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Image: File of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest

Despite Benghazi focus, Trump looks past diplomatic security

04/18/17 09:34AM

Donald Trump's lax approach to filling key posts throughout his administration is becoming one of the president's more glaring missteps. As of yesterday, of the 544 top positions requiring Senate confirmation, the White House hasn't nominated anyone for 473 of those offices.

As Politico reported, that includes the office responsible for diplomatic security abroad.
President Donald Trump has yet to nominate the State Department official who oversees diplomatic security abroad -- despite having made the 2012 Benghazi attacks a centerpiece of his campaign against Hillary Clinton.

Congressional Democrats say it's a striking omission that shows Trump's campaign rhetoric was just that. And even some Republicans are urging Trump to move faster to fill this and other key State Department posts.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) argued that Trump's "failure to nominate an assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security shows the Republican focus on Benghazi was 'a bunch of political cheap talk' designed to tarnish [Hillary] Clinton's reputation."
Ya think?
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting at the presidential palace in Ankara, Turkey, Nov. 24, 2015. (Photo by Kayhan Ozer/Pool/AP)

Why is Trump celebrating Turkey's democratic crisis?

04/18/17 08:43AM

During yesterday's White House press briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked about Turkey's referendum, and allegations of election irregularities in a process that's given Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweeping new powers. Spicer was circumspect.

"My understanding is there's an international commission that is reviewing this and issues a report in 10 to 12 days," Spicer said. "And so we'll wait and let them do their job." Asked what Donald Trump would like to see Erdogan do, Spicer added, "I think we'd rather not get ahead of that report and start to make decisions without knowing. There were observers there, as there routinely are, and I'd rather wait and see."

A few hours later, Donald Trump decided not to wait and see.
President Trump called President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey on Monday to congratulate him on winning a much-disputed referendum that will cement his autocratic rule over the country and, in the view of many experts, erode Turkey's democratic institutions.

Those concerns were not mentioned in a brief readout of the phone call that the White House released Monday night.... The statement did not say whether Mr. Trump had raised independent reports of voting irregularities during the Turkish referendum or the government's heavy-handed tactics in the weeks leading up to it, when the country was under a state of emergency.
The U.S. president not only contradicted his own press secretary, Trump's call also appears to be at odds with the statement on the Turkish referendum from the U.S. State Department.

Trump is now the only leader in the Western world to congratulate Erdogan on the election results, effectively endorsing the outcome and extending the imprimatur of the United States government on democracy's slow demise in Turkey.

If there's a compelling defense for this, it's hiding well.
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A picture of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hangs outside a house in West Des Moines

Trump White House struggles with questions about transparency

04/18/17 08:00AM

During Barack Obama's presidency, Donald Trump whined incessantly about transparency, calling the Democrat, among other things, "the least transparent president ever." Trump asked in 2012, "Why does Obama believe he shouldn't comply with record releases that his predecessors did of their own volition? Hiding something?"

Soon after, the Republican added, "Obama thinks he can just laugh off the fact that he refuses to release his records to the American public. He can't."

At the time, Trump's preoccupation with transparency had a rather specific focus: Trump, championing a racist conspiracy theory, called for the disclosure of "records" such as Obama's college transcripts.

Now that Trump is himself the president, the Republican has adopted a dramatically different posture. The New York Times reported:
White House officials on Monday mustered a sweeping defense of their less-is-more public disclosure practices, arguing that releasing information on a wide array of topics would strike a blow against personal privacy and impede President Trump's ability to govern. [...]

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, facing a barrage of questions about the president's commitment to transparency, repeatedly shut down reporters' queries -- from the identity of Mr. Trump's weekend golf partners to his refusal to release his 2016 tax returns. Mr. Spicer said that greater public disclosure was unnecessary, intrusive or even harmful.
There are basically four elements to this: (1) Trump's secret tax returns; (2) the White House's now-secret visitor logs; (3) disclosure of Trump's excessive golf outings; and (4) White House readouts of the president's conversations with foreign leaders.

Let's take these one at a time:
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Monday's Mini-Report, 4.17.17

04/17/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Erdogan critics have already raised fraud allegations: "Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a historic referendum Sunday that will greatly expand the powers of his office, telling opponents who promised to challenge the results: 'It's too late now.'"

* Does Trump agree with this? "Vice President Mike Pence warned North Korea on Monday not to test American resolve, but he also raised the possibility that the Trump administration could pursue talks. The message, delivered by Mr. Pence on a visit to South Korea that included a stop at the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean Peninsula, showed that the administration, while talking tough, was not ruling out negotiations."

* Syria: "At least 68 children were among 126 people killed in Saturday's bomb attack on buses carrying evacuees from besieged Syrian towns, activists say. A vehicle filled with explosives hit the convoy near Aleppo."

* Arkansas: "The Department of Corrections in Arkansas is gearing up to put at least one man to death on Monday night despite a number of legal hurdles that stand in the way of the state's planned executions."

* In Boston, the local Fox affiliate is changing its name so to avoid being associated with Fox News. "The perception of what our TV news station does is not what we do," the stations general manager said. "They perceive us to be part of the Fox News family."

* At this morning's White House Easter Egg Roll, Donald Trump said the following: "This is the 139th Easter Egg Roll. Think of it -- 139. It began a long time ago -- 1878. And we will be stronger and bigger and better as a nation than ever before. We're right on track. You see what's happening, and we're right on track." Yep, that was a little odd.
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National Security Adviser Susan Rice listens to reporters questions during a briefing, March 21, 2014, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

Trump's claims about Susan Rice start to unravel

04/17/17 04:00PM

It started in early March with a series of early-morning tweets. For reasons that are still unclear, Donald Trump woke up one Saturday and started publishing online missives about a new conspiracy theory: Barack Obama launched an illegal wiretap operation before the election, specifically targeting Trump, as part of a scandalous and secret scheme.

In the weeks that followed, Trump and his team started changing the nature of the allegations. Maybe it wasn't an actual wiretap, the White House said. Maybe it wasn't illegal. Maybe it wasn't before the election. Maybe Trump personally wasn't targeted. Maybe Obama wasn't directly involved.

Two weeks ago, the Republican president escalated matters considerably by overhauling the entire story, telling the New York Times that former National Security Advisor Susan Rice "may have committed a crime by seeking to learn the identities of Trump associates swept up in surveillance of foreign officials by United States spy agencies."

Apparently persuaded by something he saw on a right-wing website, Trump specifically said at the time, "I think the Susan Rice thing is a massive story. I think it's a massive, massive story.... Yeah, it's a bigger story than you know.... I think that it's going to be the biggest story."

As a rule, presidents don't casually accuse former federal officials of crimes without proof -- welcome to the Trump Era -- and in this case, it appears the president had no idea what he was talking about.
A review of the surveillance material flagged by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes shows no inappropriate action by Susan Rice or any other Obama administration official, Republican and Democratic Congressional aides who have been briefed on the matter told NBC News.

President Donald Trump told the New York Times he believed former National Security Adviser Rice broke the law by asking for the identities of Trump aides who were mentioned in transcripts of U.S. surveillance of foreign targets. Normally, the identities of Americans are blacked out in transcripts circulated by the National Security Agency, but they may be "unmasked," if their identities are relevant to understanding the intelligence.
Rice has already acknowledged that she obtained the identities of the Americans in question, but she explained that this was very much part of her job.
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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)

Alex Jones' 'performance artist' claim leaves Trump in awkward spot

04/17/17 12:40PM

Alex Jones has earned a reputation for being a bellicose conspiracy theorist who routinely shares some deeply odd ideas with his broadcast audience. For most of the American mainstream, watching Jones push some of his most offensive theories -- the idea that the Sandy Hook massacre was a staged "false flag" event, for example -- gives the impression that he may not be altogether stable.

It's against this backdrop that Jones finds himself in a legal fight with Kelly Jones, the host's ex-wife who is seeking custody of their children. Not surprisingly, she and her attorney are pointing to Alex Jones' InfoWars content as proof of his unsuitability as a parent.

The Austin American Statesman reported over the weekend, however, that the host's lawyer has a specific defense in mind to explain away his client's over-the-top tirades.
At a recent pretrial hearing, attorney Randall Wilhite told state District Judge Orlinda Naranjo that using his client Alex Jones' on-air Infowars persona to evaluate Alex Jones as a father would be like judging Jack Nicholson in a custody dispute based on his performance as the Joker in "Batman."

"He's playing a character," Wilhite said of Jones. "He is a performance artist."
The family's legal dispute will apparently be decided by a Travis County jury in Texas, and as best as I can tell, it's a private family matter.

That said, Jones has become a notable figure in conservative media, and if his own attorney describes his client as "a performance artist" -- effectively characterizing Jones' bizarre persona as a fictional "character" -- that's an important acknowledgement for the public to be aware of.

Indeed, not only have Jones' outlandish conspiracy theories been taken seriously by Republican members of Congress, there's also Donald Trump's praise for Jones to consider.
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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.17.17

04/17/17 12:00PM

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

* With Georgia's congressional special election on tap for tomorrow, Donald Trump this morning went after Jon Ossoff (D). If Ossoff falls short of 50% support, there will be a runoff election on June 20.

* On a related note, while Democrats had a big advantage in early voting in Georgia's 6th congressional district, it looks like Republicans had closed the gap considerably by the time early voting wrapped up on Friday afternoon.

* In February, a Gallup poll found 62% of Americans said Trump keeps his promises. A new Gallup poll, released this morning, found that number has dropped to 45%.

* Speaking of polling, the latest Marist poll puts the president's approval rating at just 39%, suggesting the media adulation following the recent strike on Syria didn't do much to improve Trump's standing.

* The Washington Post reported that a pro-Trump non-profit group called Leaders of America First Policies "is starting a $3 million advertising campaign to bolster a dozen House Republicans who publicly backed" the GOP's failed health care initiative last month.

* Hillary Clinton's campaign has turned over its mailing list to the DNC. The Huffington Post noted that the list "includes more than 10 million new names that the DNC did not have on its voter files," which makes this a pretty significant development.
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Vice president-elect Mike Pence, watches as President-elect Donald Trump speaks during an election night rally, Nov. 9, 2016, in N.Y. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

For Donald Trump, the election is hardly 'over'

04/17/17 11:28AM

Yesterday morning, Donald Trump wasn't just annoyed by Tax Day protests related to his tax returns, he also suggested, "Someone should look into who paid for the small organized rallies yesterday." In reality, the events weren't especially small. For that matter, the fact that the president is hiding his tax returns while accusing his critics of having secret financiers added a nice, ironic twist.

But in the same tweet, Trump declared, "The election is over!" Exactly six minutes earlier, the president was tweeting about how impressed he remains about his Electoral College victory last year.

Whether he's prepared to acknowledge this or not, the fact remains that for Donald Trump, the election is never over. In fact, as the New York Times reported, Trump fundraising for the next election is just getting started.
President Trump is raising money toward a bid for a second term earlier than any incumbent president in recent history, pulling in tens of millions of dollars in the months after his election and through his inauguration.

Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission on Friday showed that Mr. Trump's campaign brought in $7.1 million during the first three months of 2017, on top of over $23 million raised with the Republican Party. By contrast, President Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee brought in a total of about $15 million during the first three months of his first term in 2009.
A Washington Post report added that Trump, "unlike his predecessors ... has not ceased fundraising since his election." On the contrary, in January, Trump formally filed the paperwork for his re-election campaign, kept open his campaign office's headquarters, hired staff to work on his 2020 bid, and even hosted a swing-state campaign rally in support of his re-election effort, several years too early.

The ongoing fundraising efforts, naturally, are part of Team Trump's permanent campaign. When the president declares, "The election is over!" it's effectively a punch-line to a sad joke.
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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)

The power of GOP partisanship captured in new polling

04/17/17 10:40AM

Republican voters opposed bombing the Assad regime in Syria, until Donald Trump took office, at which point they changed their mind. GOP voters thought the American economy was awful, until a Republican became president, at which point they suddenly reversed course.

And Gallup reported late last week that Republican voters had deeply negative attitudes about the current U.S. tax system, right before they changed their minds in early 2017.
With the deadline to file federal income taxes looming, 61% of U.S. adults regard the income tax they have to pay as fair, the most positive sentiment since 2009. A year ago, 50% held this view, which is lower than all but one other reading in Gallup's trend. [...]

Republicans are mostly responsible for the variation in perceived income tax fairness over time.
According to Gallup's data, 39% of GOP voters said last year that the amount of money they paid in income taxes was fair. This year, that number among Republicans jumped to 56%.

It's important to note that income taxes have not changed. We're talking about perceptions: when Obama was in office, most GOP voters thought tax rates were unfair, and with Trump now in office, these same voters have decided they're satisfied with those same tax rates after all.

Under the traditional rules of the political discourse, in which both sides are always to blame in equal measure, this is supposed to be the part in which we acknowledge that Democratic voters are just as unprincipled as Republican voters, just in the opposite direction. Except, that's quantifiably wrong: on tax fairness, Gallup found Democratic attitudes have been quite steady for many years, and didn't change much at all after Trump took office. The same is true on polling regarding Syria and the state of the economy.
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President-elect Donald Trump arrives at a rally at the Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville, N.C., Dec. 6, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP)

Both sides blame Trump in case about campaign-season violence

04/17/17 10:00AM

One of the more alarming aspects of Donald Trump's presidential campaign was his tacit embrace of violence as a legitimate tool at his rallies. In ways without precedent in modern American politics, the Republican candidate often seemed a little too eager to encourage vicious behavior.

After one protester at a Trump rally was punched by one of the candidate's supporters, for example, Trump declared, "Maybe he deserved to get roughed up." On other occasions, Trump promised to "pay for the legal fees" for supporters who "knock the hell" out of protesters.

And as we recently discussed, three protesters were physically assaulted at a Trump event in Kentucky in 2016, and they later filed suit, alleging the president bears some responsibility for encouraging the confrontation and insisting that inciting violence is not protected speech under the First Amendment.

A federal judge recently agreed to allow the case to proceed, and late Friday, the president's attorneys argued that by virtue of winning the election, Trump was given immunity from lawsuits like these. The Washington Post reported:
"Mr. Trump is immune from suit because he is President of the United States," his lawyers wrote Friday, rebutting a complaint filed by three protesters who claimed Trump incited a riot against them at a Louisville event in March 2016.

Trump's team challenged the accusations -- negligence and incitement to riot -- on many other grounds, too. But a federal judge already rejected their attempt to have the lawsuit thrown out earlier this month.
As it turns out, the protesters who were assaulted in Kentucky didn't just sue Trump; they're also seeking damages against one of the Trump supporters who allegedly assaulted them.

And that's where the story gets even more interesting.
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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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