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Image: FILE PHOTO --  U.S. President Trump and German Chancellor Merkel give a joint news conference in Washington

Trump's daughter meets Chinese president, receives Chinese trademarks

04/18/17 12:47PM

During the presidential transition period, Donald Trump met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York, which wouldn't have been especially notable were it not for Ivanka Trump's participation in the discussion. The Republican's daughter, at the time, said she intended to have no role in the Trump administration, so why was she there?

We learned soon after that Ivanka Trump was working on a licensing deal in Japan, as part of a deal with a bank owned by the Japanese government, when she sat in on a meeting with Japan's prime minister.

This quickly became an obvious example of Team Trump's conflict-of-interest troubles, which Trump himself showed little interest in addressing. Four months later, the Associated Press has highlighted a related story that's just as jarring.
On April 6, Ivanka Trump's company won provisional approval from the Chinese government for three new trademarks, giving it monopoly rights to sell Ivanka brand jewelry, bags and spa services in the world's second-largest economy. That night, the first daughter and her husband, Jared Kushner, sat next to the president of China and his wife for a steak and Dover sole dinner at Mar-a-Lago.

The scenario underscores how difficult it is for Trump, who has tried to distance herself from the brand that bears her name, to separate business from politics in her new position at the White House.
Let's not lose sight of the timeline here: we learned in late March that Ivanka Trump, after having said the opposite, has joined her father's White House team. Though she won't receive a paycheck, Trump's daughter will have an office in the West Wing and will serve as an assistant to the president.

It was a week later when White House Employee Ivanka Trump's company won approval in China for several new trademarks, literally the same day she sat down for dinner with the Chinese president.

In case this isn't painfully obvious, there's no precedent for anything like this in the American tradition. If Hillary Clinton had won the election, and Chelsea Clinton were engaged in similar activities, it's a safe bet the number of congressional hearings would be overwhelming.
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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.18.17

04/18/17 12:00PM

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

* It's Election Day in Georgia's 6th congressional district, where there's a special election to replace HHS Secretary Tom Price. How worried are Republicans? Donald Trump tweeted about the Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff, four times over the course of 24 hours and recorded a robocall to local GOP voters.

* In a striking moment of candor, Georgia state Sen. Fran Millar (R) told a Republican Party breakfast the other day that 6th district's lines "were not drawn" to elect a Democrat, adding, "They were not drawn for that purpose, OK? They were not drawn for that purpose." According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution's report, Millar added, "And you didn't hear that."

* This week's tour featuring Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez held its first event last night, rallying supporters in Portland, Maine.

* On a related note, the DNC yesterday announced the members of a new Democratic Unity Reform Commission, which according to a press statement, "will recommend improvements to insure the presidential nomination process is accessible, transparent, and inclusive." The panel has 21 members, including people chosen by representatives of the Clinton and Sanders campaigns.

* In Montana's congressional special election, Bernie Sanders has not only endorsed Rob Quist (D), the senator also announced plans to campaign with Quist in Montana ahead of the May 25 election.

* In Utah, Rep. Jason Chaffetz's (R) Democratic challenger, Kathryn Allen, is off to a strong start. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that when it comes to campaign fundraising, "She raised more money, received contributions from more people and, after expenses, has more cash available to spend" than the incumbent.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers remarks while campaigning at Regent University on Oct. 22, 2016 in Virginia Beach, Va.

Another Trump supporter blames him for inciting violence at rally

04/18/17 11:05AM

In February 2016, as part of his general embrace of violence as a campaign tool, Donald Trump offered some advice to supporters in Iowa. "[I]f you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of him, would you? Seriously, okay, just knock the hell," he said. "I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees; I promise, I promise."

That "promise" is suddenly of growing importance.

A month after Trump made the comments, the Republican campaigned in Kentucky, where he was interrupted by three protesters. Trump barked, "Get 'em out of here!" from the stage, and some of his supporters quickly confronted and roughed up the detractors.

The protesters are now suing both Trump and the Trump supporters who allegedly assaulted them, and a federal judge recently decided to allow the case to move forward. The protesters insist the president bears some responsibility for inciting violence, which isn't protected by the First Amendment.

But just as interesting is the fact that the other defendants appear to agree. Yesterday, we discussed Alvin Bamberger, who was seen on video shoving the protesters at the March 2016 rally, and whose attorney argued on Friday that the plaintiffs are largely correct about Trump's culpability. In fact, Bamberger is not only blaming the president, he also expects Trump to pay damages if the case goes the plaintiff's way.

Yesterday, it happened again. Politico reported:
A white nationalist leader accused of assaulting a young African-American woman at a Donald Trump campaign rally filed a countersuit on Monday claiming the president directed him and other supporters to remove protesters.

Matthew Heimbach claims in his federal court filing that he "acted pursuant to the directives and requests of Donald J. Trump and Donald J. Trump for President" and that, if he's found liable for damages, "any liability must be shifted to one or both of them."
This a story with multiple players and multiple suits, so let's try to clarify matters:
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Image: Donald Trump Delivers Address To Joint Session Of Congress

Another key item on Trump's wish list drifts further away

04/18/17 10:24AM

As Donald Trump's 100-day benchmark quickly approaches, it's hard not to notice the Republican president's to-do list is lacking check marks. Trump's Muslim ban has faltered in the courts; his health care legislation can't overcome opposition from within his own party; his infrastructure plan doesn't exist; and his dream of a border wall is little more than a mirage.

What about tax reform, ostensibly at the top of Trump's list of priorities? It's drifting further away.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the Trump administration's timetable for tax reform is set to falter following setbacks in negotiations with Congress over healthcare, the Financial Times reported on Monday.

Mnuchin told the Financial Times in an interview that the target to get tax reforms through Congress and on President Donald Trump's desk before August was "highly aggressive to not realistic at this point."
Note, it was Mnuchin who floated August as a deadline for tax reform in the first place.

This comes just a week after the Associated Press reported that Trump has "scrapped the tax plan he campaigned on and is going back to the drawing board in a search for Republican consensus behind legislation to overhaul the U.S. tax system."

Wait, it gets worse. Congressional Democrats have said they won't consider any reform legislation unless they know how it would affect Trump's finances, which means the president would have to release his tax returns in order to get Democratic buy-in on any proposal. Trump, however, remains committed to keeping the materials secret for reasons he hasn't explained.

At the Treasury Department, meanwhile, so many key offices are empty -- Trump simply hasn't nominated anyone for a variety of important posts -- that the White House "does not appear to have the personnel in place to get an overhaul of the tax code out of the station."
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Image: File of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest

Despite Benghazi focus, Trump looks past diplomatic security

04/18/17 09:34AM

Donald Trump's lax approach to filling key posts throughout his administration is becoming one of the president's more glaring missteps. As of yesterday, of the 544 top positions requiring Senate confirmation, the White House hasn't nominated anyone for 473 of those offices.

As Politico reported, that includes the office responsible for diplomatic security abroad.
President Donald Trump has yet to nominate the State Department official who oversees diplomatic security abroad -- despite having made the 2012 Benghazi attacks a centerpiece of his campaign against Hillary Clinton.

Congressional Democrats say it's a striking omission that shows Trump's campaign rhetoric was just that. And even some Republicans are urging Trump to move faster to fill this and other key State Department posts.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) argued that Trump's "failure to nominate an assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security shows the Republican focus on Benghazi was 'a bunch of political cheap talk' designed to tarnish [Hillary] Clinton's reputation."
Ya think?
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting at the presidential palace in Ankara, Turkey, Nov. 24, 2015. (Photo by Kayhan Ozer/Pool/AP)

Why is Trump celebrating Turkey's democratic crisis?

04/18/17 08:43AM

During yesterday's White House press briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked about Turkey's referendum, and allegations of election irregularities in a process that's given Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweeping new powers. Spicer was circumspect.

"My understanding is there's an international commission that is reviewing this and issues a report in 10 to 12 days," Spicer said. "And so we'll wait and let them do their job." Asked what Donald Trump would like to see Erdogan do, Spicer added, "I think we'd rather not get ahead of that report and start to make decisions without knowing. There were observers there, as there routinely are, and I'd rather wait and see."

A few hours later, Donald Trump decided not to wait and see.
President Trump called President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey on Monday to congratulate him on winning a much-disputed referendum that will cement his autocratic rule over the country and, in the view of many experts, erode Turkey's democratic institutions.

Those concerns were not mentioned in a brief readout of the phone call that the White House released Monday night.... The statement did not say whether Mr. Trump had raised independent reports of voting irregularities during the Turkish referendum or the government's heavy-handed tactics in the weeks leading up to it, when the country was under a state of emergency.
The U.S. president not only contradicted his own press secretary, Trump's call also appears to be at odds with the statement on the Turkish referendum from the U.S. State Department.

Trump is now the only leader in the Western world to congratulate Erdogan on the election results, effectively endorsing the outcome and extending the imprimatur of the United States government on democracy's slow demise in Turkey.

If there's a compelling defense for this, it's hiding well.
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A picture of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hangs outside a house in West Des Moines

Trump White House struggles with questions about transparency

04/18/17 08:00AM

During Barack Obama's presidency, Donald Trump whined incessantly about transparency, calling the Democrat, among other things, "the least transparent president ever." Trump asked in 2012, "Why does Obama believe he shouldn't comply with record releases that his predecessors did of their own volition? Hiding something?"

Soon after, the Republican added, "Obama thinks he can just laugh off the fact that he refuses to release his records to the American public. He can't."

At the time, Trump's preoccupation with transparency had a rather specific focus: Trump, championing a racist conspiracy theory, called for the disclosure of "records" such as Obama's college transcripts.

Now that Trump is himself the president, the Republican has adopted a dramatically different posture. The New York Times reported:
White House officials on Monday mustered a sweeping defense of their less-is-more public disclosure practices, arguing that releasing information on a wide array of topics would strike a blow against personal privacy and impede President Trump's ability to govern. [...]

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, facing a barrage of questions about the president's commitment to transparency, repeatedly shut down reporters' queries -- from the identity of Mr. Trump's weekend golf partners to his refusal to release his 2016 tax returns. Mr. Spicer said that greater public disclosure was unnecessary, intrusive or even harmful.
There are basically four elements to this: (1) Trump's secret tax returns; (2) the White House's now-secret visitor logs; (3) disclosure of Trump's excessive golf outings; and (4) White House readouts of the president's conversations with foreign leaders.

Let's take these one at a time:
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Monday's Mini-Report, 4.17.17

04/17/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Erdogan critics have already raised fraud allegations: "Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a historic referendum Sunday that will greatly expand the powers of his office, telling opponents who promised to challenge the results: 'It's too late now.'"

* Does Trump agree with this? "Vice President Mike Pence warned North Korea on Monday not to test American resolve, but he also raised the possibility that the Trump administration could pursue talks. The message, delivered by Mr. Pence on a visit to South Korea that included a stop at the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean Peninsula, showed that the administration, while talking tough, was not ruling out negotiations."

* Syria: "At least 68 children were among 126 people killed in Saturday's bomb attack on buses carrying evacuees from besieged Syrian towns, activists say. A vehicle filled with explosives hit the convoy near Aleppo."

* Arkansas: "The Department of Corrections in Arkansas is gearing up to put at least one man to death on Monday night despite a number of legal hurdles that stand in the way of the state's planned executions."

* In Boston, the local Fox affiliate is changing its name so to avoid being associated with Fox News. "The perception of what our TV news station does is not what we do," the stations general manager said. "They perceive us to be part of the Fox News family."

* At this morning's White House Easter Egg Roll, Donald Trump said the following: "This is the 139th Easter Egg Roll. Think of it -- 139. It began a long time ago -- 1878. And we will be stronger and bigger and better as a nation than ever before. We're right on track. You see what's happening, and we're right on track." Yep, that was a little odd.
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National Security Adviser Susan Rice listens to reporters questions during a briefing, March 21, 2014, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

Trump's claims about Susan Rice start to unravel

04/17/17 04:00PM

It started in early March with a series of early-morning tweets. For reasons that are still unclear, Donald Trump woke up one Saturday and started publishing online missives about a new conspiracy theory: Barack Obama launched an illegal wiretap operation before the election, specifically targeting Trump, as part of a scandalous and secret scheme.

In the weeks that followed, Trump and his team started changing the nature of the allegations. Maybe it wasn't an actual wiretap, the White House said. Maybe it wasn't illegal. Maybe it wasn't before the election. Maybe Trump personally wasn't targeted. Maybe Obama wasn't directly involved.

Two weeks ago, the Republican president escalated matters considerably by overhauling the entire story, telling the New York Times that former National Security Advisor Susan Rice "may have committed a crime by seeking to learn the identities of Trump associates swept up in surveillance of foreign officials by United States spy agencies."

Apparently persuaded by something he saw on a right-wing website, Trump specifically said at the time, "I think the Susan Rice thing is a massive story. I think it's a massive, massive story.... Yeah, it's a bigger story than you know.... I think that it's going to be the biggest story."

As a rule, presidents don't casually accuse former federal officials of crimes without proof -- welcome to the Trump Era -- and in this case, it appears the president had no idea what he was talking about.
A review of the surveillance material flagged by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes shows no inappropriate action by Susan Rice or any other Obama administration official, Republican and Democratic Congressional aides who have been briefed on the matter told NBC News.

President Donald Trump told the New York Times he believed former National Security Adviser Rice broke the law by asking for the identities of Trump aides who were mentioned in transcripts of U.S. surveillance of foreign targets. Normally, the identities of Americans are blacked out in transcripts circulated by the National Security Agency, but they may be "unmasked," if their identities are relevant to understanding the intelligence.
Rice has already acknowledged that she obtained the identities of the Americans in question, but she explained that this was very much part of her job.
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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)

Alex Jones' 'performance artist' claim leaves Trump in awkward spot

04/17/17 12:40PM

Alex Jones has earned a reputation for being a bellicose conspiracy theorist who routinely shares some deeply odd ideas with his broadcast audience. For most of the American mainstream, watching Jones push some of his most offensive theories -- the idea that the Sandy Hook massacre was a staged "false flag" event, for example -- gives the impression that he may not be altogether stable.

It's against this backdrop that Jones finds himself in a legal fight with Kelly Jones, the host's ex-wife who is seeking custody of their children. Not surprisingly, she and her attorney are pointing to Alex Jones' InfoWars content as proof of his unsuitability as a parent.

The Austin American Statesman reported over the weekend, however, that the host's lawyer has a specific defense in mind to explain away his client's over-the-top tirades.
At a recent pretrial hearing, attorney Randall Wilhite told state District Judge Orlinda Naranjo that using his client Alex Jones' on-air Infowars persona to evaluate Alex Jones as a father would be like judging Jack Nicholson in a custody dispute based on his performance as the Joker in "Batman."

"He's playing a character," Wilhite said of Jones. "He is a performance artist."
The family's legal dispute will apparently be decided by a Travis County jury in Texas, and as best as I can tell, it's a private family matter.

That said, Jones has become a notable figure in conservative media, and if his own attorney describes his client as "a performance artist" -- effectively characterizing Jones' bizarre persona as a fictional "character" -- that's an important acknowledgement for the public to be aware of.

Indeed, not only have Jones' outlandish conspiracy theories been taken seriously by Republican members of Congress, there's also Donald Trump's praise for Jones to consider.
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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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