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Monday's Mini-Report, 1.15.18

01/15/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Iraq: "A pair of suicide bombers blew themselves up in central Baghdad early Monday, killing 27 people and injuring scores more in the first major attack in the capital since Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State in December."

* Quite a story over the weekend: "Hawaii residents were thrown into a panic Saturday morning after an emergency alert was mistakenly sent, warning them to 'seek immediate shelter' from a ballistic missile threat, and it took emergency officials 38 minutes to send a new alert to mobile phones that the threat was a false alarm."

* How Trump spent the King holiday: "President Trump's first stop Monday was Trump International Golf Club, apparently beginning the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday with golf rather than the charitable service the slain civil rights leader's family has urged as the best way to memorialize him."

* How's that swamp-draining exercise going? "A company that once had financial ties to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was one of two firms selected Thursday by the Education Department to help the agency collect overdue student loans. The deal could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars."

* I'll be eager to hear Jared Kushner's solution: "President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority said on Sunday that Israel had killed the Oslo Accords and angrily assailed the Trump administration over its handling of the conflict. He vowed to reject American leadership of any peace talks and urged Palestinians to reconsider their signed agreements with Israel."

* The White House's pal in the Philippines: "A popular news website that has been critical of the government of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was shut down by the country's securities regulator, a move the company called harassment."

* Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) "told a South Carolina newspaper on Monday that his 'memory hasn't evolved' about the White House meeting in which President Donald Trump reportedly referred to African nations as 'shithole countries.'"

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Image: Donald Trump, Andrzej Duda

Thanks to Trump's antics, 2018 is off to an exhausting start

01/15/18 12:35PM

This may be hard to believe, but we're only two weeks into the new year, and halfway through January, Donald Trump has generated a year's worth of provocative headlines.

Consider an overview of the presidential developments we've seen so far in 2018:

Jan. 1: Trump blasts Pakistan in a New Year's Day tweet, condemning the country's "lies and deceit," and suggesting an end to U.S. aid, and blindsiding his own administration's officials.

Jan. 2: Trump taunts Kim Jong-un's "nuclear button" and effectively dares North Korea to demonstrate its nuclear capabilities.

Jan. 2: Trump suggests imprisoning Huma Abedin and James Comey, pressuring the Justice Department to pursue charges against his perceived domestic enemies.

Jan. 2: Trump seeks credit for safe commercial air travel.

Jan. 3: Trump's lawyers threaten Steve Bannon, the former chief White House strategist, with "imminent" legal action.

Jan. 3: Asked directly about Trump's "mental fitness" during a press briefing, the president's press secretary responds by changing the subject.

Jan. 4: Trump's lawyers try to block publication of a book the president doesn't like.

Jan. 4: Trump appears in the White House press briefing room, but only through a pre-recorded video in which he talks about how impressed he is with his own tax plan.

Jan. 6: Trump assures the world that he's a "very stable genius."

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.15.18

01/15/18 12:00PM

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

* In Missouri's closely watched U.S. Senate race, Public Policy Polling's latest survey found incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) with the narrowest of leads over state Attorney General Josh Hawley (R), 45% to 44%.

* In Wisconsin, Randy Bryce (D), running in House Speaker Paul Ryan's (R) district, raised a startling $1.2 million in the fourth quarter of 2017. With Ryan's retirement looking quite likely, Bryce's fundraising gives the incumbent congressman an added incentive to walk away.

* Speaking of money in politics, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) continues to raise a fair amount of money, though it's not entirely clear why: the Republican governor's term isn't up until 2020, and Herbert has said he doesn't intend to run for re-election.

* One of Donald Trump's increasingly frequent boasts is that he won the presidency during his first attempt at national office. He apparently doesn't realize how very common that is.

* Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) refused to support Roy Moore's candidacy in Alabama's U.S. Senate special election last month, and the longtime incumbent is now facing a "fierce backlash" from some of Moore's backers on the far-right.

* Now that she's out of prison, Chelsea Manning, best known for her role in giving sensitive government materials to WikiLeaks, is launching a U.S. Senate campaign in Maryland. Manning will run as a Democrat, running against incumbent Sen. Ben Cardin in a Democratic primary.

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Image: TOPSHOT-UN-ASSEMBLY

Donald Trump is running out of countries to alienate

01/15/18 11:20AM

Donald Trump's first meaningful interaction with leaders of African nations came in September, when the American president spoke at a United Nations luncheon. Reading from a prepared text, Trump boasted about U.S. health partnerships in Africa, boasting, "Nambia's health system is increasingly self-sufficient."

The problem, of course, is that there's no such country as Nambia. There's a Zambia, a Gambia, and a Namibia, but no Nambia.

At the same event, the Republican strayed from his prepared text to tell the African leaders, "I have so many friends going to your countries, trying to get rich. I congratulate you." Given the attendees' familiarity with colonialism, they didn't seem especially impressed by an American billionaire with a troubled history on race boasting about his friends trying to enrich themselves in Africa.

Four months later, I think it's safe to say, in the wake of Trump's "shithole countries" comments, his standing among Africans is vastly worse. NBC News reported:

In addition to Ghana, the government of Botswana said Trump's language is "reprehensible and racist," and said it has summoned the U.S. ambassador to clarify what he meant.

Senegal's president, Macky Sall, said in a statement that it was "shocked" and that "Africa and the black race merit the respect and consideration of all." His West African nation has long been lauded by the U.S. as an example of a stable democracy on the continent.

The African Union, which is made up of 55 member states, also took issue with Trump's remarks. "Given the historical reality of how many Africans arrived in the United States as slaves, this statement flies in the face of all accepted behavior and practice," said spokeswoman Ebba Kalondo.

"The African Union Mission wishes to express its infuriation, disappointment and outrage over the unfortunate comment made by Mr. Donald Trump, President of the United States of America, which remarks dishonor the celebrated American creed and respect for diversity and human dignity," the African Union mission to the United States said in its statement.

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Image: Michael Cohen, attorney for The Trump Organization, arrives at Trump Tower in New York City

Questions surround Trump lawyer's payment to adult-film star

01/15/18 10:40AM

The Wall Street Journal  reported late Friday that Donald Trump's lawyer "arranged a $130,000 payment to a former adult-film star a month before the 2016 election as part of an agreement that precluded her from publicly discussing an alleged sexual encounter with Mr. Trump." The story, which was met with a series of denials that I detailed on Friday, didn't generate quite as big a stir as I thought it might.

Imagine, for example, if Bill Clinton were a year into his first term when evidence emerged that his lawyer arranged a large payment to a former porn star a month before his election. Do you suppose the political world would take an interest in this, or would the Sunday shows ignore the story two days later (which is what happened yesterday)?

In normal times, this might be a presidency-defining controversy. In Trump's America, the story struggles for attention with all the other controversies surrounding this White House.

That said, even if the salacious personal allegations are better left overlooked, there are some salient aspects of the story that are unrelated to whether or not Trump was unfaithful toward his third wife.

The Wall Street Journal's report, for example, said Michael Cohen, the top attorney at the Trump Organization, arranged the payment to Stephanie Clifford, whose stage name is Stormy Daniels, following the negotiation of a non-disclosure agreement. We don't know the source of the money, though the answer to the question could be problematic for the president: funds from Trump's campaign or foundation, for example, couldn't legally be used for this purpose.

What's more, the New York Times  reported these additional details over the weekend.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump: 'How could there be obstruction on firing Comey?'

01/15/18 10:00AM

A reporter asked Donald Trump in June whether he'd be willing to answer questions about the Russia scandal under oath. "One hundred percent," the president responded.

In a follow-up, a reporter asked, "So if Robert Mueller wanted to speak with you about that, you would be willing to talk to him?" Trump, referring to comments he made about not pressuring former FBI Director James Comey, responded, "I would be glad to tell him exactly what I just told you."

Last week, however, the president's posture changed. Asked at a press conference at Camp David whether he's still committed to speaking with Mueller, Trump hedged, refusing to answer the question directly. A few days later, at an event alongside the prime minister of Norway, Trump faced a similar question. The Republican's response was long, meandering, and not altogether coherent, but he concluded that it "seems unlikely" that he'd answer the special counsel's questions.

The president's odd rhetoric notwithstanding, NBC News reported last week that the logistics and scope of an interview with Trump remain the subject of discussion between the special counsel's office and the president's lawyers. Bloomberg Politics reported late Friday that talks between Trump's legal team ad Mueller's team are "expected to continue ... despite comments from Trump suggesting an interview is unlikely."

As long as we're on the subject, it's also worth noting the president's comments on the subject to the Wall Street Journal the other day, because while it wasn't the part of the interview that generated the most news, it offered an interesting peek into Trump's thinking.

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Image: US-HEALTH-DRUGS-TRUMP

Trump's response to the opioid crisis starts to look even worse

01/15/18 09:45AM

If you focus on solely to Donald Trump's rhetoric about the opioid crisis, the president appears to take the public-health emergency seriously. It's his actions that are the problem.

The first sign of trouble came over the summer when Trump made an official public declaration that the opioid crisis is "a national emergency." He then waited 11 weeks before issuing an underwhelming White House directive on the issue.

Making matters worse, Politico  reported last week that while Trump's official declaration set in motion a 90-day period of mobilization, that declaration runs out on Jan. 23, "and beyond drawing more attention to the crisis, virtually nothing of consequence has been done."

That's not all. Trump also tapped a political pollster with no relevant experience to oversee the White House's response to the opioid crisis, and the president's original choice to serve as the nation's "drug czar" was accused of taking steps to weaken the DEA's authority over opioids after accepting generous campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies.

And then there's Taylor Weyeneth, who's taken on a leading role in responding to the opioid epidemic despite a dubious background. The Washington Post  reported over the weekend on the former Trump campaign aide who's now an administrative leader in Trump's drug policy office:

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Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Richard Durbin on Capitol Hill in Washington DC on April 28, 2015. (Photo by Lauren Victoria Burke/AP)

To defend Trump, Republicans target Dick Durbin

01/15/18 08:40AM

When Republicans find themselves on the defensive, they reflexively look for ways to turn their circumstances around and go on the offensive. In tactical terms, they're generally pretty good at it, just so long as one is willing to overlook facts and propriety.

As the revelations surrounding Donald Trump's Russia scandal have grown more serious, for example, the president and his allies have tried to flip the controversy, arguing that those looking for the real scandal should focus on the Justice Department. And the FBI. And Fusion GPS. And James Comey. And Christopher Steele. And Hilary Clinton's email server protocols.

Anyone but Trump.

Last week, the president was at the center of an international incident following behind-the-scenes comments in which Trump referred to Haiti and African nations as "shithole countries" during a meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) confirmed the accounts, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told a colleague that the reports on the controversy were basically correct.

To defend Trump, Republicans again needed to find a villain. They appear to have settled on Durbin.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) appeared on Fox News the other day, for example, and suggested that, regardless of what Trump said, the Illinois Democrat is responsible for "undermining trust" by alerting the public to the president's comments. House Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) pushed a similar line.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) went even further on CBS's "Face the Nation" yesterday.

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U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement from the Roosevelt Room next to the empty chairs of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (L), D-New York, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (R), D-California, after they cancelled their meeting at the Whi

Trump says DACA is 'probably dead,' scrambles to avoid blame

01/15/18 08:00AM

With policymakers facing a series of pressing deadlines, congressional Democrats have taken several steps to work out an agreement on a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) solution that would protect Dreamers. Just last week, Democratic officials not only briefly persuaded Donald Trump to agree with their position, they also worked out a bipartisan agreement with Senate Republicans.

It's against this backdrop that the president spent much of the weekend publishing a series  of  tweets suggesting the door is effectively closed.

"The Democrats are all talk and no action. They are doing nothing to fix DACA. Great opportunity missed. Too bad! ... I don't believe the Democrats really want to see a deal on DACA. They are all talk and no action. This is the time but, day by day, they are blowing the one great opportunity they have. Too bad!

"DACA is probably dead because the Democrats don't really want it, they just want to talk and take desperately needed money away from our Military."

Trump appears to be echoing an emerging line that's popular on the right, especially in conservative media: Dems could agree to a DACA compromise, the argument goes, but they'd rather keep the issue alive in order to exploit the controversy for political gain.

The problem with the thesis, which the president seems a little too eager to promote, is that it's ridiculous.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives for service at First Presbyterian Church in Muscatine, Iowa, Jan. 24, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP)

This Week in God, 1.13.18

01/13/18 08:16AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a look at the White House evangelical advisory council, whose members have remained steadfast in their support for Donald Trump, and whether the controversy surrounding his "shithole countries" comments has shaken his standing among these ardent faith-based backers.

Evidently not. The Washington Post  reported:

A few members of President Trump's evangelical advisory council — including its spokesman — on Friday defended the president after he made comments about immigrants from places including Africa and Central America.

In a statement to The Washington Post, [advisory council] spokesman Johnnie Moore questioned whether Trump had actually made the comments and accused Congress of holding up immigration reform. If Trump did make the comments, Moore said, they "were crass." The reports about Trump's remarks are "absolutely suspect and politicized," Moore said. [...]

Others in the advisory group — the only known regular pipeline of religious feedback to the White House — spoke in support of the president, saying that his language may not have been acceptable but that his views are.

As best as I can tell, much of Trump's evangelical council had no interest in commenting at all, which is itself problematic. That said, Robert Jeffress, a controversial far-right mega-church leader in Texas who enjoys close White House ties, went quite a bit further, endorsing Trump's racially inflammatory sentiment. "I support his views 100 percent, even though as a pastor I can't use that language," Jeffress told the Post.

This isn't altogether surprising. After Trump was heard bragging about sexually assaulting women on the "Access Hollywood" tape, his most prominent evangelical advisers stood by him. After Trump defended racist activists in Charlottesville last summer, only one member of the White House's evangelical advisory council resigned, no longer willing to be associated with this president.

As of last night, no current members have resigned in response to the president's racist rhetoric this week.

"Trump has courted evangelicals, some of whom have had access to him and his administration," Wheaton College's Ed Stetzer wrote yesterday. "I hope those evangelical leaders will speak clearly, reminding Trump that all people are worthy of dignity and respect because they are made in the image of God."

So far, many of these evangelical voices have been reluctant to say anything of the sort.

Also from the God Machine this week:

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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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