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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 2.21.18

02/21/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Quite an event: "'We want change! We want change! We want change!' That was the chant roaring from the crowd gathered in front of the Old Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida, for the #NeverAgain Rally on Wednesday -- one week after the worst mass shooting at a high school in U.S. history."

* An unexpected new angle: "Federal investigators are probing whether former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort promised a Chicago banker a job in the Trump White House in return for $16 million in home loans, two people with direct knowledge of the matter told NBC News."

* Republican governance in Wisconsin: "The state Assembly voted Tuesday on party lines to reject a proposal to require universal background checks for gun purchases in Wisconsin, opting instead to offer funds for armed guards in schools and crack down on 'straw purchasing.'"

* The right move: "President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Indian Health Service, an insurance broker named Robert Weaver, withdrew from consideration for the job, a top agency official told tribal leaders Wednesday, according to a person present at the gathering."

* VA drama: "The White House has given Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin the green light to quash an internal rebellion among conservative foes of his leadership, he told Politico late Tuesday."

* I hope you caught Rachel's segment on this: "The White House said on Tuesday that the work status of Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, would not change because of upcoming changes to the security clearance process."

* A missed opportunity: "Vice President Pence departed for a five-day, two-country swing through Asia earlier this month having agreed to a secret meeting with North Korean officials while in South Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. But on Feb. 10 ... the North Koreans pulled out of the scheduled meeting, according to Pence's office."

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Trump's former bodyguard paid handsomely by RNC 'slush fund'

02/21/18 04:11PM

We learned last fall that the Republican National Committee, for reasons that have never been altogether clear, paid the legal bills for Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. -- but not the other members of the president's team who've been caught up in the Russia scandal.

CNBC reports today that the RNC also appears to be paying Trump's former bodyguard an unusually generous sum.

When President Donald Trump's longtime bodyguard Keith Schiller decided to leave his White House job last fall, many in the West Wing wondered how the president would manage without his personal security chief-turned-confidant, who had been working for Trump nearly 20 years.

As it turns out, Schiller didn't go very far. Within weeks of leaving his job as director of Oval Office operations, Schiller's private security firm, KS Global Group, began collecting $15,000 a month for "security services" from the Republican National Committee.

According to an RNC official, Schiller is being paid for security consulting on the site selection process for the 2020 Republican National Convention. Schiller's fee comes out of the RNC's convention fund, not its campaign fund, the official noted.

That's quite a generous payment for consulting on a choosing a location for a convention that's three years away. Indeed, at this rate, by the time of the next Republican convention, the RNC will have paid Schiller's firm $500,000.

Let's also note that $15,000 a month -- for "security services" -- is more than Schiller made as a White House employee.

Schiller's role in Trump World has long been a little hard to explain. Schiller used to serve as the head of Trump's private security detail, until last year, when he became the president's "full-time physical gatekeeper" at the White House.

In May 2016, it was Schiller who personally went to FBI headquarters to deliver the paperwork firing then-director James Comey, who was in California at the time.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order To Promote Healthcare Choice

Trump finds new way to undermine the health care market

02/21/18 03:20PM

During Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar's confirmation hearings a few months ago, Donald Trump's cabinet choice told senators he hadn't seen "any effort to sabotage" the Affordable Care Act.

Given just how far the Trump administration has been willing  to go to undermine the existing health care system, I can only assume Azar hasn't been looking very hard. The trouble is, the efforts are still very much underway.

The Trump administration announced Tuesday that it is moving to expand the use of low-budget temporary insurance, which could offer customers a cut-rate alternative to plans on the Affordable Care Act's exchange, but undermine more comprehensive insurance for others.

The proposed rule, which stems from an executive order by President Donald Trump, would allow people to buy short-term plans for up to a year instead of just the three months previously allowed. Unlike the ACA's plans, they are not required to cover pre-existing conditions, cover specific treatments, or provide unlimited benefits.

At face value, this may seem unimportant. If some consumers want to buy cheap, bad insurance for their primary coverage for a year, that shouldn't have much of an effect on everyone else, right?

Wrong. Anything that encourages younger and healthier people to move toward lower-cost, lower-coverage plans -- largely because they're less concerned about their health -- creates an alternative market, leaving everyone else with the better-but-more-expensive coverage offered through ACA-approved plans. (As Jonathan Cohn reminds us, short-term plans "are generally not available to people with pre-existing conditions.")

And once more young and healthy consumers exit the marketplace for these other plans, it raises costs because insurers have to pay more for older and less-healthy consumers. This isn't speculative: insurers have already told federal officials this will happen.

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Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks to media outside his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., June 22, 2016. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Marco Rubio becomes 'the face of congressional inaction' on guns

02/21/18 12:59PM

Without giving too much away, the main character in the film "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," rents three billboards in order to pressure a local sheriff to solve her daughter's murder. It became the basis for real-life activism in Miami last week, with three new signs in Miami that collectively read, "Slaughtered in school ... and still no gun control? How come, Marco Rubio?"

To be sure, the Florida Republican is hardly the only policymaker who's done no meaningful policymaking on gun violence, but as the Washington Post  reported, Rubio has become "the face of congressional inaction" on the issue.

He called it "heartbreaking" and said he was devastated. Dozens killed or injured in a shooting rampage that shook Florida and the nation — and "deeply impacted" him as he considered his political future.

Twenty months passed. Then, it happened again. Another mass killing.

Now, Marco Rubio has become the face of congressional inaction on tougher gun restrictions, especially to the students who survived the deadly Valentine's Day shooting at a Florida high school.

As the article referred to, part of the problem likely stems from the senator's political tactics in 2016. After his presidential campaign failed rather spectacularly, Rubio categorically ruled out another Senate campaign. The Floridian changed his mind, however, after the mass shooting in Orlando that summer.

Indeed, the day after the murders, Rubio said, "I think when it visits your home state, when it impacts a community you know well, it really gives you pause to think a little bit about your service to your country and where you can be most useful to your country."

Though it seems like an awfully convenient excuse for a politician to extend his career, voters tolerated the dramatic flip-flop and Rubio won fairly easily. His service to his country nevertheless included no meaningful efforts to stem the tide of gun violence.

The frustrations grew last week when the senator, just one day after the massacre in Parkland, delivered remarks on Capitol Hill that dismissed the efficacy many proposed gun reforms.

That said, Rubio, who has an "A+" rating from the National Rifle Association, seems reluctant to be seen doing literally nothing, and Politico  reported yesterday on the GOP senator's latest idea:

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.21.18

02/21/18 12:00PM

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

* Though some recent polling suggests Democrats have lost much of their lead on the generic congressional ballot, the new Quinnipiac poll shows Dems leading Republicans by 15 points, 53% to 38%. Two weeks ago, Quinnipiac found Dems ahead by nine points.

* Republican officials in the state of Washington had scheduled a fundraiser with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) in which they'd auction off an AR-15 rifle. The party has since changed its mind.

* For reasons I don't fully understand, Our Revolution, the progressive activist group that grew out of Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign, endorsed Dennis Kucinich yesterday in Ohio's Democratic gubernatorial primary.

* Rep. Steven Fincher (R) ended his Senate campaign in Tennessee the other day, and instead urged incumbent Sen. Bob Corker (R) to un-retire in order to seek another term. Corker is reportedly weighing his options, and will announce a final decision this week.

* Donald Trump yesterday lashed out at Rachel Crooks, a Democratic state House candidate in Ohio, who's accused the president of sexual misconduct. Crooks responded via Twitter, "Please, by all means, share the footage from the hallway [in Trump Tower] outside the 24th floor residential elevator bank on the morning of January 11, 2006. Let's clear this up for everyone."

* The progressive Save My Care campaign launched a new television ad yesterday slamming Republicans over health care. The commercial is part of a "six-figure" ad buy.

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

Top official in Trump's HHS exposed as fringe conspiracy theorist

02/21/18 11:20AM

Donald Trump has a deeply unfortunate habit of appointing strange and unqualified people to important governmental positions. CNN reported yesterday on one of them running into some career-threatening trouble.

A top official at the Department of Health and Human Services has been placed on administrative leave after a CNN KFile inquiry while the agency investigates social media postings in which he pushed unfounded smears on social media.

Jon Cordova serves as the principal deputy assistant secretary for administration at HHS. A KFile review of Cordova's social media accounts found that he pushed stories filled with baseless claims and conspiracy theories, including stories that claimed Gold Star father Khizr Khan is a "Muslim Brotherhood agent" and made baseless claims about Sen. Ted Cruz's personal life.

This guy isn't just some intern with limited policy influence. After a year at HHS, Cordova reportedly oversees day-to-day operations for the Office of Human Relations, Office of the Chief Information Officer, Office of Security and Strategic Information, Equal Employment Opportunity Compliance and Operations Office and the Program Support Center.

And yet, based on CNN's piece, Cordova has also peddled some pretty ugly nonsense about African Americans, Democrats, Muslims, and assorted conspiracy theories about various companies, including, oddly enough, Budweiser, which he accused of supporting "jihadis" over white immigration.

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Man holds a gun in the exhibit hall of the George R. Brown Convention Center, the site for the NRA's annual meeting in Houston, Texas

Support for new gun laws reaches new heights

02/21/18 10:51AM

I've been reading polls for quite a while, and I don't recall ever seeing an issue on which 97% of Americans agree. We're a big, diverse country, with all kinds of competing ideas, which lead to contentious fights, so the idea that 97% of us can agree on a controversial issue simply seems unrealistic.

It's one of the reasons the latest national Quinnipiac University poll stood out.

American voters support stricter gun laws 66 - 31 percent, the highest level of support ever measured by the independent Quinnipiac University National Poll.... Today's result is up from a negative 47 - 50 percent measure of support in a December 23, 2015, survey by the independent Quinnipiac University Poll.

Support for universal background checks is itself almost universal, 97 - 2 percent, including 97 - 3 percent among gun owners.

The same poll went on to note that two-thirds of Americans support a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons; two-thirds of Americans believe it's too easy to buy a gun in this country; and 83% support a mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases.

Meanwhile, 75% of Americans believe Congress "needs to do more to reduce gun violence."

And yet, one need not be a cynic to be skeptical about the legislative prospects of meaningful reforms to our gun laws. At least for now, Republicans control the levers of federal power -- which means the odds of modest changes are poor, and the odds of dramatic changes are significantly worse.

We talked a bit yesterday about the structural considerations that lead Republicans to frequently ignore the wishes of the American mainstream, but the Quinnipiac results bring the issue into sharper focus: we're not just talking about an issue with broad popularity; issues like universal background checks have the backing of nearly the entire country.

So why aren't political leaders rushing to deliver results on the only issue on the landscape that has the backing of 97% of the public? It's probably because they believe polls like these only offer part of the story.

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Trump lobbies Justice Dept to target his political adversaries

02/21/18 10:13AM

Over the weekend, Donald Trump pushed the decency line past the breaking point when he tried to connect the gun massacre in Parkland to the investigation into his Russia scandal. As the president put it, FBI officials "are spending too much time" on the Russia investigation, instead of preventing gun violence -- as if federal law enforcement has to choose one or the other.

Asked about the message yesterday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters, "I think he's making the point that we would like our FBI agencies to not be focused on something that is clearly a hoax." The "hoax," in Sanders' mind, are the allegations that Trump's political operation cooperated with the Russian operatives who attacked our elections.

It was a bizarre thing to say in light of the evidence pointing to collusion, but just as importantly, Sanders' comments raised a related question: since when does the White House press secretary tell federal law enforcement officials what they should and shouldn't examine?

Keep this question in mind when considering the president's tweet from this morning:

"Question: If all of the Russian meddling took place during the Obama Administration, right up to January 20th, why aren't they the subject of the investigation? Why didn't Obama do something about the meddling? Why aren't Dem crimes under investigation? Ask Jeff Sessions!"

Trump actually published this twice -- because the first time, he accidentally misspelled his attorney general's name.

Now, at this point, we could spend several paragraphs explaining to the confused president that there are no alleged "Dem crimes" to investigate. We could also explain that the Obama administration wanted to do more, but Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), blocked efforts to respond to Russia's attack. We could even explain that Obama did do "something" -- he imposed sanctions -- which is a heckuva lot more than Trump's done.

But even putting Trump's tiresome nonsense aside, isn't the more pressing question why the president is pressuring the Justice Department to investigate his political adversaries? Indeed, why does he keep doing this?

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Image: Students are evacuated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during a shooting incident in Parkland

The right finds a new enemy: survivors of the Parkland shooting

02/21/18 09:22AM

When I think of former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a prominent surrogate for Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, I tend to think of the trip he took a month after the election. The Georgia Republican went to Moscow and signaled to business leaders that the incoming Trump administration may be prepared to lift economic sanctions against Russia.

Now, however, Kingston may be known for something else: he's the guy who's criticizing the teenaged survivors of the Parkland mass-shooting, suggesting they may be puppets of nefarious liberal forces. He made the argument on CNN yesterday morning -- he's an official political commentator on the network -- and repeated it again last night.

As the New York Times  reported, Kingston is not alone.

[I]n certain right-wing corners of the web — and, increasingly, from more mainstream voices like Rush Limbaugh and a commentator on CNN — the students are being portrayed not as grief-ridden survivors but as pawns and conspiracists intent on exploiting a tragedy to undermine the nation's laws.

In these baseless accounts, which by Tuesday had spread rapidly on social media, the students are described as "crisis actors," who travel to the sites of shootings to instigate fury against guns. Or they are called F.B.I. plants, defending the bureau for its failure to catch the shooter. They have been portrayed as puppets being coached and manipulated by the Democratic Party, gun control activists, the so-called antifa movement and the left-wing billionaire George Soros.

The theories are far-fetched. But they are finding a broad and prominent audience online. On Tuesday, the president's son Donald J. Trump Jr. liked a pair of tweets that accused David Hogg, a 17-year-old who is among the most outspoken of the Parkland students, of criticizing the Trump administration in an effort to protect his father, whom Mr. Hogg has described as a retired F.B.I. agent.

The right-wing pushback against these kids has been fierce, but just as importantly, it's been widespread.

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A voter marks a ballot for the New Hampshire primary inside a voting booth at a polling place, Feb. 9, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)

Dem wins easily in a pro-Trump district in Kentucky

02/21/18 08:40AM

The circumstances surrounding Kentucky's state House special election yesterday were rather tragic. Former Rep. Dan Johnson (R), facing allegations he molested a teenaged girl, committed suicide in December.

Republicans were nevertheless optimistic about keeping the seat "red." After all, this is a district Mitt Romney carried by 33 points in 2012, and which Donald Trump won by 49 points in 2016. The result was practically a foregone conclusion.

At least it was right up until the Democratic candidate won last night.

The Democratic Party's run of good news in state legislative races continued Tuesday night, with a former legislator beaten in the 2016 Republican wave reclaiming a seat held briefly by a pastor who committed suicide after being accused of molesting a teenage girl.

Linda Belcher, a Democrat first elected in 2008, won the special election for Kentucky's 49th District with 68.45 percent of the vote.

In other words, Belcher didn't just win in this Kentucky district yesterday; she won easily.

Context, of course, is everything, and it's worth emphasizing that Belcher was an established figure in the community, having previously held this legislative seat. That said, in the special election, the Kentucky Dem easily outperformed her previous results.

And then there's the larger trend to consider. Democratic candidates have now flipped 37 districts from "red" to "blue" since Donald Trump took office. What's more, as Vox explained, "According to an extremely useful comprehensive spreadsheet compiled by Daily Kos, across 70 special elections in 2017, Democrats ran 10 points ahead of Clinton and 7 points ahead of Obama's 2012 results. Those numbers have accelerated into 2018. Across 14 races, Democrats are running 28 points ahead of Clinton and 14 points ahead of Barack Obama."

Will Dems be able to keep that up through the midterm elections in the fall? Almost certainly not -- because turnout models for special elections tend to be quite different from cyclical general elections. That said, Democrats don't need to run 28 points ahead of Hillary Clinton's 2016 performance to do well in the midterms.

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This July 26, 2012 file photo shows an AR-15 style rifle. (Photo by Alex Brandon/AP)

Florida GOP rejects gun measures, declares porn a health hazard

02/21/18 08:00AM

It appears the Republican majority in Florida's state legislature has a rather macabre sense of humor.

Just a week after a gunman killed 17 people in a massacre at a South Florida high school, the GOP-led state House had an opportunity to debate a ban on assault weapons; As the Miami Herald reported, the right had reason to be pleased with the outcome.

The bill (HB 219), which would ban the sale and possession of semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines like the kind used by Nikolas Cruz, has been mired in a House subcommittee for months and has not been heard.

Amid rising tensions at the Capitol, Democrats used a highly unusual procedure to try to move the proposal directly to the House floor for a debate and vote.

Republicans voted it down, 71-36. Several survivors of the high school massacre, watching from the visitors' gallery, were overcome with emotion, and the action set off a firestorm of controversy on social media.

The outcome was not unexpected, but that was little solace to those who hoped last week's bloodshed might help Republican policymakers to reconsider their assumptions about gun restrictions.

But to fully appreciate the absurdity of the circumstances, consider the fact that while Florida's state House wasn't willing to tackle efforts to prevent gun deaths, it was willing to debate the public health risks associated with porn. The Tampa Bay Times  reported:

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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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