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National Security Adviser Susan Rice listens to reporters questions during a briefing, March 21, 2014, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

Trump's claims about Susan Rice start to unravel

04/17/17 04:00PM

It started in early March with a series of early-morning tweets. For reasons that are still unclear, Donald Trump woke up one Saturday and started publishing online missives about a new conspiracy theory: Barack Obama launched an illegal wiretap operation before the election, specifically targeting Trump, as part of a scandalous and secret scheme.

In the weeks that followed, Trump and his team started changing the nature of the allegations. Maybe it wasn't an actual wiretap, the White House said. Maybe it wasn't illegal. Maybe it wasn't before the election. Maybe Trump personally wasn't targeted. Maybe Obama wasn't directly involved.

Two weeks ago, the Republican president escalated matters considerably by overhauling the entire story, telling the New York Times that former National Security Advisor Susan Rice "may have committed a crime by seeking to learn the identities of Trump associates swept up in surveillance of foreign officials by United States spy agencies."

Apparently persuaded by something he saw on a right-wing website, Trump specifically said at the time, "I think the Susan Rice thing is a massive story. I think it's a massive, massive story.... Yeah, it's a bigger story than you know.... I think that it's going to be the biggest story."

As a rule, presidents don't casually accuse former federal officials of crimes without proof -- welcome to the Trump Era -- and in this case, it appears the president had no idea what he was talking about.
A review of the surveillance material flagged by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes shows no inappropriate action by Susan Rice or any other Obama administration official, Republican and Democratic Congressional aides who have been briefed on the matter told NBC News.

President Donald Trump told the New York Times he believed former National Security Adviser Rice broke the law by asking for the identities of Trump aides who were mentioned in transcripts of U.S. surveillance of foreign targets. Normally, the identities of Americans are blacked out in transcripts circulated by the National Security Agency, but they may be "unmasked," if their identities are relevant to understanding the intelligence.
Rice has already acknowledged that she obtained the identities of the Americans in question, but she explained that this was very much part of her job.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

Alex Jones' 'performance artist' claim leaves Trump in awkward spot

04/17/17 12:40PM

Alex Jones has earned a reputation for being a bellicose conspiracy theorist who routinely shares some deeply odd ideas with his broadcast audience. For most of the American mainstream, watching Jones push some of his most offensive theories -- the idea that the Sandy Hook massacre was a staged "false flag" event, for example -- gives the impression that he may not be altogether stable.

It's against this backdrop that Jones finds himself in a legal fight with Kelly Jones, the host's ex-wife who is seeking custody of their children. Not surprisingly, she and her attorney are pointing to Alex Jones' InfoWars content as proof of his unsuitability as a parent.

The Austin American Statesman reported over the weekend, however, that the host's lawyer has a specific defense in mind to explain away his client's over-the-top tirades.
At a recent pretrial hearing, attorney Randall Wilhite told state District Judge Orlinda Naranjo that using his client Alex Jones' on-air Infowars persona to evaluate Alex Jones as a father would be like judging Jack Nicholson in a custody dispute based on his performance as the Joker in "Batman."

"He's playing a character," Wilhite said of Jones. "He is a performance artist."
The family's legal dispute will apparently be decided by a Travis County jury in Texas, and as best as I can tell, it's a private family matter.

That said, Jones has become a notable figure in conservative media, and if his own attorney describes his client as "a performance artist" -- effectively characterizing Jones' bizarre persona as a fictional "character" -- that's an important acknowledgement for the public to be aware of.

Indeed, not only have Jones' outlandish conspiracy theories been taken seriously by Republican members of Congress, there's also Donald Trump's praise for Jones to consider.
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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.17.17

04/17/17 12:00PM

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

* With Georgia's congressional special election on tap for tomorrow, Donald Trump this morning went after Jon Ossoff (D). If Ossoff falls short of 50% support, there will be a runoff election on June 20.

* On a related note, while Democrats had a big advantage in early voting in Georgia's 6th congressional district, it looks like Republicans had closed the gap considerably by the time early voting wrapped up on Friday afternoon.

* In February, a Gallup poll found 62% of Americans said Trump keeps his promises. A new Gallup poll, released this morning, found that number has dropped to 45%.

* Speaking of polling, the latest Marist poll puts the president's approval rating at just 39%, suggesting the media adulation following the recent strike on Syria didn't do much to improve Trump's standing.

* The Washington Post reported that a pro-Trump non-profit group called Leaders of America First Policies "is starting a $3 million advertising campaign to bolster a dozen House Republicans who publicly backed" the GOP's failed health care initiative last month.

* Hillary Clinton's campaign has turned over its mailing list to the DNC. The Huffington Post noted that the list "includes more than 10 million new names that the DNC did not have on its voter files," which makes this a pretty significant development.
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Vice president-elect Mike Pence, watches as President-elect Donald Trump speaks during an election night rally, Nov. 9, 2016, in N.Y. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

For Donald Trump, the election is hardly 'over'

04/17/17 11:28AM

Yesterday morning, Donald Trump wasn't just annoyed by Tax Day protests related to his tax returns, he also suggested, "Someone should look into who paid for the small organized rallies yesterday." In reality, the events weren't especially small. For that matter, the fact that the president is hiding his tax returns while accusing his critics of having secret financiers added a nice, ironic twist.

But in the same tweet, Trump declared, "The election is over!" Exactly six minutes earlier, the president was tweeting about how impressed he remains about his Electoral College victory last year.

Whether he's prepared to acknowledge this or not, the fact remains that for Donald Trump, the election is never over. In fact, as the New York Times reported, Trump fundraising for the next election is just getting started.
President Trump is raising money toward a bid for a second term earlier than any incumbent president in recent history, pulling in tens of millions of dollars in the months after his election and through his inauguration.

Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission on Friday showed that Mr. Trump's campaign brought in $7.1 million during the first three months of 2017, on top of over $23 million raised with the Republican Party. By contrast, President Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee brought in a total of about $15 million during the first three months of his first term in 2009.
A Washington Post report added that Trump, "unlike his predecessors ... has not ceased fundraising since his election." On the contrary, in January, Trump formally filed the paperwork for his re-election campaign, kept open his campaign office's headquarters, hired staff to work on his 2020 bid, and even hosted a swing-state campaign rally in support of his re-election effort, several years too early.

The ongoing fundraising efforts, naturally, are part of Team Trump's permanent campaign. When the president declares, "The election is over!" it's effectively a punch-line to a sad joke.
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A voter marks a ballot for the New Hampshire primary inside a voting booth at a polling place, Feb. 9, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)

The power of GOP partisanship captured in new polling

04/17/17 10:40AM

Republican voters opposed bombing the Assad regime in Syria, until Donald Trump took office, at which point they changed their mind. GOP voters thought the American economy was awful, until a Republican became president, at which point they suddenly reversed course.

And Gallup reported late last week that Republican voters had deeply negative attitudes about the current U.S. tax system, right before they changed their minds in early 2017.
With the deadline to file federal income taxes looming, 61% of U.S. adults regard the income tax they have to pay as fair, the most positive sentiment since 2009. A year ago, 50% held this view, which is lower than all but one other reading in Gallup's trend. [...]

Republicans are mostly responsible for the variation in perceived income tax fairness over time.
According to Gallup's data, 39% of GOP voters said last year that the amount of money they paid in income taxes was fair. This year, that number among Republicans jumped to 56%.

It's important to note that income taxes have not changed. We're talking about perceptions: when Obama was in office, most GOP voters thought tax rates were unfair, and with Trump now in office, these same voters have decided they're satisfied with those same tax rates after all.

Under the traditional rules of the political discourse, in which both sides are always to blame in equal measure, this is supposed to be the part in which we acknowledge that Democratic voters are just as unprincipled as Republican voters, just in the opposite direction. Except, that's quantifiably wrong: on tax fairness, Gallup found Democratic attitudes have been quite steady for many years, and didn't change much at all after Trump took office. The same is true on polling regarding Syria and the state of the economy.
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President-elect Donald Trump arrives at a rally at the Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville, N.C., Dec. 6, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP)

Both sides blame Trump in case about campaign-season violence

04/17/17 10:00AM

One of the more alarming aspects of Donald Trump's presidential campaign was his tacit embrace of violence as a legitimate tool at his rallies. In ways without precedent in modern American politics, the Republican candidate often seemed a little too eager to encourage vicious behavior.

After one protester at a Trump rally was punched by one of the candidate's supporters, for example, Trump declared, "Maybe he deserved to get roughed up." On other occasions, Trump promised to "pay for the legal fees" for supporters who "knock the hell" out of protesters.

And as we recently discussed, three protesters were physically assaulted at a Trump event in Kentucky in 2016, and they later filed suit, alleging the president bears some responsibility for encouraging the confrontation and insisting that inciting violence is not protected speech under the First Amendment.

A federal judge recently agreed to allow the case to proceed, and late Friday, the president's attorneys argued that by virtue of winning the election, Trump was given immunity from lawsuits like these. The Washington Post reported:
"Mr. Trump is immune from suit because he is President of the United States," his lawyers wrote Friday, rebutting a complaint filed by three protesters who claimed Trump incited a riot against them at a Louisville event in March 2016.

Trump's team challenged the accusations -- negligence and incitement to riot -- on many other grounds, too. But a federal judge already rejected their attempt to have the lawsuit thrown out earlier this month.
As it turns out, the protesters who were assaulted in Kentucky didn't just sue Trump; they're also seeking damages against one of the Trump supporters who allegedly assaulted them.

And that's where the story gets even more interesting.
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United States Representative Scott Garrett speaks during a Reuters Finance Summit in Washington February 28, 2011.

Trump keeps appointing officials to lead agencies they oppose

04/17/17 09:20AM

As a candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump assured voters he was a staunch opponent of the U.S. Export-Import Bank. Then he had a conversation about it, after the election, with a CEO whose company benefits from the office.

Trump told the Wall Street Journal last week that he "was very much opposed" to the Ex-Im Bank, but "it turns out [that] lots of small companies will really be helped."

"It turns out" is a polite way of saying, "When I said all that stuff on the campaign trail last year, I didn't really know what I was talking about."

All of this became more confusing on Friday afternoon, however, when the president announced his nominee to lead the Bank.
President Donald Trump said Friday he would nominate former congressman Scott Garrett, who has supported closing the U.S. Export-Import Bank, to head the credit agency.

Mr. Garrett voted in 2012 and in 2015 against renewing the charter of the Ex-Im Bank, which guarantees loans for companies that export U.S. products. Mr. Garrett, a New Jersey Republican who served seven terms in the U.S. House, lost a bitterly contested election in November to Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D., N.J.).
Blasting the institution he's now nominated to lead, Garrett insisted in the last Congress that the Ex-Im Bank "rewards those with close relationships with Washington bureaucrats." He added, "For the sake of the American taxpayer and the preservation of the free enterprise system, Congress should put the Export-Import Bank out of business."

Garrett boasted on Twitter in 2015, "I opposed the House's vote to reauthorize the corporate welfare program known as the Ex-Im Bank."

Trump now wants the New Jersey Republican to lead the institution that he doesn't believe should exist.
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It's not just the golf: Trump's Mar-a-Lago ethics mess gets worse

04/17/17 08:40AM

It seems like only last year that Donald Trump was not only mocking Barack Obama for unwinding too often on golf courses, but also promising voters to be an entirely different kind of president. "I'm going to be working for you," Trump vowed. "I'm not going to have time to play golf."

Wait, that was only last year.

In fact, as far as the Republican was concerned, if he won the election, he'd practically be chained to his desk. "I would rarely leave the White House because there's so much work to be done," Trump said at one point. "I just wanna stay in the White House and work my ass off," he said at a different event. "If you're in the White House, who wants to take a vacation?" he asked one Iowa crowd.

These were easy applause lines at Trump rallies, but it didn't take long before the vows were added to the list of this president's broken promises.
[S]ince his January inauguration, President Trump has spent seven of 13 weekends at his Palm Beach, Florida estate. According to NBC News' estimates by Sunday Trump will have spent 28 percent of his term traveling to or staying at Mar-a-Lago.

It's not just a question of travel time, but of ethics and cost efficiency, according to watchdog groups and ethics experts.

While presidents have always traveled on the taxpayer's dollar -- the Obamas were partial to Hawaii and Martha's Vineyard while President George W. Bush frequented his Crawford, Texas ranch -- Trump's travel is "unprecedented," one expert says, because he's repeatedly visiting his own privately owned commercial property at Mar-a-Lago.
I tend to see this as a story with three angles. First, there's the hypocrisy: Trump's fascination with Obama's golfing was endless -- the line about Obama golfing more than professionals on the PGA tour was a staple of his stump speech -- which makes it all the more striking that the president can't seem to pry himself from the links.

Trump has now been at a golf course on 19 days since becoming president 13 weeks ago, which is 19 more visits than Obama had made at the same point in his presidency. It'd be far easier to overlook Trump's recreational habits if he hadn't just run a campaign promising not to go golfing all the time.
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Image: President Trump Meets With The National Association of Manufacturers

Giving lobbyists expansive power, Trump tries filling the swamp

04/17/17 08:00AM

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump spoke frequently and with great pride about his plans to "drain the swamp," reducing the influence of special interests in Washington, D.C. The Republican told NBC's "Meet the Press" during the campaign that he's tired of everybody in the nation's capital "being controlled by the special interests and the lobbyists." Trump went so far as to say he'd have "no problem" banning lobbyists from his administration altogether.

For those who believed this rhetoric was sincere, Trump seemed like an unconventional, populist candidate. For those who saw Trump as a shameless con man, it was only a matter of time before he ignored his "drain the swamp" posturing and started empowering those same special interests and lobbyists.

Take now, for example.

We learned last month that the Trump White House was establishing "beachhead teams" in agencies throughout the executive branch, which included dozens of industry lobbyists. ProPublica found, "Many of them lobbied in the same areas that are regulated by the agencies they have now joined."

The New York Times moved the ball forward with a related report over the weekend:
President Trump is populating the White House and federal agencies with former lobbyists, lawyers and consultants who in many cases are helping to craft new policies for the same industries in which they recently earned a paycheck.

The potential conflicts are arising across the executive branch, according to an analysis of recently released financial disclosures, lobbying records and interviews with current and former ethics officials by The New York Times in collaboration with ProPublica.
The Times highlighted "at least two" instances in which the administration appointed lobbyists to government posts in violation of the administration's own ethics rules. There may be others, the article added, "but evaluating if and when such violations have occurred has become almost impossible because the Trump administration is secretly issuing waivers to the rules."
I'm not altogether sure what the point of having ethics rules is if the White House is handing out waivers -- in secret -- allowing officials to ignore those rules whenever Team Trump sees fit.
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A police car with lights ablaze responds to a call. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

This Week in God, 4.15.17

04/15/17 08:31AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a report out of Alabama, where the state Senate voted 24 to 4 to allow a church "to form its own police force."

Across the country, every house of worship is already entitled to the law-enforcement protections, but Alabama's Briarwood Presbyterian Church, with a congregation of more than 4,000 people, believes it's grown to such a size that it warrants special protection of its own. Under the legislation, the church would be empowered to "appoint and employ one or more persons to act as police officers to protect the safety and integrity of the church and its ministries."

There doesn't appear to be any precedent in the American tradition of a state empowering a church to appoint its own officers of the law, and as the New York Times noted this week, such an approach would raise profound legal questions in a country that's supposed to separate church and state.
The American Civil Liberties Union objected to this year's bill in a memo warning legislators that the measure would "unnecessarily carve out special programs for religious organizations and inextricably intertwine state authority and power with church operations."

It also said the law would violate the First Amendment, which states that Congress cannot make any law "respecting an establishment of religion."

"What this bill would do is to grant to a church -- a religious organization -- what is quintessentially governmental police power," Randall C. Marshall, legal director of the A.C.L.U. of Alabama, said in a phone interview. "It would include the power of arrest, the power to use varying levels of force, and the discretion to decide which laws to enforce -- or which laws not to enforce."
The bill is scheduled to be considered in Alabama's state House as early as next week. If it passes, the measure would go to the state's new governor, Republican Kay Ivey, who was elevated to the post this week following Robert Bentley's decision to resign in disgrace in the wake of sex/corruption scandal.

Also from the God Machine this week:
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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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