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A Greyhound bus passes a police cruiser as it heads to the terminal, March 31, 2016, in Richmond, Va. (Photo by Steve Helber/AP)

With Virginia on edge over gun rally, Trump says the wrong thing

01/20/20 08:30AM

Virginia voters swung in a decidedly "blue" direction last year, and as a result, Democratic officials will control the levers of power in the commonwealth for the first time in a generation. It opens the door to progressive governance on a variety of fronts, including efforts to prevent gun violence.

Indeed, among the top legislative priorities for Virginia Democrats in the upcoming session is a bill to require background checks on firearm purchases. The possibility of gun reforms has led to a protest in the state capital today, led in part by a group called the Virginia Citizens Defense League, and as NBC News reported, there are growing concerns about possible violence.

As gun rights activists, white nationalists and militia groups prepare to rally at the state Capitol on Monday to protest proposed gun control laws, residents are praying it won't be a repeat of the violent 2017 rally in Charlottesville that ended in a woman's death. [...]

Organizers say thousands of people will be at the Capitol on Monday as the Virginia Citizens Defense League buses people in from across the state, while other rallygoers are expected to travel from out of state.

As the New York Times noted, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) recently declared a state of emergency, which temporarily banned weapons on Capitol grounds, citing credible "threats of violence." That sparked a lawsuit, though the Virginia Supreme Court upheld the temporary ban last week.

Nevertheless, fears of violence persist, and those concerns grew more intense last week when members of a neo-Nazi group, who were reportedly planning to participate in today's event, were arrested by the FBI.

We know that Donald Trump is aware of the situation, largely because he's said exactly the wrong things.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

'Things happen': GOP still can't answer key Trump scandal question

01/20/20 08:00AM

Should an American president be able to solicit foreign interference in U.S. elections with impunity? It's a question that's near the center of Donald Trump's Ukraine scheme. It's a question that's been around for months. And it's a question Republicans still don't know how to answer.

On ABC News' This Week, George Stephanopoulos posed the question to Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who said, "I don't know that has been actually proven. You know, that's all in dispute."

It's really not. We know this for certain in part because the White House released an official call summary of Trump's July 25 conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which the American president pressed his counterpart in Kyiv to "look into" Joe Biden. A week after that call summary was released to the public, Trump stood on the South Lawn of the White House and told reporters on camera, "China should start an investigation into the Bidens." The Republican added soon after, "I would say that President Zelensky, if it were me, I would recommend that they start an investigation into the Bidens."

Reminded of reality, Shelby suggested Trump's rhetoric didn't actually count, because it was "political." It led to this exchange:

STEPHANOPOULOS: So it's OK?

SHELBY: I didn't say it was OK. I said people make them -- people do things. Things happen.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, this is the president of the United States.

SHELBY: Well, still the president of the United States is human. And he's going to make mistakes of judgment and everything else.

The senator added that he doesn't believe Trump's controversy "rises to the standard of an impeachable offense."

It was a little painful to watch the Alabama Republican change direction so frequently, so quickly.

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Friday's Mini-Report, 1.17.20

01/17/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* I wonder if Team Trump waited specifically for Michelle Obama's birthday to make this announcement: "The Trump administration moved on Friday to roll back school nutrition standards championed by Michelle Obama, an effort long sought by food manufacturers and some school districts that have chafed at the cost of Mrs. Obama's prescriptions for fresh fruit and vegetables."

* Pompeo speaks: "Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday he 'never heard' that his top envoy to Ukraine, Ambassador Marie L. Yovanovitch, might have been under surveillance before she was recalled to Washington, accused of being disloyal to President Trump."

* Faithless electors matter: "The Supreme Court agreed Friday to take up an issue that could change a key element of the system America uses to elect its president, with a decision likely in the spring just as the campaign heats up."

* And speaking of SCOTUS: "The Supreme Court said Friday it will take up a the fate of a Trump administration rule, now on hold, that would grant employers an exemption, on religious or moral grounds, from Obamacare's requirement to provide health insurance coverage for birth control."

* Climate lawsuit: "A federal appeals court on Friday threw out a 2015 lawsuit by nearly two dozen young people to force the U.S. government to take more aggressive action on climate change, saying that the children did not have legal standing to bring the landmark case."

* The Labor Department made it official, declaring yesterday that "technology upgrades will allow it to exclusively release high-profile economic data directly to the public, ending the news media's practice of transmitting economic stories the moment data is released."

* Facebook faces political fire again: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi today blasted Facebook for putting profits over the well-being of its users and for cozying up to the Trump administration as it faces antitrust scrutiny from federal regulators, offering a scathing and public rebuke of the social media giant."

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US President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during the Announcement of the Guidance on Constitutional Prayer in Public Schools, at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 16, 2020.

When all else fails, Trump still has a map to make him feel better

01/17/20 02:41PM

In late-April 2017, Donald Trump appeared to have lingering insecurities about the legitimacy of his election. It was not entirely irrational: the Republican had badly lost the popular vote, and he'd benefited from illegal Russian intervention and a highly dubious move from then-FBI Director James Comey. The president was obviously in office, but many saw an asterisk.

It was against this backdrop that Trump sat down with some reporters from Reuters, and he interrupted a discussion about China to hand out blue-and-red copies of the 2016 electoral map.

"Here, you can take that, that's the final map of the numbers," the president said from his desk, handing copies to each of the three reporters in the room. "It's pretty good, right? The red is obviously us."

All of this came to mind again yesterday -- which is to say, nearly three years into Trump's presidency, long past the point at which this map should be a point of preoccupation.

As Chief Justice John Roberts was being sworn in to oversee that affair, Trump was a few miles away, surrounded by a group of students and teachers who were there to praise him for waging war on secularism in schools. In front of him on the Resolute desk was a map that appeared to divide the country into a red/blue map based on the 2016 election results.

Trump, however, did nothing with the map. It just sat there in front of him, unmentioned, for the entire half-hour event.

It's worth emphasizing a few relevant details. First, the map had nothing to do with the subject at hand, and it was not referenced at any point during the Oval Office event, at least not during the portions seen by the public. Second, the map is wrong: it purports to show county-by-county results, but it shows a variety of counties that Hillary Clinton won in red. It doesn't even get the popular vote right: the map says the Democrat won by 1.1 million votes, when the actual margin was 2.8 million.

Third, even if it reflected county-by-county results accurately, it would still be misleading, because it would suggest land masses matter more than actual American voters. Many of those counties have a lot of square miles and very few people, which necessarily creates a distorted image.

But even if we put all of that aside, the question that's harder to answer is why in the world the map was there in the first place.

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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

For the impeachment trial, Trump's legal defense team takes shape

01/17/20 12:59PM

In November 2018, Donald Trump explained that when choosing lawyers for key governmental roles, he's influenced by those he sees on television. With this in mind, some of the president's choices for his impeachment defense team make sense, because they're familiar figures from his screen. NBC News reported this morning:

President Donald Trump's defense team for the Senate trial includes include former independent counsel Ken Starr, who investigated President Bill Clinton, and famed defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, sources familiar with the White House's plans and the president's legal strategy told NBC News Friday.

The legal team will be led by White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and Trump personal lawyer Jay Sekulow.

Also joining the team is Robert Ray, who succeeded Starr as Clinton special counsel, the sources said. Pam Bondi, former Florida attorney general, and Jane Raskin, a Miami-based criminal defense lawyer who along with her husband was already a part of Trump's personal legal team, are also expected to be part of the president's impeachment defense, said one source familiar with the White House's plans.

In a statement this morning, Sekulow confirmed that Bondi, Dershowitz, Starr, and Ray "will be part of our team."

One of the noticeable things about this list is who isn't on it. As of last week, the president reportedly "loved the idea" of adding a group of far-right House congressmen -- Republican Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio), John Ratcliffe (Tex.), and Doug Collins (Ga.) were in the mix -- to the legal team, at least in part because of their "bare-knuckles tactics and top-rated TV performances."

Senate GOP leaders went out of their way to discourage Trump from pursuing such a course, and it appears those lobbying efforts were effective.

But to think the president went with uncontroversial choices is to overlook the names on the list and their backgrounds.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.17.20

01/17/20 12:00PM

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

* We've reached the point at which early voting in Democratic presidential primaries is getting underway, with Minnesotans able to cast ballots staring today. Vermont begins its early-voting phase tomorrow.

* Advancing an ongoing story, Politico reported late yesterday, "A Georgia election server contains evidence that it was possibly hacked before the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 vote that gave Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp a narrow victory over Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams, according to an election security expert."

* When Iowa Democrats participate in presidential caucuses on Feb. 3, they may not produce a single winner. As the Associated Press reported yesterday, "There will be three sets of results: tallies of the 'first alignment' of caucus-goers, their 'final alignment' and the total number of State Delegate Equivalents each candidate receives."

* As Robert Hyde, a controversial Republican congressional candidate in Connecticut, finds himself in the national spotlight, GOP leaders have been quick to distance themselves from him.

* In North Carolina, Public Policy Polling released a poll this week showing Joe Biden leading his party's 2020 field with 31%, followed by Bernie Sanders at 18%. Elizabeth Warren is a close third with 15%, followed by Michael Bloomberg at 8%, and Pete Buttigieg at 6%.

* Former President Barack Obama is remaining neutral in the Democratic presidential primary, but the Biden campaign's newest ad is made up entirely of praise Obama offered the former vice president in 2016.

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Why it's so hard to believe Trump's denials about Lev Parnas

01/17/20 11:19AM

At a White House event yesterday on school prayer, of all things, Donald Trump said in reference to the Ukraine scandal, "You had a fake whistleblower that wrote a report that bore no relationship to what was said. Everything was false." That wasn't true, and the whistleblower report has held up quite nicely.

The president added that he released a call summary of his July phone meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after Democrats "had done these fraudulent acts." That was wrong, too.

But at the same event, the Republican took some time to comment on his knowledge of Lev Parnas, a Rudy Giuliani associate involved with executing the Ukraine scheme.

"Well, I don't know him. I don't know Parnas, other than I guess I had pictures taken, which I do with thousands of people, including people today that I didn't meet. But -- just met them. I don't know him at all. Don't know what he's about. Don't know where he comes from. Know nothing about him. [...]

"It doesn't matter what he says. He's trying to probably make a deal for himself. I don't even know who this man is, other than I guess he attended fundraisers, so I take a picture with him.... No, I don't know him. Perhaps he's a fine man; perhaps he's not. I know nothing about him.... I don't know him. I don't believe I've ever spoken with him. I don't believe I've ever spoken to him.... But I don't know him. I had never had a conversation that I remember with him."

The phrase "doth protest too much" kept coming to mind.

The latest Trump denial came on the heels of Rachel asking Parnas this week about the president previously claiming he didn't know him. Parnas was unequivocal in reference Trump, insisting, "He lied."

After conceding that the two aren't close personal friends, he added, "[Trump] knew exactly who we were. He knew exactly who I was, especially.... I had a lot of one-on-one conversations with him at gatherings."

The trouble for Trump is, his denials about Parnas are hard to believe.

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A man walks across the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency at the lobby of the Original Headquarters Building at the CIA headquarters on Feb. 19, 2009 in McLean, Va. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

White House hopes to derail Congress' threat assessment briefing

01/17/20 10:48AM

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) is responsible for producing an annual report on global security threats, which is soon followed by a congressional hearing in which top security officials brief lawmakers on the report's findings. In theory, it need not be especially political or partisan.

But in practice, it's a different story. A year ago, then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was joined by FBI Director Chris Wray and CIA Director Gina Haspel for a Senate hearing in which they completely contradicted the president's position on a wide range of key issues, including Iran, North Korea, Russia, border security, and climate change. It quickly became clear that when it came to global threats, Trump and his national security team had very little in common.

As regular readers may recall, that's when things got a little weird. The president's initial reaction was to mock U.S. intelligence professionals, calling them “passive,” “naïve,” and in need of additional schooling. Trump kept the offensive going, suggesting he lacked confidence in the information he received from Haspel and Coats. Soon after, the president reversed course and boasted that everyone on his team actually agrees with him, and the whole mess was the media's fault.

A year later, it's time for the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment to be released again, to be followed by another Capitol Hill hearing. Politico reported that administration officials have a plan, however, to prevent last year's fiasco from happening again.

The U.S. intelligence community is trying to persuade House and Senate lawmakers to drop the public portion of an annual briefing on the globe's greatest security threats — a move compelled by last year's session that provoked an angry outburst from President Donald Trump, multiple sources told POLITICO.

Officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, on behalf of the larger clandestine community, don't want agency chiefs to be seen on-camera as disagreeing with the president on big issues such as Iran, Russia or North Korea, according to three people familiar with preliminary negotiations over what's known as the Worldwide Threats hearing.

It's worth pausing to appreciate the absurdity of the circumstances.

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How McSally, others in GOP respond to fresh evidence against Trump

01/17/20 10:24AM

In a Capitol Hill hallway yesterday, CNN's Manu Raju asked appointed Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) if she'd consider examining fresh evidence as part of Donald Trump's impeachment trial. As you've probably heard, the Arizona Republican did not handle the question well.

"You're a liberal hack," McSally told a respected congressional journalist. "I'm not talking to you. You're a liberal hack."

Republican politics being what it is in the Trump era, McSally's office registered the domain name LiberalHack.com almost immediately after the incident. Soon after, the GOP senator asked donors to reward her outburst with campaign contributions. Last night, the Arizonan celebrated the incident on Fox News, as "You're a liberal hack, buddy" t-shirts went on sale online.

It was hardly a moment of pride for those concerned about the toxicity of our struggling political system, but the Washington Post's Greg Sargent took note of the larger context:

Trump's GOP defenders in the Senate continue to pretend that none of [the latest evidence against the president] is incriminating, and that it doesn't oblige them in the least to hear from the most direct witnesses to Trump's motives in freezing that money. Indeed, McSally was snidely brushing off a reporter who dared to ask whether, in light of all this new information, senators have any such obligation.

Quite right. McSally's over-the-top reaction was notable, but let's not lose sight of the question that sparked her outburst: will she and her Senate colleagues consider the whole truth about Trump's Ukraine scandal or not? The appointed senator's response was emblematic of a GOP that realizes the case against their party's president continues to grow stronger, and Republicans are increasingly uncomfortable with the circumstances.

Indeed, this is hardly limited to Martha McSally.

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The one underwhelming thing Trump's trade deals have in common

01/17/20 09:21AM

By most measures, Donald Trump's first meaningful trade agreement came together in September 2018, when the president signed a deal with South Korea alongside Moon Jae-in. "I'm very excited about our new trade agreement," the American president said at the time. "And this is a brand-new agreement. This is not an old one, rewritten. This is a brand-new agreement."

It was not a brand-new agreement. Negotiators tweaked and revised an existing policy, but Trump found that unsatisfying, so he hyped it in ways that defied reason.

A year and a half later, he's doing the same thing with even more enthusiasm.

On China, for example, Trump and his team tried to negotiate a sweeping new trade agreement, failed spectacularly, and settled on a modest "phase one" deal. Formalizing the agreement this week, the Republican declared, "It really just doesn't get any bigger than this."

That wasn't even close to being true. The new deal is vague, incomplete, and according to a variety of experts, "underwhelming." Politico quoted Trump confidants who "privately admit" the president is "hyping" a deal that doesn't do much.

He'll soon do the same thing with NAFTA 2.0, a.k.a. the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). The Washington Post's Catherine Rampell drove the point home nicely:

Trade was supposed to be President Trump's signature issue. He was going to get us the best, biggest, America-First-iest trade deals ever.

We're now two years into his multifront trade wars. They've fractured our international alliances, imposed tens of billions of dollars of new taxes on Americans, resulted in two expensive agricultural bailouts, multiplied farmer bankruptcies and landed the manufacturing sector in a recession.

Today, we're left to ask: Is that all there is?

She concluded that the best one can say about Trump's allegedly "historic" deals is that they won't make his unnecessary trade wars worse, which isn't exactly the basis for an impressive boast.

Heather Hurlburt recently added that Trump's trade breakthroughs are ultimately "a triumph of the trivial."

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John Cornyn, R-Texas, leaves Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's office in the Capitol on Oct. 8, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

Republicans get creative to downplay finding of Trump illegality

01/17/20 08:40AM

According to the Government Accountability Office, a non-partisan watchdog agency that conducts audits and investigations for Congress, the White House broke the law when it withheld military aid to Ukraine as part of Donald Trump's political extortion scheme. "Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law," the GAO found.

As part of its report, the agency emphasized that the executive branch can't block funds appropriated by Congress, even when legitimate policy differences drive the decision. In this sense, even if one is inclined to believe the pretextual White House argument -- Trump has a deep and abiding concern about "corruption" in Kyiv -- the administration's tactic was still illegal.

Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), currently in his 45th year on Capitol Hill, said yesterday in reference to the GAO's findings, "I have never seen such a damning report in my life.... I read it twice.... To have something saying this is such a total disrespect of the law. It's unprecedented."

Republicans didn't quite see it the same way. Indeed, the question wasn't whether Trump's GOP allies would downplay the findings; the question was how they'd dismiss the determination that Trump broke the law. Politico highlighted one of my favorites:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) went further, arguing that GAO got it wrong when the agency concluded the White House violated the Impoundment Control Act by declining to notify Congress of the delay in appropriated funds.

"I think they misunderstand the law. I think presidents withhold money all the time, move money around," Paul said. "I think there's a great deal of latitude to what presidents do. So I think they've misinterpreted the law."

Well, that's certainly one way to look at the scandal. After all, who are you going to trust to do a proper legal analysis of the Impoundment Control Act: the auditors and lawyers at the Government Accountability Office, whose job it is to make these kinds of determinations, or the legal opinions of a self-accredited ophthalmologist turned politician?

All joking aside, the Washington Post noted a slightly more substantive effort from another prominent GOP senator.

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