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Image: FBI Investigates Trump's attorney Michael Cohen

Michael Cohen, president's former attorney, sentenced to 36 months

12/12/18 12:43PM

We knew Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's former attorney and so-called "fixer," would almost certainly be headed to prison. This morning, we learned how long his sentence will be.

An emotional Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former lawyer and fixer, was sentenced Wednesday to three years after pleading guilty to nine federal charges stemming from his failure to report millions of dollars in income making secret payments to women who claimed they had affairs with Trump.

One of the charges Cohen pleaded guilty to included a separate charge, stemming from Robert Mueller's probe into Trump's potential collusion with Russia, that he lied to Congress about his dealings with a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow. [...]

Pauley sentenced Cohen to 36 months for the eight charges from the Southern District and an additional two months for the Mueller charge, which will run concurrently. The judge added a $50,000 fine and said Cohen must turn himself on March 6.

It's worth emphasizing that when looking at the list of felonies Cohen has been convicted of, two of them were committed in coordination with the sitting president of the United States -- according to Cohen and prosecutors.

Indeed, the Mueller charge referenced in the NBC News report was Cohen lying to Congress about Trump's efforts to negotiate a Trump Tower Moscow deal during the 2016 presidential campaign. Though Cohen cooperated with the special counsel's office, he nevertheless received a two-month prison sentence for his dishonesty.

I wonder if others in the president's orbit took note of this.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.12.18

12/12/18 12:00PM

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

* The scandal in North Carolina's 9th district is still growing: "McCrae Dowless, the man whose 'get-out-the-vote' activities are the center of the election fraud investigation in North Carolina, told a local political campaign volunteer that he was holding onto 800 absentee ballots, according to a new affidavit obtained by NBC News."

* On a related note, following reports of early voter data being leaked to Republicans in the district, the chair of the North Carolina Republican Party inched closer to endorsing calls for a new election.

* Julian Castro (D), the former San Antonio mayor who served as HUD secretary in the Obama administration, told the Associated Press today that he's creating a presidential exploratory committee for 2020. It looks like he'll be the first to do so.

* The party probably won't call it an "autopsy" the way they did six years ago, but Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said yesterday the RNC will take a "deep data dive" to help understand why the party struggled so badly in the 2018 midterms. The gender gap, McDaniel said, is of particular interest.

* Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) has positioned himself as one of Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) most ardent intra-party foes, and that may not be helping his career. In an interview with the NBC affiliate in Boston this week, Massachusetts state Sen. Barbara L'Italien (D) suggested she might launch a primary challenge against Moulton in two years.

* With the Senate Republican majority growing a bit next year, Senate Democratic leaders are having to shuffle some committee assignments, but they've taken steps to ensure that Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) remains on the Judiciary Committee. As the California Democrat eyes a possible 2020 presidential bid, that's a post she's reportedly eager to keep.

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Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Mike Pence

The immigration deal Trump should've taken, but didn't

12/12/18 11:20AM

The Oval Office meeting between Donald Trump and congressional Democratic leaders turned out to be far more dramatic than anyone expected, and to the extent that the president's words have any practical meaning, there was one meaningful takeaway: the Republican is now prepared to shut down the government next week over funding for a border wall.

It reminded me of the Democratic offer the president should've accepted earlier this year.

Though this doesn't come up much anymore, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) met privately with Trump at the White House in January, and the two had what was described as the "Cheeseburger Summit." After the meeting, the Democratic leader seemed optimistic that he and the president had come up with the "framework" for an immigration deal.

As we discussed at the time, the basic contours of the deal were straightforward: Schumer was willing to accept funding for a border wall in exchange for DACA protections for Dreamers.

After Trump negotiated the terms, the White House balked: Chief of Staff John Kelly called Schumer soon after to explain the plan wasn't far enough to the right for Republicans. Trump himself declared that he'd need far more in any deal, including significant cuts to legal immigration.

I'm reminded of something Slate's Jim Newell wrote back in Matrch:

[All Trump] had to do was accept a 10- to 14-year path to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States at a young age.

That deal has been on the table for more than a month now: Trump gives Democrats a path to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers; Democrats give Trump his full $25 billion wall funding request. [...]

It is confounding that Trump didn't just take the deal.

That was published nearly nine months ago. It's still confounding that Trump didn't just take the deal.

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Attendees stand during a news conference at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. (Photo by Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Facing Google's CEO, Republicans can't shake their conspiracy theories

12/12/18 10:49AM

When Google CEO Sundar Pichai agreed to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, it created an important opportunity for federal lawmakers to address a range of important issues with one of the tech industry's biggest and most important giants.

Alas, the Republican majority blew it. NBC News reported overnight:

After months of wrangling, members of Congress finally had Google CEO Sundar Pichai right where they wanted him on Tuesday -- testifying in front of a House oversight committee.

But instead of data privacy, antitrust, the abuse of market power, China or any number of other crucial topics, partisanship in the form of Republican questions about political bias at Google dominated the House Judiciary session.

It's a problem that so much of contemporary GOP politics is driven by baseless conspiracy theories. It's a bigger problem that Republicans' preoccupation with these baseless conspiracy theories ends up pushing aside real governing opportunities.

Slate  highlighted some examples of House Republicans trying to offer proof of Google discriminating against conservatives -- which turned out to be far funnier than the GOP members intended:

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel walk along a section of the recently-constructed fence at the U.S.-Mexico border on Feb. 26, 2013 in Nogales, Ariz. (Photo by John Moore/Getty)

Why Trump, even now, says he'll have Mexico pay for a border wall

12/12/18 10:05AM

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump realized voters were likely to balk at spending billions of taxpayer dollars for a giant border wall, so the Republican told them they wouldn't have to: he'd get Mexico to pay for it.

Last week, the president shifted gears a bit, downplaying the idea that Mexico would pay for a wall and instead arguing that a wall would pay for a wall.

Yesterday, during private negotiations with congressional Democratic leaders, Trump apparently returned to his original position.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told fellow Democrats after meeting with President Donald Trump Tuesday that the President renewed his campaign-era claim that Mexico will pay for his proposed border wall, CNN reported.

The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey had earlier tweeted a corroboration of the story. Politico mentioned it in a report as well. 

It's tempting to ignore obvious presidential nonsense, but given the fact that Trump may shut down much of the federal government next week over this specific dispute, it's probably worth pausing to explain what, exactly, he's trying to say.

Even Trump realizes that the government of Mexico is not going to write a multi-billion-dollar check, send it to the White House, and finance construction of a wall that Mexicans -- like most Americans -- do not want.

Rather, what the American president has in mind is a promise with very fine print.

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Image: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks during a visit to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia U.S.

'Troubling gaps' between Trump's beliefs and intel community

12/12/18 09:20AM

Initially, it seemed as if Donald Trump was only rejecting the U.S. intelligence community's findings that related to Russia. Soon, however, it became clear that the Republican president had no use for intelligence professionals' assessments on a range of other issues, too.

Trump blew off intelligence agencies' findings on Saudi Arabia. And North Korea. And Latin America. And Iran.

The Washington Post  reported yesterday that American intelligence professionals are struggling with the fact that Trump's public rhetoric contradicts the information they keep providing him.

President Trump continues to reject the judgments of U.S. spy agencies on major foreign policy fronts, creating a dynamic in which intelligence analysts frequently see troubling gaps between the president's public statements and the facts laid out for him in daily briefings on world events, current and former U.S. officials said. [...]

"There is extraordinary frustration," a U.S. intelligence official said. The CIA and other agencies continue to devote enormous "time, energy and resources" to ensuring that accurate intelligence is delivered to Trump, the official said, but his seeming imperviousness to such material often renders "all of that a waste."

It's a breathtaking dynamic, which as the Post noted, is "without precedent." American intelligence agencies continue to do everything possible to provide the president with the best possible information, and to their frustration, Donald Trump just doesn't seem to give a darn.

What was especially striking was reading about the lengths intelligence professionals are willing to go to accommodate the president's ... what's the word I'm looking for ... eccentricities.

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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP

Trump pretends his search for a chief of staff is going well (it's not)

12/12/18 08:40AM

At the end of the bizarre photo-op with Democratic leaders in the Oval Office yesterday, a reporter asked Donald Trump about his search for a new chief of staff. "A lot of people want the job," the president replied. "And I have some great people. A lot of friends of mine want it."

Soon after, in an interview with Reuters, the Republican added, "I have at least 10, 12 -- 12 people that want it badly. Everybody wants it." Trump went on to say he could announce a new chief of staff "immediately" if he wanted to.

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

Trump clearly wants the political world to believe the process is well in hand, and there's no reason anyone should see this fiasco as fresh evidence of this president's inability to complete basic tasks. But reality keeps getting in the way.

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly will remain in the job through at least Jan. 2 to ensure "a very peaceful and pragmatic transition" for his successor, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Tuesday. [...]

"He will stay on the job through January 2 at least, and I think there will be a very peaceful and pragmatic transition to the next chief of staff," she said.

So to recap, a few days ago, Trump said John Kelly would step down at the end of December. The president added that he would announce the new chief of staff in the "next day or two."

As of yesterday, Kelly is no longer stepping down at the end of December, and we should look for some kind of presidential announcement about his successor in "a week or two."

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To address the impeachment threat, Trump will first need to understand it

12/12/18 08:00AM

The scope and scale of Donald Trump's scandals are amazing. The sitting president is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation; he's already been implicated by federal prosecutors in a felony; there's speculation about the prospect of a criminal indictment once he leaves office; and leading members of Congress have already begun addressing the prospect of an impeachment process.

Trump told Reuters yesterday, however, that he's not concerned.

"It's hard to impeach somebody who hasn't done anything wrong and who's created the greatest economy in the history of our country," Trump told Reuters in an Oval Office interview.

"I'm not concerned, no. I think that the people would revolt if that happened," he said.

It's the kind of quote that deserves to be unpacked.

"It's hard to impeach somebody who hasn't done anything wrong." At face value, that's true, though Trump's alleged misdeeds haven't yet come into sharp focus. There's reason to believe the president has done all kinds of things wrong -- again, see Friday's court filing from federal prosecutors in New York -- though time will tell what Special Counsel Robert Mueller uncovers.

Trump believes he's "created the greatest economy in the history of our country." That's not even close to being true -- an economic historian he is not -- and the point suggests Trump may not fully appreciate what impeachment is all about. It's not, for example, reserved for bad and unaccomplished presidents.

The nation was in the midst of a genuine economic boom in 1998, with job growth that was considerably stronger than anything we've seen under Trump, but the Republican-led Congress impeached a Democratic president anyway. Bill Clinton wasn't in a position to present a "but things are going well" defense.

"I think that the people would revolt if that happened." The Republican president remains convinced of his broad popularity, but reality tells a very different story. Trump's national support remains quite weak, with some polls pointing to an approval rating below 40%.

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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 12.11.18

12/11/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The death toll in France: is likely to rise "Two people are dead and at least 11 injured in a shooting Tuesday night in the French city of Strasbourg, with police searching for a suspect who is on a terrorist watch list. The shooting took place around 8 p.m. near a Christmas market in the French-German border city of Strasbourg that attracts millions of tourists every year."

* The Butina case offers some surprises: "Maria Butina, the accused Russian agent of influence who built ties to the National Rifle Association and influential Republicans, has agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with federal prosecutors, according to a plea agreement obtained by NBC News."

* You've all been following the fight over the farm bill, right? "The Senate on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly [87 to 13] to approve an $867 billion farm bill, as Congress appeared poised to pass legislation that will help an agriculture industry battered by President Trump’s trade war."

* The Epstein case we've been following: "Lawyers for two of politically connected sex offender Jeffrey Epstein's victims are pushing a federal judge in Florida to finally rule on their request to void the moneyman's controversial non-prosecution deal with the feds."

* This was literally the first 51-50 judicial confirmation vote in American history, with the vice president breaking the tie: "The Senate narrowly confirmed Jonathan Kobes as a federal appeals court judge on Tuesday, brushing aside the conclusion of the American Bar Association that he was unqualified for the position. The association had cited his inability to provide sufficient writing samples that were 'reflective of complex legal analysis' or sophisticated 'knowledge of the law.'"

* Charlottesville: "A jury on Tuesday recommended life in prison plus 419 years for James Alex Fields Jr., convicted of killing Heather Heyer when he plowed his car into a group of counter-protesters last year at a 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville, Virginia."

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Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Mike Pence

After publicly bickering with Dems, Trump moves toward shutdown

12/11/18 02:24PM

Donald Trump this morning published a series of tweets about immigration, boasting that the United States' Southern border is "now secure and will stay that way." The president added that if Congress fails to finance his proposed border wall, he'll use the military to achieve his goals.

Putting aside Trump's confusion, the missives seemed to send an important signal: with 10 days remaining before the next government shutdown deadline, the president seemed to be backing away from his hardline stance. Since Trump doesn't have the votes in Congress to get what he wants, the retreat made sense.

It was, however, temporary.

President Donald Trump and Democrats Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi bickered at length on Tuesday in an explosive public meeting at the White House over the president's promised border wall and threat to shut down the government if Congress doesn't fund it.

"If we don't get what we want one way or the other...I will shut down the government," Trump said during a highly unusual fight that played out in front of the press before the official meeting began. "I am proud to shut down the government for border security.... I will take the mantle of shutting it down."

For those who haven't seen footage of similar meetings, what usually happens in normal administrations is that a president will welcome a party's congressional leaders to the Oval Office, they'll exchange some pleasantries, they'll briefly tell reporters about the topic of the day's negotiations, and then the talks will begin in earnest after journalists leave the room.

In other words, these are usually polite photo-ops. The fireworks begin once elected policymakers are alone.

As we saw this morning, however, in Trump's White House, we don't always have to wait for the drama.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Dec. 12, 2016. (Photo by Susan Walsh/AP)

GOP's McConnell switches gears on criminal justice reform bill

12/11/18 12:47PM

About a month ago, Donald Trump endorsed a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill and encouraged the Senate to advance the legislation during the lame-duck session. And then ... nothing happened.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of the leading opponents of the measure, continued to lobby aggressively against it, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) generally ignored political pressure and said there wasn't time to take up the legislation. By all appearances, that wasn't altogether true, and proponents of the bill kept trying to nudge the GOP leader into allowing a vote.

As of this morning, those efforts apparently paid off.

In a surprising move Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that he plans to bring a criminal justice reform bill to the Senate floor this month for a vote.

The Kentucky Republican made the announcement in remarks on the Senate floor, saying, "[A]t the request of the president and following improvements to the legislation that have been secured by several members, the Senate will take up the recently revised criminal justice bill this month. I intend to turn to the new text as early as the end of this week."

At issue is a measure known as the First Step Act, which is a pretty good reform proposal that easily passed the House in May. The bill is fairly modest in scope -- Vox explained that it would affect only about a tenth of the nation's prison population, targeting federal facilities exclusively -- but it includes provisions that would expand eligibility in the Fair Sentencing Act, ease mandatory-minimum sentences, and increase "credit" programs that would enable some federal inmates to earn early release.

Why would Donald "tough on crime" Trump endorse such a package? It's hard to say for sure, but my best guess is that the president has no idea what's in the bill, but he likes the idea of signing bipartisan legislation on an important national issue.

Because after nearly two years in office, Trump hasn't had many opportunities like these.

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