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U.S.  President Obama meets with President-elect Trump in the White House Oval Office in Washington

Obama speaks up, laments Trump's 'serious' and 'misguided' mistake

05/09/18 09:20AM

Just two days before the end of his presidency, Barack Obama hosted a White House press conference in which he said he expected the new administration and Congress to make their own determinations about the nation's direction, and by and large, he intended to stay out of it.

Obama acknowledged at the time, however, that there might be exceptions to the rule. "There's a difference," the outgoing president explained, "between that normal functioning of politics and certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake."

The former president evidently believed yesterday's developments warranted a break in his silence. The Associated Press reported:

Former President Barack Obama is calling President Donald Trump's decision to pull out of the Iran deal a "serious mistake" that will erode America's global credibility.

Obama's administration brokered the deal. He says Tuesday that Trump's decision to withdraw is "misguided," especially because Iran has been complying.

Obama also warned: "The consistent flouting of agreements that our country is a party to risks eroding America's credibility, and puts us at odds with the world's major powers."

Obama says that without the deal, the U.S. "could eventually be left with a losing choice between a nuclear-armed Iran or another war in the Middle East."

In reference to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name for the international nuclear agreement with Iran, the former president concluded, "In a dangerous world, America must be able to rely in part on strong, principled diplomacy to secure our country. We have been safer in the years since we achieved the JCPOA, thanks in part to the work of our diplomats, many members of Congress, and our allies. Going forward, I hope that Americans continue to speak out in support of the kind of strong, principled, fact-based, and unifying leadership that can best secure our country and uphold our responsibilities around the globe."

One gets the sense that Obama does not believe we're seeing strong, principled, fact-based, and unifying leadership now.

For those keeping score, this is not the first time the Democratic president has spoken out in response to one of his successor's policies. The list now includes:

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Image: Donald Trump

Whatever happened to Donald Trump, the 'ultimate dealmaker'?

05/09/18 08:40AM

In late 2013, there were rising tensions between the Obama administration and Iran, and Donald Trump decided to weigh in with his unique insights. "Remember that I predicted a long time ago that President Obama will attack Iran because of his inability to negotiate properly," Trump said at the time.

The Republican added, in reference to the Democratic president, "Not skilled!"

From Trump's perspective, at least in November 2013, if Obama was better at negotiating -- if the then-president had the necessary "skills" -- he'd reach a diplomatic agreement with Iran, rather than push the United States closer to another military conflict in the Middle East.

Trump's mindless palaver, of course, soon proved ridiculous. Obama helped create an international sanctions regime that brought Iran to the negotiating table, where the Obama administration helped negotiate a historic international agreement, halting Iran's nuclear program. Everything Trump "predicted" turned out to be backwards.

But nearly five years later, Trump's little tweet also comes with an ironic twist: he's now the one inviting a new war "because of his inability to negotiate properly." The current president is giving every indication that he's ... what's the phrase ... "not skilled."

A couple of months ago, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters, "[T]he president is, I think, the ultimate negotiator and dealmaker when it comes to any type of conversation."

Proof to substantiate the boast remains elusive. The New York Times' editorial board noted this morning:

So far, again and again, he has shown himself to be adept at destroying agreements -- a relatively easy task for a president -- and utterly lacking in the policy depth or strategic vision and patience to create new ones.

This isn't what American voters were told to expect from a Trump presidency. Indeed, it's the opposite.

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Image: FBI Investigates Trump's attorney Michael Cohen

Controversy surrounding Michael Cohen's finances goes in an unexpected direction

05/09/18 08:00AM

When the Stormy Daniels controversy began in earnest, one of the key details was how, exactly, Michael Cohen paid the porn star the pre-election hush money. After all, it wasn't as if Donald Trump's personal attorney just grabbed his checkbook and wrote her a check for $130,000.

Rather, Cohen bought Daniels' silence through an LLC he quietly created in Delaware, where it's easier to establish business entities with minimal disclosures. He established Essential Consultants LLC, on Oct. 17, 2016, just a few weeks before Election Day.

It was generally assumed that Essential Consultants LLC wasn't really a proper business, so much as it was a vehicle Cohen used to pay off one of the president's alleged former mistresses. But what we discovered last night is that Cohen's little one-person operation was far busier than anyone realized. NBC News reported late yesterday:

Stormy Daniels' attorney claimed Tuesday that President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen received $500,000 from a company controlled by a Russian oligarch, deposited into an account for a company also used to pay off the adult film actress.

Daniels' attorney, Michael Avenatti, also detailed other transactions he said were suspicious, including deposits from drug giant Novartis, the state-run Korea Aerospace Industries, and AT&T -- which confirmed it paid Cohen's company for "insights" into the Trump administration.

If true, Avenatti's claims, made in a dossier posted to Twitter, could add a new dimension to the federal investigation into Cohen. NBC News has reviewed financial documents that appear to support Avenatti's account of the transactions.

Note, Cohen's LLC also appears to have paid Cohen more than $1 million, in three installments, last summer. This raises related questions about whether Trump's lawyer deposited those checks for himself or for someone else.

But just as important is the existence of that money.

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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 5.8.18

05/08/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* I'm glad this scandal was resolved so quickly: "New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a prominent figure in the #MeToo movement who has taken on disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein, abruptly resigned Monday night after The New Yorker published the accusations of women who said he was violent toward them."

* Related news: "The Manhattan District Attorney's Office confirmed on Tuesday that it is investigating outgoing New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman -- as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the sexual-abuse allegations leveled against the soon-to-be former official 'deeply disturbing.'"

* Schneiderman's replacement: "[O]n Tuesday, Cuomo said he had faith that the solicitor general Barbara Underwood, who will become the acting attorney general until a joint session of the legislation can appoint a new attorney general, would be successful in the role."

* Shouldn't this get a congressional hearing or two? "The four U.S. soldiers killed in Niger last October were trying to capture or kill a senior ISIS terrorist, but the two officers in charge of their 12-man unit misled their higher-ups by reporting they were going on a far less risky mission, according to two U.S. officials and a congressional official familiar with the classified investigation of the deadly ambush."

* Good thinking: "Sen. Orrin Hatch, who called it 'ridiculous' that Sen. John McCain would not want President Donald Trump to attend his funeral, apologized to his ailing GOP colleague Tuesday for the off-the-cuff remark."

* I guess this was inevitable: "President Donald Trump is growing increasingly irritated with lawyer Rudy Giuliani's frequently off-message media blitz, in which he has muddied the waters on hush money paid to porn actress Stormy Daniels and made claims that could complicate the president's standing in the special counsel's Russia probe."

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Image: Donald Trump, Mike Pence

A president who tears down, rather than builds up

05/08/18 04:37PM

It took five years of difficult diplomatic work to put an international sanctions regime in place that forced Iran to come to the negotiating table. It took two years of difficult diplomatic work to reach an international agreement that blocked Iran's nuclear program and worked exactly as intended.

It took a few minutes for Donald Trump to throw all of that work away.

President Donald Trump's decision to reimpose sanctions on Iran -- essentially abandoning the Obama-era nuclear deal -- leaves the international community scrambling to salvage the pact. [...]

Although Trump has been emphatic in his opposition to the deal, he was less clear about what should replace it or how far the U.S. is willing to go to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions or its regional aggression.

To a very real extent, it's "repeal and replace" all over again: the Republican president knows he's against an effective status quo, but Trump can't explain why, and he hasn't the foggiest idea what kind of policy framework he'd like to put in its place.

Indeed, Trump may have given up on the Iran deal today, but he offered no proof to substantiate his assertions of its failure, and he's unveiled no Plan B.

Which brings us to an eerily familiar dynamic for this presidency.

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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP-ORDER

On the Iran deal, Trump started with the answer and worked backwards

05/08/18 12:43PM

There was an amusing moment in the Oval Office two weeks ago, with Donald Trump sitting alongside French President Emmanuel Macron, when a reporter asked the American leader whether he'd consider honoring the international nuclear agreement with Iran.

"It was a terrible deal," Trump said. "It should have never, ever been made. We could have made a good deal or a reasonable deal. The Iran deal is a terrible deal. We paid $150 billion. We gave $1.8 billion in cash. That's actual cash, barrels of cash. It's insane. It's ridiculous. It should have never been made."

As part of the same answer, he added, "We'll see.... We will be talking about it."

I laughed, not just because Trump had no idea what he was talking about, but also because of the juxtaposition between the different parts of the answer. It'd be like asking someone if they wanted to join you at a restaurant and hearing your friend reply, "It's a terrible place. I've always hated it. The food is awful; the service is ridiculous; and the prices are insulting. I don't understand how such a pathetic establishment keeps its doors open."

Your friend then adds, "We'll see," as if he or she still has an open mind.

When it comes to the fate of the Iran deal, which the president appears to know very little about, he hasn't exactly been subtle about his intentions. As regular readers know, 

Trump has called the deal “terrible” and “horrible,” without fully explaining how he arrived at such a conclusion. As a candidate, he declared, “My number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” Just one month into his candidacy, he said the Iran deal “poses a direct national security threat.” Two weeks later, Trump added that the international agreement “will go down as one of the dumbest [and] most dangerous misjudgments ever entered into in [the] history of our country.”

After wrapping up the GOP nomination, he went so far as to say the deal is likely to “lead to nuclear holocaust.”

As president, Trump went into “meltdown” mode when his own team has told him that the policy is actually working as intended, because the facts were simply inconceivable to him. He knows the policy is a disaster, so when reality pointed in a different direction, Trump found it necessary to reject reality.

And as such, the president did what effective leaders should never do: he started with the answer and then worked backwards to reach the conclusion that made him feel better about his own assumptions.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.8.18

05/08/18 12:00PM

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

* It's Election Day in four states: Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina, and West Virginia. Pay particular attention the two gubernatorial primaries in Ohio, the Republican Senate primary in Indiana, and West Virginia's Republican Senate primary.

* On a related note, if Don Blankenship prevails in the West Virginia race, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has said he intends to endorse and donate to the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Joe Manchin.

* There are also some down-ballot races of note today, including businessman Greg Pence, Vice President Mike Pence's brother, running in a congressional primary, making his first bid for elected office. Greg Pence's business record has drawn some scrutiny in recent months, and it's not without failures.

* In Florida's gubernatorial primary, Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) wasn't considered a top contender when he launched his candidacy in January, but after receiving support from Donald Trump, DeSantis became a frequent Fox News guest, pushing him into contention.

* Following her closer-than-expected victory in a special election last month, Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) was sworn in as Congress' newest member yesterday. The current number of House vacancies has now shrunk from six to five.

* An interesting observation from McClatchy: there are no major Democratic Senate primaries anywhere in the country in 2018. Given how extremely difficult this year's map is for Senate Dems, this is exactly what party leaders hoped for.

* Five months after his failed U.S. Senate bid, disgraced former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) is now weighing a possible gubernatorial campaign this year. It wouldn't be his first such attempt: Moore ran for governor in 2006 and 2010, and in both instances, he lost in GOP primaries.

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On unemployment, Trump was born on third base, thinks he hit a triple

05/08/18 11:20AM

Those who visit the White House's online homepage right now are greeted with a headline that happens to be true: "Unemployment Falls Below 4 Percent for the First Time Since 2000." Those who click on the headline are presented with an impressive boast:

The national unemployment rate fell to 3.9 percent, the first time it has fallen below 4 percent since the year 2000 and well below the pre-recession average of 5.3 percent. [...]

WHY: President Donald J. Trump's historic tax cuts, deregulation, and pro-growth policies are creating jobs and restoring confidence in America's economy.

There are a few relevant angles to this. First, a 3.9% unemployment rate is great news for the country and American workers, though the metric does come with some caveats. For example, the rate's most recent drop was the result of discouraging developments, not encouraging ones.

Second, and more important, is the fact that Trump claiming credit for the news is a stretch. This is a great example of someone being born on third base and thinking they hit a triple: the jobless rate has been steadily declining since President Obama ended the Great Recession in his first term. It's great that the trend has continued over the year and a half Trump has been in office, but no one should try to make the case that the Republicans' tax breaks and deregulation crusade are somehow responsible for creating the trend that began in 2010.

Or put another way, looking at the above chart, Trump would have Americans believe he deserves credit for the red line, but his predecessor deserves no credit for the blue line. It's a tough sell.

Indeed, if Trump were right, and his tax and deregulation plans were chiefly responsible for good economic news, he'd have to explain why job growth has been slower under his presidency than under most of Obama's second term.

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Image: Senate Judiciary Committee

Mueller rejects idea of allowing Trump to answer questions in writing

05/08/18 10:40AM

It's not exactly a secret that Donald Trump's lawyers are worried that if he sat down with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the president might lie. And since lying to investigators would be a criminal act, Trump's lawyers would apparently prefer that he not cooperate with the investigation into the Russia scandal at all.

But since there are political risks associated with refusing to answer questions, Trump World has explored a variety of alternative scenarios. At one point, for example, the president's defense team considered offering the special counsel's team a written affidavit, signed by Trump, "affirming" his innocence. Later, the president's lawyers offered pre-written narrative vignettes about various episodes that are the subject of ongoing federal scrutiny.

And then there's my personal favorite: Trump World explored the possibility of an on-paper interview, which would effectively be a take-home exam for the president. Evidently, Trump's legal team actually offered this, though it didn't go over well.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is now on President Trump's legal team, told CBS News correspondent Paula Reid Monday that special counsel Robert Mueller's office has rejected proposals to allow Mr. Trump to answer questions from investigators in writing.

The president's legal team has signaled that this would be their preferred format for a possible interview, since it helps protect Mr. Trump from the possibility of lying or misleading investigators, which is a criminal offense.

Well, yes, I suppose it is far less likely that Trump would lie if his lawyers did his written homework for him, but that doesn't make this a reasonable request. [Update: Giuliani has also confirmed this story to NBC News.]

I'm not surprised Mueller and his team said no; I'm surprised the president's defense lawyers seriously put this on the table.

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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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