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The first arrests of Donald Trump's impeachment crisis

10/11/19 08:00AM

At first blush, the charges against Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two highly controversial associates of Rudy Giuliani, might make yesterday's developments look like a campaign-finance scandal. And to a certain extent, that's a key piece of the puzzle: the Florida businessmen stand accused of funneling very large amounts of illegal campaign contributions to various Republican politicians and political entities, including a leading super PAC allied with Donald Trump.

What's more, according to prosecutors -- who took Parnas and Fruman into custody shortly before they were prepared to take a one-way flight out of the country -- the two cooked up a variety of schemes to make illegal donations to Republicans.

But this isn't just a campaign-finance controversy, and it's important to appreciate what else these guys were up to.

[Parnas and Fruman] were helping President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani set up meetings with high level Ukrainian officials, according to documents obtained by the State Department inspector general. Giuliani has acknowledged that he lobbied those people to investigate the Bidens and the 2016 campaign, in what Democrats say was an effort to uncover dirt on the president's political enemies.

While the nature of the criminal charges obviously matter, yesterday's developments are also a key ingredient to the larger impeachment crisis unfolding around Donald Trump.

It's impossible to do this justice in a single blog post, so I'll just encourage you to watch Rachel's A block from last night. In the meantime, though, let's pause to note that Parnas and Fruman may not be the only ones who'll face charges.

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Criminality taints Giuliani role in Trump Ukraine scheme

Criminality taints Giuliani role in Trump Ukraine scheme

10/10/19 09:00PM

Rachel Maddow reports on the arrests of two associates of Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were working on the Ukraine scheme that is now the subject of the Donald Trump impeachment inquiry, for FEC violations related to funneling foreign money to a Trump-supporting super PAC. Giuliani also consulted with convicted felon Paul... watch

Thursday's Mini-Report, 10.10.19

10/10/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Look for more on this on tonight's show: "Two foreign-born associates of Rudy Giuliani who gave money to a political action committee supporting President Donald Trump were arrested Wednesday night on criminal charges tied to an alleged effort to influence U.S. politics with illegal campaign contributions."

* Perry subpoena: "House Democrats issued a subpoena to Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Thursday, the latest salvo in the party's impeachment probe into whether President Donald Trump abused his power through his interactions with the leadership of Ukraine."

* Turkey: "Shells and rockets landed in several Turkish border towns on Thursday, killing four civilians, one of them an infant, and wounding 70, in a sharp escalation of the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish-led militia that fought alongside American forces in the campaign against Islamist extremists in northern Syria."

* In related news: "The U.S. military is taking custody of several dozen high-value Islamic State detainees, including two British men accused of involvement in the militant group's summary executions of American and other Western hostages. The action is designed to prevent their escape or release from camps in Syria, where they have been guarded by Kurdish forces now under threat from Turkey's incursion, according to U.S. officials."

* Pacific Gas & Electric Corp: "Californians from the governor on down slammed the state's largest utility Wednesday for rolling blackouts that could plunge up to 2 million people into darkness as it scrambles to keep its power lines from sparking wildfires."

* Team Trump shifts on Huawei: "The White House has signed off on special licenses for some U.S. companies to do some business with Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies Co., according to a person familiar with the process."

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Senator-elect, U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner delivers his victory speech to supporters during a GOP election night gathering at the Hyatt Regency Denver Tech Center, in Denver, Colo. on Nov. 4, 2014. (Brennan Linsley/AP)

Colorado's Gardner trips over a basic question on Trump scandal

10/10/19 03:33PM

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) was asked yesterday whether she believes it's appropriate or not for a president to solicit campaign assistance from a foreign power. She wouldn't answer directly -- despite repeated journalistic efforts.

Given how embarrassing it was to see the far-right Iowan struggle through a clumsy effort at dodging a simple question, it stood to reason other Republicans would see that and realize they should probably come up with some kind of coherent answer. And yet, a reporter asked Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) this morning:

"Do you believe it's appropriate for the president of the United States to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival? Yes or no?"

Gardner -- who happens to be up for re-election in an increasingly "blue" state next year -- said a lot of words, none of which answered the question. Another reporter asked the same question, and the Colorado Republican again dodged.

The back and forth continued for a while, but Gardner simply wouldn't say whether he believes it's appropriate for a president to ask foreign officials to go after a domestic rival.

The GOP senator was, however, willing to blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a "partisan partisanized effort."

It's not a trick question. One need not be a strategic genius or professional messaging consultant to figure this out.

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The most dangerous word in Donald Trump's vocabulary: 'Easy'

10/10/19 12:56PM

Donald Trump made all kinds of strange comments at a White House event yesterday, but the Washington Post picked up on one of the presidential remarks that stood out the most for me.

President Trump said Wednesday that it would be "easy" for the United States to form new alliances if Syrian Kurds leave the fight against the Islamic State to fend off a Turkish attack, noting that "they didn't help us in the Second World War, they didn't help us in Normandy" and were only interested in fighting for "their land."

As the official transcript makes clear, a reporter reminded the president how critical the Kurds have been in the fight against ISIS, adding, "By allowing this offensive [against the Kurds by Turkey], is it going to be more difficult in future times of need to develop alliances?"

"No, it won't be," Trump replied. "It won't be at all. Alliances are very easy." It was part of this same answer that the Republican went on to complain about the Kurds not meeting his expectations during World War II.

The president seemed quite pleased with his ridiculous comments, publishing them to Twitter, and touting how "different" they were.

The problem, of course, is that the point of the reporter's question was right and Trump was wrong. As the United States abandons its allies in Syria -- based on a decision the president made on a whim, without any real policymaking process -- the world takes note, and our already damaged credibility suffers further.

"Alliances are very easy"? For countries that honor their commitments, stand by their allies, and demonstrate sound judgment on the international stage, maybe. But the current American president seems wholly oblivious to the challenges of creating and sustaining alliances in a time when our foreign policy is shaped by an erratic amateur who's too often confused between friend and foe.

Sally Canfield, a former aide to George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, wrote on Twitter yesterday, "So let me get this straight. Basically the President of the United States helped coordinate an attack on an ally."

It's the sort of thing that makes cultivating and maintaining alliances less than "easy."

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.10.19

10/10/19 12:00PM

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

* A day after saying he intended to scale back his campaign schedule in the wake of his heart attack, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told NBC News yesterday he "misspoke" and intends to "get back into the groove of a very vigorous campaign."

* On a related note, the Vermont senator said he knew about the heart attack for a few days before it was disclosed to the public, but Sanders added that he's nevertheless comfortable with the way his campaign handled the matter. "No apologies," he said.

* Joe Biden yesterday made an unequivocal statement in support for Donald Trump's impeachment, a step he'd previously been reluctant to take.

* On a related note, the former vice president's campaign sent a written complaint to New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet yesterday, questioning the newspaper's decision to publish an op-ed from Peter Schweizer and pointing to what Team Biden sees as a larger pattern of "journalistic malpractice."

* And speaking of Biden's campaign, it also reached out to Facebook about taking down a Trump campaign attack ad that includes demonstrably false claims. The social-media giant refused.

* Despite having qualified for next week's Democratic presidential primary debate, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) is now saying she may boycott the event in order to protest a process she believes is "rigged" against her and candidates like her.

* Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said this week that she would continue to forgo big-dollar fundraising events, even if she wins her party's presidential nomination next year. The senator later clarified, however, that she'd headline high-dollar events for the Democratic Party, but not to benefit her own campaign directly.

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Pressed on scandal, Pence struggles with straightforward question

10/10/19 11:20AM

Vice President Mike Pence probably hoped to keep his distance from Donald Trump's intensifying Ukraine scandal, but those efforts aren't going especially well. The Washington Post reported last week that the president "repeatedly involved" the Indiana Republican "in efforts to exert pressure on the leader of Ukraine."

As regular readers know, the timeline of events paints an exceedingly unflattering picture, featuring a vice president making an unpersuasive case that he was ignorant about Trump's scheme, despite having ample access to the relevant information.

It was against this backdrop that Pence was in Iowa yesterday, where NBC News' Vaughn Hillyard asked the vice president whether he was aware the Trump administration was delaying aid to Ukraine, at least in part to get Ukraine to go after Joe Biden. Pence said several words, none of which answered the question.

So, Hillyard asked again, and Pence evaded again. In all, the video of the event showed the NBC News reporter asking the vice president four times. It wasn't a trick question. A "yes" or a "no" would've sufficed.

But Pence wasn't prepared to answer directly, instead saying he personally didn't discuss the Bidens with Ukrainian President Vlodomyr Zelensky. Perhaps not, but Pence did talk to the Ukrainian leader about Trump's "corruption" concerns, which Zelensky would understand as a reference to Trump's desire for a Biden-related investigation.

New York's Jon Chait added, in reference to Pence's evasive answers to Vaughn Hillyard's question:

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Image: U.S. President Trump celebrates with Republican House members after healthcare bill vote at the White House in Washington

As impeachment looms, White House fears cracks in the GOP wall

10/10/19 10:44AM

Donald Trump has long been obsessed with maintaining a united partisan front, confident in the belief that he can withstand any crisis just so long as Republicans rally behind him. And yet, whether he understands the consequences of his actions or not, the president has a curious habit of testing the limits of his allies' loyalties.

Congressional Republicans, for example, thought Trump had made a "huge mistake" releasing an incriminating call summary two weeks ago, but the president ignored them. GOP lawmakers were broadly disgusted when Trump -- apparently on a whim -- changed his policy toward Syria and abandoned our Kurdish allies without giving so much as a heads-up to his ostensible allies on Capitol Hill.

Congressional Republicans were blindsided again when the White House blocked Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, from appearing on Capitol Hill, which came on the heels of the president putting GOP lawmakers in an awkward position by calling for Sen. Mitt Romney's (R-Utah) impeachment -- something that isn't even possible in our system of government.

All of which is to say, at a time when Trump desperately needs unyielding Republican support, the president has taken a series of needlessly provocative steps that have angered and alienated the GOP officials whose backing he needs.

The Washington Post reported overnight, "There is an acknowledgment inside some quarters of the West Wing that Trump cannot ignore the skittishness of Republicans."

In the coming weeks, White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney is planning to help Trump begin a quiet charm offensive with congressional Republicans, hosting private dinners and meetings, gatherings at Camp David and other ways of expressing appreciation for their support, according to three Trump advisers who were not authorized to speak publicly.

CNN, meanwhile, reported that the president has been "lighting up the phone lines of his allies on Capitol Hill," including multiple calls per day to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), "to whom he's stressed the importance of Republican unity."

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Image: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Holds Her Weekly Press Conference At The Capitol

It's time to rethink old assumptions about Pelosi's public standing

10/10/19 10:00AM

In recent years, the conventional wisdom in Republican circles has been that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's public standing is so poor, it's effectively toxic. According to a recent book from Cliff Sims, a former aide in Donald Trump's White House, the president told then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) a couple of years ago, in reference to Pelosi, "Have you seen her? She's a disaster. Every time she opens her mouth another Republican gets elected."

The comment helped crystallize the GOP's assumptions on the California Democrat, though the latest national Fox News poll, released late yesterday, suggests those assumptions are due for an overhaul.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's personal favorability rating is under water by 6 points (42 percent favorable vs. 48 percent unfavorable). Still, that's a new high, and gives her the highest favorable rating of Capitol Hill leadership tested in the poll.

Obviously, no one with a 42% favorability rating should be described as broadly popular with the American electorate. That said, according to Fox News' results, Pelosi's favorability is roughly in line with Donald Trump's -- in fact, her unfavorable rating is quite a bit better than the president's -- and the House Speaker has stronger public support than Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

As regular readers know, less than a year ago, after House Republicans suffered through their worst midterm cycle since the immediate aftermath of Watergate, there was a fair amount of anxiety about Democrats elevating Pelosi back to the Speaker's office -- not because she'd failed to earn it, but because some in the party believed she was too unpopular.

It was certainly the image GOP officials have spent years cultivating, condemning the villainous "San Francisco liberal," and trying desperately to tie Democratic candidates to Pelosi, occasionally in races that are unrelated to the U.S. House.

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A Fox News reporter works from the Bernie Sanders rally in Iowa City, Ia., Jan. 30, 2016. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC)

New impeachment lawyer moves from Fox News to Team Trump

10/10/19 09:21AM

As expected, Donald Trump's personal legal team added a new member yesterday, with former Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) agreeing to help the president as the impeachment process advances. NBC News' report on the announcement highlighted what the South Carolina Republican has been up to lately.

After retiring from Congress at the beginning of the year, Gowdy became a contributor on Fox News, where he has blasted the impeachment inquiry. [...]

In a sign that he'd be joining Team Trump, Fox News issued a statement earlier Wednesday saying he'd "been terminated and is no longer a contributor."

Media Matters added yesterday, "Since The Wall Street Journal reported on September 20 that the whistleblower complaint involved Trump pressuring Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, leading to the inquiry announced on September 24, Gowdy has gone on Fox to slam Democrats for 'mishandling this investigation,' make dishonest comparisons between Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and former President Barack Obama, lend credibility to a conspiracy theory pushed by the president, and single out some of Trump's favorite targets for attack."

What we didn't fully appreciate was the degree to which Gowdy's appearances effectively served as an audition.

Regardless, if the former congressman's transition from Fox News to Team Trump seems familiar, it's because we've seen it before -- many, many times.

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Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) speaks to guests at the Iowa Freedom Summit on Jan. 24, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)

Iowa's Ernst struggles with question at the heart of Trump scandal

10/10/19 08:40AM

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) published a tweet last week summarizing Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal with a straightforward question. "It comes down to this," the California Democrat wrote. "We've cut through the denials. The deflections. The nonsense. Donald Trump believes he can pressure a foreign nation to help him politically. It's his 'right.' Every Republican in Congress has to decide: Is he right?"

As bottom-line questions go, this seems quite fair. Obviously, the broader scandal is multifaceted, with a series of players and detailed developments, but the core of the story is simple: the American president used his office to pressure foreign governments, not to advance our interests, but to advance his. Trump fears a domestic rival, so he encouraged foreign officials to go after him.

The Republican defended himself by insisting he has an "absolute right" to engage in this conduct. The question -- by some measures, the only question -- is whether his party agrees with this assessment.

It's also a question many in the GOP don't know how to answer. Take Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), for example, who was repeatedly pressed by a CNN reporter this week to say whether it's appropriate or not for a president to solicit campaign assistance from a foreign power. Iowa Starting Line reported yesterday on the exchange:

Ernst's first response to the reporter's question was: "I think we are going to have to go back, just as I said last week, we'll have to wait. All that information is going to have to go to Senate Intelligence." [...]

The reporter clarified she wanted to know whether asking a foreign power for help investigating an opponent was appropriate. "We again, we don't have the facts in front of us," Ernst said. "And what we see pushed out through the media, we don't know what is accurate at this point."

The reporter interjected that she "didn't ask if it was accurate -- I'm asking you if it's appropriate for a president to ask a foreign power to investigate his domestic political rival. Yes or no?"

Ernst replied: "I don't know if we have that information in front of us, and I'll just stick with what I said all along ... "

Ernst's refusal to answer the question made for a cringe-worthy display. The fact that she kept saying she didn't have information on the subject made matters worse, given the fact that Trump stood on the South Lawn of the White House and literally called for foreign governments to target Joe Biden.

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Tillerson story creates Trump's latest possible impeachable offense

10/10/19 08:00AM

About a year ago, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared at a forum and was asked why he and Donald Trump struggled to see eye to eye. The nation's former chief diplomat talked a bit about the differences in their styles before noting, almost in passing, that the president had asked him to do things that "violate the law."

It was, of course, a startling moment, though the former cabinet secretary didn't go into additional details about the kind of illegalities Trump wanted him to commit. As Rachel noted on the show last night, however, Bloomberg News appears to have uncovered an amazing instance.

President Donald Trump pressed then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help persuade the Justice Department to drop a criminal case against an Iranian-Turkish gold trader who was a client of Rudy Giuliani, according to three people familiar with the 2017 meeting in the Oval Office.

Tillerson refused, arguing it would constitute interference in an ongoing investigation of the trader, Reza Zarrab, according to the people. They said other participants in the Oval Office were shocked by the request.

Tillerson immediately repeated his objections to then-Chief of Staff John Kelly in a hallway conversation just outside the Oval Office, emphasizing that the request would be illegal.

As much of the country has no doubt noticed, we're in the midst of a presidential impeachment inquiry, which is evaluating Trump's possible high crimes and misdemeanors. With this in mind, it's worth emphasizing that if the president urged his secretary of State to interfere with the Justice Department, derailing the prosecution of one of Giuliani's clients -- a client who faced serious criminal charges -- that would almost certainly constitute an impeachable offense.

Which is to say, another impeachable offense.

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