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The White House is seen under dark rain clouds in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty)

Revelations bring Trump's whistleblower scandal into sharper focus

09/20/19 08:00AM

There are still some key elements of the whistleblower scandal that are not yet publicly available, but after reading the Washington Post's overnight scoop, the story is quickly coming into sharper focus.

A whistleblower complaint about President Trump made by an intelligence official centers on Ukraine, according to two people familiar with the matter, which has set off a struggle between Congress and the executive branch.

The complaint involved communications with a foreign leader and a "promise" that Trump made, which was so alarming that a U.S. intelligence official who had worked at the White House went to the inspector general of the intelligence community, two former U.S. officials said.

Two and a half weeks before the complaint was filed, Trump spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and political newcomer who was elected in a landslide in May.

The New York Times also reported that the story involves Trump and Ukraine.

And if you've been following the news closely over the last few weeks, this doesn't necessarily come as a major surprise. Trump, putting aside the Pentagon's guidance, recently held off on delivering promised military aid to Ukraine, and according to the Washington Post, it's because the American president hoped to leverage the aid as part of an extortion scheme: Trump reportedly told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that if his country wanted the military assistance, his country would have to assist the Trump campaign by investigating Joe Biden.

If you’re wondering why in the world Ukraine would have anything to do with the 2020 race in the United States in the first place, the New York Times published a curious article in May, raising questions about Joe Biden’s work several years ago on a government-reform effort in Ukraine. There was some suggestion that the Delaware Democrat’s son may have benefited, but the claims of possible wrongdoing quickly unraveled, and the story went largely overlooked.

Trump and his team, however, believe that if they dig hard enough on this, there may be some dirt they could use.

It's against this backdrop that Trump reportedly made a "promise" that centered on Ukraine that was so provocative that a U.S. intelligence official filed a complaint with the inspector general of the intelligence community.

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Trump lawyers argue Trump can't be investigated or prosecuted

Trump lawyers argue Trump can't be investigated or prosecuted

09/19/19 09:06PM

Rachel Maddow reports on Donald Trump's legal argument to prevent Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance from obtaining Trump's past tax returns in his investigation of hush money payments by Trump and his associates. The argument includes the claim that not only can a sitting president not be indicted, they also can't be investigated. watch

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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