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Friday's Mini-Report, 9.20.19

09/20/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Scandalous, but not surprising: "President Trump in a July phone call repeatedly pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's son, urging Volodymyr Zelensky about eight times to work with Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, on a probe, according to people familiar with the matter."

* Climate activism: "Crowds of children jammed the streets of major cities Friday in a global show of force to demand action on climate change, with many young people skipping school in protest and sharing a unified message aimed at world leaders."

* An important lawsuit: "California and 22 other states sued Friday to stop the Trump administration from revoking the authority of the nation's most populous state to set emission standards for cars and trucks."

* GM strike: "Thousands of Canadian auto industry workers have been furloughed, with more temporary layoffs coming, as negotiations on a new labor contract between General Motors and the United Auto Workers drags into its fifth day."

* It's about time: "For the first time since it was formed after the 9/11 attacks, the Department of Homeland Security is adding white supremacist violence to its list of priority threats in a revised counterterrorism strategy issued Friday."

* The latest addition to the list of inflammatory comments from Ben Carson: "Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson allegedly made transphobic comments at a meeting with HUD staffers earlier this week."

* A debate worth having: "For the first time in more than two decades, the House on Thursday gave the long-suffering movement for D.C. statehood a hearing, plunging back into the constitutional and political debate over whether the nation's capital should become the 51st state."

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Trump's response to the whistleblower scandal comes up short (again)

09/20/19 01:03PM

Yesterday, Donald Trump responded publicly for the first time to the scandal surrounding the intelligence community whistleblower, and the president's first attempt at pushback was hardly persuasive.

In a pair of tweets, the Republican made the case that he's simply too clever to "say something inappropriate" with foreign officials when people might be listening, which was a problematic response for a variety of reasons, including ample evidence that he's already been caught saying inappropriate things to foreign officials.

This morning, again via Twitter, Trump tried again:

"They think I may have had a 'dicey' conversation with a certain foreign leader based on a 'highly partisan' whistleblowers statement. Strange that with so many other people hearing or knowing of the perfectly fine and respectful conversation, that they would not have also come forward. Do you know the reason why they did not? Because there was nothing said wrong, it was pitch perfect!"

Putting grammatical concerns aside, this doesn't work as a credible defense, either. For one thing, there's no evidence the whistleblower is "highly partisan," and in theory, Trump shouldn't know who the person who filed the complaint even is.

For another, the president seems unaware of how difficult it is for someone within the intelligence community to put his or her career on the line, facing the very real possibility of White House reprisals, and call out alleged presidential wrongdoing through proper and legal channels.

To hear Trump tell it, if he'd truly crossed any lines, others would've also gone to the intelligence community's inspector general. Reality isn't nearly that simple: a limited number of people were aware of the conversation -- or conversations -- in which the president may have gone too far. How many of them are prepared to be lose their jobs? Or be targeted by a White House with an unfortunate reputation for targeting critics?

For that matter, while we're aware of one whistleblower, we don't know for sure whether others also spoke to the inspector general about the incident(s).

In the Oval Office this morning, sitting alongside Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Trump went a little further.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.20.19

09/20/19 12:00PM

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

* New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ended his Democratic presidential campaign this morning, explaining on MSNBC, "I feel like I have contributed all I can to this primary election. It's clearly not my time." There are still 19 candidates vying for the party's nomination.

* Joe Biden's presidential campaign picked up three notable congressional endorsements yesterday, receiving support from Reps. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), and Charlie Crist (D-Fla.). Both Cleaver and Butterfield have served as chairs of the Congressional Black Caucus.

* Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign announced an impressive milestone yesterday: the Vermont senator became the first 2020 candidate to reach 1 million individual donors. Then-candidate Barack Obama also topped the million-donor mark in his 2008 race, but Sanders reached the threshold even faster.

* There's been increased speculation in recent weeks about whether Rep. Lucy McBath (D) would run in one of Georgia's two U.S. Senate races next year, but the first-term lawmaker announced yesterday that she would instead run for re-election to her U.S. House seat.

* The latest Monmouth University poll in New Jersey shows Sen. Cory Booker (D) popular in his home state, but that's not translating into strong support for his presidential campaign. Biden leads the Democratic field in the Garden State with 26%, followed by Elizabeth Warren at 20%, and Sanders at 18%. Booker is fourth in New Jersey with 9%.

* A notable tidbit from this week's Fox News poll: it not only shows Donald Trump trailing each of the top Democratic contenders in hypothetical general election match-ups, it also shows Democrats with an enthusiasm edge over Republicans.

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On covering dishonesty, Pompeo should be careful what he wishes for

09/20/19 11:20AM

Yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Saudi Arabia, where there's obviously considerable interest in the recent attack on Saudi oil facilities and those responsible. While the chief U.S. diplomat has accused Iran, the Houthis in Yemen have claimed responsibility.

It was against this backdrop that Pompeo spoke with reporters and gave journalists some guidance on the kind of coverage he'd like to see from independent news outlets.

"[B]y the way, that makes the Houthis' claims false, right. Just so we're tracking back to your original question, that means these people lie. And so whatever you report about them, you say, 'The Houthis said...,' you should say, 'The well-known, frequently lying Houthis have said the following....'

"This is important, because you ought not report them as if these are truth-tellers, as if these are people who aren't completely under the boot of the Iranians, and who would not at the direction of the Iranians lay claim to attacks which they did not engage in, which clearly was the case here.

"So there you go. Whenever you say 'Houthis,' you should begin with, 'The well-known, frequently-known-to-lie Houthis.' And then you can write whatever it is they say. And you would have -- that would be good reporting."


To be sure, there are heightened tensions in the Middle East following a violent attack in Saudi Arabia. Tensions are high; the White House is weighing some highly provocative options; Iran isn't doing much to lower the temperature; and there's a great deal of uncertainty about how this will play out in the near future.

For that matter, it's also true that the Houthis in Yemen, eager to raise their visibility and relevance, have made dubious claims.

But if Mike Pompeo wants to give journalists advice on how best to cover those with dubious credibility, the secretary of State should probably be careful what he wishes for.

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To shield tax returns, Trump lawyers say he can't be investigated

09/20/19 10:40AM

The problem is not just that Donald Trump has hired a team of lawyers to keep his tax returns secret; it's also how far these lawyers will go in service of their client. The New York Times reported yesterday:

Lawyers for President Trump argued in a lawsuit filed on Thursday that he could not be criminally investigated while in office, as they sought to block a subpoena from state prosecutors in Manhattan demanding eight years of his tax returns.

Taking a broad position that the lawyers acknowledged had not been tested, the president's legal team argued in the complaint that the Constitution effectively makes sitting presidents immune from all criminal inquiries until they leave the White House.

Presidents, they asserted, have such enormous responsibility and play a unique role in government that they cannot be subject to the burden of investigations, especially from local prosecutors who may use the criminal process for political gain.

As the investigation into the Russia scandal intensified, many Americans became familiar with the legal principle that a sitting president cannot be prosecuted while in office. The idea is not without critics and skeptics, but it's a legal opinion Robert Mueller felt obliged to honor.

The president's lawyers, however, are going far further down the same road. In January 2016, Trump reflected on the loyalty of his followers and boasted, "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, okay, and I wouldn't lose any voters, okay? It's, like, incredible."

As Rachel explained on the show last night, Trump's attorneys are effectively of the opinion that if the president really did, right now, stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, there would be no way to hold him accountable so long as the president is in office.

It's an argument rooted in the idea that the sitting president isn't just immune from prosecution; he's also immune from scrutiny.

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Trump admin backs off plan to deport critically ill children

09/20/19 10:00AM

It was about a month ago when we first learned that the Trump administration was threatening critically ill children with deportation. As regular readers may recall, it was almost hard to believe.

For all of Donald Trump's talk about targeting "bad hombres" to keep Americans safe, in this case, his administration was targeting children receiving treatment for life-threatening ailments who'd been granted "medical deferred action." By threatening the kids and their families with deportation, the administration's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was effectively delivering death sentences.

The policy was almost cartoonish in its malevolence. Even critics of the Republican White House, who've come to expect the worst from Trump and his team, were taken aback by the reports. These families were told they had 33 days to leave the country. There was no opportunity to appeal or challenge the decision.

As Rachel noted at the top of last night's show, the policy in question is no more.

The Trump administration formally backed away from plans to deport critically ill immigrant children in a notification sent to Congress Thursday.

In a letter sent to the House Oversight Committee, the Department of Homeland Security said that it is "resuming its consideration of non-military deferred action requests on a discretionary, case-by-case basis."

If this sounds familiar, it's because the administration seemed to back off a couple of weeks ago, but the shift left a series of unanswered questions, including the program's uncertain future. Those questions appear to have been answered -- and Team Trump's reversal is complete.

It's probably not a coincidence that the House Oversight Committee was slated to hold a hearing next week on the administration's cruelty, which immigration officials were likely going to have a hard time defending.

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Image: President Trump attends Republican policy luncheon at the US Capitol

After 'Moscow Mitch' push, McConnell backs down on security funding

09/20/19 09:20AM

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is accustomed to criticism, which the longtime GOP lawmaker tends to brush off with a degree of blithe indifference. But by all appearances, the "Moscow Mitch" label seemed to actually bother him.

The line of criticism took root over the summer, as Democratic lawmakers pushed a series of measures intended to protect U.S. elections from another Russian attack, only to have McConnell block each of the efforts for flimsy reasons. It led Dana Milbank to refer to the Senate's top Republican as "a Russian asset" who was "doing Russian President Vladimir Putin's bidding."

McConnell made little effort to hide his disgust with the criticisms. At the same time, however, they appear to have had an effect.

In a surprise development, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his support on Thursday for additional money to bolster the country's election system ahead of the 2020 vote, a move that counters his earlier position resisting calls for more funding.

McConnell, R-Ky., said he is co-sponsoring an amendment to an appropriations bill that would provide $250 million for election security.

Keep in mind, when Democrats brought up a measure last year to provide $250 million in election-security assistance to states, McConnell and his conference balked. Now, it's a different story.

Stepping back, it's been exasperating over the years to see McConnell shrug his shoulders in response to criticisms, no matter how fierce or widespread. From the Kentucky Republican's perspective, he's acted as if he's immune -- because for the most part, McConnell was.

The GOP leader has long been aware of the condemnations of his maximalist tactics, but he was unfazed because he's never seen a reason to care. McConnell expected to win re-election anyway and was confident his far-right conference would reward him.

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Lawyer and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani at a press conference after appearing in court to call for the dismissal of a lawsuit filed against video game giant Activision in Los Angeles, Calif., Oct. 16, 2014. (Photo by Damian Dovarganes/AP)

To assist Trump, Giuliani says a bit too much about a foreign scheme

09/20/19 08:44AM

Rudy Giuliani is ostensibly one of Donald Trump's most prominent allies, though the former New York City Mayor tends to cause more trouble for the president than he resolves.

Take last night, for example.

Giuliani, one of Trump's personal lawyers, was interviewed by CNN's Chris Cuomo, and the host asked Giuliani whether he asked Ukrainian officials to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. "No," the Republican replied. "Actually, I didn't."

About 30 seconds later, viewers were treated to this exchange:

CUOMO: So, you did ask Ukraine to look into Joe Biden?

GIULIANI: Of course, I did.

CUOMO: You just said you didn't.

GIULIANI: No. I didn't ask them to look into Joe Biden.

It actually went downhill from there.

To be sure, watching Giuliani's apparent meltdown on national television was difficult. If he thought he was representing his client's interests, the former mayor was mistaken.

But this was about more than just a former prominent politician embarrassing himself on camera. There's actually a real story here, which may relate to the ongoing scandal about the intelligence community whistleblower.

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The White House is seen under dark rain clouds in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty)

Revelations bring Trump's whistleblower scandal into sharper focus

09/20/19 08:00AM

There are still some key elements of the whistleblower scandal that are not yet publicly available, but after reading the Washington Post's overnight scoop, the story is quickly coming into sharper focus.

A whistleblower complaint about President Trump made by an intelligence official centers on Ukraine, according to two people familiar with the matter, which has set off a struggle between Congress and the executive branch.

The complaint involved communications with a foreign leader and a "promise" that Trump made, which was so alarming that a U.S. intelligence official who had worked at the White House went to the inspector general of the intelligence community, two former U.S. officials said.

Two and a half weeks before the complaint was filed, Trump spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and political newcomer who was elected in a landslide in May.

The New York Times also reported that the story involves Trump and Ukraine.

And if you've been following the news closely over the last few weeks, this doesn't necessarily come as a major surprise. Trump, putting aside the Pentagon's guidance, recently held off on delivering promised military aid to Ukraine, and according to the Washington Post, it's because the American president hoped to leverage the aid as part of an extortion scheme: Trump reportedly told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that if his country wanted the military assistance, his country would have to assist the Trump campaign by investigating Joe Biden.

If you’re wondering why in the world Ukraine would have anything to do with the 2020 race in the United States in the first place, the New York Times published a curious article in May, raising questions about Joe Biden’s work several years ago on a government-reform effort in Ukraine. There was some suggestion that the Delaware Democrat’s son may have benefited, but the claims of possible wrongdoing quickly unraveled, and the story went largely overlooked.

Trump and his team, however, believe that if they dig hard enough on this, there may be some dirt they could use.

It's against this backdrop that Trump reportedly made a "promise" that centered on Ukraine that was so provocative that a U.S. intelligence official filed a complaint with the inspector general of the intelligence community.

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