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A laptop in use. (Photo by TEK/Science Photo Library/Corbis)

White House staffers turn to 'secret chat app' for private messages

02/14/17 10:50AM

An item in Slate the other day introduced me to an app I'd never heard of.
On Wednesday, Axios reported that, spooked by the Democratic National Committee hack, "numerous senior GOP operatives and several members of the Trump administration" are using Confide, an encrypted messaging app. Confide self-destructs messages once they are read, promising that they will be "gone forever" -- or at least wiped from your device and from Confide's servers.
The preferred technology of "senior GOP operatives" is of little interest, but if "several members of the Trump administration" are using communications apps that delete their messages instantly, there's a potential problem. As the Slate piece added, "At the White House, all official business correspondence is supposed to take place over White House email for preservation purposes."

But are members of Donald Trump's team honoring what's "supposed to" happen? By some accounts, no. The Washington Post reported overnight:
Upset about damaging leaks of his calls with world leaders and other national security information, Trump has ordered an internal investigation to find the leakers. Staffers, meanwhile, are so fearful of being accused of talking to the media that some have resorted to a secret chat app -- Confide -- that erases messages as soon as they're read.
Seriously? We just finished a presidential campaign in which Hillary Clinton's communications were considered the single most important issue confronting the nation, and three weeks into the Trump administration, White House staffers are already using tools that may help them circumvent the Presidential Records Act?
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Image: President Trump Arrives In West Palm Beach With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe For Weekend At Mar-a-Lago

What Donald Trump considers the 'real story'

02/14/17 10:17AM

Donald Trump, who has a voracious appetite for cable news and media chatter, is clearly aware of the scandal surrounding his White House, his up-until-last-night National Security Advisor, and Vladimir Putin's Russian government. The president himself hasn't much to say about the matter specifically, however, and Trump called on conservative media figures at recent press conferences in order to avoid awkward questions.

With that in mind, the president's tweet this morning raised a few eyebrows.
"The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?"
This may actually be the best line he can come up with, so let's unpack it a bit.

First, up until quite recently, Trump loved illegal leaks related to Hillary Clinton and the DNC, and blamed Democrats for not taking better care of their secrets. Were it not for illegal leaks, the president would almost certainly not be in the White House today.

Second, we're not entirely dependent on leaks in this scandal. Michael Flynn acknowledged, in writing, that the information he shared with his colleagues was not exactly true. That and the related scandal is "the real story," whether Trump likes it or not.

And finally, the president wants to know if there will be additional leaks as he deals with North Korea. I can't say for sure, of course, but it's a distinct possibility: Trump responded to North Korea's ballistic missile launch by holding an impromptu meeting, at an outdoor terrace, surrounded by civilians, while reading sensitive materials by cell-phone light.

Maybe it's a little late in the game for Trump to raise concerns about North Korea-related leaks?
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Donald Trump's campaign manager Kellyanne Conway speaks to the media while entering Trump Tower on Nov. 14, 2016 in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty)

White House claims about Flynn, Russia scandal draw fresh scrutiny

02/14/17 09:29AM

Aboard Air Force One on Friday, a reporter asked Donald Trump to respond to reports that his then-National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, had discussed sanctions with Russia before taking office. "I don't know about it," the president said. "I haven't seen it. What report is that?"

Reminded about the news accounts dominating the political conversation, Trump continued to claim ignorance. "I haven't seen that," he added. "I'll look into that."

So, four days later, it's worth asking whether the president straight-up lied in his answer.

According to multiple reports, the Justice Department informed the White House in late January -- at least two weeks ago -- about its concerns that Michael Flynn could be subject to blackmail from Russian officials. A Washington Post report last night added an interesting detail:
A senior Trump administration official said before Flynn's resignation that the White House was aware of the matter, adding that "we've been working on this for weeks."
Hmm. So the Trump White House has known for weeks about Flynn's apparent lies, and Trump aides have spent weeks working on forcing Flynn out of the administration. But as recently as Friday, the president himself was completely in the dark about the controversy?

It creates an awkward political dynamic for the president. Trump either (a) knew what was going on, lied on camera, and was prepared to ignore the scandal indefinitely; or (b) was a hopelessly inept manager who had no idea what was going on around him with his top aides, including one who's accused of having potentially illegal conversations with a foreign adversary.

I'm eager to hear from the White House which of these scenarios is true.
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Government Shutdown Looms on Capitol Hill

How far will Republicans go to ignore Trump's Russia scandal?

02/14/17 08:45AM

The need for congressional investigations into the Trump White House's Russia scandal has never been more obvious. The fact that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has been forced to resign only helps shine a light on the seriousness of this dramatic controversy, making it that much more difficult for even the laziest and most partisan White House allies on Capitol Hill to look the other way.

But they may very well try anyway. The Hill had this report yesterday afternoon.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) says he expects embattled national security adviser Michael Flynn to keep his job amid controversy over his talks with the Russian ambassador.

"It just seems like there's a lot of nothing there," Nunes told Bloomberg News on Monday.
Note, as chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes -- who served proudly as a member of Donald Trump's transition team -- has access to the nation's most sensitive intelligence. The California Republican is in a position to know, for example, that Flynn apparently lied about his communications with a foreign adversary, which launched an illegal espionage operation to help put Trump in the White House.

But Nunes, as of yesterday afternoon, apparently found all of this rather dull. The GOP congressman went so far as to say, "I have great confidence in Michael Flynn."

Nunes even lauded Flynn in writing after Trump's NSA was forced by the weight of his scandal to quit.

In case this isn't already obvious, leading the House Intelligence Committee is an important position. When it's led by a sycophantic partisan, reflexively repeating ridiculous talking points and showing indifference towards intelligence-related scandals, the system of checks and balances cannot work as it's designed to.
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Image: President Trump and Prime Minister Abe Press Conference at White House

Michael Flynn resigns as the White House's Russia scandal intensifies

02/14/17 08:00AM

Yesterday afternoon, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway appeared on MSNBC and assured the public that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn enjoys Donald Trump's "full confidence." That turned out to be far from true.

Just a few hours later, the Washington Post reported that the Justice Department informed the Trump White House last month that Flynn not only gave false information to his colleagues about his talks with Vladimir Putin's government, but also that the national security adviser "was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail." That information went to Donald McGahn, the president's White House counsel, but "it is unclear what [McGhan] did with the information."

Soon after, the New York Times reported that Flynn was also being investigated for money he may have received "from the Russian government during a trip he took to Moscow in 2015."

The result was unavoidable.
Michael Flynn abruptly quit as President Donald Trump's national security adviser Monday night, hours after it emerged that the Justice Department informed the White House that it believed he could be subject to blackmail.

The resignation also came after previous disclosures that Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other senior officials about his communications with Sergey Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the United States. Pence repeated the misinformation in television appearances.
In terms of the nation's interests, Flynn's departure, after just three weeks on the job, is an encouraging development. He was, by almost any measure, a ridiculous choice for National Security Advisor, not only because of his controversial connections to foreign governments, but also because Flynn has been a bombastic, right-wing conspiracy theorist in recent years. The NSA has to deal with the most sensitive information available, and the idea that Flynn was chiefly responsible for guiding the president's thinking on security matters was, to put it mildly, unsettling.

But the key area of interest right now is the increasingly dramatic scandal surrounding the White House. It's likely that Republican partisans and Trump's allies will argue that Flynn's resignation effectively brings the matter to an end.

That's backwards. Flynn's resignation doesn't resolve the underlying scandal; it takes the controversy to the next level.
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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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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP

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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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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