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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 11.13.19

11/13/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Today was not a great day for the White House: "Bill Taylor and George Kent, the first two witnesses in the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump's dealings in Ukraine, testified for more than five hours Wednesday in a public hearing that saw both men share new -- and sometimes shocking -- pieces of information."

* On a related note: "President Donald Trump on Wednesday dismissed the House's impeachment proceedings as a 'hoax' and said he was 'too busy to watch' -- and then blasted Democrats' choice of questioners at a hearing he said he hadn't been briefed on."

* Israel: "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Wednesday that Israel was prepared to hit Iran-backed Islamic Jihad militants in the Gaza Strip 'mercilessly,' while a Gaza Strip resident described conditions there as close to unbearable, saying 'we try to calm the kids but they live in fear.'"

* DHS: "Chad Wolf was sworn in Wednesday as the new acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, becoming the fifth person to hold the top job under President Trump, a period of unusually high leadership turnover at the nation's largest domestic security agency."

* I meant to mention this yesterday: "The Supreme Court has denied Remington Arms Co.'s bid to block a lawsuit filed by families of victims of the Sandy Hook school massacre. The families say Remington should be held liable, as the maker and promoter of the AR-15-style rifle used in the 2012 killings."

* In related news: "A federal judge in Washington State on Tuesday blocked the Trump administration from allowing blueprints for making plastic guns on 3-D printers to be posted on the internet, ruling that the move violated federal procedures."

* A highly provocative report about Stephen Miller: "In the lead-up to the 2016 election, White House senior adviser Stephen Miller sought to promote white nationalism, far-right extremist ideas and anti-immigrant rhetoric through the conservative website Breitbart, a report released Tuesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center claims."

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Taylor testimony further links Trump to Ukraine scandal

11/13/19 03:36PM

After many hours of closed-door depositions, and the release of hundreds of pages of transcripts, it's tempting to think the public-hearing phase of the impeachment inquiry might simply review information we already know, with witnesses who've already spoken to lawmakers.

That assumption would be wrong. Consider this NBC News from this afternoon.

A U.S. government employee overheard President Donald Trump ask Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland on the phone about "the investigations" and heard the ambassador reassure the president that the Ukrainians were "ready to move forward," a senior diplomat told Congress Wednesday in the first public impeachment hearing.

The revelation from William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, is a significant new development that emerged in a hearing that lawmakers had anticipated would largely reconstruct on television depositions that had taken place previously behind closed doors.

What Taylor described was a July 26 call -- the day after Donald Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for Biden-related assistance -- which followed a meeting between Trump administration officials and a top Zelensky aide in Ukraine.

Trump purportedly asked Sondland about "the investigations."

In response to questioning, Taylor added this morning that this was in reference to possible investigations into the Bidens, and that Sondland told the American president that the Ukrainians "were ready to move forward."

After that call, the ambassador reportedly told the staffer that Trump "cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for."

NYU's Ryan Goodman, a former special counsel at the Pentagon described these new details as a "bombshell."

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Image: Republicans the House Intelligence Committee vote to release controversial memo on Russia investigation

Devin Nunes' Trump defense fails to include much of a Trump defense

11/13/19 02:24PM

As the first public impeachment hearing got underway on Capitol Hill this morning, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) began the proceedings with a high degree of sobriety and seriousness. The California Democrat seemed eager to acknowledge the historical weight of the circumstances, which are rarely seen in the American tradition.

And when he was finished with his opening remarks, it was Rep. Devin Nunes' (R-Calif.) turn.

When we last heard from the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, the GOP lawmaker unironically criticizing Donald Trump's Democratic critics of acting "like a cult," relying on "defamation and slander," and bouncing "from one outlandish conspiracy to another."

This morning, as a Washington Post analysis noted, Nunes continued down the same unfortunate path.

Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the ranking minority-party member of the House Intelligence Committee, was the first Republican to present a defense of President Trump during the first public hearing of the House's impeachment inquiry.

For many observers, Nunes's arguments might have been somewhat confusing, relying at times on shorthand references to rhetoric popular in conservative media. To others, Nunes's introduction of the Republican case might have seemed tangential to the day's discussion.

I imagine many Americans watching were  confused, and understandably so. The far-right lawmaker's opening remarks should've been accompanied by some kind of cipher to help those unfamiliar with conservative media conspiracy theories unravel what in the world he was talking about.

The Post's analysis went point by point, highlighting the Republican's errors of fact and judgment, but what Nunes failed to even try to do was mount a credible argument about Trump's innocence.

Nunes' defense of the president, in other words, largely neglected to include any meaningful defense of the president.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.13.19

11/13/19 12:00PM

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

* The latest Monmouth poll out of Iowa shows Pete Buttigieg out in front with 22%, followed by Joe Biden at 19%, and Elizabeth Warren at 18%. Bernie Sanders was fourth in the poll with 13%.

* Though Georgia tends to be a pretty reliably red state, a new poll from the Atlanta Journal Constitution shows each of the top Democratic presidential hopefuls leading Donald Trump in hypothetical match-ups. Joe Biden, who led the president by eight points in the poll, did the best against Trump. [Update: Some legitimate questions have been raised about the quality of this poll.]

* Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who recently ended his own presidential campaign, this morning announced his support for Biden. This is the first endorsement from a former 2020 contender.

* American Bridge, a prominent Democratic group, this week launched a $3 million advertising campaign, focusing on Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Each of the ads feature individual voters who supported Trump in 2016, but who now regret it.

* Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg hasn't formally kicked off a presidential campaign, but he recently filed to participate in Alabama's primary, and yesterday, he flew to Arkansas to file the paperwork to run in its primary, too.

* Speaking of Arkansas, Josh Mahony was the Democratic candidate running against Sen. Tom Cotton (R) next year, but two hours after the filing deadline, Mahony ended his candidacy. It raises the prospect of the far-right Republican incumbent running unopposed in 2020.

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Could the government shut down during the impeachment process?

11/13/19 10:18AM

It's one of those nagging details that many would prefer not to think about, but policymakers in D.C. are facing an inflexible deadline: a week from tomorrow, current federal funding will run out. Failing to act would lead to yet another government shutdown.

The Associated Press reported yesterday that a deal appears to be in place to kick the can down the road for a month, preventing the fourth shutdown of Donald Trump's presidency.

A top House lawmaker announced Tuesday that Congress will pass a governmentwide temporary spending bill to keep the government running through Dec. 20, forestalling a government shutdown as the House turns its focus to impeachment hearings.

Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., made the announcement after meeting with Senate counterpart Richard Shelby, R-Ala., in hopes of kick-starting long-delayed efforts to find agreement on $1.4 trillion worth of agency spending bills.

The plan, at least for now, is for Congress to approve a stop-gap spending measure some time over the next week and send it to the White House for a presidential signature. It would delay the threat of another shutdown by a month.

At that point, lawmakers can return to the negotiating table, hoping to work out a larger spending package that would fund the government through the end of the fiscal year, which runs through the end of September.

In theory, this shouldn't be too difficult -- the parties are roughly on board with spending levels -- but in a familiar dynamic, congressional Republicans are pushing for billions of dollars in border barrier funds to make Donald Trump happy. As has long been the case, congressional Democrats aren't going along.

How this will be resolved is anyone's guess, but there are couple of angles worth watching as the process moves forward. The first is the likelihood that the fight over a spending package is likely to intersect with the fight over presidential impeachment. It's all but certain to create political conditions that are as volatile as they are unpredictable.

And speaking of volatility and unpredictability, the other angle of note is Donald Trump.

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A Ukrainian serviceman runs as he patrols the area in Vodyanoe village, near Mariupol, Ukraine on  Nov. 10, 2016. (Photo by Sergey Vaganov/EPA)

For some, Trump's Ukraine scheme carried a life-and-death cost

11/13/19 09:20AM

Many of the relevant details surrounding Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal may seem complex, but the core allegations of presidential wrongdoing are entirely straightforward. Former Solicitor General Neal Katyal told the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, "This is a really simple case.... A sitting president secretly tried to get a foreign government to announce an investigation into his chief political rival. In essence, Trump was using the awesome powers our Constitution gives presidents not to benefit the nation, but to benefit him personally."

Milbank added that the case against Trump can be reduced to just seven words: "He abused presidential powers for personal advantage."

Well, sure, when one puts it that way -- which is to say, accurately -- it doesn't sound great. In fact, literally everything we know suggests the president is quite guilty: there is little doubt he extorted a foreign ally to advance his interests above the nation's interests.

But David Ignatius looked at this from a slightly different angle in his latest column, noting the life-and-death cost for those on the other end of the Republican's scheme.

As the House opens public impeachment hearings into the Ukraine scandal, the bottom-line question is dead simple: Did President Trump, for political reasons, manipulate military aid to an ally in a war that has cost 13,000 lives?

When you think about the Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines of this nasty proxy battle against Russia, the debate becomes more visceral and perhaps less confusing. As Ukrainians were struggling with near-daily shellfire, Trump appeared to treat military aid appropriated by Congress as a personal political tool.

Quite right. Ukraine has been the target of Russian aggression, up to and including Russia taking a chunk of Ukraine by force. It is not an exaggeration to say Ukrainians were desperate to receive American support.

The United States committed military aid to our ally; Congress approved the aid; Ukraine was waiting for the aid; and officials throughout the U.S. government were eager to deliver the aid, knowing lives depended on it.

And then there was Donald Trump -- who saw political value in delaying the aid, indifferent to the real-world effects of his abuse.

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Trump weighs punishments for intel community's inspector general

11/13/19 08:40AM

It was three months ago yesterday when a whistleblower from the intelligence community filed a written complaint about alleged misconduct committed by Donald Trump and his team. Soon after, Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson reviewed the complaint, found it to be credible, and concluded that it was a matter of "urgent concern."

Or put another way, Atkinson, by and large, did his job. He had a responsibility to evaluate a whistleblower's complaint objectively, gauge its seriousness, and as needed, alert the House and Senate Intelligence committees. That's what Atkinson did.

It's against this backdrop that Donald Trump has reportedly discussed firing Michael Atkinson for having had the audacity to report the whistleblower's complaint, which is what the inspector general was supposed to do. The New York Times reported:

Mr. Trump first expressed his dismay about Mr. Atkinson around the time the whistle-blower's complaint became public in September. In recent weeks, he has continued to raise with aides the possibility of firing him, one of the people said.

The president has said he does not understand why Mr. Atkinson shared the complaint, which outlined how Mr. Trump asked the Ukrainian president to investigate Mr. Trump's political rivals at the same time he was withholding military aid from the country. He has said he believes Mr. Atkinson, whom he appointed in 2017, has been disloyal, one of the people said.

Mr. Trump's private complaints about Mr. Atkinson have come as he has publicly questioned his integrity and accused him of working with the Democrats to sabotage his presidency.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote on Twitter yesterday, "It's hard to imagine a clearer abuse of power than firing the Inspector General simply because he did his job and followed the law, instead of covering up accusations of wrongdoing against the President."

It's a timely reminder that in Trump's vision, public service is an amorphous concept. What matters, from the president's perspective, is service to him. Loyalty to the nation and the rule of law are nice ideas, but Trump expects and demands fealty to him and his interests -- above all other considerations.

Atkinson went largely by the book, which, naturally, the president sees as a betrayal. If the rules cut against Trump's interests, then the rules must be ignored.

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Why Dems see 'bribery' among Trump's potential offenses

11/13/19 08:00AM

Ask the typical American what the Constitution says about impeachment, and you'll likely hear a familiar phrase: "high crimes and misdemeanors." But Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution actually says a little more than that.

It reads, "The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

With this in mind, note the phrasing House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) used yesterday during an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, as the Democratic leader described Donald Trump's scheme to trade military aid to Ukraine for investigations into his political rivals.

"Bribery, first of all, as the founders understood bribery, it was not as we understand it in law today. It was much broader," Schiff said. "It connoted the breach of the public trust in a way where you're offering official acts for some personal or political reason, not in the nation's interest."

To prove bribery, Schiff said, you have to show that the president was "soliciting something of value," which Schiff thinks multiple witnesses before his committee have testified to in private.

Similarly the New York Times reported overnight that a top Democratic official said today's witnesses -- William Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a senior State Department official -- "would lay out a timeline of serious misconduct by Mr. Trump and describe how the president sought to 'bribe, extort, condition or coerce' the leader of another country."

At some level, this may seem like a debate over semantics, but don't be too quick to dismiss the significance of the nomenclature.

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