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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 5.23.18

05/23/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

This seems difficult to understand: "Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and adviser, has been granted his permanent security clearance, a person briefed on the matter said on Wednesday, ending a period of uncertainty that had fueled questions about whether Mr. Kushner was in peril in the special counsel investigation."

* In related news: "President Trump signed a bill Tuesday aimed at reducing the backlog of security clearance investigations -- but later reserved the right not to comply with it on constitutional grounds."

* Probably the right call: "President Donald Trump cannot block Twitter users for the political views they have expressed, a federal judge in Manhattan ruled on Wednesday."

* The war on science: "White House officials last year weighed whether to simply 'ignore' climate studies produced by government scientists or to instead develop 'a coherent, fact-based message about climate science,' according to a memo obtained by The Washington Post."

* How and why does this keep happening? "The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday barred several journalists from attending a summit on certain widely used chemicals, known as PFASs, for the second day in a row. "

Hmm: "A company owned by Joel Zamel, an Israeli entrepreneur whose work has drawn the scrutiny of special counsel Robert Mueller, formed a strategic partnership with a data firm for President Donald Trump's campaign in a joint bid to win business from the U.S. government and other clients after the 2016 election, according to people familiar with the matter."

* There are some real dangers associated with this: "A bill helping people with deadly diseases try experimental treatments sailed through Congress on Tuesday, a victory for President Donald Trump and foes of regulation and a defeat for patients' groups and Democrats who argued that the measure was dangerous and dangled false hope."

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Image: Donald Trump

Under pressure, Trump embraces new conspiracy theory, gives it a name

05/23/18 01:05PM

The only thing Donald Trump loves more than conspiracy theories is conspiracy theories in which he gets to pretend he's a victim. For this president, wildly connecting imaginary dots is satisfying, but doing so while feeling sorry for himself is sublime.

As the investigation into the Russia scandal has unfolded, the president has tried to come up with various theories apparently intended to make himself feel better. Obama, we were told, wiretapped the phones at Trump Tower. And nefarious forces were out to get poor Carter Page. And Susan Rice was secretly committing crimes against him. And assorted FBI officials may have committed "treason." [Update: Simon Maloy put together a longer and better list on this.]

The assorted nonsense came and went, which in Trump's mind, simply created a vacuum. Indeed, it recently became time to craft a new conspiracy theory that the president could play with, and he apparently decided to go for broke: federal law enforcement, he claimed without evidence, "infiltrated" his 2016 campaign, "implanting" a "spy" in his operation "for political purposes."

Sitting alongside the president of South Korea in the Oval Office yesterday, Trump argued:

"A lot of people are saying [the Justice Department] had spies in my campaign. If they had spies in my campaign, that would be a disgrace to this country. That would be one of the biggest insults that anyone has ever seen, and it would be very illegal, aside from everything else. It would make, probably, every political event ever look like small potatoes."

Last night and this morning, the president published a series of angry messages on Twitter, elaborating on his new plaything.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.23.18

05/23/18 12:00PM

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

* In Georgia yesterday, Stacey Abrams (D) easily won her gubernatorial primary and has a chance to become the nation's first black woman governor. She'll face the winner of a Republican primary runoff featuring Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp. (Cagle finished first yesterday with 39% of the vote, but needed 50% to secure the nomination.)

* In a bit of a surprise, voters in Kentucky's 6th congressional district ignored the Democratic establishment and backed former fighter pilot Amy McGrath over Lexington Mayor Jim Gray in a closely watched primary. She'll face incumbent Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) in the fall.

* In Texas' Democratic gubernatorial primary, Lupe Valdez, a gay Latina former Dallas County sheriff, made history on multiple fronts and won her competitive runoff race. She'll face incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in November.

* In related news, in the Democratic primary in Texas' 7th congressional district, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher easily defeated her more progressive rival, Laura Moser, and will take on incumbent Rep. John Culberson (R) in the fall. This is widely seen as a key pick-up opportunity for Democrats, with Hillary Clinton having carried this district in 2016.

* And speaking of the Lone Star State, Vice President Mike Pence personally intervened in support of Bunni Pounds' (R) candidacy ahead of her Republican primary runoff in Texas' 5th congressional district -- but she lost anyway to former state Rep. Lance Gooden.

* In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) dispatched his primary rival, right-wing gun-range owner Jan Morgan, 70% to 30%. He'll face Jared Henderson (D) in the general election.

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Image: U.S. President Trump listens to  Speaker Ryan as he gathers with Republican House members after healthcare bill vote at the White House in Washington

Missing an opportunity to lead, Ryan enables the GOP's worst instincts

05/23/18 10:55AM

At a Capitol Hill press event yesterday, a reporter asked House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) if he has any concerns about Donald Trump's efforts to politicize the Justice Department. The congressman's answer left little doubt that Ryan is siding with the president.

"What matters to us, as the Article I branch of government conducting oversight of the executive branch, is that we do get these document requests honored.

"Look, FISA abuse is a serious issue. We the people -- the Congress -- have given the executive branch a lot of power in this very important law. And it's really important that we conduct the proper oversight of the executive branch to make sure that that power is not or has not or will not be abused. That's ultimately the big picture, what's going on here."

Perhaps, although it's pretty easy to make the case that's not really "what's going on here."

If House Republicans were serious about "conducting oversight of the executive branch," they wouldn't be ignoring dozens of serious scandals surrounding the Trump White House. As Jon Chait explained yesterday, "[O]versight of the Executive branch is not an activity that interests Ryan. His goal is closer to the opposite. Ryan and [House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin] Nunes are conducting oversight over the Department of Justice precisely because, while part of the Executive branch, it is independent of it. The independence is precisely the thing that troubles Ryan and Nunes, and which they aim to quash, thereby increasing the power of the president."

I recognize the fact that in many political circles, the House Speaker is seen as a wonky pragmatist, ready to rein in some of his party's worst instincts, but recent events should put Ryan in a very different light.

The Republican leader has had plenty of opportunities to interrupt Nunes' campaign to help the White House, but Ryan has done the opposite, giving the California Republican a green light to continue with his antics and effectively becoming Trump's silent partner.

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

Trump quietly acknowledged the real reason he attacks the free press

05/23/18 10:00AM

CBS News' Lesley Stahl spoke this week at an event in New York and shared a previously unreported exchange she had with Donald Trump during his presidential transition process.

Stahl said she and her boss met with Trump at his office in Trump Tower in Manhattan after the 2016 election in advance of a recorded sit-down interview for "60 Minutes."

"At one point, he started to attack the press," Stahl said. "There were no cameras in there."

"I said, 'You know, this is getting tired. Why are you doing it over and over? It's boring and it's time to end that. You know, you've won ... why do you keep hammering at this?'" Stahl recalled.

"And he said: 'You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.'"

To be sure, this isn't surprising. It's hard to imagine any serious observer making the case that Trump's attacks on media professionals and news organizations are sincere criticisms of modern standards in American journalism. Like any leader with unhealthy authoritarian instincts, this president sees the media as an obstacle, providing the electorate with facts he'd prefer the public not know.

But as powerful as Stahl's anecdote is, and as easy it is to believe, it's worth appreciating this in the larger context -- because Trump isn't just attacking the free press.

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Lawyer and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani at a press conference after appearing in court to call for the dismissal of a lawsuit filed against video game giant Activision in Los Angeles, Calif., Oct. 16, 2014. (Photo by Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Giuliani says Russia's stolen materials were 'like a gift' to Trump

05/23/18 09:20AM

Last week, Rudy Giuliani took his legal defense of Donald Trump in a curious direction, insisting that the president's campaign didn't collude with its Russian benefactors because Team Trump "never used" content from Putin's government.

For a variety of reasons, this was not a good argument. For one thing, it suggests any evidence of the Trump campaign utilizing information from Russia necessarily becomes evidence of collusion. For another, there's already evidence of the Trump campaign utilizing information from Russia -- on plenty of occasions, including making frequent use of materials stolen by Russia and disseminated through WikiLeaks.

All of which brings us to the latest HuffPost report on the former mayor's evolving defense.

In a recent interview with HuffPost, Giuliani initially disputed the notion that Trump's daily citing, in the final month of his campaign, of Russian-aligned WikiLeaks and its release of Russian-stolen emails constituted "colluding" with Russia.

"It is not," Giuliani said.

Then he switched tacks.

"OK, and if it is, it isn't illegal... It was sort of like a gift," he said. "And you're not involved in the illegality of getting it."

So let me get this straight. Russia stole Democratic materials to put Trump in power; Trump solicited and welcomed the Russian assistance, and according to Giuliani, this may or may not be evidence of collusion.

Either way, we're not supposed to care, because according to the president's lawyer, the president merely took advantage of "a gift" from a foreign adversary that attacked our election.

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Image: President Trump speaks at swearing in ceremonies for new CIA Director Haspel

For Trump, electing GOP candidates is less important than electing him

05/23/18 08:40AM

As the 2018 elections continue to unfold, Republican officials at every level are concerned that Democrats have an edge in voter enthusiasm. The GOP base may have been fully engaged in 2016, helping put Donald Trump in the White House, but the party in power routinely sees a drop off in its first midterm cycle.

One of the president's political goals, therefore, is to make the case to Republican voters that turning out in 2018 matters just as much as it did two years ago. Indeed, that was the message the president's speechwriters explicitly included in Trump's pitch to social conservatives last night.

Imagine their disappointment when the president rejected the argument moments after making it.

In a speech before the annual gala hosted by Susan B. Anthony List, an influential group that opposes abortion rights, Trump ramped up his campaigner-in-chief persona to try to energize conservatives who were vital to his victory in 2016 and will be critical again to keeping Congress in GOP hands this year.

Even if he did muddle his message -- at least, for a moment.

"Your vote in 2018 is every bit as important as your vote in 2016," Trump said, adding: "Although I'm not sure I really believe that. I don't know who the hell wrote that line."

Watching the video of his remarks, it's clear that the president read the first part of that quote from his trusted teleprompter, but ad-libbed the rest. In other words, Trump was supposed to tell these far-right voters that the midterms were every bit as important as the presidential election, but after hearing the words others wrote for him, the president quickly rejected his own rhetoric.

To be sure, it was a fairly lighthearted moment, which generated laughter from the audience. But it was also a moment of genuine candor for Trump: he cares about helping Republicans, but not nearly as much as he cares about helping himself.

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during a news briefing at the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017.

White House excludes Democrats from key intelligence briefing

05/23/18 08:00AM

For many years, Congress has had something called the "Gang of Eight," which receives highly sensitive intelligence briefings. As the name implies, the "gang" is a pretty small club, featuring the bipartisan leadership of the House, the bipartisan leadership of the Senate, the top two members of the House Intelligence Committee, and the top two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

These eight lawmakers have a unique responsibility to learn about some of the nation's most important intelligence secrets, and because the gang is split evenly -- four Republicans and four Democrats -- everyone is assured that both parties have equal access to the same information.

With this in mind, when Donald Trump's White House organized a new briefing for Congress on issues related to the Russia investigation, it stood to reason that the "Gang of Eight" would receive the highly classified information related to intelligence sources.

Those assumptions, we now know, were mistaken. Politico  reported:

The White House has invited two senior House Republicans -- and no Democrats -- to a Thursday briefing to facilitate access for lawmakers to information about an FBI informant involved in the investigation of Russian contacts with President Donald Trump's campaign.

The briefing, coordinated by White House chief of staff John Kelly, was agreed to Monday when Trump met with FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to discuss Congress' demands for these classified documents.

At a press briefing yesterday, a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders why the behind-closed-doors discussion will be limited to the Republican lawmakers and Justice Department officials. She replied that Democrats "haven't been the ones requesting this information."

Sanders added, "I would refer you back to them on why they would consider themselves randomly invited to see something they've never asked to [see]."

In reality, the briefing itself is difficult to defend -- there's no precedent for sharing this kind of sensitive information about an ongoing investigation with allies of someone being investigated -- but turning this into a partisan affair makes matters far worse.

As Sam Stein put it, the Trump White House "appears to be, quite literally, politicizing intelligence."

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About The Rachel Maddow Show

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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