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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 John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), his choice to serve as the new director of National Intelligence, had also withdrawn from consideration after getting caught up in a series of controversies that could've been avoided if the White House had examined his background.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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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 9.18.19

09/18/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Israel: "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday canceled a visit to the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week amid political uncertainty in Israel, where he appeared to fall short of a government majority in national elections."

* More provocative rhetoric: "Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday accused Iran of perpetrating an 'act of war' after weekend strikes on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, saying the attack had the 'fingerprints of the Ayatollah.'"

* In related news: "President Donald Trump on Wednesday pledged to 'substantially increase' sanctions on Iran as tensions in the Middle East continue to rise following an attack on a Saudi oil field."

* This did not satisfy the White House: "The Federal Reserve cut its benchmark lending rate by one-quarter of a point on Wednesday, the second time this year it has reduced rates in the face of a weakening global economy."

* When Lindsey Graham annoys his ally in the Oval Office: "President Trump engaged in a long-distance debate over Iran with one of his closest allies on Tuesday as Republicans sought to influence the administration's response to the attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia over the weekend."

* Inexcusable: "Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., said Wednesday that President Donald Trump had put her in danger by retweeting a video of her dancing with a description that falsely claimed it showed her celebrating on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks."

* The risks of deregulation: "The Trump administration will allow pork plants to reduce the number of Department of Agriculture line inspectors assigned to them and run their slaughter lines without any speed limit under a new rule intended to modernize an antiquated inspection system. But the changes have alarmed consumer advocates who believe the rule will make food less safe and endanger workers."

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Travel During July 4th Holiday Weekend Expected To Be Heavy

Trump scraps California's right to set its own emissions standards

09/18/19 12:50PM

For many years, the Republican Party touted federalist principles that stressed the importance of state control. The underlying idea is straightforward: the government that's closer to the people will be more responsive to the public's needs and interests.

There are about 1,000 good examples of GOP officials discarding these principles when it suits the party's purposes. As of this morning, there are about 1,001.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday barred California from setting its own vehicle emissions standards, kicking off a battle that is likely to last well beyond the 2020 presidential election.

"The Trump Administration is revoking California's Federal Waiver on emissions in order to produce far less expensive cars for the consumer, while at the same time making the cars substantially SAFER," Trump tweeted Wednesday morning, noting that the move will lead to "older, highly polluting cars" being replaced by "new, extremely environmentally friendly cars."

If you're new to this story, let's review how we got here because it's quite a story.

To address the climate crisis, the Obama administration created tough fuel-efficiency standards for the auto industry, to be phased in gradually. Manufacturers, not surprisingly, weren't thrilled, but there was a broad realization that the policy, in conjunction with a series of related efforts, would make a positive difference.

Then Donald Trump got elected. Last summer, the Republican White House announced plans to roll back the tougher standards, making it easier for the automotive industry to sell less efficient vehicles that pollute more.

The president assumed he was helping the industry at the expense of the environment -- a trade-off Trump was happy to make since he rejects climate science anyway. What the White House didn't anticipate was the fact that auto manufacturers concluded that Trump's anti-climate plans went too far. In fact, in early June, most of the industry urged the administration to change course, because its plan would produce "untenable" instability.

Why? Because Trump's plan to gut pollution safeguards was so drastic that many states announced plans to enforce stricter emissions standards on their own. That included California -- home to the nation's largest consumer base.

The result was a mess: car manufacturers, which had already begun taking steps to comply with the Obama-era policy, faced the prospect of having to make different vehicles to sell in different parts of the country. Not surprisingly, no one saw that as a sustainable business model.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.18.19

09/18/19 12:00PM

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

* The House Republicans' retirement problem continues: Rep. Paul Cook (R) from California's 8th district announced yesterday he won't seek re-election next year.

* Though Republicans complained yesterday that Democrats had organized a "political" hearing with former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Lewandowski teased his possible U.S. Senate campaign during one of the hearing's breaks.

* As Rachel noted on last night's show, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows Joe Biden leading the national race for the Democratic nomination with 31%, followed by Elizabeth Warren with 25%. Bernie Sanders was third with 14%, and Pete Buttigieg, with 7%, was the only other candidate above 5%.

* Speaking of polls, the latest Emerson survey of California Democrats found Biden and Sanders tied at 26% each, with Warren close behind at 20%. In her home state, Kamala Harris was further back, with 6%.

* On a related note, Bill de Blasio's Democratic presidential campaign is struggling with the voters who presumably know him best: the latest polling shows him with 0% support in both New York City and the state of New York.

* There aren't many Democrats who hold statewide office in Iowa, but state Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald is one of them, and yesterday he threw his support behind Elizabeth Warren.

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Morning breaks over the White House and the offices of the West Wing (R) in Washington January 20, 2015. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Trump finds his fourth national security adviser in three years

09/18/19 11:20AM

Throughout Donald Trump's presidency, the average tenure for a White House national security adviser is about 10 months, which suggests Robert O'Brien should probably rent instead of buying,

President Donald Trump on Wednesday named Robert O'Brien, a State Department official who has specialized in hostage issues, as his new national security adviser.

"I have worked long & hard with Robert," Trump tweeted. "He will do a great job!"

O'Brien will replace John Bolton, whom Trump fired last week after a string of disagreements.

Yesterday, the president mentioned five names as possible Bolton successors, and the list included O'Brien, whom the president described as "fantastic." For O'Brien's sake, here's hoping Trump doesn't soon change his mind -- as is his wont.

The public can take some comfort in the fact that the new White House national security adviser -- a position that does not require Senate confirmation -- has a more traditional background, having served as a State Department envoy for hostage affairs, a U.S. representative to the United Nations General Assembly, and a co-chair of the State Department's Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan.

Or put another way, this does not appear to be an instance in which Trump tapped a guy who said something he liked on television.

That said, O'Brien did recently spend some time on screens. As NBC News' report added, when rapper ASAP Rocky was in the custody of Swedish authorities, Trump dispatched O'Brien, who was in court with the American entertainer, and who pressured Swedish authorities to release him.

But for me, that's not the first story that comes to mind when O'Brien's name comes up.

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Homeless women sit amid their belongings on a street in downtown Los Angeles, California, on January 8, 2014.

Trump finally explains his interest in addressing homelessness

09/18/19 10:43AM

The Washington Post reported last week that Donald Trump directed his aides to figure out "how the hell we can get these people off the streets." The president's approach to homelessness seemed rather vague, and it prompted all kinds of speculation about what, exactly, the administration was prepared to do.

But lingering in the background was a related question that was just as difficult to answer: why has this piqued Trump's interest? Assuming that it's unrelated to personal concerns about the wellbeing of those who are forced to live on the streets, what's the motivation behind the president's push?

There's reason to believe Fox News has something to do with it -- the network has spent a fair amount of time focusing on homelessness in cities led by Democratic officials -- but as the Washington Post reported late yesterday, Trump elaborated on his personal perspective for the first time yesterday.

As he arrived [in California], Trump claimed that he had personally heard complaints from tenants in the state, some of them foreigners. He expressed sympathy for real estate investors here and other Californians whose property values or quality of life are threatened.

"In many cases, they came from other countries and they moved to Los Angeles or they moved to San Francisco because of the prestige of the city, and all of a sudden they have tents," Trump said. "Hundreds and hundreds of tents and people living at the entrance to their office building. And they want to leave."

In Los Angeles and San Francisco, Trump said, people are living on the "best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings ... where people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige."

There is something oddly perfect about this. The president is eager to address homelessness in part because of conversations he claims to have had with foreign real-estate investors.

Given Trump's own private-sector enterprises, his comments yesterday made it sound as if he's motivated by the concerns of people like him.

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Image: Donald Trump,Melania Trump

Defending his position on Saudi Arabia, Trump's take needs work

09/18/19 10:11AM

Donald Trump took a few minutes on Monday to discuss his perspective on Saudi Arabia and why he's prepared to defend the Middle Eastern country in the wake of the attack on its oil-production facilities over the weekend. ABC News' Jonathan Karl, pointing to a tweet Trump published before his election, asked the president whether he still believes it's the responsibility of the Saudis to defend themselves.

This was Trump's answer in its entirety:

"I think it's certainly the responsibility of them to do a big -- a big deal of their defense, certainly. I also think it's the responsibility of the Saudis to, if somebody like us -- which are the ones -- are going to help them, they, I know, that monetarily will be very much involved in paying for that.

"This is something that's much different than other presidents would mention, Jon. But the fact is that the Saudis are going to have a lot of involvement in this if we decide to do something. They'll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully."

The Republican doesn't have a foreign policy, per se. He has transactions. In this case, Trump made it sound as if there's a price tag on the use of American military power, and he's comfortable with the fact that the Saudis pay cash.

In fact, the president was quite literal on this point. Asked at the same Oval Office meeting whether he's promised Riyadh that the United States will protect Saudi Arabia following the weekend's attack, Trump said he'd made no such promise, but he's "certainly" prepared to assist.

He added, "They've been a great ally. They spend $400 billion in our country over the last number of years. Four hundred billion dollars. That's a million and a half jobs. And they're not ones that, unlike some countries, where they want terms; they want terms and conditions. They want to say, 'Can we borrow the money at zero percent for the next 400 years?' No. No. Saudi Arabia pays cash."

Again, the implication here is that Trump sees a direct connection between the United States' willingness to use military force in the Middle East and the money foreign countries are willing to give us. From the American president's perspective, our military isn't for sale, but it may be for rent.

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel walk along a section of the recently-constructed fence at the U.S.-Mexico border on Feb. 26, 2013 in Nogales, Ariz. (Photo by John Moore/Getty)

Trump's Homeland Security purge isn't over just yet

09/18/19 09:20AM

With all of the litigation surrounding the Department of Homeland Security and Donald Trump's immigration policies, it seems like a curious time to fire DHS's general counsel, but that's what happened yesterday.

The White House on Tuesday fired John Mitnick, the general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security, after months of shake-up at an agency responsible for carrying out President Trump's immigration agenda. [...]

Mr. Mitnick's exit comes as the department fights off multiple lawsuits challenging Mr. Trump's immigration policies.

The New York Times' report on this added, "The White House this year has turned the Department of Homeland Security -- which oversees securing the country's borders, disaster relief efforts and addressing domestic terrorism and cybersecurity threats -- into a revolving door of officials, creating a void of permanent leadership."

Quite right. If it seems as if the Department of Homeland Security has been losing top-level staff at a breakneck pace, it's not your imagination. Since April, we've seen Trump part ways with his Homeland Security secretary (Kirstjen Nielsen), acting ICE chief (Ron Vitiello), acting Homeland Security deputy secretary (Claire Grady), Citizenship and Immigration Services director (Lee Cissna), and Customs and Border Protection commissioner (John Sanders). Now, the DHS general counsel is out, too.

In the spring, when there were rumors that John Mitnick was on the chopping block, Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) began pushing back, urging the administration to keep him. That effort apparently didn't have much of an effect.

Indeed, as regular readers may recall, Politico reported in mid-April that congressional Republicans were "alarmed" and "blindsided" by the DHS purge and had begun urging Trump not to part ways with anyone else. The president apparently did not take that advice to heart.

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Trump is far happier with Lewandowski's testimony than he should be

09/18/19 08:40AM

The circumstances may not have seemed historic at first blush, but the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing yesterday since establishing the parameters of its impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump. The result was dramatic in more ways than one.

The hearing was supposed to feature testimony from former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn and former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, both of whom were featured several times in Robert Mueller's special counsel report, both of whom were witnesses to potential presidential criminal behavior, and both of whom were instructed by the White House not to speak to the Judiciary Committee.

Corey Lewandowski, the first of Trump's three 2016 campaign managers, did agree to participate in the proceedings, but it's tough to describe his testimony as "cooperation." The Republican operative, eyeing a U.S. Senate campaign in New Hampshire, seemed eager to do everything he could to turn the hearing into a food fight -- to the president's delight.

It was, to be sure, a frustrating afternoon. Trump refused to allow his former White House aides to testify, and he instructed a private citizen -- who never worked in the White House -- not to answer relevant questions about alleged misdeeds he personally witnessed. The idea that the president has the authority to block legitimate federal investigations because he feels like is, to put it mildly, problematic.

That said, I think Jonathan Allen's piece for NBC News gets this right: Trump was far happier with yesterday's hearing than he probably should have been.

The first hearing of the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee's effort to develop articles of impeachment against Trump was a contentious affair in which Lewandowski, Trump's 2016 campaign manager and the lone witness, said Democrats "hate this president more than they love their country."

But no one -- not Lewandowski nor committee Republicans -- seriously disputed the central theme of the day: that Trump had gone to extreme lengths in circumventing the entirety of the federal government to get Lewandowski to instruct then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to publicly announce that the president had done nothing wrong and limit the scope of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe in 2017.

Ultimately, Lewandowski put flesh on the bones that Mueller gave the committee in his report.

None of this was good news for Team Trump.

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Trump admin escalates fight over intel whistleblower complaint

09/18/19 08:00AM

It's possible that the whistleblower complaint from within the U.S. intelligence community is relatively benign. Maybe it has nothing to do with Donald Trump. Maybe the underlying concern is technical and inconsequential in nature.

But given the Trump administration's recent conduct, it's awfully tough to give the relevant officials the benefit of the doubt. The New York Times reported overnight:

The acting director of national intelligence will not testify before Congress this week or immediately hand over a whistle-blower complaint to lawmakers, escalating a standoff between Capitol Hill and leaders of the intelligence agencies.

Following up on Rachel's report from last night and our earlier coverage, let's recap where things stand. 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 is refusing to take.

Instead, Maguire told House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) that the complaint refers to someone outside the intelligence community and it involves matters that are privileged. This, evidently, was supposed to justify the DNI's legally dubious secrecy.

Not surprisingly, this has led to some speculation about whether the complaint is about Donald Trump – which also raises the specter of the acting DNI, appointed by the president, ignoring his legal obligations, and withholding a credible whistleblower complaint, possibly to protect Trump from yet another scandal.

Which, in itself, would be pretty scandalous.

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