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A passenger aircraft makes its landing approach to Heathrow airport in front of a "super moon" at dawn in west London, Britain on Oct. 17, 2016. (Photo by Toby Melville/Reuters)

Team Trump seems to have an aversion to commercial air travel

09/29/17 10:42AM

So many Trump-era political controversies are so unusual, we lack frames of reference and historical parallels. When a foreign adversary launches an espionage operation against our democracy to help elect its preferred presidential candidate, and they may have had American confederates colluding with the attackers, it's the kind of scandal that defies easy comparison.

On the other hand, cabinet secretaries avoiding commercial air travel is refreshingly simple. The Washington Post has the latest example for a growing list.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke chartered a flight from Las Vegas to near his home in Montana this summer aboard a plane owned by oil-and-gas executives, internal documents show.

The flight, along with private flights during a trip to the Virgin Islands, could propel Zinke into the growing debate over the costs of travel by Cabinet secretaries, some of whom have chosen expensive charter jets and military planes at high expense to taxpayers over the cheaper option of flying commercial.

According to the Post's report, the flight cost taxpayers $12,375. Complicating matters, Donald Trump's Interior secretary didn't just charter a private flight; he flew aboard "a private plane owned by the executives of a Wyoming oil-and-gas exploration firm."

And in case this isn't obvious, oil-and-gas exploration firms are generally eager to make friends with the Department of the Interior.

But what makes this especially amazing is the broader pattern:

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US Department of Homeland Security employees work in front of US threat level displays inside the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center as part of a guided tour in Arlington, Va. June 26, 2014. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Two months later, Trump still doesn't have a DHS secretary

09/29/17 10:07AM

The Trump administration announced yesterday that Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke will travel to Puerto Rico today, accompanied by a series of other senior officials, as part of the response to the post-Hurricane Maria crisis. Why send the "acting" DHS chief? Because the president hasn't nominated someone to actually lead the mammoth agency.

And for those of us waiting to see Donald Trump fill this key cabinet post, it looks like we'll be waiting quite a bit longer. Politico reported yesterday afternoon:

The Trump administration is hitting reset on its search for a permanent Department of Homeland Security secretary due to White House aides' dissatisfaction with the slate of candidates, according to two people familiar with the process.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul had been considered the front-runner for the job, but he no longer is in contention, these people said.... One person close to the process said the Trump administration is now "back to square one" on the search, and it could be weeks before a final decision is made.

Politico charitably described the White House's process as "deliberate." That's not the first adjective that comes to my mind.

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Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore speaks to the congregation of Kimberly Church of God, June 28, 2015, in Kimberley, Ala. (Photo by Butch Dill/AP)

Republican Party struggles to pass Roy Moore test

09/29/17 09:23AM

To his credit, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) conceded yesterday that Roy Moore, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama, represents a problem for his party. In particular, the Arizona senator pointed to Moore's insistence that Muslim Americans shouldn't be allowed to serve in Congress, regardless of voters' will.

"That's not right, and Republicans ought to stand up and say, that's not right," Flake said. The GOP senator, who conceded he was "troubled" by Moore's record, added, "I think that when we disagree with something so fundamental like that, we ought to stand up and say, that's not right, that's not our party, that is not us."

Flake, however, appears to be the only prominent Republican in D.C. raising these kinds of concerns.

Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada -- who faces a potentially tough primary and general election challenge this cycle -- told The Associated Press that he wasn't even aware that Moore had won the Alabama Republican primary on Tuesday, despite a day of nonstop TV coverage of the race about what his victory meant for Trump, McConnell and the GOP.

"Who won? I wasn't paying attention," Heller said. "I'm just worried about taxes."

Little known fact: "Who won? I wasn't paying attention; I'm just worried about taxes" is the official Republican Party platform condensed to 11 words.

Similarly, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) told Politico, in reference to Roy Moore, "He's going to be for tax reform, I think. I don't know, I don't know him."

We're left with a party facing a test, which requires them to balance a sense of limits with an unquenchable thirst for tax breaks for rich people. So far, it's a test the GOP is failing.

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Flowers on a tree bloom near the Treasury Department building in Washington, DC on March 10, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty)

Trump's Treasury Department hides inconvenient economic report

09/29/17 08:40AM

About five years ago, the Treasury Department's Office of Tax Analysis completed a study that found workers end up paying roughly 18% of the existing corporate tax, while corporate owners pay 82%. This wasn't exactly surprising: the results were in line not only with the assessments of most economists, but also data compiled by the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office.

Up until recently, this analysis was publicly available through the Treasury. As the Wall Street Journal reported overnight, that analysis has now vanished -- because it "contradicts Secretary Steven Mnuchin's argument that workers would benefit the most from a corporate income tax cut."

The paper was available on the Treasury website during the summer, and it wasn't clear when it was removed or whether Treasury intended to publish a new analysis. Other technical papers from 2008 through 2016 remain on its site, along with working papers dating back to 1974.

For Mnuchin, it's critical that people believe that a corporate tax break would benefit workers, which makes all of the evidence to the contrary quite inconvenient.

Evidently, Donald Trump's Treasury secretary believes the proper solution is to make that evidence disappear -- even if it came from career officials at his own cabinet agency.

Mark Mazur, the top Treasury tax policy official until January, told the WSJ, "The career economists who worked on this technical paper did a great job summarizing the mainstream of economic thought on this important topic. They shifted my thinking a bit, by pointing out clearly how some of the burden gets shifted to labor. The public interest is advanced by using the best economic science available and being transparent about the analysis undertaken."

That's true, though the political interests of Trump World prefer a very different approach.

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Image: White House news conference with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Director Gary Cohn

Team Trump can't 'guarantee' middle class won't face tax increase

09/29/17 08:00AM

House Speaker Paul Ryan appeared on CNBC yesterday, in part to help promote the Republicans' new tax plan, and the Wisconsin Republican seemed eager to boast about the outline he helped write. He and his partners, Ryan said, "made sure we did the hard lifting and the tough work" before rolling out the proposal.

I wish that were true. It's not. Six like-minded allies met in secret for months, writing a partisan outline behind closed doors, and came up with a bunch of tax cuts. They didn't make any of the difficult choices about how to pay for the "plan," and at least at this point, they've left all kinds of questions unanswered about who'll win and who'll lose if their framework is implemented.

NBC News' Benjy Sarlin explained yesterday, for example, that while gains for ultra-wealthy Americans and businesses are "larger and more concrete" in the GOP proposal, the "net effects on lower- and middle-income Americans are hard to determine." If Republicans had done "the hard lifting and the tough work" before unveiling the framework, there'd be far less ambiguity.

Indeed, one of the architects of the plan, former Goldman Sachs chief Gary Cohn, Donald Trump's top economic adviser, talked to ABC News' George Stephanopoulos yesterday about some of these ambiguities.

STEPHANOPOULOS: ...If I'm hearing you correctly, you can't guarantee that no middle-class family will get a tax increase. There will be middle-class families who get a tax increase under your plan, correct?

COHN: George, there's an exception to every rule.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So that's a yes?

COHN: Look, I can't guarantee anything. You could always find a unique family somewhere.

I suppose Cohn deserves some credit for candor -- it must have been tempting to make a guarantee he couldn't back up -- but the top economics official in the White House seems to realize that some middle-class households really could pay more under the Republican proposal, despite the plan's tax breaks for the wealthy, and despite Donald Trump's rhetoric about the policy's intended beneficiaries.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 9.28.17

09/28/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Better late than never: "The White House announced Thursday that it had waived the Jones Act -- a nearly century-old shipping law many have said is hampering relief efforts in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico -- to allow much-needed goods to arrive more quickly to the island."

* A welcome return: "Rep. Steve Scalise, the third-ranking Republican in the House, returned to the chamber floor Thursday for the first time since he was shot three months ago on a baseball field in Virginia, earning an enthusiastic and emotional standing ovation from his colleagues."

* Russia scandal: "Twitter said Thursday it had shut down 201 accounts that were tied to the same Russian operatives who posted thousands of political ads on Facebook, but the effort frustrated lawmakers who said the problem is far broader than the company appeared to know. The company said it also found three accounts from the news site RT -- which Twitter linked to the Kremlin -- that spent $274,100 in ads on its platform in 2016."

* Wait, what? "A congressional request for information on White House adviser Jared Kushner's private email use ended up in CNN's hands on Thursday after his high-powered D.C. attorney accidentally forwarded it to an Internet prankster."

* A case to watch: "The Supreme Court on Thursday agreed to hear a case that could deal a crushing blow to organized labor... In the labor case, the court will consider whether public-sector unions may require workers who are not members to help pay for collective bargaining. If the court's answer is no, unions would probably lose a substantial source of revenue."

* Why did Donald Trump Jr. ditch the Secret Service for a week? The official explanation: "After he requested the removal of his Secret Service protection detail, Donald Trump Jr. went on a moose-hunting jaunt to Canada, the New York Times reported late Wednesday."

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Image: Tom Price

Caught up in scandal, HHS's Tom Price expresses 'regret'

09/28/17 05:07PM

The controversy surrounding HHS Secretary Tom Price's taxpayer-financed private travel became a little more serious for the cabinet secretary today -- because congressional Republicans stopped defending him.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) demanded an explanation for Price's travel costs, and Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) conceded, "It's dead wrong. It's more than wrong. And he can't — don't defend this. It's indefensible."

This afternoon, the far-right HHS secretary retreated, issuing a new statement that read in part:

"...I regret the concerns this has raised regarding the use of taxpayer dollars. All of my political career I've fought for the taxpayers. It is clear to me that in this case, I was not sensitive enough to my concern for the taxpayer. [...]

"Today, I will write a personal check to the US Treasury for the expenses of my travel on private charter planes. The taxpayers won't pay a dime for my seat on those planes."

Price added that he will take no additional private charter flights, even after the investigation into his travel is complete.

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The National Debt Clock, a billboard-size digital display showing the increasing US debt, on Sixth Avenue August 1, 2011 in New York.

GOP rep says deficit talk was just an Obama-era 'talking point'

09/28/17 02:48PM

The debate over the budget deficit and "fiscal responsibility" runs like clockwork: when there's a Democratic president, Republicans pretend to care about balancing the budget; and when there's a Republican president, the GOP drops the pretense.

Indeed, it's one of the few constants in American politics. When George W. Bush was president, Republicans put two wars, two tax cuts, Medicare expansion, and a Wall Street bailout on the national credit card -- and made no effort to pay for any of it. Dick Cheney declared that "deficits don't matter" and Orrin Hatch said it was "standard practice not to pay for things" in the Bush era.

Then Barack Obama was elected and many of those same Republicans decided the fate of Western civilization was dependent on balancing the budget.

There have been some good  pieces published lately highlighting the cynicism of the GOP's shift in posture, and the Republicans' indifference to the deficit as their tax plan comes together, but today's New York Times article included a quote of particular interest.

Fast forward to President Trump's Washington, where the budget deficit for this fiscal year is expected to near $700 billion and the federal debt has topped $20 trillion.

A new tax cut is emerging to rival those of the Bush years, and the deficit hawks have hardly peeped.

"It's a great talking point when you have an administration that's Democrat-led," said Representative Mark Walker, Republican of North Carolina and the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of about 150 conservative House members. "It's a little different now that Republicans have both houses and the administration."

The congressman's spokesperson later clarified that he wasn't personally endorsing this cynical approach, but rather, was describing how some of his colleagues perceive the issue.

And while that context matters, it's nevertheless true that Walker is shining a light on an important political dynamic.

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A man holds a sign directing people to an insurance company where they can sign up for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare in Miami, Fla in 2015. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

Trump administration's ACA sabotage campaign intensifies

09/28/17 12:41PM

In Mississippi, the federal Department of Health and Human Services has spent the last few years partnering with local advocacy groups to help lay the groundwork ahead of the open-enrollment period. Organizations and health care stakeholders could count on HHS officials to show up and make sure communities were well served.

Vox reported yesterday that things are different now that Donald Trump is in power.

Up until Monday, Roy Mitchell, executive director of the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program, thought these events were going forward in the coming weeks as planned. He had even asked HHS just last week for biographies of the officials they'd be sending.

But then two days ago, he received a short message from an agency official, which Mitchell shared with Vox: HHS wouldn't be doing any Obamacare marketplace events in the South this year. No further explanation was provided.

Mitchell said this is "clearly sabotage," and it's hard to imagine anyone seriously arguing otherwise.

What's more, Mississippi isn't alone. BuzzFeed reported yesterday that HHS has 10 regional directors, and each of them "were told to not to participate in state-based events promoting open enrollment -- a significant change from years past."

It's almost as if some in the Trump administration don't want to help Americans receive the health care benefits they're entitled to under the law.

In a written statement, HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley told news outlets, "The American people know a bad deal when they see one and many won't be convinced to sign up for 'Washington-knows-best' health coverage that they can't afford.... As Obamacare continues to collapse, HHS is carefully evaluating how we can best serve the American people who continue to be harmed by Obamacare's failures."

Of course, this sounds less like a federal official helping implement existing law and like a political operative with a partisan axe to grind.

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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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