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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 3.20.18

03/20/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Today's school shooting: "Two teens at a Maryland high school were shot Tuesday after another student opened fire in the hallway just before the start of classes, authorities said. The shooter -- identified as Austin Wyatt Rollins, 17 -- was injured and taken to the hospital, where he died, St. Mary's County Sheriff Tim Cameron said at a news conference."

* Cambridge Analytica: "Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, the political data firm that has been the focus of a series of investigative reports by NBC News' U.K. partner, ITN Channel 4 News, has been suspended, the company announced Tuesday."

* In related news: "As Facebook grapples with a backlash over its role in spreading disinformation, an internal dispute over how to handle the threat and the public outcry is resulting in the departure of a senior executive."

* I'll have more on this tomorrow: "President Trump on Tuesday congratulated President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on his recent re-election victory, but failed to ask him about either the fairness of the Russian vote, which Mr. Putin won with a lopsided margin, or about allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election."

* In response to reports that former Solicitor General Ted Olson may be joining Trump's legal defense team, Olson published a tweet this afternoon making clear that neither he nor his firm will be representing the president.

* It's too late to take this back: "Joseph diGenova, the newest member of President Donald Trump's legal team for the Russia investigation, wrote in a 1997 op-ed that the nation 'could conceivably benefit from the indictment of a president' because 'it would teach the valuable civics lesson that no one is above the law.'"

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White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stands beside monitors showing US President Donald J. Trump delivering a statement on the economy, at the beginning of a news conference in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, January

As Trump acknowledges Texas bombings, White House denies links to 'terrorism'

03/20/18 04:36PM

We talked briefly yesterday about the fourth explosion in less than three weeks in Austin, a situation that led Austin Police Chief Brian Manley to tell reporters, "We are clearly dealing with a serial bomber."

Today, the story grew even more serious.

A package that exploded at a FedEx distribution center near San Antonio early Tuesday is linked to four blasts in Austin this month, a source briefed on the investigation told NBC News.

Tuesday's explosion occurred around 12:25 a.m. local time (1:25 a.m. ET) in the sorting area of a facility in Schertz, Texas, officials said.... [A] source briefed on the investigation later told NBC News that the blasts are linked.

This afternoon, three weeks after the first incident, Donald Trump "broke his silence" on the bombings, telling reporters in the Oval Office, "This is obviously a very, very sick individual, or maybe individuals. These are sick people, and we will get to the bottom of it."

What struck me as especially notable, however, was a statement from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who published a tweet on this earlier today. Much of the missive was what you'd expect it to say -- the president's spokesperson said Trump "mourns for victims" and officials are "monitoring the situation" -- though Sanders added, "There is no apparent nexus to terrorism at this time."


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Image: U.S. President Donald Trump signs a presidential proclamation placing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports while surrounded by workers from the steel and aluminum industries at the White House in Washington

Court: Lawsuit filed by one of Trump's accusers can move forward

03/20/18 02:36PM

As much of the world no doubt recalls, Donald Trump was recorded in 2005 bragging about committing sexual assaults. The Republican said, among other things, that he kisses women he considers attractive – “I don’t even wait,” Trump claimed at the time – which he said he can get away with because of his public profile.

“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump said on the recording. “You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the p—y.”

After Trump denied having done what he bragged about doing, 11 women came forward to accuse the Republican of sexual misconduct – one of whom, Summer Zervos, is currently suing the president for defamation, after Trump insisted each of his accusers were liars.

Trump's lawyers have tried a variety of arguments to make the case go away -- the president has denied any wrongdoing -- but as of this afternoon, those efforts have failed. The Daily Beast  reported:

A Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled Tuesday that President Trump has to face a defamation lawsuit brought by former Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos. Justice Jennifer Schecter wrote that a "sitting president is not immune from being sued in federal court for unofficial acts," citing court precedent that led to President Clinton's impeachment in 1998. Justice Schecter subsequently denied Trump's "motion to dismiss this case or hold it in abeyance."

This comes as Zervos, who accused Trump last year of sexually harassing her in 2007, sued the president for defamation after he suggested she made up the allegations for "ten minutes of fame."

Remember, the president's legal team argued, among other things, that a case like this one could "distract a president from his public duties to the detriment of not only the president and his office but also the nation."

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Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks with reporters as he leaves the Senate Republicans' policy lunch on June 16, 2015. (Photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

Lindsey Graham: If Trump fires Mueller, it might be impeachable

03/20/18 12:54PM

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has some experience when it comes to presidential impeachment. Twenty years ago, when Republicans impeached Bill Clinton, Graham was a member of the House Judiciary Committee and was one of the impeachment "managers" who made the case for removing the president from office.

This came to mind hearing the South Carolina senator broach the same subject this morning.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Tuesday said that it would "probably" be an impeachable offense if President Donald Trump fired special counsel Robert Mueller "without cause."

"If the President fired Robert Mueller, do you think that would be an impeachable offense?" conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt asked the senator in an interview.

"Probably so, if he did it without cause, yeah," Graham replied.

Asked to explain why, the Republican added, "Well, I think what the President will have done is stopped an investigation into whether or not his campaign colluded with the Russians, what effect the Russians had on the 2016 campaign. I can't see it being anything other than a corrupt purpose."

According to the online transcript, Graham went on to say, "I can't think of a more upsetting moment in the rule of law to have an investigator looking at a president's campaign as to whether or not they colluded with a foreign government, what kind of crimes may have been committed. I've seen no evidence of collusion, but to stop investigation without cause, I think, would be a constitutional crisis."

When Hewitt asked whether he's communicated that message to the president, Graham replied, "I think I just did."

The GOP lawmaker said over the weekend that if Trump were to fire the special counsel, "that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency, because we're a rule-of-law nation." This morning's comments seemed quite a bit more serious.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.20.18

03/20/18 12:00PM

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

* In the state of Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed a major voting-expansion bill into law yesterday, which includes automatic voter registration and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-old students.

* It's Primary Day in Illinois, and many election watchers will be keeping an eye on Rep. Dan Lipinski (D), one of Congress' most conservative Democrats, who faces a credible primary challenger in the state's 3rd district.

* On a related note, both parties are holding gubernatorial primaries in Illinois today, and while incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) is generally expected to prevail, his success is hardly assured. (Illinois Dems have taken steps to intervene, trying to boost Jeanne Ives' chances.)

* Donald Trump's re-election campaign sent out an appeal to donors this week, "fundraising off a controversial request from his Justice Department that the 2020 Census include a question about citizenship."

* Fresh off his apparent special-election defeat last week, Rick Saccone (R) yesterday made his first on-camera comments since the race, insisting, "It's not over yet."

* In New York, Cynthia Nixon, perhaps best known as a co-star of the "Sex and the City" television show, launched a gubernatorial campaign yesterday. She'll take on incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a Democratic primary.

* On a related note, the latest Sienna poll suggests Nixon is facing long odds: the statewide survey found Cuomo leading the actor among New York Democrats, 66% to 19%.

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Even now, Republicans can't let go of their Clinton preoccupation

03/20/18 11:18AM

Hillary Clinton spoke at an event in October, and in reference to some of her conservative critics, the former Secretary of State joked, "It appears they don't know I'm not president."

The line came to mind last night when Fox News' Sean Hannity asked House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) whether he has "any doubt" that Clinton committed "crimes" with her email server protocols. The Republican congressman replied, in apparent reference to the former Democratic official:

"Well, as you know, our committee continues to look at conspiracy. We are looking at obstruction, we are looking at misleading Congress and also there's the statute in the civil rights code that involves I think abuse of power and using your position to go after someone personally."

After explaining his committee's ongoing interest in Hillary Clinton, Nunes added, "The American people expect the intelligence agencies not to be political."

Heaven forbid.

As the interview aired, Politico  reported that Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is moving forward with plans "to subpoena the Justice Department for records gathered by its inspector general in his review of how the FBI handled its 2016 investigation of Hillary Clinton."

There was a point, shortly before the last presidential election, in which GOP leaders said they expected to spend Clinton's presidency launching one investigation after another. When she lost, some in the party said they didn't care.

Indeed, n Nov. 9, 2016, literally the day after the election, then-House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said his pre-election plans had not changed: he would continue to vigorously pursue Clinton. "We can't just simply let this go," Chaffetz told Fox News in December.

Chaffetz may have resigned from Congress, but his sentiment is still shared by many in his party.

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Image: US House of Representatives passes short-term measure to fund the government

GOP expects Democrats' help in fixing the tax plan's errors

03/20/18 10:40AM

In any major piece of legislation, flaws are practically inevitable, and even careful policymakers often don't notice the errors until a new law takes effect. With this in mind, perhaps it's unsurprising that the Republicans' regressive new tax plan is riddled with dozens of mistakes.

In this case, however, the details matter. While some errors are probably unavoidable, GOP lawmakers were unusually careless in throwing together their reckless tax breaks for the wealthy, effectively scribbling the legislative text on the back of envelopes filled with campaign contributions.

Asked to describe the scope of the mistakes in the Republican tax law, Marty Sullivan, chief economist at the non-partisan Tax Analysts, told  Politico, "This is not normal. There's always this kind of stuff, but the order of magnitude is entirely different."

Fixing these mistakes will require congressional action, and wouldn't you know it, the Democrats who were locked out of the process last fall don't seem especially eager to cooperate now. The Washington Post  reported over the weekend:

Republicans aiming to use an upcoming spending bill to fix a glaring problem with their recently passed tax overhaul are running into a wall with Democrats, who were shut out of the tax law process and now don't want to cooperate unless they get something in return. [...]

Democrats aren't willing to go along so easily. They say they warned Republicans that pushing through the law in a matter of weeks -- without public hearings -- would result in problems and unintended consequences. And now that such issues are emerging, some Democrats resent being asked to lend their votes to a solution.

That's not the funny part. Rather, what's truly amazing is the Republicans' incredulity.

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The Supreme Court Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 6, 2013. (Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times/Redux)

Courts reject Republican efforts to rescue gerrymandered map

03/20/18 10:01AM

After the 2010 Census, Pennsylvania Republicans crafted a gerrymandered congressional map that was tough to defend. As regular readers may recall, the GOP-led state legislature took an evenly divided state, drew up 18 congressional districts, and put 13 of them safely in Republican hands.

It created a dynamic in which Democratic candidates won 51% of the vote in Pennsylvania, but received only 28% of the power.

The state Supreme Court rejected that map -- calling it "clearly, plainly, and palpably" unconstitutional -- and ended up unveiling a better map of its own. Republicans still have an advantage under the new district lines, but it's not nearly as outrageous as the GOP's previous version.

To put it mildly, Republican officials weren't satisfied, and when they weren't threatening to impeach state Supreme Court justices, they filed lawsuits. Yesterday, those efforts failed.

Pennsylvania Republicans were handed a pair of defeats Monday in their quest to keep old congressional maps in place for the 2018 midterms, potentially giving Democrats a boost when it comes to winning back the House in November.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined a request from Republican leaders to put the new congressional district map, imposed last month by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, on hold. Earlier Monday, in a separate case, a panel of federal judges dismissed a legal challenge by Republican congressmen to the new map.

There are no additional appeals. The court-drawn map will be the one in place for this year's midterm elections.

Why should voters outside of the Keystone State care? Because this one development is likely to have a significant impact on which party has political power in the coming years.

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Image: 2018 Adult Video News Awards - Arrivals

Trump lawyer: Pre-election payment to porn star unrelated to election

03/20/18 09:20AM

When it comes to Donald Trump's Stormy Daniels scandal, some of the most interesting revelations come from one of the president's personal attorneys, Michael Cohen. He's the one who quietly created an LLC in 2016 to pay $130,000 in hush money to the porn star, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

It was Cohen, for example, who publicly confirmed the $130,000 figure. It was Cohen who said he borrowed against his home equity in order to facilitate the payment. And now it's Cohen who's now denying any connection between the pre-election payoff and the election itself.

Attorney Michael Cohen, who has said he paid porn actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about any relationship she might have had with his client Donald Trump, told Vanity Fair that the payment had nothing to do with the 2016 campaign. Cohen also denied he has threatened Daniels.

"People are mistaking this for a thing about the campaign," Cohen told VF. "What I did defensively for my personal client, and my friend, is what attorneys do for their high-profile clients. I would have done it in 2006. I would have done it in 2011. I truly care about him and the family -- more than just as an employee and an attorney."

Given the circumstances, this isn't a surprising argument. As Cohen no doubt realizes, if the hush money was delivered as part of an effort to improve Trump's chances of winning, then it may have been necessary to report the $130,000 as a campaign-related expenditure -- and failure to do so may have violated federal election laws.

And so, naturally, the president's lawyer is now eager to make the case that this had nothing do with the 2016 campaign. Cohen would've paid hush money to the adult-film actress at any time, the story goes, and it's just a remarkable coincidence that the developments unfolded in late October 2016.

If it seems difficult to believe Cohen's claims, it's probably because of what we know about the larger context.

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Key Republican appears indifferent to Cambridge Analytica revelations

03/20/18 08:42AM

As the tumult surrounding the Russia scandal intensifies, yesterday brought a new twist. Cambridge Analytica, the data firm utilized by Donald Trump's 2016 political operation, became the subject of international scrutiny, following reports that it exploited Facebook, "harvesting private information" about tens of millions of users without their permission.

There's also a curious Russia angle to the story. As Chris Wylie, the firm's former research director, noted on NBC's "Today" show yesterday, Cambridge Analytica partnered with a Russian oil giant with a history of influence operations overseas, which expressed an interest in targeting American voters.

The controversy surrounding the firm, which was created in part by a major Trump donor and former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, grew even more serious as yesterday progressed.

In a meeting with the head of Cambridge Analytica -- the political data firm used by the Trump campaign in 2016 -- reporters from NBC News' U.K. partner ITN Channel 4 News posed as potential clients interested in changing the outcome of the Sri Lankan elections.

The reporters, who were trying to find out how the company operated, quickly learned about the novel and deceptive methods employed by the company, including bribes, blackmail, and misinformation campaigns. The findings were broadcast by the network on Monday.

On hidden camera, the reporters recorded Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, discussing the idea of hypothetically entrapping an opposition leader. He described how the company could record a person accepting a bribe, "an offer he can't refuse" or "send some girls around to the candidate's house."

When he wasn't talking about meddling in elections with entrapment tactics, the Cambridge Analytica executive referenced the potency of political misinformation. "It doesn't have to be true," Nix said. "It just has to be believed."

Given these extraordinary new details, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee will certainly want to re-open their investigation, right? Right?

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