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Thursday's Mini-Report, 2.9.17

02/09/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Syria: "U.S. forces killed 11 al Qaeda operatives -- including a longtime ally of Osama bin Laden -- in two airstrikes last week in Syria, the Defense Department said Wednesday."

* Following Kellyanne Conway's on-air endorsement of Ivanka Trump's product line: "Asked about Conway's comments during Thursday's White House press briefing, Sean Spicer said she 'has been counseled on that subject, and that's all.'"

* Arizona: "Emotional protests broke out in Phoenix Wednesday night after a Mexican-born mother-of-two was detained for deportation. Dozens of demonstrators surrounded a van carrying Guadalupe García de Rayos from a detention center, with one man putting his arm in a wheel well to stop it."

* Afghanistan: "The commander of the American-led international military force in Afghanistan told Congress on Thursday that he needed a few thousand additional troops to more effectively train and advise Afghan soldiers."

* North Dakota: "Construction crews have resumed work on the final segment of the Dakota Access pipeline, and the developer of the long-delayed project said Thursday that the full system could be operational within three months. Meanwhile, an American Indian tribe filed a legal challenge to block the work and protect its water supply."

* Resignation was the right call: "A Michigan Republican has resigned after causing outrage by suggesting that protesters at University of California, Berkeley, should be shot."
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

New questions surround Trump's conversation with Putin

02/09/17 04:41PM

As president-elect, Donald Trump spoke to a variety of international leaders, and in a few too many instances, the calls did not go well. Obama administration officials offered to help prepare the Republican, and offer guidance on avoiding potential pitfalls, but Trump and his team decided to wing it -- and the consequences weren't pretty.

As president, Trump has spoken to many more officials from around the world, and the calls appear to be getting worse. The amateur leader's recent call with the president of Mexico was a disaster. His chat with the Australian prime minister was worse. Politico reported yesterday that Trump "spent much of a recent phone call with French President Francois Hollande veering off into rants about the U.S. getting shaken down by other countries ... creating an awkward interaction with a critical U.S. ally."

And then, of course, there's Russia. This Reuters report is getting a lot of attention today, and for good reason.
In his first call as president with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump denounced a treaty that caps U.S. and Russian deployment of nuclear warheads as a bad deal for the United States, according to two U.S. officials and one former U.S. official with knowledge of the call.

When Putin raised the possibility of extending the 2010 treaty, known as New START, Trump paused to ask his aides in an aside what the treaty was, these sources said.

Trump then told Putin the treaty was one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration, saying that New START favored Russia. Trump also talked about his own popularity, the sources said.
As is always the case with stories like these, the sourcing matters, and we don't know for sure who Reuters spoke to. The report hasn't been independently verified by NBC News or MSNBC.

But the reporting is also very easy to believe.
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House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) sits in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill March 19, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Congress' oversight of the White House is put on indefinite hold

02/09/17 12:52PM

The Atlantic's David Frum, lamenting the "ominous indicators of a breakdown of the American political system," recently noted that raw partisanship has led to a collapse in congressional oversight of the executive branch. "Congress has increasingly become a check only on presidents of the opposite party," Frum wrote.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) seems a little too eager to prove the thesis correct. TPM reported yesterday:
House Oversight Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) said Wednesday that he doesn't think President Donald Trump's tweet attacking department store Nordstrom for dropping his daughter Ivanka Trump's clothing and accessories line is "a big deal."

"Is it appropriate, do you believe, is it ethical -- and you oversee the executive branch of the government -- for the President to be commenting about his daughter's business like this?" CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Chaffetz.

"I think most people can relate to the fact that a father, a doting father with very successful children is going to look after those children and, you know, if he sees something going wrong, he's going to call it out," Chaffetz said. He said that he doesn't "pay much attention to it."
The chairman of the Oversight Committee went on to compare Trump's comments yesterday about Nordstrom to elected officials giving their opinions on the Super Bowl and "which hamburgers they like."

It's hard to imagine Chaffetz actually believing his own rhetoric. The president went on the offensive against an American company for no longer selling his daughter's merchandise, effectively using his powerful platform to interfere in his daughter's retailing opportunities. This bears little resemblance to tweets about someone's lunch preferences.

If this were Hillary Clinton's administration, is there any doubt the Oversight Committee would've scheduled hearings before close of business yesterday? [Update: See below.]
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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.9.17

02/09/17 12:00PM

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

* Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) probably had no idea he was creating a meme this week when he said about Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted."

* After making repeated references to a terrorist attack in Atlanta that did not happen, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insists he was referring to Orlando.

* Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's (D-N.Y.) office estimates that the number of calls per day from citizens to Capitol Hill has reached around 1.5 million lately.

* As if Vladimir Putin's intervention in the U.S. presidential race weren't quite enough, Russia is also facing accusations that it's intervened in the upcoming French presidential election, too.

* Michael Anton, a Trump-appointed staffer on the National Security Council, has a record of having published some striking content: "A senior national security official in the Trump administration wrote under a pseudonym last year that Islam is an inherently violent religion that is 'incompatible with the modern West,' defended the World War II-era America First Committee, which included anti-Semites, as 'unfairly maligned,' and called diversity 'a source of weakness, tension and disunion.'"

* On a related note, USA Today continues to scrutinize recordings of Steve Bannon's talk radio show, and the controversial comments he made on the air about religious minorities and immigrants.
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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP

Trump's new partnership with Wall Street creates economic risks

02/09/17 11:23AM

Last week, in a story that probably didn't get as much attention as it deserves, Donald Trump issued a new directive to make it easier for your financial advisor to deliberately rip you off. At the same time, the Republican president, who made anti-Wall Street rhetoric a key part of his campaign message, began laying the groundwork to undo elements of the Dodd-Frank reform law.

Don't worry, though, because Trump has a perfectly clear rationale for his actions: "I have so many people, friends of mine, that have nice businesses and they can't borrow money. They just can't get any money because the banks just won't let them borrow because of the rules and regulations in Dodd-Frank."

In other words, the president is targeting legal safeguards and layers of financial-industry accountability so that his friends can get more money. The comments were certainly candid.

But they were also baffling. To the extent that reality matters, commercial lending is actually at record highs right now -- even with Dodd-Frank safeguards in place -- so it's not altogether clear what the president is whining about.

At the same White House event, Trump turned to JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon and said, "There's nobody better to tell me about Dodd-Frank than Jamie." If you voted for Trump because you thought he'd stand up to Wall Street, I'm afraid you were suckered.

But perhaps most alarming of all is the potential impact of this administration's vision as it relates to the finance industry. Vox's Matt Yglesias had a good piece on this yesterday, noting that Trump seems determined to encourage Wall Street to engage in more risky lending.
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A view of the state capitol on March 6, 2015 in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)

How Senator Strange made it from Alabama to Capitol Hill

02/09/17 10:40AM

With the Senate voting late yesterday to confirm Jeff Sessions as the next U.S. Attorney General, the Alabama Republican leaves a rare vacancy in his 100-member chamber. In a narrowly divided Senate, even one seat can make a difference.

And with that in mind, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) wasted little time in announcing Sessions' successor, appointing state Attorney General Luther Strange (R) to fill the vacancy for the remainder of Sessions' term. Strange, who had already announced plans to run the Senate seat in 2018, will now run as an incumbent.

Perhaps the most interesting part, however, is considering the possible motivation behind the governor's decision. The Alabama Media Group reported this morning:
The appointment comes four months after Strange asked the Alabama House Judiciary Committee to suspend an investigation into impeachment articles against Bentley because his office was conducting a related investigation.

"I respectfully request that the Committee cease active interviews and investigation until I am able to report to you that the necessary related work of my office has been completed," Strange wrote in a Nov. 3 letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Jones, who agreed to suspend the proceedings.
It creates an amazing political dynamic: Gov. Bentley is under investigation for an unseemly scandal, in which he's accused of having an extramarital affair with an aide and using state resources to help cover it up. The state attorney general, in his letter to state lawmakers, suggested his office's investigation is ongoing.

Bentley certainly couldn't make the investigation go away by firing Strange, but the governor has now done the next best thing: he's giving Strange a promotion and sending him out of town.
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Kellyanne Conway, new campaign manager for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaks to reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, Aug. 17, 2016. (Photo by Gerald Herbert/AP)

Kellyanne Conway endorses Ivanka Trump's merchandise

02/09/17 10:08AM

Donald Trump, already beset by a series of conflict-of-interest controversies, broke new ground yesterday: the Republican president used his office to chastise an American company for no longer selling his daughter's merchandise. In case this isn't obvious, we're not accustomed to seeing the chief executive of a superpower exploit his platform to interfere in his daughter's retailing opportunities.

Making matters worse, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Nordstrom's decision to stop selling Ivanka Trump's products represented an "attack."

And just when it seemed this story couldn't get more ridiculous, a prominent member of Team Trump turned things up a notch.
During a Thursday morning Fox & Friends interview, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway told viewers to buy products from Ivanka Trump's clothing line.

This comes the day after Donald Trump tweeted angrily at Nordstrom for dropping his daughter's line, writing that she had been "treated so unfairly." Conway referred to Ivanka as a "champion for women empowerment, women in the workplace," before adding, "Go buy Ivanka's stuff, is what I would tell you. I hate shopping, and I'm gonna go get some on myself today."
Hmm. A White House official -- which is to say, a public official whose salary is paid by American taxpayers -- appeared on national television this morning in what looked like the press briefing room in the West Wing. She then used that platform to, in effect, do a little commercial/testimonial in support of her boss' daughter's merchandise, encouraging people to buy Trump products.

It wasn't long before knowledgeable observers started asking whether this was even legal.
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Image: Neil Gorsuch speaks after U.S. President Donald Trump announces his nomination of Gorsuch to be an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court at the White House in Washington

Trump can't even get the Gorsuch nomination right

02/09/17 09:21AM

With his Muslim ban running into trouble in the courts, Donald Trump has taken highly provocative steps in recent days to attack the federal judiciary. Months after targeting a judge with overtly racist rhetoric, the Republican president is at it again, lashing out at another federal jurist and the court system itself.

Yesterday, Trump delivered remarks in which he suggested the federal bench should rule his way or risk political marginalization. "If these judges wanted to help the court in terms of respect for the court, they'd do what they should be doing," he said, adding, "[C]ourts seem to be so political, and it would be so great for our justice system if they would read [the law] and do what's right."

As a Washington Post report put it, the president was "basically saying: That's a nice reputation you've got there. It'd be a shame if something happened to it."

Even Trump's Supreme Court nominee disapproves.
President Donald Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court has called the president's recent criticism of the judiciary "disheartening" and "demoralizing," a spokesman for the nomination confirmation team told NBC News on Wednesday.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said Wednesday that he spoke with U.S. Appeals Court Judge Neil Gorsuch and that Gorsuch "certainly expressed to me that he is disheartened by the demoralizing and abhorrent comments made by President Trump about the judiciary."

A spokesman for the team shepherding Gorsuch's nomination in the Senate confirmed Blumenthal's version of the conversation to NBC News and said Gorsuch did use the words "disheartening" and "demoralizing."
It seemed plausible to believe all the relevant players were acting out their parts in this story. It helps Gorsuch's nomination if he's seen distancing himself from Trump, so has every incentive to rebuke the president's anti-judiciary comments -- and let everyone know he rebuked the president's anti-judiciary comments.

In fact, part of me wondered whether there was a Kabuki-theater element to this, with Gorsuch perhaps getting a behind-the-scenes green light from the White House to make these comments and acknowledge their veracity.
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White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivers his first statement in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017.

Spicer tries to squelch criticisms of Trump's failed raid in Yemen

02/09/17 08:45AM

Two weeks ago in Yemen, the first military raid ordered by Donald Trump went horribly wrong. The plan was to acquire intelligence and equipment at an al Qaeda camp, but the mission quickly went sideways: Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owen, a member of SEAL Team 6, was killed; several other Americans were injured; and by the end of the operation, multiple civilians, including children, were dead.

It's been described as a mission in which "almost everything went wrong," a dynamic made more complicated by U.S. military officials suggesting to Reuters that Trump approved the mission "without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations."

Worse, some of the Trump White House's claims about what transpired have struggled to stand up to scrutiny, and when the president's Defense Department tried to present evidence of the raid's value, that went wrong, too.

The consequences of the events continue to reverberate: the New York Times reported yesterday that Yemen "has withdrawn permission for the United States to run Special Operations ground missions against suspected terrorist groups in the country," which is an important setback for the Trump administration.

Despite all of this, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said last week that the operation was "successful" and "well-executed." Yesterday, Spicer went even further.
The White House said Wednesday that anyone who questions the success of last week's deadly U.S.-led raid in Yemen "owes an apology" to the Navy SEAL who was killed there. [...]

Spicer said that "anyone who undermines the success of that raid owes an apology and [does] a disservice" to the life of Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens, who was killed in a firefight.... Spicer repeated his declaration that the Jan. 28 strike -- which also left an 8-year-old girl and an unknown number of other civilians dead -- was a "huge success."
Wait, it gets much worse.
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Senator Ted Cruz addresses delegates on day three of the Republican National Convention at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on July 20, 2016. (Photo by Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty)

On civil rights, Republicans pick the wrong fight at the wrong time

02/09/17 08:00AM

Given the racially charged themes tying together several recent Republican moves, the GOP would probably be better off avoiding an argument over civil rights, but a variety of prominent officials in the party were nevertheless eager to dive in yesterday.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, for example, was asked at a briefing yesterday about Republicans shutting down Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) when she tried to read a letter from Coretta Scott King about Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). The press secretary touted Sessions' record on civil rights "throughout his career," and added that he "would hope" that King would support the Alabama Republican if she were alive today.

Given Sessions' actual record, Spicer's rhetoric was difficult to take seriously. Coretta Scott King wrote 30 years ago that Sessions would "irreparably damage" her slain husband's work, and there's literally nothing to suggest she'd feel any differently today.

Around the same time, however, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was taking the broader argument in an even more ridiculous direction. The Washington Post reported:
The day after Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was rebuked while making a speech critical of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Sen. Ted Cruz blasted Democrats, saying their party is the one rooted in racism.

"The Democrats are the party of the Ku Klux Klan," Cruz (R-Tex.) said in an interview on Fox News on Wednesday. "You look at the most racist -- you look at the Dixiecrats, they were Democrats who imposed segregation, imposed Jim Crow laws, who founded the Klan. The Klan was founded by a great many Democrats."
There are a couple of dramatic problems with this. The first is recent history: just last year, during the presidential campaign, a KKK newspaper published its support for Donald Trump's candidacy. It was part of a broader push among white nationalists to help elect the Republican Party's presidential ticket.

This followed an incident from last February in which Trump was asked to denounce support he'd received from white supremacists -- and the Republican hesitated.

Perhaps Ted Cruz missed this.
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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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