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Thursday's Mini-Report, 3.2.17

03/02/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Yemen: "The U.S. has conducted a series of air strikes in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Pentagon announced. More than 20 strikes launched Thursday targeted AQAP militants, equipment and infrastructure in the Yemeni governorates of Abyan, Al Bayda and Shabwah, according to a statement by Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis."

* A night of tornadoes: "Tornadoes lashed the Midwest on Tuesday, killing at least three people and leaving a trail of splintered homes, razed businesses and power losses. The severe weather extended into Wednesday, and forecasters said the Mid-Atlantic and Deep South were also at risk for dangerous conditions."

* Cabinet news, Part I: "The Senate confirmed former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy on Thursday in a 62-37 vote. Perry, who ran for president in both 2012 and 2016, once advocated for the elimination of the department he now runs. In his confirmation hearing, Perry promised to champion the department charged with protecting the nation's nuclear weapons."

* Cabinet news, Part II: "Ben Carson, an acclaimed neurosurgeon-turned-politician, can now add a new title to his résumé: secretary of housing and urban development. The Senate voted 58-41 Thursday morning to confirm Mr. Carson in a rare show of bipartisanship."

* Changes at the NSC: "President Donald Trump's new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, is taking steps to streamline the National Security Council -- starting by eliminating positions created by his short-lived predecessor Michael Flynn, according to two people familiar with the moves."

* The Wells Fargo controversy isn't over: Wells Fargo said ... the number of customers affected by the sales practices may be bigger than previously estimated, according to regulatory filings released Wednesday."
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Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) speaks at the National Rifle Association's NRA-ILA Leadership Forum during the NRA Convention at the Kentucky Exposition Center on May 20, 2016 in Louisville, Ky. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)

Sessions recuses himself from investigation into Trump, Russia scandal

03/02/17 04:59PM

Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke privately with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice last year, despite questions surrounding the Russian hacking scandal. During his confirmation hearings, the Alabama Republican said in sworn testimony, “I have been called a surrogate [for Donald Trump] at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”

The ensuing scandal today has been rather fierce, and this afternoon, Sessions agreed to recuse himself from the investigation into the Russia scandal -- a step many lawmakers in both parties demanded.
Embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions bowed to pressure Thursday and said he would recuse himself from any federal probe of Russian interference in the presidential election.

Insisting again that he had no improper contacts with the Russians, Sessions said he nevertheless will withdraw because of his involvement in the Trump campaign.
Sessions said his Justice Department staff "recommended" recusal -- DOJ guidelines are pretty clear on matters such as these -- and insisted this afternoon that he never met with Russian officials "about the Trump campaign." Asked about his discussions, he said he recalls Ukraine coming up.

With the possibility of perjury allegations hanging overhead, Sessions added that it was not his "intent" to mislead anyone. He concluded, "I feel I should not be involved in investigating a campaign I had a role in."

This was, of course, the obvious move under the circumstances, but that doesn't mean Sessions has satisfied the concerns of critics. As of this afternoon, several dozen members of Congress -- including the Democratic leaders in both chambers -- have called on Sessions to resign, insisting it's the only remedy in response to evidence he lied under oath.

It's likely they'll consider recusal an unsatisfactory half-measure.

What's more, Sessions' latest move doesn't answer a series of key questions:
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Clouds fill the sky in front of the U.S. Capitol on October 7, 2013 in Washington, DC.

House Republicans help shield Trump from scrutiny

03/02/17 12:46PM

Much of the American mainstream continues to believe Donald Trump shouldn't keep his tax returns secret, a sentiment the White House has decided to ignore, putting congressional Republicans in an awkward position. Some have decided to tell their constituents what they want to hear, while casting votes in a different direction on Capitol Hill.
Republican Rep. David Young ignited loud cheers from hundreds at an Iowa meeting last week when he said, "Donald Trump should release his taxes," calling the move a "no brainer."

Given the first chance to force the GOP president's hand, Young passed.

The two-term, Des Moines-area lawmaker returned to Washington and sided with the Republican majority late Monday to block a Democratic attempt to force Trump to release his tax returns to Congress.
Young isn't the only one. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), for example, held a town-hall event in his conservative Florida district, where he urged Trump to release his tax returns. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) held a tele-town-hall gathering this week and said, "I think he ought to release his tax forms," which was an apparent reference to the president's returns.

But like Young, when Gaetz and Frelinghuysen had a chance to force the issue, considering a measure this week from Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) to force disclosure, they voted with their party. In fact, literally zero House Republicans supported the proposal.

Plenty of House Republicans will tell you they want Trump to release the documents the president has hidden from the public, but GOP lawmakers apparently believe disclosure must be voluntary.

Democrats didn't really expect the measure to pass, but it's a safe bet votes like these will pop up again next year in 2018 campaign ads.

It wasn't, however, the only example this week of Republicans carrying water for the unpopular president. A few hours before Trump's congressional address, this Politico story was largely overlooked, which is a shame because the developments were part of a pattern.
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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.2.17

03/02/17 12:00PM

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

* Donald Trump claimed the other day that, thanks to his popularity, "millions and millions of people" joined the Republican Party. As it turns out, like too many of the president's claims, that's not true.

* Rep. Kevin Cramer (R), rumored to be gearing up for a Senate campaign in North Dakota, publicly mocked a group of Democratic women who wore white to Donald Trump's congressional address this week. Politico reported that Cramer said the "poorly dressed" Democratic women wore "bad-looking white pantsuits" in solidarity with Hillary Clinton.

* Earlier this week, conservatives tried to organize rallies in support of Trump's presidency. In some local gatherings, tens of people showed up.

* In Florida, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, considered a rising star in Democratic politics, kicked off his gubernatorial campaign this week. If elected, Gillum, who's just 37 years old, would be Florida's first African-American governor.

* In a bit of a surprise, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) announced this week that he will not run for governor in Ohio next year. Ryan is perhaps best known for his competitive challenge to Nancy Pelosi for the top leadership post among House Democrats earlier this year.

* In Virginia's Democratic gubernatorial primary, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has a new problem: he voted for George W. Bush twice. Northam, who'll face former Rep. Tom Perriello in a primary later this year, insists he wasn't following politics closely at the time.

* Speaking of Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who cannot legally run for another term, was asked this week whether he intended to run for president. "I don't know," he replied. "I might."
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Image: Protestors Rally At JFK Airport Against Muslim Immigration Ban

Republican officials take aim at progressive protests

03/02/17 11:20AM

Earlier this week, Donald Trump rolled out an interesting new conspiracy theory: the progressive protests that have unfolded in the wake of his election, the Republican president said, are his predecessor's fault. "I think that President Obama is behind it," Trump told Fox News.

On Tuesday, Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders fielded some questions from reporters, one of whom asked if Trump has any "tangible evidence" to back up his conspiracy theory. Sanders said she'd let the president comment "stand for itself." Pressed further, Sanders added, "Look, I think the bottom line here is that we've all condemned the protests. I think that that's the bigger story here."

It was a curious choice of words. Americans have gathered to express political dissent and White House officials want everyone to know they've "condemned the protests"? Why exactly would they do that?

Worse, away from the DC Beltway, Republican policymakers aren't just condemning protests; they're exploring deliberate steps to try and block them from happening. The New York Times reported today:
In a season rife with demonstrations over immigration, pipelines, abortion, women's rights and more, Republican legislators in at least 16 states have filed bills intended to make protests more orderly or to toughen penalties against ones that go awry. Republicans in two other states, Massachusetts and North Carolina, have said they will file protest-related bills.

Those numbers include only bills whose sponsors have specifically linked them to protests, said Jonathan Griffin, a policy analyst who tracks the measures at the National Conference of State Legislatures.... [I]nterviews and news reports suggest that some of the measures are either backed by supporters of President Trump or are responses to demonstrations against him and his policies.
In case this isn't obvious, First Amendment rights, including the right of Americans to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances, have not been repealed.
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Image: Donald Trump Delivers Address To Joint Session Of Congress

Trump's claims about Yemen raid run into conflicting evidence

03/02/17 10:45AM

For many pundits, Donald Trump's rhetoric honoring slain Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens was the emotional highlight of the president's congressional address this week. But as the applause dies down, the questions surrounding the deadly raid in Yemen grow louder.

Phillip Carter, a former Army officer and former Pentagon official, wrote in Slate yesterday, for example, "Words cannot convey my compassion and sympathy for Owens and her family. And yet, at the same time, I can barely contain my anger and disgust at the way that Trump put her on display, seeking to appropriate her grief -- and her deceased husband's heroism -- for his political gain. This was stolen valor on a presidential scale."

BuzzFeed had a related report, quoting military officers who were not at all impressed with the president's display on Tuesday night. "Several used the word 'distasteful' to describe what happened during the address," the article noted.

There's additional scrutiny, meanwhile, on the accuracy of Trump's claims about the mission itself. The president told the nation the operation was "a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence," but NBC News, citing 10 source, reported that Trump's claim isn't true.
The Pentagon says Navy SEALs scooped up laptops, hard drives and cell phones in last month's Yemen raid, but multiple U.S. officials told NBC News that none of the intelligence gleaned from the operation so far has proven actionable or vital -- contrary to what President Trump said in his speech to Congress Tuesday. [...]

No one questions Owens' heroism and sacrifice. Ten current U.S. officials across the government who have been briefed on the details of the raid told NBC News that so far, no truly significant intelligence has emerged from the haul.... One senior Pentagon official described the information gathered as "de minimis," and as material the U.S. already knew about.
Looking at this controversy surrounding what happened in Yemen, there are basically three elements to the story.
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Traffic thickens on Interstate 75/85, Feb. 25, 2015, in Atlanta, Ga. (Photo by David Tulis/AP)

Republicans start to sweat over Atlanta special election

03/02/17 10:11AM

So far in 2017, special elections have largely gone Democrats' way, but in each instance, these were state legislative races. The real test will come next month in a congressional special election in a Republican district in Georgia.

In theory, keeping the seat, which was held by Tom Price before he became HHS secretary, should be easy for Republicans, but as the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported yesterday, GOP officials appear to be quite concerned.
A Republican super PAC has unleashed a $1.1 million ad barrage against Jon Ossoff, a Democratic newcomer who is attracting national attention and a torrent of fundraising in his campaign to flip a conservative suburban Atlanta district.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC backed by House GOP leaders, bought ad time running from Thursday to the April 18 special election to air a spot replete with clips of Ossoff, in a Star Wars costume, while a member of a Georgetown University singing group.
The ad, which is available online, highlights instances of Jon Ossoff goofing around with his friends while in college. The Washington Post described it as "one of the lamest political ads you will ever see."

And while that strikes me as a fair assessment, let's not miss the forest for the trees here: the fact that the commercial exists -- and is backed by a seven-figure ad buy -- is unusually good news for Democrats.
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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks while meeting with President-elect Donald Trump following a meeting in the Oval Office Nov. 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

Team Obama took steps to protect intel on Team Trump's Russia ties

03/02/17 09:20AM

The fact that Vladimir Putin's Russian government intervened in the American presidential election, in part to help put Donald Trump in power, is no longer in doubt. We don't know, however, whether Team Trump was communicating with Russian officials during the illegal espionage operation.

Leading members of Team Trump, including the president and vice president, have insisted there were zero communications at the time, despite evidence to the contrary, and the New York Times reports that officials in President Obama's White House took steps to protect important information about the connections.
In the Obama administration's last days, some White House officials scrambled to spread information about Russian efforts to undermine the presidential election -- and about possible contacts between associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump and Russians -- across the government. Former American officials say they had two aims: to ensure that such meddling isn't duplicated in future American or European elections, and to leave a clear trail of intelligence for government investigators.

American allies, including the British and the Dutch, had provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officials -- and others close to Russia's president, Vladimir V. Putin -- and associates of President-elect Trump, according to three former American officials who requested anonymity in discussing classified intelligence. Separately, American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Mr. Trump's associates.
This is actually two parallel revelations packaged together. First, there's apparently additional evidence, including information from U.S. allies abroad, that point to communications between Putin's government and Trump associates. The nature of those talks is unclear, but if they occurred, the denials from the president, the vice president, and their aides weren't true.

Second, there's staffers in Obama's White House, who believed it was important to preserve evidence before the intelligence "could be covered up or destroyed" by Trump and his administration.

The Times' reporting added that there was a "suspicion among many in the Obama White House that the Trump campaign might have colluded with Russia" during Russia's espionage operation.
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House Speaker Paul Ryan, (R-WI), speaks to the media during his weekly media briefing at the US Capitol, Sept. 15, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty)

House Republicans moving forward with 'secret' health care plan

03/02/17 08:40AM

Seven years ago, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) used a phrase Republicans loved in reference to the Affordable Care Act: "We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy." For the right, it was evidence that Democrats were pushing reform legislation in secret.

Conservatives were, however, taking Pelosi out of context. The Democratic leader was making the case that Americans would begin to appreciate the ACA's benefits once it was fully implemented, which would help the public separate the facts from the hysterical fictions pushed by reform's opponents.

Nevertheless, Republicans and much of the media had a field day with Pelosi's quote -- which is wonderfully ironic seven years later, as GOP leaders quietly push their secret health care reform proposal. Bloomberg Politics reported last night:
House Republican leaders have a new version of their major Obamacare repeal and replacement bill. They just don't want you to see it.

The document is being treated a bit like a top-secret surveillance intercept. It is expected to be available to members and staffers on the House and Energy Commerce panel starting Thursday, but only in a dedicated reading room, one Republican lawmaker and a committee aide said. Nobody will be given copies to take with them.... With this latest draft, leaders are taking additional steps to make sure it doesn't leak prematurely, before some members have signed onto it.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told NBC's "Today" show this week, "We're not hatching some bill in a backroom and plopping it on the American people's front door." That's half-true: Republicans are hatching some bill in a backroom and plopping it in a basement near the Capitol for some committee members to read in private.

Usually, when Republicans talk about "secret plans," they're lying. Richard Nixon said he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam, but he didn't. Donald Trump said he had a secret plan to destroy ISIS, but it was fantasy.

But on health care reform, Republicans really do have a secret plan, which is bizarre.
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Image: Jeff Sessions

Jeff Sessions faces resignation calls following Russia revelations

03/02/17 08:00AM

Donald Trump and his team tried to make the case this week that revelations surrounding the Russia scandal are behind them. As the Washington Post's latest report makes clear, the opposite is true.
Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) spoke twice last year with Russia's ambassador to the United States, Justice Department officials said, encounters he did not disclose when asked about possible contacts between members of President Trump's campaign and representatives of Moscow during Sessions's confirmation hearing to become attorney general.

One of the meetings was a private conversation between Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place in September in the senator's office, at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race.
The Wall Street Journal published a related report, noting that the U.S. counter-intelligence investigation has "examined" Sessions' contacts with Russian officials, though the outcome and status of the inquiry remain unclear.

During his confirmation process, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked Sessions about possible evidence tying members of Trump's campaign team to the Russian government while Russia was illegally intervening in the U.S. election. "I'm not aware of any of those activities," the Alabama Republican responded, adding "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians."

We now know that Sessions did have communications with the Russians, his testimony, which was delivered under oath, notwithstanding.

Around the same time, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Sessions in writing whether he's been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?" Sessions replied, "No."

Sessions concedes that he did speak with the Russian ambassador twice during the 2016 campaign, but as the Post's report added, the Attorney General and his office are arguing that Sessions "did not consider the conversations relevant to the lawmakers' questions and did not remember in detail what he discussed with Kislyak."

The Justice Department added that Sessions talked to the Russian ambassador in his capacity as a then-member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

And with that, let's dig in:
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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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