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Image: Devin Nunes, Eric Swalwell, Jim Himes

Schiff: Intel agencies withheld docs 'on the instructions of others'

01/22/20 09:20AM

In our system of government, congressional oversight of the intelligence community is critically important -- and not optional. Intelligence agencies and professionals have a responsibility to cooperate with lawmakers on the intelligence committees and make available materials they request.

At least, that's the way it's supposed to work. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told ABC News over the weekend that the National Security Agency has begun "withholding" information, including materials that may be directly relevant to Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal.

"That is deeply concerning," the Democratic leader said. "And there are signs that the CIA may be on the same tragic course. We are counting on the intelligence community not only to speak truth to power, but to resist pressure from the administration to withhold information from Congress because the administration fears that they incriminate them."

Yesterday, in a CBS News interview, he went a little further.

"We have requested intelligence, relevant intelligence, concerning Ukraine as a part of our oversight responsibility," Schiff said when asked what evidence his committee is requesting. "The intelligence agencies -- some of them have stopped cooperating. And it's our understanding they're doing this on the instructions of others, or with the advice of others."

Schiff said information about Ukraine's reaction to the pressure campaign by Trump allies in 2019 "would be very pertinent" and should be handed over to investigators.

The Intelligence Committee chairman added, "If there was more evidence that bears on that question and it's being withheld by the intelligence community at the urging of the president, that is a corruption of the intelligence community."

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Even some Trump-friendly lawyers balk at his abuse-of-power pitch

01/22/20 08:40AM

On the eve of Donald Trump's Senate impeachment trial, the president's legal defense team began peddling a new and provocative claim: presidential abuses of power are not impeachable offenses. They made this argument in writing, and even took the pitch to the public in television interviews.

Alan Dershowitz, a member of the president's legal defense team, told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos on Sunday that the House vote "was to impeach on abuse of power, which is not within the constitutional criteria for impeachment."

It was new legal ground. As far as Trump's lawyers are concerned, presidents who are caught abusing their powers cannot face congressional accountability, unless they commit statutory crimes. In the case of the Ukraine scandal, the Republican's legal team believes Trump's guilt, for all intents and purposes, is irrelevant -- because even if every allegation is true, Congress lacks the authority to punish abuses of power.

After Team Trump made the pitch, the New York Times reported on the legal consensus among scholars who believe the president's lawyers have it backwards. The article quoted University of Missouri law professor Frank O. Bowman, the author of a recent book on the topic, who told the Times the argument is "constitutional nonsense."

But it's not just scholars who've reached this conclusion. As recently as two years ago, Attorney General Bill Barr, before joining the administration, said the same thing in a memo for the Justice Department and the president's attorneys.

Mr. Trump should not talk to investigators about his actions as president, even under a subpoena, Mr. Barr wrote in his 19-page memo, which became public during his confirmation. Mr. Barr based his advice on a sweeping theory of executive power under which obstruction of justice laws do not apply to presidents, even if they misuse their authority over the Justice Department to block investigations into themselves or their associates for corrupt reasons.

But Mr. Barr tempered his theory with a reassurance. Even without the possibility of criminal penalties, he wrote, a check is in place on presidents who abuse their discretionary power to control the executive branch of government -- impeachment.

Complicating matters, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley -- the Republicans' witness during the House impeachment proceedings -- wrote a Washington Post op-ed also rejecting Team Trump's radical assertion.

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As Trump's impeachment trial begins, his legal team fires blanks

01/22/20 08:00AM

The first day of Donald Trump's impeachment trial was a unique opportunity for the president and his legal defense team. After having several weeks to prepare, and with the eyes of the nation upon them, Americans could finally see Team Trump bring its A game, making the best possible case for the president's innocence.

It didn't take long, however, before an awkward truth became obvious: Team Trump had no A game to bring. As Jonathan Allen explained in an analysis piece for NBC News, the president's attorneys "failed him at the opening of his Senate impeachment trial on Tuesday."

Trump's squad ... chose not to defend his actions with a cogent explanation for them. Rather than rebutting hours of evidence presented by House Democratic impeachment managers, White House lawyers opted to repeat Trump's attacks on the process and the disjointed set of rejoinders he's delivered to Democrats in public.

"If you can't even rise to the challenge of trying to defend your client," NBC News legal analyst Glenn Kirschner said on NBC News Now, "it becomes painfully obvious that the emperor has no defense."

The most glaring problem with yesterday's proceedings was Trump's lawyers' willingness to brazenly lie, repeatedly, about matters large and small. They lied about the House process; they lied about Robert Mueller's findings; they lied about House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.); they lied about the genesis of the impeachment inquiry itself.

It reached a point at which Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), the Senate's longest serving member, tweeted during a break, "I would hope later today and in the days ahead, the President's lawyers remember they are addressing the United States Senate, and personal insults and falsehoods will not serve them well."

And while it made for an exasperating day -- if Trump were innocent, his lawyers should probably have been able to tell the truth -- the deceptions weren't the only problematic part of the defense's first day at trial.

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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 1.21.20

01/21/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The votes on Democratic amendments in the impeachment trial are underway: "The Senate voted on party lines to kill the first Schumer amendment, which would have subpoenaed the White House for documents related to Ukraine."

* Given how Trump responded to Ebola in 2014, I shudder to think what he'll do with this: "Federal health officials confirmed Tuesday that a case of the new coronavirus has been diagnosed in Washington state, just north of Seattle."

* He seems to enjoy threatening traditional U.S. allies: "President Trump said Tuesday that he is serious about imposing tariffs on European automobiles if he can't strike a trade agreement with the European Union. 'They know that I'm going to put tariffs on them if they don't make a deal that's a fair deal,' Mr. Trump said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum."

* An important church-state case: "The Supreme Court takes up the sensitive issue of religion in public life Wednesday, considering whether states violate the Constitution if they prevent religious groups from receiving some state benefits."

* Hmm: "Documents apparently generated by Cambridge Analytica suggest that the political consulting firm had a contractual relationship with Kenneth Braithwaite in the year before he was nominated to be U.S. Ambassador to Norway in 2017. Braithwaite, who President Trump has said will be his nominee for Secretary of the Navy, made no mention of an agreement in his required government disclosure form, and says he never entered one."

* A good look at presidential corruption: "In three years in the White House, Donald Trump has accomplished something no president before him has done: fusing his private business interests with America's highest public office."

* Guantanamo: "James Mitchell will be the first witness to describe the torture of detainees in the secret prisons -- some at his own hands -- in the trial of the men accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks."

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks with reporters reporters after the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Aug. 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

McConnell changes direction (at least a bit) on impeachment trial

01/21/20 03:23PM

When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) unveiled his blueprint for Donald Trump's impeachment trial last night, it landed with a thud.

Under the GOP leader's vision, for example, both sides would present their cases over just two days -- opening the door to late-night proceedings that few Americans would see. McConnell's plan also did not automatically admit evidence collected as part of the House's impeachment inquiry as part of the Senate proceedings.

Senate Democrats howled, pointing to the Republican leadership's approach as evidence of a rigged trial, and a sharp departure from the rules during the Clinton impeachment trial in 1999. This afternoon, to the surprise of many, McConnell shifted his posture.

The last-minute changes -- which were written by hand on the resolution, with other lines crossed out -- were revealed on Tuesday as the organizing resolution for President Donald Trump's Senate trial was being read into the record on the Senate floor. The new version gives both side 24 hours to make their case over three days, instead of the two initially proposed by McConnell on Monday.... The change means the trial days, which start at 1 p.m. ET, will likely now conclude around 9 pm. [...]

McConnell also tweaked another controversial provision that could have barred all the evidence against Trump gathered by the House Democrats' inquiry from being entered into the Senate record.

To be sure, these changes in direction do not entirely resolve the partisan conflict. The revised resolution still offers no guarantees on witness testimony and no assurances that senators will be able to consider new evidence.

But it was an unexpected step all the same -- which naturally raises questions about why McConnell, after weeks of planning, changed his mind.

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With election-year implications, Supreme Court punts on ACA case

01/21/20 12:42PM

There was a real possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court would put the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act on a fast track, setting the stage for a major ruling ahead of this year's presidential election. As NBC News reported this morning, however, the justices punted the case, which is a move with considerable political implications.

Tuesday's brief Supreme Court order does not indicate whether the court intends to hear the case, after the normal time for the opposing sides to submit their legal briefs, or allow it to continue working its way through the lower court appeals.

But even if the justices do decide to take it up, the case would not be heard until the court's next term, which begins in October and any decision would not come until after Election Day on Nov. 3.

For those who may need a refresher, at issue is a lawsuit from state Republican officials -- with the enthusiastic support of the Trump administration -- who are arguing that "Obamacare" must be torn down in its entirety because Congress gutted the ACA's individual mandate in late 2017. By Republicans' reasoning, this provision was so integral to the reform law that the nation's health care system can't function without it.

Their argument, of course, is belied by the fact that the Affordable Care Act appears to be working just fine, even after federal GOP lawmakers effectively scrapped it more than two years ago.

Nevertheless, a Texas judge ruled in Republicans' favor in 2018, insisting that the entire law, its benefits, and its protections must cease to be. The 5th Circuit, in a move that appeared awfully political, recently left the future of the nation's health care system in limbo, sending the case back to the district court, urging the conservative jurist to see if any elements of the law could be salvaged.

The ACA's proponents asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case, and earlier this month, the justices directed the Trump administration and Republican state officials behind the lawsuit to respond.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.21.20

01/21/20 12:00PM

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

* In New Hampshire, which will hold its presidential primary three weeks from today, a new Suffolk/Boston Globe poll shows Bernie Sanders with the narrowest of leads over Joe Biden, 16% to 15%, followed closely by Pete Buttigieg at 12%, and Elizabeth Warren at 10%.

* Hillary Clinton has caused a considerable stir with new criticisms of Bernie Sanders as part of an upcoming Hulu documentary. Referring to the Vermont senator and his relationships on Capitol Hill, the former secretary of State said, "Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done. He was a career politician. It's all just baloney and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it."

* Amid questions about Rep. Devin Nunes' (R-Calif.) role in the Ukraine scandal, the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee made the case yesterday that voters in his district "deserve better."

* With the expectation that Donald Trump and his allies will spread "false accusations" about Joe Biden, the former vice president's campaign yesterday released a memo to journalists, explaining to media professionals why they shouldn't believe or help disseminate untrue information to the public.

* Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) is the only Senate Republican running this year in a state Trump lost, and the endangered incumbent reportedly hasn't held a town hall-meeting with his constituents in two years.

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Image: Donald Trump, Andrzej Duda

Trump's impeachment defense rests on a foundation of falsehoods

01/21/20 10:50AM

Perhaps more so than any other figure in American public life, Donald Trump has earned a reputation for saying things that aren't true. It's a problem that, in a quantifiable sense, is getting worse as his presidency continues.

The Washington Post reported yesterday, for example, on the third anniversary of the Republican's inauguration, that Trump has made "more than 16,200 false or misleading claims" since taking office. The report added, "In 2017, Trump made 1,999 false or misleading claims. In 2018, he added 5,689 more, for a total of 7,688. And in 2019, he made 8,155 suspect claims."

But as the Senate's impeachment trial gets underway, CNN's Daniel Dale narrowed the focus a bit and examined Trump's "compulsive" dishonesty about the scandal that threatens the Republican's presidency.

President Donald Trump is dishonest about a whole lot of things. But he is rarely as comprehensively dishonest as he has been about his dealings with Ukraine and the impeachment process.

From the eruption of the Ukraine controversy in September to the Senate trial that officially began on Thursday, relentless deceit has seemed to be Trump's primary defense strategy in the court of public opinion. He has made false claims about almost every separate component of the story, from his July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, to the whistleblower who complained about the call, to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's own relations with Ukraine.

Dale's report documented 65 specific claims Trump has made about the controversy, each of which were false. That seems like an awful lot of lying -- which continues on a nearly daily basis.

Indeed, it's surprisingly difficult to think of any aspect of Trump's Ukraine scandal in which the American president has managed to make an accurate claim and stick to it as the story continued to unfold.

But there's a larger significance to this, beyond simply marveling at one person's capacity for brazen dishonesty. More important is the degree to which Trump is relying on public deception as part of his response to the political crisis, and the implications of such a strategy.

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Trump finds semi-official impeachment role for far-right GOP reps

01/21/20 10:00AM

As recently as a couple of weeks ago, when it was far from clear who'd serve on Donald Trump's legal defense team during his impeachment trial, the president reportedly "loved the idea" of adding a group of far-right House congressmen to the operation. The plan was to add Republican lawmakers such as Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio), John Ratcliffe (Tex.), and Doug Collins (Ga.) to the legal team, at least in part because of their "bare-knuckles tactics and top-rated TV performances."

As we discussed, Senate GOP leaders went out of their way to discourage Trump from pursuing such a course, and it appears those lobbying efforts were effective: when the president's legal defense team expanded to include the likes of Ken Starr and Alan Dershowitz, no House Republicans were included.

Last night, however, it appears the White House nevertheless found jobs for the lawmakers. Politico reported:

After excluding House Republicans from his defense team, President Donald Trump announced Monday night that eight of them would serve as his personal warriors.

Republican Reps. Doug Collins (Ga.), Mike Johnson (La.), Jim Jordan (Ohio), Debbie Lesko (Ariz.), Mark Meadows (N.C.), John Ratcliffe (Texas), Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) and Lee Zeldin (N.Y.) will "serve as part of his team working to combat this hyper-partisan and baseless impeachment," according to a White House news release Monday.

The official White House announcement, introducing the eight GOP members, was a little odd. For one thing, it insisted that during the House impeachment process, the White House "was prohibited from participating in the proceedings." That's plainly false: Trump and his attorneys were invited to play a role, but they refused. That's not a prohibition on participation; it's the opposite.

For another, while many of the president's most sycophantic congressional allies were part of the new roster, House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) was not included -- and his absence was notable given the intensifying questions about his possible role in the broader Ukraine scandal.

But even putting these relevant angles aside, there was a lingering question for which there was no obvious answer: what exactly are these eight House Republicans going to do? They're now part of Trump's "impeachment team," but what does that mean?

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