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Monday's Mini-Report, 4.16.18

04/16/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* AUMF: "Two senators are set to unveil an updated war authorization as early as Monday that would allow the president to extend the war on terror in places such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen where the U.S. is fighting terrorism groups, but it is also an effort to place new checks on the president in what has been an open-ended, multi-faceted conflict."

* A case worth watching: "Consumers nationwide would pay more for what they buy online if South Dakota gets its way before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case to be argued Tuesday."

* The right call: "A federal judge late Friday barred the federal government from implementing President Donald Trump's ban on transgender members of the military, finding that the ban had to be subject to a careful court review before implementation because of the history of discrimination against transgender individuals."

* I wonder what Candidate Trump would think: "The Trump administration, which has been on the verge of a trade war with China, opted on Friday not to label the country a currency manipulator, breaking a key campaign promise by President Trump to punish a government he has called the 'greatest currency manipulators ever.'"

* Sitting while black: "Two black men who were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks last week for allegedly trespassing are now going to the front of the line -- they'll be meeting with the CEO, a company spokesperson said on Monday."

* Lawmakers should take note: "Hundreds of former Justice Department employees are now urging Congress to 'swiftly and forcefully respond' should President Trump fire Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, or Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who is overseeing the federal probe."

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In this March 4, 2016, file photo, Sean Hannity of Fox News arrives in National Harbor, Md.

Michael Cohen surprises with third client announcement: Sean Hannity

04/16/18 05:00PM

Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's personal attorney, has suddenly found himself in a difficult legal position.  Last week, FBI agents raided his office and hotel room; a variety of Cohen's materials are now in the hands of federal law enforcement; and by some accounts, the New York attorney is currently under a criminal investigation.

It's against this backdrop that Cohen has said he only has three clients. One is the president, whom Cohen has tried to help by, among other things, paying hush money to a former Trump mistress. One is Elliott Broidy, the former deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, whom Cohen helped when Broidy wanted to pay off a former Playboy playmate mistress he impregnated.

The third is someone Cohen did not want to identify. Today in court, he wasn't given a choice.

Sean Hannity, the Fox News host who has been waging war on the air against special counsel Robert Mueller and is an outspoken advocate for President Donald Trump, was revealed Monday as one of only three clients that Michael Cohen, the president's personal attorney, had during 2017 and 2018.

By some accounts, "a gasp was heard in the courtroom" when Cohen's lawyer disclosed Hannity's name.

The Fox News personality soon after confirmed receiving legal guidance Cohen, though Hannity tried to emphasize a degree of informality in the arrangement.

Hannity, of course, has been a prominent voice in conservative media condemning the FBI's raid on Cohen's office, though he failed to disclose that he's one of Cohen's three clients.

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U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement from the Roosevelt Room next to the empty chairs of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (L), D-New York, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (R), D-California, after they cancelled their meeting at the Whi

The list of lawyers who don't want Trump as a client keeps growing

04/16/18 02:49PM

As far as Donald Trump is concerned, "many lawyers and top law firms" want to represent him in the Russia case. Given what we now know, that's demonstrably untrue.

CNN reported earlier today that yet another white-collar lawyer has turned down the opportunity to serve on the president's private legal defense team, "citing an unidentified conflict."

People close to Trump contacted New York attorney Steven Molo, a former prosecutor who specializes in white collar defense and court room litigation, in recent weeks following the departure of attorney John Dowd from Trump's personal legal team.

Molo is only the latest attorney to receive an invitation to help Trump during special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the 2016 campaign and any possible dealings with Russia.

It's worth noting that the Molo news hasn't been independently confirmed by NBC News or other major outlets.

That said, if the CNN report is accurate, what's the new total of lawyers who've turned Trump down? I'm glad you asked.

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Image: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks during President Trump's infrastructure meeting at the White House in Washington

The soundproof phone booth for the EPA's Pruitt wasn't legal

04/16/18 12:50PM

Despite the apparent lack of threats, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has apparently been preoccupied with his personal safety throughout much of his tenure. The New York Times  reported two weeks ago, for example, that a bulletproof vehicle and a bulletproof desk were among the items discussed for the far-right Oklahoman.

This fit into an amazing pattern. Pruitt, for example, has a massive, around-the-clock security detail. He's spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on a professional sweep of his office searching for possible surveillance devices. He's spent thousands more on first-class air travel, apparently afraid of the riff raff who fly coach. CNN reported that the EPA's custodial staff is not allowed to enter Pruitt's office on their own, and in the hallway around Pruitt's office, "security employees check government IDs against a list of employees who are approved for access."

But one purchase in particular has come to symbolize Pruitt's paranoid excesses: he spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on a soundproof phone booth for reasons that have never made any sense. The Washington Post  reported this morning that the purchase wasn't quite legal.

The $43,000 soundproof phone booth that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt had installed in his office last year violated federal spending laws, the Government Accountability Office said Monday.

In an eight-page letter to lawmakers, GAO general counsel Thomas H. Armstrong said the agency failed to notify lawmakers that it was exceeding the $5,000 limit for agency heads to furnish, redecorate or otherwise make improvements to their offices. In addition, Armstrong wrote, the agency also violated the federal Antideficiency Act, "because EPA obligated appropriated funds in a manner specifically prohibited by law."

If the $43,000 price tag sounds higher than initial estimates, it's because the original price didn't include additional costs associated with making the booth fit in the closet where Pruitt wanted it.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.16.18

04/16/18 12:00PM

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

* In the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal  poll, the Democratic advantage over Republicans on the generic congressional ballot is seven points, 47% to 40%, down from 10 points in March. That said, among high-interest voters, the Democratic lead swells to 21 points.

* The same poll showed Donald Trump's approval rating slipping to 39% from 43% in March.

* In the new Washington Post/ABC News poll, Dems are up by 10 on the generic congressional ballot among all U.S. adults, 50% to 40%. But among registered voters who say they're certain to vote, the Democratic lead is 49% to 44%.

* The same poll found the president's approval rating inching a little higher to 40%.

* In the race to replace him, outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has now officially thrown his support behind House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

* Increasingly worried about coal baron Don Blankenship's possible victory in a Republican Senate primary in West Virginia, Republican insiders have created a new super PAC, the "Mountain Families PAC," to help undermine his candidacy.

* The pro-Trump America First Action Super PAC accepted $500,000 from disgraced former RNC Finance Chairman Steve Wynn. The group is now refusing to give back the money, despite Wynn's scandals.

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Image: Ryan Speaks on Trump's Leaking of Classified Information to Russians, James Comey

Paul Ryan suggests trillion-dollar deficits were inevitable

04/16/18 11:20AM

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) looks young for a powerful political leader -- he's only 48 -- but he's been around for a surprisingly long time. The Wisconsin Republican took office in the late 1990s while he was still in his 20s. He worked on Capitol Hill as a GOP staffer for several years before that.

And over the course of those nearly three decades, Ryan learned a thing or two about how not to answer a question. Which is a shame because on "Meet the Press," NBC News' Chuck Todd asked him a good one that I would've loved to see the GOP leader address head-on.

In an interview that aired yesterday, the host noted that the Republican tax plan, which Ryan helped write and champion, has spiked the deficit that the House Speaker claimed he wanted to lower. Noting Ryan's looming retirement, Chuck Todd noted that he's walking away from Capitol Hill "with trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see." Ryan had a non-answer at the ready:

"That was going to happen. The baby boomers' retiring was going to do that. These deficit trillion-dollar projections have been out there for a long, long time. Why? Because of mandatory spending which we call entitlements...."

The Speaker's answer went on (and on, and on) from there, with Ryan making the case that the real fiscal challenge for the United States is "mandatory spending" on social-insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare. He added that he's still determined to "fix" them.

At this point, we could explore the dangers of Ryan's proposed "fixes" to social-insurance programs in more detail, but there's no reason to play this game by the Speaker's rules. Let's instead consider the nature of the exchange face value: Ryan said one of his principal goals as a federal policymaker was to not only shrink the government, but also to shrink the deficit. The Republican congressman laid out a blueprint, embraced by his party, to balance the U.S. budget.

But as his career comes to an end, Ryan is confronted with failure. The deficits he vowed to shrink are growing. The debt he said he'd control is exploding. Asked for a defense, Ryan argued on "Meet the Press" that the mess he's leaving to others to clean up was inevitable.

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Image: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the National Republican Congressional Committee's annual March dinner at the National Building Museum in Washington

Republican donors are financing a whole lot of Trump World lawyers

04/16/18 10:41AM

When rank-and-file partisans make a political contribution, they probably expect the money to go toward normal political activities: advertising, the creation of campaign materials, opening offices, etc.

But when Donald Trump's backers offer their financial support, they're also picking up a non-traditional tab. USA Today  reported overnight that the president's re-election campaign has raised $10.1 million so far in 2018, which is itself interesting given how far away the 2020 race is. But in this case, what's arguably more interesting than the money going into Trump's campaign coffers is the money that's going out.

[M]ore than 20% of the nearly $3.9 million Trump spent this year went to pay legal bills, according to the reports his campaign filed Sunday with the Federal Election Commission. Those bills topped $834,000 during the first three months of this year, as Trump donors picked up the tab at several law firms, including one handling some of the headline-grabbing controversies surrounding the president in recent months.

A Washington Post  report added, "The latest figures bring the Trump campaign's total spending on legal fees to nearly $4 million since the president took office, records show. In the last quarter of 2017, Trump's campaign committee spent $1.1 million in legal fees."

Some of the costs are specific to the Trump campaign -- which has legal burdens related to the investigation into the Russia scandal, for example --while some of the money is going to cover the president's legal costs dealing with scandals such as the Stormy Daniels matter.

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Donald Trump introduces Trump University at a press conference in Trump Tower, New York, May 2005. (Photo by Dan Herrick/KPA/ZUMA)

Judge finalizes $25 million settlement in Trump's fraud case

04/16/18 10:00AM

It took a while, but the Trump University fraud case officially reached its end last week. The political fallout, however, hasn't quite run its course.

USA Today  reported the other day on the end of the settlement agreement.

A federal judge finalized the $25 million settlement between President Trump and students of his now shuttered Trump University on Monday, with New York's attorney general claiming "victims of Donald Trump's fraudulent university will finally receive the relief they deserve."

The order from U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel -- the same Indiana-born judge Trump called biased because of his "Mexican heritage" -- comes a year after he first approved the settlement. It marks the end of two class-action lawsuits and a civil lawsuit from New York accusing Trump of "swindling thousands of Americans out of millions of dollars through Trump University," in the words of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

The circumstances are nothing short of bizarre: a sitting president of the United States has written a check for $25 million to a group of Americans who credibly claimed that he ripped them off by perpetrating a fraud.

You know things are bad for a president when a story like this goes almost entirely unnoticed by the public, eclipsed by a dozen or so more pressing scandals.

Regardless, after keeping a close eye on this case for a long while, I think it’s a shame to see the case end -- because I’ve long believed this is one of the underappreciated controversies of Trump’s recent career.

Indeed, as regular readers may recall, the finalized settlement agreement wasn’t supposed to happen at all -- according to the president.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump departs the White House

Pence finds, hires, and loses his national security adviser

04/16/18 09:20AM

It started as a story that didn't make any sense. We learned on Friday that Vice President Mike Pence had hired Jon Lerner to serve as his national security adviser, despite the fact that Lerner is a Republican pollster with no national security experience, and despite the fact that Lerner already has a job he intended to keep as a deputy to U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

In other words, after "months of searching," Pence found an unqualified national security adviser who'd split his time, working for the vice president while also working in an entirely different office, in an entirely different building.

Over the weekend, the convoluted story got a little worse with an Axios report that said Donald Trump had voiced his dissatisfaction with Pence's choice.

Trump was furious when he learned Pence was bringing on Nikki Haley's deputy Jon Lerner, according to three sources familiar with the events. The President believed Lerner was a card-carrying member of the "Never Trump" movement because Lerner crafted brutal attack ads for Club for Growth's multimillion-dollar anti-Trump blitz during the Republican primaries.

"Why would Mike do that?" Trump wondered aloud about Pence's decision, according to two sources briefed on the President's private conversations.

The piece added that Trump told White House Chief of Staff John Kelly "to get rid of Lerner."

This morning, the New York Times reported that Lerner has now quit the job he hadn't yet begun, informing the vice president that he's "withdrawing from coming on board." He'll remain a member of Haley's team at the United Nations, however.

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Image: Damascus Sky, Syria Attack

The words Trump didn't learn not to say: 'Mission Accomplished'

04/16/18 08:40AM

Before turning his attention to former FBI Director James Comey, Donald Trump reflected briefly on Saturday on the military strikes in Syria he'd ordered the night before:

"A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!"

There really aren't many phrases modern presidents need to avoid in situations like these, but perhaps Trump wasn't paying attention to current events in 2003 -- or any of the years that followed.

Even Ari Fleischer, hardly a neutral political observer, wrote on Saturday, "Um ... I would have recommended ending this tweet with not those two words."

Whether Trump understands this or not, "Mission Accomplished" was the text on the banner above George W. Bush's head in 2003 when the then-president declared the end of "major combat operations" in Iraq. Bush never literally spoke the words "mission accomplished" in his remarks, but they appeared over his head during the speech and his presidency was haunted by the phrase.

As conditions in Iraq deteriorated, the death toll mounted, and the arguments in support of the invasion evaporated, that two-word banner came to represent premature celebration of a conflict that was at its beginning, not its end.

Even Bush later conceded the message was a "mistake."

For reasons that don't appear to make any sense, Trump seems eager to repeat the mistake. Indeed, in some ways, it's even more difficult to understand this president's use of the phrase, since Trump has never even tried to explain what the U.S. mission in Syria is.

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Image: US-SYRIA-CONFLICT

Following military strikes in Syria, Trump confronts awkward questions

04/16/18 08:00AM

It's difficult to separate a leader's decisions from their context. After Donald Trump announced the launch of new military strikes in Syria on Friday night, for example, much of the world was forced to consider the possibility that the American president may have been motivated, at least in part, by the scandals and criminal intrigue consuming his presidency.

As Rachel put it on the show after Trump's White House remarks:

"The perception that the president may have ordered these strikes in part because of scandal will affect the impact and the effectiveness of these military strikes. Unavoidably. Even if the tail is not wagging the dog, even if you give the president every benefit of the doubt, even if his calculations about whether to launch this action against Syria tonight was taken with absolutely no regard for what else is going on in the president's life right now, what else is going on in the president's life right now unavoidably creates a real perception around the globe that that may have been part of the motivation both for what he did and particularly for when he did it.

"And it is a sad thing and it is an upsetting thing in terms of American influence in the world and the risks that we take when we use American military power anywhere. But that perception, that this president under this much siege may have made this decision that was in any way inflected by the scandals surrounding him, that by necessity has shaped America's national security options for who we are in the world tonight and it will unavoidably shape the impact of this military action."

It's against this backdrop that the president should be going out of his way to reassure the public and the world that his principal focus is on the national security interests of the United States and its allies, and the broader goal of peace and stability in the region. Trump has a powerful incentive to at least pretend to be a responsible leader right now, signaling to the world that no matter the concerns about his presidency, he's approaching U.S. intervention in Syria with sober maturity, with seriousness of purpose, and with a clear and stable mind.

But he's not. Trump has spent the last few days doing the opposite.

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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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