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Monday's Mini-Report, 1.20.20

01/20/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* On the eve of the impeachment trial's first day: "President Donald Trump did 'absolutely nothing wrong,' is the victim of a partisan plot to take him down and should be swiftly acquitted in a Senate trial, his legal team argued in a brief Monday."

* Fortunately, there was no violence: "Thousands of gun-rights activists, banned from carrying their weapons out of fear of violence, crammed into the Virginia Capitol on Monday to urge state lawmakers to reject sweeping measures to limit the spread of firearms."

* I have a hunch Barr won't agree: "Lev Parnas, the indicted associate of President Donald Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, has sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr requesting that he recuse himself from the investigation and appoint a special prosecutor, according to a new court filing."

* Keep an eye on this one: "A long-simmering conflict between the National Security Agency and the House Intelligence Committee broke into the open on Sunday when the committee's chairman, Representative Adam B. Schiff, accused the agency of withholding critical intelligence from his panel, including some that might be useful in the impeachment trial of President Trump."

* This one's shaping up to be interesting, too: "Andrew Peek, the senior director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council, has been placed on administrative leave pending a security-related investigation, people familiar with the situation tell Axios."

* Trump used to think very little of Ken Starr, who's now part of his team: "President Trump on Friday chose the people who will be defending him at his impeachment trial. And one of them is 'a lunatic' who was 'a disaster' during the last impeachment of a president, according to Trump himself."

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Image: Rep. Chris Collins

One of Trump's top congressional allies sentenced in corruption case

01/20/20 03:02PM

When then-Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) was first brought up on federal corruption charges, the New York Republican -- the first member of Congress to endorse Donald Trump -- initially pleaded not guilty. In September, Collins reversed course and acknowledged what was plainly true: he did what prosecutors accused him of doing.

The Buffalo News reported late last week on his sentence.

Chris Collins cried so hard that many of his words got lost in his anguish.

But that act of contrition only meant so much to U.S. District Court Judge Vernon S. Broderick, who on Friday sentenced Collins to 26 months in prison for launching an insider trading scheme with a call to his son from a White House picnic in June 2017.... Broderick also fined Collins $200,000. And once he leaves prison, the former four-term Republican lawmaker from Clarence will have to go through one year of supervised release.

Stepping back, I think there are a few angles to this that are worth keeping in mind. The first is that the evidence against Collins was ridiculously strong. Had he gone to trial, the disgraced former congressman would've lost.

Second, the list of people close to Trump who've ended up in prison is alarmingly long, and it may yet grow longer. Former White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is awaiting sentencing, and so is former Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), the second congressional Republican to endorse Trump's 2016 candidacy.

And third, I'll be eager to see if Collins seeks some kind of presidential pardon.

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Team Trump: Presidents can't be impeached for abuses of power

01/20/20 12:35PM

With Donald Trump's impeachment trial poised to begin tomorrow, the U.S. House of Representatives filed a "Trial Memorandum and Statement of Material Facts" with the office of the Secretary of the Senate on Saturday afternoon. The purpose of the document was simple: the Democratic-led House's brief was intended to establish the president's guilt, while reviewing the case the impeachment "managers" will present at trial.

The 111-page document is a persuasive, substantive, well-researched, and thoroughly footnoted indictment against a president who, according to overwhelming and uncontested evidence, abused the powers of his office as part of an unprecedented extortion scheme. It concludes by asking senators to do their duty and bring Trump's presidency to an end.

A few hours later, the White House submitted a short "answer" to the House's allegations. As the New York Times reported:

In a six-page filing formally responding to the House impeachment charges submitted shortly after and filled with partisan barbs against House Democrats, Mr. Trump's lawyers denounced the case as constitutionally and legally invalid, and driven purely by a desire to hurt Mr. Trump in the 2020 election. [...]

The president's lawyers did not deny any of the core facts underlying Democrats' charges, conceding what considerable evidence and testimony in the House has shown: that he withheld $391 million in aid and a White House meeting from Ukraine and asked the country's president to investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son, Hunter Biden.

But they said Mr. Trump broke no laws and was acting entirely appropriately and within his powers when he did so, echoing his repeated protestations of his own innocence. They argued that he was not seeking political advantage, but working to root out corruption in Ukraine.

The entirety of the surprisingly short White House argument is online here (pdf), and I think it's fair to say it is not an impressive document. Paul Waldman joked, "[I]t reads as though it was written by a ninth-grader who saw an episode of Law & Order and learned just enough legal terms to throw them around incorrectly."

But while it's true that most of the missive was familiar palaver, there was one element worth dwelling on.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.20.20

01/20/20 12:00PM

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

* As Democratic presidential hopefuls fight for positioning in Iowa, the editorial board of the Quad City Times endorsed Amy Klobuchar's candidacy over the weekend. Around this time four years ago, the same newspaper endorsed Bernie Sanders.

* Speaking of newspaper endorsements, the editorial board of the New York Times caused a bit of a stir overnight, publishing an editorial endorsing both Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren.

* Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, picked up the backing of Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who has also agreed to serve as the national health policy chair for the Vermont senator's campaign. Sanders now has seven endorsements from sitting U.S. House members.

* With just two weeks remaining before the Iowa caucuses, a Focus on Rural America poll found Joe Biden leading the pack with 24%, followed by Elizabeth Warren at 18%, and Pete Buttigieg at 16 percent. Bernie Sanders was right behind them in the poll with 14%, and Amy Klobuchar also reached double digits, showing 11% support.

* The DNC has unveiled the participation thresholds for the next presidential primary debate, scheduled for Feb. 3 in New Hampshire. To qualify, candidates will need donations from at least 225,000 unique donors, as well two polls with 7% support in early contests or four polls with 5% support in early contests or national surveys. As things stand, each of the six candidates who met in last week's poll have already qualified to be on the stage in the next debate.

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Trump's team is what happens 'when you don't pay your legal bills'

01/20/20 11:30AM

It wasn't until late last week that Donald Trump's legal team expanded in preparation for the Senate's impeachment trial, and as the Center for a New American Security's Carrie Cordero noted, it's not exactly a powerhouse roster.

"Contrary to tone of some coverage, I'm struck by the *lack* of conservative legal star power on Trump's impeachment team," Cordero wrote, adding that there's "no credible constitutional superstar."

George Conway appeared to be thinking along the same lines, arguing in a Washington Post op-ed, "This is what happens when you don't pay your legal bills."

President Trump, whose businesses and now campaign have left a long trail of unpaid bills behind them, has never discriminated when it comes to stiffing people who work for him. That includes lawyers -- which is part of the reason he found the need to make some curious last-minute tweaks to his team, announcing the addition of the legal odd couple of Alan Dershowitz and Kenneth W. Starr.

The president has consistently encountered difficulty in hiring good lawyers to defend him. In 2017, after Robert S. Mueller III became special counsel, Trump couldn't find a high-end law firm that would take him as a client. His reputation for nonpayment preceded him: One major Manhattan firm I know had once been forced to eat bills for millions in bond work it once did for Trump. No doubt other members of the legal community knew of other examples.

Of course, being cheap wasn't the only reason Trump struck out among the nation's legal elite. There was the fact that he would be an erratic client who'd never take reasonable direction -- direction as in shut up and stop tweeting.

There was a point a couple of years ago, as the president's Russia scandal was intensifying, when he needed sound legal representation and bragged that the "top" law firms were eager to take him on as a client. That was very hard to believe: I put together a list in April 2018 of the lawyers who'd turned Trump down, and it wasn't an especially short list.

There's been no comparable reporting of late about specific, high-profile lawyers rejecting the president's overtures ahead of his impeachment trial, but it seems as if Trump has ended up with a group of attorneys he chose because he saw them on television.

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Larry Kudlow

White House eyes backward steps on anti-bribery laws

01/20/20 11:01AM

It's called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), and its purpose is simple: as part of the United States' effort to combat global corruption, federal law prevents American businesses from paying bribes to foreign officials.

Donald Trump has made no effort to hide his contempt for this law.

In fact, NBC News' Richard Engel appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show a couple of years ago and highlighted a 2012 quote from Trump, in which the future president said, in reference to FCPA, "Now, every other country goes into these places, and they do what they have to do. It's a horrible law and it should be changed. I mean, we're like the policeman for the world. It's ridiculous."

The New York Republican didn't forget about his opposition to the law after taking office. A new book from the Washington Post's Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig reports that Trump clashed with then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in early 2017 because the new president wanted to get rid of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. "It's just so unfair that American companies aren't allowed to pay bribes to get business overseas," Trump reportedly said at the time.

The same book added that Trump directed Stephen Miller to draft an executive action to repeal the law. (Executive actions cannot simply repeal federal laws, though the president apparently didn't care.)

Nearly three years later, Team Trump hasn't lost sight of the president's interest in this.

The Trump administration is "looking at" making changes to a decades-old global anti-bribery law, White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow told reporters on Friday.

"We are looking at it, and we have heard some complaints from our companies," Kudlow said, responding to a question about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The law generally prohibits American companies from paying bribes to secure contracts overseas. "I don't want to say anything definitive policy-wise, but we are looking at it," Kudlow added.

It's amazing on its face that Trump and his team are eager to make foreign bribes easier, but it's the larger political context that makes the story all the more extraordinary.

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A twenty dollar bill. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty)

As deficits soar, Trump asks, 'Who the hell cares about the budget?'

01/20/20 10:30AM

Donald Trump delivered remarks at a private dinner with wealthy donors Friday night at Mar-a-Lago, and as the Washington Post reported, the president shared some thoughts about the nation's finances.

To those who criticized his spending and the growing national debt, Trump said: "Who the hell cares about the budget? We're going to have a country."

For most of President Barack Obama's time in office, Republicans seemed to care very much about the budget, making fears around the national debt and deficit their top talking point. They've backed off those concerns under Trump.

The Republican's comments came just four days after the Trump administration reported that the annual budget deficit surpassed $1 trillion in 2019, despite the growing economy, and despite the fact that Trump promised voters he'd produce the opposite results.

Trump has now added $2.6 trillion to the national debt in just three years -- more than Obama added to the debt in his entire second term.

It's against this backdrop that the current president has chosen ... indifference. And though I'm generally loath to agree with Trump, his blunt rhetorical question -- "Who the hell cares about the budget?" -- may have some merit.

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Trump unveils a brand new rationale for risky Soleimani airstrike

01/20/20 10:00AM

It's been 17 days since Donald Trump authorized an airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, which was launched in order to prevent an imminent attack. Well, maybe not imminent. But the president and his team certainly knew of a deadly attack Soleimani was planning.

Except, as regular readers know, maybe "knew" is too strong a word, since the administration didn't know who, what, where, or when the general intended to strike. Except the opposite might also be true, since Trump said Soleimani was targeting an embassy. No, wait, not just any embassy, but the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Hold on, maybe it was four embassies.

After these meandering and contradictory explanations for the airstrike effectively collapsed, the president tried to resolve the problem by declaring it "doesn't really matter" why he launched the military offensive. On Friday night, Trump spoke to donors at Mar-a-Lago, where, according to an audio recording obtained by the Washington Post, the president unveiled a brand-new explanation.

The president said nothing about an "imminent attack." ... Instead, he spoke broadly about Soleimani as "the father of the roadside bomb" responsible for "every young, beautiful man or woman who you see walking around with no legs, no arms." Trump said he heard about two weeks ago that the United States had Soleimani under surveillance and he was "talking about bad stuff." [...]

"He was saying bad things about our country, like we're going to attack, we're going to kill your people. I said, 'Listen, how much of this s**t do we have to listen to, right?' " Trump said to applause from the donor crowd.

Trump proceeded to describe the details of watching the mission unfold from the White House Situation Room -- the story included multiple instances in which people called him "sir" -- making himself the hero of the narrative.

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Image: Hundreds of thousands march down Pennsylvania Avenue during the Women's March in Washington

At the intersection of the National Archives and Trump's presidency

01/20/20 09:30AM

If you've never spent time in Washington, D.C., you may not appreciate how inspiring a trip to the National Archives can be. It's an institution that houses and protects many of the nation's most precious historical treasures, including the original copies of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, both of which are on display to the public in the building's main rotunda.

But the National Archives also routinely creates fascinating historical exhibits, featuring original documents, materials, and photographs, including one recent exhibit on women's suffrage. Promotional materials included photographs from the 2017 Women's March, which was one of the largest and most impressive displays of citizen activism in recent memory.

As the Washington Post reported, this was not without controversy.

The Archives acknowledged in a statement this week that it made multiple alterations to the photo of the 2017 Women's March showcased at the museum, blurring signs held by marchers that were critical of Trump. Words on signs that referenced women's anatomy were also blurred.

In the original version of the 2017 photograph, taken by Getty Images photographer Mario Tama, the street is packed with marchers carrying a variety of signs, with the Capitol in the background. In the Archives version, at least four of those signs are altered.

A placard that proclaims "God Hates Trump" has "Trump" blotted out so that it reads "God Hates." A sign that reads "Trump & GOP -- Hands Off Women" has the word Trump blurred out.

In other words, the National Archives gave historical images a little touch-up, so as to avoid "political controversy," as an Archives spokesperson put it. In the process, the institution created an entirely different political controversy.

It's worth emphasizing that I'm not aware of any evidence of Donald Trump or anyone associated with him pressuring the Archives to alter these photographs. It appears that wasn't necessary: the Archives anticipated pushback from the right and acted pre-emptively.

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Image: Rep. Devin Nunes Briefs Press On House Intelligence Cmte Russia Investigation

In Ukraine scandal, Devin Nunes has some explaining to do

01/20/20 09:00AM

In November, during an impeachment hearing, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, raised a question he seemed to consider important. "Do you think it's appropriate for political parties to run operatives in foreign countries to dig up dirt on their opponents?" the GOP lawmaker asked Fiona Hill and David Holmes.

In context, Nunes was referring to the Steele dossier. What we didn't appreciate at the time, however, was that the California congressman would soon after be accused of doing what he accused others of doing.

Last week, Lev Parnas, a Rudy Giuliani associate involved with executing the Ukraine scheme, told Rachel that he'd met with Nunes and Derek Harvey, a top aide to the congressman who also used to work in the Trump White House. Parnas added that "they were involved in getting all this stuff on Biden."

Late Friday, the story grew a little more serious with the release of additional evidence that Parnas communicated extensively with Nunes' office about aid to Ukraine and outreach to former Ukrainian prosecutors. NBC News reported:

The messages show that Harvey was far more involved than previously known in what appears to be a robust effort by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee to investigate Ukraine-related matters.

The text messages between Harvey and Parnas ... start in February 2019 and continue into May.

Politico's report drew attention to one especially notable text message in which Harvey appeared to "pass along Nunes' contact information two days before the Intelligence Committee's impeachment report indicated that a phone connected to Nunes made contact with a phone connected to Parnas."

It's worth noting for context that Nunes, as recently as last month, said he did not "recall" Parnas' name. The day Parnas sat down with Rachel last week, however, the congressman turned to Fox News to concede he now remembers talking to Parnas after all.

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