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Image: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington

Just how concerned is Paul Ryan about 'moral relativism'?

05/25/18 10:43AM

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) spoke at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast yesterday, and he shared a message that, devoid of context, would've been largely predictable. From his remarks:

"At this time, there is a deeply serious problem we see right now within our society. We see moral relativism becoming more and more pervasive in our culture. Identity politics and tribalism have grown on top of this."

It's somewhat surprising to see the Republican leader, poised to step down from Congress after two decades on Capitol Hill, suggest there's something wrong with "identity politics and tribalism." After all, Ryan has long been one of American politics' most rabid partisans, often rejecting bipartisanship as a course he was loath to even consider.

But it was the Wisconsin congressman's denunciation of moral relativism that stood out as especially important.

For those unfamiliar with the phrase, moral relativism is a rejection of the idea that there are core, universal moral standards that should be applied without concern for culture or context. Moral relativists believe there are fluid answers to questions of right and wrong, rather than inviolable principles that must always be honored in all instances.

In general, it's the left that's associated with moral relativism, and the right that's traditionally found it offensive. And yet, in the Donald Trump era, those lines have been blurred.

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel walk along a section of the recently-constructed fence at the U.S.-Mexico border on Feb. 26, 2013 in Nogales, Ariz. (Photo by John Moore/Getty)

Border Patrol union: Trump's Guard deployment is a 'colossal waste'

05/25/18 09:37AM

It was early last month when Donald Trump formally directed thousands of National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, ostensibly to combat illegal border crossings. "Until we can have a wall and proper security, we are going to be guarding our border with the military," the president said at the time.

It quickly became obvious, though, that the White House couldn't fully explain the point of the policy. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tried to defend the deployments, but it didn't go especially well. A CNN report added that it "remains unclear exactly what [the National Guard troops] will be there to do."

Nearly two months later, the story looks slightly worse. The L.A. Times  reported overnight:

A month after President Trump called for sending National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, the head of the national Border Patrol union called the deployment "a colossal waste of resources."

"We have seen no benefit," said Brandon Judd, president of the union that represents 15,000 agents, the National Border Patrol Council.

The criticism is a dramatic departure for the group, which endorsed Trump's candidacy for president and has praised his border security efforts, including National Guard deployments.

Mother Jones' Kevin Drum added, "This is yet another example of Trump talking big but accomplishing little because he has no idea what the issues really are and what kind of actions to order. He just tweets out a command to deploy the National Guard to the border, basks in the applause, and then assumes everything will just work out."

Exactly. Trump's actions and decisions aren't governing in any meaningful sense. He starts by making false assumptions based on dubious reports he learns from conservative media -- the president is convinced there's a border crisis, reality be damned -- and then tries to think of "solutions" that will impress his rabid base.

In this case, that meant deploying thousands of National Guard troops.

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A woman pumps gas into her car on Nov, 15, 2013 in Pembroke Pines, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty)

Political debate over gas prices heats up

05/25/18 09:00AM

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, average U.S. gas prices reached a seven-year low in February 2016. That average has been steady increasing ever since, reaching a four-year high this month.

And as Politico  noted, the result is a renewed political debate that's likely to become an issue in the 2018 midterms.

President Donald Trump is hoping a wave of tax-cut-fueled economic euphoria will boost his approval ratings and his party's political fortunes this fall. A sharp spike in gas prices could slam the brakes on all of that.

As Americans head out for traditional Memorial Day weekend road trips, they'll confront gas prices of nearly $3 a gallon, the highest since 2014 and a 25 percent spike since last year.

Democratic leaders clearly see an opportunity they're eager to exploit. They held an event at a Capitol Hill gas station this week, and the Daily Beast  reported that the party is "preparing an aggressive assault on the Trump administration" over this issue.

The politics of this fight get a little tricky, though Trump unwittingly put himself in a difficult position he may find difficult to explain.

Let's start with a basic truth: in general, presidents have limited influence over what American consumers pay at the pump for a global commodity. When Barack Obama took office, for example, gas prices were collapsing, not because of any policies the Democratic president had implemented, but because the international economy was in freefall. Recessions depress economic activity, which lessens the demand for fuel, and pushes prices lower.

Similarly, as Obama's economic agenda pulled the nation out of the Great Recession, gas prices climbed throughout his first term. Republicans howled, but the trend was entirely predictable, and there wasn't much of anything the White House could do about it.

The trouble for Trump, however, is three-fold.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen during a press conference at Los Pinos on Aug. 31, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/LatinContent/Getty)

Trump's nonsensical 'Spygate' conspiracy theory ends with a whimper

05/25/18 08:00AM

By any fair measure, yesterday's classified briefing shouldn't have happened. Donald Trump instructed federal law enforcement officials to hand over sensitive information to a group of lawmakers about a human source who assisted with an ongoing counter-intelligence investigation. The president made this demand for brazenly political reasons, threatening to undermine not only the rule of law, but also a probe in which Trump is a subject.

The fact one of the president's defense attorneys turned up, unannounced, at the congressional briefing added insult to injury.

But while this stunt is indefensible on its face, it did serve a practical purpose: Trump's "Spygate" conspiracy theory appears to have ended with a whimper.

Congressional Democrats say that a classified briefing held Thursday for top leaders about the FBI's investigation into President Trump's 2016 campaign did not offer evidence that supports the allegation that an intelligence agency placed a spy in the campaign.

"Nothing we heard today has changed our view that there is no evidence to support any allegation that the FBI or any intel agency placed a spy in the Trump campaign," said a statement Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., read to reporters on behalf of himself, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

Republican officials who attended the same briefing have been far more circumspect, but it's worth emphasizing that none of them has suggested in any forum that the revelations were in any way useful to the White House.

This week, Trump and his allies aggressively peddled a nonsensical tale in which the Justice Department and the FBI "infiltrated" his 2016 campaign, "implanting" a "spy" in his operation. Yesterday's briefing was intended to advance the conspiracy theory, divulging information about an FBI informant.

But just as the notorious "Nunes memo" ended up backfiring, undermining Trump World's own arguments, the secret information divulged yesterday brought into focus another inconvenient truth for the president: there was no spy. Trump's assertions on the matter have been ridiculous from the outset.

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Trump undue pressure for peek at Russia probe is dangerous

Trump undue pressure for peek at Russia probe is dangerous

05/24/18 09:26PM

David Kris, former assistant attorney general for national security, talks with Rachel Maddow about why elements of an investigation cannot be shared before the investigation is complete, and why Donald Trump's pressure on the Justice Department to reveal elements of the Trump Russia investigation is not normal and very dangerous. watch

Thursday's Mini-Report, 5.24.18

05/24/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* There is no such evidence: "Congressional Democrats say that a classified briefing held Thursday for top leaders about the FBI's investigation into President Trump's 2016 campaign did not offer evidence that supports the allegation that an intelligence agency placed a spy in the campaign."

* The compromise measure was only released a couple of days ago and now it's done: "After months of debate, the Senate has finally reached an agreement on a bill to curtail sexual harassment on Capitol Hill. On Thursday, the Senate passed the bill on a voice vote."

* Keep an eye on this one: "A Border Patrol agent shot and killed a woman who had crossed the border illegally near Laredo, Tex., on Wednesday after the officer came under attack, federal authorities said."

* Moving backward quickly: "Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday scoffed at American demands that his country curb its military ambitions and issued his own set of demands to Europe to remain in the nuclear deal."

* This probably won't end well: "President Donald Trump wants to put a 25 percent tariff on imports of automobiles under a similar authority that allowed him to slap duties on imports of steel and aluminum in order to protect U.S. national security, a senior administration official confirmed."

* Rudy Giuliani last talked to Donald Trump a "couple weeks ago." Given how much the former mayor speaks on the president's behalf, that's unexpected.

* An election worth watching: "Ireland, a once staunchly Catholic country, will hold a national referendum Friday on whether to overturn its strict abortion law, and polls show the vote will be close."

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Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., stops to speak with a reporter as he arrives for the Senate Republicans' policy luncheon, May 12, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP)

GOP senator condemns 'moral vandalism' from Trump's White House

05/24/18 04:33PM

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has made no secret of his concerns about Donald Trump's presidency, but the retiring Republican senator was strikingly candid in a speech at Harvard Law School yesterday.

"Not to be unpleasant, but I do bring news from our nation's capital. First, the good news: Your national leadership is not good. At all. Our presidency has been debased by a figure who has a seemingly bottomless appetite for destruction and division -- and only a passing familiarity with how the Constitution works.

"And our Article I branch of government, the Congress -- that's me -- is utterly supine in the face of the moral vandalism that flows from the White House daily.... This is it, if you have been wondering what the bottom looks like. This is what it looks like when you stress-test all of the institutions that undergird our constitutional democracy, at the same time."

The Arizonan went on to twice describe our system of government as "a democracy that is in trouble." Flake added that Americans have arrived at a time "of great peril."

It was a speech that was as compelling as it was eloquent, and for those who mourn the demise of the Republican Party's principles and traditions, it was heartening to see Flake have the courage to deliver the remarks.

And yet, once again, the praise for the senator must come with some caveats.

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Image: South Korean National Security Advisor Makes Announcement At White House

Did Trump leave South Korea in the dark on his summit plans?

05/24/18 12:49PM

South Korea has played a key role in facilitating diplomacy between the United States and North Korea, but after Donald Trump announced the cancellation of his upcoming summit with Kim Jong-un, it appeared his allies were left in the dark.

South Korea said Thursday that it was trying to figure out the circumstances behind the cancellation of the summit, according to Yonhap News, a South Korean news agency.

"(We) are trying to figure out what President Trump's intention is and the exact meaning of it," a spokesman told the news outlet.

I'm sure this is the sort of thing the U.S. ambassador to South Korea can help smooth over with our longtime allies.

No, wait, nearly a year and a half after taking office, the Trump administration doesn't yet have an ambassador to South Korea.

It was our allies in Seoul who first alerted Trump to Kim Jong-un's eagerness for a bilateral meeting, and in a curious display, it was South Korean officials whom Trump dispatched to the White House driveway in March to tell the press that the American president had agreed to meet with the nuclear-armed dictator.

And yet, it's now South Korean officials who are "trying to figure out" what Trump did and why.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.24.18

05/24/18 12:00PM

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

* Though the details are far from clear, Rep. Tom Garrett (R-Va.), a member of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, "abruptly parted ways" this week with his chief of staff, and according to Politico, the Republican congressman is "considering" not seeking re-election this year.

* Iowa gubernatorial hopeful Nate Boulton, often described as a "rising star" in Democratic politics, ended his statewide campaign today following a Des Moines Register report that he groped three women.

* A reporter for the Fresno Bee asked House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) if he intends to hold any public forums or town-hall events during his re-election campaign. "Your paper is a joke to even bring these issues up or raise these issues," the Republican congressman replied.

* In related news, Nunes' higher public profile as a sycophantic Trump ally has done wonders for his fundraising: the Washington Examiner  reported yesterday that Californian "raised an extraordinary approximate sum of $2.25 million in six weeks," likely pushing his overall war chest "past $5 million."

* And speaking of the Golden State, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has long been a proponent of capital punishment, but she told the L.A. Times this week that she's changed her mind. "It became crystal clear to me that the risk of unequal application is high and its effect on deterrence is low," the incumbent senator, up for re-election this year, explained.

* Donald Trump's 2020 re-election campaign continues to expand its staff, and this week added veteran GOP strategist Chris Carr, who'll serve as the campaign's political director.

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Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. testifies during a hearing on Feb. 11, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty)

Why Trump is lying about former DNI James Clapper

05/24/18 11:34AM

During a brief Q&A with reporters at the White House yesterday, Donald Trump suggested that former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had quietly endorsed the president's new favorite conspiracy theory.

"If you look at Clapper, he sort of admitted that they had spies in the campaign, yesterday, inadvertently," Trump said, clinging to the ridiculous assertion that federal law enforcement embedded spies in the Republican's political operation.

And while the president yesterday included qualifiers in his claim -- note the use of "sort of" -- he was more direct this morning. "Clapper has now admitted that there was Spying in my campaign," Trump wrote on Twitter.

The conspiracy theory is made up, but what's with all the talk about Clapper's "admission"? As is too often the case, Trump appears to be trying to deceive the public, referring to this exchange on "The View" between Clapper and co-host Joy Behar:

Joy Behar: "So I ask you, was the F.B.I. spying on Trump's campaign?"

Mr. Clapper: "No, they were not. They were spying on, a term I don't particularly like, but on what the Russians were doing. Trying to understand were the Russians infiltrating, trying to gain access, trying to gain leverage or influence, which is what they do."

Ms. Behar: "Well, why doesn't he like that? He should be happy."

Mr. Clapper: "He should be. I mean, Russia — it's one of the reasons I wrote my book, was the threat Russia poses because they are bent on undermining our system. And that's what they did, and had a lot of success during the course of the election."

As the New York Times  explained, "In other words, Mr. Clapper used the word 'spy' to describe intelligence gathering on Russian efforts to influence the election. He explicitly denied that the F.B.I. 'spied' on Mr. Trump's campaign. "

So why is the president peddling such an easily discredited claim? It's likely Trump believes he has no other choice.

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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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