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Image: Tom Price

Tom Price's travel combined personal and professional interests

09/27/17 08:40AM

In 1991, George H. W. Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu, was forced to resign in the wake of a specific kind of scandal: on multiple occasions, Sununu used government resources for his personal travel. The then-president first rebuked his top aide before eventually accepting his resignation.

When the story about HHS Secretary Tom Price's private-jet travel first broke, it appeared that this was a different kind of controversy because the Republican cabinet secretary's trips were strictly professional in nature. Politico moved the ball forward yesterday with a report that suggests Price actually mixed personal and professional interests while taking advantage of taxpayer-funded travel.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price took a government-funded private jet in August to get to St. Simons Island, an exclusive Georgia resort where he and his wife own land, a day and a half before he addressed a group of local doctors at a medical conference that he and his wife have long attended.

The St. Simons Island trip was one of two taxpayer-funded flights on private jets in which Price traveled to places where he owns property, and paired official visits with meetings with longtime colleagues and family members. On June 6, HHS chartered a jet to fly Price to Nashville, Tennessee, where he owns a condominium and where his son resides. Price toured a medicine dispensary and spoke to a local health summit organized by a longtime friend. He also had lunch with his son, an HHS official confirmed.

To appreciate all of the details, many of which are quite damaging, it's worth reading the full piece.

Richard Painter, the top ethics lawyers in the Bush/Cheney administration, described Price's travel practices as "highly unprofessional and really inappropriate."

So, where does that leave us? We now know that Price chartered dozens of private flights. We know that the costs to taxpayers now exceed $400,000. We know that the cabinet secretary has come up with several excuses, none of which makes a lot of sense.

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Image: Trump Announces Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act

Alabama Republicans ignore Trump's advice in key Senate primary

09/27/17 08:00AM

Donald Trump went all out for appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R) in his Alabama primary. The president endorsed him, tweeted about him, promoted his Fox News appearances, dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to campaign for him, and even headlined a local rally for him.

But Alabama Republicans ignored Trump's advice. Roy Moore easily defeated Strange in their primary runoff yesterday, and soon after, some presidential tweets suddenly disappeared.

After enthusiastically endorsing an Alabama senator's campaign for re-election, President Trump distanced himself on Tuesday night from the candidate's loss in the most Trumpian way possible: He deleted his supportive tweets.

Hours after Senator Luther Strange, a Republican from Alabama, lost in Tuesday's primary runoff, Mr. Trump excised at least three favorable Twitter posts, including one sent Tuesday morning. In that tweet, posted as the polls in Alabama opened, the president boasted that Mr. Strange "has been shooting up in the Alabama polls since my endorsement."

Like so much of the president's rhetoric, that wasn't true -- and once the election results were available, the claim looked quite foolish.

But Trump's embarrassment isn't the only reason yesterday's primary in Alabama matters. Indeed, GOP voters in the state have jolted Republican politics in a way that's likely to carry real consequences.

1. Alabama's Senate special election may now be competitive. Karl Rove recently warned that Roy Moore, twice removed from the state bench for ethics violations, is such an extremist, many Alabama voters will consider Doug Jones (D), a former federal prosecutor, as a credible alternative. Trump himself echoed this point on Friday night, arguing, "If [Luther Strange wins the primary], that race is over. If somebody else wins, I will tell you, that's going to be a very tough race."

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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 9.26.17

09/26/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* This really doesn't help: "The U.S. is 'totally prepared' for 'devastating' military action against North Korea should that be necessary, President Donald Trump declared Tuesday, further ratcheting up tensions between the two nations."

* Puerto Rico: "As the devastation from Hurricane Maria became more apparent Sunday, former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton implored President Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to help the people of Puerto Rico. Send the Navy, she tweeted, especially the hospital ship USNS Comfort. Two days later, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Brock Long announced that the Navy will soon do exactly that."

* Political pressure matters: "With Hurricane Maria's devastation coming into full view, a group of congressional lawmakers called on the Trump administration Tuesday to step up its response to recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean."

* Saudi Arabia's king "issued a decree on Tuesday allowing women to drive, which would end a longstanding ban on female motorists in the ultra-conservative country. The Saudi Ministry of the Interior said the decree means women will be allowed to drive in 10 months. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women drivers."

* A reverberating scandal: "The chairman and chief executive of Equifax, Richard F. Smith, stepped down on Tuesday in the aftermath of a data breach that exposed the personal information of as many as 143 million people, the credit reporting agency said."

* Trump-Russia: "Criminal charges against two former top advisers to President Donald Trump are virtually certain, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Tuesday. Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort are almost sure to be indicted as a result of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the Connecticut senator told Politico."

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Republicans pull the plug on health care repeal bill

09/26/17 03:25PM

After Republican repeal crusaders suffered a brutal day yesterday, the question was less about whether the latest GOP health care bill would fail, and more about how it would fail. This afternoon, the answer became clear.

Short on votes and time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is moving on from health care for now.

Republican senators decided during their weekly conference lunch to not take a vote on a measure that was sure to go down in defeat with three senators explicitly against it and others wavering.

The announcement comes a day after Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) suggested the GOP leadership might hold the vote, even if failure is a foregone conclusion. "There are a lot of people who want to vote yes and be recorded as voting yes," Cornyn said. "I think there is some advantage to showing you're trying and doing the best you can." (The Texas Republican's track record for accuracy in this fight has been less than impressive.)

While Democrats are clearly delighted by the demise of Graham-Cassidy, as we discussed this morning, they were quietly hoping the bill wouldn't be pulled from the floor: the more Senate Republicans tied themselves to this woefully unpopular bill, the better it would be for their opponents. If, on the other hand, a sizable number of GOP senators broke ranks, Dems would boast about the bipartisan opposition to the repeal measure.

Republican leaders had reason to fear looking weak by pulling the plug on the endeavor, but they had more to fear by hosting another failed health care vote.

Regardless, the bottom line remains the same: the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act has, once again, fallen off the tracks. The question now is what GOP officials are prepared to do about it.

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Image: FILES-US-POLITICS-RUSSIA

Trump's latest comments on Sessions were 'dripping with venom'

09/26/17 12:46PM

On Friday night, Donald Trump headlined a rally in Alabama, where the president continued his campaign against Hillary Clinton. "If Crooked Hillary got elected, you would not have a Second Amendment, believe me," he said. "You'd be handing in your rifles. You'd be saying, 'Here, here, here they are.' You'd be turning over your rifles."

As if on cue, the audience began chanting, "Lock her up." Trump, bemused, responded, "You've got to speak to Jeff Sessions about that."

It was a reminder that the president, who threw an Oval Office tantrum in the spring in which he called Sessions an "idiot," still isn't pleased with his attorney general. The Wall Street Journal  reports that Trump told a group of supporters last night about his dissatisfaction with the Alabama Republican.

At the dinner with conservative leaders, Mr. Trump expressed frustration with Mr. Sessions' March decision to recuse himself from the Justice Department's probe of Russian election meddling, according to three people present for the conversation.

"You could feel it dripping with venom," one dinner guest said. "It was something else."

As the article described the context, a guest asked the president a policy question, when "his mood appeared to shift." Trump encouraged the attendee to direct the question to the attorney general's office, before adding, "He recused himself on Russia, which he should never have done."

This was just the latest in a series of angry complaints Trump has made about Sessions, and last night served as a reminder that the president clearly isn't letting this go.

But let's not overlook the point driving the presidential whining: Trump seems to realize that the Russia scandal represents an existential crisis for his administration, and he's outraged because Sessions isn't in a position to make the problem go away.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.26.17

09/26/17 12:00PM

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

* On the eve of Alabama's Republican Senate primary runoff, Roy Moore last night headlined a rally and brandished a handgun to demonstrate his conservative bona fides. A few hours north, Vice President Mike Pence was headlining a rally for Moore's rival, appointed Sen. Luther Strange.

* On a related note, Moore defended himself yesterday against the NRA, which is supporting Strange. The pushback came after the right-wing group invested nearly $1 million in anti-Moore attack ads in Alabama.

* Donald Trump, who's been a prominent cheerleader for Strange, said this morning that the appointed senator's support "has been shooting up" thanks to the president's endorsement -- because according to Trump, everything at all times is about Trump.

* New Jersey's gubernatorial race is seven weeks from today, and a new USA Today/Suffolk poll shows Phil Murphy (D) with a big lead over Kim Guadagno (R), 45% to 27%, among likely voters. The same poll found Gov. Chris Christie (R) with a 16% approval rating among his constituents.

* Despite the oddity of a sitting vice president having his own political operation, Mike Pence's Great America Committee reportedly raised money over the summer from "at least three dozen corporate PACs," according to Politico.

* Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) -- remember him? -- is apparently still in Congress, and yesterday he called on Arizona voters to recall Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) so that Republicans can more easily pass a regressive heath care plan.

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An election worker checks a voter's drivers license as North Carolina's controversial "Voter ID" law goes into effect for the state's presidential primary election at a polling place, March 15, 2016,  in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo by Chris Keane/Reuters)

Kobach accidentally makes a good point about voting rights

09/26/17 11:20AM

The Kansas City Star  reported the other day that the ACLU is poised to launch "a new effort to expand voting rights in all 50 states," and the initiative will begin this weekend -- in Lawrence, Kansas.

[T]hat location is no accident. It’s the home state of Kris Kobach, Kansas’ secretary of state and a prominent Republican advocate of restricting voter access. He is co-chair of President Donald Trump’s commission to investigate so-far unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.

The ACLU campaign, called Let People Vote, will forgo a federal approach to expanding voting rights; indeed it ignores Congress altogether. Instead, it will pressure each state to adopt individually tailored plans, including proposals such as creating independent redistricting commissions and restoring voting access for convicted felons.

So far, so good. The funny part, however, came when Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach released a written statement responding to the ACLU's new initiative. "Their campaign," Kobach said, "should be entitled 'Let People Vote Without Showing Photo ID.'"

Yes. Exactly. Kobach didn't mean to, but he's managed to get this part of the debate exactly right.

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Political supporters are silhouetted in a large American flag on March 2, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Renneisen/Getty)

Interior Secretary says much of his team is 'not loyal to the flag'

09/26/17 10:48AM

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke hasn't been on the job long, but he's already managed to raise his profile in ways most Interior secretaries usually don't.

In July, for example, Zinke reportedly reached out to both of Alaska's Republican senators with what Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) described at the time as a "troubling message." According to accounts, the cabinet secretary warned the lawmakers that their home state may face adverse consequences unless they vote for the health care repeal bill Donald Trump supports.

In March, Zinke also raised eyebrows when, in response to a question about the trade-offs between the economy and the environment, he replied, "We're not hurting the environment. You look at, is there such a thing as clean coal? Well, there's no such thing as clean energy."

And now it appears Donald Trump's Interior secretary has managed to make national news again.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Monday that nearly one-third of employees at his department are not loyal to him and President Donald Trump, adding that he is working to change the department's regulatory culture to be more business friendly.

Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, said he knew when he took over the 70,000-employee department in March that, "I got 30 percent of the crew that's not loyal to the flag."

He reportedly made the comments "to an oil industry group."

I haven't seen the full context, but based on the Associated Press' account, Zinke reference to "the flag" was metaphorical: he was apparently talking about loyalty to the president, not the country.

Of course, that doesn't exactly make his comments sensible.

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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)

Senator lays out the ideal health care blueprint (which he opposes)

09/26/17 10:09AM

I've heard a lot of Republicans say all kinds of notable things about health care this year, but Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) took the conversation yesterday in a direction I hardly thought possible.

The Wisconsin Republican, one of the four principal co-sponsors of the repeal bill currently pending in the Senate, appeared on Fox News and was asked about Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) call for a bipartisan process that follows regular order. Johnson responded:

"Well again, if we don't pass it this week -- and again, I want to pass it this week, that's what I recommend, this is a real action-forcing piece of legislation -- but if we can't do it, well, I think we should hold hearings.

"We should have a very robust discussion, debate, about here is the problem, then we go through a problem-solving process. Lay out the information to find the problems -- the problem or the problems -- gather the information, and then set achievable goals. Then start designing legislation to achieve those goals to solve the problem."

On the surface, it's probably not a great sign for Graham-Cassidy that one of its top co-sponsors is already looking ahead to what should happen once the legislation fails.

But that's not the interesting part. Rather, what amazed me was Johnson laying out a responsible blueprint, while simultaneously recommending that senators take an entirely different course of action.

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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

Private email use has been widespread in Trump's White House

09/26/17 09:20AM

There's something inherently challenging about the basics of the Trump White House's email controversy. On the one hand, email server protocols are neither interesting nor important.

On the other hand, the people who were apoplectic about these email rules in 2015 and 2016 are the same people who've broken the rules in 2017. The New York Times  reported overnight that "at least six" of Donald Trump top advisers have relied on private email accounts to conduct official White House business.

The disclosures came a day after news surfaced that Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and adviser, used a private email account to send or receive about 100 work-related emails during the administration's first seven months. But Mr. Kushner was not alone. Stephen K. Bannon, the former chief White House strategist, and Reince Priebus, the former chief of staff, also occasionally used private email addresses. Other advisers, including Gary D. Cohn and Stephen Miller, sent or received at least a few emails on personal accounts, officials said.

Ivanka Trump, the president's elder daughter, who is married to Mr. Kushner, used a private account when she acted as an unpaid adviser in the first months of the administration, Newsweek reported Monday. Administration officials acknowledged that she also occasionally did so when she formally became a White House adviser.

Politico, meanwhile, reports that over the summer, then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus tried to tamp down on "rampant use of personal communications devices for official business," but his orders were ignored. The article added, "Aides laughed about Priebus' request, and senior officials -- including Priebus -- continued to use their personal phones for phone calls, text messages and emails for White House matters."

There are three relevant angles to this. The first and most obvious is that Trump World is aware of a rule that it has no interest in following. We can certainly debate the seriousness of the transgressions -- with this gang, there's no shortage of more shocking scandals -- but there's no good excuse for top members of Team Trump simply pretending the rules don't apply to them, even if the underlying concern is relatively trivial.

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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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