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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 1.3.17

01/03/17 05:29PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Syria: "A Syrian cease-fire backed by Russia and Turkey is crumbling five days after it began, with government forces pushing offensives around Damascus and rebels threatening to suspend participation in new peace talks."

* Turkey: "The massacre targeting New Year's Eve revelers at an Istanbul nightclub illustrates that the relationship between ISIS and Turkey has shifted from an uneasy peace to an all-out war, according to experts."

* A State Department spokesperson said today that the administration "is 100 percent certain in the role that Russia played in trying to sow discord and confusion and getting involved, through the cyber domain, in our electoral process." He added, "There's no question about that."

* Good idea: "Thousands of veterans who were forced to pay back the millions of dollars in bonuses they'd gotten for reenlisting to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan will get their money back."

* An unfortunate end: "U.S. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland's nomination to the Supreme Court expired at noon Tuesday, clearing the way for President-elect Donald Trump to fill a vacancy Senate Republicans held open for months with an appointee championed by conservatives."

* Filling the remaining vacancies: "President-elect Donald Trump is expected to name Robert Lighthizer, a veteran trade attorney and supporter of Trump's defensive view of trade, as his pick for the next U.S. trade representative, according to two transition officials."
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Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) at the Iowa GOP Lincoln Dinner at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Cedar Rapids, Iowa April 11, 2014.

House Republicans reverse course following ethics fiasco

01/03/17 12:44PM

Last night, House Republicans met behind closed doors and agreed to gut their own ethics rules. The vote, for which there was no roll call, was 119 to 74, and by all accounts, the GOP leadership opposed making the change.

The blowback was as quick as it was intense. Of the 119 members who voted for the ethics overhaul, only a few were willing to publicly defend the change -- or even acknowledge having voted for it. Coverage was brutal, members' phones were reportedly ringing quite a bit this morning, and even Donald Trump, the ethically challenged president-elect, suggested his party's timing was unwise.

And with this in mind, just a half-day after adopting their own plan, House Republicans reversed course.
Facing fierce criticism from members of both parties -- including President-Elect Donald Trump -- House Republicans backed down Tuesday from an initial attempt to gut an independent ethics office that investigates House lawmakers and staff accused of misconduct.

The decision to scrap changes to the ethics office came during an emergency GOP conference meeting Tuesday morning.
The agreement to drop the plan was reportedly reached by unanimous consent -- which means the 119 House Republicans who voted for this last night, in effect, declared, "Never mind."

This is a pretty brutal fiasco on literally the first day of the new Republican Congress. Screwing up this badly, in such a high-profile way, takes quite a bit of effort.

There are multiple angles to a story like this one, but here are just a few key elements to keep in mind:

* Shame works. Most of the time, Trump seems immune to shame and public pressure, but this morning is a reminder that congressional Republicans occasionally care about public humiliation. Had there not been a public backlash, there's little doubt the rules gambit would have been approved by the House GOP majority.

And in the process, an interesting precedent has been set. If there are similar public backlashes when Republicans consider gutting health care plans, eliminating Wall Street safeguards, slashing tax rates on billionaires, or any number of other far-right priorities, just how far will GOP members stick out their necks to pursue unpopular ideas? This debacle over ethics serves as a reminder of what pressure can do.
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U.S. President-elect Donald Trump (L) meets with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) (C) and Vice-President elect Mike Pence on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 10, 2016. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Trump prefers Republicans wait to gut their own ethics rules

01/03/17 12:08PM

House Republicans agreed behind closed doors last night to gut their own ethics rules. In a couple of tweets this morning, Donald Trump pushed back a bit -- against the timing of the GOP's move.
"With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!"
I've seen this characterized as a sharp "rebuke" from the president-elect, directed at members of his own party, but I think that probably overstates matters. Taking his words at face value, Trump actually endorsed the GOP line -- he referred to the Office of Congressional Ethics as "unfair" -- but suggested Republicans tackle other priorities first.

In other words, his problem is with the timing of the anti-ethics push, not the policy itself. Trump cares about the order of the Republican's actions -- because of their potential public-relations impact-- instead of the actions on the merits.
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Kellyanne Conway, new campaign manager for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaks to reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, Aug. 17, 2016. (Photo by Gerald Herbert/AP)

Republicans make more health care promises they can't keep

01/03/17 11:01AM

Kellyanne Conway, who'll soon serve as a senior advisor to the president in Donald Trump's White House, was asked on MSNBC this morning about the Americans who've gained health security under the Affordable Care Act, and whether they can expect to keep their coverage going forward. Conway may not have intended to make news with her answer, but it's worth keeping these comments in mind as the "repeal" crusade advances:
"We don't want anyone who currently has insurance to not have insurance. Also, we are very aware that the public likes coverage for pre-existing conditions. There are some pieces of merit in the current plan."
In an interview with NBC's "Today," Conway added that Trump "is committed to retaining those pieces [of the Affordable Care Act] that his advisers will say are working."

Just on the surface, it's striking when a Republican acknowledges -- out loud and in public -- that there are elements of the ACA that have "merit" and "are working." These truths generally go ignored by the right.

But let's not brush past the details. According to one of his top aides, the Trump White House will not take away any American's current coverage and doesn't intend to drop protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

About a month ago, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) made similar commitments, telling CBS News, "We will give everyone access to affordable health-care coverage," and adding that protections for consumers with pre-existing conditions is "a very important feature of any health-care system."

The Speaker added, in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, that the Republican approach will make sure that “no one is left out in the cold” and “no one is worse off.”

Once again, it appears Republicans are writing checks their party can't cash.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump talks with press on Sept. 5, 2016, aboard his campaign plane, while flying over Ohio, as Vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence looks on. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

Waiting for Trump to share his secret sources of information

01/03/17 10:23AM

On New Year's Eve, Donald Trump once again said he's skeptical about the information from U.S. intelligence agencies pointing to evidence of Russian hacking during the 2016 election. But in this case, the president-elect went a little further, telling reporters, "I also know things that other people don't know."

And what might that be? "You'll find out on Tuesday or Wednesday," Trump added.

Well, today's Tuesday. What, pray tell, will the president-elect tell us about his secret sources of information, which gives him special insights U.S. intelligence agencies lack?

Evidently, not much. Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer said yesterday Trump doesn't necessarily have anything new to reveal. The president-elect, Spicer explained, is only prepared to "talk about his conclusions and where he thinks things stand." As Politico noted, Kellyanne Conway made similar comments last night.
Conway also backed her boss away from a promise he made on New Year's Eve, when he told his traveling pool of reporters that "I also know things that other people don't know" regarding cyberattacks against U.S. political targets that the U.S. intelligence community have attributed to the Russian government. Trump has been unwilling to concede that assessment and told reporters that "you'll find out on Tuesday or Wednesday" what information he has that nobody else does.

"He didn't say, he didn't necessarily say he'd announce it. What he's saying is that we'll find out, he'll find out. I think it's all very contingent on what these intelligence officials reveal in their briefing, Anderson, and everybody should be very happy that the president-elect is open to receiving that briefing. He's very much looking forward to that," Conway told [CNN's Anderson Cooper].
First, let's not set the bar for public satisfaction too low. "Everybody should be very happy that the president-elect is open to receiving that briefing"? Really? When it comes to Donald Trump, Americans should be delighted the incoming president is willing to listen to public officials with sensitive information -- which he may ultimately ignore?
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen in a television cameras view finder during a press conference at the Trump National Golf Club Jupiter on March 8, 2016 in Jupiter, Fla. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

Trump has no problem judging a book by its cover

01/03/17 09:26AM

After a typical "Meet the Press" appearance, I imagine many guests watch their appearances afterwards to see how they did. Were their answers strong? Did their arguments make sense? What did they say on the air that they should try to say differently during the next interview?

When Donald Trump appears on "Meet the Press," it's a little different. Chuck Todd recently told Politico that the president-elect has a peculiar request after his on-air interviews.
After several of his Sunday appearances as a candidate, Trump would lean back in his chair and request that the control room replay his appearance on a monitor -- sans sound.

"Then there's the amount of time he spends after the interview is over, with the sound off. He wants to see what it all looked like. He will watch the whole thing on mute," Todd told me.... "He's a very visual guy," says Todd. "He thinks this way, and look, it's an important insight in just understanding him. The visual stuff is very real beyond just himself."
Watching the interview on mute says a great deal about Trump's priorities: he doesn't much care about what he said or how he said it, choosing instead to prioritize how he looked while the camera was on.

All of this came to mind yesterday when Trump complained about a new book, put together by CNN, about the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump didn't talk about the content of the book, choosing instead to focus on the photo CNN chose for the cover.

You've heard the adage, "Don't judge a book by its cover"? The president-elect seems to disagree.

This followed a meeting Trump hosted with representatives of the broadcast media shortly before Thanksgiving, where the president-elect reportedly condemned networks, including NBC, for airing photographs of him that Trump found unflattering.

His preoccupation with appearances isn't limited to himself: the Washington Post reported two weeks ago that when Trump meets with prospective members of his cabinet and White House team, the Republican's principal focus is on how they look, not their qualifications.

Chris Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media and a longtime friend of Trump, told the Post the president-elect is "a showbiz guy," who cares about "the look and the demeanor and the swagger."
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen through the audience before participating in a roundtable event, Sept. 27, 2016, in Miami. (Photo by John Locher/AP)

Nuclear diplomacy via Twitter is a bad idea

01/03/17 08:44AM

A few days before Christmas, for reasons that weren't at all clear, Donald Trump rattled much of the world with an alarmingly ambiguous tweet about nuclear weapons and an expansion of the U.S. arsenal. A day later, the president-elect reportedly said he's prepared for a new international "arms race" that he's certain the United States would win.

This was a teaching moment for the amateur politician: when talking about the world's most dangerous weapons, don't use Twitter to make vague policy pronouncements, don't terrify international partners, and don't throw around reckless rhetoric.

Two weeks later, it's clear Trump has learned nothing. The New York Times reported overnight:
Faced with a threat from North Korea that it might soon test an intercontinental ballistic missile, President-elect Donald J. Trump took to Twitter on Monday to declare bluntly, "It won't happen!"

Mr. Trump made his post on Twitter, where he often tests out his first thoughts on developing issues in the United States and abroad, a day after North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong-un, declared that the "final stage in preparations" was underway for a test of such a missile. Mr. Kim offered no time frame.
The American president-elect, who's a little too fond of exclamation points, initially said via his favorite social-media tool, "North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!" (For the record, that's not exactly what North Korea said.)

Trump, still overly committed to exclamation points, quickly added, "China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won't help with North Korea. Nice!"

In recent weeks, Trump has antagonized China in ways that don't appear to make sense. Trump has also used Twitter to throw around careless rhetoric about nuclear weapons. Yesterday, it was apparently time to combine both.
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Two men stand on the plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building as storm clouds fill the sky, June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Republicans move to gut congressional ethics office

01/03/17 08:00AM

In the 2004 elections, voters handed Republicans control over the White House, Senate, House, and gubernatorial offices. With Democrats lacking any levers of power, Republicans were in a truly dominant position for the first time in a generation.

Almost immediately, GOP officials got to work ... weakening ethics rules. Led by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), congressional Republicans moved swiftly -- behind closed doors, with no Democratic input -- to ease the ethics burdens on members of Congress.

As longtime readers may recall, a young congressman by the name of Mike Pence was especially fond of weaker ethics rules.

The results weren't pretty. In the ensuing Congress, an astonishing number of members, nearly all of whom were Republicans, were caught up in a series of damaging scandals -- remember the Abramoff affair? -- some of which put members of Congress behind bars. Democrats ran against "the culture of corruption" two years later and won both chambers.

In the 2016 elections, voters once again put Republicans in a dominant position. And just like 12 years ago, GOP lawmakers, before tackling any other priority, met behind closed doors to weaken their own ethics rules. NBC News reported overnight:
Just hours before the 115th Congress gavels in, House Republicans voted to weaken the independent ethics office that investigates House lawmakers and staff accused of misconduct.

During a closed-door meeting Monday, by a vote of 119 to 74, House Republicans defied their leadership to adopt an amendment by Rep Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., to place the Office of Congressional Ethics, known as OCE, under the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee.

The move effectively gives the ethics oversight and investigative role to the lawmakers themselves and prevents information about investigations from being released to the public.
The changes, adopted by Republicans who debated among themselves in secret, are surprisingly broad. Vox's report added, "The House committee could force the office to stop an investigation at any time, and the office would be prevented from accepting and investigating anonymous tips. The office would no longer be able to relay an issue to law enforcement if it determines a crime is committed."

It's easily the biggest rollback of ethics rules since the last time Republicans swept a national 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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