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The NRA-ILA Leadership Forum in Louisville, Ky. on May 20, 2016. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC)

The NRA offers a new count of its Russian contributors

04/11/18 04:40PM

Before getting into the latest on the National Rifle Association and its foreign contributors, some backstory is in order.

After the NRA’s campaign expenditures saw a dramatic jump in 2016, the group started fielding questions about the money’s sources. In fact, McClatchy News first reported in January that the FBI is exploring whether “a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money” to the NRA to help Trump win the presidency.

The same outlet reported soon after that a former NRA board member, had “concerns” about the group’s ties to Russia “and its possible involvement in channeling Russian funds into the 2016 elections.” Politico reported soon after that the Federal Election Commission has launched “a preliminary investigation into whether Russian entities gave illegal contributions” to the far-right group.

NPR moved the ball forward a bit with a new report two weeks ago, noting that the organization acknowledges accepting money from foreign sources, though the NRA denies anything improper.

But what about Russian donors specifically? Initially, the organization said it only had one Russian contributor. NPR reported today, however, that the group had now revised that total.

The National Rifle Association has accepted contributions from about 23 Russians, or Americans living in Russia, since 2015, the gun rights group acknowledged to Congress.

The NRA said in a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., unveiled on Wednesday, that the sum it received from those people was just over $2,500 and most of that was "routine payments" for membership dues or magazine subscriptions.

About $525 of that figure was from "two individuals who made contributions to the NRA."

In case this isn't obvious, given the enormous amount of money the NRA receives for its endeavors, these revised totals of donations from Russia represent a tiny percentage of the organization's budget and that of its affiliates.

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

Congressional retirements start to pile up

04/11/18 04:07PM

Just how many members of Congress are retiring this cycle? If you check with various news organizations, you're likely to get a variety of answers, and that's because this is a little more complicated than it probably should be.

The trick of it is figuring out exactly what counts as a "retirement." Do we count the House members who gave up their seats to join Donald Trump's cabinet? How about those who've already been replaced by way of a special election? Do resignations count? What do we do with Oklahoma's Jim Bridenstine, who was nominated to run NASA, but who's still casting votes in the House, and who may not be confirmed?

I've maintained my own list for several months, and with today's congressional retirement announcements, it seemed like a good time to take a look at the landscape as I see it:

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Image: US House of Representatives passes short-term measure to fund the government

Senators unveil bipartisan bill to shield Mueller from Trump

04/11/18 12:40PM

Last summer, when it seemed possible that Donald Trump would upend the investigation into the Russia scandal by firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, several lawmakers took steps to prevent that crisis. Those efforts are suddenly relevant anew,

Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), for example, unveiled a proposal that would allow Mueller to challenge his removal, bringing the matter to a three-judge panel for a legal review. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), meanwhile, worked on a measure that intended to give Mueller protections before he's ousted.

This morning, these same four senators unveiled the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, which combines the two proposals.

The bill would ensure that only a senior official at the Department of Justice has the authority to fire the special counsel and the reason would have to be provided in writing. The measure would also give the special counsel 10 days to seek judicial review to examine their removal to determine if the dismissal "was for good cause."

The legislation would ensure that documents, materials and staff working on the investigation are preserved.

"A nation of laws cannot exist if the people tasked with enforcing them are subjected to political interference or intimidation from the president," Booker said in a press statement. "The Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act will install a needed check and ensure that Special Counsel Mueller and his team -- and any future special counsels -- are able to follow the facts and the law wherever they lead. Congress must act to advance this bipartisan legislation as soon as possible without any further delay."

That seems like a reasonable suggestion, though I have a hunch GOP leaders will disagree about what "must" happen.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.11.18

04/11/18 12:00PM

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

* With House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) retiring, Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball ratings now list the race for his Wisconsin district as a "toss-up," from "likely Republican."

* While the Ryan news is going to get far more attention, Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) also announced this morning that he's retiring after four terms in Congress. By my count, he's the 38th Republican retirement this cycle.

* Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) was sworn in this week as Thad Cochran's (R) successor, following his recent health-related resignation. Hyde-Smith, a former Democrat, intends to run this fall in the special election for this seat, and if she prevails, she'll serve the remainder of Cochran's term, which ends in 2020.

* A Nevada Republican plan to launch recall campaigns against some Democratic state senators has apparently come to an end, at least for now. The Nevada Independent  reported, "Nevada election officials say that signatures for the two recall campaigns targeting Democratic state senators have failed to trigger a special election, though an appeal is possible."

* According to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), she met with Donald Trump during his transition period and in December 2016, the then-president-elect urged her to change parties. That obviously didn't happen, and Heitkamp is running for a second term this year as a Dem.

* In Florida yesterday, Lori Berman (D) easily won a state Senate special election -- as was expected -- prevailing with about 75% of the vote. According to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which focuses on state races, Berman outperformed Hillary Clinton's vote share in the same district by about 14 percentage points.

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Image: APEC Summit 2017 in Vietnam

Will Trump tweet his way into an escalating military conflict in Syria?

04/11/18 11:20AM

For years, Donald Trump assured the public that he would never telegraph his military plans. Lately, for reasons the White House hasn't explained, the president has spent a fair amount of time doing the opposite.

Trump declared two weeks ago, for example, "We'll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.... Very soon -- very soon we're coming out." (The Trump administration said soon after that it disagrees.)

This morning on Twitter, the president signaled the opposite intention.

"Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and 'smart!' You shouldn't be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!"

About a half-hour after taunting Russia and signaling a missile attack, Trump tried a more conciliatory tone.

"Our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War. There is no reason for this. Russia needs us to help with their economy, something that would be very easy to do, and we need all nations to work together. Stop the arms race?"

The idea that the U.S./Russia relationship is worse now than during the Cold War is difficult to take seriously -- maybe he's never heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis? -- but also note the shift from one tweet to the next. First he said, "Get ready Russia," which was soon followed by a call for international cooperation.

All of which led Trump to blame the deteriorating conditions on the investigation into the Russia scandal.

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Image: Rep. Devin Nunes Briefs Press On House Intelligence Cmte Russia Investigation

Nunes threatens to impeach Trump-appointed FBI director

04/11/18 10:40AM

It's been a few weeks since House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) made head-shaking news, so I guess we were due for a report like this one from Business Insider.

[Nunes suggested last night] he has a plan to target deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein and FBI director Christopher Wray.

"We're not going to just hold in contempt, we will have a plan to hold in contempt and to impeach," Nunes said to Fox News host Laura Ingraham on Tuesday evening.

"We're not messing around here," Nunes continued.

Apparently the California Republican, an unnervingly close ally of the Trump White House, wants the Justice Department to give him copies of unredacted documents used to launch the investigation into the Russia scandal.

At issue are materials that document George Papadopoulos' revelation that Russia had acquired damaging information on Hillary Clinton. The Justice Department and the FBI, perhaps skeptical of the increasingly ridiculous House Intelligence Committee, has been reluctant to play along with Nunes' plan to undermine their investigation.

But that resistance has only infuriated Nunes, who insisted last night on Fox News, "We're at a boiling point where we need this." Asked if he's willing to impeach the director of the FBI, the congressman added, "Absolutely."

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Image: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington

House Speaker Paul Ryan to exit stage right

04/11/18 10:00AM

There's been an enormous number of House Republican retirement announcements in recent months, but some are more notable than others.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., won't run for re-election, two sources with knowledge of his decision confirmed to NBC News Wednesday.

Axios was the first to report that Ryan, 48, would leave Congress at the end of his term.

The Wisconsin congressman's office has since confirmed the reports, making clear that Ryan will not resign early, but he will also not run for another term.

And while this is no doubt a major development -- Ryan is the first House leader from either party not to run for re-election since Bob Michel (R-Ill.) in 1994 -- it's not terribly surprising, either. The HuffPost's Matt Fuller first reported on rumors about Ryan's retirement back in December, and Politico had a related report a day later.

The Speaker and his office pushed  back against the reports, though they also left themselves some rhetorical wiggle room, suggesting to many that Ryan's exit was a near-certainty.

As for why the Speaker is stepping down, that's a surprisingly easy question to answer.

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Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) emerges from a closed-door weekly policy meeting with Senate Republicans, at the U.S. Capitol, May 10, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Instead of defending Mueller, some in GOP target him

04/11/18 09:20AM

Late Monday, Donald Trump mused publicly about firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which meant there was quite a bit of chatter on Capitol Hill yesterday about what, if anything, lawmakers were prepared to do to shield the investigation from presidential interference.

Most congressional Republicans fell into one of two camps. The first group was made up of GOP lawmakers who shrugged off the president's comments, assuming he was simply blowing off steam, and that the threat of Trump instigating such a crisis wasn't real. The second group took the rhetoric a little more seriously, and indirectly warned Trump that even trying to fire Mueller would put his presidency in jeopardy.

But I was especially interested in the third group: the Republicans who aren't just disinclined to support the special counsel's work, but who are actually openly hostile toward it.

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), for example, seemed surprised when asked about effort to shield the special counsel. "To protect Mueller?" the Georgia Republican said. "I think it's about time we get to the end of [the] investigation. This looks like an investigation that's spiraling out of control."

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) went a little further.

The Kentucky Republican defended Trump on Fox News, saying Tuesday that the FBI's raid on the president's longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen went too far, and took aim at special prosecutor Robert Mueller as a result.

"What does this have to do with Russia?" Paul said on Fox News. "Going after someone's personal attorney is a great overstep I think in the authority of the prosecutor ... I think that Mueller has abused his authority."

To the extent that reality matters, Mueller didn't execute the search warrants on Cohen's office and hotel; the U.S. attorney's office in New York did.

But even putting that aside, it's hard not to see this and think of the members of Congress who lashed out at Archibald Cox in 1973.

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In this March 10, 2016 photo, Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General, gestures as he speaks during an interview in Oklahoma City, Okla. (Photo by Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Apparent falsehoods compound problems for EPA's Pruitt

04/11/18 08:40AM

At face value, the principal problem for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is that he's facing allegations of brazen corruption, misusing public funds, and abusing the powers of his office. So far, Donald Trump has decided he doesn't much care about any of those controversies.

But complicating matters is the fact that the Oklahoma Republican apparently hasn't been truthful in his responses to some of the allegations.

For example, Pruitt is the beneficiary of a large security contingent, which provides around-the-clock protection for the EPA chief, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Pruitt and his allies have defended the measures, citing threats. That defense appears to be unraveling.

Two Senate Democrats say they have documents that show there have been no security threats against EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that would justify the abnormally large security detail and first class air travel he has spent millions of taxpayers dollars on, according to a letter obtained by NBC News.

The letter, written by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Tom Carper of Delaware, was sent to Sen. John Barrasso, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. In it, the senators say they have obtained "non-public documents" that include assessments from the Secret Service that "identify no 'reports of behaviors of interest' against Administrator Pruitt."

EPA officials have reportedly begun looking through Twitter, trying to find threatening tweets that would justify Pruitt's "extraordinary and costly security measures." (Politico reported yesterday, "EPA removed a career staffer Tuesday who approved an internal report that undermined ... Pruitt's claims that he needed around-the-clock bodyguards and other expensive security protection, according to two former agency employees familiar with the situation.")

Making matters slightly worse, the EPA chief told Fox News last week he had no idea about the lucrative raises two of his top aides received at the agency. The Atlantic, however, this week highlighted an email that suggests Pruitt "personally signed off" on the decision.

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Image: US-POLITCS-FBI-MULLER

Trump 'believes' he can fire Mueller (and he's taken steps to do so)

04/11/18 08:00AM

Donald Trump caused a bit of a stir late Monday afternoon, publicly speculating about firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Whether the president has the legal authority to do so directly, however, is a subject of some debate.

And yet, there was White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders telling reporters yesterday that Trump "certainly believes he has the power" to oust the special counsel.

There are multiple problems with this. First, by several accounts, it may be wrong. Second, Sanders' comments suggest this has been the topic of some conversation at the White House, inching Team Trump closer to a possible crisis.

And third, it's not just an academic exercise -- because the president has already reportedly taken steps to fire Mueller. The New York Times  reported overnight:

In early December, President Trump, furious over news reports about a new round of subpoenas from the office of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, told advisers in no uncertain terms that Mr. Mueller's investigation had to be shut down.

The president's anger was fueled by reports that the subpoenas were for obtaining information about his business dealings with Deutsche Bank, according to interviews with eight White House officials, people close to the president and others familiar with the episode. To Mr. Trump, the subpoenas suggested that Mr. Mueller had expanded the investigation in a way that crossed the "red line" he had set last year in an interview with The New York Times.

If this sounds at all familiar, it's because this wasn't the first time. We learned last year that the president also called for Mueller's ouster in June, but he backed down when White House Counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign. Similarly, Trump was talked out of acting in December.

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In this Jan. 26, 2012, file photo, then-U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Dana Boente speaks at a news conference in Alexandria, Va.

Exclusive: Notes appear to back Comey claims about Trump

04/11/18 12:53AM

The Rachel Maddow Show has obtained exclusively what we believe are the contemporaneous handwritten notes of Dana Boente, then acting deputy attorney general, from his conversations with FBI Director James Comey about Comey's interactions with President Donald Trump.

The notes appear to corroborate Comey's testimony to Congress about his exchanges with Trump, including similar phrasing about Trump’s discomfort with the Russia investigation.

Boente records in his notes from March 30, 2017, for example, "What can I do to relieve the cloud" as a line relayed from Comey that Trump said to him in a conversation also on March 30th. Comey cited that similar phrasing in his public statements.

Additionally, TRMS has obtained a letter from Boente informing the Department of Justice that he has been asked to speak with Robert Mueller's investigators, and requesting legal representation from the department.

The exclusive collection of documents also includes a letter from E.W. Priestap, the assistant director of the Counterintelligence Division of the Department of Justice, informing Boente that his notes from his conversation with Comey are not classified.

Below is a rush transcript of part one of Rachel Maddow's exclusive report:

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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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