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Monday's Mini-Report, 10.14.19

10/14/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Chaos in northern Syria: "The U.S. military this weekend accelerated its plans to fully withdraw from Syria as Turkish forces continued their advance in the country's north and reports of human rights atrocities emerged."

* On a related note: "President Donald Trump said Monday he plans to sanction Turkey amid sustained criticism from Republican lawmakers over his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria to make way for a Turkish operation."

* Impeachment inquiry: "Fiona Hill, a former top National Security Council expert on Russia, was testifying to Congress behind closed doors Monday, the latest former Trump administration official to be subpoenaed as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump."

* In related news: "Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said he was kicked out of this morning's deposition of Fiona Hill by House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff. Gaetz is not on any of the three committees conducting the impeachment investigation — Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight."

* Texas: "The Fort Worth, Texas, police officer who fatally shot a woman while she was babysitting her nephew over the weekend resigned Monday, hours before the police department was going to fire him."

* Nauseating: "A violent video showing a likeness of President Donald Trump shooting, stabbing and brutally assaulting members of the news media and political opponents prompted calls Monday for the White House to denounce the footage."

* I guess Trump saw something on television about this? "President Donald Trump used Twitter on Saturday morning to come to the defense of an army officer charged with murder and said the man's case was now under review at the White House."

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In this file photo taken on June 29, 2019 (front L-R) Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, advisor to the US President Ivanka Trump, US President Donald Trump and Indonesia's President Joko Widodo attend an event on women's empowerment during the G20 Summit

Why exactly would Donald Trump have Ivanka talk to world leaders?

10/14/19 02:39PM

The Associated Press had an interesting report over the weekend on Donald Trump's infamous July phone meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the contents of which are now the basis for an impeachment inquiry. But in the same article, the AP offered some notable behind-the-scenes details on the ways in which the White House prepares -- or least tries to prepare -- for these calls.

For example, there's apparently a problem with Trump's complete disinterest in preparing for important discussions.

One individual with firsthand knowledge of how the Trump calls with foreign leaders are handled said the president "hates" such "pre-briefs" and frequently has refused to do them. Trump doesn't like written background materials either. [...]

The person said a six-page pre-brief with attachments was once prepared for Trump before a call to a foreign leader. But that turned out to be too long, as did a single-page version. Preparing pre-brief note cards that offered about three talking points for Trump to make on a call was the norm.

This is, of course, unsettling, though it's also consistent with everything we've learned about the president's process. Trump can’t even be bothered to read his daily presidential intelligence briefing. Some aides have routinely found that “even a single page of bullet points” is too taxing for the president's limited attention span. A Trump confidant said a couple of years ago, “I call the president the two-minute man. The president has patience for a half-page.”

The AP article went on to note that Trump has a habit of taking his note cards and ripping them up after his conversations. Since the Presidential Records Act still exists, White House aides have to "put the papers out on a table and tape them back together to preserve them as official presidential records." This, too, is consistent with what we've heard before.

This tidbit from the AP report, however, was new to me: "Occasionally, while on the phone with foreign heads of state, Trump has handed the receiver to his daughter, Ivanka Trump, so she can talk with the leader."


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AG Barr blames 'moral upheaval' on conspiring US secularists

10/14/19 12:49PM

There's some disagreement among religious scholars over the phases of the Great Awakening, which are periods of Christian revival that began in the early 18th century. But according to Donald Trump, he may be responsible for helping usher in the latest phase.

"I was called by the great pastors of this country in a call about a week ago," the president told Fox News' Jeanine Pirro over the weekend, "and they said they have never seen electricity in the air, enthusiasm in the air. Churches are joining. People are joining the church." Trump added this Christian revival is the result of "everybody" knowing that "the Russian witch hunt was a faux, phony fraud. And we got rid of that. And then they came up with this Ukrainian story that was made up by Adam Schiff."

Evidently, this politically inspired Great Awakening is necessary, at least according to Attorney General William Barr, who spoke a day earlier at Notre Dame's law school and condemned societal ills on conspiring American secularists.

"We see the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism," he said. "Basically every measure of this social pathology continues to gain ground."

He described several social issues as "consequences of this moral upheaval."

"Along with the wreckage of the family, we are seeing record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence and a deadly drug epidemic."

Bill Barr, with a conspiratorial flare, added, "This is not decay. This is organized destruction. Secularists and their allies have marshaled all the forces of mass communication, popular culture, the entertainment industry and academia, in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values."

I can appreciate the fact that Barr is "neck-deep" in the scandal that's likely to lead to the president's impeachment, and perhaps his bizarre tirade against non-religious Americans was intended to solidify Team Trump's support among Christian conservatives.

But that's not much of an excuse for the attorney general's offensive speech.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.14.19

10/14/19 12:00PM

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

* As expected, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) came out on top in the first round of balloting in the state's gubernatorial race, but his 47% wasn't enough to prevent a runoff. The incumbent will face millionaire novice Eddie Rispone (R), who received 27% support in the multi-candidate contest.

* Donald Trump, who headlined a rally in Louisiana late last week, said he pushed John Bel Edwards' support from 66% to 47%. There is literally no evidence to support this -- pre-election polls were surprisingly accurate -- and the president has an unfortunate habit of touting made-up numbers.

* After Facebook refused to take down a Trump campaign ad with demonstrably false claims, Elizabeth Warren launched an ad of her own with deliberately false information -- about Facebook.

* On a related note, the social-media giant responded by noting that broadcast stations have aired the same dishonest Trump ad. It opens an interesting door: broadcast stations are regulated by the FCC, while Facebook isn't regulated by government agency.

* Beto O'Rourke's campaign announced on Friday afternoon that it raised $4.5 million in the third quarter, which is an improvement on the second quarter. That said, nearly all of the top Democratic contenders had better July-to-September hauls.

* On a related note, O'Rourke said at CNN's LGBTQ town-hall event last week that he believes houses of worship should probably lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose marriage equality. That's almost certainly not a legally sound approach.

* Bernie Sanders noted in an ABC News interview, which aired yesterday, that there's an important difference between his vision and Elizabeth Warren's. "Elizabeth, I think, as you know, has said that she is a capitalist through her bones," the Vermont independent said. "I'm not."

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Image: Donald Trump,Melania Trump

Trump's curious defense for deploying more troops to Saudi Arabia

10/14/19 11:20AM

In the face of widespread condemnations and evidence of horrific failure, Donald Trump has tried to defend his new policy in Syria by stressing a specific principle: the president is desperate to bring U.S. troops home. "The same people who got us into the Middle East mess are the people who most want to stay there!" the Republican wrote on Twitter this morning.

It was against this backdrop, however, that the Trump administration announced on Friday afternoon that it's sending 2,800 more American troops to Saudi Arabia.

During a brief Q&A with reporters, the president faced the obvious question: "Mr. President, why are you sending more troops to Saudi Arabia when you just said it's a mistake to be in the Middle East?" After acknowledging that he is, in fact, deploying more American troops to Saudi Arabia, Trump explained his thinking on the matter:

"The relationship has been very good. And they buy hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of merchandise from us, not only military equipment. In military equipment, about $110 billion. It's millions of jobs.

"Now, with that being said, we are sending troops and other things to the Middle East to help Saudi Arabia. But are you ready? Saudi Arabia, at my request, has agreed to pay us for everything we're doing. That's a first. But Saudi Arabia -- and other countries, too, now -- but Saudi Arabia has agreed to pay us for everything we're doing to help them. And we appreciate that."

For the record, Trump has been exaggerating -- at times, hilariously -- the scope and scale of arms deals with Riyadh for quite a while. His rhetoric on the subject is literally unbelievable.

But in this case, that's not the most interesting part. Did the president mean to say that we're sending thousands of troops to the Middle East because Saudi Arabia "has agreed to pay us"?

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As the scandal intensifies, Team Trump turns to Jedi mind tricks

10/14/19 10:44AM

As Donald Trump's impeachment becomes even more likely, the president and his allies have been even more eager than usual to concoct an alternate reality they expect the public to take seriously. In this version of reality, adjacent to our own, the intelligence community's whistleblower has been completely discredited.

That's plainly false, of course, as the White House and its cohorts know, though the truth has been deemed secondary. It's why Trump is also throwing around all kinds of related nonsense about Joe Biden, Adam Schiff, and what the president sees as Russia's purported innocence in its 2016 attack on our elections.

Trump and his team seem to realize a reality-based approach wouldn't work, and the result is an avalanche of claims that crumble under scrutiny.

But perhaps no claim is more important than Team Trump's assertions about Trump's July phone meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Consider this exchange between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and The Tennessean's Joel Ebert on Friday:

Q: Two days ago, Wednesday, PBS did an interview with you, and you said the phone call was "wholly appropriate" in your mind. Why do you think it's appropriate for the President of the United States to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political opponent?

POMPEO: Well, that's not what he did.

Q: What did he do, in your mind?

POMPEO: He was having a conversation with the new president of Ukraine to talk about our relationship broadly and how we were going to move forward together.... I think the only ones who think Zelensky was pressured are a handful of folks in the media and a bunch of folks on Capitol Hill, the Democratic Party, who are trying to take down this President.

A couple of days earlier, a reporter asked Vice President Mike Pence, "The president himself has said he wants a foreign country to investigate his rival. Is that okay with you?" Pence replied, "I don't believe that's the case."

Trump, meanwhile, has spent a ridiculous amount of time describing his call with Zelensky as "perfect" and completely uncontroversial.

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Trump explains his indifference to recent defeats in court

10/14/19 10:02AM

On a variety of fronts, the federal judiciary has been a nagging thorn in Donald Trump's side. The president's Census scheme, for example, was blocked in the courts. So was his family-separation policy. And his DACA scheme.

And it's not just his policy agenda that's suffered. The Republican's emoluments controversy persists in the courts, as does his struggling effort to hide his tax returns indefinitely.

On Friday afternoon, Trump suffered a series of embarrassing legal setbacks, including defeats in cases related to his border barriers and his so-called "public charge" rule, among other things But what struck me as notable was the president's response when a reporter asked him on Friday afternoon about the court losses, some of which he said he hadn't yet heard about. Trump expressed confidence that his positions would ultimately prevail and explained why:

"I've had a great track record. And right now, within a couple of weeks, we will have 160 judges. And within a couple of months, we'll have 182 federal judges. And we are breaking records like nobody has ever seen in that regard, as you know."

In other words, as Trump sees it, his recent court defeats are merely temporary. Soon, even more of his judges will be on the bench, at which point the courts will rule in his favor and give him what he wants.

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More GOP senators struggle with basic Trump scandal questions

10/14/19 09:20AM

CBS News' Margaret Brennan asked Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) yesterday whether it's appropriate for Donald Trump to urge foreign countries to go after one of his domestic rivals. "Look, of course not," the Texas Republican replied. "Elections in the U.S. should be decided by Americans and it's not the business of foreign countries, any foreign countries, to be interfering in our elections."

Cruz added, "Listen, foreign countries should stay out of American elections. That's true for Russia. That's true for Ukraine. That's true for China. That's true for all of them. It should be the American people deciding elections."

This, of course, was the correct answer. It's also the one some of his Republican colleagues -- most notably Iowa's Joni Ernst and Colorado's Cory Gardner -- refused to offer, afraid to take a stand on principle.

But as it turns out, they aren't the only ones struggling. After some unhelpful exchanges, CNN's Jake Tapper yesterday asked Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), "Are you really not capable of answering a question about whether or not it's acceptable for a president to ask a foreign rival to investigate his political rivals, to ask a foreign nation to investigate his political rivals without bringing up Hunter Biden?" Cramer wouldn't respond directly.

But even more striking was an exchange late last week between Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Boise State Public Radio about the White House scandal.

"I'm not going there. If you want to have an interview with me about the business center, please do so," Risch said, before turning and walking away.

"Don't do that again," he said.

So, at a public event, a journalist isn't supposed to ask the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about an ongoing scandal involving U.S. foreign policy? Is that the point we've reached?

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Ambassador poised to undercut Trump's defense in Ukraine scandal

10/14/19 08:40AM

Recently disclosed text messages put Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal in a new and unflattering light, bringing the nature of the quid pro quo into sharp focus. One message showed Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, asking U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, "Are we now saying that security assistance and [a White House] meeting are conditioned on investigations?"

In a subsequent message, Taylor added, "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."

Nearly five hours after that text was sent, Sondland -- a Republican megadonor with no experience in diplomacy or foreign policy -- replied, "Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo's of any kind."

It was a difficult message to accept at face value, since common sense suggests it was written as a cover story. But for the White House, Sondland's text effectively negates the controversy. As the story goes, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, tackling policy in Ukraine for reasons unknown, exonerated his boss with his online message.

Except, it's not quite that simple, as Sondland is poised to tell lawmakers when he appears on Capitol Hill this week.

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland will testify to Congress [on Thursday] that he did not know why United States military assistance to Ukraine was held up nor who ordered it, according to a person with knowledge of Sondland's testimony before the House next week.

Sondland will say that he "relied on the president's assurances in good faith and passed these along" when he texted Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor that there was no quid pro quo with Ukraine, the person said. President Donald Trump has urged Ukraine to investigate the son of political rival Joe Biden.

To put this in some rough chronological order, Bill Taylor, a career official, effectively told Sondland, "This sure seems wrong." At that point, Sondland talked to Trump, and the president effectively said, "I'm not doing anything wrong," which Sondland then texted back to Taylor.

The trouble, we now know, is that Sondland was simply taking Trump's word for it -- and given the president's capacity for staggering dishonesty, and everything we now know about this scandal, that was probably unwise.

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Lawyer and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani at a press conference after appearing in court to call for the dismissal of a lawsuit filed against video game giant Activision in Los Angeles, Calif., Oct. 16, 2014. (Photo by Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Facing possible criminal probe, Giuliani does himself no favors

10/14/19 08:00AM

Over the last several days, CNN, Bloomberg News, and ABC News have each run reports on Rudy Giuliani facing possible criminal scrutiny for his role in Donald Trump's Ukraine scheme, and over the weekend, the New York Times advanced the story a bit more.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating whether President Trump's personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani broke lobbying laws in his dealings in Ukraine, according to two people familiar with the inquiry.

The investigators are examining Mr. Giuliani's efforts to undermine the American ambassador to Ukraine, Marie L. Yovanovitch, one of the people said. She was recalled in the spring as part of Mr. Trump's broader campaign to pressure Ukraine into helping his political prospects.

All of this, of course, comes on the heels of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two highly controversial Giuliani associates, being taken into federal custody last week, following their alleged illegal campaign contributions, which went to officials whose help they sought in removing Yovanovitch from her post as the U.S. ambassador.

Giuliani has already acknowledged working with Parnas and Fruman on the scheme to target Yovanovitch, but he told the Times it wasn't illegal: the president's lawyer argued that he was acting on Trump's behalf "when he collected the information on Ms. Yovanovitch and the others and relayed it to the American government and the news media."

He added in an interview with Foreign Policy on Friday, in reference to the American ambassador he targeted, "There was no secret campaign against her. It was an open campaign against her."

These are curious things for the former mayor to admit on the record.

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