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Microphones stand at the podium after Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta addressed supporters at the election night rally in N.Y. on Nov. 9, 2016. (Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters)

Voice of America has concerns about Team Trump's takeover

01/25/17 12:53PM

For much of 2016, when it wasn't clear whether Donald Trump was serious about the presidency or what he intended to do after the election, there was endless chatter about the Republican celebrity parlaying his candidacy into a new television network. If Trump didn't really want to be president, the speculation went, maybe he wanted to head a network he could shape in his own image.

Soon after the election, a different fear came to the fore: perhaps, by winning the presidency, he could have his own network anyway.

About a month ago, Politico reported that some officials at Voice of America were concerned that the former reality-show personality might try to turn VOA into "an unfettered propaganda arm." Politico published a follow-up piece yesterday on the state of those fears as a pair of political operatives from Trump's campaign showed up at the VOA offices.
President Donald Trump on Monday dispatched two aides to scope out the studios of Voice of America, heightening concerns among some longtime staffers that Trump may quickly put his stamp on the broadcasting arm that has long pushed U.S. democratic ideals across the world. [...]

The concern among some staffers is especially acute because Trump's administration is getting control over the broadcasting agency just weeks after Congress moved to eliminate the board of directors that had served as an integrity check on the organization, instead consolidating power with a CEO position appointed by the president. [Update: See below.]
The report added that the two Trump aides will take stock at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, "which has an annual budget of $800 million and includes Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcast Networks."

Maybe everything will be fine. At the start of every administration, officials go to practically every agency to kick the tires, and it's possible Team Trump will leave public-diplomacy programs like Voice of America to run independently, as the Obama administration did.

But the fears are understandable.
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President Elect Donald Trump arrives on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan.20, 2017 in Washington, DC. In today's inauguration ceremony Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Leading House Republican: Listen to Trump for 'the unvarnished truth'

01/25/17 12:00PM

It stands to reason that most congressional Republicans will eagerly stand behind Donald Trump for purely partisan reasons. Many GOP lawmakers balked at Trump's candidacy, some even called for him to quit the 2016 race as recently as October, but the president is, practically by definition, the head of the party, and Republicans have embraced him with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

But reading this Washington Post report, it seems unlikely that few in Washington like Trump quite as much as Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.).
In a remarkable Tuesday night floor speech, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, praised the physical and mental powers of President Trump and encouraged people to get "unvarnished" news directly from the president, not from the news media.

"Just think what the media would be saying about President Trump if he were a Democrat," Smith said during the evening time reserved for one-minute speeches. "He has tremendous energy. He campaigned for 18 months, puts in 15-hour days, and has the stamina of a bull elephant, like Teddy Roosevelt. He is courageous and fearless. Given the amount of hate directed his way, no doubt he constantly receives death threats, but that doesn't curtail his public appearances or seem to worry him in the least."
The Texas Republican, whose bizarre handling of the House Science Committee is the stuff of legend, added, "Better to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth."

In a way, this is an important perspective.
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Image: President Elect Trump Continues His "Thank You Tour" In Grand Rapids, Michigan

Establishing the baselines for Trump's economic record

01/25/17 11:20AM

As a candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump routinely dismissed the falling unemployment rate as illegitimate. At different times, the Republican publicly argued that the unemployment rate was 20% or possibly 42%, even as reality pointed to a rate closer to 5%. After the election, at a pre-inaugural press conference, the president declared there are "96 million really wanting a job and they can't get," which didn't make any sense.

With that in mind, when a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer this week, "What is the unemployment rate?" this wasn't a gotcha question or a pop quiz. As Benjy Sarlin had a good piece on this the other day:
This all-over-the-map approach creates an obvious problem -- how do we judge Trump's success or failures on the economy? Will he still be claiming 42 percent of people are out of work when he's running for re-election? Or will he go back to the traditional number -- currently 4.7 percent -- to gauge how things are going?
Spicer largely dodged the question, eventually telling reporters, in reference to the president, "He's not focused on statistics as much as he is on whether or not the American people are doing better as a whole.... I think far too often in Washington we get our heads wrapped around a number and a statistic. And we look at, and we forget the faces and the families and the business that are behind those numbers. For too long it's been about stats."

As a rule, people who are eager to dismiss specific, quantifiable economic measurements tend to believe the "stats" will be unflattering for them.

Nevertheless, it's a little late for Trump World to deny interest in economic data. Not only did Trump spend a year sharing figures that apparently originated in his over-active imagination, his White House has already established some key economic benchmarks, whether Sean Spicer is willing to acknowledge them or not.
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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is seen as the sun sets on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Defying irony, Senate GOP complains bitterly about obstructionism

01/25/17 10:48AM

As the new Congress gets underway alongside a new president, progressive activists are looking to congressional Democrats to wage a fierce partisan war against the Trump White House. Senate Democrats, evidently, don't quite see it that way.

Four times over the last five days, top nominees for Donald Trump's cabinet and administration have come up for a floor vote, and four times, the nominee was confirmed with bipartisan support. To the consternation of their party's base, many Senate Dems appear eager to seem reasonable and cooperative, picking their fights carefully, and endorsing the least offensive of the new president's nominees.

It makes Republicans' whining about Democratic obstructionism that much more difficult to understand.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) complained the other day about Dems briefly blocking Mike Pompeo's CIA nomination "for no good reason," despite the far-right Arkansan's indefensible obstructionist tactics during the Obama administration. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who helped block a qualified Supreme Court nominee he personally recommended, added this week, "I worry about what my colleagues on the other side are doing to the Senate." The Utah Republican, apparently having forgotten 2009 through 2016, added that he's never seen partisan rancor on nominations comparable to the last few weeks.

They're not the only outraged Republicans. The Weekly Standard reported this week:
Republican leadership is rethinking its relationship with Democratic minority leader Chuck Schumer after Schumer betrayed a promise to allow a vote last Friday on President Donald Trump's pick for CIA director, according to a top Republican lawmaker who spoke to The Weekly Standard. [...]

Senate majority whip John Cornyn told TWS Monday that the incident is causing Republicans to reevaluate relations with Schumer.... The incident does not help trust between Senate Republicans and Democrats, he added.
All of this bitterness unfolded because the Senate voted to confirm Pompeo on Monday instead of Friday. That's it. After eight years of Republican obstructionism that was more severe than anything that exists in the American tradition, GOP senators whined incessantly about delaying a confirmation vote until after the weekend -- when Pompeo was confirmed easily with quite a few Democratic votes.
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Demonstrators arrive at Union Station for the Women's March on Washington on Jan. 21, 2017, in Washington, DC.

Following women's marches, Republicans target reproductive rights

01/25/17 10:01AM

The day after millions of people participated in women's marches, in one of the most impressive displays of American activism in recent memory, Kellyanne Conway was dismissive of the entire endeavor.

"We certainly respect people's First Amendment rights," the White House counselor to Donald Trump said. "But I frankly didn't see the point."

 And while event organizers and participants are perfectly capable of explaining "the point" to Conway, it seems fair to say the events were part of a backlash to a far-right agenda targeting women's rights and interests. In fact, as Slate's Michelle Goldberg explained yesterday, "the point" of the events seemed even clearer two days later.
On Monday morning, Donald Trump, surrounded by a group of smiling white men, signed an executive order banning foreign nongovernmental organizations that receive certain kinds of American aid from counseling health clients about abortion or advocating for abortion law liberalization. Supporters of international reproductive rights were disappointed but not surprised. Ronald Reagan first issued the so-called Mexico City policy in 1984, stripping U.S. family planning funds from groups involved with abortion, and ever since, every Republican president has reinstated it.

By Monday's end, however, people who work on global reproductive health and rights were reeling. Trump, it eventually emerged, hadn't simply revived the so-called global gag rule. Quietly, with so little publicity that activists weren't aware until someone saw the new language in a tweeted image, Trump had massively expanded the rule. Suzanne Ehlers, president and CEO of the global reproductive health organization PAI, says it's the global gag rule "on steroids."
Mark Leon Goldberg explained that the original Global Gag Rule targeted funding that went to non-governmental organizations that work on family planning and reproductive health. As designed, the gag rule prevented these groups from even mentioning to women that abortion exists as a possible option.

Trump's gag rule works the same way, but it applies to a much bigger pot of money. The U.N. Dispatch piece said, "Rather than applying the Global Gag Rule exclusively to US assistance for family planning in the developing world, which amounts to about $575 million per year, the Trump memo applies it to 'global health assistance furnished by all department or agencies.' In other words, NGOs that distribute bed nets for malaria, provide childhood vaccines, support early childhood nutrition and brain development, run HIV programs, fight ebola or Zika, and much more, must now certify their compliance with the Global Gag Rule or risk losing US funds. According to analysis from PAI, a global health NGO, this impacts over $9 billion of US funds, or about 15 times more than the previous iteration of the Global Gag Rule which only impacted reproductive health assistance."
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Voting booths are illuminated by sunlight as voters cast their ballots at a polling place on Nov. 6, 2012. (Photo by Jae C. Hong/AP)

Trump wants a 'major investigation' into an imaginary problem

01/25/17 09:20AM

When Donald Trump first asserted, three weeks after winning the presidency, that he lost the popular vote due to widespread fraud, it was obviously a ridiculous lie. A week later, Trump's own attorneys explained in a legal filing, "All available evidence suggests that the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake."

The bizarre claims soon faded, until the president embraced them once more this week, telling congressional leaders he secretly won the popular vote if you exclude the millions of votes cast illegally by undocumented immigrants. This, of course, borders on delusional, but it also raises a related question: if Trump genuinely believes this nonsense, shouldn't he call for an investigation into this existential threat to the integrity of the American electoral process?

When a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer about this yesterday, he said "maybe" the Trump administration will pursue this, "but right now, the focus that the president has is on putting Americans back to work."

As of this morning, that's apparently no longer the focus.
President Donald Trump continued to perpetuate unsubstantiated and debunked claims of election irregularities Wednesday morning by promising a "major investigation" into what he described as "voter fraud." [...]

Trump tweeted Wednesday morning that he would ask for an investigation into voter fraud, including alleged votes by undocumented immigrants, people who are allegedly registered to vote in more than one state and "those registered to vote who are dead (and many for a long time)."

The president said that depending on the results of the investigation, he would call for "strengthening up voting procedures!"
It's worth pausing to appreciate the fact that Trump can apparently be baited into doing almost anything. He's pushed this ridiculous ideas about voter fraud for months and never even hinted about the need for an investigation. Yesterday, however, journalists effectively said, "If Trump were serious, he'd be demanding a probe," leading the president to quickly start tweeting -- complete with unnecessary capitalization and exclamation points -- about his newfound interest in an investigation, an interest he apparently discovered after watching some TV news.
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White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivers his first statement in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017.

Trump World tries to defend its reliance on 'alternative facts'

01/25/17 08:40AM

Occasionally, a political figure coins a phrase that becomes an instant classic. In the case of Trump World, it happened just 48 hours after the new president's inauguration.

Trump and his team have been furious about the evidence that the Republican's inaugural crowd was rather paltry, leading White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to upbraid reporters on Saturday with bizarre claims. A day later, Kellyanne Conway, a top member of Donald Trump's team, told NBC News' Chuck Todd that the White House has "alternative facts" to share.

As the Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan noted the other day, the phrase makes clear "we've gone full Orwell."

Trump World doesn't quite see it that way, as Sean Spicer tried to explain last night. The New York Daily News reported:
The newly appointed top White House spokesman made that connection on Fox News Tuesday night while defending his colleague, Kellyanne Conway, who recently came under fire for using the term "alternative facts" to describe exaggerated inauguration attendance numbers.

"There are times, like anything else, it's not alternative facts, it's that there's sometimes you can watch two different stations and get two different weather reports," Spicer told Fox host Sean Hannity. "That doesn't mean the station was lying to you."
If only that made sense, it might be easier to take the White House press secretary seriously.
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President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Orlando Amphitheater at the Central Florida Fairgrounds, Dec. 16, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

When the White House lies about lying, there's a problem

01/25/17 08:00AM

In his first formal meeting with congressional leaders this week, Donald Trump repeated one of his favorite lies: it may look like he won the presidency despite losing the popular vote, but he secretly won the popular vote -- because 3 million to 5 million "illegals" voted in the election for his opponent.

By any sane measure, the claim is completely bonkers, and yet, the White House refuses to walk it back.
The White House doubled down on President Donald Trump's widely debunked claim that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election, costing Trump the popular vote.

"The president does believe that," White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Tuesday, just one day after pledging to tell the public "the facts as I know them." "He's stated that before, I think he has stated his concerns of voter fraud and people voting illegally during the campaign and continues to maintain that belief based on studies and evidence people have presented to him."
And what, pray tell, are those "studies and evidence"? The struggling press secretary, whose credibility is already badly damaged, told reporters, "I think there's been studies. There's one that came out of Pew in 2008 that showed 14 percent of people who voted were non-citizens."

That, too, is a claim that Trump World has repeatedly embraced, despite being completely wrong.

What Americans are confronted with is a new president who is comfortable lying, backed up by White House aides who are equally comfortable lying about lying.

There was some discussion yesterday about whether Trump's ridiculous claims about voter fraud actually constitute a "lie," as opposed to an outrageous falsehood. It's a fair question, but in this case, the president has been told repeatedly his claim is wrong; his own lawyers have acknowledged it's wrong; but Trump repeats it anyway.

There was also some chatter yesterday that Trump's brazen dishonesty isn't as important as some of the White House's policy pronouncements from the last few days. I'm not unsympathetic to the point, but I'd caution against dismissing the story too quickly.
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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 1.24.17

01/24/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Environmentalists who voted for Jill Stein may be having second thoughts today: "President Donald Trump signed a series of executive orders Tuesday to advance the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines. Trump signed a total of five orders regarding environmental issues in the Oval Office, including a pair addressing the pipeline projects as well as actions to expedite environmental reviews for high priority projects."

* China: "A day after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer vowed that the United States would stand up to China's military expansion in the South China Sea, officials [in Beijing] are firing back."

* The consequences of the U.S. election: "Israel on Tuesday unveiled plans for 2,500 housing units in the West Bank, the second announcement of new construction in the occupied territory since President Donald Trump took office."

* Brexit hits a possible hurdle: "It remains unclear whether Prime Minister Theresa May's plans or timetable for taking Britain out of the European Union will be altered by the Supreme Court's ruling on Tuesday that she must secure Parliament's approval before beginning the process. Most analysts, even those who opposed 'Brexit,' as the departure from the bloc is known, doubt that it will."

* On a related note: "In a call with EU leadership, Trump transition officials asked which country would be next to leave the bloc, the departing U.S. ambassador to the EU, Anthony Gardner, said Friday. He suggested the call pointed to a Euroskeptic outlook within the new administration."

* Mosul: "American-backed forces in Iraq have been keen to champion their imminent capture of the eastern half of ISIS stronghold Mosul. But humanitarian groups warned Tuesday that there are still hundreds of thousands of people in the besieged area facing severe food, water, fuel and medical shortages."

* The year's least surprising news: "The F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, told his top agents from around the country that he had been asked by President Trump to stay on the job running the federal government's top law enforcement agency, according to people familiar with the matter."
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A logo sign outside of a facility occupied by Aetna, Inc., in Blue Bell, Penn., on June 28, 2015. (Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar/AP)

Another Republican anti-Obamacare argument runs into trouble

01/24/17 05:04PM

As recently as April 2016, Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini sounded quite positive about the insurer's participation in exchange marketplaces, describing them as a "good investment" in a call with investors. A month later, he again said Aetna planned to participate in the Affordable Care Act's exchanges.

In August, however, everything changed. Aetna, one of the nation's largest private insurers, surprised many by announcing that it was losing money through "Obamacare" plans and would therefore scale back its role considerably.

Republicans, naturally, pounced on the news, pointing to Aetna's announcement as powerful evidence of a failing ACA. As we discussed at the time, there was a lingering question about whether the insurance company was telling the whole story: the Obama administration was standing in the way of Aetna's proposed merger with Humana, which didn't make Aetna at all happy.

Was it possible the insurer was getting some election-year payback? Or was this some kind of leverage play, in which Aetna would participate more broadly if the administration played ball with the company's merger plans, using the exchanges as a bargaining chip?

Plenty of people thought this was conspiratorial thinking. It now appears they were mistaken.
America's second-largest health insurance company stopped offering coverage to hundreds of thousands of people as part of a legal strategy to avoid government scrutiny of a planned merger, a federal judge said in a ruling today. [...]

The health insurance giant said it exited the exchanges purely for business reasons, having lost a total of $420 million due to plans sold through the marketplaces. But in a ruling blocking its merger with Humana today, DC District Court judge John Bates said it was also done as a legal maneuver.
Republicans who used this as a talking point last year should probably take a moment to realize they fell for a bogus claim.
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About The Rachel Maddow Show

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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