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Has Trump reached the bottom, or can he fall further?

08/14/17 12:41PM

On Friday afternoon at one of the golf resorts he still owns and profits from, Donald Trump fielded some reporters' questions on a variety of topics. For example, with the crisis in Venezuela continuing to unfold, the president was asked about what options he's considering to "deal with this mess." Trump, for the first time, publicly raised the specter of U.S. military intervention.

"We have many options for Venezuela. And by the way, I'm not going to rule out a military option. We have many options for Venezuela. This is our neighbor. This is -- you know, we're all over the world. And we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away. And the people are suffering. And they're dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary."

The president wouldn't go into any details, but he added moments later that "a military operation, a military option is certainly something that we could pursue."

By all appearances, Trump just blurted all of this out without any real thought or planning. The United States hasn't actually taken any steps to prepare for military intervention in Venezuela, and Vice President Mike Pence soon after sent a very different signal about U.S. intentions -- Trump and Pence routinely say very different things to different audiences -- but the damage was already done.

As a Slate report explained, "Throughout his power grab that has accompanied Venezuela's descent into chaos, Maduro has long warned the United States was planning to invade the country. Trump's words seemed to play straight into his narrative.... 'Maduro must be thrilled right now,' said Mark Feierstein, who was a senior aide on Venezuela to former president Barack Obama. 'It's hard to imagine a more damaging thing for Trump to say.'"

That sentiment -- "It's hard to imagine a more damaging thing for Trump to say" -- keeps coming up, in all kinds of contexts.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.14.17

08/14/17 12:00PM

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

* The Republican primary in Alabama's U.S. Senate special election is tomorrow, and a pro-Trump super PAC, America First Action, has made a last-minute, six-figure ad buy in support of appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R).

* On a related note, Donald Trump himself reiterated his support for Strange yesterday on Twitter. If no candidate gets 50% tomorrow, as seems likely, the top two Republicans will face off in a primary runoff on Sept. 26. The general election is scheduled for Dec. 12.

* Speaking of special election primaries, Republicans in Utah's 3rd district will choose the party's nominee to replace former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) tomorrow. The general election is Nov. 7, and Kathie Allen, a physician, is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination.

* In Wisconsin, Kevin Nicholson, a Republican U.S. Senate hopeful, has pulled his first campaign ad last week because it inappropriately featured footage from a veterans cemetery. The commercial has been edited and re-released.

* A day after the president called for national unity, Trump's re-election campaign released a new 30-second commercial, attacking Democrats and journalists as the president's "enemies."

* Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) faces a tough re-election challenge in Missouri next year, and to complicate matters, the incumbent senator now has a primary rival. 31-year-old Angelica Earl kicked off her campaign last week. Earl, running for the Democratic nomination, describes herself as a "big Bernie Sanders supporter" and "more of an independent than a Democrat."

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Image: First Lady Melania Trump Hosts A Celebration Of MilitaryMothers Event

Trump slams Merck CEO after resignation from White House council

08/14/17 10:47AM

Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of Merck, one of the nation's largest pharmaceutical companies, announced this morning that he's resigning as a member of Donald Trump's American Manufacturing Council. Apparently, the president's reaction to white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville was simply too much.

"As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism," Frazier explained.

With remarkable efficiency, Trump returned fire with an angry tweet.

"Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President's Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!"

It's hard not to appreciate the irony: Merck's CEO resigned because Trump wouldn't denounce white supremacists. The president responded, not by condemning dangerous radicals, but by blasting ... Merck's CEO.

Also note the speed with which Trump can move when he wants to. Facing criticism that he was slow to speak out on Saturday's deadly violence -- the president published an underwhelming tweet hours after the fact, and still hasn't condemned the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville -- Trump went after Ken Frazier by name less than an hour after the Merck chief's statement.

If he'd invested this much energy in condemning white supremacists on Saturday, Trump wouldn't be in this mess.

It's a reminder, of course, that nothing motivates this president like a sense of grievance in response to a personal slight. Trump isn't especially concerned by criticisms of the United States, but affronts to him personally are nearly always met with swift and angry rebukes.

Those who praise Trump, meanwhile, can feel confident that they will remain in the president's good graces -- indefinitely and unconditionally.

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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP-PENCE

After Trump's Charlottesville debacle, Pence admonishes media

08/14/17 10:00AM

Vice President Mike Pence is in Colombia today, where he specifically condemned the American radicals responsible for Saturday's deadly violence in Charlottesville. "We will not tolerate hatred and violence of groups like white supremacists, the KKK and neo-Nazis," he told NBC News. "These extremist fringe groups have no place in the American debate."

Had Donald Trump said the same thing on Saturday, the White House wouldn't be scrambling to mitigate the damage done by the president's fiasco.

But the vice president didn't just condemn the racists the president chose not to single out; Pence also tried to redirect the criticisms towards the media.

Pence said he took issue with "the fact that many in the media are spending more time criticizing how the president addressed the issue yesterday."

"Many in the media spent an awful lot of time focusing on what the president said and criticisms of what the president said instead of criticizing those who brought that hatred and violence to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia," Pence said.

It's a problematic defense. Trump faced criticism -- from the left, right, and center -- because much is expected from a president, especially after developments like those we saw on Saturday, and Trump failed to clear a low bar. For Pence to suggest everyone leave the president alone, and focus criticisms solely on the white supremacists, misses the point.

But just as important, it wasn't just "the media" that recognized Trump's failure.

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Image: Donald Trump, Neil Gorsuch, Anthony Kennedy

Revisiting an old Trump question: 'Are we living in Nazi Germany?'

08/14/17 09:20AM

Donald Trump's criticisms of U.S. intelligence agencies have been provocative for quite a while, but perhaps the lowest point came when Trump suggested American intelligence professionals had acted like Nazis.

In January, shortly before the president was inaugurated, the public learned about Christopher Steele's dossier, which claimed, among other things, that Russia had compromising information on Trump. The Republican did not take the news well, launching into one of his more vituperative Twitter tantrums, which culminated in this missive:

"Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to 'leak' into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?"

A few hours after publishing his tweet, the then-president-elect re-emphasized his argument during a press conference, insisting that he believes it was "disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out." He added, "That's something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do."

As regular readers may recall, this didn't make sense for a wide variety of reasons, including basic historical details: of all the nightmares associated with Nazi Germany, leaks from intelligence agencies weren't the principal problem.

But Saturday's events in Charlottesville got me thinking anew about Trump's message from January.

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GOP senator: racist groups think 'they have a friend' in Trump

08/14/17 08:40AM

In the wake of the deadly violence in Charlottesville on Saturday, Donald Trump had an opportunity to condemn white supremacists and their agenda. He instead denounced hatred "on many sides."

Those who might want to give the president the benefit of the doubt have an added challenge to contend with: the context created by recent history.

Trump, who rose to political prominence by peddling a racist conspiracy theory, was a different kind of presidential candidate in a variety of ways, but his overt use of racial politics was a radical departure from what Americans have grown accustomed to in recent years. In February 2016, for example, after Trump balked at denouncing David Duke and the KKK, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said, "We cannot be a party [that] nominates someone who refuses to condemn white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan."

Rachel had an op-ed in the Washington Post the same day, asking what it said about the contemporary GOP that Trump enjoyed such enthusiastic support from white nationalists and neo-Nazis.

Republican voters, however, were unmoved. As 2016 progressed, and Trump secured his party's nomination, the campaign became a source of inspiration for white nationalists, culminating in the KKK's official newspaper expressing support for the Republican nominee just a week before Election Day.

Those attitudes haven't faded.

During a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. on Saturday, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke said the event is in line with President Trump's "promises."

"This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back," Duke said. "We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That's what we believed in. That's why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he's going to take our country back."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) explained yesterday, "These groups seem to believe they have a friend in Donald Trump in the White House."

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Image: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks on the protests in Charlottesville Virginia from his golf estate in Bedminster New Jersey

Donald Trump can't stop failing tests of moral leadership

08/14/17 08:00AM

The American presidency, Franklin Roosevelt once said, is "preeminently a place of moral leadership." It helps explain why Donald Trump is failing so spectacularly: the current occupant of the Oval Office has no real interest in providing moral leadership, or even learning how.

The president was already scheduled to speak on Saturday afternoon -- his remarks were supposed to focus on veterans' issues -- and interest in his remarks grew in the wake of the deadly violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia. This was a unique opportunity for Trump to speak out clearly and forcefully against a societal scourge.

But instead of being the president America needed, Donald Trump was Donald Trump

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence -- on many sides, on many sides."

After referencing low unemployment and other economic developments he's eager to take credit for, the president added, "We must love each other, respect each other, and cherish our history." Trump then transitioned back to his original remarks, explaining how pleased he with a new law that makes it easier for him to fire people who work at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The president made no specific reference to the white supremacists responsible for Saturday's violence. Trump, preferring to remain maddeningly vague, could've condemned neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and terrorists -- when someone deliberately uses a car as a weapon, driving into a crowd, no other word is appropriate -- but he chose not to.

Instead, Trump turned his attention to hatred, bigotry, and violence "on many sides," as if white supremacists and their opponents are equally culpable for the unrest in Charlottesville.

In the face of bipartisan rebukes, the White House eventually condemned white supremacists in a written statement, but it was not only too late, it was also attributed to an unnamed White House official -- not the president. The attempt at damage control did little to stem the tide of public revulsion. On the contrary, phrases such as "cherish our history" were seen as possible dog-whistle comments, intended to pander to the same people he should've been denouncing.

Faced with yet another test of presidential leadership, Trump flunked -- again.

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Friday's Mini-Report, 8.11.17

08/11/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* He won't stop talking: "President Donald Trump on Friday warned North Korea's leader that he 'will not get away with' it if he does anything against the U.S. or its allies."

* China "won't come to North Korea's help if it launches missiles threatening U.S. soil and there is retaliation, a state-owned newspaper warned Friday, but it would intervene if Washington strikes first."

* Where GOP loyalties lie: "Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's colleagues are largely rallying around him amid the ongoing attacks from President Donald Trump."

* In case you missed last night's coverage, Paul Manafort now has a new legal team.

* In related news: "Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's son-in-law, Jeffrey Yohai, met with Department of Justice investigators in recent months, according to two sources familiar with the matter."

* Did he forget what he's already said on this? "President Trump said on Thursday that he had not considered firing Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the election, contradicting private statements the president has made to his aides and friends about his desire to dismiss Mr. Mueller."

* The guy clearly has a paperwork problem: "Jared Kushner, who has spent months divesting pieces of his vast business empire to serve in the White House, was slapped with a fine by the Office of Government Ethics for late reporting of a financial transaction, according to a newly released document."

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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

'Crazy' memo emerges from member of Trump's national security team

08/11/17 05:02PM

After H.R. McMaster replaced Michael Flynn as the White House National Security Advisor, McMaster had the unenviable task of forcing out some of the outlandish officials Flynn had placed on the National Security Council. That may not sound difficult, but Flynn brought some truly bizarre figures to the NSC, they had allies, and getting rid of them proved challenging.

Slowly but surely, however, McMaster made progress, and last week, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who ran the NSC's intelligence division, was ousted, following on the heels of Tera Dahl, the NSC's deputy chief of staff, and Rich Higgins, the director of strategic planning.

It's that last one that's proving to be extra interesting.

Higgins' departure was reportedly prompted by a conspiratorial memo he wrote, describing mysterious forces that were plotting against Donald Trump, including globalists, Marxists, bankers, the media, the "deep state," academicians, Islamists, and even the Republican establishment. Foreign Policy magazine published the memo yesterday, and it's hard to overstate how utterly bizarre it is -- especially for someone who served on the White House National Security Council.

Indeed, reading Higgins' memo, it's hard not to wonder how he was even let in the building.

But that's not the most salient question. For that, consider this excerpt from the Foreign Policy article:

Among those who received the memo, according to two sources, was Donald Trump Jr.

Trump Jr., at that time in the glare of media scrutiny around his meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower during the presidential campaign, gave the memo to his father, who gushed over it, according to sources.

In a comedy of errors, Trump later learned from Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and close friend of the president, that the memo's author had been fired. Trump was "furious," the senior administration official said. "He is still furious."

Even for this White House, this story is completely bonkers.

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Paul Manafort of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's staff listens during a round table discussion on security at Trump Tower in the Manhattan borough of New York, Aug. 17, 2016. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Trump says Manafort was on his team 'for a very short period'

08/11/17 04:14PM

Donald Trump was asked yesterday about his opinion on the FBI raiding the home of Paul Manafort, the president's former campaign chairman. Trump replied:

"I thought it was a very, very strong signal, or whatever. I know Mr. Manafort -- I haven't spoken to him in a long time, but I know him. He was with the campaign, as you know, for a very short period of time, relatively short period of time."

This is clearly the line Trump World has embraced with both arms. Then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer described Manafort in March as someone "who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time." Soon after, Spicer told reporters that Manafort was only part of the campaign operation "for five months."

The point is hardly subtle: as the seriousness of the Trump-Russia scandal intensifies, and Manafort's potential legal jeopardy comes into focus, it stands to reason the president and his team are going to respond to questions with answers like, "Paul who?"

But there's no reason to take the defense, such as it is, seriously. Manafort effectively ran the campaign when Trump secured and accepted the Republican Party's presidential nomination. By their own admission, members of Team Trump touted Manafort for being "in charge" of Trump's political operation, "leading" the campaign team.

Without the benefit of a time machine, it's a little late to put distance between the president and his former campaign chairman.

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Image: Donald Trump, Andrzej Duda

Trump offers a timely reminder: he's not going to get better

08/11/17 01:07PM

For reasons that still aren't entirely clear, Donald Trump interrupted his vacation this week to announce that he'd respond to North Korean threats with "fire and fury like the world has never seen." Soon after, White House aides quietly tried to walk back the president's saber-rattling, throwing water on the simmering fire.

Which apparently led Trump to reach for the lighter fluid. Speaking yesterday from one his golf resorts, the president said -- three times -- that his "fire and fury" comments perhaps "wasn't tough enough." Asked what would be tougher than "fire and fury," he responded, "Well, you'll see. You'll see."

Determined to escalate matters a little more, Trump turned to Twitter this morning.

"Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely," Trump tweeted Friday morning. "Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!"

Moments later, he retweeted a message from the U.S. Pacific Command's official Twitter account, stating that "#USAF B-1B Lancer #bombers on Guam stand ready to fulfill USFK's #FightTonight mission if called upon to do so."

Obviously, there's nothing helpful about provocative posturing like this, but it's not altogether clear what the president is saying. Trump wants everyone to believe "military solutions" are "fully in place, locked and loaded," but what exactly does that mean? Which "solution" to which problem? Because if the president is suggesting the United States military is "fully in place" in preparation for a conflict with a nuclear-armed enemy, that's not entirely true.

We certainly have extensive military resources in the region, but it'd take time and resources to get "fully in place" for a war, and that hasn't happened -- at least not yet -- and this is an inopportune moment for another round of hapless Trump bluffing.

But putting this in the larger context, the president's dangerous morning messages served as a reminder that Trump really isn't getting any better at doing this job.

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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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