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The NRA-ILA Leadership Forum in Louisville, Ky. on May 20, 2016. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC)

Possible NRA, Russia connections draw fresh scrutiny

03/19/18 11:31AM

The fact that the National Rifle Association took a keen interest in the 2016 elections is, at least on the surface, uninteresting. What's far more important is how much the far-right group invested and from whom the NRA received the money.

As we discussed a couple of months ago, the NRA took a keen interest in the 2012 election cycle, spending $10 million to boost Mitt Romney's candidacy. Four years later, however, the organization spent triple that to support Donald Trump. What's more, most of money the group spent on the election was spent by part of the NRA's operation that isn't required to disclose its donors.

McClatchy News reported in January that the FBI is exploring whether "a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money" to the NRA to help Trump win the presidency. Of particular interest are the activities of Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia's central bank, a close Putin ally, and someone who's faced allegations of money laundering and connections to organized crime.

McClatchy also reported last week that Cleta Mitchell, a former NRA board member, had "concerns" about the group's ties to Russia "and its possible involvement in channeling Russian funds into the 2016 elections." Mitchell later described the reporting as a "complete fabrication."

And then there was this  Politico report late Friday:

The Federal Election Commission has launched a preliminary investigation into whether Russian entities gave illegal contributions to the National Rifle Association that were intended to benefit the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election, according to people who were notified of the probe.

The inquiry stems in part from a complaint from a liberal advocacy group, the American Democracy Legal Fund, which asked the FEC to look into media reports about links between the rifle association and Russian entities, including a banker with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It's far too early to say what the inquiry may uncover, though a Slate piece on this added that if FEC investigators "find compelling evidence to suggest wrongdoing the FEC could possibly refer any findings to Special Counsel Robert Mueller."

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The actress Stephanie Clifford, who uses the stage name Stormy Daniels, performs at the Solid Gold Fort Lauderdale strip club on March 9, 2018 in Pompano Beach, Florida.

Trump no longer keeping his distance from Daniels scandal

03/19/18 11:00AM

In general, Donald Trump lashes out, almost instinctively, against all perceived foes. It doesn't much matter who wrongs him -- politicians, athletes, entertainers, foreign officials, et al -- because the president will respond to practically any slight with an attack of his own.

Except, oddly enough, Stormy Daniels. To date, the president has said literally nothing -- not even a brief tweet -- about the adult-film actress who received $130,000 in hush money from his personal attorney. On this one issue, if no other, Trump has somehow managed to become the model of message discipline, maintaining total silence.

The president's lawyers, however, appear to have plenty to say.

President Donald Trump and his personal attorney are trying to get a lawsuit by adult film star Stormy Daniels transferred to federal court -- and they claim she's on the hook for at least $20 million for violating a secrecy agreement signed just before the election.

An attorney for the actress accused the Trump team of "bullying tactics" for the legal maneuver, which is aimed at pushing the dispute into private arbitration.

As Rachel noted on Friday's show, Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, has already sued Trump in state court, hoping to get out of the non-disclosure agreement that prevents her from talking about her alleged "intimate" relationship. It's the president's lawyer in this case, Charles Harder, who filed a motion to move the case to federal court, likely as a way of increasing the chances the matter will be resolved by private arbitration.

And who's Charles Harder? He's the lawyer who oversaw the case that put Gawker out of business.

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A laptop in use. (Photo by TEK/Science Photo Library/Corbis)

Cambridge Analytica, the Trump's campaign's data firm, faces new controversy

03/19/18 10:30AM

When it comes to the controversies surrounding Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, questions surrounding Cambridge Analytica may seem peripheral -- they're not as high profile as, say, the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russians -- but they're actually quite important.

We first started talking in earnest about Cambridge Analytica, a firm Steve Bannon helped create and the digital arm of Trump's 2016 political operation, last fall, when the Wall Street Journal  reported that Trump donor Rebekah Mercer asked Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix "whether the company could better organize the Hillary Clinton-related emails being released by WikiLeaks," which allegedly received stolen documents from Russian operatives.

Over the weekend, questions surrounding the data firm became quite a bit more serious with this  New York Times report.

As the upstart voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica prepared to wade into the 2014 American midterm elections, it had a problem.

The firm had secured a $15 million investment from Robert Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor, and wooed his political adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, with the promise of tools that could identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behavior. But it did not have the data to make its new products work.

So the firm harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network's history. The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump's campaign in 2016.

Wait, it gets a little worse.

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Image: Jeff Sessions

AG Sessions' testimony on Russia outreach faces new questions

03/19/18 10:01AM

It wasn't long after Attorney General Jeff Sessions was sworn in when he faced a scandal over possible perjury. In fact, we learned a year ago this month that during the 2016 campaign, the Alabama Republican had meetings with Russian officials -- for reasons that have never been altogether clear -- which he failed to disclose during his Senate confirmation hearings.

Indeed, he was asked specifically about possible evidence tying members of Trump's campaign team to the Russian government during Russia's election attack. "I'm not aware of any of those activities," Sessions said, adding "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians."

Sessions did, however, have communications with the Russians.

That was the first time the attorney general faced questions about false testimony. Reuters reported yesterday on the second.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' testimony that he opposed a proposal for President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign team to meet with Russians has been contradicted by three people who told Reuters they have spoken about the matter to investigators with Special Counsel Robert Mueller or congressional committees.

Sessions testified before Congress in November 2017 that he "pushed back" against the proposal made by former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos at a March 31, 2016 campaign meeting. Then a senator from Alabama, Sessions chaired the meeting as head of the Trump campaign's foreign policy team.

Sessions, who has already been interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team, clearly said in his sworn congressional testimony that he pushed back against suggested meetings between campaign officials and Russians.

There now appears to be reason to question Sessions' version of events. According to Reuters' report, three people who were on hand for the March 2016 campaign meeting disputed his claims.

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Image: Former Deputy Director of the FBI McCabe fired by Attorney General Sessions

Seeing Andrew McCabe as a potential 'significant witness'

03/19/18 09:32AM

Andrew McCabe, fired by the Justice Department on Friday night before he could retire 28 hours later, was many things to the White House. McCabe, for example, was the deputy director the FBI -- the first to ever be fired. He was also one of the first officials to scrutinize the connections between Donald Trump's presidential campaign and its Russian benefactors.

But I was especially interested in something McCabe told  Politico.

"[A]t some point, this has to be seen in the larger context," said McCabe, 49, who says he has voted for every Republican presidential nominee until he sat out the 2016 contest entirely. "And I firmly believe that this is an ongoing effort to undermine my credibility because of the work that I did on the Russia case, because of the investigations that I oversaw and impacted that target this administration."

"They have every reason to believe that I could end up being a significant witness in whatever the special counsel comes up with, and so they are trying to create this counter-narrative that I am not someone who can be believed or trusted," McCabe added. "And as someone who has been believed and trusted by really good people for 21 years, it's just infuriating to me." [emphasis added]

Seeing McCabe as a witness is a detail that may be familiar to regular readers and TRMS viewers. Early on in Trump's presidency, the president allegedly asked then-FBI Director James Comey to go easy on Michael Flynn, the former White House national security advisor. Comey, recognizing the importance of a president possibly obstructing justice during an ongoing investigation, informed a small group of officials.

Comey, obviously, was part of the small circle, and he was fired as part of the president's effort to derail the Russia investigation. Then there's Jim Baker, the former FBI general counsel who's still with the FBI, but who's also been ousted from his senior position at the bureau. There's also Jim Rybicki, a two-time chief of staff to the FBI director, who was pushed out earlier this year.

And there's Andrew McCabe, who was fired as part of an apparent political vendetta.

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Then FBI Director Robert Mueller arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 16, 2012, to testify during a hearing.

Will Republicans agree to protect Mueller from Trump?

03/19/18 09:00AM

Last August, there was at least some bipartisan support for Senate legislation intended to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller from Donald Trump. At the time, there was considerable chatter about the president possibly trying to fire the head of the Russia investigation -- possibly touching off a political crisis -- and several members saw value in proactive steps to shield the probe from White House interference.

Soon after, however, Republicans lost interest. In October, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a co-sponsor of one of the bills, said, "I don't feel an urgent need to pass that law until you show me that Mr. Mueller is in jeopardy." A few months later, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), the co-sponsor of a related measure, also said his proposal could wait.

Now that Trump is going after Mueller by name, and one of the president's attorneys is calling for an end to the investigation, those who prefer passivity have a difficult case to make. House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) made a compelling case yesterday on ABC's "This Week":

When asked what Congress should do if President Trump opts to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Schiff responded saying, "I would hope that it would prompt all Democrats and Republicans in the House to pass an independent counsel law and reinstate Bob Mueller. This would undoubtedly result in a constitutional crisis and I think Democrats and Republicans need to speak out about this right now," continuing, "Members need to speak out now, don't wait for the crisis."

And while there was no shortage of other Democrats saying the same thing over the weekend, the question, of course, is whether the Republican majority is inclined to agree.

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Image: Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe

Why the FBI's Andrew McCabe was fired

03/19/18 08:30AM

Never before has the deputy director of the FBI been fired. Late Friday night, the Trump administration broke new ground.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions late Friday night accepted the recommendation that former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who took the reins of the agency during the turbulent days after the abrupt firing of James Comey, be terminated -- two days before he was to retire and become eligible for full pension benefits.

Though McCabe -- who has been attacked by President Donald Trump -- stepped down as deputy director in late January, he remained on the federal payroll, planning to retire on Sunday. The firing places his federal pension in jeopardy.

The official rationale is that the Justice Department's inspector general identified wrongdoing on McCabe's part as part of the FBI's investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails.

And while it's entirely possible McCabe took steps he shouldn't have -- the full report has not yet been made available to the public -- it's difficult to take the official line seriously after seeing Donald Trump's taunting end-zone dance over the weekend. The president's critics responded to McCabe's firing by arguing that the move appeared to be part of a politically motivated vendetta orchestrated by the Oval Office -- and Trump took steps to prove his critics right.

The president celebrated McCabe's firing as "a great day for democracy," adding, "Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!" Trump also published a tweet with some demonstrably false Clinton-related conspiracy theories, insisting that McCabe was "caught, called out and fired."

The FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility may have proposed the termination, but the president himself seemed to have no use for the fig leaf. Indeed, he never has: Trump has targeted McCabe personally for months. Friday night was simply the culmination of a petty and corrupt vendetta.

There's no shortage of angles to this story, but as the dust starts to settle, here are  a few things to keep in mind:

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Image: Senate Judiciary Committee

Team Trump takes a dramatic turn, goes on offensive against Mueller probe

03/19/18 08:00AM

For months, Donald Trump and his legal team have been extremely cautious in its confrontations with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. When pressed, the president's defense attorneys have generally pressed Mueller and his investigation, all while vowing to cooperate with the probe.

That was the old posture. The new posture emerged over the weekend.

President Trump's personal lawyer John Dowd called Saturday for an end to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference, citing "recent revelations" and the late-night firing of former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe as a basis to end the probe.

In a statement to NBC News, Dowd said he hopes Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will choose to end the investigation "on the merits" of the FBI Inspector General's recommendation to fire McCabe.

Though Dowd clarified he wasn't calling for Mueller's ouster, the president's attorney did say he prays that Rod Rosenstein brings "an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe's boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier."

To the extent that reality is in any way relevant, Dowd's argument was bizarre -- the dossier hasn't been discredited and we already know it wasn't responsible for launching the investigation -- but this shift was less about making credible arguments and more about going on the offensive again the special counsel's ongoing investigation.

It's a campaign Donald Trump himself seemed eager to join.

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Friday's Mini-Report, 3.16.18

03/16/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Six-hour installation? "The pedestrian walkway that collapsed Thursday in Miami, killing at least six people, was being built using a popular but relatively new bridge technology specifically designed to speed construction while maintaining safety."

* U.K.: "Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson of Britain said on Friday that it was "overwhelmingly likely" that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia personally ordered the nerve agent attack against a former Russian spy this month."

* In related news: "Aside from confirming it would expel some British diplomats, without giving the number, Russia has been coy about its potential responses."

* The Pentagon's former Russia chief makes the case that the Trump administration's new Russia sanctions are "totally inconsequential."

* E.U.: "The European Union on Friday made public a 10-page list of American products that are potential targets for retaliation if President Trump refuses to exempt the allied bloc from his new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports."

* I hope you saw last night's TRMS coverage of this: "The Trump administration accused Russia on Thursday of engineering a series of cyberattacks that targeted American and European nuclear power plants and water and electric systems, and could have sabotaged or shut power plants off at will."

* Iraq: "An American military helicopter crashed Thursday near the city of Qaim in western Iraq, killing some of the seven service members aboard, United States officials said."

* Expect big ratings: "For a week, the world has waited: When would '60 Minutes' air its interview with porn star Stormy Daniels alleging an affair with President Trump? CBS has been silent. Now there is a planned date, March 25, according to two people familiar with the timing."

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Image: FILE PHOTO: US Treasury Secretary nominee Mnuchin and  Linton arrive for the Presidential Inauguration of Donald Trump at the US Capitol

Treasury's Mnuchin racks up sky-high costs with taxpayer-funded travel

03/16/18 04:37PM

It wasn't great when we learned Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his wife flew on a government plane to Kentucky on the day of the solar eclipse. The story looked a little worse when we learned Mnuchin "inquired about the use of a military plane" for his European honeymoon.

The scope of the story, however, is still coming into focus.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin racked up almost $1 million in military flights last year at taxpayers' expense, according to a new report.

In a report issued Thursday, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which investigated Mnuchin's travels through Freedom of Information Act requests, found Mnuchin took eight separate trips on military aircraft between spring and fall 2017.

Those dates are of particular significance: it seems likely that the cabinet secretary has taken other military flights since the fall of 2017, which means the overall price tag is probably even higher now.

It's also worth emphasizing that Mnuchin had other travel choices. His recent predecessors, for example, took plenty of commercial flights. He also could've made use of smaller military planes.

But he didn't. Mnuchin isn't part of the military; he's never been in the military; and there's nothing about his office that requires him to make use of military planes, which are extremely expensive. But the Treasury secretary has apparently been taking full advantage of this opportunity, even if taxpayers get stuck with the tab.

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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's Ryan Zinke just can't seem to stay out of trouble

03/16/18 02:36PM

It seemed like a perfectly reasonable question. At a House Natural Resources Committee hearing yesterday, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii), a fourth-generation Japanese-American, asked Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about his agency's grant programs to preserve World War II-era internment camps.

"Oh, konnichiwa," Zinke replied.

There was apparently a momentary silence in the committee room; the Democratic congresswoman corrected his Japanese; and the hearing proceeded. That said, several other lawmakers, including Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), were eager to admonish the cabinet secretary today for his "flippant" and "juvenile" comment.

But before we could catch our breath on this Zinke story, the Associated Press published another.

Trophy hunters are packed on a new U.S. advisory board created to help rewrite federal rules for importing the heads and hides of African elephants, lions and rhinos. That includes some members with direct ties to President Donald Trump and his family.

A review by The Associated Press of the backgrounds and social media posts of the 16 board members appointed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke indicates they will agree with his position that the best way to protect critically threatened or endangered species is by encouraging American hunters to shoot some of them.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, the Trump administration announced the end of an Obama-era ban on hunters bringing the trophy heads of elephants they'd killed in Africa back to the U.S. The move immediately drew fire, even from some prominent Republicans, and Donald Trump soon after suspended his own administration's policy. Via Twitter, the president said it'd be difficult to change his mind about "this horror show."

Two weeks later, the Trump administration reversed course again, and now Zinke's advisory board wildlife-protection board is stacked with trophy hunters.

All of which serves as a striking reminder: when the Interior secretary make headlines, it's probably not for flattering reasons.

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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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