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Friday's Mini-Report, 5.12.17

05/12/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A brutal step backwards: "Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors this week to seek the maximum punishment for drug offenses, in one of the clearest breaks yet from the policies of the Justice Department under the Obama administration."

* Not the answer we were looking for: "Fired FBI Director James Comey turned down an invitation to be interviewed by the Senate Intelligence Committee next week, according to that panel's leading Democrat. Asked on MSNBC Friday afternoon if he believed it was 'critical' to speak to Comey, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) affirmed that it was, but said 'he won't be testifying on Tuesday' as he was invited to do."

* On a related note: "The Senate Intelligence Committee is exploring ways to compel President Donald Trump to hand over any potential audio recordings of now-former FBI Director James Comey, an aide with the committee told HuffPost."

* That's ridiculously close: "A Russian fighter jet came within about 20 feet of a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft over the Black Sea earlier this week, an American official said."

* Sunlight often makes a difference: "The real estate company owned by the family of Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior adviser to President Trump, said on Friday that its employees would no longer take part in a cross-country roadshow in China this month."

* Michelle Obama "on Friday criticized a Trump administration decision to delay federal rules aimed at making school lunch healthier, saying kids will end up 'eating crap' instead."

* Florida: "Corrine Brown, a former longtime United States representative from Florida, was convicted on Thursday of taking for herself thousands of dollars in donations that were meant to fund student scholarships."

* As a public service, the Washington Post "compiled a timeline of the shifting rhetoric by Trump and his staff" about the James Comey firing. I found it quite helpful.
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Image: Sean Spicer

White House doesn't deny Trump recording conversations

05/12/17 04:37PM

Donald Trump jolted the political world this morning, making a not-so-veiled threat towards former FBI Director James Comey via Twitter, saying Comey "better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"

Among other things, this raised the specter of previously unknown recordings of Trump's conversations with Comey -- and any number of other discussions the president has held in the White House.

To no one's surprise, the White House press corps was eager to hear more about the topic Trump raised.
The White House did not deny on Friday that President Donald Trump taped meetings with his former FBI director -- or that the president may be recording conversations in the Oval Office.

"The president has nothing further to add on that," White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said at the daily briefing when asked several times by reporters about the president's tweet Friday morning referring to "tapes" of Comey.
No one should blame reporters for a lack of effort. Does Trump have recordings of Comey? "The president has nothing further to add on that," Spicer said. Are there recording devices in the Oval Office? "The president has nothing further to add on that," Spicer said. Are there recordings in the White House residence? "The president has nothing further to add on that," Spicer said.

The beleaguered press secretary eventually said Trump's tweet "speaks for itself" -- which hardly seems sufficient, given that it prompted so many questions -- and that he's "moving on" from any questions on the matter.

Spicer may be disappointed to learn no one else seems to be moving on.
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Image: President Trump meets With Prime Minister Of Denmark Lars Lokke Rasmussen In The Oval Office

Controversial Oval Office meeting was held at Putin's request

05/12/17 04:01PM

Why in the world did Donald Trump welcome Russian officials into the Oval Office this week, the day after the president fired FBI Director James Comey over his investigation into the Russian scandal? A White House spokesman said this week Trump hosted the gathering "because [Vladimir Putin] asked him to."

In his interview with NBC News' Lester Holt yesterday, Trump elaborated on the subject.
"When I spoke with Putin, he asked me whether or not I would see [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov]. Now what do I, should I say, 'No, I'm not gonna see him'? I said I will see him."
It's worth noting that Trump very easily could've said, "No, I'm not gonna see him." Russia did, after all, attack our democracy last year with an illegal espionage operation. The American president certainly has no obligation to accept requests from the Russian president.

Indeed, David Cohen, the former deputy director of the CIA, noted to MNSBC's Andrea Mitchell yesterday how striking it was to see the president having a grand old time in the Oval Office with a Russian who's a potential figure in an FBI investigation.

But can we pause to note just how controversial this meeting has become? And the degree to which the seriousness has escalated this week?
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Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-TRUMP

Denying Russia ties, Trump's lawyers point to secret tax returns

05/12/17 12:46PM

In his interview yesterday with NBC News' Lester Holt, Donald Trump was asked about whether he or his family "have any accepted investments, any loans" from Russia. The president said, "I have no investments in Russia, none whatsoever. I don't have property in Russia.... I built a great company, but I'm not involved with Russia."

Note the disconnect between the question and the answer. The anchor asked about money he may have received from Russia, not investments he's made in Russia.

The Associated Press had a related report this morning, noting fresh pushback from the president's private legal team.
Lawyers for President Donald Trump's said Friday that a review of his last 10 years of tax returns do not reflect "any income of any type from Russian sources," with some exceptions. It's the latest attempt by the president to tamp down concerns about any Russian ties amid an ongoing investigation of his campaign's associates.

The attorneys did not release copies of Trump's tax returns, so The Associated Press cannot independently verify their conclusions. Their review also notably takes into account only Trump's returns from the past 10 years, leaving open questions about whether there were financial dealings with Russia in earlier years.

In a letter released to the AP, the attorneys said there is no equity investment by Russians in entities controlled by Trump or debt owed by Trump to Russian lenders.
The "exceptions" apparently includes money he received from selling a home to a Russian billionaire in 2008 and from hosting the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013, both of which he mentioned in yesterday's NBC interview.

And while this is certainly interesting, the assurances from Trump's lawyers are difficult to accept at face value. They are, after all, pointing to tax returns the president could release, but instead chooses to keep secret for reasons he hasn't fully explained.

There's also the suggestion this week from former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that reviews of Trump's business dealings in Russia are part of an ongoing investigation.
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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.12.17

05/12/17 12:00PM

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

* USA Today reports that a coalition of progressive groups, including End Citizens United and Every Voice, are launching new ads today in eight states, urging Republican senators to support an independent investigation into the Russia scandal.

* The White House and the National Republican Congressional Campaign are reportedly at odds over special-election strategies and "who is in charge" of the party's midterm campaign efforts.

* In Montana's congressional special election, Republican Greg Gianforte says he doesn't accept corporate PAC money, but he nevertheless referred industry PACs last week to "our Victory Fund."

* In Alabama's upcoming U.S. Senate special election, the Republican field is growing, but on the Democratic side, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones entered the race this week. Jones is perhaps best known for having successfully prosecuted KKK members for a Birmingham church bombing.

* On a related note, Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.), the appointed incumbent, released a strange new ad this week in which he tried to distance himself from disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley (R).

* Donald Trump told NBC News that if the election were today, he'd "win by a lot more than I did on November 8th." A national Quinnipiac poll released this week showed the president with a 36% approval rating.
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The J. Edgar Hoover Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) building stands in Washington, D.C., Aug. 8, 2013. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

Trump 'would not be well-received' at FBI headquarters

05/12/17 11:20AM

There was quite a bit of chatter yesterday morning that Donald Trump would stop by FBI headquarters as a way of signaling support for the bureau in the wake of the president firing its director. It's easy to imagine the scene Trump envisioned: he'd stop by, shake a few hands, tell a few jokes, maybe hand out a few electoral maps, and win the FBI over with some presidential charm.

I was eager to see what kind of reception he'd receive, but the plan was apparently scrapped. NBC News explained why.
The White House has abandoned the idea of President Trump visiting FBI headquarters after being told he would not be greeted warmly, administration officials told NBC News.

Amid the continuing fallout over his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, Trump was considering an appearance at the FBI's J Edgar Hoover Building in downtown Washington, DC. The White House publicly floated the idea as recently as Thursday morning.
The report added that FBI officials told the White House "the optics" would be unkind: "FBI officials made clear that the president would not draw many smiles and cheers, having just unceremoniously sacked a very popular director."

One FBI employee told NBC, "My sense is most FBI employees feel a loyalty to Comey. And whether they agree or disagree with the way he handled the email case, like and respect him ... Trump would not be well-received at headquarters."

And if there's one thing that seems fairly clear about Trump's preferences, he doesn't like to go where he isn't going to be "well-received."
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The perils of defending Donald Trump

05/12/17 10:58AM

On Tuesday night, shortly after Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of Congress' more moderate Republicans, quickly endorsed the president's decision. What's more, the Maine senator anticipated concerns from White House critics, and dismissed them.

"Any suggestion that today's announcement is somehow an effort to stop the FBI's investigation of Russia's attempt to influence the election last fall is misplaced," Collins said, not realizing that Trump and White House aides would soon after connect Comey's firing with the Russia scandal.

The next morning, the Washington Post published a piece from Hugh Hewitt, a prominent conservative pundit, who embraced the message the White House encouraged Trump's defenders to repeat.
Anyone who thinks this is connected to a coverup of "Russian collusion" has to believe that both [Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein] and [Attorney General Jeff Sessions] would participate in such a corrupt scheme. I don't. It is, in fact, absurd to think that. Reread the Rosenstein memo -- a few times. There's the story. Comey was wrong in July, wrong in subsequent statements, wrong as recently as last week and refused to admit error.

The story is a straight-line one, and it's about Rosenstein.
What Hewitt had no way of knowing when he wrote this is that the White House would soon after abandon the "it's about Rosenstein" narrative. In fact, Donald Trump himself said yesterday that Rosenstein's memo on Comey was irrelevant -- the president had already decided to fire the FBI director regardless of what Justice Department officials recommended -- and he was motivated to fire Comey because of the Russia scandal.

Consider all of the assorted partisans and pundits this week who stuck up for Trump, defended his abuse, and said with a straight face that Comey's firing was completely unrelated to the FBI's investigation into the Russia scandal. Then consider how they must have felt yesterday when the president they tried to support cut them off at the knees.

It must be exhausting being a Trump supporter, knowing that even if you're loyal, even if you're sycophantic, even if you say and do exactly what the West Wing implores you to say and do, the president may decide to impulsively switch directions and undermine your credibility without so much as a warning.

You may stick out your neck for this administration, only to have Trump himself lower the proverbial sword.
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Image: U.S.  President Trump listens during joint news conference with NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg at the White House in Washington

Trump threatens Comey with provocative reference to 'tapes'

05/12/17 10:12AM

Donald Trump had the latest in a series of Twitter tantrums this morning, which wouldn't ordinarily be especially notable, except this one included what appeared to be a provocative threat:
"James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"
As 19-word presidential missives go, this may be prove to be quite consequential.

On the surface, Trump's tweet appears to be a not-so-veiled threat against the former FBI director, whom the president fired this week because of Trump's opposition to Comey's investigation into the Russia scandal. This, in and of itself, is outrageously inappropriate and of dubious legality.

Indeed, the fact that the president is publicly warning a potential witness to remain quiet only adds to concerns about Trump possibly obstructing justice. Norm Eisen, the chief ethics lawyer in the Obama White House, characterized the president's tweet this morning as a possible crime.

But then there's that reference to "tapes."
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Image: FILES-US-POLITICS-RUSSIA-SECURITY-FLYNN

Trump struggles to explain Michael Flynn controversy

05/12/17 09:24AM

Perhaps the president could explain what he considers an "emergency."
President Donald Trump defended the delay in firing former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in exclusive interview on Thursday with NBC News' Lester Holt.

There was an 18-day gap between the heads up from former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates regarding Flynn's activities with the Russians and his removal by the White House.

"(White House counsel Don) McGahn came back to me and did not sound like an emergency," Trump said of Yates' information about Flynn.
Hmm. President Obama had warned Trump about Michael Flynn; there were multiple news accounts on Flynn receiving money from Russia; and then the acting U.S. Attorney General warned the White House -- multiple times -- that the White House National Security Advisor had been compromised by Russia and was vulnerable to a foreign adversary's blackmail.

Trump heard this and thought it "did not sound like an emergency." In fact, the president decided to do nothing and continued to provide Flynn with access to the nation's most sensitive secrets.

In yesterday's interview with NBC News' Lester Holt, Trump added, "This man (Flynn) has served for many years, he's a general, he's a -- in my opinion -- a very good person. I believe that it would be very unfair to hear from somebody who we don't even know and immediately run out and fire a general."

Even for Trump, this is bizarre. The person "we don't even know" referred to Sally Yates, who happens to be the Justice Department official that Trump named as acting Attorney General. She's also the one who told Trump's White House that Flynn was not only compromised, and not only lying about his Russian contacts, but that the "underlying conduct" Flynn was lying about was itself problematic.

And yet, at this point, Trump is still defending Flynn.
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Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence waits for the start of the third U.S. presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on Oct. 19, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nev. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

Mike Pence gets caught making yet another bogus claim

05/12/17 08:40AM

There's room for an interesting debate about who's ultimately to blame for Mike Pence's public falsehoods, but there's no denying the fact that the list of the vice president's bogus claims is getting longer. Politico reported yesterday:
Vice President Mike Pence has once again delivered the White House line, in the face of growing contradictory evidence, on a charged topic related to Russia's possible connections to the Trump campaign.

In meetings on Capitol Hill and in interviews, Pence has said this week that Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
In fact, Pence was rather specific when talking to reporters on Wednesday, saying, "Let me be very clear that the president's decision to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general to remove Director Comey as the head of the FBI was based solely and exclusively on his commitment to the best interests of the American people and to ensuring that the FBI has the trust and confidence of the people this nation."

We now know these comments weren't true -- because Pence's boss has now admitted as much. Trump acknowledged yesterday that his decision to fire the FBI director wasn't related to the Justice Department's recommendations, and wasn't "based solely and exclusively" on the national interest. On the contrary, the president said it was Comey's investigation into the Russia scandal that served as the motivation for the firing.

Pence also said Wednesday that it was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who "made the recommendation" on Comey, which Trump accepted. We now know that's not what happened: Trump told Rosenstein to write the memo to justify a decision the president had already made.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell on Wednesday that it's "a terrible thing to watch" the vice president undermine his own credibility this way. That's true, but let's not forget that it's also a terrible thing that Pence keeps doing this.
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Trump's admission bolsters allegations of obstruction of justice

05/12/17 08:00AM

As the controversy surrounding Donald Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey intensifies, one of the key questions is whether the president obstructed justice by firing the person overseeing the investigation into the Russia scandal. Trump's allies have gone to great lengths this week to argue that the firing and the investigation have nothing to do with one another.

The president, however, has now admitted that those defenses are wrong. In an interview with NBC News' Lester Holt yesterday, Trump admitted he was motivated by concerns about the Russia scandal when he decided to oust Comey from his FBI post.
"[W]hen I decided to just do it [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story."
About the same time as the interview, Trump's spokesperson also told reporters that by firing Comey, the White House has "taken steps" to end the investigation into the Russia scandal.

Democrats don't need to make the case that Trump obstructed justice; Trump and his team are doing it for them.

Perhaps you've seen a crime drama in which the smart detective sits down with a suspect and tries to cleverly get the accused to confess to the crime. In this case, however, the task is made far easier by the fact that the president has dropped the pretense of innocence. Trump is effectively admitting he's guilty.

And as Rachel noted on the show last night, the only appropriate remedy for a president who's obstructed justice is impeachment.
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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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