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Thursday's Mini-Report, 10.3.19

10/03/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* An important part of the impeachment probe: "Democratic and Republican lawmakers from three House committees questioned former U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker on Thursday in a closed-door deposition as part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump."

* The ongoing trade war: "American lovers of Scotch whisky, French wine and Italian cheese might have to dig deeper into their pockets after the Trump administration slapped tariffs on $7.5 billion of European consumer products."

* Keep an eye on Perry: "Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who has met on at least three occasions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, on Wednesday pledged to work with lawmakers looking into a whistleblower's allegations about President Donald Trump's communications with Zelensky."

* Brexit: "European policymakers said Thursday that a new Brexit proposal from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was unworkable, heightening the prospects of a chaotic British departure from the European Union within weeks."

* Following up on a story we kicked around this morning: "An Internal Revenue Service official has filed a whistleblower complaint reporting that he was told at least one Treasury Department political appointee attempted to improperly interfere with the annual audit of the president or vice president's tax returns, according to multiple people familiar with the document."

* Trump's Scottish enterprise: "The Trump Organization's plans for a major expansion of its flagship Scottish resort by building swaths of housing and luxury villas have been thwarted, further jeopardizing efforts by the US president's company to stem multi-million-pound losses at its most prestigious overseas property."

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Trump forgets that he has the right to remain silent

10/03/19 03:24PM

About a year ago, The Atlantic's Adam Serwer wrote, "Donald Trump can't stop telling on himself." This came to mind this morning when the president -- on camera and on the record -- used his office to encourage two foreign governments to go after one of his domestic political rivals.

It was an extraordinary moment, which increases the odds that the president will, in fact, be impeached in the not-too-distant future. But what makes Trump such a strange figure is the frequency with which he effectively confesses to wrongdoing in public.

The first hint came less than four months into his presidency, when Trump seemed to admit to NBC News' Lester Holt that he fired former FBI Director James Comey in order to derail a federal investigation -- making it seem as if the president was trying to obstruct justice.

About a year later, Trump published a tweet making the case the Justice Department shouldn't pursue corruption charges that interfere with the Republican Party's midterm election plans.

That came around the same time the president made incriminating comments on national television about his role in an illegal hush-money payment to a porn star with whom he allegedly had an extra-marital affair.

A few months later, Trump used Twitter to lobby a government agency to do a special favor for a coal plant owned by one of his campaign contributors.

In each of these instances, if an investigative journalist had uncovered a secret document exposing one of the president's schemes, it would've been front-page news. But in many instances, Trump has done reporters' jobs for them, confessing to wrongdoing in public with surprising regularity.

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Trump brazenly (and on camera) pushes for foreign campaign help

10/03/19 12:41PM

It was last Tuesday, Sept. 24, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) launched the impeachment process against Donald Trump, following revelations that he tried to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into helping his 2020 campaign. One day later, the Republican sat down with Zelensky at an event in New York.

A reporter asked the American leader, "Would you like President Zelensky to do more on Joe Biden and the investigation?" Trump replied, "No, I want him to do whatever he can."

It was hard not to do a double-take. Facing impeachment over pressuring a foreign leader to assist his political scheme, had Trump just done it again? This time, on camera?

This morning, the American president abandoned all subtlety.

President Donald Trump said Thursday the Chinese government should investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden over the latter's involvement with an investment fund that raised money in the country. [...]

Speaking to reporters outside the White House, Trump said that, "China should start an investigation into the Bidens."

So, on the one hand, Trump and his team are engaged in intense trade negotiations with China. On the other hand, Trump is now publicly calling on China to dig up dirt on one of his domestic political rivals. Indeed, within a minute of seeking Beijing's 2020 help, Trump added, "I have a lot of options on China, but if they don't do what we want, we have tremendous power."

Daniel Dale joked, "If a whistleblower had come forward to say Trump had privately told Xi he should launch an investigation into the Bidens, it'd be a huge story. That's what Trump just did publicly."

In case that weren't quite enough, during the same brief Q&A, the American president again called on Ukraine to go after the Democratic presidential hopeful. "I would say that President Zelensky, if it were me, I would recommend that they start an investigation into the Bidens."

Subtlety has been thrown out the window. Trump is now doing publicly what he's being impeached for doing privately.

At the least the cover-up phase is over: accused of privately pressing foreign officials to target an American opponent, Trump has decided to publicly press foreign officials to target an American opponent.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.3.19

10/03/19 12:00PM

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

* As Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) recovers in the hospital, NBC News noted this morning that the public doesn't yet know the details of what happened or the severity of the circumstances that led to the presidential candidate's emergency heart procedure.

* The latest national Monmouth poll found Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) leading former Vice President Joe Biden (D) in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, 28% to 25%. Sanders is third with 15%, and no other candidate topped 5% in the poll.

* The same poll found roughly 39% of registered voters believe Donald Trump deserves a second term, while 57% are ready for a new president.

* Much of the Democrats' 2020 field participated in an MSNBC policy forum yesterday on addressing gun violence. NBC published a live-blog of the event.

* The lineup and podium order for the next Democratic presidential primary debate was announced yesterday, and it will be a one-night, 12-candidate event.

* With only a month remaining ahead of Louisiana's gubernatorial race, Trump is urging his followers in the state to support either Eddie Rispone (R) or Ralph Abraham (R), one of whom is likely to advance to a probable runoff against incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards (D).

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Allied leader subtly presses Trump to preserve American democracy

10/03/19 11:20AM

Sauli Niinisto, the president of Finland, was exceedingly polite during his interactions with Donald Trump yesterday, even as the Republican struggled to keep his emotions in check. But the Finnish leader also took advantage of the opportunity to make some subtle points his American counterpart may have missed.

"We all know Europe needs USA," Niinisto said at a joint White House press conference. "But I say that USA needs also Europe. We know the price of everything. We should recognize also the value of everything."

As Fred Kaplan noted, the comments seemed to be a reference to "a well-known line from Oscar Wilde's play Lady Windemere's Fan, in which Lord Darlington defines a cynic as 'a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.' It seemed pretty clear that the Finnish president was calling his American counterpart a cynic."

The Finnish leader also said at the same event:

"Ladies and gentlemen, before meeting, I had some spare time, so I visited a couple of museums here -- Museum of American History, Museum of American African History, and Museum of American Indian History. And in addition to that, I had a possibility of attending ceremony in Arlington.

"Mr. President, you have here a great democracy. Keep it going on."

Toward the end of the press conference, Niinisto added, "I'm impressed what American people have gained during these decades -- a hundred-so years -- building up very impressive democracy. So, keep it going on."

I don't know the Finnish president and I won't pretend to have any special insights into his point of view. But under the circumstances, as Niinisto repeated his message for emphasis, it seemed as if he were somewhat concerned about the future of the American experiment.

Those who have unreserved confidence about the endurance of a political society don't generally feel the need to urge its leaders to take care to preserve it.

Trump, however, lacks the ability to appreciate the subtext.

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The White House is seen under dark rain clouds in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty)

The other whistleblower controversy dogging Team Trump

10/03/19 10:54AM

Rachel sat down with Stephen Colbert this week, and the host asked about other major stories of note that the public isn't necessarily hearing about because of the focus on Donald Trump's impeachment crisis. Their exchange reminded me that I hadn't yet written about a story I've been meaning to mention.

MADDOW: There's another whistleblower.

COLBERT: Whaaa? What is this other whistleblower?

MADDOW: The intelligence community whistleblower who came forward that led to this impeachment scandal is one thing. Just before that, we got very quiet word in a court filing -- that nobody put out a press release about -- from the Ways and Means Committee that said, "By the way, we've had a whistleblower come forward to say there's been improper influence by the administration on the handling of President Trump's tax returns at the IRS." So that's the other whistleblower. We don't know what's going to happen with that.

COLBERT: That is a whistle I would like to listen to.

This isn't a story that's generated a lot of attention, at least not yet, but it has quite a bit of potential.

The Internal Revenue Service is responsible for conducting an annual audit of the president's tax returns -- a post-Watergate reform that's applied to every modern president -- which ordinarily wouldn't be especially notable.

But as the Washington Post's Catherine Rampell noted in a column this week, according to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), an anonymous whistleblower over the summer offered credible allegations of "evidence of possible misconduct," specifically "inappropriate efforts to influence" the audit of Trump's materials.

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Trump targets Schiff with strange new conspiracy theory

10/03/19 10:08AM

The headline on the New York Times piece yesterday had a vaguely sinister tone: "Schiff Got Early Account of Accusations as Whistle-Blower's Concerns Grew." Those who read the article, however, learned of a series of events featuring officials who went strictly by the book.

The intelligence community's whistleblower, aware of Donald Trump's alleged misconduct, approached the House Intelligence Committee seeking guidance. A committee aide encouraged the whistleblower to get legal counsel and share the concerns with the intelligence community's inspector general. The congressional aide alerted House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calf.) to what transpired, but the congressman didn't see the complaint or know the whistleblower's identity.

In other words, Schiff's aide directed the whistleblower to follow the law. The process moved forward the way it was supposed to.

And yet, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who appeared eager to promote the New York Times article without having read it, insisted yesterday that Schiff "just got caught orchestrating with the whistleblower." That's obviously not at all what happened, and it was curious to see the top House Republican screw this up so badly.

But it was Donald Trump who took this mistake to hysterical depths.

"Well, I think it's a scandal that [Schiff] knew before. I'd go a step further: I think he's probably helped write it. Okay? That's what the word is."

The president went on to again accuse the House Intelligence Committee chairman of being a criminal who committed treason.

I mention all of this, not because Trump's conspiracy theory is interesting, but because of the larger context. It was the president's love of ridiculous conspiracy theories that helped get him into trouble in the first place, pushing him to the brink of impeachment. If the Republican were better able to demonstrate critical thinking skills, separating fact from nonsense, he'd be in a vastly better position.

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Trump threatens new lawsuits (which will likely never come)

10/03/19 09:20AM

Rudy Giuliani told a national television audience this week that he'd consider filing a lawsuit against members of Congress for daring to investigate Donald Trump's scandals. The whole pitch was bizarre, but the former mayor apparently believes the courts might help shield the president from congressional oversight, Constitution be damned.

As foolish as this sounded, Giuliani's friend in the Oval Office has some ridiculous litigation of his own in mind. Consider Trump's remarks yesterday during a White House press conference alongside Sauli Niinisto, the president of Finland.

"And just so you know, we've been investigating, on a personal basis -- through Rudy and others, lawyers -- corruption in the 2016 election. We've been investigating corruption, because I probably will -- I was going to definitely -- but I probably will be bringing a lot of litigation against a lot of people having to do with the corrupt investigation, having to do with the 2016 election.

"And I have every right to do that.... I've been talking about it from the standpoint of bringing a major lawsuit, and I've been talking about it for a long time."

So let me see if I have this straight. The sitting American president and his strange personal lawyer have launched an investigation "on a personal basis" into unsubstantiated conspiracy theories surrounding the election he won. The result will "probably" be eventual lawsuits, filed by Trump, targeting unnamed foes.

It's all plainly ridiculous, but it's also emblematic of a larger pattern: when the president is rattled, he likes to threaten lawsuits that will never materialize in reality.

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Despite 'stable genius' boast, Trump unravels under pressure

10/03/19 08:42AM

When leaders are under pressure, the nature of their character comes to the fore. Are they made of sterner stuff? Do they wilt in the heat? Do they have the capacity to persevere in the face of adversity?

Americans are getting a good look at what Donald Trump is made of. The emerging picture is one of a man who doesn't appreciate getting caught, and who's ill-equipped to handle the pressures of a job he's never fully understood.

Aaron Blake's assessment yesterday afternoon rang true:

The idea that President Trump has finally gone over the edge is an overwrought journalistic genre. Oftentimes, people simply forget all that has come before when they declare him to be particularly unwieldy or off the rails at a particular moment. And his opponents are far too anxious to find examples of Trump finally reaching a threshold that suggests he has completely thrown caution to the wind and may be just giving up.

All of that said, it has been some week for Trump -- even by his standards.

Yesterday, in particular, was a difficult day for the flailing president. It began with a series of hysterical tweets, one of which included all-caps profanity.

It was soon followed by an Oval Office appearance alongside Sauli Niinisto, the president of Finland, who appeared stoic as Trump accused a congressional leader of treason, pointed to alleged spies in the White House, and labeled his country's journalists "truly the enemy of the people."

The Republican also whined at great length about the Washington Post while responding to an article he didn't like in the New York Times. He was, by all appearances, confused.

Two hours later, Trump and Niinisto held a press conference in which Trump appeared to completely unravel, offering what one reporter described as "a roller coaster display of the grievances, victimhood, falsehoods and braggadocio."

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Report implicates VP Pence in intensifying Trump scandal

10/03/19 08:00AM

The scandal that's likely to lead to Donald Trump's impeachment involves a striking cast of characters. In addition to the president himself, there's a growing list of questions involving Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General Bill Barr, among others, and those questions need answers.

But don't forget about Vice President Mike Pence. The Washington Post reported overnight:

President Trump repeatedly involved Vice President Pence in efforts to exert pressure on the leader of Ukraine at a time when the president was using other channels to solicit information that he hoped would be damaging to a Democratic rival, current and former U.S. officials said.

Trump instructed Pence not to attend the inauguration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in May — an event White House officials had pushed to put on the vice president's calendar — when Ukraine's new leader was seeking recognition and support from Washington, the officials said.

Months later, the president used Pence to tell Zelensky that U.S. aid was still being withheld while demanding more aggressive action on corruption, officials said. At that time — following Trump's July 25 phone call with Zelenksy — the Ukrainians probably understood action on corruption to include the investigation of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

The timeline of events paints an exceedingly unflattering picture. We know that Trump personally intervened to delay U.S. aid to Ukraine, which was desperate for the American assistance. We also know that Trump soon after had a telephone meeting with Zelenksy in which the Ukrainian leader stressed the significance of the aid package, only to hear his American counterpart say in response, "I would like you to do us a favor, though."

Trump's wish list included, among other things, Ukraine taking law-enforcement action to undermine Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 election.

We now also know that in the wake of that conversation, it was Mike Pence who spoke with Zelenksy in person, reiterating Trump's expectations.

That's not a great position for the vice president to find himself in. Trump's actions are likely to lead to his impeachment, and it now appears Pence may have done something quite similar.

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