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Trump's loyalty demands pose key test for Justice Department

02/01/18 08:00AM

When Donald Trump met privately with then-FBI Director James Comey the week after the president's inauguration, he reportedly told Comey, "I need loyalty, I expect loyalty."

About four months later, after having fired Comey in the hopes of undermining an ongoing federal investigation, the president met privately with then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. After exchanging pleasantries, Trump had a question for the bureau leader: Whom did he vote for in the 2016 election? (McCabe found the interaction "disturbing.")

And six months after that, according to reports from CNN, ABC News, and the New York Times, the Republican president had a related question for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein visited the White House in December seeking President Donald Trump's help. The top Justice Department official in the Russia investigation wanted Trump's support in fighting off document demands from House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes.

But the President had other priorities ahead of a key appearance by Rosenstein on the Hill, according to sources familiar with the meeting. Trump wanted to know where the special counsel's Russia investigation was heading. And he wanted to know whether Rosenstein was "on my team."

When the president seemed to obstruct justice by pressuring Comey in January 2017, some White House allies basically came up with the Amateur Excuse: Trump, new to any form of public service, had no idea it was wrong for a president to make loyalty demands to the director of the FBI. He was, according to the argument, new to this, so it's unreasonable to expect him to know that obstruction of justice is wrong.

But Trump's loyalty appeals to Rosenstein were in December -- as in, a point at which the president had already been in office for 11 months and could no longer plead ignorance.

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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 1.31.18

01/31/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A deadly accident: "A chartered train carrying Republican lawmakers to a retreat collided with a trash truck in Virginia Wednesday morning and left at least one person dead. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said there was one confirmed fatality and one person seriously injured."

* I wish she were staying: "The Federal Reserve left its benchmark interest rate unchanged, as was widely expected, at its final meeting under its outgoing chairwoman, Janet L. Yellen."

* This seems like a good question: "Leading Senate Democrats want to know why the Trump administration allowed a top Russian spy onto U.S. soil. Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer led other Democrats in raising concerns Tuesday about a reported visit by Sergey Naryshkin, Russia's foreign spy chief and an ally of President Vladimir Putin."

* Can a story be both funny and sad? "The striking similarity between a newly released Treasury Department report of Russian oligarchs and a 2017 list of wealthy Russians published in Forbes magazine is no coincidence."

* This seems pretty straightforward: "Once and for all: Obama didn't crush US coal, and Trump can't save it."

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Stormy Daniels visits a local restaurant in downtown New Orleans, Wednesday, May 6, 2009.

Trump's Stormy Daniels controversy takes an unexpected turn

01/31/18 04:10PM

When we last checked in on Donald Trump's Stormy Daniels controversy, a few core elements of the story had come into focus. It's been widely reported, for example, that Trump's lawyer paid a former porn star $130,000 – shortly before the 2016 presidential election – apparently in order to buy her silence about an alleged extramarital affair.

We then learned Trump's lawyer made the payment through an LLC he quietly created in Delaware, where it's easier to create business entities with minimal disclosures.

The story took a turn this week, when a press statement was issued in which Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, denied ever having been in a relationship with the president. And in case this story couldn't get any weirder, last night, Daniels seemed to deny having anything to do with the statement issued in her name.

Pornographic film star Stormy Daniels on Tuesday added another twist to the did-they-or-didn't-they saga of whether she had an affair with President Donald Trump years ago, saying she didn't know where a denial issued in her name came from.

In a short statement attributed to Daniels and provided by her publicist on Tuesday, the actress was quoted as saying, "I am denying this affair because it never happened."

Later Tuesday she went on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and said she had no idea where that statement came from.

Pressed on the most recent statement, Daniels seemed to hesitate, before conceding, "I do not know where it came from." (Her lawyer, however, said after the appearance that she had, in fact, signed the statement denying the affair.)

On the same show, Jimmy Kimmel asked about a possible non-disclosure agreement, and she evaded the question. The host responded that "if you didn't have a non-disclosure agreement, you most certainly could say you don't have an non-disclosure agreement, yes?"

Daniels responded, "You're so smart, Jimmy."

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Image: US-POLITICS-FBI-WRAY

Trump's FBI director clashes with White House on Republican memo

01/31/18 01:55PM

As House Republicans moved forward on releasing the so-called Nunes memo, the Justice Department, which was denied the opportunity to review the report, said the release of the document could prove “extraordinarily reckless.”

The House Republicans' effort was denounced in writing by Stephen Boyd, a Trump-appointed assistant attorney general and former Senate aide to Jeff Sessions, who sent a letter to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) last week.

Donald Trump was reportedly outraged by Boyd's letter, expecting his Justice Department to prioritize his political interests. With this in mind, it seems quite likely that the Republican president will be even angrier today.

Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, clashed publicly with the president for the first time on Wednesday, condemning a push by House Republicans to release a secret memo that purports to show how the bureau and the Justice Department abused their authorities to obtain a warrant to spy on a former Trump campaign adviser.

The "F.B.I. was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it," Mr. Wray said in a statement. "As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy."

Note, Wray knows the White House wants to see the memo released to the public. Indeed, he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein were in the West Wing on Monday, urging caution.

Faced with the reality that Trump intends to ignore these warnings, the FBI director -- chosen for the post by the president himself after Trump fired James Comey -- issued a written statement, making clear he believes the Nunes memo paints an inaccurate picture.

And so, Trump is suddenly confronted with an interesting choice:

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President-elect Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump (L) meet with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) at The Capitol Building on Nov. 10, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

Siding with the GOP, Ryan sees possible 'malfeasance' at the FBI

01/31/18 12:54PM

With many federal law enforcement officials, including Donald Trump's handpicked FBI director, pushing back against the release of the "Nunes memo," is there any chance they might get some help from House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)?

Apparently not. Here's what the Wisconsin Republican told reporters at a Capitol Hill briefing yesterday:

"There may have been malfeasance at the FBI by certain individuals. So it is our job, in conducting transparent oversight of the executive branch, to get to the bottom of that. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. And so, what we want is all of this information to come out so that transparency can reign supreme and accountability can occur."

Yes, now that you mention it, it was kind of amusing to hear Ryan talk about the importance of executive branch oversight after House Republicans have done effectively nothing to check Donald Trump over the last year. His comments about "transparency" weren't much better given the circumstances.

The comments followed an unconfirmed Fox News report that the Speaker, in comments to reporters at a breakfast yesterday, said in reference to the memo and the FBI, "Let it all out, get it all out there. Cleanse the organization."

This comes on the heels of an early January meeting in which FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein went to Capitol Hill and asked Ryan to side with federal law enforcement against Nunes' crusade. Ryan demurred, siding with Nunes.

There was a point, shortly after the 2016 election, in which some thought Donald Trump would control his worst impulses in order to be an effective president. Others thought that if Trump couldn't control himself, GOP leaders like Paul Ryan would step up to constrain the president's most destructive inclinations.

But both of those hopes were wrong. Trump's instincts are to politicize federal law enforcement, treating Justice Department officials as if he keeps them on retainer, and Paul Ryan's instincts are to go along with his allies' radicalism.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.31.18

01/31/18 12:00PM

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

* Todd Ricketts, who was briefly considered last year for a Trump administration post, will reportedly replace embattled casino magnate Steve Wynn as finance chair of the Republican National Committee.

* According to Gallup's state-level polling, Donald Trump only reaches 50% support in 12 states. The silver lining for Republicans: many of those states are home to key Senate races in this year's midterms. (The state where the president has the lowest approval rating? Vermont, where Trump is at 26%.)

* Despite evidence that Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) lied to the public and the police about his physical assault on a journalist last year, the National Republican Congressional Committee has asked him to lead a communications workshop for other Republicans.

* In Ohio, a new PPP survey shows state Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) with a narrow lead over former CFPB Director Richard Cordray (D), 45% to 44%, in this year's gubernatorial race.

* Someone had the good idea of registering the website NunesMemo.com and having it go directly to the website of Rep. Devin Nunes' (R-Calif.) Democratic challenger, Andrew Janz.

* Former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) ended his gubernatorial campaign this week, citing insufficient funds. Tancredo also ran failed gubernatorial campaigns in 2010 and 2014.

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Image: Donald Trump, John Kelly, Mike Pence, Jim Mattis

White House's Kelly reminds DOJ about Trump's 'expectations'

01/31/18 11:20AM

There have been so many legitimately important controversies surrounding Donald Trump's White House, it's easy to forget some of the stories that were overshadowed by other, bigger scandals. Reince Priebus, for example, faced some awkward questions very early on in his tenure.

In fact, just two months after the president's inauguration, then-White House Chief of Staff Priebus had some controversial communications with the FBI about an ongoing FBI investigation. (The communications were with then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, whose name probably sounds familiar.)

As we discussed at the time, there are rules in place that strictly limit the communications between the White House and federal law enforcement, and Priebus failed to follow those rules.

And now I'm curious if Priebus' successor made a similar mistake.

Bloomberg Politics reported this week that Donald Trump threw another tantrum after the Justice Department announced its opposition to the public release of the Nunes memo. The president, evidently, wanted the DOJ to prioritize his political interests above other considerations.

But that same report also noted what officials in the West Wing have done in response to Trump's frustrations:

[White House Chief of Staff John Kelly] held separate meetings or phone calls with senior Justice Department officials last Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to convey Trump's displeasure and lecture them on the White House's expectations, according to the people. Kelly has taken to ending such conversations with a disclaimer that the White House isn't expecting officials to do anything illegal or unethical.

After Trump's strong reaction on Air Force One over the [Justice Department's letter about the Nunes memo], White House officials, including Kelly, sprang into action again, lashing Justice Department officials Thursday over the decision to send the letter....

At face value, the White House's efforts to politicize the Justice Department should be alarming to anyone who values the independence of federal law enforcement. But there's also the question of whether Kelly's multiple chats about the president's "expectations" -- while the president is facing a federal investigation into possible obstruction of justice -- were fully proper.

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A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Ga., Sept. 30, 2014. (Photo by Tami Chappell/Reuters)

Controversial finances force Trump's CDC director to resign

01/31/18 10:40AM

From the outset, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald was an odd choice to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After Donald Trump appointed her to the important position, we learned, for example, that she's been accused of practicing "a fringe branch of medicine that promises to reverse the effects of natural aging."

Making matters slightly worse, when Fitzgerald was Georgia's health commissioner, she took steps to combat high rates of child obesity by partnering with Coca-Cola.

But Fitzgerald's real problem was her finances. Not long after she took control over the CDC, it became obvious that Fitzgerald's investments were interfering with her duties and causing her to recuse herself from key policy areas.

Those investments became far more controversial yesterday when Politico  reported that Fitzgerald bought shares in a tobacco company -- after she became CDC director. As Richard Painter, who served as George W. Bush's chief ethics lawyer, put it, "You don't buy tobacco stocks when you are the head of the CDC. It's ridiculous."

It appears Painter wasn't the only one who thoughts so. CNBC reported this morning that Fitzgerald is out.

The head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention resigned Wednesday on the heels of a bombshell report that she had purchased stock in a tobacco company soon after taking her job, which oversees smoking-cessation programs.

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, who is an ob-gyn, also had owned stock in other tobacco companies prior to assuming her post almost six months ago as one of the nation's top health officials.

A lengthy delay in Fitzgerald's divestment of her stock holdings, which included shares in health-care companies, was cited by the Trump administration Wednesday morning as the reason for her resignation.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar confirmed this morning that he's accepted her resignation, citing Fitzgerald's "complex financial interests."

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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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