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Monday's Mini-Report, 5.15.17

05/15/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* You've got to be kidding me: "President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said that Trump's disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State."

Syria: "The State Department released satellite images on Monday that officials said showed that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has built a crematory at a military prison outside Damascus to hide a large number of executions."

* A very scary scene in Virginia: "Self-proclaimed white nationalist Richard Spencer led a large group of demonstrators carrying torches and chanting 'You will not replace us' Saturday in Charlottesville, protesting plans to remove a Confederate monument that has played an outsize role in this year's race for Virginia governor."

* Let the jokes begin: "Less than two weeks before a potentially tense and diplomatically delicate meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican, President Trump has apparently settled on nominating Callista Gingrich, the wife of Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, as the United States ambassador to the Holy See, according to two people close to the president."

* This is interesting: "Aetna chief executive Mark Bertolini told employees in a private meeting Thursday that he thinks the United States 'should have' a debate about single-payer. 'Single-payer, I think we should have that debate as a nation,' Bertolini said in a video tape of his remarks provided to Vox by an attendee at the meeting."
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Image: Donald Trump, Neil Gorsuch, Anthony Kennedy

White House staff learns how to manipulate Trump

05/15/17 04:14PM

Barack Obama sat down with the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation recently, as part of the former president receiving the foundation's Profile in Courage Award, and he was asked about media, echo chambers, and media consumption.

"The challenge is that the curation, the sorting, the filters that might have helped us distinguish between what's true and what's false, have all broken down," Obama said, "and it puts a greater responsibility on each of us I think to be able to be good consumers of information."

And with this in mind, Politico has an amazing report today on the degree to which Donald Trump is not a good consumer of information.
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus issued a stern warning at a recent senior staff meeting: Quit trying to secretly slip stuff to President Trump.

Just days earlier, K.T. McFarland, the deputy national security adviser, had given Trump a printout of two Time magazine covers. One, supposedly from the 1970s, warned of a coming ice age; the other, from 2008, about surviving global warming, according to four White House officials familiar with the matter.

Trump quickly got lathered up about the media's hypocrisy. But there was a problem. The 1970s cover was fake, part of an Internet hoax that's circulated for years. Staff chased down the truth and intervened before Trump tweeted or talked publicly about it.
That's quite an anecdote. On one of the most pressing, if not the single most critical, issues in the world, an unqualified deputy national security adviser directly provided the sitting president of the United States with bogus information, apparently intended to persuade Trump not to trust (a) climate science; and (b) major news organizations.

Had staffers not quickly intervened, it's likely that the president would've accepted the Internet hoax as true, and proceeded to make policy decisions based on a fake magazine cover. (It's probably worth noting that Trump, given his track record, may accept the Internet hoax as true anyway.)

The broader pattern, however, is what truly amazes. During the campaign, Trump seemed to believe all kinds of nonsense he'd find in supermarket tabloids and fringe websites, and it was hard not to wonder how he'd adapt as president. Alas, we're starting to get a pretty good idea of the answer.
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Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-TRUMP

A president cannot 'hire and fire whoever he wants'

05/15/17 12:52PM

With the White House gripped by scandal, the various Sunday shows were eager to have members of Donald Trump's team on the air to address a variety of questions. That didn't happen.

On Fox News, Chris Wallace told viewers yesterday he extended an invitation to the White House, which said it'd offer guests to discuss the president's foreign travel, but not Trump's decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. When the host balked, the White House "put those officials on other shows," Wallace said.

And one of those guests was Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, who had a line at the ready when ABC News' George Stephanopoulos brought up the president's scandals and Comey's firing.
"What I can tell you is the president is the CEO of the country. He can hire and fire whoever he wants. That's his right. Whether you agree with it or not, it's the truth.... [W]e have to remember, [Trump] can hire and fire anybody else that he wants to do."
Stephanopoulos noted in response, "That is indisputably true." I wouldn't go nearly that far.

Trump is not the "CEO of the country." He's not even the CEO of the federal government. He's the head of one branch, but there are two co-equal branches.

Moreover, while the president has broad personnel powers, they're not unlimited. Yes, on paper, Trump had the legal authority to fire the director of the FBI, but a president can't simply "hire and fire whoever he wants." Nearly every top position requires Senate confirmation -- including the leadership post at the FBI -- and a wide variety of other executive-branch positions have civil-service protections that require a good reason before an official is dismissed.

But more to the point, a president can't obstruct justice, either.
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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.15.17

05/15/17 12:00PM

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

* North Carolina's odious voter-ID law is no more. A lower-court ruling struck down the Republican measure as discriminatory, and the U.S. Supreme Court let that decision stand by announcing this morning it would not hear an appeal. Though the justices didn't consider the case on the merits, Chief Justice John Roberts published a brief statement.

* In the new national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Donald Trump's approval rating is down to just 39% -- a point Barack Obama never reached in his two terms as president.

* On a related note, the same poll showed Trump's firing of James Comey and the Republican health care plan as both unpopular, though in terms of short-term electoral considerations, the latter appears to be a greater danger to the GOP than the former.

* In a recorded video message to members of the Republican National Committee, Trump told his ostensible allies, in reference to the 2018 midterms, "We can pick up a lot of seats, especially if it all keeps going like it is now." That's right; the president believes the political winds are at his back.

* In Alabama, the Republican field for the U.S. Senate election continues to grow: Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) announced this morning that he's running, too.

* With Montana's congressional special election quickly approaching, Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. spend much of the weekend making stops throughout the state in support of Republican Greg Gianforte. The election is May 25.
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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin responds to US President Donald Trump ordering missile strikes on Syria

Trump puts 'another victory on the scoreboard' for Russia

05/15/17 11:20AM

On ABC's "This Week," George Stephanopoulos asked James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, if Russia has "succeeded in their basic goal of undermining public faith in the U.S. democratic process?" Clapper said Russians "have to be celebrating with a minimal expenditure of resources and what they have accomplished."

But the guest specifically pointed to Donald Trump firing FBI Director James Comey as a key development, not just in the scandal and its effect on U.S. institutions, but also because Comey was overseeing the investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to its allies in Moscow. "The Russians have to consider this as another victory on the scoreboard for them," Clapper added.
It's part of an under-appreciated dynamic. Indeed, the Washington Post had a good piece today on Vladimir Putin's government reaping unexpected rewards from the new Republican administration.
Russia has yet to collect much of what it hoped for from the Trump administration, including the lifting of U.S. sanctions and recognition of its annexation of Crimea.

But the Kremlin has collected a different return on its effort to help elect Trump in last year's election: chaos in Washington.
Consider recent developments from Moscow's perspective. Russia wants strained relations between the United States and its Western allies, and Trump is making that happen. Russia wants to see a marginalized U.S. State Department, and Trump is happy to oblige. Russia wants to see political chaos grip the U.S. capital, and Trump is delivering in a big way.

Russia didn't like the counter-espionage investigation Jim Comey was overseeing (and escalating), and soon after Trump fired Comey. Putin asked Trump to welcome Russian officials into the White House last week -- including a photographer for a state-run Russian outlet -- and Trump did exactly that.

Russia wants U.S. leaders to raise doubts about the country's role in attacking the American presidential election last year, and Trump, even now, continues to suggest there's ambiguity about which country was responsible for the 2016 intervention.
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Image: U.S. President Donald Trump walks along the Rose Garden as he returns from a day trip to Atlanta on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S.

Trump no longer wants to talk about secret White House recordings

05/15/17 10:40AM

It may prove to be the most consequential of all of Donald Trump's tweets. On Friday morning, as part of a not-so-veiled threat towards former FBI Director James Comey, the president said Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

Hours later, the White House would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the president's secret recordings.

Trump sat down with Fox News' Jeanine Pirro late Friday, and when the issue came up, the president was quick to swat it down.
PIRRO: What about the idea that in a tweet you said there might be tape recordings--

TRUMP: Well, I can't talk about. I won't talk about that.
That's very likely the line the White House's counsel's office told Trump to take, but it was far too late. The president's tweet already opened the door that won't be easily closed.

The significance of this, of course, is that these recordings -- if they exist -- can be subpoenaed. This is especially true in regards to recordings related to James Comey's firing, since the president may have obstructed justice during their chat.

Indeed, on many of the Sunday shows yesterday, there was bipartisan agreement among several senators that White House recordings, assuming Trump didn't just make this up, won't remain private indefinitely. “You can’t be cute about tapes,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on NBC's "Meet the Press," adding, “If there are any tapes of this conversation, they need to be turned over."

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) added on Fox News that "it’s probably inevitable” that any existing tapes would be subpoenaed. The Utah Republican added that it's “not necessarily the best idea” for the president to secretly record conversations in the White House without his guests' knowledge.
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President-elect Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump (L) meet with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) at The Capitol Building on Nov. 10, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

Paul Ryan carries a fig leaf for the emperor with no clothes

05/15/17 10:00AM

In the latest episode of "Saturday Night Live," there was a great sketch in which "Donald Trump" sat down for an interview with NBC News' "Lester Holt" -- actors, of course, portrayed the real people -- only to be interrupted by an overeager young man who wanted to give the president some ice cream.

The young man was an actor playing House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

It was a brutal reminder that the Republican leader's willingness to play the role of a pathetic lackey to the White House has reached a point at which Ryan's reputation has become a cultural punch line.

And while the problem isn't entirely new, last week brought the issue to the fore in new ways. After Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, for example, and leading lawmakers were sharing their perspective, Ryan remained silent for nearly a full day -- before eventually endorsing the president's abuse. By Friday, the House Speaker seemed eager to walk a fine line in which he was supportive of Trump though not responsible for Trump.
"I'm focusing on what's in my control, and that is what is Congress doing to solve people's problems," Ryan said at an event in Delavan, Wisconsin, according to CNN. [...]

"I'm working on making sure that we make good on our promises and fix people's problems," Ryan said, according to CNN. "That's what's in my control, and that's what I'm focused on."
Putting aside the fact that Ryan isn't fixing anyone's problems -- unless you consider it a "problem" when Americans have access to affordable health care -- his line is unsatisfying because it's wrong.

He is, after all, the Speaker of the House, and it's within his "control" to defend the rule of law, support an independent investigation of Trump's alleged misdeeds, and conduct vigorous oversight in the face of serious White House abuses. And yet, Ryan prefers to take a pass.

A year ago, hoping to make a media splash, Ryan used his powerful office to call on intelligence agencies to deny Hillary Clinton access to classified information, ostensibly because of his deep concerns about her email protocols from years earlier. At the time, the Speaker's "focus" wasn't on what he could "control," so much as it was on scoring cheap points.

Now, however, he's abandoned the pretense, providing cover for his party's president. The emperor has no clothes, but he does have a House Speaker who'll carry a fig leaf.
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Trump looks for help from Russia on North Korea

05/15/17 09:20AM

Before he became a presidential candidate, Donald Trump used to see North Korean missile launches as evidence of American weakness. In late 2012, for example, he tweeted, "We can't even stop the Norks from blasting a missile.... It is really sad."

Yes, Trump, on multiple occasions, referred to officials in North Korea as "Norks."

It's likely Trump has adopted a very different posture now that North Korea continues to launch missiles -- something "we can't even stop" -- including a ballistic-missile launch yesterday morning. NBC News reported that the unidentified ballistic missile "flew around 30 minutes" before landing in the Sea of Japan.

Last night, North Korea said the missile had the capacity to carry a "large scale heavy nuclear warhead," but then again, North Korea says a lot of things, many of which aren't true.

What struck me as especially interesting, at least as far as domestic politics is concerned, was the written statement from Donald Trump's White House.
"With the missile impacting so close to Russian soil -- in fact, closer to Russia than to Japan -- [Trump] cannot imagine that Russia is pleased," the White House statement said.
As White House reactions to North Korean misconduct go, this is a pretty odd statement. The missile launch really didn't have much to do with Russia, but Trump nevertheless appears eager to rope them in -- as if the White House is looking for some country that might be willing to help solve a problem Trump doesn't know how to address.

It was therefore of great interest when Russia said it was largely unconcerned.
In this Jan. 29, 2015 file photo, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/File/AP)

White House's source balks at Trump's dubious Russia assertions

05/15/17 08:40AM

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Friday that Donald Trump believes allegations about collusion between his campaign and Russia "is a hoax." Spicer added, "It's been reaffirmed by several people, including [Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck] Grassley and others who have spoken to him."

Later in the briefing, Spicer again pointed to the Iowa Republican, saying Chuck Grassley and others have said that on the question of collusion, "there was none."

Grassley has been quite loyal to this White House, and he's voted with Donald Trump's position this year more than 97% of the time, but when Yahoo News followed up with the senator's office, Spicer's claims ran into a little trouble.
Just hours after White House spokesman Sean Spicer said President Trump had received assurances from a key senator that the idea of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia was a "hoax," a spokesman for the senator, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, denied any such conversation.

"Sen. Grassley has not spoken to President Trump about what he has learned in briefings related to investigations into Russian interference in our elections, and he has never referred to the notion of collusion as a 'hoax,'" Grassley's spokesman, Taylor Foy, emailed Yahoo News. Grassley is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and together with ranking minority member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has been briefed on details of the FBI investigation into Russian meddling in last year's presidential election.
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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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