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Image: White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland

Reince Priebus' FBI contacts suddenly look even worse

03/21/17 10:19AM

When there's a major development in an ongoing controversy, it's important to consider the news at face value, but it's also important to reconsider previous details in light of new evidence.

Take White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus' communications with the FBI, for example.

We learned about a month ago that Priebus spoke with FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe about Team Trump's Russia scandal, and by some accounts, the White House chief of staff hoped to persuade FBI officials to reach out to journalists to downplay the significance of the controversy.

As we discussed at the time, there are rules in place that severely limit the communications between the FBI and the White House, though in this case, Reince Priebus either didn't know or didn't care about those restrictions. Politico had a report over the weekend -- before yesterday's testimony from FBI Director James Comey, obviously -- about the communications.
Reince Priebus's request that the FBI refute a report of Donald Trump associates' contacts with Russian intelligence appears to have violated the White House's policy restricting political interference in pending investigations, according to a copy of the policy obtained by POLITICO.

The policy says only the president, vice president and White House counsel can discuss specific investigations or cases with the attorney general, deputy attorney general, associate attorney general or solicitor general. Any other conversations require the approval of the White House counsel, according to the document.
In other words, Priebus' chats with the deputy director of the FBI -- communications that the White House has already acknowledged -- were problematic on their face.

But in light of yesterday's news, they seem quite a bit worse.
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President-elect Donald Trump arrives at a rally at the Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville, N.C., Dec. 6, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP)

Trump picks the wrong slogan: 'Promises made, promises kept'

03/21/17 09:20AM

Donald Trump held the latest in a series of presidential rallies last night in Louisville, where he pretended the FBI director hadn't just told the world that Trump campaign operation is under investigation for its ties to Russia. The New York Times noted that the event included the unveiling of a new slogan.
For Mr. Trump, who is enduring one of the most difficult stretches of his young presidency, the rally was a chance to bathe in the adulation of a campaign crowd, a sea of people waving placards that said: "Buy American. Hire American" and "Promises Made. Promises Kept."
Those placards weren't the result of organic, grassroots enthusiasm; they were part of a specific push from Team Trump, which apparently finds the phrase compelling.

And at a certain level, it's easy to understand the motivation. The more the White House struggles and Trump's approval rating sinks, the more the president and his aides stick to the idea that they're simply following through on the platform presented to voters during the 2016 campaign. Love Trump or hate him, the argument goes, he's simply keeping the promises he made before he was elected.

The problem, of course, is that this isn't even close to being true.
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Image: House Speaker Paul Ryan Holds Weekly Briefing

Republicans scramble to rescue flailing health care bill

03/21/17 08:45AM

The quote may be apocryphal, but when Nancy Pelosi was Speaker of the House, she came to be associated with a simple phrase: "First you get the votes, then you take the vote."

It seems like a strategy so obvious that it's hardly worth articulating -- along the lines of, "First you put on the shoes, then you tie the laces." And yet, the Pelosi Principle of passing bills is routinely overlooked by her Republican successors.

Take, for example, the ongoing GOP plan to pass the Republican health care legislation. Instead of "First you get the votes, then you take the vote," House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is moving forward with a different tack: "First you schedule the vote, then you search for votes, then you significantly change the bill two days before the vote, and then you take the vote without any certainty about the outcome or the CBO score."

Politico reported last night on the latest developments.
House Republican leaders are making a last-ditch attempt to win enough support to pass their Obamacare repeal, revealing an expansive series of changes to the bill on Monday night designed to woo wary GOP lawmakers.

Requested by President Donald Trump, the amendment includes perks for restive conservatives who wanted optional work requirements and block granting in Medicaid, as well as a potential olive branch to wary centrists who demanded more help for older Americans to buy insurance, POLITICO has learned.
There are quite a few tweaks: more tax breaks for the wealthy, more punishments for the poor, some regional provisions targeted at specific GOP lawmakers, and a weird anti-abortion provision. Vox's Ezra Klein explained that none of the new provisions "meaningfully change the underlying legislation," nor do they "fix the old bill's problems."

But for Republican leaders, improving the legislation isn't the point; passing the legislation is.
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Image: US-INTELLIGENCE-POLITICS-RUSSIA

Russia scandal leaves a 'big, gray cloud' over Trump, Republicans

03/21/17 08:00AM

Yesterday was not a good day for Donald Trump and his team. FBI Director James Comey confirmed that there's an ongoing counter-intelligence investigation underway, not only into Russia's attack on our democracy, but also into whether people close to Trump cooperated with the crime.

But as stunning as the developments were, and as awful as they made the president look, congressional Republicans were cast in a light that was nearly as unflattering. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank's summary rings true:
Comey's testimony confirmed what was widely suspected: The FBI is investigating whether the president's campaign colluded with a powerful American adversary in an attempt to swing the election. But instead of being shaken from complacency and uniting to make sure this never happens again, the Republican majority on the House Intelligence Committee mounted a reflexive defense of Trump.

The partisan response made it plain that there will be no serious congressional investigation of the Russia election outrage, nor any major repercussions for Russia. We were attacked by Russia — about this there is no doubt — and we're too paralyzed by politics to respond.
Confronted with evidence that Russia launched an illegal espionage operation to subvert an American presidential election, and the president's campaign team may have cooperated with our adversary's scheme, nearly every GOP member of the House Intelligence Committee linked arms and effectively declared in unison: "We don't care."

Republicans wanted to talk about leaks. And Hillary Clinton. And answers to vote-rigging questions that no one has asked. With very limited exceptions, as Milbank added, GOP members "slavishly echoed [Trump's] excuses."

In the closing moments of the hearing, Intelligence Committee Chairman David Nunes (R-Calif.), a Trump loyalist who served on the president's executive transition team, told the FBI director, "[T]here is a big gray cloud that you have put over people who have very important work to do to lead this country. And so the faster you can get to the bottom of this, it's going to be better for all Americans."
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Hearing probes Trump Russia 2016 coordination

Hearing probes Trump Russia 2016 coordination

03/20/17 09:25PM

Congressman Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, talks with Rachel Maddow about today's historic hearing in which the FBI confirmed that there is an ongoing counterintelligence investigation into the Donald Trump campaign and its potential coordination with Russia. watch

Monday's Mini-Report, 3.20.17

03/20/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* As if the Comey hearing weren't enough to keep things busy on Capitol Hill: "Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch presented himself as a mainstream jurist who has spent his career seeking agreement as his highly anticipated confirmation hearing kicked off Monday."

* At least someone's pleased: "China's state-run media cheered Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's weekend visit to Beijing as a diplomatic win for the home team."

* Michael Flynn: "Former national security adviser Mike Flynn interacted with a graduate student with dual Russian and British nationalities at a 2014 U.K. security conference, a contact that came to the notice of U.S. intelligence but that Mr. Flynn, then the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, didn't disclose, according to people familiar with the matter."

* Trump World Tower: "On the 78th floor: a Russian who once was accused of mob ties and extortion by an oligarch. On the 79th, an Uzbek jeweler investigated for money laundering who was eventually executed on the street in Manhattan. And four floors higher, a pro-Moscow Ukrainian politician whose party hired a Donald Trump adviser."

* Roger Stone, "an informal adviser to President Trump, has been asked by the Senate Intelligence Committee to preserve any records he may have in connection to a broader inquiry into Russian attempts to interfere with United States elections."

* It sure does look like he gave false information about his emails: "Senate Democrats are asking Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt to fix what they say were incorrect answers he gave during his confirmation process."
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White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivers his first statement in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017.

Spicer tries to distance Trump from top members of his campaign team

03/20/17 04:16PM

The week before Inauguration Day, incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer had the unpleasant task of trying to dismiss the seriousness of Donald Trump's Russia scandal. In practice, that meant dismissing some of the figures from the Trump campaign who were implicated in the broader controversy.

In the face of reports about Trump associates with controversial ties to Moscow, Spicer told reporters, for example, "Carter Page is an individual whom the president-elect does not know."

It was a curious response. During the campaign, Trump personally singled out Page as one of only a handful of people who were advising him on matters of foreign policy, but as the controversy surrounding the campaign's ties to Russia intensified, Spicer nevertheless made it sound as if Trump couldn't pick his own adviser out of a lineup.

Today, as Politico reported, it happened again in an even more dramatic fashion.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer tried to downplay scrutiny into the Trump campaign's relationship with Russia on Monday by describing Paul Manafort, the president's former campaign chairman, as someone "who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time" in the effort.

Asked at Monday's press briefing if President Donald Trump stands by his earlier comments that he is not aware of any contacts between his campaign associates and Russia, Spicer acknowledged former national security adviser Michael Flynn's previous relationship with the country, but described him as a "volunteer of the campaign."
This is amazing for a couple of reasons. The first is that the claims are plainly ridiculous. Manafort was hired last year to help oversee Team Trump's delegate-count operation, and soon after, Trump promoted him to the role of campaign chairman, the perch from which he effectively ran the entire campaign. (Manafort also reportedly helped out with personnel decisions during the transition.) To say the campaign chairman "played a very limited role" on the campaign is laughable.

The same is true of Flynn, who was obviously far more than just a campaign "volunteer." The former general was a member of Trump's inner circle; he played a prominent role at the Republican convention; and soon after the election, he was named White House National Security Advisor, which isn't a role that goes to some random guy who had an unpaid gig on the campaign.
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FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 27, 2016 before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on on terror threats. (Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

FBI's Comey confirms investigation into Team Trump's Russia ties

03/20/17 12:23PM

There's been some debate about whether Donald Trump's campaign operation is under a federal investigation or not. This morning, FBI Director James Comey ended that debate.
The FBI is investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with a covert Russian campaign to interfere with the U.S. presidential election, FBI Director James Comey told Congress Monday, an explosive disclosure that could shadow the Trump presidency.

In his opening statement at a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee, Comey said the investigation was being undertaken "as part of our counterintelligence mission," and that he could not disclose any details about it. Normally, he said, the FBI doesn't confirm or deny investigations, but it can make exceptions in cases of major public interest.
Specifically, Comey told the House Intelligence Committee, during its open hearing, that he's been authorized by the Justice Department to confirm that "the FBI, as part of our counter-intelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts. As with any counter-intelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment or whether any crimes were committed."

At a certain level, I can appreciate why this news is consistent with expectations -- because the political world has been discussing for months reports of precisely this kind of counter-intelligence investigation. Political observers have invested considerable energy into exploring the allegations -- and the implications of the allegations -- surrounding Russia's espionage operation to help elect Trump, and the possibility of people close to Trump playing some cooperative role in Moscow's efforts.

But before this morning, there were limits on what we knew for certain about the nature of probe. It's what makes Comey's acknowledgement so extraordinary: a president's campaign is under an FBI investigation. In a development so stunning, it's strange to even put in writing, federal investigators are exploring whether members of the president's campaign team cooperated with a foreign adversary's illegal scheme to influence the outcome of an American election.

This is not, in other words, just another day for American politics.
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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.20.17

03/20/17 12:00PM

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

* Donald Trump's approval rating in the latest Gallup daily tracking poll dropped to just 37% yesterday, while his disapproval reached 58%. This marks a new low in the president's support, and surpasses the worst ratings at any point in Barack Obama's presidency.

* On a related note, among post-Watergate presidents, Trump's 37% approval rating is easily the worst among his modern predecessors at this point into his first term.

* The American Hospital Association has launched a new television ad campaign criticizing the Republican health care plan. The spot reportedly began airing yesterday in the D.C. area "and on national television, including during the Sunday morning news shows."

* In Virginia's Democratic gubernatorial primary, most of the people in Hillary Clinton's orbit are supporting Lt Gov. Ralph Northam, which is why it came as something of a surprise to see John Podesta throw his support behind former Rep. Tom Perriello.

* Speaking of Virginia's gubernatorial race, Denver Riggleman (R) ended his long-shot bid late last week, after struggling to raise money for his campaign.

* Rep. Jim Renacci (R), a conservative four-term congressman, launched his gubernatorial campaign in Ohio this morning. In an apparent bid to tie himself to Trump's messaging, Renacci's new campaign website is OhioFirst.com.

* The Associated Press reported over the weekend on a new poll that found among U.S. voters age 30 or under, Trump's approval rating is just 22%. The same data found more than half of these younger voters don't see Trump's presidency as legitimate.
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Image: US President Donald J. Trump and Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel joint press conference

Trump doesn't understand NATO nearly as well as he thinks he does

03/20/17 11:24AM

Donald Trump has a variety of bad habits, but one of the more jarring is his tendency to comment on things he knows practically nothing about.

Trump loves to share his thoughts on the Affordable Care Act, for example, despite not understanding it in any meaningful way. He's had all kinds of things to say about "Brexit," even after admitting, "I don't think anybody should listen to me because I haven't really focused on it very much."

And then, there's NATO. The president shared some thoughts via Twitter over the weekend that were notable because they offered fresh evidence of Trump's confusion about another issue he claims to take seriously.
"Despite what you have heard from the FAKE NEWS, I had a GREAT meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nevertheless, Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!"
Trump's hostility towards the NATO alliance is well documented -- he called NATO "obsolete" as recently as January -- but the president's latest online missive suggests he still doesn't know what he's talking about.

Germany does not, in reality, owe "vast sums of money to NATO." As the New York Times reported, in a very polite way, "The message was misleading because no nation actually 'owes' money to NATO; its direct funding is calculated through a formula and paid by each of the 28 nations that are members. Mr. Trump may have been referring to the fact that Germany, like most NATO countries, falls short of the alliance's guideline that each member should allocate 2 percent of its gross domestic product to military spending, but that money is not intended to be paid to NATO or to the United States."
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Smoke rises after an U.S.-led air strike in the Syrian town of Kobani on Oct. 8, 2014.

Trump borrows from Obama for nation's 'new' ISIS plan

03/20/17 10:41AM

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump assured Americans he had amazing ideas for how best to annihilate ISIS. The Republican wouldn't tell voters what the plan entailed, of course, but rest assured, it was going to be awesome.

The first sign that Trump's plan may not actually exist, however, came on January 28, when the president signed an executive directive on the matter, effectively asking his national security team to come up with some kind of anti-ISIS plan for him. (For the record, the directive wasn't exactly necessary: Trump could've just given an order. That, however, wouldn't have been theatrical enough for this president.)

The Trump administration's plan has now taken shape, and as NBC News reported, it looks pretty familiar.
Donald Trump promised during the campaign to implement a "secret plan" to defeat ISIS, including a pledge to "bomb the hell out of" the terror group in Iraq and Syria.

Now, the Pentagon has given him a secret plan, but it turns out to be a little more than an "intensification" of the same slow and steady approach that Trump derided under the Obama administration, two senior officials who have reviewed the document told NBC News.

The plan calls for continued bombing; beefing up support and assistance to local forces to retake its Iraqi stronghold Mosul and ultimately the ISIS capital of Raqqa in Syria; drying up ISIS's sources of income; and stabilizing the areas retaken from ISIS, the officials say.
In other words, Trump, after condemning Obama's strategy, is now implementing Obama's strategy. A New York Times report added today that, with limited exceptions, Trump officials "have shown few other signs that they want to back away from Mr. Obama's strategy."

Retired Admiral James Stavridis, an NBC News analyst, added, "The current plan to defeat the Islamic State is just like that old saying: Plan B is just, 'Try harder at Plan A.'"
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Senate candidate, Rep. Bill Cassidy, left, talks to the media in Shreveport, La. on Oct. 14, 2014.

GOP senator acknowledges Americans' 'right' to health care

03/20/17 10:00AM

In Democratic and progressive circles, Americans' right to health security is a given, on par with citizens' rights to public education and access to clean water. But in Republican circles, the resistance to such an idea is strong. Once the public believes Americans are entitled to affordable health care, simply as a basic proponent of citizenship, GOP plans in this area become untenable.

It was therefore surprising to see Sen. Bill Cassidy (R) of Louisiana offer these comments to the New York Times.
"The folks who Hillary Clinton called the 'deplorables' are actually those who want better coverage, who we'd be hurting if we don't change this bill," Mr. Cassidy said, noting that Mr. Trump promised "he'd give them better care."

The senator, a physician who once worked in his state's charity hospital network, bluntly said that the philosophical debate was over and that his party ought to be pragmatic about how best to create a more cost-efficient and comprehensive health care system.

"There's a widespread recognition that the federal government, Congress, has created the right for every American to have health care," he said, warning that to throw people off their insurance or make coverage unaffordable would only shift costs back to taxpayers by burdening emergency rooms. "If you want to be fiscally responsible, then coverage is better than no coverage."
The Times' report added that this is roughly in line with the attitudes of many Republican voters themselves: the latest Pew Research Center report found that most GOP voters who make below $30,000 a year "believe the federal government has a responsibility to ensure health coverage for all."

It's an important development for a few reasons. First, it's a reminder as to why congressional Republicans fought tooth and nail to kill the Affordable Care Act in the first place: once Americans have an important social-insurance benefit, and families come to rely on it, scrapping the benefit becomes politically unrealistic.

If "the right for every American to have health care" now exists, Democrats and Republicans can argue about the details of how best to recognize that right, not whether the right deserves to be recognized in the first place.
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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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