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Federal Election Commission (FEC) Commissioner Donald McGahn II testifies during a hearing, Nov. 3, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

Why Trump's choice for White House counsel matters

11/28/16 11:44AM

Donald Trump is facing an avalanche of conflict-of-interest troubles, but according to RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, who'll serve as Trump's chief of staff, there's nothing to worry about. The White House counsel's office, Priebus recently assured us, will "make sure" everything's kosher.

It's not clear how, exactly, the counsel's office will serve as such a check, but Priebus' vow makes it all the more important to note who the president-elect has chosen for the job.
[Trump] has asked attorney Donald McGahn to serve as his White House counsel, a top transition source confirmed. The news was first reported by Reuters. McGahn, a partner at Jones Day, is Trump's campaign lawyer and is currently advising the transition effort.

Politico has reported that McGahn, who has longstanding familial ties to the Trump organization and an "inside the Beltway" background as a former chairman of the FEC, may be tasked with putting distance between the president-elect and his myriad of business interests, which critics have argued could present unprecedented number of conflicts of interest and potential Constitutional crisis for the incoming administration.
If McGahn's name sounds at all familiar, it may be because he served as Tom DeLay's lawyer 10 years ago when the Texas Republican was caught up in a variety of scandals. He was also general counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee for many years.

But the part of McGahn's background that jumped out at me was this tidbit: McGahn was "a lead lawyer for a key group in the Koch brothers' network -- Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce -- before joining the Trump campaign. He's one of a growing number of people with ties to the Kochs to join Trump's administration."

And that's probably the most interesting angle to all of this. A separate Politico piece explained:
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting to discuss the Ukrainian peace process at the German federal Chancellery on Oct. 19, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty)

'It was like Russia was running a super PAC for Trump's campaign'

11/28/16 11:10AM

The scourge of "fake news" has been well documented in recent weeks, with some evidence that made-up stories easily outperformed real news reports on Facebook in the final months of the presidential campaign.

And while the fictional reports had many authors, the Washington Post reported over the holiday weekend that Russia's government played an important role.
The flood of "fake news" this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation.

Russia's increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery -- including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human "trolls," and networks of websites and social-media accounts -- echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers.
The Post's report was based on the findings of "two teams of independent researchers found that the Russians exploited American-made technology platforms to attack U.S. democracy at a particularly vulnerable moment."

One of the reports came from PropOrNot, a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military, and technology backgrounds, whose executive director told the Post, "The way that this propaganda apparatus supported Trump was equivalent to some massive amount of a media buy. It was like Russia was running a super PAC for Trump's campaign.... It worked." [Update: see below.]

What's especially striking about reports like these is the picture that emerges when we add the details to the picture that already exists. Consider:
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Trump: Romney camp hasn't asked me to lay off the birther talk

During cabinet search, Trump allies take aim at Romney

11/28/16 10:41AM

During the 2016 campaign, Mitt Romney was as articulate as anyone in either party about the dangers posed by Donald Trump. It was the first time in modern history that the most recent presidential nominee of a major party went out of his way to condemn his successor on his party's ticket, and Romney adopted this role with great enthusiasm, blasting Trump over and over and over again.

Nevertheless, the president-elect is looking for a credible Secretary of State, and Trump recently met with Romney so that they could resolve their differences and explore the possibility of Romney joining the incoming president's team.

The reaction from prominent members of Trump's inner circle is unlike anything we've seen in modern times. Politico reported the other day:
Donald Trump's struggle to find a secretary of state has erupted into an early battle for the soul of his nascent presidency -- a critical showdown between the insurgents who thrust him into office and establishment Republicans pushing for a more conventional White House.

At the moment, the internal debate over who should serve as the steward of the country's foreign policy pits advocates for bombastic ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani against those for caustic Trump critic Mitt Romney, the GOP's 2012 nominee. The behind-the-scenes battle exploded into public view on Thanksgiving Day, after Trump stalwarts began viewing Romney as a serious contender.
That was published on Friday. Yesterday, it was clear the battle was intensifying -- and it was anything but "behind the scenes."

Kellyanne Conway, Trump's campaign manager and spokesperson, has led the very public charge against Romney as Secretary of State, arguing yesterday, "People feel betrayed to think that Gov. Romney, who went out of his way to question the character and the intellect and the integrity of Donald Trump ... would be given the most significant cabinet post of all."
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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

Why we should worry about Trump's national security advisors

11/28/16 10:01AM

Donald Trump has been blowing off national-security briefings since Election Day, preferring to combine information from U.S. intelligence agencies with back-channel information from unnamed "sources." This realization makes it all the more important to know who'll have the president-elect's ear once Trump is in the Oval Office.

His National Security Advisor will be Michael Flynn, which raises all kinds of concerns. Any chance Flynn will be backed up by a capable and grounded deputy? Apparently not.
The president-elect tapped Kathleen Troia "K.T." McFarland, a former government official and one-time Fox News analyst, as a deputy national security adviser, a transition official told NBC News.

A Fox News spokesperson confirmed Friday that McFarland's contract has been terminated on the heels of Trump offering her the position, a necessary step in order for her to serve in his administration.
McFarland does have some relevant experience, having worked for Reagan's Defense Secretary, Caspar Weinberger. That said, this experience (a) was more than 30 years ago; (b) related entirely to public relations; and (c) was followed by McFarland playing the role of far-right pundit and failed candidate for public office.

At first blush, that may not sound that bad, especially in light of Trump's usual personnel habits, but the closer one looks at McFarland's record, the more troubling her appoint becomes. Media Matters published a helpful overview over the weekend.
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn arrives at Trump Tower, Nov. 17, 2016. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and high level positions for the new administration. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Michael Flynn raises eyebrows for all the wrong reasons

11/28/16 09:30AM

After Donald Trump is inaugurated, Americans will have a president with no foreign policy experience. His vice president will have no foreign policy experience. His chief of staff and chief strategist will, between them, have no foreign policy experience. Even Trump's ambassador to the United Nations has no foreign policy experience.

Then there's retired Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump's choice to become National Security Advisor, who has the relevant experience -- but who's arguably the worst of the president-elect's poor choices.

It's difficult to know where to start with this guy. Do you highlight Flynn's weird affinity for anti-Muslim conspiracy theories? His problematic and legally dubious lobbying work with Turkey? How about his coziness with Vladimir Putin and Russia's government?

While each of these details is true and important, I'd start with this New Yorker piece from Dana Priest, who documented Flynn's habit of breaking rules "he thought were stupid."
In 2012, Flynn became director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, in charge of all military attachés and defense-intelligence collection around the world. He ran into serious trouble almost immediately. I've spoken with some two dozen former colleagues who were close to Flynn then, members of the D.I.A. and the military, and some who worked with him in civilian roles. They all like Flynn personally. But they described how he lurched from one priority to another and had trouble building a loyal team. [...]

Flynn also began to seek the Washington spotlight. But, without loyal junior officers at his side to vet his facts, he found even more trouble. His subordinates started a list of what they called "Flynn facts," things he would say that weren't true. [...]

Flynn's temper also flared. He berated people in front of colleagues. Soon, according to former associates, a parallel power structure developed within the D.I.A. to fence him in, and to keep the nearly seventeen-thousand-person agency working. "He created massive antibodies in the building," the former colleague said.
Flynn was fired after 18 months. His career then managed to go from bad to worse.
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Desks in a classroom. (Photo by Bob O'Connor/Gallery Stock)

With cabinet choice, Trump readies fight with public schools

11/28/16 09:00AM

When it comes to choosing the personnel for his top administrative posts, Donald Trump's selections have thus far fallen into two broad categories: the conventionally wrong and the unconventionally wrong.

The latter is made up of people who aren't just ill-suited to lead a cabinet agency, but who are also ridiculous political personalities who have no business even being considered for important federal responsibilities. Liberty University's Jerry Falwell Jr., for example, said Donald Trump offered him the job of Education Secretary, which the right-wing Virginian turned down for personal reasons. Eyeing Falwell for such a post is unconventionally wrong.

Betsy DeVos, apparently Trump's second choice for the Department of Education, is merely conventionally wrong.
President-elect Donald Trump picked Betsy DeVos to be his education secretary Wednesday, putting an outspoken advocate of charter schools and school vouchers in America's top education post. [...]

DeVos, a 58-year-old billionaire philanthropist from Michigan, leads the American Federation for Children, which promotes charter school education. She's married to Dick DeVos, an heir to the Amway fortune, and is the sister to Erik Prince, founder of notorious government-contracted security company Blackwater, now known as Academi.
I don't mean "conventional" as a compliment. DeVos, a Republican mega-donor, is a far-right ideologue with misguided ideas who'll very likely do a bad job. But she's also very much in line with expectations in a Trump/Pence team -- and it's easy to imagine a President Kasich, Cruz, Bush, or Rubio picking the exact same person for the exact same job.

That is, however, cold comfort when it comes public policy. DeVos has been a fierce opponent of public education, which is why Trump choosing her for Secretary of Education suggests the incoming Republican administration is planning a pretty aggressive confrontation with public schools.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump talks with press on Sept. 5, 2016, aboard his campaign plane, while flying over Ohio, as Vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence looks on. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

Offered daily intelligence briefings, Trump takes a pass

11/28/16 08:30AM

Shortly after the election, President Obama approved daily intelligence briefings for Donald Trump and Mike Pence. It was obviously the responsible thing to do: the Republican ticket will soon be sworn into office, and Obama wants them to be up to speed so they're prepared the moment they're in positions of responsibility.

But as Rachel noted on the show the other day, there's a problem: Trump apparently doesn't want the information. NBC News reported:
President-elect Donald Trump has had only two intelligence briefings since he won the election more than two weeks ago, intelligence sources told NBC News on Wednesday -- a much lower number than his predecessors had and fewer even than Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
A Washington Post report added that a team of intelligence analysts "has been prepared to deliver daily briefings on global developments and security threats to Trump in the two weeks since he won," but he's passed on all but two meetings. Pence, on the other hand, "has set aside time for intelligence briefings almost every day since the election."

When these reports first surfaced, I thought it was some kind of joke, or at least the result of some confusion, but it's actually quite real: Trump has been offered daily access to sensitive and classified information from around the globe, and the president-elect, at least for now, isn't interested.

Asked about this yesterday on CNN, Kellyanne Conway, Trump's campaign manager and spokesperson, said she "can't discuss" how many briefings the president-elect has turned down, but she insisted that Trump is "engaged" and "brilliant." Conway added that Trump is "availing himself of the information as provided to him from a number of sources."

I'm not entirely sure what that means, but it warrants some follow-up. What other "sources" might Trump be listening to? If U.S. intelligence agencies aren't enough for the president-elect, who else, specifically, is providing him with "information"?
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Then, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Cleveland, Ohio, on Oct. 22, 2016. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Trump's conflicts of interest create a test for political system

11/28/16 08:00AM

If Donald Trump faced one conflict-of-interest controversy, it would serve as the basis for a challenging test for his upcoming presidency. But at this point, the Republican faces so many conflict-of-interest controversies, it's more accurate to think of this as a test for the entire U.S. political system.

In fact, at a certain level, "conflict of interest" is an unsatisfying phrase, which fails to capture the scope and scale of the problem. For the typical American, it may even sound dull and legalistic. Maybe it's better to frame this in a more direct way: the president-elect, fresh off his national victory in which more voters preferred the other candidate, appears to be using the office he does not yet have to advance his financial interests around the world.

And our system simply isn't designed to accommodate circumstances like these.

The New York Times published a very detailed overview of Trump's international investments, holdings, and debts, each of which create potential conflicts, and the article wasn't short.
The globe is dotted with such potential conflicts. Mr. Trump’s companies have business operations in at least 20 countries, with a particular focus on the developing world, including outposts in nations like India, Indonesia and Uruguay, according to a New York Times analysis of his presidential campaign financial disclosures.

What’s more, the true extent of Mr. Trump’s global financial entanglements is unclear, since he has refused to release his tax returns and has not made public a list of his lenders.
One of the key challenges at this point is simply keeping track of all of the problematic areas. Scotland is certainly near the top of the most controversial conflicts -- Trump has already admitted discussing one of his foreign investments with a foreign official since Election Day -- and Argentina isn't far behind.

But let's not forget Turkey. And Georgia (the country, not the state). And the Philippines. And India. And Brazil. And Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, we still don't know why Trump had his daughter, who'll help run his business enterprise, join him for a meeting with the Japanese prime minister -- or why Ivanka Trump also chatted with the Argentinian president.

For his part, Trump isn't exactly denying any of the allegations, so much as he's insisting that existing laws place no real limits on his private-sector activities.
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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 11.23.16

11/23/16 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The rule was set to take effect next week: "In a blow to the Obama administration's labor-law plans, a federal court has blocked the start of a rule that would have made an estimated 4 million more American workers eligible for overtime pay heading into the holiday season."

* Always keep an eye on this one: "Shelling and gunfire intensified on Wednesday on the de facto border between India and Pakistan in the Kashmir region, killing nine civilians on a bus one day after the Indian Army promised retribution for what it said was the killing of three of its soldiers."

* Jo Cox's murder: "A man whose bookshelf was full of writings on white supremacy and Nazism was found guilty Wednesday of killing British lawmaker Jo Cox in an apparent political attack as the country headed toward its landmark vote on European Union membership.... Cox, a 41-year-old mother of two young children, was a well-known campaigner for Britain to remain in the European Union and a passionate advocate for refugees."

* The Koch brothers win again: "Koch Industries and others who invested in the Madoff fund from offshore accounts won a key ruling in federal bankruptcy court on Monday, when the judge said certain funds held abroad -- estimated at about $2 billion -- could not be made available to victims of the Madoff scheme."

* Unsettling: "Several journalists Wednesday reported receiving notifications from Google about 'government-backed attackers' attempting to steal their passwords."

* It is that bad: "As Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin – states that once were the stronghold of the nation's industrial union movement – dropped into Donald Trump's column on election night, one longtime union staff member told me that Trump's victory was 'an extinction-level event for American labor.' He may be right."
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U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump introduces Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions Mobile during his rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on Aug. 21, 2015 in Mobile, Ala. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty)

The mainstreaming of the Republican fringe

11/23/16 12:49PM

The Senate will have a Republican majority in the next Congress, but the GOP's edge will be smaller than it is now, shrinking from four seats to two. And in a 52-48 chamber, even small shifts -- a couple of members breaking ranks here and there -- can produce interesting results.

When Donald Trump announced Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) would be his choice for attorney general, for example, there was some chatter about whether the right-wing Alabaman with an ugly racial history was a sure thing for confirmation. Those questions were effectively answered yesterday when Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ostensibly the last of the Senate GOP "moderates," threw her support behind Sessions' nomination. (West Virginia's Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat, is also backing Sessions.)

With the far-right nominee's confirmation effectively assured, I was reminded of this Washington Post piece from a few days ago.
President-elect Donald Trump announced Friday that he will nominate Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to run the Justice Department. A few years ago, this would have a startling pick.

Sessions has always been one of the most conservative senators in the GOP, a fringe figure perhaps best known for his hard-line views on immigration. Now, if confirmed as attorney general, he will become the nation's top law-enforcement officer.

The mainstreaming of Sessions reflects just how much politics has changed of late.
It does, indeed. The Post piece added that Sessions, whose judicial nomination was rejected in 1986 because he was considered too racist, arrived in the Senate 20 years ago as one of the chamber's most extreme members, along with Republican colleagues like Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). In recent years, however, Sessions has found himself "moving closer to the center of the GOP" -- not because of his own shifts, but because other Senate Republicans "are getting more extreme."

What's striking about reports like this one is how easy it is to swap out Jeff Sessions' name with others' and make the identical observation.
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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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