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Monday's Mini-Report, 3.12.18

03/12/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* I'll have more on this tomorrow: "British Prime Minister Theresa May says her government has concluded it is 'highly likely' Russia is responsible for the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent."

* This is a major Kushner story: "Qatari officials gathered evidence of what they claim is illicit influence by the United Arab Emirates on Jared Kushner and other Trump associates, including details of secret meetings, but decided not to give the information to special counsel Robert Mueller for fear of harming relations with the Trump administration, say three sources familiar with the Qatari discussions."

* Texas: "One person has been killed and two injured in two separate blasts just miles apart in Austin, Tex., on Monday. In both attacks, the residents of the homes found a package outside their door that contained a powerful explosive device."

* As Rachel explained on Friday's show, Robert Mueller has this letter; "Donald Trump was so eager to have Vladi­mir Putin attend the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow that he wrote a personal letter to the Russian president inviting him to the event, according to multiple people familiar with the document."

* Never mind that stuff he said: "Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide, spent several hours testifying before a federal grand jury in Washington Friday, after reversing earlier statements that he wouldn't cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election."

* It's not just presidential palaver: "The Trump administration is studying new policy that could allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drug dealers, according to people with knowledge of the discussions, a sign that the White House wants to make a strong statement in addressing the opioid crisis."

* Trump's ATF: "In the wake of the mass shooting last month at a high school in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump vowed to use his executive authority to enact gun control through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. But over the past year, the ATF has been moving in the opposite direction, delaying new gun-safety rules developed under the Obama administration."

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump

Trump mistakenly brings renewed attention to his unpopularity

03/12/18 01:30PM

Donald Trump's poor poll numbers tend not to generate as much attention as they used to. The president is unpopular; we all know he's unpopular; and there's no reason to make a fuss about routine, predictable news.

Trump, however, wants to talk about it anyway.

"Rasmussen and others have my approval ratings at around 50%, which is higher than Obama, and yet the political pundits love saying my approval ratings are 'somewhat low.' They know they are lying when they say it. Turn off the show - FAKE NEWS!"

Well, someone's lying, but in this case, I don't think it's political pundits.

Let's start with some basics: no recent national poll has the president's approval rating "around 50%." Even Rasmussen, the Republican-friendly pollster that Trump singled out, puts the president's most recent support at 44%. Some major national pollsters, including Gallup, Monmouth, and Quinnipiac, each show Trump below 40%.

And then there's the hilarious idea that Trump's support is "higher than Obama." While I realize this president tends to see most political developments through an Obama-centric lens, the truth is, Trump's poll numbers, at least at this stage, are the lowest of any president in the modern era. Trump isn't especially close to where Obama was at this point in the Democrat's presidency.

In other words, by objective, verifiable metrics, everything Trump said on the subject is demonstrably untrue. What I think is more interesting, however, is why the president is calling attention to his unpopularity.

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Image: File Photo: Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing

DeVos embarrasses herself (and the 50 senators who voted to confirm her)

03/12/18 01:00PM

Those who keep a close eye on Capitol Hill have seen some rough confirmation hearings, but after Donald Trump tapped Betsy DeVos -- by most fair measures, an opponent of public education -- to lead the Department of Education, she struggled in highly memorable ways.

One senator, for example, asked about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and DeVos seemed to have no idea it was current law. Another asked for her opinions on the difference between evaluating education proficiency and growth, one of the more common areas of debate in the field. DeVos made it clear she was clueless. Another senator asked about guns in schools, and the nominee raised the prospect of grizzly bears going after children in Wyoming.

The Washington Post put together a video at the time of "head-scratching moments" from DeVos' hearing, and it wasn't a short clip.

Soon after, two Senate Republicans said they simply couldn't confirm DeVos to a post she was obviously unqualified to hold, but Vice President Mike Pence intervened to break a 50-50 tie and DeVos was confirmed.

We learned last night that the Education secretary has not spent the last year doing her homework. BuzzFeed explained:

Betsy DeVos, President Trump's polarizing education secretary, gave a cringe-worthy interview Sunday on 60 Minutes, in which she fumbled through questions about school safety, sexual assault on campus, inequality, and school choice, the agenda she has fastened her reputation and expertise upon. [...]

The education secretary stumbled through basically the entire thing and people watching were shocked and more than slightly concerned.

CBS published the clip and the transcript of the interview, which is worth checking out if you missed the segment, but if I were to try to summarize the problem in one sentence, I'd say DeVos struggled because she had no idea what she was talking about.

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Trump's 'intuition' is a poor substitute for evidence and reason

03/12/18 12:30PM

Peter Navarro has become a prominent adviser to Donald Trump on trade issues, and he told Bloomberg Politics the other day how he approaches his role in the White House.

Speaking to Bloomberg on March 7, Navarro heaped praise on his boss and described his own role as that of an enabler.

"This is the president's vision. My function, really, as an economist is to try to provide the underlying analytics that confirm his intuition. And his intuition is always right in these matters," Navarro said.

Perhaps it's worth pausing to note what an "adviser" to the president is supposed to do: advisers advise. They offer guidance based on research, judgment, and subject-matter expertise. An economist, in particular, is not supposed to start with someone's intuition and then work backwards to bolster the preconceived idea. It's a classic example of post-policy thinking.

But in this White House, this dynamic has become the norm. When shaping life-changing policy, Trump and his team could rely principally on evidence, data, facts, and reason, or they can go with what strikes them as "intuitively" true. They keep going with the latter. It's the difference between technocratic governing and listening to the gut of a 71-year-old amateur with no background in government, public policy, or public service.

And it comes up all the time. The Washington Post  reported over the weekend that White House aides provided Trump with data on the effects of Bush-era steel tariffs in 2002, which did not have the intended effect. "The president considered the advice," the article said, "but said that he was skeptical of economists and their data."

Of course. Why consider facts when the president has "intuition" and aides who tell him his hunches are always true?

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.12.18

03/12/18 12:00PM

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

* Donald Trump was in Pennsylvania over the weekend, at a campaign rally in Pittsburgh, the president urged locals to support Rick Saccone (R) in tomorrow's congressional special election. "This guy should win easily and he's going to win easily," Trump said.

* On a related note, Trump said Saccone "counseled" the president on North Korea "and told me other things specialists didn't know." For the record, Saccone is a state senator whose claims about his diplomatic experience in North Korea have been called into question.

* NBC News noted that as of Friday, ad spending in Pennsylvania's 18th district had reached $11.7 million, most of which has been spent by outside Republican groups.

* Democrats at the national level are keeping a close eye on the U.S. Senate races in Arizona and Texas, but ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) visits to those states, the independent senator passed on endorsing the Democratic candidates in either of the races.

* On a related note, Sanders also indicated last week that he isn't going to endorse Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D) re-election in California.

* It caused a bit of a stir when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said on NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday that she's "not running for president," but in context, I'm reasonably sure she was just talking about the present -- not her future plans.

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Desks in a classroom. (Photo by Bob O'Connor/Gallery Stock)

Trump is the wrong president to push 'abstinence-only' education

03/12/18 11:30AM

One of my favorite moments of Rick Perry's lengthy tenure as the Republican governor of Texas came in 2011, when he hosted an event in which he fielded questions from Texas Tribune chief Evan Smith. Relaying an inquiry from a voter, Smith asked, "Why does Texas continue with abstinence education programs, when they don't seem to be working?"

Perry listened the question, thought for a second, and replied, "Abstinence works."

The reporter pressed on, reminding the governor, "But we have the third-highest teen-pregnancy rate among all states in the country. The questioner's point is, it doesn't seem to be working." The governor responded, "It -- it works."

In reality, Texas helped prove that pushing abstinence was spectacularly ineffective as a public policy -- a fact Perry simply couldn't bring himself to understand, data be damned -- which is why it's all the more discouraging to see the policy "make a comeback" now. The Hill  reported last week:

In a marked departure from the previous administration, conservatives at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are putting an emphasis on abstinence to reduce teen pregnancy rates.

So far, the administration has encouraged organizations applying for Title X federal family planning funds to include in their programs a "meaningful emphasis" on "the benefits of avoiding sex" when communicating with adolescents and to use programs that don't "normalize sexual risk behaviors."

The Trump administration also plans to release its first report early this summer as part of a $10 million research project looking at ways to improve sex education programs, with a focus on the impact of "sexual delay."

Politico  added last week that Valerie Huber, the acting deputy assistant secretary for population affairs at HHS, and a longtime abstinence advocate , "will be the final arbiter of which groups receive federal family planning funds -- a change from prior years, when a group of officials made the decision."

As a matter of public health, all of this is quite discouraging. But there's also a political element to this that shouldn't be overlooked: abstinence is "making a comeback" under the presidency of Donald J. Trump.

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DREAMers (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) listen to speakers during a "United we Dream," rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 10, 2013.  (Photo by Alex Brandon/AP)

Why Trump clings to a cynical lie about Dreamers, DACA

03/12/18 11:00AM

Donald Trump delivered a message to the Latino Coalition Legislative Summit last week, telling attendees that the failure to protect Dreamers from his administration's own policy is Congress' fault. More specifically, he urged the Latino Coalition to blame Democrats for not embracing the White House's immigration plan.

Trump insisted that Democrats "don't care about our immigration system" which is why the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program -- a program the president rescinded -- is in doubt.

Over the weekend, at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania, the president went a little further:

"[Democrats] want to stop DACA. DACA is their issue. But I'm willing to go along and get it done. [...]

"I offered a deal that was so good you can't refuse, right, like the mob pictures. I will give you a deal that is so good, you can't refuse. I made a deal. I gave a deal so good, they could not refused. And I did it because I thought they were going to refuse. And they did. And they are getting killed now by the DACA recipients. They are getting killed."

None of this reflects reality in any way, though in this specific instance, I'm less interested in the fact that Trump is lying about DACA and more interested in why Trump is lying about DACA.

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Image: White House news conference with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Director Gary Cohn

Treasury's Mnuchin tries to defend Trump's offensive antics

03/12/18 10:31AM

When Donald Trump first went after Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) last summer, the president called the Democratic congressman "Sleazy" Adam Schiff. That taunt gave way to "Liddle" Adam Schiff, and later "Phony" Adam Schiff.

The California lawmaker, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, eventually responded, in a message to Trump, "Surely you know the key to a good playground nickname is consistency. I thought you were supposed to be good at this."

Alas, the president isn't good at this, and his bullying has gotten lazy. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was labeled "Dicky Durbin." Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) was called, simply, "Flake Jeff Flake," which is hardly the kind of name-calling one expects from someone who actually cares about name-calling.

At his campaign rally in Pittsburgh on Saturday night, the president seemed eager to dish out Trump-branded insults, calling Democratic congressional candidate Conor Lamb "Lamb the Sham," which at least rhymes. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) remains "Pocahontas," Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) was described as "a low-IQ individual" -- a line he also used at the Gridiron event last week, targeting the longtime lawmaker -- and NBC News' Chuck Todd was condemned as a "son of a bitch."

On that last point, Todd asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on "Meet the Press" yesterday about the president's antics. This exchange stood out for me:

TODD: I think you most recently appeared before [Maxine Waters'] committee. She's the Ranking Member on House Financial Services. If somebody on your staff referred to her that way in public, would that person still be on your staff?

MNUCHIN: Chuck, you know I've been with the president and at campaigns. You know he likes to put names on people. He did that throughout the entire presidential election. Including all of the Republicans that he beat. So these are campaign rally issues.

That's not much of an answer. Trump is, after all, supposed to be the president. Making public appearances and using vulgar, juvenile language because he "likes to" doesn't really answer the question. Obviously he "likes to" do this; the question is whether or not he should.

Besides, describing someone as "a low-IQ individual" isn't even an example of name-calling.

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The view from a witness room facing the execution chamber of a "death house" at a correctional facility. (Photo by Caroline Groussain/AFP/Getty)

Trump offers new support for executing drug dealers

03/12/18 10:00AM

It started as little more than a rumor. A few weeks ago, Axios had a report that Donald Trump has privately expressed admiration for how Singapore deals with drug-trafficking offenses: the government executes those found guilty. The American president, the report said, has been "telling friends for months" that Singapore's model is effective.

Trump kicked things up a notch during a recent White House summit on the opioid crisis, reminding attendees that countries that kill drug dealers "have much less of a drug problem than we do."

Now he's taking this pitch to the public.

President Trump on Saturday again called for enacting the death penalty for drug dealers during a rally meant to bolster a struggling GOP candidate for a U.S. House seat here. [...]

Trump said that allowing prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drug dealers -- an idea he said he got from Chinese President Xi Jinping -- is "a discussion we have to start thinking about. I don't know if this country's ready for it."

So, Donald Trump believes that to address the drug problem, the American government should probably kill more American citizens. What's more, Trump's thinking on criminal justice issues has apparently been shaped by China -- a country led by an unelected president who expects to serve for life, in a country that isn't exactly known for serving as a model on civil liberties.

For those concerned about Trump's authoritarian tendencies, this won't help.

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Is Trump eyeing another change to his legal defense team?

03/12/18 09:30AM

There's practically been a revolving door at Donald Trump's White House, with key aides departing at a dramatic rate, creating a staffing crisis with no modern precedent. But let's not forget that the president's outside legal team has also seen some shake-ups.

As the Russia scandal intensified, and the president found it necessary to bring on outside counsel, Trump initially turned to Marc Kasowitz to head up the team. That didn't go especially well -- Kasowitz had no relevant background in this kind legal work -- and the baton was soon passed to Ty Cobb.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that a new lawyer is suddenly in the mix.

President Trump is in discussions with a veteran Washington lawyer who represented Bill Clinton during the impeachment process about joining the White House to help deal with the special counsel inquiry, according to four people familiar with the matter.

The lawyer, Emmet T. Flood, met with Mr. Trump in the Oval Office this past week to discuss the possibility, according to the people. No final decision has been made, according to two of the people.

This isn't exactly my area of expertise, but Flood has an exceptional reputation, and given the seriousness of the scandal facing the president, Trump would be lucky to secure Flood's services. The performance of the president's current outside legal team has been underwhelming for a while, and Flood's background is exactly what Trump needs.

Which is why it was of interest when Trump denied the accuracy of the Times' reporting and insisted via Twitter that he's "VERY happy" with his lawyers. (The newspaper stands by its article.)

So, what's going on here?

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Image: President Trump meets GOP senators at the White House

Trump is clearly not 'the ultimate deal-maker and negotiator'

03/12/18 09:00AM

At the end of Friday's White House press briefing, a reporter asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders what "specific steps" Donald Trump is taking to prepare for a summer with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The president's press secretary suggested there's nothing to worry about:

"[T]he president is, I think, the ultimate negotiator and dealmaker when it comes to any type of conversation.... And we feel very confident in where we are."

Around the same time, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the other day that Trump is "one of the best negotiators." Soon after, in a separate interview, asked why the American leader agreed to the meeting, a senior administration official added that the president "has made his reputation on making deals."

Perhaps, but has Trump earned that reputation, or is it a sales pitch based on meaningless hype with no grounding in reality?

To be sure, this president wants to be perceived as a world-class negotiator. Not long before launching his presidential campaign, Trump identified what he saw as his greatest strength. “Deals are my art form,” the Republican boasted. “Other people paint beautifully or write poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.” It's partly why he paid a ghost-writer to help write a book called, "The Art of the Deal."

But in practice, this is proving to be one of Trump's biggest weaknesses.

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Image: Stormy Daniels Hosts Super Bowl Party At Sapphire Las Vegas Gentlemen's Club

Trying to silence porn star, Trump World reportedly eyes new lawsuit

03/12/18 08:30AM

We learned last week that Stormy Daniels, the porn star who received $130,000 to keep quiet about an alleged sexual relationship with Donald Trump, sat down with Anderson Cooper for an interview to air on CBS's "60 Minutes."

BuzzFeed reported yesterday that the president's attorneys are considering new litigation to block the segment from airing.

Lawyers associated with President Donald Trump are considering legal action to stop 60 Minutes from airing an interview with Stephanie Clifford, the adult film performer and director who goes by Stormy Daniels, BuzzFeed News has learned.

"We understand from well-placed sources they are preparing to file for a legal injunction to prevent it from airing," a person informed of the preparations told BuzzFeed News on Saturday evening.

It's worth emphasizing that Trump World has an unfortunate habit of threatening all kinds of litigation, and those threats often amount to nothing. It was just two months ago, for example, that the president's lawyers tried to block the publication of Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury." The effort went nowhere.

And there's no reason to think litigation against CBS, if it's filed, would be any better. At issue is something called "prior restraint," in which a plaintiff asks a court to suppress media -- broadcasts, print content, etc. -- that the litigant considers harmful. The existence of the First Amendment makes this difficult and creates a high bar to be cleared.

We don't know what, if anything, Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, told "60 Minutes" about her alleged affair. Chances are, Trump's lawyers don't know, either. But if Trump World does bring this to court, it's probably going to claim that Daniels is subject to a non-disclosure agreement -- an agreement that CBS News had no part of -- and that her claims will be libelous to the president if aired.

I'm happy to let legal experts speak to this in detail, but I have a hunch the end result will be higher ratings for the interview.

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U.S. President Donald J. Trump speaks to the media during a meeting with congressional leadership in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, in Washington, D.C., November 28, 2017.

Despite recent rhetoric, Trump abandons ambitious plans on guns

03/12/18 08:00AM

Two weeks ago, Donald Trump hosted a fascinating meeting at the White House with a bipartisan group of senators, and to the surprise of many, the Republican president expressed support for "comprehensive" reforms to the nation's gun laws. In fact, Trump said, he envisioned a "beautiful" bill that included all kinds of provisions.

Such as? The president's vision included everything from hiking age requirements on long-guns to "powerful" background checks to gun confiscation without prior due process. As for the National Rifle Association, Trump went so far as to mock Republicans to their face for fearing the far-right lobbying group.

Almost immediately, the White House signaled that Trump's rhetoric may not reflect the president's actual policy vision, and now that Team Trump has unveiled a blueprint, the 180-degree turn is complete. A Washington Post  report noted:

Trump has said he was personally moved by the shooting -- and by the persistent and impassioned calls for action from some of the teenage survivors as well as parents of the victims -- and elevated the issue of school safety in his administration. He has called for raising the minimum age for purchasing an AR-15 or similar-style rifles from 18 to 21 years old.

"Now, this is not a popular thing to say, in terms of the NRA. But I'm saying it anyway," Trump said in a Feb. 28 meeting with lawmakers. "You can buy a handgun -- you can't buy one; you have to wait until you're 21. But you can buy the kind of weapon used in the school shooting at 18. I think it's something you have to think about."

Yes, and apparently Trump administration officials are done thinking about it and have decided to leave it up to state officials to decide what to do about age requirements.

The president's plan, however, does include support for arms training for school teachers and creates a commission to examine school safety, to be led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Nearly all of Trump's ambitious vision, however, has been shelved, just two weeks after it was articulated by the president.

And that in turn reinforces a few key truths:

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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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