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Two men stand on the plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building as storm clouds fill the sky, June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.

House Republicans target Government Ethics chair

01/13/17 10:31AM

Following months of questions and controversies, Donald Trump this week unveiled his plan to address his many conflicts of interest. Almost immediately, legal and ethical experts panned the president-elect's approach as a joke -- and some literally laughed out loud at Trump's proposed solution.

One of the most notable critics, however, was Walter Shaub, the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, an independent, non-partisan office, which tries to prevent conflicts of interest among high-ranking federal officials. And as Rachel noted on the show the other day, after Trump unveiled his so-called plan, Shaub, who started working at the OGE during the Bush/Cheney era, gave a blunt and passionate assessment criticizing the president-elect's approach.

As the New York Times reported, Shaub learned yesterday he's being called to Capitol Hill -- and it's not to receive a reward.
The Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee on Thursday issued a stern letter, including a veiled threat of an investigation, to the federal government's top ethics monitor, who this week had questioned President-elect Donald J. Trump's commitment to confront his potential conflicts of interest.

In an unusual action against the independent Office of Government Ethics, Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah accused the office's director, Walter M. Shaub Jr., of "blurring the line between public relations and official ethics guidance."
It's one thing for Republicans to look the other way in response to Trump's conflicts of interest; it's almost certainly worse when they target a public official who takes the issue seriously because he did his job.

The report added that Chaffetz, in his letter, also "noted his committee's authority to reauthorize the office, a hint that it could perhaps be shut down."
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At this point, Americans aren't buying what Trump is selling

01/13/17 09:20AM

Donald Trump and his allies have invested quite a bit of energy in recent months into the idea that the Republican president-elect won a "landslide" victory. That's demonstrably wrong: Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, and his electoral-vote totals were among the least impressive in modern American history.

But GOP partisans continue to push the line anyway, in part to help improve Trump's legitimacy following an election in which his candidacy appears to have been boosted by a foreign adversary's espionage operation, and in part because Republicans are desperate to claim a mandate for their far-right proposals.

The fact remains, however, that Donald J. Trump is not popular -- and according to new Gallup data, the president-elect's standing is actually getting slightly worse.
In Gallup polling conducted two weeks before Inauguration Day, President-elect Donald Trump continues to garner historically low approval for his transition performance, with 51% of Americans disapproving of how he is handling the presidential transition and 44% approving. Last month, the public was split on this question, with 48% approving and 48% disapproving.

Trump's 48% transition approval rating in December was already the lowest for any presidential transition Gallup has measured, starting with Bill Clinton's in 1992-1993.
I put together the above chart to help drive the point home: by the standards of the last quarter-century, Trump is faring quite poorly during his post-election "honeymoon" phase. Ordinarily, once a campaign is over, most Americans generally extend support to the incoming leader. This year, as the public watches Trump's bizarre antics unfold during his transition period, the president-elect's 44% approval is actually a little lower than the 46% of electorate that voted for him.
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(L to R) President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with retired United States Marine Corps general James Mattis after their meeting at Trump International Golf Club, Nov. 19, 2016 in Bedminster Township, N.J. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Trump's cabinet nominees have a plan: disagree with Trump

01/13/17 08:40AM

As a rule, people nominated to serve in a presidential cabinet recognize a simple truth: if confirmed, their job will be to implement their boss' agenda. Indeed, that's largely the point of having cabinet secretaries. Presidents can't directly oversee dozens of federal agencies, so they choose like-minded officials -- presumably with some subject-matter expertise -- to help them govern.

In Donald Trump's case, however, the president-elect seems to have selected a series of nominees who don't like key elements of his agenda at all. The Washington Post reported this morning:
Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees, in their first round of confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill, have one after another contradicted the president-elect on key issues, promising to trim back or disregard some of the signature promises on which he campaigned.
It's almost amusing how frequently Trump's nominees rejected Trump's ideas during confirmation testimony this week. Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, Trump's nominee to be Secretary of Defense, expressed strong support for NATO, saw merit in the Iran nuclear agreement, said Israel's capital is Tel Aviv, and criticized Vladimir Putin's Russian government.

Had Hillary Clinton won and sent a Pentagon nominee to Capitol Hill for consideration, we probably would've heard something similar. Mattis is obviously on Team Trump, but he has no use for many of the incoming president's core beliefs. A Vox piece added yesterday, "Mattis aced his hearing -- by throwing Trump under the bus."

Rex Tillerson, Trump's choice for Secretary of State, rejected the president-elect's remarks about nuclear proliferation and voiced support for NATO. Jeff Sessions, Trump's Attorney General nominee, said he'd oppose any plan to ban entry into the United States on the basis of religion, which is the opposite of the line his future boss pushed during the campaign.

Mike Pompeo, Trump's choice to lead the CIA, rejected the president-elect's call for renewed torture policies. Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, sounded skeptical of Trump's idea of a wall along the southern border, testifying that "a physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job." Kelly also rejected Trump's call for increased torture.

A week ahead of Inauguration Day, Donald Trump hasn't quite persuaded his own cabinet nominees to agree with key elements of his platform.
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House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 23, 2016. (Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Paul Ryan faces (and flunks) health care test

01/13/17 08:00AM

Early on in House Speaker Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) town-hall event last night, the congressman fielded a question from a voter who seemed like an ally. The man, who owns a small business in a red state, explained that he had worked for the Reagan and Bush campaigns, and he opposed the Affordable Care Act.

At least, he used to. This same man explained that he faced a life-threatening form of cancer, which was treated because he had coverage through the Affordable Care Act. "I want to thank President Obama from the bottom of my heart," the man said, "because I would be dead if it weren't for him."

It was a timely reminder that Paul Ryan's repeal crusade, which has already run into some trouble in Washington, probably won't be as easy as the far-right House Speaker hoped.

The man whose life was saved by the ACA specifically challenged Ryan on the Republican replacement. The Speaker said what he was expected to say -- he intends to replace the law with "something better" -- but Ryan went on to point to a specific concern he has with the status quo. From the CNN transcript:
"The problem with Obamacare -- the actuary is called a 'death spiral.' It's a really kind of ugly, gruesome term, but a 'death spiral' is a mathematical term. They say when the insurance gets so expensive, healthy people won't buy it because they -- it's just a trade-off. The penalty to not buy is a lot cheaper than buying the insurance, so healthy people won't buy it; therefore, they won't go and participate in the insurance pool to cover the losses that sicker people, who have to have insurance, buy it.

"That's what's happening to Obamacare now."
No, it's not. This isn't a matter of opinion; it's a matter of reality. If the Speaker of the House is going to hold forums like these, and speak to national audiences about the state of the health care system, it's important that he tell the public the truth.

And the truth is, if the ACA were in "death spiral," we'd see declining enrollment numbers, with consumers withdrawing from the system because they can't afford the premiums and would rather pay the penalty than buy insurance they can't afford.

Enrollment totals, however, are going up, not down.
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Thursday's Mini-Report, 1.12.17

01/12/17 05:31PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A surprising moment: "President Obama awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to a shocked Vice President Biden on Thursday at the White House. Biden and the president had gathered for what the White House had described as a final tribute to the vice president."

* James Clapper; "The outgoing U.S. director of national intelligence has extended an olive branch of sorts to Donald Trump -- denouncing media leaks, casting skepticism on a report that Russia has damaging material on the president-elect, and assuring Trump that America's spies stand ready to serve him."

* The vote was 81 to 17: "The Senate has approved a waiver that would allow retired Gen. James Mattis to serve as secretary of defense, granting a rare exception to a law meant that requires military veterans to have been out of uniform for at least seven years before taking the top job at the Pentagon."

* We're going to have to talk about this: "Ben Carson would not answer whether President-elect Donald Trump could benefit from Department of Housing and Urban Develop loans during a fierce line of questioning from Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren at his confirmation hearing Thursday."

* On a related note, Carson was supposed to read an opening statement that included plagiarized text. Instead, he "departed almost completely from the prepared text."

* A VW-like controversy: "The Environmental Protection Agency accused Fiat Chrysler on Thursday of installing software that enables certain diesel trucks to emit far more pollutants than emissions laws allow. The company denied those accusations, saying its software meets regulatory requirements."

* Climate crisis: "How we view the costs of future climate change, and more importantly how we quantify them, may soon be changing. A much-anticipated new report, just released by the National Academy of Sciences, recommends major updates to a federal metric known as the 'social cost of carbon' --  and its suggestions could help address a growing scientific concern that we're underestimating the damages global warming will cause."

* Republicans routinely ignore the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: "The largest U.S. business lobby group on Wednesday said it could be a mistake to quickly repeal Obamacare without developing a replacement healthcare insurance plan and urged the incoming Trump administration not to erect trade barriers."
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A trader works at the Goldman Sachs stall on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, April 16, 2012.

Despite promises, Trump keeps adding Goldman Sachs vets to his team

01/12/17 04:11PM

Given everything Donald Trump said during the campaign, it's almost hard to believe how many Goldman Sachs veterans he's adding to his administration's team. Politico reported yesterday:
Dina Powell, a Goldman Sachs partner with deep ties to both Republicans and Democrats in Washington, is leaving the bank to join the Trump administration in a senior role that will focus on entrepreneurship, economic growth and the empowerment of women, people familiar with the matter said. She is expected to work closely with President-elect Donald Trump's daughter, Ivanka, and her highly influential husband, Jared Kushner.

Powell, president of the Goldman Sachs Foundation and a major advocate for women, would instantly become one of the more powerful people in Trump's Washington.
This afternoon, the Washington Post's Robert Costa reported that Anthony Scaramucci, who also worked for Goldman Sachs, is also joining Team Trump as a "confidant" to the president.

If announcements like this one seem familiar, there's a very good reason. As regular readers know, she's hardly alone in making the transition. Steven Mnuchin, Trump's choice for Treasury Secretary, is a Goldman Sachs veteran. Steve Bannon, Trump's chief White House strategist, is a Goldman Sachs veteran. Gary Cohn, who's been offered the directorship of Trump's National Economic Council, is the president and chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs. Jay Clayton, Trump's nominee to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission, is a Goldman Sachs attorney.

And now Powell and Scaramucci joining the team, too. None of this would be especially noteworthy were it not for the way in which the president-elect used the Wall Street giant as a combination wedge/punching bag.
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FBI Director James Comey takes questions from members of the media during a news conference, Nov. 18, 2014, in Boston. (Photo by Steven Senne/AP)

Justice Department to investigate Comey, FBI election activities

01/12/17 02:35PM

There's no shortage of observers who've argued, persuasively, that FBI Director James Comey made reckless decisions at critical moments, which in turn helped put Donald Trump in the White House. Indeed, as recent developments have made clear, Comey had evidence of illegal Russian intervention in support of Trump and questions about possible Hillary Clinton emails on Anthony Weiner's laptop.

With just days remaining ahead of Election Day, and with early voting already underway, the FBI director went public with the latter, not the former. When Comey testified on Capitol Hill this week that he "would never comment on investigations" publicly, it drew sardonic laughter.

But given the larger context, none of this is funny. In fact, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz announced today he is moving forward with an investigation "how the FBI and Justice Department handled certain aspects of the Hillary Clinton email investigation."
[Horowitz's probe] will include a review of FBI Director James Comey's news conference in July and his two letters to lawmakers in late October and early November.

"In response to requests from numerous Chairmen and Ranking Members of Congressional oversight committees, various organizations, and members of the public, the Office of the Inspector General will initiate a review of allegations regarding certain actions by the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in advance of the 2016 election," the Justice Department said.
The scope of the review matters. Comey's late-October letter had a direct role in dictating the outcome of the presidential campaign, but the question surrounding the FBI's election-year activities go further than that one misguided-but-consequential letter.
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A man walks across the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency at the lobby of the Original Headquarters Building at the CIA headquarters on Feb. 19, 2009 in McLean, Va. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

Trump's CIA chief nominee 'can't imagine' being asked to torture

01/12/17 12:41PM

When Donald Trump tapped Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) to lead the CIA, civil-liberties proponents howled. As a far-right congressman, Pompeo pushed an aggressively conservative line on issues such as government surveillance, detention facilities, and even torture.

Indeed, when the Senate Intelligence Community released a report in 2014 on Bush-era "enhanced interrogation," the Kansas Republican not only condemned the document's publication, but said of the relevant officials, "These men and women are not torturers, they are patriots.... The programs being used were within the law, within the Constitution."

As his CIA confirmation hearing got underway this morning, however, Pompeo adopted a very different posture. The Hill reported:
Donald Trump's pick to lead the CIA on Thursday told lawmakers that he would "absolutely not" comply with an order from the president-elect to resume the use of interrogation techniques considered by the international community to be torture.

"Moreover, I can't imagine that I would be asked that by the president-elect," Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) said in response to questions from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).... Asked if he could commit to senators that the CIA is "out of the enhanced interrogation business," Pompeo affirmed that, "You have my full commitment."
First, while the testimony was encouraging, this certainly seems to be a departure from comments the congressman has made in the past.

Second, Pompeo "can't imagine" being asked by the Trump White House to adopt torture policies? That's odd -- because I find it pretty easy to imagine it.
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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.12.17

01/12/17 12:00PM

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

* Donald Trump recently spoke to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and tried to persuade him to change parties. The West Virginia Democrat, the most conservative Dem in the chamber, declined.

* Asked this morning about the president-elect's conflicts of interest, Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, said, "The president by law does not have conflicts. It's a somewhat silly conversation."

* Former Attorney General Eric Holder will reportedly kick off his anti-gerrymandering initiative with a speech at the Center for American Progress today. "[President Obama] thinks, and I think, that this is something that threatens our democracy," Holder told the New York Times yesterday.

* Barring any unexpected legislative developments, Vice President Joe Biden will become the first vice president in American history to serve two full terms and not cast any tie-breaking votes.

* As Rachel noted on the show the other day, Coretta Scott King wrote a pretty powerful letter in 1986 speaking out against Jeff Sessions' judicial nomination. Now that the Alabama Republican is up for Attorney General, the message is newly relevant.

* Speaking of news from last night's show, in an unexpected development, Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub spoke out publicly yesterday, criticizing Trump's plan to deal with his conflicts of interest.

* Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas) this morning called on CNN to fire Jim Acosta for being "disrespectful" towards Trump at yesterday's press conference and "disrupting" the event. I have a hunch that's not going to happen.
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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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