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Pedro Rojas holds a sign directing people to an insurance company where they can sign up for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, before the February 15th deadline on Feb. 5, 2015 in Miami, Fla.  (Joe Raedle/Getty)

Trump administration tries playing hardball with health insurers

05/19/17 10:47AM

It's been an odd week for the debate over health care policy.

On the one hand, there's encouraging evidence about the real-world benefits of the current system. Bloomberg Politics reported that the Affordable Care Act is helping Americans detect cancer earlier, which saves lives and money. A day earlier, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a new report that showed the nation's uninsured rate dropping to the lowest point on record.

On the other hand, Donald Trump is president. He told the nation yesterday, "Obamacare is collapsing. It's dead; it's gone. There's nothing to compare anything to because we don't have health care in this country.... We don't have health care. Obamacare is a fallacy. It's gone."

As is too often the case, Trump's little tirade was at odds with reality. The status quo under the ACA is not without challenges, but (a) the system is not "collapsing"; (b) the Republican plan would make matters far worse; and (c) Trump and his team appear to be taking steps to sabotage the American system as part of the GOP's political ambitions.

The Los Angeles Times had an important piece along these lines yesterday:
The growing frustration with the Trump administration's management -- reflected in letters to state regulators and in interviews with more than two dozen senior industry and government officials nationwide -- undercuts a key White House claim that Obamacare insurance marketplaces are collapsing on their own.

Instead, according to many officials, it is the Trump administration that is driving much of the current instability by refusing to commit to steps to keep markets running, such as funding aid for low-income consumers or enforcing penalties for people who go without insurance.
Privately, the report added, "many executives, including chief executives of major health plans, offered withering criticism of the Trump administration's lack of leadership."
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Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill, on Sept. 29, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty)

Jason Chaffetz faces questions as he resigns from Congress

05/19/17 10:05AM

As recently as November, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) asked voters in Utah's 3rd congressional district to send him back to Congress for another two-year term. It was around the same time that  the Utah Republican told the Washington Post that he was eagerly looking forward to overseeing "years" of congressional oversight hearings.

But then something changed. Just three months into the new Congress, Chaffetz announced he wouldn't seek re-election. Yesterday, he went further, announcing that he'll resign from the House altogether on June 30.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chair of the powerful House Oversight Committee, announced Thursday he will leave Congress at the end of next month. [...]

The Utah Republican announced last month he would not seek re-election in 2018. He cited time away from home and his willingness to return to the private sector as reasons why he made the decision.
Chaffetz hasn't said what his next steps will be, though there are rumors that he's eyeing a job at Fox News.

But as the GOP lawmaker prepares to walk away from Capitol Hill after nearly eight years in Congress, it's hard not to wonder what prompted Chaffetz to change the direction of his career so dramatically. He does, after all, have a powerful post and a high-profile position. Why would a lawmaker start the year raring to go, only to very quickly thereafter decide to quit?
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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP-DEPARTS

Trump's foreign hosts make unusual preparations for his visit

05/19/17 09:20AM

Donald Trump will embark on his first foreign trip as president, and by all appearances, no one is especially pleased with his travel plans. The New York Times reported this week, for example, that the president himself "has expressed dread about the trip," and asked White House aides to shrink the time abroad from nine days to five.

The same report added that Trump's aides aren't looking forward to this, either: the president's intense schedule "could produce unscripted, diplomatically perilous moments."

And then, of course, there are Trump's foreign hosts. The New York Times reports today that leaders abroad are "trying to figure out the best way to approach an American president unlike any they have known." They've come up with a few ideas.
After four months of interactions between Mr. Trump and his counterparts, foreign officials and their Washington consultants say certain rules have emerged: Keep it short -- no 30-minute monologue for a 30-second attention span. Do not assume he knows the history of the country or its major points of contention. Compliment him on his Electoral College victory. Contrast him favorably with President Barack Obama.

Do not get hung up on whatever was said during the campaign. Stay in regular touch. Do not go in with a shopping list but bring some sort of deal he can call a victory.
A related report from the Associated Press noted, "At NATO and the Group of 7 summits, foreign delegations have gotten word that the new U.S. president prefers short presentations and lots of visual aids."

The piece added that Trump's aides have been careful to "build daily downtime" into his schedule.
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Image: US-POLITICS-FBI-CONGRESS-COMEY

Trump takes a big risk with a categorical denial on Comey

05/19/17 08:47AM

Towards the end of yesterday's White House press conference, Donald Trump was asked a good yes-or-no question.
Q: Did you at any time urge former FBI Director James Comey in any way, shape, or form to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn?

TRUMP: No. No. Next question.
The trouble, of course, is that James Comey wrote a contemporaneous memo, documenting a meeting he had with the president in which Trump allegedly told the then-FBI director, in reference to the Russia investigation and Michael Flynn's role, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."

The existence of this memo -- and others that are reportedly like it -- make Trump's direct, on-camera denial incredibly risky. The president could've hedged, used imprecise language, or even said he couldn't comment on such matters because they're part of an ongoing federal investigation, but he instead offered a categorical answer.

And that reminded me of a story about Ken Starr.
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Image: Donald Trump

In Russia scandal, Trump looks out for Number One: himself

05/19/17 08:00AM

Midway through Donald Trump's White House press conference yesterday with Colombia's Juan Manuel Santos, there was an exchange on the Russian scandal that offered an interesting peek into the American president's thinking.
Q: Mr. President, I'd like to get your reaction to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's decision to appoint a special counsel to investigate the Russian interference in the campaign.  Was this the right move, or is this part of a "witch hunt"?

TRUMP:  Well, I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt.  And there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself -- and the Russians, zero.
The president's mastery of English often falls short, and this was a rather dramatic example of Trump saying what he didn't mean. I'm pretty sure he intended to say was that there was "no collusion between" him and Russia, but he can only "speak for" himself.

There was a similar exchange last week when the president sat down with NBC News' Lester Holt and declared, "I know that I'm not under investigation. Me. Personally. I'm not talking about campaigns; I'm not talking about anything else; I'm not under investigation." For emphasis, he repeated the phrase a half-dozen times.

What's more, there's the latest New York Times reporting, which Rachel highlighted on the show last night, which noted that Trump personally called then-FBI Director James Comey, soon after taking office, to ask "when federal authorities were going to put out word that Mr. Trump was not personally under investigation."

A not-so-subtle picture is starting to emerge. The president seems to realize that people around him -- officials at the highest levels of his political operation during the campaign -- may be brought down by the Russia scandal, but Trump is prepared to throw them under the bus and keep driving, as quickly as possible, to protect himself. He likely assumes that so long as there's no evidence of him personally chatting with Vladimir Putin, helping coordinate Russia's attack on the U.S. election, then Trump is personally in the clear.

If leading figures from Trump World aren't as fortunate, in the president's mind, that's their problem. He can only "speak for" himself.

This is not a sound plan.
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Thursday's Mini-Report, 5.18.17

05/18/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Good advice: "Several White House advisers and personal associates of President Trump have urged him to hire an experienced outside lawyer to help him deal with issues arising from a surging controversy over whether his campaign had ties to Russia, according to several people briefed on the conversations."

* He's probably going to regret this one: "President Trump on Thursday denied ever asking FBI Director James B. Comey to back off his agency's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and the role played by former national security adviser Michael Flynn."

* Lieberman is apparently the inexplicable frontrunner: "President Donald Trump said he is 'very close' to choosing a new FBI director with at least one senior White House official putting the odds of a selection as early as this Friday at 'better than 50-50.'"

* Syria: "American warplanes in southern Syria attacked a convoy of pro-government forces on Thursday after they ignored warnings and violated a restricted zone around a base where American and British Special Forces are training Syrian militia fighters, Pentagon officials said."

* A case worth watching: "BuzzFeed is suing the federal government for records about President Donald Trump's use of Twitter, including his most attention-grabbing tweets claiming that he was wiretapped by former President Barack Obama."

* NAFTA: "The Trump administration on Thursday formally notified Congress of its intent to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, a step forward on a campaign promise that was widely popular among voters but has unsettled the U.S. companies that have constructed their businesses around the trade deal's provisions."

* FCC: "The Federal Communications Commission has officially begun to undo Obama-era regulations on Internet service providers, often called net neutrality rules. The rules, passed in 2015, had placed cable and telecom companies under the strictest-ever oversight of the agency."
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Image: Donald Trump, Neil Gorsuch, Anthony Kennedy

Trump: Special counsel investigation 'hurts the country'

05/18/17 05:02PM

If anyone in the White House hoped officials would steer clear of talking publicly about the special counsel investigation into the Russia scandal, Donald Trump has crushed those hopes.

This morning, the president began complaining about the Robert Mueller's investigation via Twitter, and this afternoon, Trump continued to whine during a White House lunch with television anchors, but he did so an especially striking way.
"I believe it hurts our country terribly, because it shows we're a divided, mixed-up, not-unified country," the president said. "And we have very important things to be doing right now, whether it's trade deals, whether it's military, whether it's stopping nuclear.. And I think this shows a very divided country.

Trump added, "It also happens to be a pure excuse for the Democrats having lost an election that they should have easily won because of the Electoral College being slanted so much in their way. That's all this is. I think it shows division, and it shows that we're not together as a country. And I think it's a very, very negative thing. And hopefully, this can go quickly, because we have to show unity if we're going to do great things with respect to the rest of the world."
Just think, Trump almost went a day without talking about the Electoral College. Oh well, time to reset the clock.

Right off the bat, the idea that there's a counter-espionage investigation into Trump's political operation because he lost is plainly bonkers. The probe began in July 2016, when it was still widely assumed Trump stood little change of winning the election.

What's more, the idea that this scandal is "a pure excuse for the Democrats" is an odd thing to say the day after Trump's own Justice Department announced the selection of a special counsel.

But I'm especially interested by Trump's subtle introduction of his latest talking point: in the name of "unity," we should all collectively agree to apply less scrutiny into his alleged misdeeds.
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Image: FILES-US-POLITICS-RUSSIA-SECURITY-FLYNN

Why a Trump message to Flynn would be so important

05/18/17 12:41PM

Just last week, The Daily Beast reported that Donald Trump has "asked senior staff and the White House counsel's office multiple times" if it would be appropriate for him to reach out to Michael Flynn, whom the president fired as National Security Advisor in February. White House lawyers, the report added, have warned Trump "repeatedly" against making contact.

Yahoo News reports today that the president may have ignored those warnings.
Late last month, fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn -- under investigation by federal prosecutors, with his lawyer seeking immunity for him to testify to Congress -- met with a small group of loyalists at a restaurant in the northern Virginia suburbs. [...]

[O]ne overriding question among those present were his views on the president who had fired him from his national security advisor post. Flynn left little doubt about the answer.  Not only did he remain loyal to President Trump; he indicated that he and the president were still in communication. "I just got a message from the president to stay strong," Flynn said after the meal was over, according to two sources who are close to Flynn and are familiar with the conversation, which took place on April 25.
Yahoo News' report added that Flynn didn't specify how, exactly, he'd communicated with the president, but for legal purposes, it may not matter.

Even if the reporting is accurate, it's certainly possible that Flynn was exaggerating for his friends, trying to make himself appear important, boasting about a message from the president that may not exist.

But if Trump really did reach out to his former aide, ignoring repeated warnings from the White House counsel's office, it may be time for the political world to have a conversation about witness tampering.
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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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