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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.16.17

05/16/17 12:00PM

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

* In the new Public Policy Polling survey, the Democratic advantage on the generic congressional ballot has reached double digits: 49% to 38%. That's up from a six-point advantage last month. A Quinnipiac poll released last week showed Dems with a 16-point lead on the generic ballot.

* Hillary Clinton has launched a new organization called Onward Together, which is intended to encourage progressives "to get involved, organize, and even run for office."

* In Georgia's congressional special election, much of the Republican message against Jon Ossoff (D) has focused on his out-of-state support. It was therefore a little odd to hear his opponent, Karen Handel (R) boast to supporters about her out-of-state supporters.

* In Virginia's gubernatorial primary, a new Washington Post-Schar School poll shows Ed Gillespie, a former RNC chair and George W. Bush aide, with "a commanding lead." The primary is scheduled for June 13.

* The same poll found that Donald Trump's approval rating in Virginia is down to just 36%.

* Speaking of the Commonwealth, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer will headline a fundraiser on Thursday for the Republican Party of Virginia. The event will be held at a Trump-owned venue, raising ethical questions Team Trump prefers to ignore.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

U.S. ally 'might stop sharing intelligence' after Trump's leak

05/16/17 11:03AM

Donald Trump's first overseas trip as president was already poised to be awkward. Foreign Policy magazine reported yesterday that our NATO allies are "scrambling" to tailor their upcoming meeting "to avoid taxing President Donald Trump's notoriously short attention span."

A source briefed extensively on the meeting's preparations explained, "It's kind of ridiculous how they are preparing to deal with Trump. It's like they're preparing to deal with a child -- someone with a short attention span and mood who has no knowledge of NATO, no interest in in-depth policy issues, nothing.... They're freaking out."

And that was before our NATO partners learned that Trump apparently shared highly classified secrets with Russia for unknown reasons. The Associated Press reported today that U.S. allies "have anxiously wondered" if America's strange amateur president could be trusted with sensitive national security information, and now those countries have "new reasons to worry."
A U.S. official said Trump revealed highly classified information about an Islamic State plot to senior Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting last week. The information had been obtained by a U.S. partner and shared with Washington, according to the official.

"If it proves to be true that the American president passed on internal intelligence matters, that would be highly worrying," Burkhard Lischka, a senior German lawmaker, said in a statement to The Associated Press.

A second European official told the AP that their country might stop sharing intelligence with the United States as a result of Trump's disclosure to Russia.
Consider the scope of this fiasco. On the one hand, we have U.S. intelligence agencies -- the target of frequent Trump attacks for unknown reasons -- which will now have an incentive to keep sensitive information from the White House in order to safeguard it from the president's reckless incompetence.

On the other hand, we have allied governments abroad, which were already worried about Trump's trustworthiness, and which are now weighing even less intelligence sharing with the United States.
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Sen. Bob Corker

Republican senator: Trump White House in 'a downward spiral'

05/16/17 10:16AM

A pattern has started to emerge in the immediate aftermath of reports on Donald Trump's latest scandals, which tend to arise at a head-spinning pace. First, we check to see if the story appears legitimate. Second, we pry our palms from our foreheads and our jaws from the floor.

And third, we tend to ask, "Maybe now Republicans will finally break with this president?"

The answer to that question, at least so far, has consistently been, "Of course not." Even after Trump practically confessed to obstructing justice, GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill dutifully stuck by their leader.

Today, however, these Republicans face a new test. Trump reportedly shared highly sensitive intelligence with Russia, which compromised national security, infuriated an ally, and sent a signal to the world that the United States, at least in the Trump era, cannot be trusted to safeguard secrets. Any GOP lawmakers prepared to jump ship in light of the news?

Not really. Some congressional Republicans have stuck to a legalistic defense, emphasizing the fact that a president can declassify secrets whenever he or she wants. There was some criticism, however, most notably from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bon Corker (R-Tenn.).
"Obviously, they're in a downward spiral right now and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that's happening," Corker told reporters.

"You know, the shame of it is there's a really good national security team in place and there are good productive things that are under way through them and through others, but the chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating an environment -- it creates a worrisome environment."
Let's note for context that Corker is a conservative senator from a red state, who votes with Trump more than 92% of the time, and who was considered for a leading cabinet post in the Trump administration.

There's nothing especially wrong with the Tennessee Republican's statement. On the contrary, it's rare to hear a prominent GOP lawmaker speak this way about a White House controlled by his ostensible partisan allies.
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Image: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer Holds Daily Press Briefing

Trump's 'tapes' have suddenly become even more important

05/16/17 09:20AM

Not surprisingly, congressional Democrats weren't pleased to learn that Donald Trump reportedly shared highly sensitive secrets with Russian officials for no good reason. For an American president to casually undermine national security and cause an international incident tends to make the president's detractors uncomfortable.

But one statement jumped out at me as especially interesting.
House Democrats Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, and John Conyers, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, released a joint statement arguing that "Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives need a briefing from the national security adviser and the directors of our nation's intelligence agencies to get to the bottom of these allegations."

The congressmen added that if audio recordings exist of the meeting, "Congress needs to obtain them immediately."
Ah yes, the "tapes." The president himself raised the prospect last week of secret recordings he's made of White House conversations, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer didn't contradict him, refusing to confirm or deny the existence of such recordings. By late Friday, Trump said he "can't talk about" the subject, but by then, it was too late -- because he'd already raised the question we didn't know to ask.

Those recordings, if they exist, were already a key part of the controversies surrounding Trump, and they may help prove whether the president obstructed justice as part of the Russia scandal. But last night, the possibility of these recordings took on an added significance: they may also shed light on the president providing a foreign adversary with highly classified intelligence.
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Image: Trump Hosts Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi At The White House

Donald Trump steps on his aides' narrative (again)

05/16/17 08:40AM

Last week, after Donald Trump fired the FBI director overseeing an investigation into Trump's Russia scandal, White House aides, including Vice President Mike Pence, were quick to insist the two stories were completely unrelated. The president himself said soon after that he was motivated to dismiss James Comey because of the investigation, making his own team look ridiculous and dishonest.

This morning, it's happened again, this time on the matter of Trump sharing highly sensitive secrets with Russian officials.

Last night, as Team Trump scrambled to contain the damage of its latest self-imposed scandal, the White House insisted the reports were wrong. Dina Powell, a deputy national security advisor, insisted, "This story is false. The president only discussed the common threats both countries faced." Soon after, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both made similar attempts to knock down the allegations. The president, they insisted, didn't do anything of the kind.

And once again, Trump has decided to step all over his team's narrative by sharing his thoughts via Twitter.
President Donald Trump argued Tuesday morning that he has the "absolute right" to share certain information with Russia after bombshell reports emerged that he revealed highly classified intelligence with Russian officials last week.

"As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism," he said in a pair of tweets.
A Washington Post report added, "Trump's tweets undercut his administration's frantic effort Monday night to contain the damaging report."

They do, indeed. After the White House tried to convince everyone the reporting was wrong, Trump decided this morning to suggest in poorly written missives that the reporting was right -- but it doesn't matter because he has the "absolute right" to disclose secrets to foreign adversaries if he wants to.
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This file handout photo taken on May 10, 2017 made available by the Russian Foreign Ministry shows shows US President Donald J. Trump (C) speaking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and Russian Ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak.

Why Trump would share highly classified secrets with the Russians

05/16/17 08:00AM

Three months ago today, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. intelligence officials "have withheld sensitive intelligence from President Donald Trump because they are concerned it could be leaked or compromised." This was about competence, not politics: U.S. intelligence had serious concerns about the American president's "trustworthiness" and "discretion."

As you may have heard, the Washington Post published a stunning report late yesterday that suggests those fears were well grounded.
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 Trump's disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.

The information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said.
It's difficult to overstate just how serious developments like these are. The Wall Street Journal -- one of several major U.S. outlets to confirm the accuracy of the story -- added, "According to one U.S. official, the information shared was highly sensitive and difficult to acquire and was considered extraordinarily valuable."

And yet, the president apparently gave it away to an adversary in exchange for nothing. In the process, Trump compromised national security, mishandled extremely sensitive information, infuriated an ally, and sent a signal to the world that the United States, at least in the Trump era, cannot be trusted to safeguard secrets.

Trump's meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak -- a Oval Office gathering that took place at Vladimir Putin's request -- was already controversial. Evidently, we didn't know the half of it.

What we need to know now, however, is why the president of the United States would put lives at risk by recklessly ignoring his responsibilities.
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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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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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