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The US Department of State seal is seen Nov. 26, 2013 in the State Department briefing room in Washington, DC.

Why is a fringe pundit working as a senior State Department adviser?

12/09/19 12:49PM

Throughout Donald Trump's presidency, a wide variety of fringe figures with dubious qualifications and strange ideas have landed important jobs in the federal bureaucracy. But Frank Wuco tends to stand out.

A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post reported on Wuco's role as a senior adviser at the State Department's Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance.

A former conservative talk radio host and naval intelligence officer who suggested dropping nuclear bombs on Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks now works on arms control issues at the State Department, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter. [...]

Wuco works at the State Department, though some arms control advocates have questioned his suitability for the area of arms control given his past remarks.

Wuco, a retired naval intelligence officer turned far-right pundit, first gained notoriety as a Trump administration official two years ago, while serving as a White House senior adviser at the Department of Homeland Security. CNN reported at the time that he had an unfortunate habit of peddling bizarre conspiracy theories, including "claims that former President Barack Obama's memoir was ghostwritten by former anti-Vietnam War radical Bill Ayers, that former CIA director John Brennan had converted to Islam and that Attorney General Eric Holder had been a member of the Black Panthers."

In case this isn't obvious, none of these theories is even remotely true.

Media Matters added that Wuco also claimed that Muslims "by-and-large" will "subjugate and humiliate non-Muslim members of their societies" and that their core faith purportedly instructs them that they can't "coexist peacefully with other religions." He also argued that "societies and nations for millennia have suffered greatly" for LGBTQ acceptance.

CNN added last week that Wuco also said he thought Barack Obama was a Kenyan, called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a "Nazi," and argued that it'd be difficult for a "solid, practicing" Muslim to be a good American.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.9.19

12/09/19 12:00PM

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

* Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) announced late Friday he intends to resign from Congress "shortly after the holidays." NBC News' report noted that the timing of the disgraced Republican's departure means California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) "can leave the seat vacant until after the Nov. 2020 general election, call for a special election, or consolidate a special election with the March primary."

* It took a while, but a super PAC aligned with Joe Biden's presidential campaign, called Unite the Country, has made a $650,000 ad buy focusing on Iowa markets. The 30-second spot is online here.

* According to a FiveThirtyEight tally, Tom Steyer's Democratic presidential campaign has spent $47 million on advertising, Michael Bloomberg's presidential campaign has spent $39 million (in just a few weeks), and the rest of the party's 2020 field combined has spent $15 million.

* Speaking of the former New York City mayor, Bloomberg claimed in a CBS News interview that it took several years for him to publicly apologize for the "stop and frisk" policy because he hadn't been asked about it before launching a White House bid. That does not appear to be true.

* Bernie Sanders' 2020 campaign parted ways late last week with its deputy director of constituency organizing following revelations about offensive tweets the staffer published between 2010 and 2012. This is the second such departure from the Vermont senator's operation in recent months.

* Kelly Loeffler won't take office as an appointed U.S. senator until next month, but the Georgia Republican is already talking about investing $20 million of her own money into her 2020 bid.

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Image: President Trump Holds Make America Great Again Rally In Pennsylvania

Trump highlights accused war criminals at Republican fundraiser

12/09/19 11:20AM

It's been nearly a month since Donald Trump, ignoring senior Pentagon officials and military justice experts, intervened in three cases involving accused American war criminals. As the New York Times reported, the president welcomed two of the three to join him on stage at a Florida fundraiser over the weekend.

Mr. Trump, as the featured speaker, invited up Army First Lt. Clint Lorance and Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn, according to a report in The Miami Herald that was confirmed by a person with knowledge of the event.

The fund-raiser, which was held Saturday at the J.W. Marriott Turnberry Resort and Spa in Aventura and benefited the Republican Party of Florida, was closed to reporters. A Republican official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the event, said that the officers were guests of an attendee and that they had not been part of the program. Mr. Trump appears to have called them up upon learning they were there.

As NBC News recently reported, Lorance received a 19-year murder sentence after being convicted of ordering an enlisted soldier to open fire on a group of unarmed Afghans in 2012. At his court-martial, the report added, "several of Lorance's soldiers testified the Afghan men posed no imminent threat."

Golsteyn, meanwhile, was awaiting trial, accused of murdering a suspected Afghan bomb maker in 2010.

The president's intervention in their cases is likely to become a campaign talking point in the coming months -- as The Atlantic's Adam Serwer recently put it, "Donald Trump is a war-crimes enthusiast" -- and we probably haven't seen the last of the Republican standing alongside the accused war criminals in a political setting. The Daily Beast reported two weeks ago:

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Image: Donald Trump

Speaking to Jewish audience, Trump uses anti-Semitic tropes (again)

12/09/19 10:40AM

Donald Trump spoke over the weekend to the Israeli American Council's national summit, where the president did something oddly familiar: he once again used anti-Semitic tropes to a Jewish audience. From the official White House transcript:

"A lot of you are in the real estate business because I know you very well. You're brutal killers. (Laughter.) Not nice people at all. But you have to vote for me; you have no choice. You're not going to vote for Pocahontas, I can tell you that. (Laughter and applause.) You're not going to vote for the wealth tax.

"'Yeah, let's take 100 percent of your wealth away.' No, no. Even if you don't like me; some of you don't. Some of you I don't like at all, actually. (Laughter.) And you're going to be my biggest supporters because you'll be out of business in about 15 minutes, if they get it."

To the extent that reality still has any meaning, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has proposed a "wealth tax," but Trump's description of it wasn't even close to being accurate.

More to the point, however, is Trump's assumption that Jewish people are solely focused on acquiring and maintaining wealth, and that preoccupation will inevitably lead Jewish-American voters -- who voted heavily against Trump in 2016 -- to rally behind the Republican ticket in 2020.

Aaron Keyak, the former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, noted soon after, "Trump's insistence on using anti-Semitic tropes when addressing Jewish audiences is dangerous and should concern every member of the Jewish community -- even Jewish Republicans."

It's also true, however, that the familiarity of these circumstances is just as unsettling.

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Image: Donald Trump,Melania Trump

Following deadly shooting, Team Trump defends Saudi Arabia

12/09/19 10:01AM

The New York Times did a nice job over the weekend summarizing the "strange dynamic" between Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia, especially in the wake of Friday's deadly shooting in north Florida.

When a Saudi Air Force officer opened fire on his classmates at a naval base in Pensacola, Fla., on Friday, he killed three, wounded eight and exposed anew the strange dynamic between President Trump and the Saudi leadership: The president's first instinct was to tamp down any suggestion that the Saudi government needed to be held to account.

It started with tweets, in which the American president let everyone know about King Salman calling him to "express his sincere condolences and give his sympathies to the families and friends of the warriors who were killed and wounded in the attack." Trump, echoing the king's message, added that the Saudi people "are greatly angered by the barbaric actions of the shooter, and that this person in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people who love the American people."

A day later, the Republican told reporters, "They are devastated in Saudi Arabia." Trump went on to say that King Salman "will be involved in taking care of families and loved ones. He feels very strongly. He's very, very devastated by what happened and what took place. Likewise, the Crown Prince. They are devastated by what took place in Pensacola. And I think they're going to help out the families very greatly."

It prompted MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell to note, "Accepting the Saudi King's apology without demanding they investigate is shocking. No demand for accountability."

Complicating matters, it wasn't just Trump. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also echoed Saudi Arabia's "condolences and sadness," while Defense Secretary Mark Esper downplayed reports that a Saudi soldier filmed the shooting at the American military base.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) noted soon after, "It's unnerving how eager everyone in this administration is to be PR agents for the Saudis. I'm glad they are sad and cooperative, but ask yourself: would this administration do this for any other country besides Saudi Arabia?"

That need not be a rhetorical question.

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Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks at an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 6, 2011. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

Why Trump's promise of a Giuliani investigative 'report' is misguided

12/09/19 09:20AM

Rudy Giuliani spent last week galivanting across eastern Europe, meeting with nefarious characters, stepping on his party's talking points, and looking for clues that might help Donald Trump, hurt Joe Biden, and exonerate Russia from its attack on U.S. elections in 2016. Over the weekend, his Oval Office client gave reporters an update on the former mayor's efforts.

Asked whether he knew and approved of Giuliani's misguided European mission, Trump replied:

"Well, I just know he came back from someplace, and he's going to make a report, I think to the attorney general and to Congress. He says he has a lot of good information. I have not spoken to him about that information.

"But Rudy, as you know, has been one of the great crime fighters of the last 50 years. And he did get back from Europe just recently, and I know -- he has not told me what he found, but I think he wants to go before Congress and say -- and also to the attorney general and the Department of Justice. I hear he's found plenty."

Right off the bat, let's note the president's cringe-worthy track record, which makes his latest rhetoric so difficult to believe. In 2011, for example, Trump appeared on NBC and claimed that he'd personally dispatched a team of investigators to Hawaii to explore his racist "birther" conspiracy theory. "I have people that have been studying [Barack Obama's origins] and they cannot believe what they're finding," he said at the time.

We later learned that Trump made all of this up: there were no investigators; there was no investigation; and he'd lied to everyone, including his allies and supporters, about the entire endeavor.

More recently, Giuliani, in his capacity as Trump's lawyer, spent a chunk of 2018 claiming he was nearly done with a lengthy "counter-report" to then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller's findings in the Russia scandal. That document was never released, and given the widespread contradictions of Giuliani's rhetoric on the subject, it's likely that the document never existed.

With this in mind, when Trump claims Giuliani is working on a report that will feature "plenty" of provocative information, it's probably wise to take this with several grains of salt.

But stepping back, there's a larger context to this that's even more damaging.

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Unwilling to present a defense, White House skips impeachment hearings

12/09/19 08:40AM

Republicans originally argued that the House impeachment process was unfair because there'd been no formal vote on the House floor to authorize the inquiry. After the House did, in fact, hold such a vote, Republicans shifted their focus, complaining that the process is unfair because there were no public impeachment committee hearings.

After the House did, in fact, hold extensive public impeachment committee hearings, Republicans shifted again, insisting that the process is unfair because Donald Trump and his team were not given an opportunity to present a defense. Last week, the president and his White House attorneys were, in fact, invited to participate in the impeachment inquiry, and Team Trump refused to accept the offer.

There was some question, however, as to whether Team Trump might choose to play a role in future hearings. On Friday afternoon, in a letter that sounded a bit like the president himself, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone wrote to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) signaling that the boycott would continue. In read in part:

"As you know, your impeachment inquiry is completely baseless and has violated basic principles of due process and fundamental fairness. Nevertheless, the Speaker of the House yesterday ordered House Democrats to proceed with articles of impeachment before your Committee has heard a single shred of evidence."

Cipollone went on to condemn the constitutional impeachment process as "unconstitutional." (Oddly enough, the correspondence never got around to saying whether anyone from the White House would show up for the next hearing, though an administration official eventually confirmed to NBC News that no one would participate.)

It's worth pausing to acknowledge what a genuine shame it is to see the White House Counsel's Office reduced to official correspondence this pitiful, especially after House members have been presented with a mountain of evidence, all of which has gone uncontested. As George Conway put it, "It's an utter embarrassment that any member of the bar, let alone the White House counsel, would write, sign, or send this letter."

For his part, Nadler released a statement noting that his committee gave the president "a fair opportunity to question witnesses and present his own to address the overwhelming evidence before us. After listening to him complain about the impeachment process, we had hoped that he might accept our invitation. If the president has no good response to the allegations, then he would not want to appear before the committee. Having declined this opportunity, he cannot claim that the process is unfair."

The chairman's point is compelling. Trump and his allies whined incessantly for weeks, insisting that any process that denies the White House an opportunity to present a defense is inherently unjust. And yet, when Congress extended Team Trump the opportunity it sought, the president and his lawyers chose to boycott the proceedings.

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Why is Ted Cruz helping promote false Russian propaganda?

12/09/19 08:00AM

U.S. officials have reminded elected policymakers more than once about the dangers of promoting Russian disinformation. In fact, the New York Times reported a few weeks ago that American intelligence professionals have informed senators and their aides that Russia has engaged in a lengthy campaign "to essentially frame" Ukraine for Russia's 2016 election attack.

That didn't stop Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) from helping promote the Kremlin's propaganda, which led to some rather fierce criticism for the Louisiana Republican. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) saw the pushback Kennedy received, appeared on NBC News' Meet the Press, and decided to do the same thing. This was the exchange between the senator and host Chuck Todd that raised so many eyebrows.

TODD: Do you believe Ukraine meddled in the American election in 2016?

CRUZ: I do. And I think there's considerable evidence of that.

TODD: You do? You do?

CRUZ: Yes.

The Republican went on to concede that Russia "interfered" in the American elections, but he nevertheless chastised the media for playing "a game" that overlooks details that Cruz pretended were true: "Ukraine blatantly interfered in our election."

This is, of course, precisely what Russian intelligence services want American officials to say.

To bolster his point, Cruz pointed to a 2016 op-ed from a Ukrainian ambassador that disagreed with then-candidate Donald Trump's vow to consider recognizing Crimea as Russian territory. As grown-ups already know, it's utterly ridiculous to compare an op-ed to an expansive and expensive covert military intelligence operation launched by the Kremlin.

Indeed, Ted Cruz is no doubt aware of the qualitative differences. He just doesn't appear to care.

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Report suggests possible intimidation of IRS whistleblower

Report suggests possible intimidation of IRS whistleblower

12/06/19 09:47PM

Rachel Maddow points out a new CNN report that the IRS whistleblower who flagged potential inappropriate efforts to influence the mandatory audit program of a president's tax returns was informed by an official that providing taxpayer information to the Senate Finance Committee could be a violation. This is not true, according to... watch

Friday's Mini-Report, 12.6.19

12/06/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Deadly shooting at Pensacola Naval Base: "The suspect in a shooting that killed three people and injured several others at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida, on Friday morning was a member of the Saudi Air Force who was in the U.S. for training, officials said."

* Maybe they couldn't think of a defense: "The White House on Friday rejected an invitation to take part in impeachment hearings before the House Judiciary Committee."

* Team Trump sure does worry about disclosure of the president's finances: "Lawyers for President Donald Trump asked the Supreme Court on Friday to block subpoenas issued by House Democrats to Deutsche Bank and Capital One for the president's financial records."

* The future of the so-called "public charge" policy: "A divided federal appeals court has lifted several injunctions blocking the Trump administration from implementing a rule aimed at limiting immigration benefits for individuals who participate in government programs such as food stamps or Medicaid."

* Bringing France to a halt: "Angry railway employees, teachers and other workers in France showed no signs of backing down from a nationwide strike on Friday, having brought public transportation to a standstill in a protest over President Emmanuel Macron's plans to overhaul the nation's pension system."

* West Virginia: "Officials are investigating a group of West Virginia corrections trainees who were photographed seemingly making a Nazi salute in their uniforms."

* That's a very good point: Republicans are all about boosting economic growth, so they say.... Unless it comes to punishing poor people. In which case, even the economy has to take a back seat."

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Image: A statue of the United States first President, George Washington, is seen under the Capitol dome in Washington

Dems pass another priority, approve Voting Rights Advancement Act

12/06/19 02:41PM

When the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in a highly controversial 5-4 ruling, the court's conservative majority effectively ended federal oversight of areas with history of voter-discrimination laws. If officials in those areas wanted to change their voting laws, the Voting Rights Act required pre-clearance from the Justice Department.

In Shelby County v. Holder, the high court's conservatives scrapped the requirement and challenged Congress to come up with a new formula for determining which areas deserved extra federal scrutiny of their voting laws, and which didn't.

In the six years that followed the ruling, state Republican officials wasted little time in taking advantage of the new legal landscape -- new voter-suppression measures passed in much of the country -- but federal lawmakers did not take up the Supreme Court's challenge and made no effort to create new standards.

Today, as Vox's Ella Nilsen explained, that changed.

Six years after the Supreme Court stripped key parts of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, America's signature legislation protecting voters of color, the House of Representatives passed a bill meant to restore those safeguards.

In a mostly party-line vote, the legislation was approved 228-187. The Voting Rights Advancement Act, introduced by Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), is a key part of Democrats' agenda to expand voting rights. It would make it more difficult for states to discriminate against voters of color, and give the federal government a stronger ability to take action against states with a history of discrimination.

At the end of the voting on the House floor today, it was Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement, who held gavel, adding symbolic weight to the circumstances.

Mother Jones' Ari Berman fleshed out the practical effects of the legislation: "It would initially cover 11 states: nine in the South, plus California and New York, which have more recently been found to discriminate against Latinos and Asian Americans. The bill would also require all states to get federal approval for election changes that are known to disproportionately affect voters of color, such as strict voter ID laws, tighter voter registration requirements, and polling place closures in areas with large numbers of minority voters."

The Voting Rights Advancement Act enjoyed unanimous support from the House Democrats voting today, but literally only one House Republican -- Pennsylvania's Brian Fitzpatrick -- supported the proposal. (The last time the chamber voted on the Voting Rights Act, in 2006, it passed 390 to 33. GOP politics has changed quite a bit since.)

Now that the bill has passed the House, it heads to the Republican-led Senate, where it will, of course, go completely ignored. That's discouraging for voting-rights advocates, but it also speaks to a larger truth that's often overlooked.

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Congressional Black Caucus Returns Controversial Painting  To Capitol Hill

As Duncan Hunter weighs his options, Issa wants Trump to intervene

12/06/19 12:46PM

Even by the standards of modern congressional scandals, Rep. Duncan Hunter's (R-Calif.) case is a doozy. As regular readers know, California Republican's multi-count criminal indictment accused him, of among other things, stealing campaign funds for personal use and clumsily trying to cover it up. As part of the case, prosecutors also alleged Hunter illegally used contributions to help finance extramarital affairs, including some with lobbyists.

After repeatedly insisting he's innocent, and blaming a political "witch hunt" for his predicament, the congressman pleaded guilty this week to conspiracy to misuse campaign funds. He's scheduled to be sentenced in March, and he faces up to five years in prison.

Though resignation seems like the obvious next step for Hunter, the GOP lawmaker, at least for now, seems intent on sticking around. In fact, the day after pleading guilty, the congressman was back on the House floor, casting votes as if he were a member in good standing. Roll Call reported yesterday that some of his colleagues reminded Hunter that he's not, in fact, a member in good standing: he's been stripped of his committee assignments and the Ethics panel wants him to stop voting on legislation.

The House Ethics Committee notified Rep. Duncan Hunter that his recent guilty plea means he should no longer cast votes in the House. The instruction is not mandatory, but the panel threatened action against him if he continues to vote. [...]

The Thursday letter from House Ethics specifies that Hunter "should refrain from voting on any question at a meeting of the House," until or unless a court reinstates the presumption of his innocence. It says he could resume voting if reelected to the House despite the guilty plea.

I won't pretend to know what the California congressman intends to do next, though one of the Republicans who hopes to succeed Hunter on Capitol Hill yesterday raised a provocative possibility: what if Donald Trump intervenes on Hunter's behalf?

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