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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.

On protecting classified information, Sanders' defense falls short

02/13/18 09:20AM

One of the core elements of the White House's Rob Porter controversy is a question about national security: the former staff secretary had day-to-day access to highly sensitive, classified materials, despite not having a permanent security clearance. While Team Trump was entrusting Porter with secrets, one of Porter's ex-wives was warning Team Trump he was susceptible to blackmail.

With this in mind, NBC News' Kristen Welker had an important exchange yesterday with White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders:

WELKER: Can you guarantee that you are protecting classified information given that you have someone like Rob Porter who didn't have a permanent security clearance to access classified information?

SANDERS: I think we're doing and taking every step we can to protect classified information. I mean, frankly, if you guys have such concern with classified information, there's plenty of it that's leaked out of the Hill, that's leaked out of other communities well beyond the White House walls. If you guys have real concerns about leaking out classified information, look around this room. You guys are the ones that publish classified information and put national security at risk that doesn't come from this White House.

WELKER: Is this White House jeopardizing national security?

SANDERS: We take every precaution possible to protect classified information and certainly to protect national security. It's the president's number-one priority, is protecting the citizens of this country. It's why we spend every single day doing everything we can to do that. And I think if anyone is publishing or putting out, publicly, classified information, it's members of the press, not the White House.

As responses go, this is a mess, and given the seriousness of the underlying issue, it's a problem that deserves special scrutiny.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Following tax cuts for the rich, Trump budget would hurt the poor

02/13/18 08:41AM

In his inaugural address last year, Donald Trump articulated a vision for taking political power and "giving it back to you, the American people." The new Republican president added, "The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer."

Well, maybe just a little longer.

President Trump proposed a budget Monday that hits the poorest Americans the hardest, slashing billions of dollars in food stamps, health insurance and federal housing subsidies while pushing legislation to institute broad work requirements for families receiving housing vouchers, expanding on moves by some states to require recipients of Medicaid and food stamps to work. [...]

"This budget proposes taking away food assistance from millions of low-income Americans — and on the heels of a tax cut that favored the wealthy and corporations," said Stacy Dean, president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "It doesn't reflect the right values."

No, though it does reflect the right's values.

The point about the Republican tax plan stands out as especially important. It was, after all, just two months ago that GOP policymakers approved a $1.5 trillion package of tax cuts, almost all of which benefited the wealthiest Americans and large corporations. Donald Trump continues to tout the policy as a historic achievement.

But this same president, the self-proclaimed champion of "the forgotten men and women," has created a bookend for the regressive tax breaks: a White House budget that goes out of its way to impose new hardships on those who are already struggling most.

I've been thinking about something Slate's Jamelle Bouie wrote last week:

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Image: Trump departs for travel to Missouri from the White House in Washington

Team Trump still can't get its story straight on Porter scandal

02/13/18 08:00AM

It's now been a week since the public first learned about former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter's alleged violence toward his ex-wives. In theory, Donald Trump and his team have had plenty of time to examine how they handled the matter and get their story straight.

It's not going well. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders faced this question during yesterday's briefing:

"Tuesday night, when the initial story came out, the White House praises Rob Porter. Wednesday morning, photos come out. The White House stands by its statement. Wednesday afternoon, the White House continues to praise Rob Porter. And Chief of Staff John Kelly says he acted 40 minutes within knowing the allegations. Can you explain that?"

She couldn't explain that. White House officials have given competing explanations of when they learned about the allegations and when they responded to the allegations. At different times, they've said Porter chose to resign and was forced out. Their timeline, meanwhile, lacks any kind of consistency.

Politico  reports this morning, meanwhile, that after reports of Porter's alleged domestic violence reached the public, the White House arranged an off-the-record briefing between the aide and several reporters, allowing him to push back against the claims. This appears to be completely at odds with John Kelly's "40 minutes" claim, which was already a mess.

Making matters slightly worse, the L.A. Times  reported yesterday, "Over and over again the past few days, various White House aides have buttonholed reporters to tell them -- anonymously -- that they think Kelly either lied to them or tried to get them to lie about what he knew when."

Fine-tuned machine, indeed.

There is, of course, a broader significance to this that extends beyond one former West Wing aide who's been accused of violent domestic abuse -- allegations he denies. There's also the fact that Trump World doesn't exactly have a reservoir of credibility it can lean on when confronted with controversies like these.

A Washington Post reporter asked rhetorically over the weekend, "What happens when there's an external crisis and the White House needs the American people to believe what it says?" The answer, I suspect, is that much of the public would respond with justifiable skepticism.

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Monday's Mini-Report, 2.12.18

02/12/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* What volatility looks like: "U.S. stocks surged Monday recovering from some of the wreckage left by two weeks of brutal trading that wiped out trillions of dollars in market value."

* Following up on Friday night's news: "The Justice Department's No. 3 attorney had been unhappy with her job for months before the department announced her departure on Friday, according to multiple sources close to Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand."

* Harvey Rishikof: "Before his sudden firing last week, the Pentagon official who oversaw military commission trials at Guantánamo Bay was exploring potential plea deals to end the long-delayed prosecution of five suspects in the Sept. 11 attacks, a move that would foreclose the possibility of execution, according to several people familiar with the matter."

* This is one of those behind-the-scenes stories that will have a real impact: "The Trump administration has adopted new limits on the use of 'guidance documents' that federal agencies have issued on almost every conceivable subject, an action that could have sweeping implications for the government's ability to sue companies accused of violations."

* I remember when Candidate Trump said his administration would champion the interests of the LGBT community: "The Education Department has told BuzzFeed News it won't investigate or take action on any complaints filed by transgender students who are banned from restrooms that match their gender identity, charting new ground in the Trump administration's year-long broadside against LGBT rights."

* Sinclair Broadcast Group "is asking its executives -- including the news directors at its many stations -- to contribute to its political action committee, a move that journalism ethics experts say is highly unusual and troubling."

* Remember, Trump has expressed support for this guy: "Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told soldiers last week to shoot female rebels in their genitals, the latest of several violent, misogynistic remarks."

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Traffic moves north along Interstate 270, Nov. 24, 2010, in Clarksburg, Md., the day before the Thanksgiving Holiday. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP)

The problem with Trump's infrastructure plan: It's not much of a plan

02/12/18 03:01PM

Donald Trump, both before his election and after, at least said marginally compelling things about infrastructure. The Republican has long seemed to recognize that the nation's infrastructure is in desperate need of investment -- a point Barack Obama made countless times over eight years in the White House -- and this looked like an area where Trump could expect some bipartisan cooperation.

But then the delays occurred, to the point of actual comedy. In Trump World, it was always "Infrastructure Week" and the president's infrastructure plan was always poised to be unveiled "soon."

The good news is, the long-awaited, much-delayed plan now exists. The bad news is, it's not really a plan in any meaningful sense.

The White House unveiled its long-awaited infrastructure plan on Monday, proposing $200 billion in federal spending that it says will ultimately spur a $1.5 trillion investment over the next 10 years. [...]

The plan includes $100 billion in "incentives" that would require local and state governments to pony up big bucks or partner with private companies to unlock federal dollars. While the government will judge several criteria when considering whether or not to give out infrastructure dollars, the biggest will be outside funding.

So, right off the bat, those headlines you may have seen about Trump's "$1.5 trillion plan" painted a misleading picture. What the White House has in mind is roughly $200 billion in federal investment, half of which is intended to entice state and local officials to somehow spend hundreds of billions of dollars they don't have on their infrastructure needs -- probably through regressive privatization schemes.

And what about the other half? According to the blueprint, Trump wants $50 billion for a rural block-grant program, $20 billion for federal loan programs, $10 billion for a capital financing program to build government buildings, and $20 billion for "transformative programs," though the definition of the phrase seems a little murky.

Are state and local governments prepared to fill in the gaps? Of course not. As Vox explained, "Right now, federally funded highways (that's interstates and other routes) are financed on the basis of an 80-20 federal-state split, and federally funded mass transit projects usually get a 50-50 split. Trump's proposal is to flip the 80-20 formula on its head and require that states and cities kick in at least $4 for every $1 in federal money they receive."

Wait, it gets worse.

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Donald Trump

When Trump's anti-immigrant fear-mongering crosses a line

02/12/18 02:04PM

That Donald Trump and his operation want to create public fear of immigrants is not in dispute. What needs to be considered is how far the president and his team are prepared to go in pursuit of this goal.

We know, for example, about the Trump administration's Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office, which includes a hotline Americans can call if they're a victim of a specific kind of crime: those perpetrated by undocumented immigrants. We also know how dangerously ridiculous the VOICE initiative has been.

Last week, as the Washington Post  noted, these efforts took an additional step when the Director of Surrogate & Coalitions Outreach for the Office of Communications at the White House sent an email to reporters. The message described itself as an "Immigration Crime Stories Round Up," purporting to show evidence of immigrants committing crimes.

One of the crimes listed in the "round-up" was an incident in Maryland "that is not clearly connected to immigrants."

But to fully appreciate the depravity behind Trump World's ugly campaign, it's worth reflecting Border Patrol Agent Rogelio Martinez, who died in November in what appeared to be an accident. As Dana Milbank explained, Trump and his allies saw Martinez's death as "an opportunity to whip up anti-immigrant fervor."

The public-relations push started at a November cabinet meeting, when Trump argued for the cameras that "we lost a Border Patrol officer just yesterday, and another one was brutally beaten and badly, badly hurt.... We're going to have the wall." A tweet soon followed.

Other Republicans joined in. Fox News told its viewers that the border patrol agent was "brutally murdered," "ambushed by illegal immigrants," and attacked "in the most gruesome possible way."

We now know the evidence doesn't support these claims. From Milbank's piece:

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Image: 58th U.S. Presidential Inauguration

Democrats gamble by putting policy priorities first

02/12/18 01:01PM

"Republicans want to fix DACA far more than the Democrats do," Donald Trump falsely claimed over the weekend, unaware of the irony of such a sentiment coming from a president who rescinded DACA. The Republican added that Democrats simply want to use protections for Dreamers "as a campaign issue."

Trump has pushed this line before, and it continues to be demonstrably ridiculous. But the president is inadvertently raising an important point about partisan asymmetry, about which he's making faulty assumptions.

In Trump's mind, Democrats are effectively sticking to the script Mitch McConnell and congressional Republicans wrote in the Obama era: Just say no. To work constructively or in a bipartisan fashion might give voters the impression that the White House is governing well. It's therefore better, the GOP decided, to block everything possible as part of a maximalist attempt at obstruction. When the exasperated public expresses frustration, just blame the White House for failing to lead effectively.

Trump apparently assumes this is what Dems are doing. They're not. In fact, the president has this exactly backwards: Democrats keep offering bipartisan deals on immigration -- I believe we're up to four, at last count -- precisely because they'd rather have DACA protections for Dreamers in the short term than have a political wedge later on.

If Dems wanted to use DACA "as a campaign issue," they wouldn't keep putting credible solutions on the table. They'd do the opposite, trying to scuttle bipartisan deals.

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U.S.  President Obama meets with President-elect Trump in the White House Oval Office in Washington

Trump keeps taking credit for Obama-era successes

02/12/18 12:30PM

About a month ago, the Associated Press reported that the Environmental Protection Agency had an important new boast: the number of Superfund sites had shrunk thanks to completed cleanup efforts. It was, officials claimed, a major Trump administration accomplishment.

Except it wasn't, really. The cleanup work on the Superfund sites in question was completed during the Obama administration. Trump World just wanted to take credit. (In fact, the AP found that work on Superfund sites slowed in 2017 to a level lower than any year of the Obama or Bush eras.)

Last week, as the New York Times  reported, something similar happened.

The Trump administration has released data showing a large increase in penalties against polluters, as well $20 billion in commitments from companies to correct problems that have caused environmental damage. [...]

The data from the E.P.A. represented activity during the government's 2017 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, meaning the totals included the final three and half months of the Obama administration, when some of the E.P.A.'s biggest cases were settled. The data also reflected cases that were resolved during the Trump administration but had been initiated and largely handled under President Obama.

Cynthia Giles, who was the assistant administrator for the agency's enforcement office during the Obama administration, explained to the Times, "Nearly all of the large cases included in E.P.A.'s annual enforcement report were essentially over before the new administration arrived at E.P.A. Without an unprecedented disavowal of an already negotiated and public agreement, there is nothing Administrator [Scott] Pruitt's team could have done to change the outcome. In no sense do these cases reflect the intentions or actions of the new administration."

In fact, not only did the Trump administration take credit for work it had nothing to do with, but the New York Times conducted an analysis and found that Trump's EPA sought significantly fewer civil penalties against alleged polluters than the preceding two administrations.

It's not just the EPA, either. Ryan Zinke's Interior Department published a "comprehensive list of accomplishments" in December, which included the Trump administration taking credit for a legal victory over mining near the Grand Canyon -- "a legal fight that had already been argued in federal court a month before the Trump administration took office."

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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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