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Thursday's Mini-Report, 6.15.17

06/15/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The latest out of Northern Virginia: "The firearms recovered after a gunman opened fire on a Republican congressional baseball practice and injured five people in Alexandria, Virginia, appear to have been purchased legally, the FBI and other authorities said Thursday."

* It's a shame this was even necessary: "The Republican-led Senate unanimously approved a measure emphasizing the importance of NATO's mutual defense pact, a not-so-subtle dig at President Donald Trump. Sen. Lindsey Graham's resolution passed 100-0 after Trump waffled on his commitment to Article 5. That's the alliance's 'one for all, all for one' defense agreement."

* A story worth watching: "Authorities in the District said Thursday that they have criminally charged a dozen members of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's security team who authorities say attacked protesters outside the ambassador's residence in May."

* In a normal administration, this would be a legitimate controversy: "Five months after first appearing in front of Congress in pursuit of the job of Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt may need to clarify his congressional testimony yet again. Pruitt appears to have used two government email addresses while serving as attorney general of Oklahoma -- despite telling the Senate that he used only one government email address during his time in that office."

* Kerry knows of what he speaks: "Former Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that the Iran nuclear deal could hold even if President Donald Trump pulls out but he warned that imposing new economic sanctions against Tehran could be dangerous."

* The new way to prepare for a national election in the West: "To guard against mischief similar to what Russia instigated in the U.S. last year and may have sought to do in France this spring, the Germans are shoring up their defenses."

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An attendee handles a revolver in the Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc. booth on the exhibition floor of the 144th National Rifle Association (NRA) Annual Meetings and Exhibits in Nashville, Tenn. on April 11, 2015. (Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty)

DC-area shooting delays Congress' consideration of silencers bill

06/15/17 04:28PM

The timing wasn't ideal. The House was poised to begin work yesterday on legislation to ease restrictions on firearm silencers, and as the Washington Post's Dana Milbank noted, the work roughly coincided with the first anniversary of the massacre at an Orlando nightclub and the second anniversary of the murders at a Charleston Bible study.

But work on that legislation -- indeed, work on all House legislation -- was put off in light of the terrifying shooting in Northern Virginia yesterday.

It did get me thinking, though, about the proposed changes to federal laws related to silencers. What does the measure, championed by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) -- who, coincidentally, was at yesterday's baseball practice, though he left before the gunman attacked -- do? Politico had a good summary:

Under the 1934 National Firearms Act, silencers are treated similarly to machine guns and explosives. The waiting time to purchase one is far longer than for handguns or other weapons, as much as nine months or more, and buyers have to submit fingerprints and a photograph. Federal law enforcement agencies keep a record of silencer purchases. There is also a $200 transfer tax on silencers.

Duncan's proposal would eliminate those requirements, as well as refunding the $200 transfer tax to anyone who has purchased a silencer since October 2015.

That last detail is especially generous. Even if you've already paid the necessary taxes on the purchase of a silencer, Congress is prepared to send you a refund.

The proposal -- named the "Hearing Protection Act" -- is just starting to move forward, but by all appearances, its chances of passing the House are good.

Yesterday's delay, meanwhile, was temporary. There's been no announcement about when the bill on silencers will be taken up again, but consideration of the measure is expected again soon.

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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.

Trump's indifference to Russia's election attack raises alarm

06/15/17 12:43PM

In the current political climate, it's rare to see any policy measure receive broad bipartisan support; the parties are simply too far apart on practically every issue. Yesterday, however, offered an exception.

The Senate voted 97 to 2 in support of legislation imposing new economic sanctions on Russia in response to Moscow's intervention in the American presidential election. The same measure, which now heads to the House, would block the White House from acting unilaterally on easing sanctions against Moscow -- a move Donald Trump has reportedly considered more than once.

For many Senate Republicans, this was literally the first time in 2017 in which they voted against Trump's preference.

There are a variety of interesting questions surrounding the bill -- most notably, no one knows if the president would veto it -- but let's not miss the forest for the trees. The fact that the chamber took this action at all demonstrated something important: nearly every member of the Senate cares that a foreign adversary attacked our democracy, and they're taking steps to do something about it.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, seems indifferent, if not outwardly hostile, to the core details -- which is difficult to accept at face value, and even harder to defend.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, talked to CNN on Tuesday and expressed his frustration about Trump's and his administration's indifference. His comments were quite candid:

"The other question [Attorney General Jeff Session] didn't answer -- I've got to say, it really, really disturbed me -- and that is, 'Have you looked into what the Russians did? Have you asked for any briefings? Do you understand the magnitude of what was done to us?' And the answer was no.

"And Jim Comey essentially said the same thing last week about the president. He had nine interactions with the president. The president never asked, 'What did the Russians do? How did they do it? How do you know they did it?' [...]

"[T]his is the most serious attack on our country since September 11. An adversary is aiming an arrow at the heart of our democracy. And these folks are just shrugging it off and saying, you know, 'Let's move on and talk about other issues.' I understand their defensiveness on whether they were involved in it or not, but the fundamental story of what the Russians did -- and that they're still at it and will continue to be at it -- is just being ignored, and it really bothers me when the Commander in Chief takes that position."

As it should.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 6.15.17

06/15/17 12:00PM

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

* In New Jersey, one of only two states holding gubernatorial races this year, the latest Quinnipiac poll shows former Ambassador Phil Murphy (D) with a huge lead over Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R), 55% to 26%, though much of the state's electorate does not yet have a preference.

* The same poll found New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) with a ridiculous 15% approval rating among his own constituents. It's the lowest level of support Quinnipiac has found for any governor of any state in decades.

* Two years ago in Virginia, Democrats ran candidates in just 56 of the House of Delegates' 100 legislative districts. This year, that number will be 87.

* In Gallup's daily tracking poll, Donald Trump's disapproval rating reached 60% this week, the worst number of his presidency to date. Since Watergate, only two presidents have ever reached 60% disapproval in Gallup surveys: Trump and George W. Bush. The latter was in his second term when his support crashed; the former reached this threshold after five months.

* Similarly, a new Associated Press poll found 64% of Americans disapprove of Trump's job performance, and 65% believe the president doesn't respect the nation's "democratic institutions and traditions."

* In Illinois, J.B. Pritzker is solidifying his position as the Democrats' top choice in next year's gubernatorial primary, picking up a very early endorsement from the Illinois AFL-CIO. The Democratic primary isn't until March 2018, which is still nine months away.

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Image: Trump Hosts Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi At The White House

Trump delegates too much of his Commander-in-Chief authority

06/15/17 11:20AM

The vast majority of the top positions in the Pentagon are still empty, and McClatchy reported last week that in several cases, it's because the White House refuses to accept Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis' personnel recommendations. Trump World, the article said, has "blacklisted national security and defense leaders who publicly disagreed with Trump during the 2016 campaign."

But while the Secretary of Defense lacks the authority to pick his team, he's apparently gained the authority to establish troop-deployment levels in Afghanistan. The Washington Post reported:

President Trump has given the Pentagon new authority to decide the troop levels in Afghanistan, a U.S. official said Tuesday. The move could lead to a deployment of thousands more troops as commanders decide the way forward in the 15-year-old war. [...]

With the new authority, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis could authorize deployment of additional troops to Afghanistan, something commanders on the ground have been requesting for months.

Mattis issued a written statement yesterday, confirming that Trump has "directed the Department of Defense to set troop levels in Afghanistan."

At first blush, that may not sound especially surprising, but this is a power the president is supposed to hold onto, not delegate away. Military leaders have a mission in Afghanistan, but the White House has a responsibility to consider the Pentagon's recommendations in a larger policy context.

This president, however, apparently doesn't want to -- and it's a dynamic that keeps coming up.

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A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes in Syria, in this U.S. Air Force handout photo taken early in the morning of September 23, 2014. (Senior Airman Matthew Bruch/Handout/US Air Force/Reuters)

Trump's foreign policy is too often divided against itself

06/15/17 10:40AM

The trouble started two weeks ago. Five Eastern countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen – broke off ties with Qatar, hoping to isolate the country politically and economically, punishing Qatar over its alleged support for terrorism. The Trump administration, with allies on both sides of the dispute, was determined to stay neutral.

That is, until Donald Trump decided to ignore his administration's policy and side with the Saudis against Qatar.

Last week, the same thing happened: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to persuade Saudi Arabia and its allies to ease the blockade and reach a diplomatic solution to the dispute, only to have the president say effectively the opposite less than an hour later. Indeed, Trump publicly condemned Qatar -- where 10,000 American troops are stationed -- for funding "terrorism at a very high level."

This week, the disconnect between what Trump says and what the Trump administration does became even more obvious.

Qatar said Wednesday it has signed a $12 billion deal to buy F-15 fighter jets from the United States — just days after President Donald Trump accused the country of being a "high-level" sponsor of terrorism.

The announcement came after the country's defense minister met with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Washington.... [The arms sale] appeared to be another example of the confusing series of mixed messages sent by the Trump administration, in which the White House speaks in an entirely different voice from the military and diplomatic wing of the U.S. government.

This is undoubtedly true. In the midst of a burgeoning crisis in the Middle East, the president is condemning Qatar for allegedly funding terrorism, while Trump's Pentagon sells Qatar billions of dollars in fighter jets.

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

Kushner's infrastructure plan sounds familiar for a reason

06/15/17 10:05AM

A few months ago, Donald Trump put his young and inexperienced son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in charge of a newly created White House Office of American Innovation. The idea, reportedly, was for Kushner, his ties to the Russia scandal notwithstanding, to lead "a SWAT team of strategic consultants," who'd collectively craft solutions to assorted challenges, all while answering only to the president.

Vanity Fair reported this week on Team Kushner's progress.

"We've been working in partnership with the National Economic Council on all aspects of the infrastructure package and taking the lead role in certain aspects of it," one White House official told me about the Office of American Innovation's work. Members of the O.A.I. meet with either the National Economic Council, legislators, or private-sector experts every day to tackle various aspects of the plan.

In terms of infrastructure and jobs, the team plans to focus on four areas. The first is reforming the permit system for large-scale projects, which, as it stands, can take more than eight years to push through (one goal is to get this closer to two years). The second is what the O.A.I. calls "transformative projects," or cutting-edge solutions that would "unleash a significant amount of economic growth," the official explained, such as building an underground high-speed rail system across the Northeast corridor. Third, is an emphasis on building rural technology, like broadband networks. And last, the team is focused on retraining American workers to address the growing skills-gap problem that the White House says has left hundreds of thousands of jobs unfilled.

The White House's infrastructure plan is already overdue, but Kushner and his "SWAT team of strategic consultants" are apparently moving forward with a series of "transformative" ideas.

And that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, except the plan sounds awfully familiar.

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Then FBI Director Robert Mueller arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 16, 2012, to testify during a hearing.

Would Trump fire Special Counsel Mueller during the investigation?

06/15/17 09:20AM

Former FBI Director Bob Mueller is the Justice Department's special counsel, overseeing the investigation into the expanding Russia scandal, which now reportedly includes allegations that Donald Trump obstructed justices. There's no shortage of questions surrounding the controversy, but among them is what kind of job security Mueller currently enjoys.

A Trump confidant this week said, for example, the president has "considered" firing Mueller. Christopher Ruddy, a longtime Trump ally, added, "I think he's weighing that option."

The comments caused quite a stir, and it was soon bolstered by a report from the New York Times.

Last month's appointment of Robert S. Mueller III as a special counsel to investigate possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia enraged President Trump. Yet, at least initially, he holstered his Twitter finger and publicly said nothing.

But behind the scenes, the president soon began entertaining the idea of firing Mr. Mueller even as his staff tried to discourage him from something they believed would turn a bad situation into a catastrophe.... For now, the staff has prevailed.... But people close to Mr. Trump say he is so volatile they cannot be sure that he will not change his mind about Mr. Mueller if he finds out anything to lead him to believe the investigation has been compromised.

Note, this report was published before we learned that Trump is now himself the subject of a criminal investigation as part of Mueller's overall probe.

What's worth considering  whether this means Trump is more likely to fire Mueller or less likely.

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President Trump addresses rally in Harrisburg, PA on April 29, 2017. Screenshot from NBCNews.

Trump warned of a 'constitutional crisis' if president faced an investigation

06/15/17 08:43AM

In June 2016, after the Democratic presidential primaries, Barack Obama officially threw his support behind Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump, borrowing a page from Fox News, pushed a very specific line: "Never before," the Republican tweeted, "has a president endorsed someone under investigation" by the Justice Department.

Because, obviously, if someone seeking the nation's highest office is under investigation from the Justice Department, that's inherently cause for alarm, right?

In November 2016, less than a week before Election Day, Politico reported on Trump's closing message:

Trump predicted that Clinton's election would bring "an unprecedented and protracted constitutional crisis" because of the looming investigation and suggested Americans would not want to endure a second Clinton administration marred by scandal.

Three days later, Trump insisted that Clinton, as president, couldn't possibly be expected to govern -- because the investigation into her email server protocols would make such an endeavor impossible.

Of course, at the time, the federal investigation into Clinton's emails had wrapped up, and the FBI found no criminal wrongdoing. Trump's rhetoric served as fuel for his rabid followers, but it had no meaningful basis in reality.

But about eight months later, his rhetoric is suddenly relevant anew -- because it's Trump who is now a sitting president who's under a criminal investigation, facing allegations he obstructed justice as part of the Russia scandal. It leads to a question the White House should at least try to answer: does Trump still believe the nation is forced to endure a "protracted constitutional crisis" when the American president is the subject of a federal probe?

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen during a press conference at Los Pinos on Aug. 31, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/LatinContent/Getty)

The irony of the criminal investigation into Donald Trump

06/15/17 08:00AM

Donald Trump has spent much of his presidency obsessing over whether he's personally under investigation as part of the probe into his Russia scandal. Ironically, the president's focus grew so intense, he may have taken actions that put him under investigation.

Rachel noted on last night's show the blockbuster new report from the Washington Post.

The special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russia's role in the 2016 election is interviewing senior intelligence officials as part of a widening probe that now includes an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice, officials said.

The move by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to investigate Trump's conduct marks a major turning point in the nearly year-old FBI investigation, which until recently focused on Russian meddling during the presidential campaign and on whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Investigators have also been looking for any evidence of possible financial crimes among Trump associates, officials said.

The piece added that Trump had received assurances from then-FBI Director James Comey that he wasn't personally being investigated, but that changed for the president "shortly after Comey's firing."

Remember, Trump admitted publicly that he fired Comey, who was leading a counter-espionage investigation into the Russia scandal, because of the president's dissatisfaction with the probe. He also reportedly leaned on top officials in the intelligence community, asking them to intervene in the matter, adding weight to concerns about Trump's alleged obstruction efforts.

What's more, it's not just the Post. The Wall Street Journal reported that it was Trump's firing of Comey that is "now a subject of the federal probe ... which has expanded to include whether the president obstructed justice." The New York Times, meanwhile, added that the special counsel "has requested interviews with three high-ranking current or former intelligence officials, the latest indication that he will investigate whether President Trump obstructed justice."

For months, the Russia scandal has focused on events that occurred before Trump and his team took office in January. These reports point to an important twist: Trump is now the subject of a criminal investigation because of actions he took as president.

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Criminal charges filed in Flint water crisis

Criminal charges filed in Flint water crisis

06/14/17 09:45PM

Congressman Dan Kildee talks with Rachel Maddow about the shooting at a Republican congressional baseball practice and the criminal charges, including involuntary manslaughter, being filed by the Michigan attorney general against officials in the Flint water crisis. watch

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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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