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Thursday's Mini-Report, 1.16.20

01/16/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* And so it begins: "Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and the nation's senators were sworn in Thursday afternoon for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump."

* Not exactly the Ukrainian investigation Trump was hoping for: "Ukrainian authorities said Thursday they had opened a criminal investigation into whether former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was under surveillance by associates of Rudy Giuliani while in Kyiv last spring."

* Trump sure does seem to have a problem with Puerto Rico: "The Trump administration imposed severe restrictions on Wednesday on billions of dollars in emergency relief to Puerto Rico, including blocking spending on the island's electrical grid and suspending its $15-an-hour minimum wage for federally funded relief work."

* A 5-4 ruling in the state of Washington: "The Washington State Supreme Court has invalidated key portions of a rule imposed by the administration of Gov. Jay Inslee capping greenhouse-gas emissions by fuel distributors, natural-gas companies and other industries."

* A story worth watching: "The FBI, in a change of policy, is committing to inform state officials if local election systems have been breached, federal officials told The Associated Press."

* Virginia: "Fearing a repeat of the deadly march by white nationalists in Charlottesville in 2017, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday declared a state of emergency and temporarily banned people from carrying guns and other weapons on the grounds of the state Capitol, where thousands of gun rights activists are expected to rally next week against stricter gun control laws."

* Republicans haven't given up on their anti-LGBTQ agenda, Part I: "Seven Republican lawmakers in Florida filed anti-LGBTQ bills late Monday, just hours before the deadline to file new bills for the coming legislative session."

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Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee walks to a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, for a meeting with UN Ambassador Susan Rice. Rice continued...

On impeachment, a step forward and a step back from Susan Collins

01/16/20 12:33PM

More than most Senate Republicans, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has been open to hearing witness testimony in Donald Trump's impeachment trial, and yesterday, the Maine Republican said she'd effectively succeeded.

As the New York Times reported, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) will, according to Collins, "include language in the Senate impeachment rules allowing a vote on whether to subpoena witnesses or new documents" during the president's trial. There's some question as to whether or not McConnell would've done this anyway, but Collins said she and some of her colleagues deserve credit.

And while that may have been a constructive step forward, Collins also appeared to take a step back yesterday afternoon.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a potential swing vote in the Senate impeachment trial, on Wednesday questioned why House Democrats have waited until now to release documents from a key witness claiming that President Trump had "knowledge and consent" of efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. [...]

Collins on Wednesday did not appear moved by a note on Ritz-Carlton stationery stating Parnas's chief objective was to ensure "the Biden case will be investigated."

"I wonder why the House did not put that into the record and it's only now being revealed," Collins told reporters when asked if the evidence changes her view on the need to hear from additional witnesses in the forthcoming trial.

The problem with this response, as the senator probably ought to know, is that the House "only now" produced this evidence because the House only recently received it: after Parnas was criminally charged in a campaign-finance case, the Justice Department seized his electronic devices.

When Parnas got his phone back, he received a court's permission to share the information with congressional investigators, which he did. Then, the House shared that same information with the public.

Collins "wonders why" these details are "only now being revealed," but there's no reason to wonder.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.16.20

01/16/20 12:00PM

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

* In a bit of a surprise, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the House Republican Conference chair, announced this morning that she'll run for re-election instead of seeking Wyoming's open U.S. Senate seat.

* Less than a month before New Hampshire's Democratic presidential primary, Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D), one of the state's two U.S. House representatives, is throwing her support behind Pete Buttigieg's campaign.

* In Wisconsin, widely seen as one of the nation's key 2020 battlegrounds, a new Marquette University Law School poll found Joe Biden leading Donald Trump in a hypothetical match-up by four points, while Bernie Sanders leads the incumbent president by one point. Trump, however, had modest leads over Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren.

* CNN released the audio late yesterday of the post-debate exchange between Warren and Sanders immediately after Tuesday night's event in Iowa.

* Missouri's Supreme Court this week issued a 5-2 ruling gutting the state's voter-ID law. As the Kansas City Star reported, "Voters can once again bring non-photo identification -- like a voter ID card, a college ID or a utility bill -- to the polls without having to sign an affidavit stating they don't have 'a form of personal identification approved for voting.'"

* Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) announced yesterday that she's taking a leave of absence from Congress for alcoholism treatment, but she nevertheless intends to run for re-election in November. Kirkpatrick represents Arizona's 2nd congressional district, which is the state's most competitive district, and which tends to lean "red."

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Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 5, 2013.

The problem with Blackburn's call for Dem recusals in Trump trial

01/16/20 11:25AM

As the Senate prepares for the start of Donald Trump's impeachment trial, first-year Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) wants to see some of her colleagues recuse themselves from the proceedings.

Is she thinking about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who publicly vowed to be in "total coordination" with the White House during the trial? No, Blackburn's fine with his participation.

Is she concerned about Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who's already bragged that he won't be "a fair juror," and who this week said he wants the Senate to "end this crap as quickly as possible"? No, Blackburn is fine with Graham's role, too.

Instead, the far-right Tennessean is pushing for the recusals of the Senate's Democratic presidential candidates.

Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, called on the four senators seeking the Democratic nomination for president to recuse themselves from the trial because of "unparalleled political interest" in removing President Trump from office.

The candidates, Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, are all expected to leave the campaign trail and take an oath to hear the case against Mr. Trump.

"To participate in this trial would be a failure of the oath they took to be an 'impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws,'" Ms. Blackburn said in a statement. "Their presidential ambitions prohibit their ability to view this trial through an objective lens."

Blackburn pushed this message on Twitter, and her missive received Donald Trump's personal endorsement, suggesting he, too, wants Bennet, Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren not to participate in the trial.

I have a hunch that's not going to happen, in large part because the argument doesn't make sense.

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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)

Federal watchdog agency: Trump broke law with Ukraine scheme

01/16/20 10:45AM

As Donald Trump's impeachment scandal has unfolded, one of the principal Republican arguments has focused on whether or not the president committed a criminal offense. This has long been an unfortune line of defense, which is suddenly quite a bit worse.

For one thing, impeachment is not dependent on statutory crimes. For another, there's fresh evidence that Trump's extortion scheme in Ukraine did, in fact, break the law.

The Trump Administration violated the law by withholding military aid to Ukraine, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a decision released Thursday.

"In the summer of 2019, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) withheld from obligation funds appropriated to the Department of Defense (DOD) for security assistance to Ukraine," the ruling said.

"Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law. OMB withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted under the Impoundment Control Act (ICA). The withholding was not a programmatic delay. Therefore, we conclude that OMB violated the ICA."

Between the GAO, OMB, and the ICA, that's a whole lot of relatively obscure three-letter acronyms, so let's take a step back and take stock of the law and this investigation.

In 1974, Congress passed a law to constrain the White House's powers when it came to funding appropriated by lawmakers. The change stemmed from a dispute between Congress and the Nixon administration over the Clean Water Act: lawmakers approved funding for wastewater treatment plants, which the Republican White House didn't want to spend.

Lawmakers responded by reclaiming some of their legal authority related to the "power of the purse."

There are some exceptions under this specific law, called the Impoundment Control Act, but none of them seems to apply to Donald Trump's decision to delay aid to Ukraine, approved by Congress, as part of an extortion scheme to get campaign dirt on a domestic rival -- a scheme the White House's Office of Management and Budget helped implement at the president's direction.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) asked the Government Accountability Office -- a non-partisan watchdog agency that conducts audits and investigations for Congress -- to determine whether the Trump administration did, in fact, break the law.

Today, the GAO responded: yes, that's precisely what happened.

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Parnas says AG Bill Barr 'had to have known everything'

01/16/20 10:00AM

When the White House released a call summary of Donald Trump's July 25 conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, it was striking to see the Republican make multiple references to Attorney General Bill Barr.

In fact, immediately after Trump brought up Joe Biden, the American president added, "Whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great.... I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call." Toward the end of the phone meeting, Trump again said, "I will tell Rudy and Attorney General Barr to call."

By some accounts, the top U.S. law enforcement official wasn't altogether pleased that the president had included him in the conversation, and he reportedly wasn't sure why Trump referenced him. But when Rachel sat down yesterday with Lev Parnas, a Rudy Giuliani associate involved with executing the Ukraine scheme, he suggested the references made sense to him.

Parnas said Attorney General William Barr was also likely aware of what was going on. Parnas said that he never spoke with Barr but that "I was involved with lots of conversations" that Giuliani and another person had with Barr in front of him.

"Mr. Barr had to have known everything. I mean, it's impossible," Parnas said. "Attorney General Barr was basically on the team."

In context, that "team" appeared to involve Victoria Toensing and Joe diGenova, two Republican attorneys perhaps best known for their frequent Fox News appearances.

Indeed, when Rachel asked Parnas whether Rudy Giuliani had ever spoken to Barr specifically about Ukraine, Parnas didn't hesitate.

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Parnas accuses Devin Nunes of being 'involved' in anti-Biden effort

01/16/20 09:23AM

As Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal has unfolded, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, is among the Republicans who've faced questions about communications with some of the scheme's key players.

It was against this backdrop that Rachel asked Lev Parnas, a Rudy Giuliani associate involved with executing the Ukraine scheme, about his associations with the controversial California congressman.

Parnas also said he met several times with U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., one of Trump's top defenders and ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, which investigated the Ukraine allegations.

Parnas said he was later referred to a Nunes aide, who was aware of what Parnas and Giuliani were doing. Parnas said the referral came because of something to do with an ethics committee, and Nunes "couldn't be in the spotlight." Parnas said he was shocked to see Nunes and the aide during the impeachment hearings....

"I was in shock when I was watching the hearings and when I saw Devin Nunes sitting up there," Parnas said, adding that he was similarly surprised to see Derek Harvey, a Nunes aide he claims to have worked with on the Ukraine scheme, on the dais during the congressional proceedings.

Parnas told Rachel, "I texted my attorney. I said, 'I can't believe this is happening.'"

Asked why he was so surprised, he added, "Because they were involved in getting all this stuff on Biden."

Parnas went on to say, in apparent reference to Nunes, "[I]t's hard to see them lie like that... It's scary because, you know, he was sitting there and making all statements and all that when he knew very well that he knew what was going on. He knew what's happening. He knows who I am."

Though Nunes' office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, the Washington Post noted that the GOP lawmaker appeared on Fox News.

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Parnas suggests VP Pence was 'in the loop' on Ukraine scandal

01/16/20 08:40AM

In early October, the Washington Post reported that Donald Trump "repeatedly involved" Vice President Mike Pence in the Ukraine scheme, including an instance in which the president "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."

Yesterday, Rachel explored this in more detail with Lev Parnas, a Rudy Giuliani associate involved with executing the Ukraine scheme, and he said he'd communicated to Ukrainian officials that Pence would not attend Zelensky's inauguration unless he agreed to announce an anti-Biden investigation.

The day after Parnas' meeting with a top Zelensky aide, Pence's trip was scrapped.

Parnas also said Vice President Mike Pence's planned trip to attend Zelenskiy's inauguration in May was canceled because the Ukrainians did not agree to the demand for an investigation of the Bidens. "Oh, I know 100 percent. It was 100 percent," he said.

Asked whether Pence was aware of a "quid pro quo" around the visit, Parnas replied by quoting Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who said during the House impeachment inquiry: "Everybody was in the loop."

Maddow said her show asked for comment from Pence and had not received a response.

It's of interest that Parnas mentioned Sondland's "in the loop" quote.

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Key figure in Ukraine scandal: Trump 'lied,' knew about scheme

01/16/20 08:00AM

Throughout the scandal that led to his impeachment, Donald Trump has tried to distance himself from the scheme that unfolded in Ukraine. The president's efforts have never been altogether credible: the White House, after all, released a call summary in which Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a political "favor" in the context of military aid.

But as details continue to come to light, the punctured walls between Trump and the scandal appear to be crumbling.

Lev Parnas, the indicted associate of Rudy Giuliani who has been implicated in an alleged attempt to pressure the Ukrainian government to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, says, "President Trump knew exactly what was going on."

"He was aware of all my movements. I wouldn't do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the president. I have no intent, I have no reason to speak to any of these officials," Parnas, who faces campaign finance charges, told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow in an interview that aired Wednesday night.

He added that top Ukrainian officials "were told to meet" with him because he was "on the ground doing [Team Trump's] work.

The message he was directed to deliver was that military aid was on the line, but so was "all aid" from the United States, including diplomatic elements, unless Zelensky and his team announced a Biden investigation.

When Rachel asked about the president's insistence that he didn't know Parnas or his associate, Igor Fruman, Parnas was unequivocal in reference Trump. "He lied," Parnas said.

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."

As for the White House's assertions that military aid to Ukraine was delayed out of concerns over corruption, Parnas said the efforts in Kyiv were actually "all about" the Bidens. He added, "[I]t was never about corruption."

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