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Friday's Mini-Report, 3.23.18

03/23/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* I guess Trump won't tweet about the stock market today: "With the threat of a trade war hanging over markets as the week drew to a close, analysts blamed a 'perfect storm' of events for volatility that saw the stock market swing into near-correction territory on Thursday, pare losses on Friday, then tank at the end of the day to close 400 points down."

* If you haven't seen this one, it's important: "Guccifer 2.0, the 'lone hacker' who took credit for providing WikiLeaks with stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee, was in fact an officer of Russia's military intelligence directorate (GRU), The Daily Beast has learned. It's an attribution that resulted from a fleeting but critical slip-up in GRU tradecraft."

* He wasn't a rogue coffee boy: "When a Russian news agency reached out to George Papadopoulos to request an interview shortly before the 2016 election, the young adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump made sure to seek approval from campaign headquarters."

* A stunning look at how far-right operatives work behind the scenes: "Days after a woman accused U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual impropriety, two Moore supporters approached her attorney with an unusual request."

* Stephon Clark: "Demonstrators enraged over the police shooting of an unarmed man shut down traffic on a Sacramento freeway Thursday and later blocked fans from attending a Kings game."

* Will he ask good questions and then vote for her anyway? "Sen. John McCain, whose experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam has established him as Congress's moral conscience on torture, asked CIA director nominee Gina Haspel to detail her role in the agency's enhanced interrogation program."

* This dovetails with the NRA story we've been watching: Incoming White House national security adviser John Bolton recorded a video used by the Russian gun rights group The Right to Bear Arms in 2013 to encourage the Russian government to loosen gun laws."

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Image: Donald Trump, Mike Pence

Trump's DACA lie is rooted in transparent cynicism

03/23/18 04:37PM

At a hastily thrown together White House event this afternoon, Donald Trump announced that he's signed that omnibus spending package his administration supports, but which he threatened to veto. Towards the end of the event, the president strayed from his prepared text to tell a rather important lie:

"I do want the Hispanic community to know and DACA recipients to know that Republicans are much more on your side than the Democrats who are using you for their own purposes."

Apparently, Trump is under the impression that Dreamers and "the Hispanic community" pay no attention to current events -- because otherwise, he wouldn't make such a cynical and ridiculous argument.

Let's revisit the facts, which are unambiguous. After assuring Dreamers that he wouldn't punish them, Trump ended the DACA program, putting these young immigrants' future in jeopardy and creating a crisis where none existed.

Democrats, meanwhile, have scrambled to protect Dreamers, offering the president six different bipartisan agreements, each of which Trump either rejected or walked away from.

Indeed, it's stunning just how far Democrats have been willing to go as this debate has unfolded. I, for example, have never seen much value in trading DACA protections for a border wall, largely because that's a "compromise" in which Trump gets something he says he wants in exchange for something Trump says he wants. That's not how bipartisan deals are generally supposed to go.

But as of last month, Democrats were willing to accept that deal anyway. In effect, Dems caved, feeling as if they had no choice and no leverage. Trump and his team could've taken "yes" for an answer, but they didn't. The White House said they'd protect Dreamers only if Democrats agreed to fund a border wall and accepted dramatic cuts to legal immigration. Dems said that was a bridge too far.

And in Trump's mind, this means he and Republicans are the true friends of Dreamers and "the Hispanic community."

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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP-PRISON REFORM

Trump keeps bluffing badly and for no reason

03/23/18 02:51PM

In poker, bluffing is an important strategic move. If you're playing a bad hand, for example, you can keep upping the ante in the hopes of convincing the other players that you actually have a good hand, persuading them to fold. The risk, of course, is that your rivals will see through your bluff, at which point you'll lose even more of your money.

I'm starting to think Donald Trump doesn't understand the point of bluffing -- because like his routine lying, the president seems to do it for no good reason.

On Wednesday, Trump endorsed a massive government spending bill, and on Thursday, the White House and its allies spent much of the day telling everyone how much the president is looking forward to signing the omnibus package into law. This morning, however, Trump, for reasons that are not yet clear, threatened to veto the proposal he ostensibly supports because it lacks immigration provisions he claims to support.

In response, lawmakers didn't bother to offer Trump anything -- at which point he signed it anyway.

Speaking at the White House, Trump called the spending bill a "ridiculous situation," while standing in the White House Diplomatic Room, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence, and several Cabinet members.

"There are a lot of things I'm unhappy about in this bill," the president said, pointing to the inclusion of unspecified items in the bill that he said were added in order to get necessary funding for the U.S. military.

Trump added that he "will never sign another bill like this again" -- in part because "nobody read it" before it passed -- and that threat might actually mean something if anyone had reason to believe the president's warnings.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

After praising spending bill, Trump threatens to veto it

03/23/18 12:51PM

It wasn't easy, but federal policymakers worked out a deal on Wednesday on a giant spending package that would fund the government for a while and prevent a government shutdown. Donald Trump wasn't directly involved in the negotiations, but he expressed his approval for the result. Indeed, on Wednesday night, he tweeted about his support for the omnibus bill.

And with the president's blessing, Congress followed suit. As the House and Senate passed the package with relative ease -- and with bipartisan majorities -- the White House issued this formal Statement of Administration Policy, making a fairly detailed case in support of the proposal. Trump's communications office sent out talking points touting the bill around the same time.

What about reports from last week that the president wasn't pleased with the bill because it doesn't include funding for his border wall? Never mind, people close to Trump said. "The president supports this bill," House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters yesterday. "There's no two ways about it."

Soon after, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, standing at the White House podium, told reporters that Trump "looks forward to signing" the omnibus into law.

Oops.

President Donald Trump on Friday morning threatened to veto a freshly passed government spending deal — prompting renewed concerns of yet another government shutdown — because the measure doesn't adequately fund his desired border wall or protect recipients of the DACA program his administration ended.

"I am considering a VETO of the Omnibus Spending Bill based on the fact that the 800,000 plus DACA recipients have been totally abandoned by the Democrats (not even mentioned in Bill) and the BORDER WALL, which is desperately needed for our National Defense, is not fully funded," Trump tweeted Friday morning.

I guess he forgot his own position again?

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.23.18

03/23/18 12:00PM

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

* In Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker (R) has refused to call special elections to fill state legislative vacancies, a state judge ruled yesterday the governor no longer has a choice. The case was brought by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and an affiliate of the group he leads, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

* In Arizona's closely watched U.S. Senate race, the latest Public Policy Polling survey found Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) ahead by five points over Rep. Martha McSally (R), 46% to 41%.

* On a related note, in Wisconsin, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) has been targeted with an aggressive round of attack ads by conservative groups, but PPP found her with leads of about 12 points in hypothetical general election match-ups over her likely Republican challengers.

* In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker (R) appears to be a pretty safe bet for a second term: a new WBUR poll shows him with big leads over each of his would-be Democratic opponents. Former Newton Mayor Setti Warren (D) comes closest, and he trails Baker in this poll by 34 points.

* As if Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) doesn't already have enough problems, the Federal Election Commission contacted his campaign committee this week about potentially illegal contributions he received in 2017. The FEC sent the letter to Nunes' campaign treasurer, who also happens to be his mother.

* Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is heavily favored in Utah's U.S. Senate race this year, but he's not running unopposed. State Rep. Mike Kennedy kicked off his Republican primary bid this week.

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Mick Mulvaney

Trump's CFPB reportedly goes easy on another payday lender

03/23/18 11:28AM

Donald Trump's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, led by Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, announced in January that it would effectively ignore Obama-era safeguards protecting consumers from predatory payday lenders.

Slate  reported soon after, "Last week, the CFPB dropped a lawsuit in Kansas against four payday lenders without any explanation, other than a weak assurance that it would continue investigating the case. Meanwhile, International Business Times reports today that Mulvaney stealthily closed an investigation into a South Carolina-based payday lender, World Acceptance Corporation, which had previously donated to his campaigns."

In February, after the CFPB spent years building a case against one controversial payday lender, Mulvaney dropped the case. Reuters reports today that the pattern continues.

The top cop for U.S. consumer finance has decided not to sue a payday loan collector and is weighing whether to drop cases against three payday lenders, said five people with direct knowledge of the matter.

The move shows how Mick Mulvaney, named interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) by U.S. President Donald Trump, is putting his mark on an agency conceived to stamp out abusive lending.

I'm starting to think Mulvaney doesn't much care about alleged abuses among payday lenders.

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Image: FILES-US-POLITICS-RUSSIA

AG Sessions finds a new way to try to make Trump happy

03/23/18 10:57AM

Donald Trump delivered a speech in New Hampshire last week on the U.S. response the opioid crisis, and while there was no shortage of problems with the president's vision, it was his call for increased executions that stood out.

About midway through the remarks, Trump insisted that policymakers need to approve new laws to empower the government to kill drug dealers. "Unless you have really, really powerful penalties, led by the death penalty for the really bad pushers and abusers, we are going to get nowhere," he declared.

It was an unfortunate argument for all sorts of reasons, though MSNBC's Danny Cevallos highlighted one of the most important: capital punishment is already available for drug traffickers in the federal criminal justice system. It's just not used.

And as Slate's Mark Joseph Stern explained, that's where Jeff Sessions comes in.

But on Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions played along, issuing a memo in which he "strongly encourage[d] federal prosecutors" to seek capital sentences "for certain drug-related crimes," including those that do not involve murder.

Sessions' memo might be disturbing if it weren't so pathetic. He must know that his entreaty will not lead to a single execution, but instead -- at most -- to millions of taxpayer dollars spent litigating appeals.

So why did the attorney general issue the memo? Probably because Sessions is still looking for ways to make Trump happy.

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White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds the daily briefing at the White House, September 12, 2017.

What Team Trump describes as 'fake news' is often true

03/23/18 10:12AM

Nearly two weeks ago, the New York Times  reported that Donald Trump was poised to make significant changes to his legal defense team. A day later, the president accused the newspaper of having "purposely" publishing "a false story."

We now know that the president has reached out to two high-profile D.C. attorneys, neither of whom joined Trump's team, while hiring two Fox News personalities to help with his legal defense. The latest head of his team of attorneys resigned yesterday.

In other words, the president's denial wasn't true.

Also this month, NBC News, citing five sources, reported that the White House "is preparing to replace H.R. McMaster as national security adviser." Politico published this item later that day.

The Trump administration batted down a new report on Thursday that national security adviser H.R. McMaster could be on his way out, with President Donald Trump telling a spokesman for the National Security Council that the article was "fake news."

"I was just with President Trump and H.R. McMaster in the Oval Office," the spokesman, Michael Anton, said in a statement provided to pool reporters. "President Trump said that the NBC News story is 'fake news,' and told McMaster that he is doing a great job."

Raj Shah, the White House principal deputy press secretary, also cast doubt on reports of McMaster's looming departure, telling pool reporters that the administration often dealt with "rumor and innuendo about senior administration officials."

Just last week, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders added that she'd just spoken to Trump and McMaster, explaining, "[C]ontrary to reports they have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the NSC."

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen in a television cameras view finder during a press conference at the Trump National Golf Club Jupiter on March 8, 2016 in Jupiter, Fla. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

The 'staging area' for employment in Trump's White House

03/23/18 09:20AM

Fox News' Juan Williams joked on the air last week that he sees Donald Trump's White House as a reality-television program -- and if you want to make it onto the show, you have to be in a Fox News green room "because apparently that's the staging area."

Perhaps Williams wasn't kidding.

Less than an hour after President Trump named John R. Bolton as his new national security adviser on Thursday, Mr. Bolton made an appearance in the venue where many Americans, including Mr. Trump, have come to know him over the past decade: Fox News.

"I think I still am a Fox News contributor," Mr. Bolton, laughing, told the host Martha MacCallum at the start of a previously scheduled interview.

"No," Ms. MacCallum clarified. "You're not."

You can't blame him for being a bit confused.

Trump's new White House national security advisor was, up until yesterday afternoon, a Fox News personality. Indeed, Bolton appears to have been offered his new job at least in part because the president thinks he's "good on television."

Joe diGenova, the new member of the president's legal defense team, is also a Fox News personality, and he was joined on the team yesterday by his wife, Victoria Toensing, who is -- let's all say it together -- a Fox News personality. (Trump has also reportedly turned to Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News host, for legal guidance.)

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told Rachel on the show last night, "I'm concerned the president's world is confined now to watching Fox News... Aside from his insular existence in the Oval Office, Fox is his whole world."

Well, not his whole world: Trump hired television host Larry Kudlow to be the head of the White House National Economic Council -- and Kudlow worked for CNBC.

The larger point, of course, is that the president's TV remote remains the most important tool in the United States.

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Image: National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster

Trump brings a change for the worse to the White House

03/23/18 08:50AM

Part of the problem with the revolving door in Donald Trump's White House is the turmoil itself. An administration cannot expect to function effectively when a president is constantly hiring and firing new officials for powerful executive-branch posts.

But the other part of the problem is that each of Trump's recent changes have been changes for the worse. Rex Tillerson is being replaced by Mike Pompeo; Gary Cohn is being replaced with Larry Kudlow; and as we learned late yesterday, H.R. McMaster is being replaced with John Bolton.

I'm reluctant to refer to Tillerson, Cohn, and McMaster as the administration's "grown-ups," since they were often wrong, ineffectual, and marginalized. I prefer to think of them as the president's training wheels.

Trump has never been graceful, and he still struggles to steer straight. Observers, even those who want to see him reach his destination, routinely feel the need to cover their eyes when they're not burying their heads in their hands. But officials like Tillerson, Cohn, and McMaster generally made an effort to help prevent total wipeouts. They recognized their president's many limitations, and often made credible efforts to keep him from falling.

This is especially true of McMaster, who tried to help the president be more responsible on everything from NATO to Russia to North Korea. When Trump threatened our South Korean allies, it was McMaster who reached out to tell them to ignore his erratic boss.

The president, however, didn't appreciate McMaster's maturity. I'm reminded of this  Politico piece published a month ago:

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Image: President Trump announces steep tarrifs on imported steel and aluminum

With Bolton pick, Trump betrays his own vision

03/23/18 08:00AM

Donald Trump was a nontraditional presidential candidate, and not just because major American political parties don't usually nominate inexperienced gameshow hosts to the nation's highest office. What also helped Trump set apart was his willingness to ignore several key elements of his party's orthodoxy -- either because he didn't know what Republicans thought about key issues, or because he didn't care.

The result was an idiosyncratic platform in which the nominee of a far-right GOP spoke openly about his opposition to entitlement cuts, despite his party's support for them. Trump also voiced support for higher taxes on the wealthy, despite his party's opposition to them. The same Republican candidate vowed to get tough on Wall Street, combat corruption, bring health care coverage to all Americans, and keep Goldman Sachs insiders at arm's length -- all positions that put him at odds with the contemporary GOP.

The sincerity and depth of Trump's positions were open questions. It was nevertheless obvious that in some key areas, he at least claimed he wouldn't be doctrinaire.

But perhaps Trump's most striking break with Republican orthodoxy came on foreign policy. Donald Trump seemed to genuinely believe in a non-interventionist vision for the U.S. role in the world. He repeatedly mocked the war in Iraq, made clear he had no use for a Bush/Cheney-style approach to international affairs, and dismissed those who disagreed as useless fools.

After Inauguration Day, it didn't take long for Trump to betray the broader vision he sold to the electorate, abandoning practically every position that set him apart from traditional GOP leaders, but on foreign policy, the perfidy took longer.

As of yesterday afternoon, however, the duplicitous campaign reached its endpoint. I'm reminded of something The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf wrote a few weeks ago in response to rumors that John Bolton would soon replace H.R. McMaster as the White House national security advisor:

The problem isn't just that Bolton is singularly ill-suited for the role -- he also represents a set of views diametrically opposed to the policies that helped the president secure his job. Trump won the GOP primaries and the White House in part by taking the position that the Iraq War was a dumb waste of American lives and resources.

Bolton, meanwhile, not only celebrated the disastrous war during the Bush era, he also continues to insist it was a wise decision, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

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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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