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Thursday's Mini-Report, 9.19.19

09/19/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Look for more on this on tonight's show: "House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Thursday that he believed it was likely that President Donald Trump or his aides were working to keep the details of an urgent complaint by an intelligence community whistleblower from Congress."

* Gun industry: "Colt will suspend production of AR-15 rifles for civilian sales, saying there's an 'adequate supply' of the high-powered weapons already in the market, the famed gun manufacturer said Thursday. The gun-maker, based in West Hartford, Connecticut, said its decision is purely market-driven and made no mention of any public pressure over the AR-15's use in several mass shootings in the United States."

* The president's lawyers sure are busy: "President Donald Trump on Thursday sued Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who subpoenaed eight years of Trump's personal and corporate tax returns earlier this month."

* Did it not occur to him that the public would find out? "A third instance of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressed in a costume and covered in blackface surfaced Thursday, hours after he admitted to two previous instances where he dramatically darkened his face."

* Technically, the next government-shutdown deadline is a week and a half away, but the crisis is likely to be avoided: "The House passed a short-term bill Thursday to prevent a federal shutdown when the budget year ends Sept. 30, and give lawmakers until the Thanksgiving break to negotiate and approve $1.4 trillion for federal agencies. The Senate is expected to approve the stopgap bill next week. The vote in the Democratic-run House on the bipartisan plan was 301-123."

* Adding to the list of Trump's failed overseas ventures: "It was billed by Donald Trump as an 'incredible' way to tour his golf resorts in the UK and Ireland... But Mr. Trump's bold vision of bolstering business at three of his loss-making courses by exporting one of his luxury helicopters across the Atlantic to woo wealthy golfers has failed to take off."

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Why Trump's response to the intel whistleblower scandal falls short

09/19/19 12:42PM

Nearly a week after the controversy first broke, Donald Trump today offered a response to reports about the complaint filed by an intelligence community whistleblower. The president's argument needs some work.

"Another Fake News story out there - It never ends! Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself. No problem!" Trump wrote on Twitter.

"Knowing all of this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially 'heavily populated' call. I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!," he continued before calling the reports an example of "Presidential Harassment!"

So let me see if I have this straight. According to Donald Trump, we shouldn't believe he extended a provocative "promise" to a foreign leader because the American president is far too smart to do something dangerous around witnesses. Given the president's obvious limitations, the number of people likely to find this persuasive is small.

What's more, to characterize the controversy as "fake news" is ridiculous, even for Trump. There really was a complaint filed by an intelligence community whistleblower. The inspector general's office really did examine the complaint, and he really did consider it credible and urgent. The IG really did contact the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The DNI really did reach out to the Justice Department. They really did work on a plan to circumvent the legal process on congressional disclosure.

There's nothing "fake" about any of this.

Finally, Trump's assertion that he's far too clever to say "something inappropriate" to foreign officials might be easier to believe if there weren't already examples of him saying inappropriate things to foreign officials.

While the president works on his talking points, the intelligence community's inspector general who received the whistleblower's complaint was on Capitol Hill this morning, though the New York Times reports that his closed-door testimony hasn't gone especially well for those seeking answers.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.19.19

09/19/19 12:00PM

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

* On the heels of Bernie Sanders' campaign shaking up its staffing in New Hampshire, the Vermont senator's operation has also parted ways with its political director in Iowa.

* The latest national Fox News poll found Joe Biden leading the Democrats' 2020 field with 29% support, followed by Sanders at 18% and Elizabeth Warren at 16%. Sen. Kamala Harris was fourth with 7%, followed by Pete Buttigieg at 5% and Beto O'Rourke at 4%.

* In hypothetical general-election match-ups, the same poll also found Biden leading Donald Trump by 14 points (52% to 38%), while Sanders leads the president by eight (48% to 40%) and Warren leads by six (46% to 40%).

* With Kamala Harris' campaign struggling to reach the top tier, Politico reports that the senator's operation is shifting to "a new Iowa-or-bust strategy."

* It looks like North Carolina will be home to another competitive U.S. Senate race next year: Public Policy Polling found Cal Cunningham (D) with a slight lead over incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis (R), 45% to 43%,

* It looks like Massachusetts will be home to a tough Democratic Senate primary next year, with Rep. Joe Kennedy (D) taking on incumbent Sen. Ed Markey (D). Kennedy will reportedly kick off his statewide campaign this weekend.

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Pompeo tries to blame Iran deal for Trump admin's failures

09/19/19 11:20AM

The international nuclear agreement with Iran was working when Donald Trump decided to withdraw the United States from the pact. At the time, the White House said its new approach would be even more effective: at the president's behest, the Trump administration would impose a "maximum pressure" campaign that would keep Iran in line and produce great results for the world.

That approach has clearly failed. By any fair measure, Iran has become far more dangerous and taken steps that appear to be far more provocative. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday recommended that everyone look at reality with their heads tilted:

Pompeo defended this approach to reporters traveling with him to Saudi Arabia, saying, "There is this theme that some suggest that the president's strategy that we allowed isn't working. I would argue just the converse of that. I would argue that what you are seeing here is a direct result of us reversing the enormous failure of the JCPOA."

He was referring to the formal name of the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

This is an amazingly bad argument for two reasons. The first, obviously, is that the JCPOA wasn't failing at all. In fact, Trump knew it wasn't failing because his own team told him in 2017 that it was working exactly as intended -- leading the president to have "a bit of a meltdown."

Trump didn't want to be told the truth; he wanted to be told his false assumptions were correct. Pompeo may want to believe the JCPOA wasn't working, but his bogus assertions don't make it so.

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A prospective buyer examines an AR-15 at the "Ready Gunner" gun store In Provo, Utah, June 21, 2016. (Photo by George Frey/Reuters)

White House appears weary of Trump administration's gun plan

09/19/19 10:50AM

The Trump administration has spent the last several weeks assuring people that it's working on a package of gun reforms, the details of which have been kept largely under wraps. With this in mind, it was an important development yesterday when a variety of outlets, including NBC News, reviewed a draft Justice Department proposal that would expand background checks.

The measure appeared to be surprisingly ambitious and very much in line with recent legislative efforts in this area, applying background checks to "all commercial sales, including sales at gun shows."

The plan is being circulated on Capitol Hill, and the gradual unveiling has included a series of meetings between Republican senators, Attorney General Bill Barr, and White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland. Not surprisingly, GOP lawmakers seem skeptical.

Senate Republicans are treading cautiously on a background checks plan floated by Attorney General William Barr.... GOP lawmakers, for their part, were decidedly noncommittal, with several saying they still wanted to hear what Trump would back.

The NRA was less circumspect.

The National Rifle Association, weakened but still influential among conservatives, immediately dismissed the plan drafted by the Justice Department as a non-starter.

What I found especially interesting, however, was the degree to which the Trump White House appeared weary of the Trump administration's plan. As Slate's Jim Newell explained:

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At border, general reminds Trump to stop discussing sensitive info

09/19/19 10:08AM

Donald Trump visited the border yesterday, taking a look at new barriers that replaced old barriers, and bragging about his administration's efforts. As Politico noted, however, the president was so enthusiastic in his boasts that the Republican had to be "gently reprimanded by his hosts in charge of construction."

"One thing we haven't mentioned is technology," Trump said. "They're wired so that we will know if somebody's trying to break through." He then offered the floor to Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, acting head of the Army Corps, who quickly answered: "Sir, there could be some merit in not discussing that."

But Trump wasn't done.

Fortifying the wall even more, he said, was the fact that the steel wall's beams are heat conductors. "It's designed to absorb heat, so it's extremely hot," he said. "You won't be able to touch it. You can fry an egg on that wall."

"Sir, there could be some merit in not discussing that" is one of those great phrases that's emblematic of a larger truth. Trump, as president, is privy to the most sensitive information in the world, but he's still a clumsy amateur lacking a filter.

Hours after the border photo-op, the Washington Post reported on an intelligence community whistleblower who was alarmed about a provocative "promise" Trump made to a foreign leader. The article added, "It raises new questions about the president's handling of sensitive information."

The word in that sentence that stood out for me was "new" -- because my oh my have there been a lot of questions about Trump's handling of sensitive information.

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Pentagon points to threats after Trump raids budget for wall

09/19/19 09:20AM

Donald Trump visited California this week for some lucrative fundraising events, but his West Coast trip included a stop yesterday at the border -- where the president was able to visit an area where some old fencing has been replaced with newer fencing. (Mexico, of course, has not and will not pay for any of this, despite the Republican's campaign promises.)

Yesterday, Trump even signed his name to one of the steel slats -- proving that he will sign practically anything put in front of him, including bibles.

Minutes earlier, an administration official rejected the idea that the wall is a "vanity project." The president's autograph on a steel slat suggested otherwise.

During the event, Trump spent a fair amount of time bragging about how impressed he is with the replacement slats and his border efforts, fueled in part by the White House's recent raid on the Pentagon's budget. What Trump did not discuss, however, was the latest warnings from the Defense Department about the president's dubious scheme.

The Washington Post had this striking report yesterday:

The Pentagon warned of dire outcomes unless Congress paid for urgently needed military construction projects nationwide -- the same projects that have now been canceled to fund President Trump's border wall.

The warnings are contained in Defense Department budget requests sent to lawmakers in recent years. They include potentially hazardous living conditions for troops and their families, as well as unsafe schools that would impede learning. In numerous cases, the Defense Department warned that lives would be put at risk if buildings don't meet the military's standards for fire safety or management of explosives.

This comes less than a week after NBC News obtained a report compiled by the U.S. Air Force, which concluded that money diverted away from military construction projects "poses various national security risks for the U.S. armed forces."

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In this Oct. 5, 2017 file photo, Department of Homeland Security personnel deliver supplies to Santa Ana community residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico.

FEMA debacle becomes latest vetting failure for Team Trump

09/19/19 08:40AM

The Department of Homeland Security is currently being led by an acting secretary, an acting deputy secretary, an acting general counsel, an acting under secretary for management, an acting CBP commissioner, an acting ICE director, an acting USCIS director, and an acting FEMA administrator. For nearly all of these posts, Donald Trump hasn't even nominated anyone for the positions.

At least, however, the White House has a nominee to lead FEMA. Actually, wait, that's no longer true.

The White House will pull the nomination of Jeffrey Byard to be the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after a federal inquiry into a possible barroom altercation involving Mr. Byard prompted concern in Congress and the White House, according to federal officials familiar with the investigation.

As Rachel noted at the top of last night's show, all has not been well at FEMA of late. One key official has been caught up in a bribery scandal, and we learned soon after that her deputy was caught up in an entirely different scandal. The most recent FEMA administrator, Brock Long, was investigated for misusing public funds and resigned from his post under a cloud of controversy.

It was against this backdrop that Trump tapped Jeffrey Byard to lead FEMA, though his nomination quickly ran into trouble, and the White House made no real effort to defend him. There's an official explanation for Byard's withdrawal from consideration, though there's ample reason to be skeptical of the administration's line.

Maybe if Team Trump had vetted Byard before the president nominated him to lead FEMA, this could've been avoided, but the Trump White House can be defined in large part by its staggering ineptitude in this area.

Just two months ago, Trump announced that Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), his choice to serve as the new director of National Intelligence, had also withdrawn from consideration after getting caught up in a series of controversies that could've been avoided if the White House had examined his background.

In the immediate aftermath of the fiasco, a reporter asked the president, "What does this say about the White House's vetting process?"

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

Trump reportedly implicated in intel whistleblower scandal

09/19/19 08:00AM

The basic elements of the story looked quite serious, despite its many gaps. On Friday night, we learned that someone within the U.S. intelligence community sent a complaint to the intelligence community's inspector general, and though we knew effectively nothing about the nature of the complaint, the IG reviewed it and found it credible.

Just as importantly, the issue was considered a matter of "urgent concern."

The matter was brought to the attention of acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, who, by law, was supposed to alert the congressional Intelligence committees. Instead, Maguire contacted the Justice Department, at which point  Trump administration officials decided to withhold the information from lawmakers, legal disclosure requirements notwithstanding.

As you probably saw Rachel explain on last night's show, the Washington Post has advanced our understanding of the burgeoning scandal in critically important ways.

The whistleblower complaint that has triggered a tense showdown between the U.S. intelligence community and Congress involves President Trump's communications with a foreign leader, according to two former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

Trump's interaction with the foreign leader included a "promise" that was regarded as so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community, said the former officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Core elements of the Post's reporting have been corroborated by other news organizations, including NBC News.

At this point, let's take stock of what we know and what we don't.

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