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Monday's Mini-Report, 5.21.18

05/21/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Gorsuch wrote the ruling: "The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that companies can use arbitration clauses in employment contracts to prohibit workers from banding together to take legal action over workplace issues. The vote was 5 to 4, with the court's more conservative justices in the majority. The court's decision could affect some 25 million employment contracts."

* On a related note, Helaine Olen stressed an important point: "This ruling is a significant blow to the #MeToo movement, as well as to people attempting to combat wage theft and on-the-job discrimination. 'It drastically tilts the playing field in favor of employers,' Ceilidh Gao, a staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, told me. 'It is a backdoor way to repeal workplace laws.'"

* I have a hard time relating to how this White House thinks: "The White House refers to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as 'Supreme Leader' on a challenge coin made for the upcoming peace talks between President Donald Trump and Kim, several reports revealed Monday."

* A potentially interesting case: "How have FBI staff fared since James Comey was fired as director last year? The Trump administration doesn't want the public to know. A new lawsuit is seeking to force the administration to release the results of the FBI's February-March 2018 'climate survey,' an anonymous annual review that takes the temperature of worker morale at the agency."

* The RNC does it again: "The Republican National Committee paid nearly half a million dollars to a law firm that represents former White House communications director Hope Hicks and others in the Russia investigations, according to a new federal filing."

* Good for him: "Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has been calling for action over the string of mass shootings in the United States. But when that shooting happened at a high school close to his city on Friday, Acevedo said he's had enough and wrote a Facebook post that quickly went viral because it seems to express the frustration many people feel at the lack of action from political leaders every time there is a new mass shooting."

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Trump begins to confront a difficult reality on North Korea

05/21/18 12:50PM

One month ago tomorrow, Donald Trump declared with great pride that North Korean leaders "have agreed to denuclearization." Even at the time, it was a bizarre thing for the American president to say: Kim Jong-un's regime had agreed to discuss denuclearization, but Trump made it sound like the negotiations were over and he'd already gotten exactly what he wanted.

White House speechwriters probably had to put aside the Nobel Peace Price draft when North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator said his country would never give up its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief -- which is what the Trump administration is offering.

"It doesn't look like they want to denuclearize at all," a U.S. official told the Washington Post.

You don't say. Trump, without any real forethought or strategy, jumped into high-risk negotiations with a rogue nuclear dictatorship. He's apparently now surprised that his non-existent plan isn't going well and the experts were right about North Korea's posture.

The New York Times  reports that the American president is seeking advice on whether to proceed with plans for the summit. The article added that White House officials are concerned that Trump has already "signaled that he wants the summit meeting too much," creating leverage for North Korea, complicated by the fact that the Republican still doesn't want to do his homework.

The aides are also concerned about what kind of grasp Mr. Trump has on the details of the North Korea program, and what he must insist upon as the key components of denuclearization. Mr. Moon and his aides reported that Mr. Kim seemed highly conversant with all elements of the program when the two men met, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made similar comments about Mr. Kim, based on his two meetings with him in Pyongyang, the North's capital.

But aides who have recently left the administration say Mr. Trump has resisted the kind of detailed briefings about enrichment capabilities, plutonium reprocessing, nuclear weapons production and missile programs that Mr. Obama and President George W. Bush regularly sat through.

This might be more amusing if the issue weren't so important.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.21.18

05/21/18 12:00PM

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

* Fresh off his third-place finish in West Virginia's Republican Senate primary, Don Blankenship is moving forward with a plan to run as a third-party candidate in the fall as the right-wing Constitution Party's candidate. Whether Blankenship can overcome the state's "sore loser" law is unclear.

* Voters in Arkansas, Georgia, and Kentucky will be able to vote in primaries tomorrow, when Texas also holds primary runoffs. Among the races to watch are Georgia's Democratic gubernatorial primary, pitting former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams against former state Rep. Stacey Evans, and the Democratic primary in Kentucky's 6th congressional district, where Lexington Mayor Jim Gray is going up against former fighter pilot Amy McGrath.

* American Action Network, a conservative group closely aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, picked up $24.6 million "from a single anonymous donor" last year. Because AAN is a dark-money organization, we'll never know who wrote that check.

* Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to speak at a fundraiser tonight for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) super PAC. Because the event is being held at the Trump International Hotel near the White House, it means the president will profit from the gathering.

* Though California Republicans have low expectations about this year's gubernatorial race, Donald Trump has nevertheless formally thrown his support behind businessman John Cox's (R) candidacy. (Rumor has it, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a presidential ally, urged Trump to back Cox.)

* Republican leaders were led to believe Hirsh Singh would invest $2 million of his own money into his campaign in New Jersey's 2nd congressional district, but it turns out he has a lot less money than he claimed.

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In this Oct. 18, 2010 file photo, United Parcel Service (UPS) driver delivers an Amazon box. (Photo by Paul Sakuma/AP)

Trump's chief economic adviser distances himself from Amazon threats

05/21/18 11:20AM

Given the volume of controversies surrounding Donald Trump, it's sometimes best to put them in different categories. Some of the president's scandals are offensive, others are amusing. Some raise the prospect of criminal misconduct, others raise questions about Trump's character and personal integrity.

And then there's a category called, "Stuff that might get a president impeached."

On Friday, the Washington Post  reported on Trump personally pressuring U.S. Postmaster General Megan Brennan to increase shipping rates on as part of the president's personal vendetta against the online retailer's CEO, Jeff Bezos. As we discussed, the nature of the story is breathtaking: Trump has taken steps to use a government agency as retaliatory weapon against a perceived American foe, in large part because the Republican disapproves of the Post's coverage of his presidency -- and Bezos owns the Post.

When Richard Nixon used government agencies to target Americans he disliked, it was included in the articles of impeachment against him. There's now reason to believe Trump has done something eerily similar.

On ABC's "This Week" yesterday, George Stephanopoulos asked Larry Kudlow, the director of the White House National Economic Council and Donald Trump's top adviser on matters of economic policy, to explain what the president reportedly did.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I also want to ask you about a headline in The Washington Post yesterday ... it has having to do with Amazon. And it talks about President Trump personally pushing the postmaster general to double rates on Amazon and other firms. The president has tweeted about Amazon a lot, as well. Is it appropriate for the president to be singling out companies like this?

KUDLOW: Well, look. I'm not -- that not in my lane, OK. I can't really comment specifically. I haven't looked at that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, it comes under the National Economic Council, doesn't it?

KUDLOW: Well, I suppose so, but again I haven't been involved in that discussion. Look, the president is a man of many opinions. I think you know that. I think we all know that. It's up to him. He may be carrying this ball. I can't comment directly on it.

He then quickly changed the subject.

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After vowing to get tough, Trump retreats on China (again)

05/21/18 10:40AM

It had all the makings of a burgeoning trade war. Donald Trump announced plans for significant new tariffs in March, which prompted China to announce a related counter-move. The American president upped the ante, and Beijing responded in kind.

Yesterday, the White House changed direction in dramatic fashion.

The Trump administration has suspended its plan to impose sweeping tariffs on China as it presses forward with trade talks, a gesture that will temporarily ease tensions between the two nations but rapidly increase pressure on President Trump to secure the type of tough deal that he has long said is necessary to protect American workers.

Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said on Sunday that the two countries had made progress as they concluded three days of intense trade negotiations in Washington late last week. The planned tariffs on as much as $150 billion worth of Chinese goods are off the table while the talks proceed, he said.

"We're putting the trade war on hold," Mr. Mnuchin said on "Fox News Sunday."

The Treasury secretary apparently believes a halt in the president's plans is justified because China offered some vague assurances about buying more American products -- an agreement that even Trump allies conceded was weak and far short of what the White House wanted.

And yet, there was Mnuchin yesterday, putting new tariffs "on hold."

The Brookings Institution's David Wessel told NPR this morning, "The Trump administration didn't really have a strategy, certainly didn't have a unified negotiating position and basically asked the Chinese for unilateral disarmament, got rejected and folded."

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Despite previous failed guesses, Giuliani predicts Mueller probe's end

05/21/18 10:00AM

A few weeks ago, Rudy Giuliani appeared on a Fox News radio program and was asked when he expected Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation to end. "I think September," Donald Trump's lawyer said, calling it a "realistic timeframe."

The former New York City mayor went further yesterday, arguing that he's gained insights into Mueller's plans, and expects the probe to wrap up in four months.

Special counsel Robert Mueller could conclude the part of his investigation looking into whether President Donald Trump obstructed the Russia inquiry by September, the president's lawyer Rudy Giuliani said Sunday.

Giuliani said it was important to end that part of the investigation "so we don't get into what I call 'Comey territory'" -- a reference to James Comey, the former FBI director who alerted lawmakers to the agency's reopening of a probe into Hillary Clinton's emails on October 28, 2016, just days before the presidential election.

Like so much of Giuliani's rhetoric, this is awfully strange. First, this is the sixth prediction Trump World has made about Mueller's end point. Since predictions one though five were completely wrong, it's tempting to think these guys would stop peddling guesses.

Second, it's difficult to understand why Giuliani's claims are literally on the front page of the New York Times. Not to put too fine a point on this, but the former mayor generally seems to have no idea what he's talking about, and the idea that the special counsel's team offered him the inside scoop on their investigation's end point is difficult to take seriously.

Reuters quoted a U.S. official familiar with the probe who described Giuliani's timeframe "entirely made-up."

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Image: Trump speaks during an event in the East Room of the White House

Following 'spy' claims, Trump is the president who cried wolf

05/21/18 09:20AM

Fairly early on Friday morning, Donald Trump raised the prospect of a Justice Department "spy" infiltrating his 2016 campaign. The president, whose affection for odd conspiracy theories is endless, went on to allege the FBI had "at least one" representative "implanted" in his political operation, "for political purposes."

Over the weekend, siding with congressional Republicans over his own administration, Trump added, "If the FBI or DOJ was infiltrating a campaign for the benefit of another campaign, that is a really big deal."

Well, sure, but anyone can make any outlandish claim and say, "If this is true, it's a really big deal." What matters for those who take reality seriously is whether the claim is, in fact, accurate. And in this case, what the president alleged apparently didn't happen. As Rachel noted on the show on Friday, the New York Times had a good report on what actually transpired.

In fact, F.B.I. agents sent an informant to talk to two campaign advisers only after they received evidence that the pair had suspicious contacts linked to Russia during the campaign. The informant, an American academic who teaches in Britain, made contact late that summer with one campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, according to people familiar with the matter. He also met repeatedly in the ensuing months with the other aide, Carter Page, who was also under F.B.I. scrutiny for his ties to Russia.

The Washington Post had a related report, noting that the FBI made use of "a longtime U.S. intelligence source" because of the bureau's concerns about Russian interference in the American election.

The article added, "There is no evidence to suggest someone was planted with the campaign." Similarly, the Times' report noted, "No evidence has emerged that the informant acted improperly when the F.B.I. asked for help in gathering information on the former campaign advisers, or that agents veered from the F.B.I.'s investigative guidelines and began a politically motivated inquiry, which would be illegal."

What we appear to be looking at is a story in which federal law enforcement was concerned about Trump campaign officials' communications with Russian operatives, and the legal methods the FBI relied on as part of the investigation.

Or put another way, what the president claimed simply wasn't true.

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A doorman stands as people walk past the Trump Tower in N.Y. on May 23, 2016. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Just how many foreign regimes offered to help the Trump campaign?

05/21/18 08:40AM

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN's Jake Tapper yesterday, "I don't understand what the president doesn't get about the law that says, if you have a foreign nation interfere in an American election, that is illegal."

Removed from context, one might assume the Virginia senator was referring to Russia's efforts to put Donald Trump in the White House. He wasn't. Warner was instead answering a question about this New York Times report published over the weekend.

Three months before the 2016 election, a small group gathered at Trump Tower to meet with Donald Trump Jr., the president's eldest son. One was an Israeli specialist in social media manipulation. Another was an emissary for two wealthy Arab princes. The third was a Republican donor with a controversial past in the Middle East as a private security contractor.

The meeting was convened primarily to offer help to the Trump team, and it forged relationships between the men and Trump insiders that would develop over the coming months — past the election and well into President Trump's first year in office, according to several people with knowledge of their encounters.

At issue is a Trump Tower meeting held on Aug. 3, 2016, featuring names that will no doubt be familiar to viewers of The Rachel Maddow Show. Erik Prince, for example, of Blackwater notoriety, reportedly arranged the gathering. George Nader was also there to convey a message from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates about their eagerness to help put Donald Trump in power. Joel Zamel, an Israeli expert in social media manipulation, was also on hand with a proposal designed to help elect the Republican to the American presidency.

Donald Trump Jr., the Times added, "responded approvingly" to the offers of foreign assistance, and Nader quickly became "a close ally" to the top members of the future president's team. He also paid Zamel "up to $2 million" after Trump won the 2016 election. (The Wall Street Journal  reported over the weekend that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has taken an interest in Zamel's work.)

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Trump announces plans for politicized Justice Department probe

05/21/18 08:00AM

As yesterday progressed, and Donald Trump kept tweeting, it seemed obvious that the president's latest tantrum was reaching a boiling point. It started with Trump accusing Hillary Clinton of corruption -- the election was 558 days ago -- followed by him accusing the New York Times of also being corrupt.

That was soon followed by a series of "witch hunt" claims, criticisms of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigators, and poorly written complaints about former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Christopher Steele's dossier, the DNC, the FBI, and John Podesta's brother. Those who want to believe the president is emotionally stable would've been wise to avert their eyes.

The series of enraged missives culminated, however, in a message that was harder to overlook.

President Donald Trump says he'll demand that the Justice Department review whether it or the FBI infiltrated his presidential campaign for political purposes and whether any demands or requests came from the Obama administration.

Trump tweeted Sunday: "I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes -- and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!"

This represented a slight shift in posture for the Republican: on Friday, Trump declared with some certainty that federal law enforcement officials did, in fact, have a spy inside his 2016 campaign. Now, apparently, the president intends to order the Justice Department to find out if his assertions are true.

About a month ago, Trump told Fox News he "tries" to steer clear of the Justice Department's decision-making, though he added, "But at some point, I won't."

Evidently, we've arrived at that point.

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This Week in God, 5.19.18

05/19/18 07:18AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a bold claim from Vice President Mike Pence about the role of faith in modern American life.

In general, when White House figures make claims about Donald Trump's societal impacts, they stick to generalities or boasts that are difficult to check, such as the president's insistence that he personally has created a cultural surge in Americans wishing each other a "Merry Christmas."

Pence, however, delivered a commencement address last weekend at Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college in Michigan of notable significance in Republican politics, and he was far more specific. Faith in America, the vice president said, is "rising again" because of Trump and his administration.

Pence added, "We live in a time when traditional values, even religious conviction, are increasingly marginalized by a secular popular culture -- a time when it's become acceptable, even fashionable, to malign religious belief. I still believe with all my heart that faith in America is rising.... Religion in America isn't receding -- just the opposite. Faith is gaining new life with every passing day."

He went on to say that even though the American population has grown considerably over the decades, American religiousity "has remained remarkably consistent."

Putting aside the irony of the Indiana Republican's cultural complaints -- the only prominent political figure I can think who's maligned others' religious beliefs is Donald Trump -- the Washington Post  noted that there's a fair amount of evidence to suggest the vice president's claims are mistaken.

The truth is that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion has been rising, according to the Pew Research Center.

While more than half -- 55 percent -- of Americans say they pray daily, according to Pew, the poll suggests that differences in the practice among age groups may not have remained consistent overtime.

What's more, the latest survey from the Washington Post and ABC News highlighted the fact that there's been a noticeable "rise in the number who profess no religion" over the last 15 years.

It'd be a mistake to attribute these developments to Trump, just as it was a mistake for Pence to argue that the president and his administration is responsible for religion "rising again."

But whatever the cause for the societal shifts, the vice president's assertions don't stand up well to scrutiny.

Also from the God Machine this week:

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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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