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E.g., 9/17/2019

Tuesday's Mini-Report, 9.17.19

09/17/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Afghanistan: "An explosion near an election rally attended by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani killed 26 people -- including 4 security forces -- and injured 42 others, local officials said, but Ghani was unhurt according to an aide."

* Impeachment process: "Democrats pressed Corey Lewandowski at a contentious House hearing on Tuesday, with at least one member calling for the former Trump campaign manager to be held in contempt for following a White House directive to limit the scope of his testimony."

* A murky electoral picture in Israel: "Polls closed in Israel's razor-tight election Tuesday as embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to maintain his decadelong hold on power."

* Middle East: "The attack on a major Saudi oil facility originated geographically from Iranian territory, with a series of low-altitude cruise missiles fired from at least one location in the western region of the country, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the latest intelligence."

* Border barriers: "The Defense Department is no longer moving forward with three border barrier projects in California and Arizona, according to a court filing Monday. The move is a reversal of an earlier Pentagon authorization for about 20 miles of fencing, lighting and other border infrastructure that would have used $2.5 billion in funds redirected from a counter-drug fund."

* That was quick: "It hasn't yet been a full week, but it appears [former National Security Adviser John Bolton has] found a vehicle for clearing the air. According to two people with knowledge of the situation, Bolton has already expressed interest in writing a book on his time in the Trump administration, and has been in contact in recent days with literary agents interested in making that happen."

* Even if Republicans weren't persuaded by the national security arguments, it'd be nice if the fiscal arguments mattered: "Holding the Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess as the lone prisoner in Germany's Spandau Prison in 1985 cost an estimated $1.5 million in today's dollars. The per-prisoner bill in 2012 at the 'supermax' facility in Colorado, home to some of the highest-risk prisoners in the United States, was $78,000. Then there is Guantánamo Bay, where the expense now works out to about $13 million for each of the 40 prisoners being held there."

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U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) on his way back to his office Jan. 28, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

Trump admin under increasing pressure on whistleblower complaint

09/17/19 12:47PM

The burgeoning controversy surrounding the Trump administration withholding a complaint from an intelligence-community whistleblower is starting to intensify. It was good to see the editorial board of the Washington Post publish a piece on this overnight:

Mr. Trump has made plain his distaste for congressional oversight. Elsewhere, he's resisting disclosure of his tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee, although the law in that case also is straightforward. Oversight is a vital function of Congress, one that's not always performed as strenuously as it should be. At the same time, the Supreme Court has ruled that it can't lead to boundless inquisitions. [...]

In the case of the intelligence-community whistleblower, this clearly falls under the definition of a legitimate task of Congress. Someone inside the intelligence community decided to follow the rules and filed this complaint for a reason. Neither [acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire] nor Mr. Trump should be able to conceal such information. They should respect and uphold the law, not contravene it.

As Rachel explained on the show last night, the available facts in this matter do not appear to be in dispute. Someone within the U.S. intelligence community sent a complaint to the intelligence community's inspector general, and while we don't know about the nature of the complaint, the IG reviewed it and found it credible.

Just as importantly, the matter was deemed "urgent."

Under our system, this is supposed to set a series of dominoes in motion, including an alert to the director of National Intelligence. That, by all accounts is what occurred. (There is currently no Senate-confirmed DNI, but Joseph Maguire is there in an acting capacity.)

At that point, by law, the DNI has seven days to alert the congressional Intelligence committees. And that's the step the Trump administration, at least for now, is refusing to take.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.17.19

09/17/19 12:00PM

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

* During his campaign rally in New Mexico last night, Donald Trump suggested CNN contributor Steve Cortes doesn't "look" Hispanic enough, before asking him, "Who do you love more, the country or Hispanics? I don't know. I may have to go for the Hispanics, to be honest with you. We got a lot of Hispanics." It was as odd as it sounds.

* Speaking of the president, he'll be in California today -- a state Trump has routinely panned -- for a fundraising swing. He can expect to see more than a few protesters.

* In the race for the Democratic presidential nomination four years ago, the progressive Working Families Party threw its support to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). This year, it's supporting Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

* There's still some question as to when New York will hold its Democratic presidential primary, but in the meantime, the latest Siena poll suggests it'll be a close contest: former Vice President Joe Biden (D) leads the field with 22%, followed by Warren at 17% and Sanders at 15%. No other candidate tops 5% in the poll.

* Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) hasn't yet made a splash in the 2020 presidential race, and he didn't qualify for last week's debate, but the Coloradan is nevertheless making a seven-figure ad buy, with an emphasis on Iowa.

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U.S.  President Obama meets with President-elect Trump in the White House Oval Office in Washington

Trump's search for evidence against Obama isn't going well

09/17/19 11:20AM

The first sign of trouble emerged in July, when Donald Trump was speaking at a White House foreign-policy event, The president was whining about the investigations into his various scandals when he had an idea: Trump would try to shift the focus to his predecessor.

"We want to find out what happened with the last Democrat president," Trump said. "Let's look into Obama the way they've looked at me. From day one, they've looked into everything that we've done. They could look into the book deal that President Obama made. Let's subpoena all of his records."

There wasn't anything especially notable about Barack Obama signing a book deal after he'd left office; many modern presidents have done the same thing. But Trump suggested there might be something nefarious about the agreement because ... well, just because.

Yesterday, he was back at it.

Instead of investigating reports suggesting that Trump is using his presidency to enrich his businesses, Democrats should look at Obama's book and Netflix deals, the president said.

"I have a better idea. Look at the Obama Book Deal, or the ridiculous Netflix deal," Trump tweeted.

Soon after, Trump published more tweets defending himself from corruption allegations, and he tacked on "Obama Netflix?" as if it were self-explanatory.

It was not. In fact, these pointless jabs suggest Trump doesn't fully appreciate the nature of the corruption allegations he's facing.

To hear the Republican tell it, Obama is making money through private-sector deals and Trump is making money through private-sector deals. Why is everyone making a fuss about his alleged self-dealing while Obama gets by without scrutiny?

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This Jan. 17, 2017, file photo shows General Electric light bulbs on display at a store, in Wilmington, Mass.

Trump pitches his lightbulb policy as a matter of personal vanity

09/17/19 10:43AM

Two weeks ago, the Trump administration rolled back lightbulb energy-efficiency standards, which, as we've discussed, represented a pointless step backwards for U.S. energy policy.

As The Hill’s report on this noted, the new rule "will increase U.S. electricity use by 80 billion kilowatt hours over the course of a year, roughly the amount of electricity needed to power all households in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, according to an analysis by the Appliance Standards Awareness Project."

Last night, at a campaign rally in New Mexico, the president defended the policy by emphasizing the importance of his personal vanity.

"I wanted incandescent light. I wanted to look better, OK? I wanted to pay less money to look better."

For now, let's put aside the fact that energy-efficient lightbulbs, in the long run, end up costing consumers less money. Instead, let's note that Trump has been talking to the point of preoccupation about lightbulbs and his perceptions about his personal appearance.

Here he was, for example, at a campaign rally in North Carolina last week:

"I'm not a vain person, and I know I have no vain people especially these incredible ladies in the front, but I look better under an incandescent light than these crazy lights that are beaming down on us."

A few days later, he addressed the House Republican Conference:

"The lightbulb. People said, 'What's with the lightbulb?' I said, 'Here's the story…' And I looked at it – the bulb that we're being forced to use – number one, to me, most importantly, the light is no good. I always look orange."

Stanford's Ken Schultz joked last night, "The Republican argument for inefficient lightbulbs has gone from individual liberty to individual vanity."

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Image: Donald Trump, William Barr, Wilbur Ross

Commerce secretary's investments spark controversy (again)

09/17/19 10:24AM

The sheer volume of controversies surrounding Wilbur Ross is almost impressive. Just over the last couple of months, Donald Trump's Commerce secretary reportedly threatened to fire NOAA officials unless they endorsed the president's misstatement about a hurricane, was blamed for the White House's failed Census gambit, and was characterized as a hapless leader of a cabinet agency that's reportedly reaching "new heights of dysfunction."

And while Ross and his team have pushed back against each of these stories, things don't appear to be getting any better for the Commerce secretary. Forbes' Dan Alexander reported last night:

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross did not cut ties to a shipping fund he promised to divest, according to a new financial disclosure report obtained by Forbes. He still owns an interest in Starboard Recovery Associates LP worth $1,000 to $15,000. Under the liabilities section of the filing, Ross also lists a "capital commitment" to a related company for $1 million to $5 million. [...]

According to the new filing, Ross' remaining interest in Starboard gives him an indirect share of a handful of shipping assets with nondescriptive names like WLR/TRF KZ Holding I LLC and WLR/TRF Tanker Two LLC. Forbes obtained additional documents that describe the business of several of those holdings. Many of the companies were created to invest in the products of shipyards in the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea.

In case this isn't already obvious, it's not great when a Commerce secretary, whose agency works on international shipping, maintains private investments in international shipping.

If this sounds at all familiar, it's because there have been other reports along these same lines during his tenure about Ross maintaining stakes "in companies co-owned by the Chinese government, a shipping firm tied to Vladimir Putin's inner circle, a Cypriot bank reportedly caught up in the Robert Mueller investigation and a huge player in an industry Ross is now investigating."

Two months ago, Ross said he was moving forward with a plan to sell all of his equity holdings, though as Forbes added last night, the Commerce secretary "did not get rid of everything."

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North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un walks to greet Donald Trump at the Military Demarcation Line that divides North and South Korea, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized zone (DMZ) on June 30, 2019.

After visiting North Korea, Trump says he won't visit North Korea

09/17/19 09:20AM

A South Korean newspaper reported yesterday that North Korea's Kim Jong-un invited Donald Trump to Pyongyang as a way to restart failing nuclear talks. A reporter asked Trump yesterday whether the report was accurate.

"I don't want to comment on that," the American president replied. "The relationship is very good, but I don't want to comment on it."

A moment later, Trump was asked whether he'd be willing to go to North Korea. The Republican added:

"Probably not. I don't think it's ready. I don't think we're ready for that. I would do it sometime at -- sometime at a later future. And depending on what happens, I'm sure he'll love coming to the United States also. But, no, I don't think it's ready for that. I think we have a ways to go yet."

Not to put too fine a point on this, but didn't Trump already go to North Korea?

The rogue nuclear state may not be "ready" to welcome a sitting American president to North Korean soil, but it was just a few months ago when Trump nevertheless walked through the demilitarized zone and made a spectacle of a stroll alongside his dictatorial pal.

The New York Times reported in July, "In another administration, such a move might have been deliberated for weeks, put through an interagency process and approved only as part of a comprehensive approach to pressuring North Korea into giving up its nuclear program -- a reward for progress. Mr. Trump himself had previously been talked out of just such a move by cautious advisers. But this time he could not resist the idea of a showy 'first,' whether it fit a long-term strategy or not."

He couldn't even tell the truth at the time about how the events unfolded:

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Elaine L. Chao, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, awaits in front of an art project during a meeting in Leipzig main station in the context of the International Transport Forum in Leipzig, Germany, May 22, 2019.

Elaine Chao, Trump's Transportation Sec, faces House inquiry

09/17/19 08:41AM

Earlier this summer, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao faced accusations that she made special arrangements to benefit projects in Kentucky -- where her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is the senior senator. This was unrelated to separate reporting alleging that the Republican cabinet secretary held onto stock in a transportation company after she was supposed to have divested.

And as it turns out, those aren't the only Chao-related controversies being examined on Capitol Hill. The New York Times reported yesterday afternoon:

The House Oversight and Reform Committee asked Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Monday to turn over documents related to communication with her family's shipping company as the panel stepped up an investigation into whether any actions taken by Ms. Chao amount to a conflict of interest.

The request by the committee in the Democrat-controlled House relates to actions Ms. Chao has taken that potentially benefited Foremost Group, a New York-based shipping company owned by her family.

As Rachel noted on the show last night, Chao has made a habit of doing events with her father, who runs her family's shipping company, and emphasizing in interviews the good relationship between Donald Trump and her dad.

As the cabinet secretary ought to realize, this is inherently problematic, since her family's business has been trying to project its international reach. The more Chao's father can give the appearance of having an in with the United States government, the more it's likely to help the business' bottom line.

It's hardly unreasonable for the House Oversight Committee to seek some additional information about the Transportation secretary and her possible efforts to benefit her family's business.

But taking a step back, there's another question worth considering: is there really another member of Donald Trump's cabinet under investigation?

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History mandates presidential candidates release tax returns, but not how many

Fight over tax returns takes a turn Trump probably won't like

09/17/19 08:00AM

The fight over Donald Trump's hidden tax returns is a conflict on many fronts, but as NBC News reported yesterday afternoon, there's a new subpoena for the presidential materials that takes the effort in a new direction.

The Manhattan District Attorney's Office headed by Cy Vance has sent a grand jury subpoena to President Donald Trump's accounting firm to get his tax returns and corporate tax returns for the past eight years, a person with direct knowledge of the matter tells NBC News. [...]

Legal experts with such requests say that the subpoena will likely focus not just on the tax returns but will likely also ask for the underlying documents used to generate the tax returns such as bank statements, expense statements, and other financial documents.

Because the current president is at the center of a variety of jarring scandals, it's worth emphasizing that this subpoena has nothing to do with the Russia affair. Rather, Trump has also been caught up in a hush-money controversy involving pre-election payments to his alleged former mistresses, which helped put his personal attorney in prison, and which is part of an ongoing investigation launched by a New York district attorney's office into the Trump Organization.

Prosecutors are exploring whether the president's business falsified records to obscure the purpose of Trump's payment to Stormy Daniels.

As Matt Stieb noted, "Unlike previous subpoenas, this one is in the context of a criminal investigation with a sitting grand jury, making it more difficult for the president's lawyers to dodge this filing with a lawsuit."

What's more, as Rachel noted on the show last night, the new subpoena comes on the heels of Michael Cohen's reportedly entering into an agreement with New York City prosecutors in which he's providing information about the president's business operation.

If you're anything like me, you might be thinking at this point, "Geez, how many fights over Trump's tax returns are there?" Circling back to our earlier coverage, it's not a short list:

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