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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 8.9.17

08/09/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* In light of what we saw this morning, this claim plainly isn't true: "The United States is speaking with 'one voice' on North Korea, the State Department said Wednesday, after President Donald Trump's promises one day earlier of 'fire and fury' in response to Pyongyang's nuclear provocations."

* Trade: "The United States has decided to levy an import tax on shipments of aluminum foil from China, penalizing the country for what U.S. trade officials say are unfair subsidies of its products. It's a decision that could add to mounting tensions between the world's two biggest economies over trade."

* What a bizarre story: "The State Department has expelled two diplomats from the Cuban Embassy in Washington following a series of unexplained incidents in Cuba that left U.S. officials there with physical symptoms that one official said includes potentially permanent hearing loss."

* This is weird, too: "President Trump has publicly called the widening federal investigation into Russia's election meddling a 'witch hunt.' But through his lawyer, Trump has sent private messages of 'appreciation' to special counsel Robert Mueller."

* Does he actually believe the stuff he says? "Donald Trump has made Earth 'a safer place,' his senior advisor Stephen Miller has claimed, just hours after the US President warned North Korea it faces 'fire and fury like the world has never seen.'"

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White House: Trump was winging it with nuclear threats

08/09/17 03:31PM

Consider the context of what transpired yesterday afternoon. Donald Trump, on a two-week vacation at a golf resort he owns, hosted an event on the opioid crisis. The president spoke for about five minutes on the subject, referencing notes in front of him at the time, and he then wrapped up by thanking everyone in attendance.

A reporter in the room asked, "Any comment on the reports about North Korea's nuclear capabilities?" It was at that point that he said he'd respond to North Korean threats with "fire and fury like the world has never seen."

There's no shortage of questions about the comments, but one of the key lines of inquiry has to do with the administration's broader approach to national security: did Trump deliver the "fire and fury" warning as part of a specific new White House strategy, or was the president just winging it?

According to Trump World, it's the latter. The Weekly Standard reported that the president's national security team had no idea Trump was going to say what he said, while the New York Times quoted White House sources saying yesterday's comments were "entirely improvised" and hadn't been presented to aides in advance.

[No faction within the White House] advocated language like "fire and fury," according to the people involved. Among those taken by surprise, they said, was John F. Kelly, the retired four-star Marine general who has just taken over as White House chief of staff and has been with the president at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., for his working vacation.

The president had been told about a Washington Post story on North Korea's progress in miniaturizing nuclear warheads so that they could fit on top of a ballistic missile, and was in a bellicose mood, according to a person who spoke with him before he made the statement.

It's certainly possible that White House officials are lying about all of this, but even if the version of events is accepted at face value, it's not at all flattering. The argument, in effect, is that Trump was in a sour mood when he started winging it during a burgeoning nuclear crisis.

And as dreadful as that appears, it leads to the other part of Team Trump's latest message, which is subtler, but just as dejecting.

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Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, speaks during the Faith and Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" legislative luncheon in Washington, D.C., June 18, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

Republican makes provocative comments about McCain's brain cancer

08/09/17 02:18PM

It's no secret that Republicans were disappointed when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) joined Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and 48 Senate Democrats in derailing the GOP's far-right health care plan two weeks ago. But just how far are some on the right prepared to go to express their dissatisfaction?

Politico notes one Senate Republican who broached a highly provocative subject.

Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who voted in favor of the GOP plan to repeal parts of Obamacare last month, suggested Tuesday that Sen. John McCain's deciding vote against the proposal may have been related to his brain cancer.

"I'm not going to speak for John McCain, you know, he has a brain tumor right now, that vote occurred at 1:30 in the morning, some of that might have factored in," Johnson said on the radio program "Chicago's Morning Answer."

Note, even the host of the radio show seemed surprised that Johnson went there, responding to the senator, "Really?" This would've been a great time for the far-right Wisconsinite to quickly walk back his comments, but that's not quite what happened.

"Again, I-I-I don't know exactly what -- we really thought -- and again I don't want speak for any senator," Johnson responded. "I really thought John was going to vote yes to send that to conference at 10:30 at night. By about 1, 1:30, he voted no. So you have talk to John in terms what was on his mind."

Of course, McCain and his office have already made it quite clear why the senator voted the way he did, and they didn't seem especially pleased to hear Johnson argue that brain cancer "might have factored in."

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Image: Tillerson testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing in Washington

Trump administration keeps sending mixed signals on North Korea

08/09/17 12:49PM

Right about now, it's likely that international officials are watching the Trump administration closely, paying careful attention to its rhetoric, and trying to get a firm grip on exactly what this White House's position is on foreign policy and national security, especially as it relates to North Korea.

Yeah, good luck with that.

Yesterday, Donald Trump said if North Korea makes "more threats" towards the United States, the American president will subject the country to "fire and fury like the world has never seen." This morning, Trump's chief diplomat took a very different posture.

As President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un trade increasingly fiery threats, a far more measured tone came from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said he saw no imminent threat.

"I think Americans should sleep well at night," Tillerson said Wednesday during a refueling stop on his way back to Washington, D.C. "I have no concerns about this particular rhetoric over the last few days."

Even as Trump continued to use his Twitter account this morning for saber-rattling, Tillerson insisted there's no "imminent threat."

OK, so the president drew a bright red line yesterday, which the secretary of state seems eager to erase. That mixed message is likely to cause some confusion about the official U.S. position, but it was made more complicated this morning by Sebastian Gorka, a top White House adviser on national security, who told Fox News, "This is analogous to the Cuban missile crisis."

Gorka, who said all Americans now have a responsibility to "come together" in support of Trump, added, "[The president is] saying, 'Don't test America, and don't test Donald J. Trump.' We are not just a superpower. We were a superpower. We are now a hyperpower. Nobody in the world, especially not North Korea, comes close to challenging our military capabilities. Whether they're conventional, whether they're nuclear or whether they're special forces. So the message is very clear: Don't test this White House, Pyongyang."

One need not be an expert in international affairs to note that Tillerson and Gorka took two very different messages to the public this morning.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.9.17

08/09/17 12:03PM

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

* With only a week remaining before Alabama's U.S. Senate special election, Donald Trump officially threw his support last night to appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R). The endorsement is expected to give Strange an important edge ahead of Tuesday's vote.

* On a related note, Rep. Mo Brooks (R), one of Strange's key GOP rivals, blamed Trump's endorsement on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and "the swamp," saying the president was "somehow misled."

* In Iowa yesterday, Phil Miller (D) won a state House special election, keeping the seat in Democratic hands. The state party was quick to note that Republicans hold a registration advantage in the district, which Donald Trump easily carried in November.

* On the other hand, in Missouri yesterday, Republicans won a pair of special elections -- one in the state House, one in the state Senate -- in deep-red districts.

* Confirming what everyone already knew would happen, Rep. Todd Rokita (R) is officially launching his U.S. Senate campaign in Indiana, setting up a big primary fight with Rep. Luke Messer (R). The winner will take on incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) next fall.

* Annoyed about his state's legal smoking age climbing to 21, Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) argued yesterday he still wants to see the state's legal voting age also go to 21. Since this would be outrageously unconstitutional, LePage's proposal isn't expected to go anywhere.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's campaign chair and convention manager Paul Manafort departs a press conference at the Republican Convention in Cleveland, July 19, 2016. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

FBI agents raided the home of Trump's former campaign chairman

08/09/17 11:23AM

Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's controversial former campaign chairman, just can't seem to stay out of the headlines.

For example, there was the recent story about Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigating possible money laundering by Paul Manafort, which came on the heels of coverage of Manafort's bank accounts in the secretive tax haven of Cyprus, which followed reports on Manafort filing reports with the Justice Department showing that "his lobbying firm earned nearly $17 million for two years of work for a Ukrainian political party with links to the Kremlin."

There was also the infamous meeting at Trump Tower last summer with a Kremlin-linked lawyer offering campaign assistance from the Russian government -- a chat Manafort participated in.

Oh, and then there's the FBI raiding Manafort's DC-area home.

FBI agents raided the Alexandria home of President Trump's former campaign chairman late last month, using a search warrant to seize documents and other materials, according to people familiar with the special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Federal agents appeared at Paul Manafort's home without advance warning in the predawn hours of July 26, the day after he met voluntarily with the staff for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The Washington Post's report on the raid added that the FBI agents, acting on a wide-ranging search warrant, were working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and "departed the home with various records."

What's more, the Post's scoop follows a separate story, which Rachel highlighted last night, from Bloomberg Politics, which added:

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Image: Donald Trump

During an all-hands-on-deck moment, Trump is short on hands

08/09/17 10:57AM

Former Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) left Congress to join the Obama administration eight years ago, initially serving as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs. In 2012, Tauscher took on a new role, becoming Special Envoy for Strategic Stability and Missile Defense at the State Department.

This morning on Twitter, Tauscher raised an interesting point (translated slightly from Twitter abbreviations):

"Where is the Trump Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security? NO ONE has been nominated? Unheard of in 40 years. I should know."

She's referring, of course, to the job she used to have. And Tauscher's correct: Donald Trump hasn't even nominated someone to fill that post -- which seems like an important oversight in light of the world's newfound interest in arms control.

If this were an isolated incident, it might be easier to overlook, but the larger point is that the Trump administration hasn't bothered to fill a wide variety of key posts that are suddenly quite relevant. There is, for example, currently no U.S. ambassador to South Korea.

The Washington Post maintains a helpful list tracking key Trump administration posts and their status, and perusing the database this morning, I found all kinds of relevant State Department offices awaiting a presidential nominee. Here are some of the more notable vacancies:

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White House remains silent following Minnesota mosque bombing

08/09/17 10:18AM

Earlier today, a vehicle plowed into a group of French soldiers as they left their barracks in a town near Paris. While it appears none of the targets were killed, the local mayor described it as a "terrorist" incident, and the suspect was apprehended soon after.

Soon after U.S. media took note of what happened, there was Donald Trump, retweeting a Fox News report on the apparent attack. That's not especially surprising, of course, since the American president routinely makes note of suspected terrorist incidents.

This does, however, make it all the more curious that Trump has had literally nothing to say about a makeshift bomb that was detonated early Saturday morning at a Minnesota mosque. Fortunately, no one was injured, but local officials suspect this was an anti-Muslim terrorist incident.

So, why has Trump said nothing about a bombing targeting Americans on American soil? Sebastian Gorka, one of the president's more controversial national security advisers, appeared on MSNBC yesterday, and shed some light on the White House's thinking.

[Gorka] suggested the attack could have been a "fake" hate crime.

"There's a great rule: All initial reports are false,″ Gorka said. "You have to check them and find out who the perpetrators are. We've had a series of crimes committed, alleged hate crimes, by right-wing individuals in the last six months, that turned out to actually have been propagated by the left."

He added, in reference to the bombing at the Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, "People fake hate crimes."

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Image: Donald Trump

Trump hopes to shift blame to Obama for opioid crisis

08/09/17 09:20AM

Donald Trump interrupted his vacation yesterday to host an event on the opioid crisis at one of his golf resorts, delivering brief remarks on the deadly national emergency. The president reflected, for example, on preventing addiction by stopping the problem before it starts.

"If they do start, it's awfully tough to get off," Trump said. "So we can keep them from going on, and maybe by talking to youth and telling them, 'No good; really bad for you' in every way."

I'm going to hope there's more to the White House plan.

But there was another message in the president's remarks that struck me as notable:

"[F]ederal drug prosecutions have gone down in recent years. We're going to be bringing them up and bringing them up rapidly. At the end of 2016, there were 23 percent fewer than in 2011. So they looked at this scourge and they let it go by, and we're not letting it go by."

In context, it seems "they" referred to Obama administration officials.

There are a couple of core problems with the argument, aside from Trump's creepy preoccupation with trying to blame his predecessor for everything. The first is Barack Obama and his team didn't "let" the opioid crisis "go by"; they pleaded with Congress to make serious investments in the emergency, and by large, lawmakers balked.

The second is the subtle assumption Trump is making: he apparently sees the opioid crisis as a problem that can be solved through "prosecutions." In other words, this White House doesn't see a public-health emergency; it sees a test for law enforcement.

This does not bode well for the near future.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump's claims on nuclear modernization crumble under scrutiny

08/09/17 08:40AM

Donald Trump spent the morning tweeting away, which wouldn't ordinarily be especially interesting, except for one online missive about nuclear weapons. Given the context of a burgeoning crisis with North Korea, this presidential message was bound to raise eyebrows:

"My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before...."

We talked earlier about how important it is for Americans to be able to trust a leader during a crisis, and Trump's tweet serves as a timely reminder that the president has thrown away whatever credibility he may have brought to the office.

As exercises in fact-checking go, this one's surprisingly easy:

1. Trump's "first order" as president dealt with health care, not the nation's nuclear arsenal.

2. It was actually Barack Obama, not Donald Trump, who launched a massive, multi-year effort to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

3. For Trump to say, the arsenal "is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before," suggests he believes the modernization process is done. That's bonkers: the process has barely started and will take decades to complete.

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Image: Donald Trump, Andrzej Duda

In a crisis, Trump looks like the wrong leader at the wrong time

08/09/17 08:00AM

At various times during last year's presidential election, some of the nation's highest-profile figures tried to make the case that Donald Trump was unprepared for a nuclear standoff.

In February, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Trump was so "erratic," he couldn't be trusted with the nation's nuclear codes. In July, Hillary Clinton told voters, "Imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis. A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons." As late as October, then-President Barack Obama said at a rally, in reference to Trump, "How can you trust him with the nuclear codes? You can't do it."

Nearly 63 million Americans nevertheless thought it'd be wise to put Trump in the Oval Office, and now the nation's first amateur president faces a possible nuclear crisis with North Korea. The Atlantic's David Graham had a great piece yesterday on why Trump is so unsuited for this specific challenge.

At a moment of nuclear brinksmanship like this, any citizen of the United States wants a few things from a leader. You want someone you can trust to tell the truth, and who foreign leaders view as credible, so that threats and statements alike are taken seriously. You want someone who is known to be able to carefully sift through a lot of evidence and assess upsides from downsides. You want someone who has a team of expert advisers whose judgment he trusts and takes seriously. And you want someone who is able to take bad news.

In other words, Trump is the opposite of what Americans need under circumstances like these. The president is untrustworthy; he's widely recognized as an international joke; he lacks anything resembling critical thinking skills and struggles to differentiate between facts and falsehoods; and he only listens to experts who tell him what he wants to hear.

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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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