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Monday's Mini-Report, 5.7.18

05/07/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Yesterday in Afghanistan: "A bomb blast inside a mosque in eastern Afghanistan that was being used as a voter registration center killed at least 12 people and wounded 33, officials said.... No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but both the Taliban and a local Islamic State affiliate reject democratic elections and have targeted them in the past."

* Not a great start: "Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump's nominee to be CIA director, broached the idea of withdrawing her nomination on Friday over concerns that reopening the debate over brutal interrogations could damage the spy agency, two U.S. officials told NBC News."

* Kansas: "The Trump administration is rejecting a proposal by Kansas to kick people off of Medicaid after three years, and also plans to allow states to exempt American Indian tribal members from Medicaid work requirement rules."

* The latest Scott Pruitt revelations, Part I: "Top aides to Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency are screening public records requests related to the embattled administrator, slowing the flow of information released under the Freedom of Information Act -- at times beyond what the law allows."

* The latest Scott Pruitt revelations, Part II: "The more than 10,000 documents, made public as part of a Freedom of Information lawsuit by the Sierra Club, an environmental organization, ... show an agency focused on dividing people into 'friendly' and 'unfriendly' camps and which, on one occasion -- a secret visit to a Toyota plant -- became so focused on not disclosing information that his hosts expressed confusion about the publicity value of the visit."

* In case you missed this on Friday: "Two top F.B.I. aides who worked alongside the former director James B. Comey as he navigated one of the most politically tumultuous periods in the bureau's history resigned on Friday. One of them, James A. Baker, was one of Mr. Comey's closest confidants.... The other aide, Lisa Page, advised Mr. Comey while serving directly under his deputy, Andrew G. McCabe."

* Typical: "In the last year, [Interior Secretary Ryan] Zinke has torn up Obama-era rules related to oil, gas and mineral extraction and overseen the largest reduction of federal land protection in the nation's history, including an effort to slash the size of Bears Ears National Monument. But here in Montana, where support for drilling in certain beloved areas can be a career killer, Mr. Zinke has struck a different note."

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Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver North is sworn in July 7, 1987 before the House and Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in Washington, D.C. on arms sales to Iran and diversion of profits to Nicaraguan Contra rebels.

Despite his criminal scandal, Oliver North to lead the NRA

05/07/18 04:35PM

In 1994, then-Sen. Chuck Robb (D-Va.) offered a famous description of his Republican rival, Oliver North.

"My opponent is a document-shredding, Constitution-trashing, commander-in-chief-bashing, Ayatollah-loving, arms-dealing, criminal-protecting, resume-enhancing, Noriega-coddling, Swiss-banking, law-breaking, letter-faking, self-serving, snake-oil salesman who can't tell the difference between the truth and a lie," Robb said.

North went on to narrowly lose that race -- then Republican Sen. John Warner (R) endorsed the Democrat, and North was denounced by Ronald Reagan -- but he nevertheless cemented his role as a far-right celebrity and conservative media personality. Today, he landed a notable new gig.

Oliver North, the retired U.S. Marine who was at the center of the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal, will become the president of the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun rights group announced on Monday.

North will take over the post within a few weeks, the NRA said in a statement.... North, 74, was a key figure in the national controversy over the sale of arms to Iran and the funneling of proceeds to the rebel Contras in Nicaragua. The ensuing political drama dominated headlines during President Ronald Reagan's second term.

In case anyone's forgotten, North was a central figure in a scandal in which a Republican administration illegally sold weapons to Iranians in order to secure the release of American prisoners, then used the money to illegally finance a war in Central America.

The retired Marine colonel was later convicted of multiple felonies, though the convictions were later overturned on appeal.

Traditional political norms might suggest someone with this background might struggle in conservative politics, but that's just not how the contemporary right operates.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order To Promote Healthcare Choice

Trump ignored warnings on the ACA, consumers will pay the price

05/07/18 12:40PM

No one should be surprised. When Donald Trump took steps to sabotage the health care system, as part of a political campaign against the Affordable Care Act, every relevant voice in the debate -- insurers, hospitals, medical professionals, industry experts, et al -- told the president that he would make things worse for the public.

There's fresh evidence that those warnings were correct.

Two of Virginia's ObamaCare insurers are requesting significant premium hikes for 2019, according to initial filings released Friday.

Both Cigna and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield cited policies advocated by the Trump administration, including the repeal of ObamaCare's individual mandate, as part of its justifications for the increases.

When former HHS Secretary Tom Price accidentally told the truth last week about the effects of his party's agenda, this is what he was referring to.

As complex as health care can be -- everyone except the president knows how complicated it can be -- this is quite simple. Trump took deliberate steps he knew would make health care coverage more expensive for millions of American consumers, and as a consequence, health care coverage is becoming more expensive for millions of American consumers.

Chet Burrell, the CEO of CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield, conceded last week to the Washington Post that he fears the system is "materially worse" under Trump. He added, "Continuing actions on the part of the administration to systematically undermine the market and make it almost impossible to carry out the mission."

In this case, the "mission" is to provide health care coverage to the public.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.7.18

05/07/18 12:00PM

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

* For election watchers, tomorrow will be a highly entertaining day, featuring two gubernatorial primaries in Ohio, a brutal Republican Senate primary in Indiana, and West Virginia's Republican Senate primary, which may be the most interesting contest of them all.

* On a related note, Donald Trump weighed in on the West Virginia race this morning, telling voters that Don Blankenship, a leading GOP candidate, "can't win the General Election in your State...No way!"

* And speaking of Blankenship, the Republican candidate, who was only released from a federal prison last year, said over the weekend that he hasn't ruled out running for the Senate as an independent this fall if he comes up short in tomorrow's primary.

* In Nevada's closely watched U.S. Senate race, a new Public Policy Polling survey shows Rep. Jacky Rosen (D) with a narrow lead over incumbent Sen. Dean Heller (R), 44% to 42% margin.

* Michael Flynn, Donald Trump's former White House national security advisor who pleaded guilty late last year to lying to the FBI about his communications with Russia, was scheduled to headline a Republican campaign event in Montana, but canceled, citing a family emergency.

* In California, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) picked up a significant endorsement on Friday: Barack Obama announced his support for the longtime incumbent's re-election.

* And speaking of the Golden State, California's Republican Party is facing a daunting possibility: "There may be no Republican candidate for governor or United States senator on the state's ballot this November."

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Image: U.S. President Trump celebrates with Republican House members after healthcare bill vote at the White House in Washington

Trump's GOP no longer sees tax plan as an electoral life preserver

05/07/18 11:20AM

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce will today begin a new advertising campaign, airing commercials in key congressional districts, touting the Republicans' unpopular tax plan as a great idea. The strategy isn't subtle: with the GOP facing headwinds ahead of this year's midterm elections, the party's big-business allies are trying to put a positive spin on the Republicans' only meaningful accomplishment.

And at face value, this was entirely predictable. When the package of massive tax breaks for the wealthy and big corporations became law, it stood to reason that GOP officials and their allies would cling to the tax plan like an electoral life preserver, keeping Republicans afloat during a tumultuous storm. Many assumed the party and its partners would talk about little else.

Except in practice, it's not quite working out that way. Each of the party's key predictions about the tax plan has proven false, and polls suggest the law remains unpopular. Donald Trump, meanwhile, who was supposed to be his party's chief cheerleader on the issue, has lost interest in tax breaks.

At an event last month in West Virginia, the president was supposed to read from a carefully crafted script about the greatness of his tax cuts. Instead, he literally threw the script in the air, described his talking points as "boring," and proceeded to complain incessantly about immigration. Something similar happened in Cleveland over the weekend.

Gathering a round-table of steelworkers and small-business people, ostensibly to promote the effects of the Republican tax cut, he ended up celebrating seemingly every other aspect of his presidency, including his poll numbers, which he claimed were on the rise. [...]

If there was a recurring theme, however, it was Mr. Trump's insistence that he would restore the balance with major trading partners like China.

A day earlier, Trump was in Texas to speak to the NRA, and again he made only fleeting references to his tax breaks.

Evidently, the president doesn't see his party's tax plan as worth emphasizing ahead of the midterms -- and he's not the only one.

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Presidential contender Donald Trump gestures to the media on the 17th fairway on the first day of the Women's British Open golf championship on the Turnberry golf course in Turnberry, Scotland, July 30, 2015. (Photo by Scott Heppell/AP)

The closer one looks at Trump's finances, the louder the questions become

05/07/18 10:40AM

Last summer, Donald Trump sat down with the New York Times, which asked whether Special Counsel Robert Mueller will have crossed "a red line" if the investigation into the Russia scandal extends to include examinations of the resident's finances. "I would say yeah. I would say yes," he replied, adding, "I think that's a violation."

Naturally, this generated no shortage of speculation as to why Trump is so concerned about scrutiny of his finances. For that matter, there's no reason to separate questions about the president's finances with the Russia scandal -- because as Rachel has explained on the show more than once, there's an amazing number of people from Russia who've purchased Trump properties over the years. (My personal favorite is the story of Dmitry Rybolovlev, the fertilizer king, who purchased a derelict Florida estate from the future president at an extreme markup.)

Keep all of this in mind when reading this amazing report from the Washington Post over the weekend on Trump's unexplained shift in strategy, evolving from someone who loved taking on debt and spending others' money to someone who was suddenly flush with cash.

In the nine years before he ran for president, Donald Trump's company spent more than $400 million in cash on new properties -- including 14 transactions paid for in full, without borrowing from banks -- during a buying binge that defied real estate industry practices and Trump's own history as the self-described "King of Debt."

Trump's vast outlay of cash, tracked through public records and totaled publicly here for the first time, provides a new window into the president's private company, which discloses few details about its finances.

The entire Post  piece is well worth your time -- it's an impressive piece of reporting, and I'm only touching on some of its revelations -- but pay particular attention to the fact that Trump had one ironclad set of principles, which guided his entire business strategy, which he suddenly abandoned without explanation.

Barbara Res, who was a top executive for Trump throughout the 1980s and continued to work for him for most of the 1990s, told the Post, "He always used other people's money. That's for sure. Not cash. He always got somebody to put up funds for him. To put up the money. And he'd put up the brilliance."

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Then FBI Director Robert Mueller arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 16, 2012, to testify during a hearing.

Mueller interviews one of Trump's 'closest friends and confidants'

05/07/18 10:00AM

Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team have spoken to a long list of people, but the Associated Press added an important name to the list over the weekend.

Investigators working for special counsel Robert Mueller have interviewed one of President Donald Trump's closest friends and confidants, California real estate investor Tom Barrack, The Associated Press has learned.

Barrack was interviewed as part of the federal investigation of possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 election, according to three people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

We don't yet know what topics Mueller's team covered with Barrack. One of the AP's sources, for example, said the discussion "focused entirely" on former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and his longtime deputy, Rick Gates. Another AP source said, however, that the interview with Barrack "was broader and did include financial matters about the campaign, the transition and Trump's inauguration.

And while I have no idea which of the sources is correct, the fact that Mueller's investigators sat down with Barrack at all is an important development -- because when it comes to the cast of characters surrounding the president, Barrack is a highly interesting figure.

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Donald Trump speaks after accepting an endorsement at the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum in Louisville, Ky., May 20, 2016. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC)

Trump manages to insult key US allies with remarks to the NRA

05/07/18 09:21AM

"Your Second Amendment rights are under siege," Donald Trump told NRA members on Friday, "but they will never, ever be under siege as long as I'm your president."

That, of course, didn't make a lick of sense, since the second half of the sentence contradicted the first. But it was that kind of appearance for the president in Dallas.

Later in the speech, Trump said, "It seems that, if we're going to outlaw guns, like so many people want to do ... we are going to have to outlaw, immediately, all vans and all trucks, which are now the new form of death for the maniac terrorists." What the president may not realize is that vans and trucks are heavily regulated; their operators are tested and licensed; there are extensive ownership and registration records; and van and truck owners are required to purchase insurance.

Or put another way, perhaps Trump hasn't thought through this analogy.

But perhaps the most newsworthy element of the president's remarks came when he reflected on conditions in London and Paris.

"Paris, France has the toughest gun laws in the world. The president just left Washington -- Emmanuel, great guy -- nobody has guns in Paris, nobody.

"And we all remember more than 130 people, plus tremendous numbers of people that were horribly, horribly wounded ... they died in a restaurant and various other close-proximity places. They were brutally killed by a small group of terrorists that had guns. They took their time and gunned them down one by one -- boom, come over here, boom, come over here, boom. If you were in those rooms, one of those people -- and the survivors said it just lasted forever.

"But, if one employee or just one patron had a gun, or if one person in this room had been there with a gun, aimed at the opposite direction, the terrorists would have fled or been shot. And it would have been a whole different story. I mean, right?"

As for the British capital, Trump argued that London has "unbelievably tough gun laws," but they have hospitals that are like "war zones for horrible stabbing wounds." He added, "They don't have guns. They have knives. And, instead, there's blood all over the floors of this hospital. They say it's as bad as a military war-zone hospital. Knives, knives, knives."

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President Barack Obama meets with Cody Keenan, Director of Speechwriting, and Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor, for State of the Union speech prep in the Oval Office, Jan. 7, 2016. (Photo by Pete Souza/White House)

To derail Iran deal, Trump World reportedly sought 'dirt' on Obama aides

05/07/18 08:42AM

Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal included many facets, but it started with a break-in. The Republican White House hired a group of "plumbers" to uncover dirt on the president's political opponents. Nearly a half-century later, history isn't necessarily repeating itself, but to borrow a line, it is rhyming.

The fact that Donald Trump and his team have contempt for the international nuclear agreement with Iran is not new. What is new is the prospect of this Republican White House hiring outsiders to, in Nixonian fashion, uncover dirt on the president's political opponents.

The Guardian published a report over the weekend that managed to surprise many observers who are already inclined to believe the worst about Trump World.

Aides to Donald Trump, the US president, hired an Israeli private intelligence agency to orchestrate a "dirty ops" campaign against key individuals from the Obama administration who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal, the Observer can reveal.

People in the Trump camp contacted private investigators in May last year to "get dirt" on Ben Rhodes, who had been one of Barack Obama's top national security advisers, and Colin Kahl, deputy assistant to Obama, as part of an elaborate attempt to discredit the deal.

The allegations raised in the report have not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News. That said, if the reporting is accurate, the revelations are legitimately stunning.

Note, for example, that The Guardian isn't pointing to actions taken during the Obama presidency or during the international negotiations. Rather, the reported events described in the article unfolded last year, months into Trump's presidency, when the White House decided it wanted to derail the Iran deal and began looking for a rationale to justify a decision Trump had already made.

It was at this point, according to The Guardian, that the American president's aides hired spies to uncover dirt on Americans who served the nation's interests, and who are now private citizens, accused of nothing.

Rhodes told the British newspaper, "I was not aware, though sadly am not surprised. I would say that digging up dirt on someone for carrying out their professional responsibilities in their positions as White House officials is a chillingly authoritarian thing to do."

Wait, it gets much worse.

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Former Mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani speaks at the Cisco Connect 2013 conference in Warsaw, Poland, November 26, 2013.

Already in a ditch, Rudy Giuliani finds a shovel, digs deeper

05/07/18 08:00AM

Rudy Giuliani made a great many media appearances last week, and by any fair measure, they didn't go especially well. Donald Trump, reflecting on his lawyer's performance after two weeks on the job, told reporters on Friday, "He started yesterday. He'll get his facts straight."

That may have been wishful thinking.

On Saturday night, the former New York City mayor sat down with Fox News' Jeanine Pirro -- who, coincidentally, is reportedly serving as an informal adviser to the president, making this an interview in which one Trump confidant was interviewing another -- and he didn't do his client any favors.

For example, referring to Michael Cohen's hush-money payoff to Stormy Daniels shortly before Election Day 2016, Giuliani said, "Even if it was a campaign donation, the president reimbursed it fully with a payment of $35,000 a month, that paid for that and other expenses. No need to go beyond that. Case over." First, that's legally wrong, and second, the last thing Giuliani should be saying about the payment is, "Even if it was a campaign donation...."

In the same interview, he added, "I am an expert on the law, in particular the campaign finance law." There's considerable evidence to the contrary.

Yesterday morning, Giuliani just kept talking, sitting down with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, and managing to dig himself into a deeper ditch. What was the key takeaway? Take your pick. It mattered, for example, when the president's lawyer said Trump may refuse to comply if subpoenaed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What happens if Robert Mueller subpoenas the president? Will you comply?

GIULIANI: Well, we don't have to. He's the president of the United States.

It similarly mattered when Giuliani raised the prospect of Trump invoking his Fifth Amendment privileges.

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Congress Struggles With Funding Repairs To U.S. Capitol Dome

This Week in God, 5.5.18

05/05/18 07:40AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a new faith group on Capitol Hill that, for the first time in history, exists for members of Congress who aren't religious.

There are literally hundreds of caucuses on Capitol Hill, including caucuses for various faith traditions, but as Vox noted this week, the Congressional Freethought Caucus is new and emblematic of changing attitudes toward non-theists.

This week, Democratic Reps. Jared Huffman (CA), Jamie Raskin (MD), Jerry McNerney (CA), and Dan Kildee (MI) announced the formation of a new caucus, known as the Congressional Freethought Caucus, to safeguard the interests of nontheists in government, and to promote policies based, in their view, on reason and science.

A press statement emailed to journalists said, "The mission of the caucus is to promote public policy based on reason and science, to protect the secular character of our government, and to champion the value of freedom of thought worldwide."

According to the statement, the caucus will actively work to "protect the secular character of our government"; promote science-bred public policy; counter discrimination against atheists, agnostics, and humanists; and provide a "forum for Members of Congress to discuss their moral frameworks, ethical values, and personal religious journeys."

For now, those four founding members are the caucus' only members. But given the traditional expectations that politicians must be religious to get elected to pubic office in the United States, the fact that four federal lawmakers would choose to create a Freethought Caucus at all is a ... well, "miracle" is probably the wrong word in this context, but it's pretty extraordinary.

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, added, "The very existence of this congressional caucus for freethinkers and humanists is a marker of how far the movement for secular and nontheist equality has come. This significant step is also a new beginning for our country as both religious and nonreligious leaders work to better the nation."

The Pew Research Center has reported that religious "nones" -- a shorthand used to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is "nothing in particular" -- now make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population, a number that's risen quickly in recent years.

In fact, it's even reached the point at which a Congressional Freethought Caucus can exist.

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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