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Economic growth remains steady, but falls short of Trump's vows

01/26/18 08:56AM

Headed into this morning's GDP report from the Commerce Department, many expected fourth-quarter growth of about 3%, which would have been a notable achievement: we haven't seen three consecutive quarters of 3% growth since before the Great Recession started.

Alas, it looks like we fell just short.

The U.S. expanded at a 2.6% annual pace in fourth quarter, extending one of the best stretches of growth during the current eight-and-a-half-year-old upturn. GDP fell short of MarketWatch's 3% forecast, however, owing to lower inventory production and a bigger trade deficit.

To be sure, 2.6% growth is consistent with a healthy economy. Indeed, this report suggests the full year's growth for 2017 will also be around 2.6%, which will be up from 2016, and tied with 2015.

When Donald Trump tells the public that no one's seen economic growth like this in a long time, as he's very likely to do, it's worth remembering that 2015 was not a long time ago.

But it's also a reminder that the Republican president's vow of 4% annual growth rates really wasn't a good idea. As the economic recovery that began in 2009 continues, Americans have reason to be pleased with the overall health of the economy, but Trump routinely promised "4% annual economic growth" -- and in some cases, he suggested his policies could push growth to as high as 6%.

At the time, those assurances seemed bizarre, and as GDP data from 2017 comes into focus, it's now obvious that the president never should have made these promises. Not only will he fail to deliver the results, but the exaggerated goals end up putting decent economic growth in a less favorable light.

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Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-ELECTIONS-TRUMP

Trump ordered Special Counsel's firing before backing down

01/26/18 08:00AM

Last summer, there were several reports about Donald Trump weighing a decision that likely would've created a serious crisis: the president was considering firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller. People in Trump's orbit occasionally acknowledged as much publicly.

White House aides and the president's legal team, at the time, were quick to dismiss the reports, insisting that Trump never even "discussed" that possibility. "That's never been on the table," Trump lawyer John Dowd said in August, adding, "Never."

There's new reason to question the accuracy of those denials. As you've probably heard, the New York Times  reported overnight:

President Trump ordered the firing last June of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation, according to four people told of the matter, but ultimately backed down after the White House counsel threatened to resign rather than carry out the directive.

The West Wing confrontation marks the first time Mr. Trump is known to have tried to fire the special counsel. Mr. Mueller learned about the episode in recent months as his investigators interviewed current and former senior White House officials in his inquiry into whether the president obstructed justice.

Apparently, Trump even came up with a ludicrous rationale to help justify the firing, which apparently didn't prove persuasive to the White House counsel, who was prepared to quit after receiving the presidential order.

The president offered a predictable response to the news, telling reporters at the Davos World Economic Forum this morning, "Fake news, fake news. Typical New York Times. Fake stories."

Of course, not only does Trump have an unfortunate habit of constantly lying, the New York Times' article has also been bolstered by similar reporting from other major news organizations, including NBC News and the Washington Post.

There's no shortage of relevant angles to a story like this, but of particular interest to me is a persistent pattern in this White House: Trump keeps wanting to do "crazy" things, only to have aides steer him in less ridiculous directions.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 1.25.18

01/25/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* When it comes to the TPP, he doesn't really seem to have any idea what he's saying: "President Donald Trump said Thursday that he would consider re-entering the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact if he got a 'substantially better' deal."

* In related news: "Prominent Republicans warned President Trump on Wednesday against taking further trade actions that could harm American workers, even as top administration officials meeting in Davos, Switzerland, rose to the defense of the president's 'America First' rhetoric on the eve of his arrival."

* This won't end well: "The Trump administration is doubling down on its threat to cut off aid to the Palestinians if they fail to 'sit down and negotiate peace,' even as it proceeds with contentious plans to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem after recognizing the city as Israel's capital."

* I've read this story more than once, and it still seems hard to believe: "A volunteer for an Arizona group seeking to prevent migrant deaths in the desert at the U.S.-Mexico border was arrested after giving food and water to undocumented immigrants, according to court records."

* Taylor Weyeneth: "A 24-year-old former Trump campaign worker who rose rapidly to a senior post in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy will step down by the end of the month because of controversy surrounding his appointment, the White House said late Wednesday."

* In case you missed this on last night's show: "Two Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday pressed the committee's Republican chairman to provide special counsel Robert Mueller with transcripts of the panel's interviews with key witnesses in its Russia probe, including Donald Trump Jr."

* Pence sure does break a lot of ties: "The Senate narrowly confirmed Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) to a diplomatic post Wednesday, with Senate GOP leaders needing the help of Vice President Pence to break a deadlock over his controversial nomination."

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

Trump World plays an unfortunate game with the value of the dollar

01/25/18 03:20PM

As 2016 came to a close, the value of the U.S. dollar was at one of its highest levels in over a decade. It wasn't long before Donald Trump sought credit for the trend that began months earlier. "I think our dollar is getting too strong, and partially that's my fault because people have confidence in me," the Republican president said in April 2017.

His understanding of monetary policy was effectively, "The dollar is strong because everyone is impressed by how awesome my awesomeness is."

The boast was foolish at the time -- "strong" dollars are not always good, just as "weak" dollars are not always bad -- but it looked even worse as Trump's first year continued and the value of the dollar gradually fell, despite the U.S. economy's general health. (By the president's reasoning, I guess this meant people had lost confidence in him?)

Yesterday, as Politico  noted, the administration's line on the dollar took another odd turn.

The Trump administration declared a surprising war on the U.S. dollar on Wednesday, breaking from a long tradition in which top American officials generally voice support for a strong American currency.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin shocked Wall Street by lauding the impact a weaker dollar can have on U.S. companies as it makes exports cheaper for other countries to buy.

In comments that rattled markets, Mnuchin told reporters, "Obviously, a weaker dollar is good for us as it relates to trade and opportunities."

Soon after, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross talked to CNBC and seemed to walk back his cabinet colleague's comments, saying Mnuchin "was not advocating anything" in terms of the dollar, despite what everyone heard Mnuchin say.

And then the president himself weighed in, contradicting Mnuchin further, telling CNBC, "The dollar is going to get stronger and stronger, and ultimately I want to see a strong dollar." (The dollar is not currently getting stronger and stronger.)

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Image: Donald Trump

'The world just moves on without us'

01/25/18 12:41PM

Almost immediately after taking office, Donald Trump announced the formal demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) -- a framework the Republican president didn't seem to understand, but nevertheless hated. Trump assured Americans soon after that he'd replace the TPP with a "beautiful" alternative.

That was a year and two days ago. There's still no alternative.

In the fall, the president spoke in Tokyo to a group of Japanese business leaders, many of whom backed the TPP. "We will have more trade than anybody ever thought of under TPP, that I can tell you," the American president promised. "TPP was not the right idea. Probably some of you in this room disagree, but ultimately I'll be proven to be right."

In reality, the only thing that's being proven is Trump's ability to isolate the United States. In fact, as Reuters reported this week, our former TPP partners have decided to simply go around us.

Eleven countries aiming to forge an Asia-Pacific trade pact after the United States pulled out of an earlier version will sign an agreement in Chile in March, Japan's economy minister said on Tuesday, in a big win for Tokyo. [...]

An agreement is a win for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government, which has been lobbying hard to save the pact, originally called the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Remember, that partnership was originally the United States' idea. Now it's "a big win" for Japan -- which came on the heels of another big trade deal between Japan and the European Union, announced last year.

A Washington Post  report in the fall noted that when Trump withdrew, it "created a vacuum other nations are now moving to fill, with or without the president."

A FiveThirtyEight piece, noting that the Republican's plans "backfired," explained, "Japan, the world's third-biggest economy, has assumed the leadership role. Canada, initially a reluctant member of the club, volunteered to host one of the first post-Trump meetings of the remaining TPP countries to work on a way forward -- perhaps because research shows that Canadians will do better if they have preferential access that their American cousins lack. Smaller, poorer countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia wanted freer trade with the U.S. but agreed to consider improved access to countries such as Australia, Canada and Japan as a consolation prize for years of hard bargaining."

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.25.18

01/25/18 12:00PM

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

* The latest national Quinnipiac poll, released yesterday, found Democrats leading Republicans on the generic congressional ballot, 51% to 38%. Last week, the Dems' lead was 11 points.

* As Sen. Bob Menendez (D) gets ready to run for re-election in New Jersey, he's also keeping busy in the courts. A federal judge yesterday dismissed seven of the 18 counts against the Democratic senator ahead of prosecutors' intention to retry him on corruption charges.

* Whining yesterday about his coverage of his 2016 candidacy, Donald Trump sounded unusually pitiful, telling reporters, "You people won't say this, but I'll say it: I was a much better candidate than [Hillary Clinton]. You always say she was a bad candidate. You never say I was a good candidate. I was one of the greatest candidates."

* Facing sexual misconduct from two women, Wyoming Secretary of State Ed Murray (R) announced this week that he's decided not to run for governor this year. Murray also won't seek re-election to his current office.

* In Detroit, former Rep. John Conyers' (D-Mich.) son, John Conyers III, filed the paperwork yesterday to run for his father's open seat (his campaign committee is apparently called "Conyers to Conyers"). He faces a crowded Democratic primary field, which already includes his cousin, state Sen. Ian Conyers.

* With the Trump administration eyeing changes to the status quo, support for recreational marijuana may be a key campaign issue this year, which is why it struck me as interesting that a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows 60% of Americans supporting legalization.

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Image: President Trump meets GOP senators at the White House

Facts discredit Trump's latest conspiracy theory about the FBI

01/25/18 11:20AM

At his impromptu Q&A with reporters last night, a reporter asked Donald Trump a simple question, which generated a not-so-simple response.

REPORTER: Do you trust the FBI?

TRUMP: Well, what am I going to say? I am very disturbed, as is the general, as is everybody else that is intelligent. When you look at -- five months? This is the late great [President Richard Nixon's secretary] Rose Mary Woods, right? [Inaudible] This is a large-scale version of this. That was 18 minutes, this is five months. They say it's 50,000 texts and it's prime time. That's disturbing.

I especially enjoyed the "everybody else that is intelligent" part of his answer -- as if those who dare disagree with the president should probably be considered idiots.

And what, pray tell, was Trump talking about? The White House and its Republican allies remain obsessed with messages between two FBI officials, Peter Strzok and Lisa Paige, who were having an affair, and who shared a variety of private political thoughts with one another during the campaign, including criticisms of Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Eric Holder, and others.

Some of their texts have been leaked, despite an ongoing investigation, for reasons that haven't yet been explained, and the right has convinced itself that the messages offer possible proof of ... something nefarious. Those conspiracy theories intensified when Congress discovered a gap of texts between Dec. 14, 2016 and May 17, 2017.

This gap is what Trump was worked up about last night. The trouble, however, is that the president apparently didn't know what he was talking about.

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Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., joined by attorneys Paul D. Clement, far left, and Rick Esenberg, second from left, announces that he has filed a lawsuit to block the federal government from helping to pay for health care coverage for members of Congress and th

The Republican focus on a 'secret society' starts to unravel

01/25/18 10:41AM

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the chairman of House Oversight Committee, got the ball rolling this week, pointing to a leaked text message between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page. According to Gowdy, the message, stripped of any context, referenced a "secret society."

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) went further, referencing not only a "secret society," but also "an informant" who's apparently told Congress about "a group holding secret meetings off-site."

The Wisconsin Republican shared some related thoughts yesterday.

Johnson backtracked somewhat on Wednesday, saying he had merely "heard" about the existence of a secret society and did not have direct evidence of such a rump organization within the FBI.

"All I said is when I read those in those texts, that's Strozk and Page's term," Johnson said when pressed by reporters on Capitol Hill on whether he believed such a group existed. "I have heard there was a group of managers in the FBI that were holding meetings offsite. That's all I know."

The GOP senator added this morning that he's not trying to discredit the FBI, but he thinks the FBI's investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails was a "sham."

Johnson's bizarre rhetoric notwithstanding, we can now safely say there was, in reality, no "secret society" lurking in the shadows at the FBI, eager to undermine Donald Trump.

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Image: US House of Representatives passes short-term measure to fund the government

The dysfunction that led to the shutdown is only getting worse

01/25/18 10:03AM

In any political fight, there's a temptation to look at the story through a zero-sum lens: someone's winning and someone's losing; someone's on the offensive and someone's on the defensive; someone's getting the blame and someone's casting the blame.

And with this in mind, the recent government shutdown has been subject to the same kind of analysis, though there's an underlying truth that's gone largely overlooked: if congressional Republicans were better able to govern, the landscape would look very different.

The GOP-led House and Senate were supposed to pass a budget last year, but that hasn't happened. Congress was also supposed to pass appropriations bills to finance the government, but that hasn't happened, either.

And that's led to a series of stopgap spending bills, funding government operations a few weeks at a time through something called "continuing resolutions" (or CRs). When the end of the fiscal year approached, Congress kicked the can to early December. When that deadline approached, they punted to late December. And then Jan. 19. And then Feb 8.

And now Politico  reports that more CRs are probably on the way.

Congress will need another stopgap spending bill on Feb. 8, because there is no chance the House will have an immigration deal by then, even if the Senate does. Then Congress would pass another stopgap until March -- just before the ultimate expiration of DACA.

Though I haven't seen the quote elsewhere, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) reportedly told CQ yesterday that he expects to pass "at least two more" continuing resolutions.

I realize the "federal budget process" isn't a phrase that screams "click bait," but for all the scuttlebutt about who's to blame for the shutdown, much of the political world has failed to acknowledge the breakdown in GOP governance.

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Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

2018 will not be the year the GOP repeals or replaces 'Obamacare'

01/25/18 09:20AM

On Thanksgiving, presidents tend to focus on the holiday, its meaning, and its importance. Last fall, as many Americans were sitting down for their holiday meal, Donald Trump went in a different direction.

"ObamaCare premiums are going up, up, up, just as I have been predicting for two years," Trump tweeted on Thanksgiving, ignoring the fact that he's the one who's pushed premiums higher. "ObamaCare is OWNED by the Democrats, and it is a disaster. But do not worry. Even though the Dems want to Obstruct, we will Repeal & Replace right after Tax Cuts!"

Sifting through the nonsense, the president's point seemed to be that once Republicans wrap up work on their regressive tax plan, GOP officials would turn their attention back to health care.

There's certainly some appetite for that among prominent Republican lawmakers. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) recently vowed to move forward with his own far-right health care push, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said this week that he's pushing his party to pursue ACA repeal again, too.

They're almost certain to fail.

Asked about Cruz's comments, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a key "no" vote on repeal last year, dismissed the idea.

"I don't think we should be spending time trying to do repeal and replace of ObamaCare," Murkowski told reporters.

This comes on the heels of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) conceding that he's prepared to "move on" from the issue in 2018.

The trouble, whether repeal crusaders are prepared to admit it or not, is arithmetic.

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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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