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Image: 58th U.S. Presidential Inauguration

House Dem leaders endorse revised trade deal with Canada, Mexico

12/10/19 12:52PM

One of Donald Trump's top legislative priorities for this Congress is passage of a trade deal called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which is really just a rebranded NAFTA, with some updated provisions. The president has spent months upbraiding Democrats for failing to approve NAFTA 2.0, while Democratic lawmakers pushed for changes to the agreement.

As of this morning, those negotiations appear to have succeeded. Less than an hour after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other leaders from her party unveiled articles of impeachment against the president, they announced their support for the revised trade deal with the United States' neighbors. The changes, among other things, are intended to lower prescription drug costs, while boosting environmental and labor safeguards.

"There is no question, of course, that this trade agreement is much better than NAFTA, but in terms of our work here, it is infinitely better than what was initially proposed by the administration," Pelosi said. "It's a victory for America's workers, it's one that we take great pride in advancing." [...]

Democrats sought to highlight their contributions to the deal -- such as removing carveouts for pharmaceutical companies, among others, and barriers to generic medications -- and how hard they'd worked on the deal to improve it from the White House's first draft.

Acknowledging the political circumstances, the House Speaker added, in reference to the president, "There's some people who say, 'Why make it look like he has a victory?' Well, we're declaring victory for the American worker."

To be sure, it's a complex political dynamic. Pelosi was facing pressure from some of her members who believed the new NAFTA would help the constituents economically. She was also facing pressure from some House Democrats who wanted symbolic evidence that the party could tackle legislative priorities and presidential accountability at the same time.

There were also, of course, plenty of Dems who saw the existing NAFTA as sufficient and concluded there was no compelling reason to hand Trump a victory, in exchange for practically nothing.

But in the end, Pelosi approached the issue in the opposite way of how Republicans approached policy disputes throughout the Obama era.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.10.19

12/10/19 12:00PM

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

* Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) announced this morning that he'll retire at the end of this Congress, becoming the 23rd House Republican to give up his or her seat ahead of the 2020 elections. Yoho represents Florida's 3rd congressional district, which is just south of Jacksonville, and which is expected to remain in GOP hands.

* Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) is close to qualifying for next week's Democratic presidential primary debate, but the congresswoman announced yesterday she won't attend, even if she meets the necessary thresholds. Gabbard cited "a number of reasons" behind her decision, though she didn't identify any of those reasons.

* Donald Trump is returning to Pennsylvania tonight for another campaign rally, this time in Hershey. He'll be joined by Vice President Mike Pence.

* In the wake of criticisms from Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg's presidential campaign announced yesterday that it will begin allowing press access to his fundraising events, and will also start disclosing the mayor's fundraising bundlers.

* On a related note, McKinsey & Co., the private consulting firm Buttigieg worked for after getting his degree, agreed yesterday to identify the presidential candidate's former clients.

* Bernie Sanders picked up an endorsement this morning from the Center for Popular Democracy Action, which Politico described as "an alliance of more than 40 left-wing organizations across the country," with a reported 600,000 members.

* Michael Bloomberg's presidential campaign doesn't have many endorsements from prominent Democratic officials, though San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo (D), who was backing Sen. Kamala Harris, threw his support behind the New Yorker yesterday. Liccardo will also reportedly serve as the co-chair of Bloomberg's national campaign.

* In Texas' 13th district, retired Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, whose nomination to serve as Veterans Affairs secretary failed in embarrassing fashion, yesterday filed to run for Congress, hoping to replace Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who is retiring. Texas' 13th is literally the reddest district in the United States, and a crowded GOP primary field is likely.

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Image: US-POLITICS-FBI-WRAY

Trump's troubles with his own handpicked FBI director reach new stage

12/10/19 10:54AM

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz's report on the investigation into the Russia scandal was mostly, but not entirely, good news for the FBI. On the one hand, Horowitz found that the bureau and its leadership acted appropriately in launching its probe, and the FBI's handling of the matter wasn't tainted by partisan or political bias.

On the other hand, the inspector general also found bureau officials made mistakes in parts of its application to monitor Carter Page, the controversial Trump campaign adviser with close ties to the Kremlin. It's sparked new discussion about reforming the process through which law enforcement seeks investigatory authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

For his part, FBI Director Christopher Wray appears to have responded to the findings in a constructive way, ordering a series of "corrective steps to address the report's recommendations." Wray also did an interview in which he took a degree of pride in the core findings of the Horowitz investigation.

Wray, reacting to the release of the IG report in an interview with ABC News, said that one key takeaway for him was that "the Inspector General did not find political bias or improper motivations impacting the opening of the investigation or the decision to use certain investigative tools during the investigations."

In the same interview, the FBI director said, in response to a question about a popular Republican conspiracy theory, "We have no information that indicates that Ukraine interfered with the 2016 presidential election.... Well, look, there's all kinds of people saying all kinds of things out there. I think it's important for the American people to be thoughtful consumers of information and to think about the sources of it and to think about the support and predication for what they hear."

In other words, Wray said the opposite of what Donald Trump wanted him to say -- a development that did not go unnoticed in the White House.

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House Democrats unveil articles of impeachment against Donald Trump

12/10/19 10:16AM

In 1974, Richard Nixon faced three articles of impeachment; in 1998, Bill Clinton faced four; and in 2019, Donald Trump faces two.

House Democrats on Tuesday unveiled articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump about two and a half months after Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., first announced a formal impeachment inquiry into the president.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., announced that his committee will consider two articles of impeachment -- one for abuse of power and the other for obstruction of Congress -- charging Trump "with committing high crimes and misdemeanors."

Nadler said the articles of impeachment were being filed in response to Trump allegedly soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 election, compromising national security, threatening the integrity of the upcoming election and concealing evidence from Congress and the American people. Trump, he said, violated his oath of office.

The process is likely to move quite quickly now that the articles have been drafted and presented. The Judiciary Committee will move in the coming days toward the "markup" phase -- a process in which members debate and vote on committee measures -- and we may see the articles of impeachment clear the committee later this week.

The issue would then head to the House floor, with the prospect of final votes on Trump's impeachment as early as next week. A simple majority is all that's needed to pass the articles, and given the size of the Democratic majority in the chamber, the odds of the president being impeached are good.

The matter would then head to the Republican-led Senate for an impeachment trial in which a two-thirds majority -- 67 votes -- would be necessary to remove Trump from office.

But before the process advances, it's worth pausing to note what the current articles of impeachment don't include.

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The Republican National Committee headquarters, Sept. 9, 2014. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Republicans turn to gaslighting in response to Justice Dept report

12/10/19 09:22AM

It's been a rough couple of days for reality. On Sunday morning, for example, two of Donald Trump's most loyal congressional lieutenants, Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), rejected the idea that the president pressed a foreign country to investigate his political rival -- something we already know Trump did.

About 24 hours later, at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on impeachment, Republican counsel Steve Castor disputed the idea that former Vice President Joe Biden was a leading Democratic presidential candidate over the summer, shortly before Castor also rejected the idea that Trump encouraged the president of Ukraine to look into Biden.

And a few hours after that, Donald Trump reflected on a report from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz on the origins of the investigation into the Russia scandal.

"The IG report just came out, and I was just briefed on it, and it's a disgrace what's happened with respect to the things that were done to our country. It should never again happen to another President. It is incredible. Far worse than I would have ever thought possible. And it's — it's an embarrassment to our country. It's dishonest. It's everything that a lot of people thought it would be, except far worse. [...]

"The report, actually — and especially when you look into it, and the details of the report — are far worse than anything I would have even imagined.... This was an overthrow of government. This was an attempted overthrow. And a lot of people who were in on it, and they got caught. They got caught red-handed."

For those who actually "looked into it," and read "the details of the report," the president's assertions yesterday were gibberish. Horowitz's findings actually exposed Trump's conspiracy theories as lies -- which evidently led the president to believe it'd be a good idea to gaslight the public, assuming Americans wouldn't know the difference.

But while Trump's up-is-down posture was predictable, it's worth appreciating the degree to which his allies scrambled to sell the public the same ridiculous fiction.

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AG Bill Barr tries to rescue Trump from Justice Dept findings

12/10/19 08:43AM

After Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz released his report yesterday afternoon on the FBI's investigation into the Russia scandal, Donald Trump and his team were left in a difficult position. After all, Horowitz had just exposed months of presidential rhetoric as brazen lies and shredded each of Trump's conspiracy theories about a "witch hunt," launched by the "deep state" in federal law enforcement.

Within two hours of the inspector general's findings reaching the public, Team Trump was reduced to simultaneously arguing to Americans that Horowitz's report was (a) an accurate assessment that totally vindicated all of the president's ridiculous claims; and (b) was an inaccurate assessment that the public should reject.

Apparently unable to experience shame, Bill Barr embraced the latter tack.

Attorney General William Barr on Monday rejected a key conclusion of an investigation conducted by his own agency's watchdog that a probe into Russian interference into the 2016 election was justified.

Barr, in a lengthy statement, called the FBI's investigation into Moscow's interference "intrusive" and said it had been launched "on the thinnest of suspicions" -- even though the Justice Department's inspector general report released Monday concluded that the overall probe was justified and not motivated by politics.

This is the same Bill Barr who offered sworn Senate testimony arguing that the FBI "spied" on the Trump campaign -- an assertion we now know to be completely untrue.

There is a familiarity to the circumstances. When then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report was completed, the attorney general tried to pre-spin it -- before anyone could read the findings for themselves -- as great news for the White House. The dishonest political ploy, by design, muddled the public's understanding of Mueller's investigation.

Yesterday, Barr tried to do effectively the same thing, except this time, the attorney general didn't get a head start -- and the document the Republican lawyer tried to spin was readily available, and there was no need for the public to rely on Barr's agenda-driven rhetoric.

We're learning quite a bit about how this attorney general approaches his unique and powerful responsibilities, and none of what we're learning is good.

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A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)

DOJ investigation shreds Trump's claims about FBI, Russia probe

12/10/19 08:00AM

Republicans were eagerly anticipating the release of a document generally known as the Horowitz Report. At issue was an independent review launched by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz into the FBI's decision to open an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections -- and as regular readers know, for Donald Trump and his allies, the review offered exciting possibilities.

Maybe, the president and his cohorts said, Horowitz would turn up evidence of a vast conspiracy, launched by the FBI's "deep state," to undermine Trump. Or maybe there would be proof of widespread wrongdoing from FBI leaders such as James Comey. Or maybe the evidence would point to the bureau "spying" on Team Trump.

The president has spent much of his tenure insisting the FBI is a corrupt institution, filled with his enemies, and Michael Horowitz was in a position to finally bring the truth to light.

Yesterday afternoon, the house of cards collapsed. As NBC News reported, the IG's office, following an extensive review, found that the investigation and its origins were fully justified.

The 434-page report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz concluded that the FBI and the Justice Department launched their investigation into the 2016 campaign not for political reasons, but because of evidence the Russian government was using cutouts to reach out to the Trump campaign as part of its efforts to influence the election.

The inspector general said he examined more than a million documents and interviewed more than 100 witnesses.

Horowitz found that political bias did not taint the actions of former FBI leaders who have frequently been the subject of presidential attacks on Twitter, including former Director James Comey, former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and former Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok.

The full inspector general's report is online here (pdf).

It's worth noting that the Horowitz probe pointed to mistakes the FBI made in parts of its application to monitor Carter Page, the controversial Trump campaign adviser with close ties to the Kremlin, and for Republicans desperate for something useful to cling to in the inspector general's findings, these mistakes are of great interest.

But even on this point, the bottom line has no partisan value for the right: Horowitz found that the Page probe was justified and legitimate, too.

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Trump campaign was not spied on: DOJ IG; Barr reverts to deceit

Trump campaign was not spied on: DOJ IG; Barr reverts to deceit

12/09/19 09:17PM

Rachel Maddow reports on some of the findings in the DOJ inspector general report, including that the FBI did not spy on the Trump campaign, debunking a flat accusation leveled by William Barr in congressional testimony in April. Rather than showing contrition for being so wrong, Barr followed his Mueller report playbook, presenting a deceptive... watch

Monday's Mini-Report, 12.9.19

12/09/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* I'll have more on the Horowitz report in the morning: "The FBI mishandled parts of its application to monitor a Trump campaign aide as it was probing possible Russian interference in the 2016 election, but the overall investigation was justified, according to a long-awaited report by the Justice Department's watchdog that rebuts the president's depiction of a politically biased plot against him."

* The U.S. policy is failing: "North Korea said Sunday it carried out a 'very important test' at its long-range rocket launch site that it reportedly rebuilt after having partially dismantled it when it entered denuclearization talks with the United States last year."

* On a related note: "North Korea insulted President Donald Trump again Monday, calling him a 'thoughtless and sneaky old man' after he tweeted that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wouldn't want to abandon a special relationship between the two leaders and affect the American presidential election by resuming hostile acts."

* U.S. officials knew we weren't making progress in Afghanistan, but they misled everyone anyway: "A trove of government documents shows that U.S. officials systematically misled the public about the war in Afghanistan during three presidential administrations, The Washington Post reported in an explosive story Monday."

* The latest step backward for NATO: "The United States ambassador to Denmark barred an American NATO expert critical of President Trump from speaking at an international conference hosted by the American embassy and a Danish think tank, prompting the event's cancellation, organizers said."

* In case you missed this on Friday: "A national security aide to Vice President Mike Pence submitted additional classified evidence to House impeachment investigators about a phone call between Pence and Ukraine's president, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff revealed Friday."

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House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy prepares to speak to the media after unexpectedly dropping out of consideration to be the next Speaker of the House on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 8, 2015. (Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

GOP's McCarthy argues against first-term presidential impeachments

12/09/19 02:53PM

Generous political observers might be tempted to give House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) credit for trying. The top House Republican hasn't exactly succeeded in presenting a compelling defense of Donald Trump's alleged abuses, but McCarthy is certainly giving it his best shot.

It just isn't going well for anyone. In September, McCarthy appeared on CBS's 60 Minutes and got lost when confronted with basic details he hadn't bothered to learn. In October, McCarthy told a national television audience that the president never urged China to investigate the Bidens, despite Trump having stood on the White House South Lawn and literally saying, "China should start an investigation into the Bidens."

In November, the House GOP leader endorsed the Kremlin's discredited conspiracy theory about Ukraine interfering in U.S. elections, and last week, he misquoted Alexander Hamilton. All of which helped pave the way for today's latest gem.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) doesn't quite have his impeachment facts straight.

"In modern history, we've never gone after impeaching a president in the first term," McCarthy said in a Monday appearance on Fox News ahead of the House Judiciary Committee's second public impeachment hearing.

I guess the motivation behind rhetoric like this is that if the Democratic impeachment effort can be characterized as unprecedented, then it would be ... bad. The trouble is, there's an important difference between historical curiosities and actual arguments.

Before Trump, there have been three impeachment efforts: Andrew Johnson in 1868, Richard Nixon in 1974, and Bill Clinton in 1998. Johnson was impeached in his first (and only) term; Nixon resigned before being impeached; and Clinton was impeached in his second term.

For Kevin McCarthy, this is significant because, well, I actually haven't the foggiest idea why. What matters to the process is the seriousness of presidential misdeeds, not what year in a president's tenure they occurred.

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The US Department of State seal is seen Nov. 26, 2013 in the State Department briefing room in Washington, DC.

Why is a fringe pundit working as a senior State Department adviser?

12/09/19 12:49PM

Throughout Donald Trump's presidency, a wide variety of fringe figures with dubious qualifications and strange ideas have landed important jobs in the federal bureaucracy. But Frank Wuco tends to stand out.

A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post reported on Wuco's role as a senior adviser at the State Department's Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance.

A former conservative talk radio host and naval intelligence officer who suggested dropping nuclear bombs on Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks now works on arms control issues at the State Department, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter. [...]

Wuco works at the State Department, though some arms control advocates have questioned his suitability for the area of arms control given his past remarks.

Wuco, a retired naval intelligence officer turned far-right pundit, first gained notoriety as a Trump administration official two years ago, while serving as a White House senior adviser at the Department of Homeland Security. CNN reported at the time that he had an unfortunate habit of peddling bizarre conspiracy theories, including "claims that former President Barack Obama's memoir was ghostwritten by former anti-Vietnam War radical Bill Ayers, that former CIA director John Brennan had converted to Islam and that Attorney General Eric Holder had been a member of the Black Panthers."

In case this isn't obvious, none of these theories is even remotely true.

Media Matters added that Wuco also claimed that Muslims "by-and-large" will "subjugate and humiliate non-Muslim members of their societies" and that their core faith purportedly instructs them that they can't "coexist peacefully with other religions." He also argued that "societies and nations for millennia have suffered greatly" for LGBTQ acceptance.

CNN added last week that Wuco also said he thought Barack Obama was a Kenyan, called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a "Nazi," and argued that it'd be difficult for a "solid, practicing" Muslim to be a good American.

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