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Thursday's Mini-Report, 5.18.17

05/18/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Good advice: "Several White House advisers and personal associates of President Trump have urged him to hire an experienced outside lawyer to help him deal with issues arising from a surging controversy over whether his campaign had ties to Russia, according to several people briefed on the conversations."

* He's probably going to regret this one: "President Trump on Thursday denied ever asking FBI Director James B. Comey to back off his agency's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and the role played by former national security adviser Michael Flynn."

* Lieberman is apparently the inexplicable frontrunner: "President Donald Trump said he is 'very close' to choosing a new FBI director with at least one senior White House official putting the odds of a selection as early as this Friday at 'better than 50-50.'"

* Syria: "American warplanes in southern Syria attacked a convoy of pro-government forces on Thursday after they ignored warnings and violated a restricted zone around a base where American and British Special Forces are training Syrian militia fighters, Pentagon officials said."

* A case worth watching: "BuzzFeed is suing the federal government for records about President Donald Trump's use of Twitter, including his most attention-grabbing tweets claiming that he was wiretapped by former President Barack Obama."

* NAFTA: "The Trump administration on Thursday formally notified Congress of its intent to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, a step forward on a campaign promise that was widely popular among voters but has unsettled the U.S. companies that have constructed their businesses around the trade deal's provisions."

* FCC: "The Federal Communications Commission has officially begun to undo Obama-era regulations on Internet service providers, often called net neutrality rules. The rules, passed in 2015, had placed cable and telecom companies under the strictest-ever oversight of the agency."
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Image: Donald Trump, Neil Gorsuch, Anthony Kennedy

Trump: Special counsel investigation 'hurts the country'

05/18/17 05:02PM

If anyone in the White House hoped officials would steer clear of talking publicly about the special counsel investigation into the Russia scandal, Donald Trump has crushed those hopes.

This morning, the president began complaining about the Robert Mueller's investigation via Twitter, and this afternoon, Trump continued to whine during a White House lunch with television anchors, but he did so an especially striking way.
"I believe it hurts our country terribly, because it shows we're a divided, mixed-up, not-unified country," the president said. "And we have very important things to be doing right now, whether it's trade deals, whether it's military, whether it's stopping nuclear.. And I think this shows a very divided country.

Trump added, "It also happens to be a pure excuse for the Democrats having lost an election that they should have easily won because of the Electoral College being slanted so much in their way. That's all this is. I think it shows division, and it shows that we're not together as a country. And I think it's a very, very negative thing. And hopefully, this can go quickly, because we have to show unity if we're going to do great things with respect to the rest of the world."
Just think, Trump almost went a day without talking about the Electoral College. Oh well, time to reset the clock.

Right off the bat, the idea that there's a counter-espionage investigation into Trump's political operation because he lost is plainly bonkers. The probe began in July 2016, when it was still widely assumed Trump stood little change of winning the election.

What's more, the idea that this scandal is "a pure excuse for the Democrats" is an odd thing to say the day after Trump's own Justice Department announced the selection of a special counsel.

But I'm especially interested by Trump's subtle introduction of his latest talking point: in the name of "unity," we should all collectively agree to apply less scrutiny into his alleged misdeeds.
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Image: FILES-US-POLITICS-RUSSIA-SECURITY-FLYNN

Why a Trump message to Flynn would be so important

05/18/17 12:41PM

Just last week, The Daily Beast reported that Donald Trump has "asked senior staff and the White House counsel's office multiple times" if it would be appropriate for him to reach out to Michael Flynn, whom the president fired as National Security Advisor in February. White House lawyers, the report added, have warned Trump "repeatedly" against making contact.

Yahoo News reports today that the president may have ignored those warnings.
Late last month, fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn -- under investigation by federal prosecutors, with his lawyer seeking immunity for him to testify to Congress -- met with a small group of loyalists at a restaurant in the northern Virginia suburbs. [...]

[O]ne overriding question among those present were his views on the president who had fired him from his national security advisor post. Flynn left little doubt about the answer.  Not only did he remain loyal to President Trump; he indicated that he and the president were still in communication. "I just got a message from the president to stay strong," Flynn said after the meal was over, according to two sources who are close to Flynn and are familiar with the conversation, which took place on April 25.
Yahoo News' report added that Flynn didn't specify how, exactly, he'd communicated with the president, but for legal purposes, it may not matter.

Even if the reporting is accurate, it's certainly possible that Flynn was exaggerating for his friends, trying to make himself appear important, boasting about a message from the president that may not exist.

But if Trump really did reach out to his former aide, ignoring repeated warnings from the White House counsel's office, it may be time for the political world to have a conversation about witness tampering.
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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.18.17

05/18/17 12:00PM

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

* With just a week remaining before Montana's congressional special election, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is "rushing a last-minute $200,000 ad buy" onto the airwaves in support of Republican Greg Gianforte.

* As early as today, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) is expected to announce his plans to resign from Congress well ahead of the end of his term.

* In Virginia's Democratic gubernatorial primary, a new Washington Post-Schar School poll shows a very competitive contest, with former Rep. Tom Perriello narrowly leading Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, 40% to 38%.

* Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), considered a leading Democratic target in 2018, yesterday became the second House Republican to raise the specter of impeaching Donald Trump. "If any congressional committee documents and concludes that any federal official is guilty of obstruction of justice," he told the Washington Post, "certainly that would rise to the level of impeachment.... I don't think that's what will likely end up happening. But is it something that's on people's minds around here? Yes. I happen to be saying it publicly; most members are saying it privately."

* The latest data from the Pew Research Center found that about 1 in 10 voters switched between the parties last year, with young Republicans being the most likely to abandon their party.
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Republican U.S. vice presidential nominee Mike Pence speaks at a campaign rally, Oct. 22, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

In light of Flynn revelations, Mike Pence has some explaining to do

05/18/17 11:23AM

As Donald Trump faces an increasingly uncertain future, there's no shortage of scuttlebutt about what it'd be like if Mike Pence were elevated to the presidency. The chatter grew a little louder when Pence launched his own political action committee yesterday -- an apparent first for a sitting vice president.

But before the far-right Hoosier starts measuring any drapes, now seems like a good time to note some of the troubles plaguing Pence in the broader Russia mess.

We talked earlier about a striking New York Times scoop on Michael Flynn, the former White House National Security Advisor, who's at the center of much of the controversy. And while the article only mentioned Pence in passing, note who it was that Flynn spoke to when he admitted to Team Trump that he was under investigation.
Michael T. Flynn told President Trump's transition team weeks before the inauguration that he was under federal investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign, according to two people familiar with the case.
Who led Trump's transition team? That would be none other than Mike Pence.

We're left with an unsettling picture. Flynn told the transition team he's the subject of an ongoing federal investigation, and either that information either reached Pence or it didn't. If Pence was out of the loop, he was dangerously incompetent at his job. If Pence knew, and Flynn became National Security Advisor anyway, that's worse.
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Image: FILES-COMBO-US-RUSSIA-POLITICS-DIPLOMACY-TRUMP-PUTIN-ESPIONAGE

Report: Team Trump talked to Russia 'at least' 18 times during race

05/18/17 10:40AM

Leading members of Team Trump, including the president and vice president, insisted for months that there were no pre-election contacts between the Republican campaign and Russian officials. The official line was that Vladimir Putin's government may have taken steps to help put Trump in the White House, but the candidate and his team weren't talking to Russians while they hatched their illegal scheme.

It's been obvious for quite some time that those claims were demonstrably wrong. All kinds of communications between people close to Trump and Russian officials -- during the campaign -- have already been documented.

In February, the New York Times reported that "phone records and intercepted calls" prove that Trump campaign officials "had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials." A CNN report added that "high-level advisers" close to Trump were in "constant communication" with Russian officials during the American election season.

A Reuters report moves the ball forward today with a specific figure that hasn't been published before.
Michael Flynn and other advisers to Donald Trump's campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race, current and former U.S. officials familiar with the exchanges told Reuters.

The previously undisclosed interactions form part of the record now being reviewed by FBI and congressional investigators probing Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election and contacts between Trump's campaign and Russia.
A third of the communications, according to the report, were calls between Trump advisers, including Flynn, and Sergei Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the United States. After the election, the contacts "accelerated," with Flynn raising the prospect of "back-channel" discussions between Trump and Putin.

In case this isn't obvious, let's stress how abnormal this is. "It's rare to have that many phone calls to foreign officials, especially to a country we consider an adversary or a hostile power," Richard Armitage, a Republican and former deputy secretary of state, told Reuters.
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Image: First Lady Melania Trump Hosts A Celebration Of MilitaryMothers Event

Appointment of special counsel sparks new Trump tantrum

05/18/17 10:14AM

Last night, after the Justice Department named a special counsel to oversee the investigation into the Russia scandal, the White House issued a rather mild statement on behalf of Donald Trump. Aides were quick to share scuttlebutt that news hadn't affected the president much at all.

And yet, there was Trump on Twitter this morning, sounding more than a little rattled.
"With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special councel (sic) appointed!" he weighed in Thursday morning on Twitter, his favored form of communication.

"This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!" he followed up.
Let's not dwell on some of the obvious problems. There are, for example, no credible allegations of criminal wrongdoing from the Obama administration; there were independent Clinton-era investigations; and it's kind of hilarious that the president keeps misspelling "counsel."

It's also problematic that Trump believes his own justice department is responsible for perpetuating a "witch hunt."

But there's a substantive angle to the president's self-indulgent whining, too. When a White House is under investigation, officials usually have a standard line in response to press questions: "We can't comment because there's an ongoing investigation." It's frustrating and unsatisfying, but the line makes some sense: the White House counsel's office lets officials know the importance of silence, because saying the wrong thing, even inadvertently, may prove to be damaging. The less that's said, the better.

And yet, there's the president, sharing his thoughts on Twitter, urging people to feel sorry for him.
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Image: President Trump and Prime Minister Abe Press Conference at White House

Trump World knew Flynn was under investigation when he was hired

05/18/17 09:20AM

Just when it seemed the story surrounding Michael Flynn couldn't possibly get worse for Donald Trump and the White House, the New York Times reports that Flynn told Trump's transition team "weeks before the inauguration" that he was under federal investigation.
Despite this warning, which came about a month after the Justice Department notified Mr. Flynn of the inquiry, Mr. Trump made Mr. Flynn his national security adviser. The job gave Mr. Flynn access to the president and nearly every secret held by American intelligence agencies.

Mr. Flynn's disclosure, on Jan. 4, was first made to the transition team's chief lawyer, Donald F. McGahn II, who is now the White House counsel. That conversation, and another one two days later between Mr. Flynn's lawyer and transition lawyers, shows that the Trump team knew about the investigation of Mr. Flynn far earlier than has been previously reported.
If there's a credible explanation for the series of events, I honestly can't imagine what it might be.

Flynn was a foreign agent when Trump brought him on as a member of his inner circle. In the weeks and months that followed, Trump did nothing after learning that Flynn was under a federal investigation, and then again did nothing after his own Justice Department said Flynn had been compromised by Russia and was vulnerable to blackmail.

In fact, even after Trump World knew all of this, the president continued to give Flynn access to the nation's most sensitive secrets and classified information -- which almost certainly represents an even more egregious example of the White House mishandling classified intelligence than Trump sharing secrets with Russians during an Oval Office chat requested by Vladimir Putin.

And then, even after Trump was forced to fire Flynn, he reportedly took steps to derail the investigation into his National Security Advisor, privately urging then-FBI Director James Comey to back off because Flynn is such a "good guy."
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House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan whispers to House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy during the House Republican leadership media availability after the House Republican Conference meeting, March 19, 2013. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP)

GOP Majority Leader last year: Trump is on Putin's payroll

05/18/17 08:40AM

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) isn't known as an accomplished legislator, but once in a while, he makes headlines for accidentally blurting out the truth. In 2015, for example, the GOP leader admitted on national television that his party's committee to investigate Benghazi conspiracy theories was created to undermine Hillary Clinton's presidential  campaign.

A year later, as the Washington Post reported yesterday, McCarthy was equally candid about a politically sensitive subject.
A month before Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, one of his closest allies in Congress -- House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy -- made a politically explosive assertion in a private conversation on Capitol Hill with his fellow GOP leaders: that Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"There's two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump," McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, according to a recording of the June 15, 2016, exchange, which was listened to and verified by The Washington Post. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is a Californian Republican known in Congress as a fervent defender of Putin and Russia.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) immediately interjected, stopping the conversation from further exploring McCarthy's assertion, and swore the Republicans present to secrecy.
When the Post reached out to the House Speaker's office, Ryan's spokesperson, Brendan Buck, initially said of the McCarthy story, "That never happened.... The idea that McCarthy would assert this is absurd and false."

Told that the newspaper had a recording of McCarthy's comments, Ryan's spokesperson switched gears, saying the House Majority Leader's comment may have happened, but he was kidding.

Hmm.
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FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee June 19, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation."  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty...

Appointment of special counsel raises stakes in Trump's Russia scandal

05/18/17 08:00AM

When it comes to the Justice Department's handling of the investigation into Donald Trump's Russia scandal, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has already recused himself, leaving Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in charge. And as recently as Friday, Rosenstein said he saw no need to appoint a special prosecutor.

A lot can happen in five days.
Bowing to public and Congressional pressure, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Bob Mueller on Wednesday to be a special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, Justice Department officials said.

Mueller will take command of the prosecutors and FBI agents who are working on the far-reaching Russia investigation, which spans multiple FBI field offices on both coasts.
OK, let's dig in.

Is Mueller the right person for the job?

Almost certainly, yes. Finding someone who has bipartisan credibility, prosecutorial expertise, and experience with the FBI is exceedingly difficult, but Mueller fits the bill.

Is his appointment good news or bad news for those who take the scandal seriously?

That's a matter of perspective, of course, but there can be no doubt that the White House and its allies just got a lot more nervous. Donald Trump's Russia scandal was already heating up, but yesterday's announcement raised the temperature by several degrees.

Isn't it a little ironic that Trump's firing of James Comey led to Mueller's appointment?
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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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