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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. to the chamber to vote at the Capitol in Washington, Feb. 10, 2016. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

As scandal revelations mount, Republicans face a test of principles

10/04/19 09:21AM

Nearly two weeks ago, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) appeared on Meet the Press and NBC News' Chuck Todd asked the Republican senator about Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal. At the time, the details of the controversy were still taking shape, so Toomey seemed comfortable hedging a bit on the totality of the circumstances:

"Look, it is not appropriate for any candidate for federal office, certainly, including a sitting president, to ask for assistance from a foreign country. That's not appropriate.

"But I don't know that that's what happened here."

Even at the time, this was a difficult posture to take seriously, but there was a small degree of plausibility to the Pennsylvanian's position. As of 12 days ago, when Toomey made these comments, it was hard to say with absolute certainty that Trump pressed a foreign country for campaign assistance.

That plausibility has since evaporated. We now know that's exactly "what happened here." The president went so far as to seek foreign assistance on camera yesterday from the South Lawn of the White House.

Which, naturally, leads us back to Pat Toomey, who left himself little wiggle room, telling a national television audience he wasn't comfortable with a president pressing foreign countries for campaign help. Is the GOP senator still uncomfortable now that Trump has effectively confessed? And if so, what exactly is Toomey prepared to do about it?

This isn't limited to the Pennsylvanian, of course. The day before Toomey's interview, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) published a tweet that read, "If the President asked or pressured Ukraine's president to investigate his political rival, either directly or through his personal attorney, it would be troubling in the extreme."

Well, we can now remove the word "if" from the equation. What we don't know is what Romney is prepared to do now that it's painfully obvious that Trump did something the Utahan considers "troubling in the extreme."

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Job growth falls short of expectations again, totals slip under Trump

10/04/19 08:40AM

Ahead of this morning's jobs report, most projections pointed to growth in September of 147,000 jobs. It looks like those expectations were a bit too rosy.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this morning that the economy added 136,000 jobs last month, while the unemployment rate dipped to 3.5%. Fortunately, the revisions from July and August were revised up, adding 45,000 from previous reporting.

As for the political implications, Donald Trump has now been in office for 32 full months -- February 2017 through September 2019 -- and in that time, the economy has created 6.03 million jobs. In the 32 months preceding Trump's presidency -- June 2014 to January 2017 -- the economy created 7.16 million jobs.

I recently heard from some readers who asked what would happen if we looked at the same numbers, but assigned the job totals from January 2017 to Trump, even though Obama was president for most of the month. On balance, I think that paints a misleading picture, but it doesn't change the underlying dynamic: if we applied jobs from January 2017 to Trump and compared the last 33 months to the previous 33 months, job totals still slowed from 7.46 million to 6.28 million.

The White House, meanwhile, believes we should actually start the clock for Trump at November 2016 -- the month of the Republican's election -- and apply the jobs created during the final months of the Obama era to the current Republican president. But that still doesn't help: if we compare the last 35 months to the previous 35 months, job totals slowed from 7.74 million to 6.66 million.

Trump continues to tell the world that he's overseeing the strongest domestic job growth in American history, which is plainly false. What's more, the White House has not yet offered an explanation for why job growth has slowed since Trump took office.

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Quid pro quo: Newly released texts take Trump scandal to a new level

10/04/19 08:00AM

There's a striking simplicity to the scandal that will almost certainly lead to Donald Trump's impeachment: he used his office to try to coerce a foreign government into helping his re-election campaign. The evidence is unambiguous. More information continues to come to light, but few fair-minded observers believe the president's guilt is in doubt.

There's been no explicit need for Trump's detractors to prove that his scheme included a quid pro quo -- the United States would trade something of value to a foreign country in exchange for its participation in the Republican's gambit -- since Trump's effort was itself scandalous.

But as of this morning, the quid pro quo has nevertheless been established, thanks to a series of text messages that were released overnight. NBC News reported this morning:

Text messages given to Congress show U.S. ambassadors working to persuade Ukraine to publicly commit to investigating President Donald Trump's political opponents and explicitly linking the inquiry to whether Ukraine's president would be granted an official White House visit.

The two ambassadors, both Trump picks, went so far as to draft language for what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy should say, the texts indicate. The messages, released Thursday by House Democrats conducting an impeachment inquiry, show the ambassadors coordinating with both Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and a top Zelenskiy aide.

One text shows Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, asking, "Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?" Apparently reluctant to acknowledge criminal wrongdoing in print, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland replied, "Call me."

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

Just as astonishing was a message Kurt Volker, the former special U.S. envoy to Ukraine, sent to a Zelenskiy adviser shortly before the now-infamous Trump/Zelenskiy phone call. The message was clear about the White House's political expectations, and how a presidential meeting was contingent on the Ukrainian president's cooperation with the larger scheme.

"Heard from White House," Volker wrote, "assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / 'get to the bottom of what happened' in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington."

The House Foreign Affairs Committee published the texts online here (pdf).

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Pence strains credulity with 'obliviousness' defense

Pence strains credulity with 'obliviousness' defense

10/03/19 09:35PM

Greg Miller, national security reporter for the Washington Post, talks with Nicolle Wallace about Mike Pence's argument that he had no idea about the subtext of the message he was delivering to Ukrainian President Zelensky, and the growing amount of reporting on the opportunities Pence had to be better informed, as well as his... watch

Thursday's Mini-Report, 10.3.19

10/03/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* An important part of the impeachment probe: "Democratic and Republican lawmakers from three House committees questioned former U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker on Thursday in a closed-door deposition as part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump."

* The ongoing trade war: "American lovers of Scotch whisky, French wine and Italian cheese might have to dig deeper into their pockets after the Trump administration slapped tariffs on $7.5 billion of European consumer products."

* Keep an eye on Perry: "Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who has met on at least three occasions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, on Wednesday pledged to work with lawmakers looking into a whistleblower's allegations about President Donald Trump's communications with Zelensky."

* Brexit: "European policymakers said Thursday that a new Brexit proposal from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was unworkable, heightening the prospects of a chaotic British departure from the European Union within weeks."

* Following up on a story we kicked around this morning: "An Internal Revenue Service official has filed a whistleblower complaint reporting that he was told at least one Treasury Department political appointee attempted to improperly interfere with the annual audit of the president or vice president's tax returns, according to multiple people familiar with the document."

* Trump's Scottish enterprise: "The Trump Organization's plans for a major expansion of its flagship Scottish resort by building swaths of housing and luxury villas have been thwarted, further jeopardizing efforts by the US president's company to stem multi-million-pound losses at its most prestigious overseas property."

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Trump forgets that he has the right to remain silent

10/03/19 03:24PM

About a year ago, The Atlantic's Adam Serwer wrote, "Donald Trump can't stop telling on himself." This came to mind this morning when the president -- on camera and on the record -- used his office to encourage two foreign governments to go after one of his domestic political rivals.

It was an extraordinary moment, which increases the odds that the president will, in fact, be impeached in the not-too-distant future. But what makes Trump such a strange figure is the frequency with which he effectively confesses to wrongdoing in public.

The first hint came less than four months into his presidency, when Trump seemed to admit to NBC News' Lester Holt that he fired former FBI Director James Comey in order to derail a federal investigation -- making it seem as if the president was trying to obstruct justice.

About a year later, Trump published a tweet making the case the Justice Department shouldn't pursue corruption charges that interfere with the Republican Party's midterm election plans.

That came around the same time the president made incriminating comments on national television about his role in an illegal hush-money payment to a porn star with whom he allegedly had an extra-marital affair.

A few months later, Trump used Twitter to lobby a government agency to do a special favor for a coal plant owned by one of his campaign contributors.

In each of these instances, if an investigative journalist had uncovered a secret document exposing one of the president's schemes, it would've been front-page news. But in many instances, Trump has done reporters' jobs for them, confessing to wrongdoing in public with surprising regularity.

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Trump brazenly (and on camera) pushes for foreign campaign help

10/03/19 12:41PM

It was last Tuesday, Sept. 24, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) launched the impeachment process against Donald Trump, following revelations that he tried to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into helping his 2020 campaign. One day later, the Republican sat down with Zelensky at an event in New York.

A reporter asked the American leader, "Would you like President Zelensky to do more on Joe Biden and the investigation?" Trump replied, "No, I want him to do whatever he can."

It was hard not to do a double-take. Facing impeachment over pressuring a foreign leader to assist his political scheme, had Trump just done it again? This time, on camera?

This morning, the American president abandoned all subtlety.

President Donald Trump said Thursday the Chinese government should investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden over the latter's involvement with an investment fund that raised money in the country. [...]

Speaking to reporters outside the White House, Trump said that, "China should start an investigation into the Bidens."

So, on the one hand, Trump and his team are engaged in intense trade negotiations with China. On the other hand, Trump is now publicly calling on China to dig up dirt on one of his domestic political rivals. Indeed, within a minute of seeking Beijing's 2020 help, Trump added, "I have a lot of options on China, but if they don't do what we want, we have tremendous power."

Daniel Dale joked, "If a whistleblower had come forward to say Trump had privately told Xi he should launch an investigation into the Bidens, it'd be a huge story. That's what Trump just did publicly."

In case that weren't quite enough, during the same brief Q&A, the American president again called on Ukraine to go after the Democratic presidential hopeful. "I would say that President Zelensky, if it were me, I would recommend that they start an investigation into the Bidens."

Subtlety has been thrown out the window. Trump is now doing publicly what he's being impeached for doing privately.

At the least the cover-up phase is over: accused of privately pressing foreign officials to target an American opponent, Trump has decided to publicly press foreign officials to target an American opponent.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.3.19

10/03/19 12:00PM

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

* As Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) recovers in the hospital, NBC News noted this morning that the public doesn't yet know the details of what happened or the severity of the circumstances that led to the presidential candidate's emergency heart procedure.

* The latest national Monmouth poll found Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) leading former Vice President Joe Biden (D) in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, 28% to 25%. Sanders is third with 15%, and no other candidate topped 5% in the poll.

* The same poll found roughly 39% of registered voters believe Donald Trump deserves a second term, while 57% are ready for a new president.

* Much of the Democrats' 2020 field participated in an MSNBC policy forum yesterday on addressing gun violence. NBC published a live-blog of the event.

* The lineup and podium order for the next Democratic presidential primary debate was announced yesterday, and it will be a one-night, 12-candidate event.

* With only a month remaining ahead of Louisiana's gubernatorial race, Trump is urging his followers in the state to support either Eddie Rispone (R) or Ralph Abraham (R), one of whom is likely to advance to a probable runoff against incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards (D).

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Allied leader subtly presses Trump to preserve American democracy

10/03/19 11:20AM

Sauli Niinisto, the president of Finland, was exceedingly polite during his interactions with Donald Trump yesterday, even as the Republican struggled to keep his emotions in check. But the Finnish leader also took advantage of the opportunity to make some subtle points his American counterpart may have missed.

"We all know Europe needs USA," Niinisto said at a joint White House press conference. "But I say that USA needs also Europe. We know the price of everything. We should recognize also the value of everything."

As Fred Kaplan noted, the comments seemed to be a reference to "a well-known line from Oscar Wilde's play Lady Windemere's Fan, in which Lord Darlington defines a cynic as 'a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.' It seemed pretty clear that the Finnish president was calling his American counterpart a cynic."

The Finnish leader also said at the same event:

"Ladies and gentlemen, before meeting, I had some spare time, so I visited a couple of museums here -- Museum of American History, Museum of American African History, and Museum of American Indian History. And in addition to that, I had a possibility of attending ceremony in Arlington.

"Mr. President, you have here a great democracy. Keep it going on."

Toward the end of the press conference, Niinisto added, "I'm impressed what American people have gained during these decades -- a hundred-so years -- building up very impressive democracy. So, keep it going on."

I don't know the Finnish president and I won't pretend to have any special insights into his point of view. But under the circumstances, as Niinisto repeated his message for emphasis, it seemed as if he were somewhat concerned about the future of the American experiment.

Those who have unreserved confidence about the endurance of a political society don't generally feel the need to urge its leaders to take care to preserve it.

Trump, however, lacks the ability to appreciate the subtext.

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