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FBI Director James B. Comey listens to a question from a reporter during a media conference in San Francisco, Calif., Feb. 27, 2014. (Photo by Ben Margot/AP)

Comey memo may prove to be a smoking gun for Trump

05/17/17 08:00AM

About a week after his presidential inauguration, Donald Trump had dinner with then-FBI Director James Comey, and at the time, the president reportedly asked about the investigation into the Russia scandal and sought a loyalty pledge from Comey. Given the circumstances, the dinner discussion looked a bit like obstruction of justice.

Later, when the president said he fired Comey because of Trump's dissatisfaction with the investigation into the Russia scandal, the admitted details looked even more like obstruction of justice.

New York Times' report, published late yesterday, appears to remove any sense of subtlety from the conversation about the scandal.
President Trump asked the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, to shut down the federal investigation into Mr. Trump's former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, in an Oval Office meeting in February, according to a memo Mr. Comey wrote shortly after the meeting.

"I hope you can let this go," the president told Mr. Comey, according to the memo.
It's important to note that the memo was contemporaneous with the events. This isn't a case in which an aggrieved fired official, eager to punish the president who ended his career, is reflecting on a discussion that happened months prior; rather, this is an instance in which Comey kept a paper trail, documenting developments as they occurred.

The White House, not surprisingly, is denying the accuracy of the report -- interestingly, the written statement from the West Wing wasn't attributed to any one individual official -- but given what remains of Trump World's shredded credibility, it's difficult to take the denials seriously.
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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 5.16.17

05/16/17 05:37PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Awkward diplomacy: "President Donald Trump welcomed Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan Tuesday to the White House amid tensions over the U.S. arming Kurdish militias in Syria to help push ISIS out of Raqqa and Turkish extradition demands for Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric accused of organizing last year's failed coup."

* Seems reasonable: "A growing number of Republican and Democratic lawmakers are calling on President Trump to hand over the transcript of the White House meeting last week in which he revealed highly classified information to Russia's foreign minister and ambassador, according to current and former U.S. officials."

* Replacing Comey, Part I: "After interviewing to lead the FBI -- and the nation's investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia -- on Saturday, Sen. John Cornyn pulled his name from consideration Tuesday. He drops out amid a flurry of explosive reports that the president gave highly classified intelligence to Russian diplomats."

* Replacing Comey, Part II: "Rep. Trey Gowdy took himself out of the running to be the new FBI director, saying Monday that he doesn't feel like he'd be the right pick."

* North Carolina: "Gov. Roy Cooper (D) vowed Tuesday to issue an executive order 'pretty soon' to increase protections for LGBTQ people in the state. The pledge follows the state's partial repeal of HB2, a law barring local governments from passing any anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay and transgender people."

* All is not well at the State Department: "The White House issued a statement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after the publication of a Washington Post report saying that Trump had revealed highly sensitive intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak in the course of a conversation about ISIS. The only issue: State Department officials had no idea the statement had come out, learning about it only from CNN."
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Image: National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster

Trump's National Security Advisor comes up with the wrong defense

05/16/17 04:59PM

Nine times. White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster hosted a press briefing today in which he said, nine times, that Donald Trump sharing classified information with Russian officials in a private meeting was "wholly appropriate."

As the Washington Post noted, that wasn't much of an argument.
Here's the thing: It's very likely that what Trump did in that meeting with Russia was legal ... but that's not the same as saying that it was appropriate or helpful or not damaging to national security. The president has broad authority to declassify information that he feels the need to share, but sharing this information willy nilly with adversarial foreign powers -- including one with very different goals in Syria -- would seem to raise obvious red flags.

The standard put forward by McMaster for what is not only legal but also appropriate means that basically anything the president might share is appropriate, simply by virtue of it coming from the president.... To take this to a ridiculous extreme: If Trump decided to broadcast the nuclear codes live on Fox News, by McMaster's logic, as long as Trump deemed this necessary for national security purposes, it would be appropriate.
But in between incessant references to what he thinks may be "wholly appropriate," the president's national security advisor seemed to accidentally add an important detail: Trump, McMaster said, wasn't even "aware of where this [intelligence] came from. He wasn't briefed on the source of this information."

Moments later, McMaster said he had to go, and as a result, there was no follow-up Q&A.
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Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks to the media on June 3, 2016 in Doral, Fla. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

Republicans change their tune on the mishandling of classified info

05/16/17 04:17PM

On July 5, 2016, then-FBI Director James Comey said Hillary Clinton wouldn't be indicted over her email server protocols, but Comey nevertheless said the former secretary of state had been "extremely careless" in the way in which she handled classified information. For Republicans, that criticism was a launching pad.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), for example, almost immediately said Clinton's "mishandling of classified information was disgraceful and unbecoming of someone who aspires to the presidency. There is simply no excuse.... Her actions were grossly negligent, damaged national security and put lives at risk."

Asked today about Donald Trump sharing highly sensitive secrets with Russia, Rubio said the president's careless is "less than ideal," but the Florida Republican added, "It is what it is."
Hmm. It's almost as if Rubio has two entirely different standards. [Update: See below]

Two days after Rubio's Clinton condemnation, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) called for intelligence agencies to deny Clinton intelligence briefings for the rest of the campaign season. The message was straightforward:
"It's simple: Individuals who are ‘extremely careless’ [with] classified info should be denied further access to it."
The day before Ryan's declaration, 14 Republican senators introduced legislation to revoke Clinton's security clearance and demand that anyone in the executive branch who shows "extreme carelessness" in their handling of classified information be denied access to that information.

The same day, then-RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said those who've mishandled classified information "have had their security clearances revoked, lost their jobs, faced fines, and even been sent to prison." Soon after, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked, "What do I say to the marines in my district when Hillary Clinton handles classified information in a careless way yet has no ramifications?"

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) argued in the fall that even the possibility of exposing sensitive intelligence to foreign adversaries is "treason."

And then, of course, there's Donald J. Trump.
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Image: First Lady Melania Trump Hosts A Celebration Of MilitaryMothers Event

Scandals prompt discussion about the future of Trump's presidency

05/16/17 12:53PM

There was a great moment on "Saturday Night Live" over the weekend, with a sketch in which "Donald Trump" was being interviewed by "Lester Holt" -- both portrayed by actors, of course -- and the subject turned to the president's firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Trump, in the sketch, said he fired Comey because of the investigation into the Russia scandal, which led to this exchange:
HOLT: But that's obstruction of justice.

TRUMP: Sure, OK.

HOLT: Wait, so, did I get him? Is this all over? [Finger to earpiece, as if talking to a producer] Oh, no, I didn't? Nothing matters? Absolutely nothing matters anymore?
The truth at the core of the sketch is hard to overlook. There are some important complexities to the Russia scandal, but last week's revelations were straightforward: the president of the United States, furious about an intensifying investigation into his political operation, fired the FBI director in order to help end the investigation. This followed revelations that the president also personally pressed Comey to be loyal to Team Trump -- during Comey's counter-espionage investigation into Team Trump.

As Vox's Dylan Matthews added yesterday, "[W]ithout any more information than we already have, we already know Trump's conduct is almost as outrageous as what [Richard] Nixon acknowledged in the smoking gun tape."

Last week, to this extent, was a turning point: we saw a confused president who doesn't know enough about his office or its constraints to lie effectively about his own misconduct. Trump effectively told the world, "My obstructions of justice are tremendous. They're huge. Some people say I'm obstructing justice better than anyone ever."

The cliche about smoke and fire has little value in a case like this. We've already arrived at the flame, watching a president stand over it, match in hand, eager to boast that no one could've set a more impressive blaze.

And just in case this weren't quite enough to send voters to Google, looking for information on how a president can be removed from office, Trump also appears to have shared highly classified secrets with Russia for reasons no one has yet explained.

Which, naturally, has sparked another round of conversation about whether Trump's presidency will reach January 20, 2021.
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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.16.17

05/16/17 12:00PM

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

* In the new Public Policy Polling survey, the Democratic advantage on the generic congressional ballot has reached double digits: 49% to 38%. That's up from a six-point advantage last month. A Quinnipiac poll released last week showed Dems with a 16-point lead on the generic ballot.

* Hillary Clinton has launched a new organization called Onward Together, which is intended to encourage progressives "to get involved, organize, and even run for office."

* In Georgia's congressional special election, much of the Republican message against Jon Ossoff (D) has focused on his out-of-state support. It was therefore a little odd to hear his opponent, Karen Handel (R) boast to supporters about her out-of-state supporters.

* In Virginia's gubernatorial primary, a new Washington Post-Schar School poll shows Ed Gillespie, a former RNC chair and George W. Bush aide, with "a commanding lead." The primary is scheduled for June 13.

* The same poll found that Donald Trump's approval rating in Virginia is down to just 36%.

* Speaking of the Commonwealth, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer will headline a fundraiser on Thursday for the Republican Party of Virginia. The event will be held at a Trump-owned venue, raising ethical questions Team Trump prefers to ignore.
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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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