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Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., participates in a news conference.

Indicted GOP congressman's life just got a lot more complicated

06/14/19 08:40AM

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) recently made national headlines for his controversial comments about war crimes. But as alarming as the lawmaker's comments were, they weren't his most serious problem.

This is Hunter's most serious problem.

The wife of indicted Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to misuse campaign funds, including for an Italy trip that cost more than $10,000.

Margaret Hunter, who worked as her husband's campaign manager, had previously pleaded not guilty to corruption charges alleging the couple used more than $250,000 in campaign funds to pay for personal trips, hotel rooms and shopping sprees.

On Thursday, she withdrew that plea in U.S. court in San Diego and pleaded guilty to a single count carrying a sentence of up to five years in prison. The move suggests she is cooperating with the prosecution and might even testify against her husband, whose trial is scheduled for September.

In case anyone needs a refresher, the GOP congressman and his wife were charged last summer, and the criminal indictment was quite brutal: federal prosecutors alleged that the Hunters stole more than $250,000 in campaign funds and used the money to pay for personal purchases, ranging from trips to school tuition to dental work to veterinary care.

As if that weren't enough, the Hunters allegedly went to great lengths to cover up the scheme: according to prosecutors, they made fraudulent claims that their purchases were for charities, including veterans' charities. A Washington Post report added that the prosecutors' allegations "read like a caricature of a corrupt, greedy politician."

The Republican's defense has evolved a bit over time.

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

Meet the Republican who blocked the election-interference bill

06/14/19 08:00AM

On the surface, some congressional Republicans have expressed their discomfort with Donald Trump inviting foreign interference in American elections. Whether these GOP lawmakers are prepared to do anything about these concerns is another matter entirely.

Yesterday, Senate Democrats offered their Republican colleagues an opportunity to demonstrate their sincerity on the matter. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked members to unanimously approve his bill called the Foreign Influence Reporting in Elections Act (FIRE Act), which does one simple thing: it legally requires campaigns to report attempts at foreign elections interference to the FBI and the FEC.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) blocked it. To put it mildly, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was not pleased, delivering remarks soon after from the chamber's floor:

"This one is a new low. It's okay for foreign powers to interfere? You don't have to report it to law enforcement? That's welcoming foreign powers to interfere, and as my friend from Virginia said, the president's own FBI director said it's going to happen again in 2020. 'But let's cover it up, because it might have an effect that we like,' say our Republican friends.

"Today is a new low for this Senate, for this Republican Party here in the Senate, and for this democracy.... It is truly outrageous that this unanimous consent request, which should bring all of us together, is being blocked by our Republican friends."

I don't imagine we've heard the last of this -- House Democrats, for example, are very likely to pass their own legislation on this issue -- but before moving on, it's worth pausing to appreciate Marsha Blackburn's role in yesterday's developments.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 6.13.19

06/13/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's remarks on this were not accompanied by evidence: "An American-guided missile destroyer was sent to assist two burning tankers in the Gulf of Oman, following what the Trump administration on Thursday described as a 'blatant assault' by Iran."

* Now that the White House has effectively ended press briefings, I guess the question is whether she'll be replaced: "White House press secretary Sarah Sanders is leaving her post at the end of June, President Donald Trump said Thursday."

* Flint: "Prosecutors investigating the deadly lead-poisoned water crisis in Flint, Michigan, dropped criminal charges against eight people, including the former head of the state's health department."

* Subpoenas of note: "The House Intelligence Committee has issued subpoenas for former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former deputy Trump campaign chairman Rick Gates, two of former special counsel Robert Mueller's most important cooperators."

* Investigating the investigators: "Justice Department officials intend to interview senior C.I.A. officers as they review the Russia investigation, according to people briefed on the matter, indicating they are focused partly on the intelligence agencies' most explosive conclusion about the 2016 election: that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia intervened to benefit Donald J. Trump."

* Schiff talked about this on the show last night: "House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) on Wednesday threatened to subpoena the FBI for information about the original counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference. Schiff said he has been unable to get briefings or information on the status or findings of the counterintelligence probe, including on whether it was ever shuttered."

* In the current administration, this is not a great job: "President Donald Trump intends to appoint Eric Ueland, a senior White House aide with vast experience in the Senate, as the next director of legislative affairs at the White House."

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Kellyanne Conway, campaign manager for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, right, and press secretary Hope Hicks watch during a campaign rally on Oct. 14, 2016, in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

Office of Special Counsel: Kellyanne Conway needs to go

06/13/19 01:31PM

It may not have seemed especially notable two weeks ago when White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway used her position to go after former Vice President Joe Biden's Democratic presidential campaign. Conway is a longtime Republican operative; she supports Donald Trump's re-election; and so it may have seemed obvious that she'd target a leading rival from the other party.

But federal ethics laws restrict the political activities of federal employees, which means Conway may have technically been crossing a legal line. Reminded of this, the White House official was indifferent. "Blah, blah, blah," Conway told reporters.

It appears some are far less cavalier about violations of ethics laws.

A government watchdog agency recommended Thursday that Kellyanne Conway, a top aide to President Donald Trump, be removed from federal office for repeated violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from engaging in certain political activity.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent government agency that enforces the act, said it sent a report to Trump detailing "numerous occasions" in which Conway violated the law by saying disparaging things about Democratic presidential candidates in television interviews and on social media while acting in her official capacity as counselor to the president.

The Office of Special Counsel -- not to be confused with Robert Mueller and the special counsel's office -- described Conway as a "repeat offender," which is true. In fact, she started ignoring federal ethics laws almost immediately after arriving at the White House, and kept ignoring the Hatch Act in the months that followed.

The OSC added, "Ms. Conway's violations, if left unpunished, would send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act's restrictions. Her actions thus erode the principal foundation of our democratic system -- the rule of law."

The appropriate next step, according to the agency, would be to dismiss Conway.

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Republican Presidential hopeful and U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) speaks at an event at the National Press Club on Sept. 8, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

GOP carefully criticizes Trump's line on foreign election interference

06/13/19 12:30PM

Donald Trump jolted the political world yesterday when he endorsed foreign interference in American elections. The result is a multifaceted controversy, including an awkward dynamic for the president's party: would Republicans endorse Trump's reckless posture? Are they prepared to criticize him and risk the White House's wrath?

The answer for some GOP officials is to avoid the question altogether. If you were watching MSNBC this morning, for example, you might've caught Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) walking very quickly past reporters in a Capitol Hill hallway, ignoring their requests for comment.

Around the same time, a CNN anchor said a congressional Republican had agreed to appear on the air this morning, but he or she canceled.

To his credit, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was at least willing to comment.

"I think that's wrong. That's a mistake," Graham, a frequent defender of the president, said. "I've been consistent on this. If a public official is approached by a foreign government offering anything of value ... the right answer is 'no.'"

Graham added that he is willing to look at legislation to more clearly define what is illegal, and that "you accept assistance from a foreign government at your own peril."

"The answer is 'no.' It's got to be 'no,'" Graham told reporters during a separate interview.

So far, so good. But the South Carolinian, who's up for re-election next year, went on to say this morning, "I'm hoping some of my Democratic colleagues will take more seriously the fact that Christopher Steele was a foreign agent paid for by the Democratic Party."

Graham echoed this in a written statement, denouncing "foreign influence in American elections," before condemning Democrats for "hiring a foreign national" to "dig up dirt" on the Republican nominee.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who's also running next year, took a similar tack: the senator conceded that accepting foreign interference is "dangerous," before immediately pivoting to a complaint about the Clinton campaign and "a British spy's dossier."

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