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Monday's Mini-Report, 10.7.19

10/07/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* New subpoenas: "House Democrats on Monday issued a pair of subpoenas to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Russell Vought demanding documents and communications regarding President Donald Trump's decision to suspend U.S. aid to Ukraine."

* Yesterday's mass shooting: "Four people were killed and five others wounded after two suspects entered a bar and opened fire in Kansas City, Kansas, early Sunday, police said."

* The fact that the two sides can't agree on this basic point is emblematic of the larger diplomatic failure: "North Korea claims that its negotiations with the United States over its nuclear weapons program broke down on Saturday, although the U.S. sees it differently."

* GM strike: "With contract talks in Detroit in a critical stretch, bargainers at General Motors Co. and the United Auto Workers union clashed over competing proposals during the weekend, as they struggled to resolve the longest nationwide strike at the company in decades."

* Hmm: "President Donald Trump has ordered a substantial reduction in the staff of the National Security Council, according to five people familiar with the plans, as the White House confronts an impeachment inquiry touched off by a whistle-blower complaint related to the agency's work."

* The Scotland story isn't over: "A senior Scottish Government minister was warned of allegations that Glasgow Prestwick Airport is using taxpayers' funds to 'financially subsidize' US military aircraft at the struggling hub."

* Trump got this wrong again this afternoon: "Goldman Sachs said the cost of tariffs imposed by President Donald Trump last year against Chinese goods has fallen 'entirely' on American businesses and households, with a greater impact on consumer prices than previously expected."

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House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy prepares to speak to the media after unexpectedly dropping out of consideration to be the next Speaker of the House on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 8, 2015. (Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

GOP leader struggles with reality (again) trying to defend Trump

10/07/19 03:15PM

It's been four days since Donald Trump publicly called on China and Ukraine to go after Joe Biden, and the president's Republican allies still aren't sure what to say about it. Some argue he was kidding -- an absurd claim, under the circumstances -- while a few in the GOP have been willing to make their dissatisfaction known. Most in the party have been content to hide and say nothing.

But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) blazed his own trail, making an argument no one else has been willing to make. TPM reported:

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) made a befuddling claim on "Fox and Friends" Monday morning, arguing that President Trump actually didn't tell China to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden on live-television. [...]

During an interview on "Fox and Friends" McCarthy was asked about the emerging talking point among Republicans — that Trump was clearly just joking or trolling China when he asked the country to probe his political opponent. McCarthy not only didn't respond to whether the move was just a joke, he argued that Trump's "not saying China should investigate."

"You watch what the President said, he's not saying China should investigate," McCarthy said.

There are some elements of any political scandal that involve judgment calls and matters of subjectivity, but this isn't one of them. Four days ago, Donald Trump stood on the White House South Lawn, appeared in front of a significant group of journalists, and said, "China should start an investigation into the Bidens."

I suppose it's possible some very creative person in the House GOP leadership might make the case that there's an ever-so-subtle difference between "China should investigate" and "China should start an investigation," but I'm comfortable concluding that no fair-minded observer would ever take such an argument seriously.

What we're left with is an example of Kevin McCarthy, desperate to shield Trump from accountability, failing to familiarize himself with the most basic elements of a scandal -- for the second time in eight days.

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Trump's erratic foreign policy reduced to 'a shambles'

10/07/19 01:02PM

At an event last week, former Secretary of State Colin Powell reflected on the international landscape and concluded, "[O]ur foreign policy is a shambles right now ... and I see things happening that are hard to understand."

It was hardly an unreasonable assessment. The U.S. State Department is "deeply shaken" and "reeling," thanks in part to Donald Trump's political appointees who are politicizing the department "in ways that undermine U.S. ties to other countries." Attorney General Bill Barr, meanwhile, is endangering our relationships abroad, prompting backlashes among American allies, in pursuit of assorted conspiracy theories.

Much of the administration's foreign policy initiatives have completely unraveled, including the failed nuclear negotiations with North Korea.

And then, of course, there's Donald Trump, who's come up with a new policy in Syria.

The U.S. military has moved its forces away from the Turkish border with northern Syria, after the White House said Sunday night that Turkey would soon begin an operation in a part of northeastern Syria where it wants to resettle Syrian refugees -- and that U.S. forces wouldn't be there to help or stop them.

The U.S. has not received orders to commence a large-scale withdrawal from the region, remaining in a "wait and see" position, according to a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the situation.

In a statement issued late Sunday, the White House said Turkey would "soon be moving forward" with its "long-planned operation" in northern Syria and that the United States wouldn't be involved.

If it sounds like Trump is abandoning the Kurds just a few days after the Trump administration said the opposite, it's because that's precisely what's happening.

The president's new policy, if anyone can call it that, goes against "the recommendations of top officials in the Pentagon and the State Department," whose judgment the president tends to disregard.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.7.19

10/07/19 12:03PM

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

* Late Friday afternoon, Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign said the Vermonter was hospitalized following a heart attack in Las Vegas last week. There is no reason to believe this will derail the 78-year-old senator's presidential campaign, though he is now at home recuperating.

* The latest Fox News poll in South Carolina shows Joe Biden with a sizable lead over his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination. The results showed the former vice president with 41%, followed by Elizabeth Warren at 12% and Bernie Sanders at 10%.

* Fox News yesterday also released its latest poll out of Wisconsin, where Biden leads Warren by a much narrower margin, 28% to 22%, with Sanders not far behind with 18%. The same survey showed each of the top contenders for the Democratic nomination leading Donald Trump in Wisconsin in hypothetical match-ups, with Biden enjoying the largest advantage (nine points) and Warren enjoying the smallest lead over the president (four points).

* The Warren presidential campaign announced late last week that it has fired its national organizing director, Rich McDaniel, after an investigation into "multiple complaints regarding inappropriate behavior."

* As of this morning, it appears that Sen. Cory Booker and Tom Steyer have qualified to participate in the Democratic presidential primary debate in November, bringing the new total of participants to seven. In contrast, 12 candidates are slated to appear in next week's debate.

* Biden wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, responding to Trump's offensive against him, and it concluded, "[T]o Trump and those who facilitate his abuses of power, and all the special interests funding his attacks against me: Please know that I'm not going anywhere. You won't destroy me, and you won't destroy my family. And come November 2020, I intend to beat you like a drum."

* Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told reporters on Friday that if Warren is elected president, Power isn't ruling out the possibility of running for her seat.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks with reporters reporters after the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Aug. 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

On Trump impeachment trial, McConnell suggests the fix is in

10/07/19 11:20AM

If the U.S. House impeaches Donald Trump, as now appears likely, it would effectively serve as an indictment, which would be sent to the U.S. Senate for a trial. If "convicted" in the upper chamber by a two-thirds majority, the president would be removed from office.

There was some question in recent weeks as to whether the Republican-led Senate would even bother to consider the charges, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) acknowledged last week the process isn't altogether optional. "I would have no choice but to take it up," the Republican leader said. "How long you are on it is a different matter, but I would have no choice but to take it up based on a Senate rule on impeachment."

Those were not, however, McConnell's final thoughts on the matter. The Courier Journal in Louisville reported over the weekend on the Kentucky Republican's latest message, published to Facebook, which suggests, as far as a presidential trial is concerned, McConnell wants his supporters to know the fix is in.

"Nancy Pelosi's in the clutches of a left wing mob. They finally convinced her to impeach the president," McConnell says directly to the camera in a 17-second video. "All of you know your Constitution. The way that impeachment stops is a Senate majority with me as majority leader.

"But I need your help," he adds, standing in front of a picture of an elephant. "Please contribute before the deadline."

Two weeks ago, as the impeachment inquiry in the House was getting underway, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she wanted to be cautious about taking firm stances on the presidential scandal because she was likely to be "a juror" deciding his political fate. The Maine Republican added that she didn't want to say anything that would suggest she's "prejudging" the accused.

McConnell -- by some measures, the "jury foreman" in the upcoming process -- has decided to be far less vigilant when it comes to maintaining the integrity of the process.

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Trump suggests Romney should be 'impeached' (which is impossible)

10/07/19 10:40AM

Late last week, after Donald Trump publicly urged China to go after Joe Biden, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) was willing to do what most Republicans were not: he admonished his party's president. "By all appearances, the President's brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling," the senator wrote on Twitter.

The predictable Trump tantrum soon followed.

Trump claimed in one tweet Saturday that he had heard that there are people in Utah who regretted voting for Romney, who won an open Utah seat for U.S. Senate in 2018 with nearly 63 percent of the vote. Prior to the general election, he won the Republican primary by nearly 40 points. [...]

Trump on Saturday appeared to call for Romney's impeachment as senator, using a hashtag in all capital letters.

"He is a fool who is playing right into the hands of the Do Nothing Democrats," Trump tweeted.... Trump began his attacks on Romney earlier on Saturday with tweets in which he called Romney "a pompous 'ass' who has been fighting me from the beginning" and said Romney could have won the 2012 election if he "worked this hard on Obama."

Incidentally, a higher percentage of the electorate voted for Romney in 2012 than voted for Trump in 2016. It's also worth noting that there is no mechanism in American law that allows for the impeachment of a sitting U.S. senator -- a detail Trump might know if he had a stronger familiarity with the basics of his own country's system of government.

Nevertheless, the Washington Post noted that the president's online fury sent "a flashing signal to other Republicans that there would be consequences to speaking out against the president."

That's almost certainly true, but it's worth pausing to consider the severity of the "flashing signal." Beware, congressional Republicans, you too may be subjected to some rude tweets for a couple of days if you take a principled stand?

I don't imagine it's pleasant to be on the receiving end of a presidential fit, but it's not as if Trump's rant did any meaningful harm to Romney. So where's the disincentive for others in the GOP?

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History mandates presidential candidates release tax returns, but not how many

Trump suffers key court defeat on keeping his tax returns hidden

10/07/19 10:00AM

As of this morning, we're one step closer to seeing Donald Trump's hidden tax returns.

A federal judge Monday rejected President Donald Trump's claim that he was immune from criminal investigations as part of his bid to block a subpoena from the Manhattan district attorney seeking eight years of personal and business tax returns.

The judge, Victor Marrero, tossed the lawsuit Trump's legal team brought against District Attorney Cyrus Vance that argued Vance should not receive Trump's tax returns because "'[v]irtually all legal commenters agree' that a sitting President of the United States is not 'subject to the criminal process' while he is in office."

Because there are so many legal disputes surrounding Donald Trump's secret tax materials, it's easy to lose track of which one is which, so let's quickly review what this case is all about.

About a month ago, the Manhattan district attorney's office sent a grand jury subpoena to Trump's accounting firm, Mazars USA, to obtain his personal and corporate tax returns for the past eight years. It's part of an investigation into Trump's hush-money controversy involving pre-election payments to his alleged former mistresses, which helped put the president's former personal attorney in prison.

Prosecutors are exploring whether the president's business falsified records to obscure the purpose of Trump's payment to Stormy Daniels.

As Matt Stieb noted, "Unlike previous subpoenas, this one is in the context of a criminal investigation with a sitting grand jury, making it more difficult for the president's lawyers to dodge this filing with a lawsuit."

And yet, Trump's lawyers -- hired specifically to help keep his tax returns secret -- filed suit anyway and brought a rather bizarre argument to a federal courtroom.

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Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, talks with reporters after a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on June 26, 2018.

GOP's Trump defenses tacitly acknowledge presidential wrongdoing

10/07/19 09:20AM

About a week ago, House Minority Leader appeared on CBS' 60 Minutes with the intention of defending Donald Trump. CBS News' Scott Pelley presented the Republican leader with basic factual information: Trump told the Ukrainian president, in the context of military aid, "I would like you to do us a favor, though."

McCarthy was incredulous and accused the journalist of adding a word to the quote. Pelley explained that he was simply reading the text from the official White House call summary. The GOP leader asked, in reference to Trump, "He said, 'I'd like you to do a favor, though'"? The interviewer replied, "Yes, it's in the White House transcript."

It was a humiliating exchange for McCarthy, who apparently hadn't read the document he was there to defend, but it was also a tacit acknowledgement of wrongdoing: the Republican congressman seemed to suggest that if Trump has said, "I would like you to do us a favor, though," it'd be an inherently problematic thing for a president to have said.

A few days later, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), one of the president's most sycophantic supporters, told the Washington Examiner, "If a president just randomly was parachuting his personal attorney down into countries where he thought he could get some dirt on political opponents ... that might be questionable. That's not what this is."

Actually, that was a decent summary of what Trump did with Rudy Giuliani, dispatching him to Ukraine to dig up dirt the Republican president could use.

All of which leads us to yesterday's Sunday shows, where viewers heard Trump supporters make the case that the president was kidding when he publicly urged China to go after Joe Biden. Consider this exchange between ABC News' George Stephanopoulos and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio):

STEPHANOPOULOS: Threshold question=: Do you think it's appropriate for President Trump to ask China and Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden?

JORDAN: George, you really think he was serious about thinking that China's going to investigate the Biden family? ... I don't think anyone in America really believes -- except people maybe in the press and some Democrats in Congress really believe -- that the president of the United States thinks China is going to investigate.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) made similar comments around the same time. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also pushed the humor-related talking point on Friday.

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Image: Energy Secretary Rick Perry Delivers Remarks At Energy Policy Summit In DC

Why Trump can't blame Rick Perry for his latest scandal

10/07/19 08:40AM

When Donald Trump is in a jam, he instinctively looks for a few things. First, the president looks for allies who'll defend him without regard for his culpability. Second, he looks for fixers who'll help make the problem go away.

And third, he looks for a fall guy.

President Donald Trump told House Republicans Friday that he was urged by Energy Secretary Rick Perry to make the midsummer phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that is now at the center of House Democrats' impeachment inquiry, two sources familiar with the matter told NBC News.

Trump suggested it was a call he didn't even want to make, the sources said.

According to Axios' report, the president told GOP lawmakers, "Not a lot of people know this but, I didn't even want to make the call. The only reason I made the call was because Rick asked me to." Another source said Trump added, in reference to Perry, "[M]ore of this will be coming out in the next few days."

At a certain level, this is pretty amusing: Trump believes his call with Zelensky was perfect, appropriate, innocent, above board in every way, and should definitely be blamed on his Energy secretary.

But that's just the start of the problem. It's likely that Perry was among the administration officials who encouraged the president to reach out to his Ukrainian counterpart, but there's nothing to suggest the Texas Republican told Trump to use the phone meeting to coerce Zelensky into helping Trump's re-election campaign.

Even if Perry wrote the script for Trump -- a bizarre idea, to be sure -- it's not as if the president can credibly argue, "I only committed impeachable acts because my subordinate recommended it."

But given everything we know, even that's overly generous. We know from the call summary released by the White House that Perry's name did not come up during the Trump/Zelensky discussion, and the American president made no effort to bring up energy-related issues. Trump's effort to leverage campaign aid from Ukraine wasn't Perry's idea; it was Trump's.

But I was also interested in the idea that more information related to Perry and the scandal will be "coming out in the next few days." Is that so.

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Trump's whistleblower strategy backfires, new accuser comes forward

10/07/19 08:00AM

After an intelligence community whistleblower exposed Donald Trump's latest scandal, the president adopted a strategy featuring two main elements, one of which was less subtle than the other.

The overt part of Trump's plan was to tear down the whistleblower's credibility and discredit his or her complaint. The president seemed to convince himself that if he simply repeated the line that the complaint had been debunked, then at least some of the public might accept his bogus assertion as fact and the larger scandal would unravel.

This approach failed. The whistleblower's complaint has stood up quite well to scrutiny. In fact, when a reporter asked the president late last week if he could point to something specific in the whistleblower's complaint that was inaccurate, Trump hemmed and hawed for a while, but he couldn't answer the question directly.

But just below the surface, there was another apparent element of the strategy: Trump no doubt realized that others within the administration were aware of his wrongdoing, and he likely hoped that an aggressive and public campaign against one whistleblower might discourage others from coming forward.

If this was part of the president's plan, it failed, too.

A second whistleblower has come forward with information about President Donald Trump's call with the president of Ukraine, according to attorneys representing that whistleblower and the intelligence official whose earlier complaint set off a series of events that led to an impeachment inquiry.

The second whistleblower "has first-hand knowledge" of the events, according to the first whistleblower's attorney, Mark Zaid. The original whistleblower did not listen directly to Trump's call, but talked to people who had.

NBC News' report added that the second whistleblower "is not filing a separate formal complaint," evidently because it's unnecessary. Nevertheless, this person is "still entitled to legal protections for cooperating with the inspector general."

For his part, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is vowing to expose the whistleblowers, forcing them to testify publicly, if the U.S. House impeaches Trump, as now appears likely.

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