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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 9.27.17

09/27/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Puerto Rico: "The mayor of Puerto Rico's capital city San Juan issued a plea for urgent help as she expressed frustration with the speed at which rescuers were being set to work on the hurricane-ravaged U.S. territory. 'This is a big S.O.S for anybody out there,' Carmen Yulin Cruz told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow on Tuesday night."

* Related news: "The Trump administration is restricting lawmakers in both parties from visiting storm-ravaged Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands aboard military aircraft this weekend in order to keep focused on recovery missions there, according to multiple congressional aides."

* A brewing crisis: "Kurds in northern Iraq overwhelmingly voted to secede from the country, according to results of a referendum announced Wednesday, amid threats of military intervention from the central government and a fierce backlash by its neighbors."

* The Supreme Court "granted a temporary stay of execution Tuesday night for a 59-year-old Georgia man whose lawyers argue that he is intellectually disabled and that his death sentence is tainted by a juror's racial bias."

* Refugees: "President Trump plans to cap refugee admissions at 45,000 over the next year, according to current and former government officials briefed on the decision, setting a historically low limit on the number of people who can resettle in the United States after fleeing persecution in their own countries."

* Pence's legacy: "A federal judge permanently struck down provisions of an Indiana law passed last year that would have banned abortions sought due to fetal genetic abnormalities and required that aborted fetuses be buried or cremated."

* Donald Trump, whose affection for conspiracy theories is endless, questioned this morning whether there was "collusion" between Facebook, major national newspapers, and television networks. Apparently, the president believes they were all out to get him.

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An employee at a money changer counts $100 bills.

Why the Republican tax plan is effectively 'Cheez Doodle reform'

09/27/17 04:46PM

In the spring, Donald Trump's White House unveiled a one-page outline that he described as a bold tax-reform "plan." The president gave it far too much credit: the piece of paper was basically a table of contents without the content.

In the months that followed, the administration struggled to get its act together. Trump World intended to pass a tax-reform plan by August. Then it said the plan would by "locked in place" by September. Eventually, the White House assured everyone the president would spend August selling the policy, before unveiling the "full blown" presidential blueprint around Labor Day.

Now, it's nearly October, and Republicans have only managed to put together something resembling a tax plan.

After months of work, a tax plan released Wednesday by the White House and House Republicans would provide large tax cuts to both corporations and individuals. The highly-anticipated proposal still has a long ways to go before it can be voted on but Republicans outlined their objectives in a nine page document this morning.

The plan includes long-held Republican goals of reducing the corporate tax rate and simplifying the tax code. It lowers the corporate tax rate to 20 percent and eliminates four income tax brackets. It doubles the standard deduction and increase the child tax credit. It also repeals the estate tax but keeps the deductions for mortgage interest and charitable giving, all tax breaks that tend to impact high-income tax payers. But it is expected to cost trillions of dollars and Republicans haven't yet presented a clear way to pay for it.

Here's the full "framework," put together behind closed doors by the Republicans' "Big Six" -- Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Kevin Brady, Orrin Hatch, Gary Cohn, and Steve Mnuchin -- in recent months. It's nine pages, but it's still more of a public-relations document than a legislative proposal. The first page is a cover sheet, and pages six and eight have very little text. It reads like a plan to write a plan.

What's more, the blueprint, such as it is, fails to actually make any tough choices. The hard part of an endeavor like this is making trade-offs -- identifying tax loopholes that should be closed and breaks that can be eliminated -- that make the whole package affordable. At least for now, Republicans have punted on the part of their endeavor that's difficult.

In other words, they're eager to tell you about the trillions of dollars in tax cuts they're eager to pass, but if you ask how they'll pay for it, the answer is effectively, "We're working on it."

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Roy Moore

Roy Moore's theocratic contribution to Republican politics

09/27/17 12:55PM

When Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) was first elected in 2006, it was a breakthrough moment for domestic political diversity: the Minnesota Democrat was the first Muslim American to ever be elected to Congress. Alabama's Roy Moore had a rather unique reaction to the news.

At the time, Moore was a contributor to a fringe right-wing conspiracy-theory website, having been removed from the state bench for an ethics violation. After learning of Ellison's victory, Moore argued that the Minnesotan shouldn't be allowed to serve on Capitol Hill -- not because there was a problem with the election, but because Ellison is a member of a religious minority that Moore doesn't like.

In Moore's vision of the United States, the law extends special protections and benefits to Christians, while everyone else, in a rather literal sense, is a second-class citizen. The U.S. Constitution may prohibit religious tests for public office, and may separate church from state, but as far as Moore is concerned, that same Constitution was created to "foster Christianity."

I've been writing about Moore's antics off and on for about 20 years now, and what I think people fail to appreciate is the extent to which he represents something unique in our politics. We've grown quite accustomed over the years to assorted cranks and con-men, radicals and rabble-rousers, but what sets Moore apart is the fact that he doesn't, strictly speaking, believe in a democratic system of government.

The Alabama Republican, who may soon become the newest member of the United State Senate, is probably best described as a theocrat. New York's Jon Chait summarized this well:

News accounts have delicately phrased the matter by calling Moore a "firebrand." In reality, he is an insurrectionist. Moore considers a certain brand of theological Christianity to be the sole legitimate legal authority of the United States. He has used his public office to openly defy the country's actual legal authority. A functioning conservative party would consider respect for law and order a threshold question. Instead, Republicans have dismissed it as a mere inconvenience.

Ordinarily, when we talk about political "extremists" in American politics, we put them somewhere near the edges of a traditional political spectrum, from the far-left to the far-right. To understand Moore is to appreciate just how far outside that spectrum he falls.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.27.17

09/27/17 12:00PM

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

* Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) jolted the political world yesterday announcing he'll retire at the end of his term next year. So far, Corker is the only Senate incumbent in either party who's announced his retirement.

* In Virginia's gubernatorial race, the latest Monmouth University poll shows Ralph Northam (D) with a five-point advantage over Ed Gillespie (R), 49% to 44%.

* On a related note, a new poll from Christopher Newport University shows Northam with a similar lead, 47% to 41%.

* Donald Trump will travel to Indiana today to help promote his party's tax-reform package, and he'll be joined by Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), a red-state Democratic incumbent facing a tough challenge in next year's midterms.

* Referencing Alabama's upcoming Senate special election, the president cheered on Roy Moore on Twitter this morning, saying he hopes the Republican wins in November. The election is Dec. 12. (Trump later deleted the message.)

* Sen. Susan Collins (R) had originally intended to announce her plans for next year's gubernatorial race in Maine by the end of September. She now expects to make an announcement "by Columbus Day," which is Oct. 9.

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Donald Trump

Donald Trump discovers he alone can't 'fix it' after all

09/27/17 11:20AM

In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Committee last summer, Donald Trump raised a few eyebrows when he declared, "Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it."

It's become increasingly obvious that pretty much everyone knows the system better than Trump, and he alone can't seem to fix much of anything. In fact, with the latest demise of the Republican health care campaign, the president is already making the case that that buck doesn't stop anywhere near him. He  declared via Twitter this morning:

"With one Yes vote in hospital & very positive signs from Alaska and two others (McCain is out), we have the HCare Vote, but not for Friday! We will have the votes for Healthcare but not for the reconciliation deadline of Friday, after which we need 60. Get rid of Filibuster Rule!"

As Simon Maloy joked this morning, we've "come a long way" since "I alone can fix it."

Part of the problem with Trump's pitch is that it's factually wrong. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) had a medical issue this week, but he's not in the hospital. What's more, the "filibuster rule" -- I'll never know why the president likes to capitalize random words he finds interesting -- isn't the principal problem for Republicans, at least not on this issue.

According to the White House's legislative affairs director, the party this week was four votes short on health care. If my arithmetic is correct, whether the threshold for success is 50 votes or 60 votes doesn't much matter if there were only 48 Senate Republicans ready to move forward on the Graham-Cassidy plan.

But the underlying problem is Trump's refusal to accept responsibility for his own failures.

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Image: House GOP Pulls Vote On Trump's American Health Care Act

Paul Ryan rankles some of his members with tax-reform pitch

09/27/17 10:40AM

After months of closed-door talks, Republicans are reportedly going to unveil some of the details of their tax-reform package today, and in the wake of the health care fight, GOP leaders are feeling understandably anxious. If this initiative comes up short, too, Republicans are going to have a tough time justifying the scope of their failure.

With that in mind, the Huffington Post  reported last night that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) not only hosted a meeting with his Republican conference yesterday; he also invited a special guest: Corry Bliss, executive director of the American Action Network, a dark-money group allied with the House GOP leadership.

As the story goes, Republican lawmakers were shown a series of commercials AAN has put together on tax reform, which may air in members' districts to pressure them to toe the party line. As one member told the Huffington Post, "Like a teacher showing the kids a paddle on the first day of class, the blatant implication was that those who misbehaved would be spanked."

Another described the presentation as "kind of creepy," which, I suspect, was part of the point.

But I was also glad to see some GOP members question what the American Action Network was doing at their conference meeting in the first place. From the article:

"Since when do you let some outside PAC come in and talk?" the member asked.

"This is nuts. Like, really?" the Republican continued. "That's what it's come to? You've let the head of an outside PAC come in and talk to the Republican conference? I don't know. I think it's goofy."

In this case, the American Action Network is technically a 501(c)4 organization, not a political action committee, but the broader point is nevertheless valid.

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A voter steps into a voting booth to mark his ballot at a polling site for the New Hampshire primary, Feb. 9, 2016, in Nashua, N.H. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)

Democrats rack up another pair of special-election victories

09/27/17 10:00AM

Going into this week, Democratic candidates had already out-performed Hillary Clinton "in 27 out of 35 congressional and state-legislative special elections" held so far this year. Yesterday, as Politico  noted, the Dems' hot streak continued.

In a special Florida Senate election where President Donald Trump was a drag, a Republican state House member who was once a contestant on "The Apprentice" lost to Democrat Annette Taddeo, bolstering the minority party's hopes that it can win close elections after an embarrassing November loss statewide.

Though Taddeo's victory over state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz in the Miami-area swing district won't change control of the state Senate -- where the GOP holds 24 of 40 seats -- it gives the once-dispirited party a badly needed lift heading into the 2018 elections.

If Taddeo's name sounds familiar, it may have something to do with the fact that she was one of the victims of Russia's attack last year on the DCCC.

Also last night, a Democratic state House candidate in New Hampshire narrowly won a race in a district where Republicans enjoy a two-to-one registration advantage. It's also a district where Donald Trump won easily last year.

According to a tally from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which focuses on Democratic state legislative races, the party has now flipped eight seats this year from "red" to "blue" – three in Oklahoma, three in New Hampshire, and one each in New York and Florida – on top of a series of other victories.

To be sure, the Republican advantage in state legislatures is still considerable, but so far in the Trump era, it's shrinking.

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In this March 10, 2016 photo, Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General, gestures as he speaks during an interview in Oklahoma City, Okla. (Photo by Sue Ogrocki/AP)

EPA's Scott Pruitt requests a very expensive phone booth

09/27/17 09:20AM

New controversies surrounding EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have become alarmingly routine. Donald Trump's far-right EPA chief, who's long opposed his agency's work, has already faced all kinds of serious allegations on issues ranging from his taxpayer-funded travel to his defiance of his own scientists to his deceptive public rhetoric.

What I didn't expect was a new controversy about a very expensive phone booth. And yet, here's the latest reporting from the Washington Post about Pruitt spending nearly $25,000 of taxpayer money to "construct a secure, soundproof communications booth."

The agency signed a $24,570 contract earlier this summer with Acoustical Solutions, a Richmond-based company, for a "privacy booth for the administrator." The company sells and installs an array of sound-dampening and privacy products, from ceiling baffles to full-scale enclosures like the one purchased by the EPA. The project's scheduled completion date is Oct. 9, according to the contract.

Typically, such soundproof booths are used to conduct hearing tests. But the EPA sought a customized version -- one that eventually would cost several times more than a typical model -- that Pruitt can use to communicate privately.

The original defense from Pruitt's spokesperson is that he needs a "secured communication area" because all federal agencies need something called a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), where officials can review sensitive and classified materials.

And that might make sense were it not for the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency already has a SCIF.

Stepping back, the broader context suggests Scott Pruitt's leadership of the EPA isn't just regressive; it's also a little creepy.

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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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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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