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Monday's Mini-Report, 2.13.17

02/13/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Oroville crisis: "Nearly 190,000 people in Northern California were ordered to evacuate Sunday after a spillway serving the country's tallest dam developed a hole that threatened to release uncontrolled floodwaters, officials said."

* Awkward diplomacy: "President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tread carefully as the two leaders doubled down on their divergent positions on national security and the admission of Syrian refugees during their joint press conference on Monday."

* We talked about this earlier in a political context, but it's also an important story on its own: "North Korea launched a ballistic missile toward the sea off its eastern coast on Sunday, in what South Korea called the North's first attempt to test President Trump's policy on the isolated country."

* The walk-back: "Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch has scaled back a description of his pro bono work at Harvard Law School after questions arose about the extent of his involvement with two volunteer criminal-justice programs."

* Most new administrations open the doors within a day or so of the inauguration, but not this one: "Want to get a peek inside the Trump White House? Keep checking Twitter and Instagram, because the more traditional method -- a formal White House tour -- isn't an option. The White House Visitors Office typically halts tours during presidential transitions, as the new president brings in staff to run the operation, but the three-weeks-and-counting lull under the new administration is unusually long."

* On the other hand, Michelle Obama's vegetable garden is apparently safe for now: "First lady Melania Trump confirmed that although the garden's founder may have vacated the premises, her beloved garden lives on."
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Image: Trump, flanked by Kushner, Pence and Porter, welcomes reporters into the Oval Office for him to sign his first executive orders at the White House in Washington

When it comes to intelligence briefings, 'the president likes maps'

02/13/17 01:00PM

All is not well at the National Security Council. The New York Times reports today, for example, that some NSC staffers wake up, check Twitter, read Donald Trump's latest missives, "and struggle to make policy to fit them."

That's alarming, but it's part of a broader mess. The Times' report also noted that NSC staffers are "kept in the dark about what Mr. Trump tells foreign leaders in his phone calls"; aides are departing quickly and "leaving a larger-than-usual hole in the experienced bureaucracy"; and there's widespread uncertainty about what the White House wants and expects.

All of this, of course, follows Trump's order that gave Stephen Bannon, the strategist best known for running a right-wing website, a seat on the NSC, which is unprecedented.

But the tidbit that stood out for me in the Times' piece was this gem:
[W]hile Mr. Obama liked policy option papers that were three to six single-spaced pages, council staff members are now being told to keep papers to a single page, with lots of graphics and maps.

"The president likes maps," one official said.
It sounds a bit like a "Saturday Night Live" sketch, intended to make the president appear dim, but in this case, it's apparently real.

It's also consistent with previous reporting on the matter. A month before the president took office, there were reports that Trump only receives one security/intelligence briefing per week, instead of seven. He didn't deny the accounts, but said it didn't matter because he's "like, a smart person." Trump added, "I get it when I need it."

The week of Trump's inauguration, the Republican added that he likes to have short briefings, with information on one page. "I like bullets or I like as little as possible," he said.
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Trump struggles badly with 'the security aspect of cyber'

02/13/17 12:30PM

During last year's presidential campaign, Americans were led to believe Hillary Clinton's email server protocols were the single most important issue in the nation. To hear Republicans tell it, the former Secretary of State committed a grave offense with her server, putting U.S. national security at risk.

Donald Trump never really understood the controversy, but he was nevertheless eager to attack his opponent, and during the first presidential debate in the fall, the Republican vowed to get "very tough on cyber." He quickly added, "I have a son. He's 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it's unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it's hardly doable."

Four months later, I still don't know what Trump was trying to say.

Regardless, the president has gone on to describe himself as some kind of visionary on matters of technology security. In a pre-inauguration press conference, Trump said he deserved credit for the RNC's cyber-security measures because, as he put it, Trump believes he told the national party to create a "strong hacking defense" and they took his advice. (There's no evidence such a conversation ever took place.)

Now that he's in office, however, the president seems to have adopted a surprisingly lax attitude when it comes to the "cyber." CNN reported yesterday, for example, on what happened at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort on Saturday night when officials first learned about North Korea launching an intermediate-range ballistic missile.
Sitting alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with whom he'd spent most of the day golfing, Trump took the call on a mobile phone at his table, which was set squarely in the middle of the private club's dining area.

As Mar-a-Lago's wealthy members looked on from their tables, and with a keyboard player crooning in the background, Trump and Abe's evening meal quickly morphed into a strategy session, the decision-making on full view to fellow diners, who described it in detail to CNN.... The patio was lit only with candles and moonlight, so aides used the camera lights on their phones to help the stone-faced Trump and Abe read through the documents.
A variety of wealthy club members -- civilians, none of whom has any kind of security clearance -- snapped photos of the high-level gathering and published them via social media.
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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.13.17

02/13/17 12:00PM

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

* In yesterday's Gallup daily tracking poll, Donald Trump's standing reached new depths: 40% approval, 55% disapproval. Note, President Obama briefly reached 55% disapproval in his sixth year, but Trump has reached this level after three weeks in office.

* In Raleigh, N.C., on Saturday, tens of thousands of progressive activists attended the 11th annual "Moral March on Raleigh," led by the state NAACP.

* On a related note, those activists did not receive good news later in the day: "The N.C. Court of Appeals has lifted a lower court's block on state lawmakers' overhaul of election oversight, allowing the changes to take effect until there's further action in Gov. Roy Cooper's lawsuit challenging the changes."

* The League of Women Voters requested that Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) appear at an upcoming public forum in his district. The Republican declined, arguing, "My experience is that, and we see this around the country, where these large meetings tend to devolve in shouting matches."

* Who's to blame for the White House's ineptitude? Christopher Ruddy, the CEO of conservative Newsmax Media and a Trump friend, is pointing the finger at the president's chief of staff. "I think Reince Priebus -- good guy, well-intentioned -- but he clearly doesn't know how the federal agencies work," Ruddy told CNN yesterday.

* Despite rumors about her national ambitions, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said during a radio interview yesterday, "I am running for Senate. I'm running for Senate in 2018."

* In Mexico, former Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador appears to be making gains in his country's presidential race by running on an anti-Trump platform.
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Jason Chaffetz takes a risk, scolds town-hall attendees

02/13/17 11:30AM

Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R), the only incumbent governor in either party to lose in 2016, is apparently trying his hand at becoming a Republican pundit. McCrory appeared on "Meet the Press," and even tried to legitimize one of his party's most ridiculous talking points.

Reflecting on the wave of progressive activism across the country, the North Carolinian declared, "It takes money to coordinate these protests."

"No it doesn't," MSNBC's Greta Van Susteren said, without missing a beat. "It takes the internet."

The absurdities of the "paid protestor" argument notwithstanding, Republicans can't seem to let go of the idea. Last week, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who represents one of the reddest districts in the country, faced a fierce audience, which wasn't at all pleased with recent developments in D.C. As KSL, the NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City, reported, the Utah Republican has decided to respond to the public pushback by questioning his audience's integrity.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz said the raucous reception he received at Thursday evening's town hall meeting was "bullying and an attempt at intimidation" from a crowd opposed to President Donald Trump's election.... Chaffetz said the crowd that filled the auditorium at Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights and spilled over into a protest outside included people brought in from other states to disrupt the meeting.

"Absolutely. I know there were," he said, suggesting it was "more of a paid attempt to bully and intimidate" than a reflection of the feelings of his 3rd District constituents.
So far, Chaffetz has offered no proof to substantiate his suspicions, and any time a member of Congress responds to public pressure by insulting his or her own constituents, there's an inherent risk, even in a safe, lopsided district. (If he can't prove allegations like these, Chaffetz really ought to apologize for questioning these voters' integrity like this.)

But I also think this ties into a larger problem related to political responses to public opinion.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump talks with press on Sept. 5, 2016, aboard his campaign plane, while flying over Ohio, as Vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence looks on. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

The Goldman Sachs vet who has Trump's ear on the economy

02/13/17 11:00AM

The White House Council of Economic Advisers has, traditionally, been a pretty big deal. As Slate noted the other day, since its creation in 1946, the CEO has "acted as a sort of in-house think tank for presidential administrations, ready to answer any and all questions related to the dismal science. Typically led by a renowned academic economist ... it provides input on policy, produces the annual Economic Report of the President, briefs POTUS on developments like the monthly jobs report, and more. At times, it has been deeply influential."

It's been so influential that the CEA's chair has traditionally held a cabinet-level role in the White House, helping directly guide the president's thinking on economic matters. Donald Trump's team will have a very different model: the Wall Street Journal reported last week that the new president has demoted the Council of Economic Advisers.

OK, so who will have Trump's ear on economic policy? The New York Times reported over the weekend that former Goldman Sachs CEO Gary Cohn appears to have the dominant voice in Trump World. The report noted a recent, pre-inauguration meeting in which Cohn urged Trump to find private-sector partners as part of the administration's infrastructure plans to help keep government costs down.
That got Mr. Trump's attention. The president-elect turned to the other people in the room — his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon; his chief of staff, Reince Priebus; and Steven T. Mnuchin, his campaign's chief fund-raiser and Mr. Trump's nominee to be Treasury secretary -- surprised that his infrastructure ideas had such a potential downside.

"Is this true?" Mr. Trump asked the group, according to those people. Heads nodded. "Why did I have to wait to have this guy tell me?" he demanded.
Perhaps because everyone on Team Trump assumed he was already aware of such an obvious detail?
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View of the U.S. - Mexico border wall on November 19, 2014 in Calexico, California.

The politics of Trump's border wall start to catch up with him

02/13/17 10:30AM

Donald Trump declared with pride last week, "The wall is getting designed right now." The president was referring, of course, to his administration's proposed border wall between the United States and Mexico -- one of Trump's signature campaign issues -- which the president says he fully intends to pursue.

The boast was, however, almost certainly untrue. Before a federal infrastructure project reaches the design phase, there are all kinds of procedural hurdles that need to be cleared, and with the dubious project still in the rhetorical starting blocks, it's implausible to think the wall is already "getting designed."

No, Mr. President, drawing a big rectangle on the back of a cocktail napkin doesn't count as a "design."

Of course, before the blueprint of such a project can take shape, officials will need to have some sense of cost, and a Reuters report on Friday put a striking price tag on Trump's wall.
President Donald Trump's "wall" along the U.S.-Mexico border would be a series of fences and walls that would cost as much as $21.6 billion, and take more than three years to construct, based on a U.S. Department of Homeland Security internal report seen by Reuters on Thursday.

The report's estimated price-tag is much higher than a $12-billion figure cited by Trump in his campaign and estimates as high as $15 billion from Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.... The report is expected to be presented to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly in coming days, although the administration will not necessarily take actions it recommends.
A Politico report, citing estimates from Capitol Hill sources, added that some lawmakers believe the price "could be as high as $50 billion when all is said and done."

For his part, Donald Trump isn't denying the reports, so much as he's arguing that his magical negotiating abilities will change the calculus.
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China's President Xi Jinping walks during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta October 2, 2013.

Following a fiasco, Trump now looks like 'a paper tiger' to China

02/13/17 10:00AM

On Friday, China Xinhua News, the official news organization of the Chinese government, published a tweet asking a provocative question. In a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the message read, Donald Trump "agreed to honor" the One-China policy, "though he had publicly challenged it. What has changed his mind?"

Yes, Trump's fiasco was so severe, he found himself being trolled by Chinese state-run media. (The message wasn't intended for a Chinese audience -- Twitter is banned in the country.)

The New York Times reported over the weekend that the rookie president managed to avert a more serious confrontation with Beijing, but Trump also made a lasting impression on China that beneath all of his posturing, the American president is quite weak.
"Trump lost his first fight with Xi and he will be looked at as a paper tiger," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, in Beijing, and an adviser to China's State Council. "This will be interpreted in China as a great success, achieved by Xi's approach of dealing with him."

Mr. Trump's reversal on Taiwan is likely to reinforce the views of those in China who see him as merely the latest American president to come into office talking tough on China, only to bend eventually to economic reality and adopt more cooperative policies. That could mean more difficult negotiations with Beijing on trade, North Korea and other issues. [...]

American leadership was damaged by Mr. Trump staking out a position and then stepping back, said Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University and the author of "The China Choice," a book that argues that the United States should share power in the Pacific region with China.
White told the Times that the Chinese will now see Trump as "weak" as a result of his handling of the dispute.

The White House can take some comfort in the fact that an entirely different scandal -- Michael Flynn's controversial chats with Vladimir Putin's Russian government -- is such a dominant issue, because if more people heard about this One China disaster, it'd be even more humiliating for the amateur president.
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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)

White House clings to non-existent evidence of voter fraud

02/13/17 09:30AM

For those concerned about Donald Trump's stability as a president, last week did little to settle frayed nerves. In a meeting with several senators, Trump, fresh off his lies about secretly winning the popular vote, insisted that he would've won New Hampshire were it not for "thousands" of "illegally" cast ballots.

Trump reportedly added that he believes these voters were "brought in on buses" from neighboring Massachusetts. There was "an uncomfortable silence" in the room after the president made the delusional comments.

The reality-based pushback was swift. WMUR in New Hampshire reported:
The New Hampshire Secretary of State's Office said Monday that there's no indication of widespread voter fraud in the Granite State, despite a tweet from President-elect Donald Trump that there was.

Officials said that if Trump has any evidence, he should present it.
The New Hampshire Attorney General's office said something similar, as did a former Republican state A.G., who called the White House's lies "shameful." The former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, meanwhile, offered to pay $1,000 to anyone with any evidence of even one Massachusetts voter being bused into the Granite State to cast an illegal ballot last year.

So far, no one's stepped up to claim the money.

And yet, Stephen Miller, a top White House aide, insisted yesterday that fiction is fact, and the public should believe the president's nonsense.
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President-elect Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump arrive to the "Make America Great Again Welcome Concert" at the Lincoln Memorial, Jan. 19, 2017, in Washington. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

Trump aide: 'Powers of the president ... will not be questioned'

02/13/17 09:00AM

Shortly after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously against the Trump administration in the controversy surrounding the president's Muslim ban, Donald Trump himself declared on Twitter, "SEE YOU IN COURT."

In a brief exchange with NBC News soon after, the president added, when asked about his reaction to the court ruling, "Well, we will see them in court." Asked about his plans for an appeal, Trump added, "We'll see them in court. It's a political decision and we're going to see them in court.... We look forward, as I just said, to seeing them in court."

Even at the time, the reaction didn't make sense. "See you in court" is something a person says before litigation begins, not after having lost at the district and appellate levels. (Trump's vow also may be factually wrong: the White House hasn't decided on its appeal plans.)

With this in mind, the president switched rhetorical gears a bit over the weekend.
President Trump on Saturday morning increased his attacks on the judiciary, declaring on Twitter that "our legal system is broken!"

"Our legal system is broken! "77% of refugees allowed into U.S. since travel reprieve hail from seven suspect countries." (WT)  SO DANGEROUS!" he tweeted, quoting a Washington Times article published Thursday.
Soon after, Trump whined about a "court breakdown."

We could emphasize that the president seems alarmingly unaware of the fact that refugees from the "suspect" countries have committed a combined grand total of zero terrorist attacks on American soil.

But let's put that aside for now and instead focus on the fact that the sitting president of the United States has publicly declared the nation's legal system is, in his eyes, "broken."

We've had plenty of presidents who've lost important cases in the courts, but no modern chief executive has ever said anything along these lines.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

Questions surround Team Trump's pre-election talks with Russia

02/13/17 08:30AM

White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn's alleged talks with Russia in December are the basis for an important ongoing scandal. But the latest revelations also shed light on a separate, parallel controversy that may end up being every bit as important.

As part of its reporting on Flynn's communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the Washington Post noted on Friday:
The talks were part of a series of contacts between Flynn and Kislyak that began before the Nov. 8 election and continued during the transition, officials said. [Emphasis added]
A New York Times report added:
[C]urrent and former American officials said that conversation -- which took place the day before the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia over accusations that it used cyberattacks to help sway the election in Mr. Trump's favor -- ranged far beyond the logistics of a post-inauguration phone call. And they said it was only one in a series of contacts between the two men that began before the election and also included talk of cooperating in the fight against the Islamic State, along with other issues. [Emphasis added]
It's hard to overstate the significance of this detail, which risks doing real harm to Donald Trump's White House.

Let's back up a minute to provide some context.
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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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