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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 4.5.17

04/05/17 05:40PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* North Korea "on Wednesday again fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan, South Korean and U.S. military officials said, in a provocation that comes amid annual joint U.S.-South Korean military drills."

* On a related note, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had "a terse response" to the missile test. "North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea," Tillerson said. "We have no further comment."

* White House vetting should've caught this: "Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch copied the structure and language used by several authors and failed to cite source material in his book and an academic article, according to documents provided to POLITICO."

* Try not to be surprised: "The House of Representatives is set to leave town Thursday morning for a two-week break without reaching an agreement on health care. It's another blow to Republicans and the Trump administration who had worked this week to revive the failed effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare."

* Fortunately, there were no casualties: "An F-16 fighter jet that was on a training mission crashed Wednesday morning in Maryland just south of Joint Base Andrews after experiencing mechanical problems minutes after takeoff, a military spokesman said. The pilot dumped tanks loaded with 2,200 pounds of jet fuel in an unoccupied area and steered the plunging plane to a crash site with no injuries reported."

* Mitch McConnell and John McCain strongly disagree (but they're voting the same way): "The 'nuclear' showdown in the Senate has split the chamber's most senior Republicans over how bad the fallout will be."

* An important story: "The Justice Department is having second thoughts about forcing Baltimore to reform its police force, with new Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying he isn't sure the federal government should be overseeing local cops. That skepticism may also extend to Chicago, which is negotiating a legal settlement with the DOJ over systemic abuses by police."
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U.S. President Donald Trump looks at Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a joint news conference at the White House in Washington, U.S.

Trump tries to come to terms with the presidential learning curve

04/05/17 04:52PM

Donald Trump hosted a fairly brief White House press conference today, alongside Jordan's King Abdullah, and much of the Q&A focused on developments in Syria. Given this week's developments, that made sense -- which is more than can be said for the president's comments.

Trump continued to blame President Obama for this week's attack, complaining that his predecessor failed to take advantage of a "great opportunity" to launch a military offensive in Syria in 2013. Of course, in 2013, Trump repeatedly called on Obama not to launch a military offensive in Syria, making it that much more ridiculous for the Republican to whine now about the position he said he agreed with.

Asked today if the Assad regime's apparent chemical attack this week crossed a red line for him, Trump added, "It crossed a lot of lines for me.... That crosses many, many lines. Beyond a red line, many, many lines."

In practical terms, no one really knows what that means. His position appears to have something to do with "many" and "lines."

But perhaps the most striking moment of the press conference came when a reporter asked Trump to explain his administration's plans for U.S. policy towards Syria. The president said:
"I like to think of myself as a very flexible person. I don't have to have one specific way, and if the world changes, I go the same way. I don't change. Well, I do change. And I am flexible. And I'm proud of that flexibility. And I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me, big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing.

"And I've been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn't get any worse than that. And I have that flexibility. And it's very, very possible, and I will tell you it's already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much. And if you look back over the last few weeks, there were other attacks using gas. You're now talking about a whole different level.

"So, as you know, I would love to have never been in the Middle East. I would love to have never seen that whole big situation start. But once it started, we got out the wrong way and ISIS formed in the vacuum and lots of bad things happened. I will tell you what happened yesterday is unacceptable to me."
Some of this is just incoherent. I don't know what it means when the president says, "If the world changes, I go the same way. I don't change. Well, I do change." I'm also not altogether sure Trump understands the difference between ISIS and the Assad government in Syria.

But the crux of his response was that he's beginning to change his mind about Assad because he was mortified by this week's chemical attack.
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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP-STAFF

Bannon removed from Trump's National Security Council

04/05/17 12:51PM

Almost immediately after becoming president, Donald Trump made all kinds of strange decisions, but one of the toughest to defend was his appointment of Chief White House Strategist Stephen Bannon -- up until recently, a guy who ran a right-wing website -- to a full seat on the principals committee of the National Security Council.

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said soon after, "This is a 'Holy Crap' moment.'"

The concerns grew more acute soon after when Foreign Policy reported that Steve Bannon had begun "calling the shots" at the NSC, "doing so with little to no input from the National Security Council staff." The magazine quoted an intelligence official who described the NSC's work environment as one in which there's "little appetite for dissenting opinions" and "shockingly no paper trail of what's being discussed and agreed upon at meetings."

That was just nine weeks ago. As of today, however, Bannon has been removed from the NSC.
President Donald Trump has removed Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, from the National Security Council, according to a filing in the federal registry. [...]

A senior White House official told NBC News that the changes were not the result of any "power struggle" within the administration.

Bannon was put on the Principals' Committee only as a check against then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, the official said. Now that Flynn is gone, Bannon is no longer needed in that role, the official said.
That's an odd explanation. For one thing, why would the president find it necessary to have a check against his own hand-picked National Security Advisor? For another, Flynn was ousted on Feb. 13. If Bannon's role on the Security Council became unnecessary after Flynn departed, why wait until April to make the change?

If you're thinking there are parts to this story the White House hasn't yet disclosed, you're not alone. Perhaps the current NSA, H.R. McMaster, has prevailed in some kind of behind-the-scenes power struggle. Maybe Bannon's star is falling in Trump's orbit. Perhaps Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Bannon ally and a young man who was elevated to be senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council despite a lack of qualifications, is in trouble, too, in the wake of the Devin Nunes fiasco.
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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.5.17

04/05/17 12:00PM

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

* The latest national Quinnipiac poll, released yesterday, showed Donald Trump's approval rating dropping to just 35%. Over the course of eight years, the lowest Barack Obama reached in Quinnipiac polling was 38% -- and that came five years into his presidency, not three months.

* On a related note, a month ago, Quinnipiac found Trump with a 91% approval rating among Republicans. Two weeks ago, that number fell to 81%. Now, it's 79%. A 12-point drop for a president from voters within his own party, in just one month, generally isn't a good sign.

* In Georgia's upcoming congressional special election, now less than two weeks away, the NBC affiliate in Atlanta commissioned a SurveyUSA poll that found Jon Ossoff (D) ahead in the multi-candidate field with 43% support, followed by several Republicans who are roughly 30 points behind him. If Ossoff gets a majority in the first round of balloting, there won't be a runoff in June.

* In yesterday's primary in California's congressional special election, it looks like State Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D) and former Los Angeles City Planning Commissioner Robert Lee Ahn (D) will face each other in a runoff, hoping to succeed Xavier Becerra in Congress.

* Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), rumored to be eyeing a 2020 presidential campaign, summarized her approach to public service this way in an interview with New York magazine, "[W]e're here to help people, and if we're not helping people, we should go the f**k home."
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The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) joined North Carolina business leaders in Charlotte during a press conference to show support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, July 9, 2013.

Appeals court rejects LGBT employment discrimination

04/05/17 11:20AM

Democrats in recent years have pushed repeatedly for changes to existing laws against workplace discrimination, because there's an obvious gap. While many states prohibit discrimination against LGBT workers, federal law includes no such protections.

Employers can't discriminate on the basis of race, sex, age, religion, national origin, disability, or genetic information, but federal civil rights law make no specific references to sexual orientation or sexual identity. Democrats have championed measures like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to remedy the problem.

But in a surprising twist, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded yesterday that the law may not necessarily need improving -- because existing law should already be interpreted to extend anti-discrimination protections to LGBT Americans.
A federal appeals court in Chicago ruled Tuesday that long-standing federal civil rights laws prohibit discrimination on the job against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees.

It was the first ruling of its kind from a federal appeals court.

The decision, from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, said "discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination."
The full ruling in Hively vs. Ivy Tech Community College is online here. The case involves a part-time professor who argued that she wasn't considered for a job she was qualified for because she's a lesbian.

In the 8-3 en banc ruling -- it was heard by every member of the 7th Circuit appellate bench -- the court said "it would require considerable calisthenics to remove the 'sex' from 'sexual orientation.'" (An Associated Press report added, "Eight out of the 11 judges who reheard the case, including Posner, were appointed by Republican presidents.")
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GOP considers 'Zombie Trumpcare,' which is worse than the original

04/05/17 10:48AM

Exactly one month ago tomorrow, House Republicans formally unveiled their long-awaited health care plan, along with an online Q&A about the proposal's alleged virtues. The site asked, "Are you repealing patient protections, including for people with pre-existing conditions?"

Answering their own question, Republicans replied, "No. Americans should never be denied coverage or charged more because of a pre-existing condition."

Of course, a lot has happened over the last month. House Speaker Paul Ryan was forced to change his "American Health Care Act" in the face of opposition from within his own party, and then change it again. The entire initiative failed spectacularly, though the Republican drive to repeal the Affordable Care Act didn't disappear.

And so, GOP leaders continued to plot and scheme, looking for ways to alter the party's plan to satisfy the demands of various party factions, most notably the far-right House Freedom Caucus. NBC News' Benjy Sarlin reported yesterday on the latest iteration, which takes aim at the protections for those with pre-existing condition -- the same protections Republicans vowed to keep.
Under the ACA, insurers are required to offer comprehensive health plans to everyone and charge them the same price regardless of whether they have a pre-existing condition. They can charge smokers more than non-smokers and older people up to three times as much as young people, but they aren't allowed to take other health factors into account.

The proposal the White House is floating would change all that.
To be sure, the emerging compromise -- what many are calling "Zombie Trumpcare," because it's back from the dead -- doesn't yet exist in written form. Closed-door negotiations have been ongoing, but the talks haven't led to specific legislative text that we can scrutinize in detail.

But we know enough to recognize that Republicans are weighing a new plan that's vastly worse than its wildly unpopular original plan.
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Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, talks with reporter after an event. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

Key House Dem says Trump associates may 'end up in jail'

04/05/17 10:00AM

In general, speculation from members of Congress about how an investigation may wrap up isn't worth much, but I wouldn't dismiss this Boston Globe piece about the Russia scandal and the investigation into Donald Trump's team too quickly.
"I wouldn't be surprised, after all of this is said and done, that some people end up in jail," Representative Joaquin Castro told CNN's Wolf Blitzer in an interview.

Castro wouldn't elaborate on his prediction, nor would he provide any specifics about whom he was referring to.

"I wish I could, but I can't at this time," he said after being pressed for details. "My impression is that people will probably be charged and I think people will probably go to jail."
Castro, a third-term Democratic congressman from Texas, went on to say in the same interview, "It's amazing that in that relatively small campaign, small circle so to speak, that you would have so many people with so many deep connections to Russia."

And why does it matter what Joaquin Castro thinks about this? Because he's a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP

Trump's Mar-a-Lago ethics mess gets worse ahead of Xi Jinping visit

04/05/17 09:20AM

China's Xi Jinping will arrive in Florida tomorrow for a couple of days of talks with Donald Trump, which will be held at the lovely Mar-a-Lago resort. The visit comes just two months after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended events at the same private locale.

The fact that the resort has become a hotspot for meetings with foreign heads of state is a real commercial coup for Mar-a-Lago's owner. Oh wait, its owner is the one arranging the meetings.
No doubt Florida's oceanfront Mar-a-Lago resort is an impressive site for a summit between the presidents of the U.S. and China. And it's a pretty nice business advertisement, too, for the owner of the luxurious, members-only private property.

That would be Donald J. Trump.

Even before this week's summit, Trump and his aides had begun referring to Mar-a-Lago as the "Winter White House," a marketing coup for a man who has made millions selling his personal brand. Now the president is writing his property deeper into American history books by meeting there with China's Xi Jinping.
This will be the American president's sixth trip to Mar-a-Lago since taking office. Trump's only been president for 12 weeks.

Trump could, of course, use a variety of other venues -- including Camp David -- for gatherings like this one with the Chinese president, but Trump has a strong financial incentive to rely on his private club: using Camp David doesn't boost the profits of the president's private-sector enterprise.

Eric Trump told the Associated Press that the Mar-a-Lago club is his father's "Crawford, Texas," referring to the Texas property George W. Bush bought ahead of his 2000 election, where the Republican president would occasionally entertain foreign leaders.

"You go back at it -- all these foreign leaders remember their time in Crawford. They all talk about being there," Eric Trump said. The AP report added, "He said his father similarly forges strong relationships at the Florida property."

And the comparison might make sense if George W. Bush's ranch was a for-profit club that charged members $200,000 a person to join.
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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)

Obamacare has what Trump does not: popular support

04/05/17 08:40AM

Over the course of several years, the Affordable Care Act has been called many things, but it looks like we can add a new adjective to the list: popular.
Fifty-five percent of Americans now support the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a major turnaround from five months ago when 42% approved and 53% disapproved. This is the first time a majority of Americans have approved of the healthcare law, also known as Obamacare, since Gallup first asked about it in this format in November 2012. [...]

Republicans, Democrats and independents are all more likely to approve of the ACA now than in November, a few days after Donald Trump's victory in the presidential election left Republicans in control of the legislative and executive branches.
To be sure, Republican voters still don't much care for "Obamacare," but GOP support for the reform law has gone up 10 points since the fall, which has helped propel overall support for the Affordable Care Act above the 50% threshold.

Gallup's findings are consistent with the latest results from Public Policy Polling, which also recently found support for the health care law above 50% for the first time.

To state the obvious, this isn't the dynamic Republicans were looking for. GOP officials and candidates, soon after winning total control of the federal government, believed the American public was on board with the party's plan to destroy the Affordable Care Act, which has struggled in recent years to build broad public backing.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Repeal Land: support for the ACA went above 50%; support for Donald Trump dipped below 40%; support for the Republican alternative plan fell below 20%; and even Republican voters started to conclude that repeal wasn't such a great idea after all.

Public support for the GOP's health care crusade turned out to be a mirage. All it took was a good, long look at what the right wanted to put in its place.
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The courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, April 4, 2016. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Is it 'nuts' to vote on Gorsuch during the Russia scandal?

04/05/17 08:00AM

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the last I checked, was still on the Senate floor making the case against Judge Neil Gorsuch's nomination -- an argument he's been making for more than 12 hours. And while the Oregon Democrat has presented a multi-faceted case, one argument in particular stood out for me.

"There's a giant cloud hanging over Gorsuch nomination," Merkley argued last night. The senator added that the nominee "should not be considered" until the investigation into Donald Trump's Russia scandal is resolved.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) yesterday stressed the same point.
"I think it is crazy that we are considering confirming a lifetime Trump nominee to the Supreme Court at a moment when the president's campaign is under the cloud of an active, ongoing FBI counterintelligence investigation," Warren said from the Senate floor.

She added that the FBI's probe into Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election "could result in indictments and appeals that will go all the way to the Supreme Court, so that Trump's nominee could be the deciding vote on whether Trump or his supporters broke the law." ... Warren said on Tuesday that the decision to continue with Neil Gorsuch's confirmation was "nuts."
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) made similar comments nearly two weeks ago in an interview with Rachel.

It's hard to deny that Democrats have a credible point. We're faced with the possibility that the president who's trying to fill the high-court vacancy is the same president whose legitimacy is called into question by the Russia scandal. The Senate has already waited this long to consider a nominee; there's no practical reason members can't delay matters until the investigation is complete.

Indeed, several Senate Republicans, as recently as last fall, said they were prepared to leave the Supreme Court vacancy unfilled until 2021, at the earliest. It's not as if they can persuasively say they're now in a rush.
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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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