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Friday's Mini-Report, 1.18.19

01/18/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Remember, according to the U.S. leader, these two fell in love: "President Donald Trump plans to meet face-to-face with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next month for a second nuclear summit, the White House announced Friday."

* The coda to a remarkable story: "Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California postponed an official trip to Europe and Afghanistan citing security concerns on Friday after President Trump grounded her military flight and divulged the itinerary, and White House officials leaked a secret plan for her and the lawmakers accompanying her to fly commercially."

* Did Graham fly commercial? "Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has met with U.S. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham to discuss the situation in Syria as the United States prepares to withdraw troops."

* I hope everyone saw Rachel's segment on this interesting story: "A global New York-based law firm has agreed to pay $4.6 million to settle a Justice Department investigation into whether its work for a Russia-aligned Ukrainian government violated lobbying laws."

* A warning the White House needs to see: "Flooding, drought and wildfires driven by climate change pose threats to two-thirds of the U.S. military's installations, the Defense Department said in a new report required by Congress."

* He really does learn so much from watching TV: "President Donald Trump was startled Tuesday as he watched television coverage of his nominee for attorney general describing a warm relationship with the special counsel Robert Mueller in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to three people familiar with the matter."

* Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) finds an ally: "On Thursday, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R.-Tex.), known for making controversial statements of his own, defended his colleague and claims that King is not getting due process."

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With Trump and Cohen, it's not just the 'what'; it's also the 'why'

01/18/19 12:52PM

A couple of months ago, after Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about a proposed Trump Tower Moscow project, Donald Trump addressed the controversy in an interesting way.

"[Cohen is] lying about a project that everybody knew about. I mean, we were very open with it. We were thinking about building a building. I guess we had -- in a form, it was an option. I don't know what you'd call it. We decided -- I decided ultimately not to do it. There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it. If I did do it, there would have been nothing wrong. That was my business. [...]

"When I run for president, that doesn't mean I'm not allowed to do business. I was doing a lot of different things when I was running.... I was running my business while I was campaigning. There was a good chance that I wouldn't have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business. And why should I lose lots of opportunities? [...]

"Even if [Cohen] was right, it doesn't matter because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign. I was running my business -- a lot of different things -- during the campaign."

The funny thing is, that's actually a decent argument. Before taking office, Donald Trump was a private citizen. He wanted to pursue a possible business venture in Moscow while running for president, and he was well within his rights to do so.

Trump wasn't expected to win, so it's plausible he wanted to position himself for lucrative opportunities in the event of his likely defeat. That's a perfectly reasonable position to take.

The trouble, of course, is all of the lying, which would seem wholly unnecessary if the Republican's efforts to build a Trump Tower Moscow -- complete with a penthouse gift to Vladimir Putin -- were entirely kosher.

The big political story of the day, of course, is the BuzzFeed report alleging that the president "directed" Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations. But the question hanging over the story is more than just the "what" -- it's also the "why."

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.18.19

01/18/19 12:00PM

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

* One of the tough-to-defend moves Wisconsin Republicans made during their lame-duck scramble last month was a measure to restrict early voting. Yesterday, a federal judge blocked the policy, ruling that it's at odds with an earlier court order. "This is not a close question," U.S. District Judge James Peterson wrote.

* Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) announced this morning that he's decided not to run for president. By my count, that leaves just nine other senators in the mix for the Dems' 2020 nomination: Warren, Booker, Brown, Gillibrand, Harris, Klobuchar. Merkley. Sanders, and Bennet.

* Following bipartisan outrage over his racist rhetoric, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has decided to raise money off the controversy. "The unhinged left has teamed up with Republican 'NeverTrumpers' and is pulling out all the stops to destroy me," King wrote in a new appeal to prospective donors.

* On a related note, Donald Trump's re-election campaign has turned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's State of the Union security concerns into a new fundraising pitch.

* A Democratic group called Majority Forward, which is aligned with the Senate Democratic leadership, has produced new television ads targeting six Republican senators with criticism over the government shutdown. Each of the GOP lawmakers -- Sens. Martha McSally (Ariz.), Cory Gardner (Colo.), David Perdue (Ga.), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Susan Collins (Maine), and Thom Tillis (N.C.) -- are expected to face competitive races in 2020.

* As part of her presidential campaign, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) issued a new apology yesterday for her previous work in anti-LGBTQ activism. The congresswoman conceded she made "hurtful" statements, but she insists her views "have changed significantly."

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Snow slows down traffic on Interstate 40, Jan. 22, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. A blizzard menacing the Eastern United States started dumping snow in Virginia, Tennessee and other parts of the South. (Photo by Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean/AP)

Looking for a win, the White House turns back to infrastructure

01/18/19 11:12AM

Last May, the White House conceded that Donald Trump's infrastructure package was dead, at least in the last Congress. The news surprised no one: a month earlier, DJ Gribbin, the White House's top infrastructure adviser, announced his resignation, apparently because he had so little to do.

The demise of Donald Trump's plan was welcome, largely because it was based on bizarre arithmetic. According to the president and his team, the administration could spur $1.5 trillion in investments by spending $200 billion, nearly all of which would come from cuts to other transportation priorities.

Even the Republican-led Congress found the plan too misguided to seriously consider; "Infrastructure Week" became a popular punch-line; and the issue faded from the political world's radar. Reuters reports today, however, that it's poised for a comeback.

U.S. President Donald Trump is reviving efforts to win approval for a significant infrastructure plan lasting up to 13 years, two people briefed on the matter said, as the administration seeks to bring a long-stalled campaign promise back to life.

In a meeting of top advisers at the White House on Tuesday, the sources, who declined to be identified since the meeting was not public, said participants discussed aspects of a potential infrastructure plan and whether to include details of it in Trump's State of the Union address scheduled for later this month.

About 20 officials took part in the more than hour-long meeting with Trump, including Vice President Mike Pence, White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, the sources said.

This makes a degree of political sense. Trump's legislative agenda, such as it is, appeared to effectively die the moment Democrats won the House majority. Desperate for a win and something that might shift attention away from the president's scandals, Team Trump is returning to the one major issue that, in theory, could garner bipartisan backing.

The trouble is, this almost certainly won't work.

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President Donald Trump talks with reporters as he reviews border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego.

In apparent desperation, Trump turns to more fear-mongering

01/18/19 10:35AM

In the summer of 2014, some conservative media outlets and Republican officials were trying to stoke fears of central American children, and they came across "evidence" they hoped would change public perceptions: prayer rugs were found on the American side of the southern border.

From there the right started connecting the dots in predictable ways. If there were prayer rugs, they must've been dropped by Muslims. If there were Muslims, they must've been terrorists. If they were terrorists, it's proof of the need to do ... something.

The whole story more or less evaporated soon after -- one of the rugs turned out to be a soccer jersey -- and the political world moved on. That is, until the Washington Examiner, a conservative outlet, published this item on Wednesday.

Ranchers and farmers near the U.S.-Mexico border have been finding prayer rugs on their properties in recent months, according to one rancher who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by cartels who move the individuals.

The mats are pieces of carpet that those of the Muslim faith kneel on as they worship.

"There's a lot of people coming in not just from Mexico," the rancher said. "People, the general public, just don't get the terrorist threats of that. That's what's really scary. You don't know what's coming across. We've found prayer rugs out here. It's unreal. It's not just Mexican nationals that are coming across."

Donald Trump, who has an unfortunate habit of valuing conservative media reports over the findings of actual U.S. intelligence agencies, eagerly promoted the report this morning.

And that's a shame, because this brazen fear-mongering is difficult to take seriously.

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Image: 58th U.S. Presidential Inauguration

Trump White House reportedly sought to put Pelosi 'in her place'

01/18/19 09:20AM

One of the most striking aspects of Donald Trump's petty decision to cancel House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's trip to Afghanistan is the degree to which it was lacking in any sense of proportionality. The president and his team were bothered that the California Democrat had raised security concerns about the upcoming State of the Union address.

In response, Trump decided to scrap a long-planned secret trip in which congressional leaders -- including the chairs of the House Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees -- who were set to visit with American troops stationed abroad, while receiving briefings on the status of an ongoing war.

It's hard to imagine any fair-minded observer making the case that these are two comparable.

So why did this happen? According to a striking New York Times report, the West Wing wanted to put Pelosi "in her place."

White House officials -- including Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff -- had been irked by Ms. Pelosi's invocation of security concerns as her premise for urging Mr. Trump to move his speech, and sought to put her in her place after she had emphasized that she represented a coequal branch in governing, according to aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.

Depriving Ms. Pelosi of an aircraft was the easiest way to remind her, they said. So Mr. Trump made a play for dominance and one-upmanship.... White House aides were tickled by the move, even as some acknowledged that Republican House members might fear for their own trips going forward.

It's as if a group of far-right online trolls took control of the executive branch of a global superpower.

I'm especially fascinated by the idea that the White House wanted to put the House Speaker "in her place." Does anyone seriously believe Nancy Pelosi will feel intimidated by the amateur president's sophomoric antics? Is it realistic to think she'll shy away from confrontations with the White House because Trump threw another tantrum and needlessly cancelled her trip to a warzone the president hasn't yet visited himself?

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Pro-abortion and anti-abortion protestors rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., Jan. 22, 2014.

As shutdown drags on, the GOP makes time for ... an anti-abortion bill?

01/18/19 08:40AM

As the government shutdown reaches the four-week mark, there's a striking difference between how Congress' chambers are trying to clean up the mess. The Democratic-led House has approved several measures that would re-open federal departments and agencies, and each of the bills is consistent with the related proposals that passed the Senate last month with bipartisan support.

The Republican-led Senate, however, has ignored the measures. In fact, the chamber hasn't even tried to pass a bill to end all or part of the shutdown.

Pressed last week on why his chamber hasn't yet considered any of the House bills to end the shutdown -- measure that would likely pass the upper chamber -- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he didn't see the point in "wasting the Senate's time on show votes."

It's a straightforward argument: Donald Trump will veto any effort to end the shutdown that lacks wall funding, so McConnell believes it's "pointless" to schedule a vote on legislation that won't become law.

But as it turns out, McConnell is selective in his application of this principle. Politico  reported late yesterday:

Senate Republicans on Thursday failed to muster the 60 votes needed to approve a permanent ban on federal funding of abortion, a largely symbolic effort timed to coincide with the country's largest annual anti-abortion demonstration in Washington this week.

The Senate vote was the first on an anti-abortion measure since Republicans narrowly expanded their majority in the chamber in the 2018 midterms, and it marked a sharp contrast with House Democrats' plans to loosen restrictions on taxpayer support for the procedure.

McConnell knew going into the vote that the measure didn't have the support necessary to clear the 60-vote threshold -- in fact, it faced bipartisan opposition -- which dovetailed with the obvious realization that the bill stood no chance whatsoever in the Democratic-led House.

But opponents of abortion rights are getting ready for their annual event in D.C., and the Senate Republican leadership thought it'd be a nice little gift to the activists to bring the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" to the floor for consideration.

What was that McConnell was saying about how "pointless" it is to "waste the Senate's time on show votes"?

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Image: FBI Investigates Trump's attorney Michael Cohen

Dems pounce on report that Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress

01/18/19 08:00AM

Donald Trump has long insisted that he didn't have or pursue any business deals in Russia. Those claims were false: during the 2016 campaign, the future Republican president and members of his inner circle tried to complete a major real-estate deal in Moscow. Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney, business associate, and purported "fixer," was a key player in the process.

We learned two months ago that Cohen lied to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project -- a detail that emerged from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation -- which ultimately worsened Cohen's prison sentence. It was a striking development: this was the first time the president's private business dealings in Moscow became a documented part of Mueller's investigation.

Last night, however, the story took an even more dramatic turn with this report from BuzzFeed.

President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.

Trump also supported a plan, set up by Cohen, to visit Russia during the presidential campaign, in order to personally meet President Vladimir Putin and jump-start the tower negotiations. "Make it happen," the sources said Trump told Cohen.

And even as Trump told the public he had no business deals with Russia, the sources said Trump and his children Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. received regular, detailed updates about the real estate development from Cohen, whom they put in charge of the project.

As the story goes, after the election, Trump hoped to "obscure" his involvement in the proposed Moscow project, so he instructed Cohen to deceive lawmakers about when the negotiations ended.

At face value, that's an awfully interesting thing for the president to have been concerned about.

The standard response from the White House's allies in response to Cohen-related revelations is that the president's former lawyer is untrustworthy. Perhaps. But in this case, according to BuzzFeed's report -- which hasn't been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News -- the special counsel's office "learned about Trump's directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents."

It was at that point that Cohen confirmed what Mueller's team had uncovered.

It's not lost on anyone that if the president directed his fixer to lie to Congress, it would take Trump's troubles to a new, perilous level.

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