more "clean and honest" than they otherwise would've been, but they did help keep tens of thousands of voters in traditionally Democratic areas from participating in the 2016 election -- a cycle where Donald Trump won the state by 22,000 votes, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate in more than three decades to win Wisconsin.

What's more interesting, of course, is the state attorney general's willingness to connect the voter-ID law with the partisan outcome he wanted to see. This doesn't happen often, but it's not unprecedented, either.

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Image: U.S. President Donald Trump signs a presidential proclamation placing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports while surrounded by workers from the steel and aluminum industries at the White House in Washington

Trump halts his own team's plans for sanctions on Russia

04/17/18 08:00AM

On CBS's "Face the Nation," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley didn't just defend the airstrikes in Syria that Donald Trump had approved two days earlier; she also made some news about the Assad regime's allies.

Asked if Syria's patrons would face any new consequences, Haley replied, "Absolutely. So you will see that Russian sanctions will be coming down. [Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin] will be announcing those on Monday, if he hasn't already."

The Putin government, not surprisingly, condemned the administration's plans. Soon after, as the Washington Post reported, Trump decided to "put the brakes on" the whole idea.

... Trump conferred with his national security advisers later Sunday and told them he was upset the sanctions were being officially rolled out because he was not yet comfortable executing them, according to several people familiar with the plan.

Administration officials said the economic sanctions were under serious consideration, along with other measures that could be taken against Russia, but said Trump had not given final authorization to implement them. Administration officials said Monday it was unlikely Trump would approve any additional sanctions without another triggering event by Russia, describing the strategy as being in a holding pattern.

The article added that after Haley's on-air comments, "the Trump administration notified the Russian Embassy in Washington that the sanctions were not in fact coming, a Russian Foreign Ministry official said Monday."

This is, of course, a pretty dramatic reversal. As of Sunday morning, one of the Trump administration's top voices on foreign policy told the world -- in no uncertain terms -- that Russia would soon face a new round of economic sanctions. By the time the new sanctions were supposed to be announced, the president had decided to halt the entire plan and notify Russian officials to effectively disregard what Nikki Haley had said.

There are two broad takeaways from a story like this. The first is that the American president sure does seem cautious when it comes to taking actions that Moscow won't like. I wonder why that is.

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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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