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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 10.15.19

10/15/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A dramatically altered landscape: "Analysts said it was clear that Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin were emerging as the winners of the geopolitical puzzle, and the Kurds and the U.S. as the losers. It also looks like ISIS will benefit too and may be able to resurge as stability eludes the region."

* In related news: "The Turkish military incursion into northeast Syria is compounding an already dire humanitarian situation and forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes, according to human rights monitors. According to U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at least 160,000 civilians have been displaced since the Turkish offensive began on Oct. 9."

* Trump has a habit of trying to put out the fires he starts: "President Donald Trump on Monday ordered new sanctions on 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 testimony: "George P. Kent, a senior State Department official in charge of Ukraine policy, on Tuesday became the latest high-ranking witness to be questioned behind closed doors by House impeachment investigators, facing questions about his knowledge of the widening Ukraine scandal."

* Rudy Giuliani: "Rudolph W. Giuliani's attorney informed Congress Tuesday that the former mayor will not comply with the House's subpoena as part of its impeachment probe." The former mayor's lawyer added that Giuliani considers the impeachment inquiry "unconstitutional, baseless, and illegitimate."

* This hardly seems unreasonable: "A senior House Democrat has asked the Transportation Department's internal watchdog to investigate whether Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao showed undue favoritism to Kentucky constituents of her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell."

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Testimony in impeachment inquiry makes matters worse for Trump

10/15/19 04:40PM

Late last week Marie Yovanovitch, a 33-year veteran of the U.S. State Department, appeared on Capitol Hill to testify before lawmakers in the impeachment inquiry. And while we don't know exactly what was said during her nine hours of Q&A, we have a pretty good sense of what Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, brought to the table.

After the White House and the State Department tried to block her, Yovanovitch honored a congressional subpoena, and explained to lawmakers that she was removed from her post after a campaign against her was organized by Rudy Giuliani and his suspected criminal associates -- not because Yovanovitch had done a bad job, but rather, by some accounts, because she stood in the way of Giuliani's political scheme.

Indeed, Yovanovitch reportedly testified that Donald Trump was directly and personally involved in her ouster from her ambassadorial post in Kiev, despite having been asked two months earlier to extend her term into 2020.

It was, by all accounts, a dramatic hearing held behind closed doors, which helped set the stage for another round of dramatic testimony yesterday from Fiona Hill, the former top adviser in Trump's White House on U.S. policy toward Russia and Ukraine, who had high praise for Yovanovitch, and who shared with lawmakers some striking details.

Then-national security adviser John Bolton was so disturbed by the efforts to get the Ukrainians to investigate President Donald Trump's political opponents that he called it a "drug deal," former White House official Fiona Hill reportedly told Congress on Monday.

Hill, the former top Europe expert in Trump's White House, testified that Bolton told her over the summer that he wanted no part of the effort, which he said involved acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, a person in the room for Hill's testimony told NBC News.

Bolton also was said to have referred to Rudy Giuliani as a "hand grenade."

It's worth pausing to appreciate a political dynamic in which John Bolton, of all people, may have been the voice of reason.

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Trump's foreign policy reaches the 'collapsing into catastrophe' stage

10/15/19 03:22PM

U.S. military forces in northern Syria helped maintain a degree of stability in the area, though it was fragile and disrupted almost immediately after Donald Trump announced withdrawal of American troops. The Republican president ignored the advice of his foreign policy and national security teams, and he saw no need to consult with anyone -- other than Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who encouraged Trump to make the drastic and dangerous move.

As the White House struggled in recent days to come to terms with the consequences of the president's decision, a senior administration official conceded to the Washington Post on Sunday, "This is total chaos."

It's important to understand the scope and scale of that chaos, because we're not just talking about an inept White House, unsure what to do in response to quickly changing circumstances. We're also dealing with a national security crisis, a diplomatic crisis, and an American foreign policy that, as Rachel put it on the show last night, is "collapsing into catastrophe."

On the ground in Syria, for example, our Kurdish allies, abandoned by Trump and confronting a brutal massacre, have now allied with Russia and Syria's Assad regime, largely because they needed a reliable ally and could no longer count on the United States. The Kurds, of course, were fighting ISIS, but that's no longer the case because Trump effectively cleared the way for Turkey to launch a brutal offensive against the Kurds. ISIS, naturally, is delighted.

American troops, meanwhile, have reportedly been "bracketed" by Turkish artillery fire, which (a) puts those American troops at risk; (b) means an ostensible NATO ally is firing on our military servicemen and women; and (c) potentially leaves those Americans stuck in a highly volatile area, since Turkish forces control the nearby roads. By some accounts, an airlift may be necessary.

The New York Times reported on the speed with which calamitous conditions unfolded.

President Trump's acquiescence to Turkey's move to send troops deep inside Syrian territory has in only one week's time turned into a bloody carnage, forced the abandonment of a successful five-year-long American project to keep the peace on a volatile border, and given an unanticipated victory to four American adversaries: Russia, Iran, the Syrian government and the Islamic State.

Rarely has a presidential decision resulted so immediately in what his own party leaders have described as disastrous consequences for American allies and interests.... [T]his much already is clear: Mr. Trump ignored months of warnings from his advisers about what calamities likely would ensue if he followed his instincts to pull back from Syria and abandon America's longtime allies, the Kurds. He had no Plan B, other than to leave. The only surprise is how swiftly it all collapsed around the president and his depleted, inexperienced foreign policy team.

The same Times article noted that U.S. officials have been "quietly reviewing plans for evacuating roughly 50 tactical nuclear weapons" that we've long stored in Turkey -- which wasn't cause for concern until Turkey started firing artillery rounds at American troops.

Some international crises can be blamed on multiple figures. This one rests almost entirely on Donald Trump's shoulders.

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Prosecutors reportedly take an interest in Rudy Giuliani's finances

10/15/19 12:59PM

There have been quite a few reports over the last several days about a possible criminal investigation into Donald Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, following the incarceration of the president's first personal attorney, Michael Cohen. As Rachel noted on last night's show, the Wall Street Journal's latest reporting on the scrutiny advances our understanding quite a bit.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are examining Rudy Giuliani's business dealings in Ukraine, including his finances, meetings and work for a city mayor there, according to people familiar with the matter.

Investigators also have examined Mr. Giuliani's bank records, according to the people.

Witnesses have been questioned about Mr. Giuliani since at least August by investigators, who also want to know more about Mr. Giuliani's role in an alleged conspiracy involving two of his business associates, the people said.

Those two associates, of course, are Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were taken into federal custody last week, following their alleged effort to funnel illegal Russian campaign contributions, which went to officials whose help they sought in removing Marie Yovanovitch from her post as the U.S. ambassador in Ukraine.

As for why prosecutors may be interested in Giuliani's bank records and business dealings in Ukraine, that's where the story gets a little tricky.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.15.19

10/15/19 12:00PM

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

* The latest national Quinnipiac poll found Elizabeth Warren leading Joe Biden in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, 30% to 27%. Bernie Sanders is third with 11% -- down six points since the last Quinnipiac survey -- while Pete Buttigieg was fourth with 8%. Kamala Harris, who had 4% support in the poll, was the only other candidate above 2%.

* Brad Parscale, Donald Trump's campaign manager, yesterday described the U.S. House's impeachment inquiry as being "a seditious conspiracy to overthrow the people's president." He added that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is "attempting to overthrow our great Republic." Parscale did not appear to be kidding.

* The New York Times published quite a report on the planned voter purge in Ohio's Republican-led state government: "When Ohio released a list of people it planned to strike from its voting rolls, around 40,000 people shouldn't have been on it. The state only found out because of volunteer sleuthing." In all, Ohio intended to purge 235,000 Americans from the state voter rolls, and roughly one-in-five voters on the purge list weren't supposed to be there.

* Presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke has now "clarified" his position on stripping the tax-exempt status of houses of worship that oppose marriage equality: "O'Rourke and his staff have since said that was not his intended position."

* Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's (D) detractors tried to launch a recall campaign against her, but as of yesterday, they failed to collect the necessary number of signatures.

* In Louisiana over the weekend, voters handed Republicans significant state legislative gains, which will likely cause headaches for Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) if he wins a gubernatorial runoff next month.

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Trump appears to forget basic details of the Ukraine scandal timeline

10/15/19 11:20AM

Donald Trump has boasted on multiple occasions that he has "one of the great memories of all time." It's therefore odd when he forgets recent events from his own presidency.

For example, Trump's description of the failure of his health care initiative tends to garble up the timeline of events. The Republican's description of the failure of his immigration initiative has run into the same problem: the president has struggled to keep track of which developments happened at which time.

And now it's happening again with Trump's impeachment scandal. Here, for example, was what the president told Fox News' Jeanine Pirro over the weekend:

"[House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff] made up a conversation. He made a conversation that didn't exist. He never thought in a million years that I was going to release the real conversation. And when it did, the whistleblower turned out to be totally inaccurate."

There's a lot wrong with this, but note how badly Trump has screwed up the timeline of events. He seems to believe the White House released the now infamous call summary after Schiff paraphrased it. It's a key point to Trump's defense, and it gets what actually happened backwards.

In the same Fox News interview, Trump added:

"Even if you listen to the very good conversation that I had [with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky] -- a very, very good, no-pressure, congenial conversation with the new president of Ukraine -- he had some things that were not flattering to say about [former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch]. And that came out of the blue. So, you know, it would be nice to have somebody that he liked, because he's going -- the person will have to deal with the president of Ukraine."

That's not what happened. As the White House's own call summary showed, it was Trump who brought up the ambassador, not Zelensky.

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During a campaign rally Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reads a statement made by Michelle Fields, on March 29, 2016 in Janesville, Wis. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)

Poll denialism makes a comeback as impeachment, 2020 elections loom

10/15/19 10:45AM

Fox News released a national poll last week that was rather brutal for the White House. The data from Donald Trump's favorite network showed, among other things, that 51% of Americans support the president's impeachment and removal from office. The same results pointed to large segments of the population criticizing Trump's "dealings with the Ukrainian president."

Not surprisingly, a variety of news outlets, including the New York Times, took note of the Fox poll. According to Trump, that's a mistake.

President Trump on Monday blasted The New York Times for using in one of its stories last week's Fox News poll that said a majority of respondents wanted his impeachment.

"The Fox Impeachment poll has turned out to be incorrect," he tweeted Monday. "This was announced on Friday. Despite this, the Corrupt New York Times used this poll in one of its stories, no mention of the correction which they knew about full well!"

In reality, there was no correction to "mention." The president appeared to reference this New York Post piece, which argued that the sample in the Fox News poll included too many Democrats.

"Princeton, New Jersey, pollster Braun Research, which conducted the survey, noted 48% of its respondents were Democrats," the New York Post's analysis read. "But the actual breakdown of party affiliation is 31% Democrat, 29% Republican and 38% independent, according to Gallup."

There are two important angles to this. The first is the flaw in the New York Post's analysis, which may make Trump feel better, but which is nevertheless mistaken. The second is the re-emergence of poll denialism.

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Biden: No pardon for Trump if he's indicted after 2020

10/15/19 10:00AM

Former Vice President Joe Biden sat down with Radio Iowa this week and answered a question I haven't heard him address before.

During an interview with Radio Iowa later Sunday afternoon, Biden said if he is elected, he will not follow President Ford's example in pardoning Nixon so Nixon was not prosecuted for his role in Watergate.

"It wouldn't unite the country," Biden said. "You'd say: 'Wait a minute. I get a parking ticket and I've got to pay it. This happens to me and I've got to go to jail. This guy does all these things that put us jeopardy and he gets off? I think this is of a different nature. And I think President Ford, God love him, he's a good guy, I knew him pretty well. I think if he had to do it over again, he wouldn't have done it ... because he didn't get re-elected."

As regular readers know, I've been keeping an eye on this for a while, because for Donald Trump, winning a second term next year is about more than just power and ego; it's also about the statute of limitations.

After all, the president has been implicated in a variety of alleged crimes, though Trump appears to be shielded from prosecution so long as he’s in office. If he were to lose in 2020, that shield would disappear, and the prospect of an indictment would become quite real. Indeed, by most accounts, the only way for Trump to ensure he faces no criminal liability is for him to remain president for another four years.

But let’s say he doesn’t. For the sake of conversation, let’s imagine Trump not only loses the popular vote again, but also comes up short in the electoral college. Let’s also say it’s 2021 and the president’s Democratic successor, recognizing the possibility of Trump facing an indictment, has to decide whether to pull a Gerald Ford and issue a pardon for his/her scandal-plagued predecessor.

Biden is now committed to not pardoning Trump, and the Delaware Democrat isn't alone.

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Pastors from the Las Vegas area pray with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a visit to the International Church of Las Vegas, and International Christian Academy on Oct. 5, 2016, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

Facing crises, Team Trump takes aim at the church-state line

10/15/19 09:20AM

On Friday, Attorney General William Barr spoke at Notre Dame's law school and raised a few eyebrows by condemning societal ills on conspiring American secularists. As far as the nation's chief law enforcement official was concerned, non-religious Americans -- roughly a fifth of the population -- are helping advance "social pathology" and "moral upheaval." Barr added that these sinister secularists are responsible for "an unremitting assault" on "traditional values."

One day later, Donald Trump spoke at a religious right gathering, where he told social conservative activists, "Forever and always, Americans will believe in the cause of freedom, the power of prayer, and the eternal glory of God." Soon after, the president called into Fox News and insisted that there's a Christian revival underway because "everybody" knows 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."

And then, of course, there's Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. USA Today reported late yesterday:

A recent speech about "Being a Christian Leader" by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was promoted on the State Department's homepage Monday, and has been met with criticism that it potentially violates the principle of separation of church and state enshrined in the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

The speech was delivered at the America Association of Christian Counselors on Friday in Nashville, Tennessee. Pompeo touts Christianity throughout the remarks, describing how he applies his faith to his government work, referencing God and the Bible during the entirety of the speech.

If you visited the U.S. State Department's website yesterday, its homepage featured a picture of Pompeo alongside text that read, "Being a Christian Leader." (That text has since been replaced with content about Turkish sanctions.)

Taken together, Team Trump's theological push isn't exactly subtle. In a country that's supposed to honor the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, it isn't exactly healthy, either.

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File photo taken in November 2017 shows U.S. President Donald Trump (and Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a welcome ceremony in Beijing.

Trump touts 'great' Chinese trade deal that doesn't actually exist

10/15/19 08:40AM

Over the weekend, Donald Trump spoke at the Voters Values Summit, one of the year's major gatherings of the religious right movement, and the president was eager to tout parts of his record. "We do great things," the Republican told the social conservative activists. "Look at what we did yesterday with China."

The comments came about 24 hours after Trump told reporters, "So, we just made what, I guess, is one of the biggest deals that's been made in a long time, with China." The president went on to say, "[I]f you look at the deal, the deal is so incredible. The deal is a great deal."

Part of the problem with the Republican's boast is that the framework of the agreement may be "great," but not for the United States. The Wall Street Journal published an interesting report the other day, noting that it was China that "emerged with wins" from the trade talks.

The other part of the problem, as the Associated Press reported, is that the trade deal Trump is so excited about doesn't actually exist, at least not yet.

[N]egotiators reached their tentative agreement only in principle. No documents have been signed. A final deal could still fall through, though Trump told reporters Friday he didn't think that would happen.

Many of the details remained to be worked out. Some of the thorniest issues -- such as U.S. allegations that China forces foreign companies to hand over trade secrets -- were dealt with only partially, or not at all, and will require further talks.

"The president is acting as if a lot of Chinese concessions have been nailed down, and they just haven't," said Derek Scissors, a China specialist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

A separate AP report added that despite Trump's rhetoric, "closer inspection suggests there isn't much substance" to the announced agreement. Scott Kennedy, who analyzes China's economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, added that Friday's announcement was "a nothing-burger," adding, "I call it the 'Invisible Deal.'... The only thing that happened Friday was that the U.S. delayed the tariff increase."

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin conceded yesterday that the deal needs "a lot of work," and Beijing hasn't even acknowledged the existence of an agreement.

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Liz Cheney speaks during a campaign appearance in Casper, Wyo. on July 17, 2013.

Liz Cheney tries to connect impeachment, crisis conditions in Syria

10/15/19 08:00AM

There's no great mystery behind the crisis conditions in northern Syria. While conditions in the area were relatively stable of late, Donald Trump withdrew U.S. military forces -- defying the advice of his own administration and failing to consult our allies -- effectively giving the green light to Turkey to launch a brutal offensive against our Kurdish allies. The results have been catastrophic.

One of Congress' top Republicans argued yesterday, however, that House Democrats bare at least some of the blame for the crisis conditions.

Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking House Republican, claimed Democrats' impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump is partly to blame for Turkey's invasion of northern Syria.

Though Trump has faced bipartisan backlash for withdrawing American troops from the region ahead of the Turkish assault against U.S.-allied Kurdish forces, Cheney said Democrats should also be held responsible for the crisis.

During a Fox News appearance, Cheney argued that the ongoing impeachment inquiry is part of an attempt "to weaken this president. The Wyoming Republican added, "It was not an accident that the Turks chose this moment to roll across the border. And I think the Democrats have got to pay very careful attention to the damage that they're doing with impeachment proceedings."

In other words, by Cheney's reasoning, Turkey saw an American president weakened by an impeachment inquiry, tried to take advantage of the opportunity, and launched a military assault. If only House Democrats had ignored Trump's misdeeds, the argument goes, maybe Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would've ignored the green light provided by the White House.

As the HuffPost report added, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office described Cheney's argument as "delusional," which seems more than fair under the circumstances. Indeed, the idea peddled yesterday by the House Republican conference chair is bizarre: Turkey doesn't care about some congressional hearings; it cares about the withdrawal of American troops. This isn't complicated.

I can appreciate why some of the White House's far-right allies would look for ways to shift the blame for Trump's disastrous decision away from the president, but unless Liz Cheney is prepared to make the case that the House Democratic majority forced Trump to make a ruinous national security decision, the whole argument is plainly ridiculous.

That said, there is a larger arc to this: some in the GOP want to characterize the impeachment process as inherently dangerous.

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