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Monday's Mini-Report, 1.23.17

01/23/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Deadly storms: "A severe storm that brought destructive tornadoes with it killed at least 19 people over the weekend as it moved south from Georgia and Mississippi into the Florida Panhandle."

* Good idea: "Senate Democrats are formally asking Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to have a second confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, President Trump's education nominee, arguing that they need an opportunity to further scrutinize her potential conflicts of interests and preparedness to lead the Education Department."

* I hope Trump doesn't punish NOAA for this: "A new report, released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the last day of Barack Obama's presidency, presents a series of updated estimates for future sea-level rise, both in the United States and worldwide. It suggests that, under extreme future climate change, global sea levels could rise by more than eight feet by the end of the century -- one of the highest estimates yet to be presented in a federal report."

* SCOTUS: "The Supreme Court rejected on Monday an appeal from Texas officials seeking to restore the state's strict voter ID law.... The Texas law, enacted in 2011, requires voters seeking to cast their ballots at the polls to present photo identification, like a Texas driver's or gun license, a military ID or a passport. Federal courts have repeatedly ruled that the law is racially discriminatory."

* The election is having consequences in the Middle East: "The city of Jerusalem, emboldened by anticipated support from the Trump administration, on Sunday authorized the construction of some 560 new homes in areas of the city claimed by the Palestinians as a capital of their future state."

* I don't expect this bill to go anywhere, but the fact that it was even introduced is unfortunate: "A proposed House Resolution would set the stage for the United States to remove itself from the United Nations. The proposed 'American Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2017' is sponsored by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL).."
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Image: Trump, flanked by Kushner, Pence and Porter, welcomes reporters into the Oval Office for him to sign his first executive orders at the White House in Washington

Surrounded by men, Trump takes aim at family planning policy

01/23/17 04:38PM

In his first full weekday as president, Donald Trump kept quite busy, moving forward on a series of executive orders and actions -- an approach to governing Republicans seemed to find offensive when there was a Democrat in the White House.

But one of the many policies Trump acted on today stood out as especially important.
Trump ... acted Monday to reinstate the so-named "Mexico City policy" first instituted by Ronald Reagan. That directive essentially barred recipients of U.S. foreign aid from promoting abortion as a method of family planning. In the early days of his presidency, Bill Clinton reversed the Reagan-backed policy; President George W. Bush reinstated it shortly after his election; and President Barack Obama revoked it -- each in their first few days as president.
One of the striking aspects of today's directive was the story the visuals told: in a scene reminiscent of the House Republicans' all-male panel on birth control in early 2012, the Republican president re-imposed the global gag rule today in the Oval Office while surrounded by a group of men.

But even more important, of course, is the policy itself.
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FBI Director James B. Comey listens to a question from a reporter during a media conference in San Francisco, Calif., Feb. 27, 2014. (Photo by Ben Margot/AP)

Trump thanks the FBI director accused of helping his campaign

01/23/17 01:00PM

There was a White House reception yesterday to thank law enforcement officers and first responders who worked on Donald Trump's inauguration, and the new president seemed especially eager to thank one person in particular. The Washington Post reported:
FBI Director James B. Comey, who infuriated Democrats during the campaign drama over Hillary Clinton's email, got a pat on the back Sunday from President Trump. [...]

"He's become more famous than me," Trump said to those ringing the room as Comey strode in his direction. The two men shook hands and as Comey leaned in toward Trump, the president patted him on the back a few times.
If you watch the clip closely, it seems as if Trump may have blown Comey a kiss before encouraging him to cross the room for a presidential embrace.

It wasn't surprising that Trump's principal concern was on Comey's "fame" -- the new president seems to prefer to have headlines to himself -- but the scene was nevertheless an awkward one.
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Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn arrives at Trump Tower, Nov. 17, 2016. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and high level positions for the new administration. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Counterintelligence investigation into Team Trump casts a wide net

01/23/17 12:30PM

The morning of Donald Trump's presidential inauguration, the New York Times published a striking front-page report: multiple U.S. agencies "are examining intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links" between Russian officials and Trump's close associates.

According to the reporting, the counterintelligence investigation is focused on contacts between Moscow and members of Trump's campaign team, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort, former foreign policy adviser Carter Page, and longtime Republican operative Roger Stone.

NBC News added later in the day that the FBI is not only part of a multi-agency investigation into Russia's alleged intervention in the American presidential campaign, but U.S. officials are also "examining how the operation was paid for and whether any Americans were involved."

The report went on to say, "One former intelligence official briefed on the matter said the investigation is looking into whether certain former Trump campaign aides had improper contacts with the Russians."

It's against this backdrop that the Wall Street Journal pushed this story forward overnight.
U.S. counterintelligence agents have investigated communications that President Donald Trump's national security adviser had with Russian officials, according to people familiar with the matter.

Michael Flynn is the first person inside the White House under Mr. Trump whose communications are known to have faced scrutiny as part of investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and Treasury Department to determine the extent of Russian government contacts with people close to Mr. Trump.

It isn't clear when the counterintelligence inquiry began, whether it produced any incriminating evidence or if it is continuing. Mr. Flynn, a retired general who became national security adviser with Mr. Trump's inauguration, plays a key role in setting U.S. policy toward Russia.
[Update: CNN is reporting that the investigation into Flynn's talks with Russia is ongoing.]

If the reporting is accurate, it's a major development. While Manafort, Page, and Stone played key roles in Trump's campaign operation, none of them has an official role in the White House now. Flynn, however, is also allegedly being investigated -- and he has an office in the West Wing.

Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.23.17

01/23/17 12:00PM

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

* White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted the other day that Trump has gone "above and beyond" to address his conflicts of interest. A new federal lawsuit will try to test that assertion.

* On Fox News yesterday, Chris Wallace asked White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to explain why Donald Trump said his inaugural crowd stretched from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. Priebus defended the bogus claim, saying the crowd really was that big. When the host patiently pointed to reality, Priebus wouldn't budge, adding, "I was sitting there looking."

* Already assuming he's going to win another term, the president told his new White House team yesterday, "We're going to do some great things over the next eight years."

* On a related note, Trump told supporters and donors the other day that he intends to win in 2020 "the old-fashioned way." He didn't explain exactly what that meant, but presumably it would include winning more votes than his opponent, which he failed to do in 2016.

* Asked Friday for his reaction to the new president's inaugural address, Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) said, "I've heard some very inspiring speeches that speak to the best of the whole country over the years -- and someday I may again."

* I'm not saying Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is running for anything, but his recent moves suggest he may be running for something.
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Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 17, 2014.

GOP skeptics fall in line to support Trump's State nominee

01/23/17 11:30AM

During his latest Sunday show appearance, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos yesterday he has the utmost confidence in members of Donald Trump's cabinet. The host quickly followed up with a good question.

"You say you have utmost confidence in his team," Stephanopoulos noted. "Do you have utmost confidence in President Trump?" McCain replied, "I do not know, George. I do not know, because he has made so many comments that are contradictory."

The exchange was largely overlooked, but it's worth appreciating the circumstances: the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee was asked whether he has confidence in his own party's sitting president. Twice, the senator said he didn't know. It's been quite a while since Americans were confronted with such a scenario.

But as striking as this moment was, McCain nevertheless said he'll vote to confirm former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump's choice for Secretary of State. Soon after, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement he'll do the same.

Earlier this month, after Trump tapped Russia's top American ally to be the country's chief diplomat, McCain was asked whether there was a "realistic scenario" in which he'd vote for Tillerson's confirmation. "Sure," the Arizona Republican replied at the time. "There's also a realistic scenario that pigs fly."

And what of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the last undecided Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? The Washington Post reports he's no longer undecided.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) will vote for President Trump's nominee for secretary of state, he announced Monday, resolving the final major question surrounding Rex Tillerson's bid to be confirmed as the nation's top diplomat. [...]

"Given the uncertainty that exists both at home and abroad about the direction of our foreign policy, it would be against our national interests to have this confirmation unnecessarily delayed or embroiled in controversy," Rubio said in a lengthy statement posted on Facebook. "Therefore, despite my reservations, I will support Mr. Tillerson's nomination in committee and in the full Senate."
I'm not sure that explanation makes sense -- waiting for a qualified nominee is better for the nation's interests in the long term than rushing through an unqualified nominee -- but Rubio is falling in line, as partisans usually do, and just as Rubio's critics predicted he'd do.
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Image: Trump, flanked by Kushner, Pence and Porter, welcomes reporters into the Oval Office for him to sign his first executive orders at the White House in Washington

Trump starts making policy without Congress

01/23/17 11:01AM

Before his election, Donald Trump made all kinds of promises about the sweeping agenda he'd impose on his first day in office. By and large, the new president largely ignored those promises over his first three days.

But Trump has nevertheless started to exercise some of his office's considerable power. On Friday, for example, one of the new president's first acts was to overturn an Obama administration policy that made it easier for first-time home buyers and low-income borrowers to afford a mortgage. Soon after, he signed an executive order related to the Affordable Care Act, which was unusually vague, and which experts are still trying to unravel.

The New York Times reported that Americans should expect to see quite a bit more along these lines.
President Trump plans to take executive action on a nearly daily basis for a month to unravel his predecessor's legacy and begin enacting his own agenda, his aides say, part of an extended exercise of presidential power to quickly make good on his campaign promises.

But in a reflection of the improvisational style that helped fuel his rise, he has made few, if any, firm decisions about which orders he wants to make, or in which order. That is a striking break from past presidents, who have entered office with detailed plans for rolling out a series of executive actions that set a tone for their presidencies and send a clear message about their agendas.
Today's changes will reportedly include executive orders on renegotiating NAFTA and withdrawing the United States from the Trans Pacific Partnership. [Update: the president's actions today also included a federal hiring freeze and new restrictions on international family planning.]

Also yesterday, Kellyanne Conway said the new president is prepared to possibly stop enforcing a part of federal health care law he doesn't like -- the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act -- which would likely have the effect of causing serious harm to the overall system.

And while each of these policies deserve to be evaluated on their individual merits, I can't help but wonder where the Republican complaints are about presidential policymaking by fiat.
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History mandates presidential candidates release tax returns, but not how many

Team Trump: Americans will not see the president's tax returns

01/23/17 10:32AM

When a politician and his team change their story, it's usually evidence of a problem. Take Donald Trump and his tax returns, for example.

As recently as May, the then-candidate said that he'd "like to" disclose the tax documents, "hopefully before the election," but his campaign never followed through. Initially, Team Trump said the decision was the result of an audit, which may nor may not exist. Soon after, the defense for secrecy evolved to include odd claims about the returns detracting from Trump's message and arguments about the materials' complexity.

Of course, that was before Election Day, when Trump and his team were clearly afraid the information on his tax returns would hurt his chances of success, making him the first major-party nominee since Watergate to insist on unexplained secrecy. How about now that he's actually the president?
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, said Sunday that the president would not be releasing his tax returns, reversing months of repeated campaign-trail promises to do so after an audit is completed.

Conway's comments came in response to a Whitehouse.gov petition with more than 200,000 signatures calling on Trump to release his tax returns. Any petition on the site that receives 100,000 signatures in 30 days receives a response from the White House; this petition reached twice that in two days.

"The White House response is that he's not going to release his tax returns," Conway said in an interview on ABC's "This Week."
Conway added, "We litigated this all through the election. People didn't care."

There's ample evidence to the contrary.
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Kellyanne Conway, a senior advisor to President-Elect Donald Trump, takes questions from the media at Trump Tower on Nov. 21, 2016 in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Kevin Hagen/Getty)

With 'alternative facts,' Trump World swimming in a sea of dishonesty

01/23/17 10:00AM

When George Orwell wrote "1984," he meant it as a warning, not an instruction guide.
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, said the White House press secretary gave "alternative facts" when he inaccurately described the inauguration crowd as "the largest ever" during his first appearance before the press this weekend.
It fell to "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd to explain to the White House aide, "Alternative facts are not facts. They're falsehoods."

To be sure, the new president and his team have already adopted some amazing new words and phrases that are quickly defining the Trump era -- "unpresidented," "American carnage," "bigly" -- but "alternative facts" is truly special. As the Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan noted yesterday, its use makes it clear "we've gone full Orwell."

In late 2004, Ron Suskind ran a lengthy, much-discussed piece on the Bush/Cheney administration, which featured an exchange between the reporter and an unnamed White House aide, rumored to be Karl Rove. The aide said journalists were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality."

The White House staffer added, "That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

More than 12 years later, a new Republican administration has power, and its approach to creating its own reality is arguably even more twisted.
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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.

White House press secretary makes an unfortunate first impression

01/23/17 09:30AM

Thousands of times, presidential press secretaries have appeared behind the podium in the White House briefing room. But never before have we witnessed a display comparable to Sean Spicer's tantrum on Saturday.
President Donald Trump's press secretary on Saturday slammed what he called inaccurate tweets and reporting that suggested the size of the crowd at Trump's inauguration was smaller than at past occasions.
Spicer, on his first full day as the president's chief spokesperson, told reporters that the inaugural crowd only appeared smaller because Friday was "the first time in our nation's history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the Mall." That wasn't true. He said security measures interfered with attendees trying to make it onto the Mall. That wasn't true, either.

Spicer added, "All of this space [from Trump's platform to the Washington Monument] was full when the president took the oath of office." That wasn't true, either.

Finally, the press secretary, with a straight face, declared, "This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration -- period." And that, of course, is quite literally unbelievable.

But even if we put aside Spicer's unfortunate imitation of Baghdad Bob, there's an important larger context to all of this.
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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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