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Image: FBI Investigates Trump's attorney Michael Cohen

Michael Cohen maintains RNC role, despite ongoing controversies

05/14/18 11:05AM

Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's controversial "fixer," is in an unfortunate spot. Last week, new details came into sharper focus showing that the New York attorney received undisclosed lobbying payments -- through a shell company used to pay hush money to a porn star -- from corporate giants hoping to influence his client in the Oval Office.

The Wall Street Journal took a deeper dive into this story over the weekend, pointing to some companies Cohen approached that we hadn't heard about before.

When Michael Cohen came knocking after the 2016 election, touting himself as the president's lawyer, a man who could decipher the new administration, Ford Motor Co. said no. So did Uber Technologies Inc.

He managed to notch AT&T Inc. and Novartis AG. And Squire Patton Boggs, a law and lobbying firm, hired him for a sizable fee -- though he felt it wasn't enough.

Mr. Cohen talked to associates about building a huge practice. He mused about approaching foreign governments and foreign firms. But a broad review of his Washington dealings since they first surfaced last week shows his efforts were scattershot and met only with mixed success -- both for Mr. Cohen and his clients.

The WSJ report described Cohen's "blunt" pitch to prospective clients: they should fire their existing advisers and replace them with him. “I have the best relationship with the president on the outside, and you need to hire me,” Cohen reportedly told them.

The result was a rather brutal fiasco for practically everyone involved. Several of Cohen's former clients have had chats with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigators, and Cohen himself is, according to one judge, "likely" to be indicted.

There's no shortage of questions related to Cohen's clients, his finances, other potential LLCs, what investigators were looking for when they raided his home and office, and what role Donald Trump may or may not have had in this mess.

But there's one question that shouldn't get lost in the shuffle: is there a point at which this becomes a problem for the Republican National Committee?

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Image: Donald Trump, Neil Gorsuch, Anthony Kennedy

White House: Thanks to Trump, we are now 'respected,' 'feared,' and 'loved'

05/14/18 10:00AM

Deputy White House Press Secretary Hogan Gidley has developed something of a reputation for delivering notable quotes. In February, for example, a day after the Justice Department brought criminal charges against Russian operatives who attacked our democracy, Gidley seemed eager to defend the Russians, saying it's Democrats and American journalists who were actually responsible for creating "chaos."

It was around this time that the president's deputy press secretary also described Trump as "a real-life Superman."

Over the weekend, Gidley presented us with a new gem.

"We are now respected, we are now feared, we are now loved because of this president. He has good relationships with our partners and allies. In fact, I would even argue they're stronger."

Stronger than what, he didn't say, though I suppose Gidley probably meant U.S. relationships with "our partners and allies" have improved as compared to the Obama era.

The trouble, of course, is that reality keeps getting in the way.

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

Despite scandals, DeVos takes steps to help for-profit colleges

05/14/18 09:20AM

Those who pay attention to Donald Trump's rhetoric are led to believe the president is a champion of working-class Americans who are too often ignored by a system stacked against them. Those who pay attention to the president's actions know he and his administration too often side with those doing the stacking.

The New York Times published a striking report along these lines overnight.

Members of a special team at the Education Department that had been investigating widespread abuses by for-profit colleges have been marginalized, reassigned or instructed to focus on other matters, according to current and former employees.

The unwinding of the team has effectively killed investigations into possibly fraudulent activities at several large for-profit colleges where top hires of Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, had previously worked.

This is surprisingly straightforward: in the wake of the Corinthian Colleges fiasco, the Obama administration put together a team that closely scrutinized dubious claims from for-profit colleges, including DeVry.

Then Donald Trump was elected, Betsy DeVos took over the Department of Education, and she tapped a dean from DeVry to lead the group of investigators, among other officials from for-profit schools whom DeVos hired for the cabinet agency.

And wouldn't you know it, the team that was responsible for protecting students from potential fraud changed course.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump

In new head-scratcher, Trump goes to bat for Chinese jobs

05/14/18 08:41AM

Donald Trump has taken quite a few steps to make China happy since taking office, but the American president broke new ground over the weekend.

President Donald Trump said Sunday he has instructed his Commerce Department to help get a Chinese telecommunications company "back into business" after the U.S. government cut off access to its American suppliers.

At issue is that department's move last month to block the ZTE Corp., a major supplier of telecoms networks and smartphones based in southern China, from importing American components for seven years.

In an unexpected tweet yesterday afternoon, Trump declared, "President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!"

So, the Republican is eager to save Chinese jobs? What is Trump talking about?

Let's unpack this a bit. ZTE is a Chinese company, but it's also international telecom giant that's drawn scrutiny from U.S. officials. Last year, the Trump administration imposed a harsh penalty on ZTE, for example, for ignoring U.S. sanctions, selling U.S.-sourced products to Iran, and lying about it. The same company was accused of improper dealings with North Korea.

Making matters slightly worse, some U.S. intelligence officials have warned that China may have used ZTE products for foreign espionage.

In light of these controversies, the Chinese telecom company has faced significant American penalties, which have taken their toll on ZTE. Nevertheless, Trump, who ran on a platform of being "tough" on China, now seems eager to help the company and save its workers.

After all, the Republican said, there are "too many" jobs in China being lost.

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Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Dallas Church Choir speaks as he introduces President Donald Trump during the Celebrate Freedom event at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, Saturday, July 1, 2017.

Trump taps right-wing pastor for US embassy event in Jerusalem

05/14/18 08:00AM

There was already considerable controversy surrounding Donald Trump's decision to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Palestinians have long opposed the move, and the American president's willingness to ignore their concerns have made peace talks that much more difficult.

Complicating matters, there will be an event in Jerusalem today to mark the opening of the new U.S. facility, and the opening prayer at the ceremony will be delivered by a right-wing Texas pastor with an ugly rhetorical record. In some circles, this isn't going over well.

Former Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney lashed out at the decision to have a controversial evangelical leader give a blessing at the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem Monday, calling him a "religious bigot."

The Senate candidate from Utah criticized the inclusion of the Rev. Robert Jeffress -- the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas who is also an adviser to President Donald Trump.

There are two key angles to the story. The first is that Jeffress appears to support the relocation of the embassy as part of a fulfillment of a Biblical prophecy. For the White House to extend an invitation to the right-wing pastor, providing him with a prominent role in today's ceremony, signals at least tacit support for this theological vision.

The second is that Romney is hardly Jeffress' only critic.

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Franklin Graham appears on NBC News' "Today" show. (Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC/Getty)

This Week in God, 5.12.18

05/12/18 07:15AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a prominent religious leader who appears to have competing moral standards for presidents, depending on which party they belong to.

The Rev. Franklin Graham, a prominent Donald Trump supporter, told the Associated Press this week that he's aware of the scandals surrounding the president, including the Stormy Daniels story, but he's unconcerned.

"...I don't have concern, in a sense, because these things happened many years ago -- and there's such bigger problems in front of us as a nation that we need to be dealing with than other things in his life a long time ago. I think some of these things -- that's for him and his wife to deal with. I think when the country went after President Clinton, the Republicans, that was a great mistake that should never have happened. And I think this thing with Stormy Daniels and so forth is nobody's business. And we've got other business at hand that we need to deal with."

The references to the Clinton impeachment scandal was of particular interest, because Graham's current belief that the campaign to tear him down "was a great mistake that should never have happened" appears to be a recent revelation.

In fact, in August 1998, Graham wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he presented a very different message. Rather than dismissing the personal allegations as something "for him and his wife to deal with," Graham argued at the time that allegations such as these were very much the public's business. "[T]he God of the Bible says that what one does in private does matter," he wrote.

Graham added, in reference to the then-Democratic president, "If he will lie to or mislead his wife and daughter, those with whom he is most intimate, what will prevent him from doing the same to the American public?"

And yet, here we are, nearly 20 years later, watching Graham's ally in the Oval Office confront a sex scandal, and wouldn't you know it, he appears to have had a change of heart. Now, evidently, the "thing with Stormy Daniels and so forth is nobody's business."

In the Associated Press interview, Graham added, "This isn't behavior that has taken place since he's been president. These things happened long before he became president. That doesn't make it right. And I don't defend those kinds of relationships he had. But the country knew the kind of person he was back then, and they still made the decision to make him the president of the United States."

And that's likely what much of the religious right and other socially conservative evangelicals tell themselves: Americans knew all about Trump's lax standards, and so long as one overlooks the fact that he received fewer votes and relied on the intervention of a foreign adversary, Trump nevertheless became president. And so, bygones.

The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne had a column this week exploring whether hypocrisy from conservative elites is driving the public away from religious institutions. I'm left to wonder whether Franklin Graham read it.

Also from the God Machine this week:

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Friday's Mini-Report, 5.11.18

05/11/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Unexpected: "The investigation of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and the domestic-violence scandal that toppled former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman collided Friday when a colorful attorney not representing either man asked that certain court records be sealed."

* Necessary scrutiny: "A day after Gina Haspel, President Trump's nominee to lead the C.I.A., refused during her confirmation hearing on Wednesday to condemn the agency's torture of Qaeda suspects, several lawmakers and human-rights advocates said aspects of her testimony merited greater scrutiny."

* Middle East: "Iran's supreme leader revealed on Wednesday an unpublicized letter sent recently by President Trump to countries in the Middle East, raising questions about how Ayatollah Ali Khamenei came to know about private correspondence between the U.S. leader and his allies in the region."

* Sign of the times: "Michigan Republicans' plan to require some recipients of government health insurance to work would disproportionately affect black people, a Washington Post analysis of new data from state health officials reveals."

* Maybe Rudy should've kept a lower public profile: "President Trump's personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, abruptly resigned from his law firm, which then promptly undercut his recent statements defending the president."

* Taking the whole "strange bedfellows" dynamic in a new direction: "[T]he United States military is taking a risk: training, sharing intelligence and planning missions with former members of Iranian-backed militias that once fought and killed Americans."

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A pharmacy employee dumps pills into a pill counting machine as she fills a prescription while working at a pharmacy in New York

Trump abandons key campaign promise on prescription medications

05/11/18 04:36PM

One of the few key areas on which Donald Trump broke with Republican Party orthodoxy was lowering prices on prescription drugs. In fact, as regular readers know, he complained bitterly shortly before taking office about the pharmaceutical industry’s powerful lobbyists, and said drug companies are “getting away with murder.”

The president has even accused the drug industry of corruption, arguing that pharmaceutical companies contribute “massive amounts of money” to politicians as part of a scheme to keep the cost of medicines higher.

He even had a bold idea: if elected, Trump told voters, he'd leverage Medicare's buying power to lower the cost of prescription medication. Shortly after the Republican's inauguration, the White House said the new president "absolutely" stood by that position.

And then, his posture changed, to the point that Trump put a pharmaceutical company executive in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services. And if that wasn't enough to cement this president's role as a key ally of drug makers, today did the trick.

President Donald Trump on Friday vowed to lower drug prices for American consumers, outlining a strategy that focuses on private-sector incentives but would not allow Medicare to use its leverage as the biggest player in the market to directly negotiate better bargains for its subscribers. [...]

While Trump said his proposal would give Medicare "new tools to negotiate lower prices" — such as allowing Medicare to change its formularies or benefit designs to respond to spikes in generic-drug prices — senior administration officials acknowledged in a briefing prior to his remarks that there is no plan to allow the program to directly barter with drug companies.

Or put another way, just days after Trump boasted, "When I make promises, I keep them," he audaciously broke one of his most populist promises.

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New fallout from Michael Cohen's shady deals

05/11/18 04:04PM

At a campaign rally last night, Donald Trump wasn't kidding when he declared, "Under my administration, we're fighting against the lobbyists, the special interests, and the corrupt Washington politics."

The president's timing could've been better. Trump, for example, has tapped a small army of lobbyists to work in his administration, many of whom help implement policy in the same areas in which they used to lobby. One of the president's cabinet officials, meanwhile, recently told a room full of wealthy bankers that the key to lobbying success in the Trump era is writing big checks to buy influence with policymakers.

And, of course, much of Trump World is the subject of ongoing investigations, raising the specter of Trump's presidency being the most corrupt in a generation.

But the comments were especially ill-timed because while Trump was taking a rhetorical stand against corrupt Washington politics, we were learning new details about the president's personal lawyer receiving undisclosed lobbying payments -- through a shell company used to pay hush money to a porn star -- from corporate giants hoping to influence his client in the Oval Office.

The fallout from the controversy continues to unfold. NBC News reported today:

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said hiring President Donald Trump's personal lawyer as a consultant was "a big mistake," according to a company memo sent on Friday.

The telecom giant hired attorney Michael Cohen, who has worked for Trump in a personal role for years, for advice on its pending merger with Time Warner. The company has said it paid Cohen $600,000 to gain "insights" into the president's thinking. The memo was first reported by Reuters.

The company, which changed its story more than once this week, described the Cohen contract as "a big mistake" and "a serious misjudgment."

The telecom giant added that its top lobbyist, who was responsible for hiring Cohen, is stepping down from his position.

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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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