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Monday's Mini-Report, 11.25.19

11/25/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Impressive numbers from an engaged democracy: "After months of sometimes-violent unrest in Hong Kong, an election with record turnout handed a big victory to pro-democracy local district council candidates, posing a new conundrum for Beijing and adding pressure on the city's leader."

* I guess the new policy is the same as the old policy: "United States troops have resumed large-scale counterterrorism missions against the Islamic State in northern Syria, military officials say, nearly two months after President Trump's abrupt order to withdraw American troops opened the way for a bloody Turkish cross-border offensive."

* Parnas and Fruman, redux: "Two associates of Rudy Giuliani tried to recruit a top Ukrainian energy official in March in a proposed takeover of the state oil-and-gas company, describing the company's chief executive and the then-U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch as part of "this Soros cartel" working against President Trump."

* RBG: "Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is back home and resting after being hospitalized Friday. Ginsburg, 86, has been released after being admitted with chills and a fever, a spokesperson for the Supreme Court said Sunday."

* More evidence of a climate crisis for the White House to ignore: "The concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere has reached a record high, according to a report released Monday by the World Meteorological Organization."

* I'm guessing he didn't consider resigning as an alternative to carrying out the order: "Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday that President Donald Trump had directed him to allow a Navy SEAL acquitted of war crimes to retire without losing his elite status."

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Rick Perry told Trump he's 'the chosen one'

11/25/19 02:19PM

With just a few months remaining before Election Day 2008, John McCain's presidential campaign settled on an unexpected line of attack. "Barack Obama," the Republican campaign said in a national online ad, "may be The One."

As the New York Times noted at the time, "The heavens part in this new Web ad, which wraps Mr. Obama's words around the emerging meme among Republicans ... that the presumptive Democratic nominee is the 'anointed' one, and mocks him with a parting of the seas by Moses."

Twelve years later, Republicans have stopped mocking Obama as the chosen one and started sincerely labeling Donald Trump the chosen one.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry said in an interview that he told President Donald Trump that he was God's "chosen one" to lead the United States, just as he chose the kings to lead Israel in the Old Testament. [...]

The former Texas governor said he told Trump that some people "said you were the chosen one."

"And I said, 'You were.'"

Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley made related comments to TV preacher Pat Robertson's cable program, saying, in response to a question about a divine hand possibly putting Trump in the Oval Office, "[E]verything happens for a reason... I think that God sometimes places people for lessons and sometimes places people for change."

In the spring, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also sat down with the Christian Broadcasting Network and said he believes God may have sent Donald Trump to Earth to protect Israel.

Two months earlier, then-White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times, and I think that He wanted Donald Trump to become president and that's why he's there."

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In this Oct. 18, 2010 file photo, a United Parcel Service (UPS) driver lifts an Amazon.com box in Palo Alto, Calif.

Following Trump's intervention, Amazon sues over DOD contract

11/25/19 12:34PM

At first blush, the Pentagon's Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract -- a multi-billion-dollar cloud-computing initiative -- may only seem relevant to those closely involved with national security and the tech industry. But as regular readers know, there are real political implications to the controversy and this newly filed lawsuit.

Amazon Web Services on Friday confirmed it has filed a lawsuit challenging the Defense Department's decision to award Microsoft a major contract for cloud services.

The JEDI, or Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, deal, which could be worth up to $10 billion, was hotly contested and marks a big win for Microsoft as it chases down AWS in cloud infrastructure.

It’s entirely possible that Microsoft won the contract strictly on the merits and there’s no concern about possible presidential corruption. That said, Donald Trump hasn’t exactly made it easy to believe the most benign interpretation of events.

Let’s back up and review how we arrived at this point. About a year into Trump’s presidency, Axios spoke to five sources close to the White House who said the Republican was eager to  “go after” Amazon.com and its CEO, Jeff Bezos. Referring to Trump, one source said at the time, “He’s obsessed with Amazon. Obsessed.”

The article added, “The president would love to clip CEO Jeff Bezos’ wings. But he doesn’t have a plan to make that happen.”

Trump’s preoccupation with Bezos has always been a little weird. It’s effectively a political bank shot of presidential contempt: the Republican hates the Washington Post’s coverage of his administration, which leads Trump to hate its owner, which then leads the president to also hate Bezos’ other businesses, including Amazon Web Services.

It was against this backdrop that Trump announced in July – just as the Pentagon was reportedly prepared to announce a decision on the JEDI contract – that he was looking “very seriously” at intervening in the contracting process because unnamed people had told him “it wasn’t competitively bid.”

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.25.19

11/25/19 12:00PM

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

* Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made it official yesterday, kicking off a longshot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. As part of his launch, Bloomberg has reportedly purchased $34 million in television ad time.

* For those keeping score, the Democratic presidential field now stands at 18 competitors, up from 16 two weeks ago.

* On a related note, Bloomberg, who is a billionaire, has said his campaign won't accept any contributions. According to DNC rules, I think this means the former mayor will be ineligible to participate in upcoming debates, even if he managed to qualify by way of polling support.

* Joe Biden's campaign has picked up some notable endorsements over the last few days. In Iowa, former Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) -- who served with Biden in Barack Obama's cabinet -- threw his support to the former vice president, and in Nevada, Rep. Dina Titus (D) endorsed Biden this morning.

* Speaking of 2020 endorsements, Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.) has thrown his backing behind his fellow Californian, Sen. Kamala Harris. This is the fourth endorsement the Democratic senator has received from a Congressional Hispanic Caucus member.

* While Sen. Amy Klobuchar's (D-Minn.) presidential campaign hasn't had much of an operation in the Silver State, the senator's operation has started staffing up in Nevada, hiring some aides who had worked for Beto O'Rourke's operation.

* Though unionized campaign workers are traditionally unheard of, Pete Buttigieg's field organizers became the latest campaign staffers to organize. Politico reported, "It said in a statement that the campaign had 'voluntarily recognized' that IBEW Local 2321 would serve as the sole union representing campaign staffers who have the title 'organizer.'"

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On his way out, Navy secretary takes not-so-subtle shot at Trump

11/25/19 10:52AM

There was a point over the weekend in which it appeared the dispute between Donald Trump and Navy Secretary Richard Spencer would be resolved. By last night, however, the detente ended and Spencer was ousted from his post.

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer was fired Sunday by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who ordered that a Navy SEAL who was acquitted of murder be allowed to remain in the elite commando corps, the Defense Department said.

Esper asked for Spencer's resignation after President Donald Trump tweeted on Thursday that Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher would retain the gold Trident insignia signifying his status as a member of the Sea, Air, and Land Teams, or SEALs. Spencer told reporters on Friday that he believed the review process over Gallagher's status should go forward.

Following up on our earlier coverage, there's little doubt that the Gallagher controversy was responsible for driving a wedge between the White House and the Navy secretary. Gallagher was accused of murder and war crimes, but he was ultimately convicted of a lesser charge. He was dropped in rank, though Trump intervened and promoted Gallagher.

Spencer, eager to instill a sense of discipline and respect for law and order, moved forward to strip Gallagher of his gold eagle Trident emblem, so that he would no longer be a Navy SEAL. Trump published a tweet last week announcing he was prepared to override the Navy's judgment on this, too.

This, naturally, intensified the dispute, and by some accounts, led Spencer to threaten to resign over the president's interference. According to the New York Times, the Navy secretary's threat "provoked Mr. Trump's ire."

For his part, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was reportedly bothered with the fact that Spencer tried to diffuse the situation by negotiating a deal directly with the White House -- circumventing him -- that would've allowed Gallagher to retire as a Navy SEAL.

Trump soon after weighed in with tweets suggesting Spencer's ouster had something to do with "large cost overruns from past administration's contracting procedures," which the president said "were not addressed to my satisfaction."

While the competing versions and explanations have the effect of making a messy situation messier, Spencer's written statement on his way out the door shouldn't go overlooked.

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Image:  US House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes

Nunes dodges key question, faces possible ethics investigation

11/25/19 10:00AM

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, has had a rough couple of years, which many observers have noted has done significant harm to his reputation and credibility. That doesn't mean things can't get worse for the conspiracy-minded congressman and Donald Trump loyalist.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., on Sunday dodged questions about reports he met with Ukraine's former top prosecutor in an effort to investigate the Bidens citing his threats to sue the media outlets that uncovered the allegations.

"I really want to answer all these questions, and I promise you I absolutely will come back on the show and answer these questions," Nunes, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, told Fox News' "Sunday Morning Futures." "But, because there is criminal activity here, we're working with the appropriate law enforcement agencies; we're going to file this, and everyone's going to know the truth, everybody's going to know all the facts."

This latest round of trouble for Nunes began in earnest a few days ago. Joseph A. Bondy, an attorney for Lev Parnas, the indicted associate of Rudy Giuliani, raised a provocative allegation: Bondy told NBC News, among other outlets, that his client was willing to testify that Devin Nunes met with Viktor Shokin, the former Ukrainian prosecutor, about investigating the Bidens.

That claim has not been independently confirmed, but it raises the possibility of Nunes participating in an investigation into Team Trump's Ukraine scheme -- a gambit in which the White House is accused of extorting a foreign ally in hopes of getting dirt on a domestic political rival -- despite Nunes allegedly having been a part of a related Ukraine scheme of his own.

And when asked about this yesterday, the California Republican said he did not want to talk about it, at least not yet.

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GOP officials ignore warnings, help echo Kremlin propaganda

11/25/19 09:20AM

Even if the only thing Republicans had to go by were the expert conclusions and advice of Dr. Fiona Hill, that should be enough. Her findings are clearly not the only thing GOP officials have heard about Russia's efforts to blame Ukraine for the Kremlin's attack on the United States' 2016 elections, but Hill's credibility and expertise are without rival, and should therefore be sufficient to persuade even the most far-right American officials.

And as Hill, the former top Russia expert on the White House National Security Council, reminded Republicans last week, the idea that Ukraine was responsible for the 2016 attack is a "false narrative" being "perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services." It is, in no uncertain terms, Kremlin propaganda intended to hurt the United States.

But Hill's advice is not the only guidance GOP officials have received on the subject. The New York Times reported late last week that American intelligence professionals have "informed senators and their aides in recent weeks that Russia had engaged in a yearslong campaign to essentially frame Ukraine as responsible for Moscow's own hacking of the 2016 election."

On Saturday, in response to the Times' reporting, David Laufman, who served as the Justice Department's top counterintelligence official, wrote, "From this moment forward, any member of Congress or U.S. government official who persists in making this claim is, essentially, aiding and abetting the enemy."

And yet, as Rachel noted on Friday's show, a few too many Republicans can't seem to help themselves. In this case, it's not just Donald Trump, whose eagerness to toe Moscow's line has been well documented; it's also top GOP members of Congress, up to and including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who've been willing to cast public doubt about the findings of their own country's intelligence agencies, even if that means inadvertently aiding Russian security services.

This applies to senators, too. For example, on Meet the Press yesterday, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) told host Chuck Todd that Fiona Hill is "correct that Russia tried to interfere in 2016." In his next breath, however, Wicker added, "Also, Ukrainians themselves tried to interfere also."

Around the same time, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) appeared on Fox News Sunday, where Chris Wallace asked the Louisiana Republican whether he believes Russia or Ukraine was responsible for the attack we already know Russia perpetrated.

"I don't know, nor do you, nor do any of us," Kennedy said. "Ms. Hill is entitled to her opinion."

Wallace responded that the "entire" intelligence community points to Russia's culpability.

"Right, but it could also be Ukraine," Kennedy said.

Perhaps Kennedy missed David Laufman's declaration from a day earlier.

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On Ukraine, Team Trump turned to 'retroactive narrative construction'

11/25/19 08:40AM

In the not-too-distant past, when Donald Trump was a reality-show personality, he was supposed to oversee dramatic scenes at the end of every episode of The Apprentice. The point, as viewers know, was for him to tell one of the contestants, "You're fired."

In practice, however, Trump would routinely lose track of what he was supposed to say, which occasionally led him to fire the wrong people based on whims. As The New Yorker reported earlier this year, the show's producers would then turn to the fine art of "retroactive narrative construction": producers and editors would comb through footage, hoping to reverse engineer a story that could be presented to viewers in a way that made Trump's misguided decision appear sensible.

Now that the reality-show personality is the leader of the free world, White House officials are doing eerily similar work.

When Trump unveiled an imagined tax plan that didn't exist, White House officials had to scramble behind the scenes to reverse engineer a policy. When the president made up stories about human traffickers, officials got to work looking for evidence that might confirm what Trump decided was true. When Trump announced plans for a "Space Force," his team had to figure out a way to make it seem as if there was an actual plan in place for a Space Force.

And as the Washington Post reported yesterday, retroactive narrative construction applies to the president's Ukraine scandal, too.

A confidential White House review of President Trump's decision to place a hold on military aid to Ukraine has turned up hundreds of documents that reveal extensive efforts to generate an after-the-fact justification for the decision and a debate over whether the delay was legal, according to three people familiar with the records.

The research by the White House Counsel's Office, which was triggered by a congressional impeachment inquiry announced in September, includes early August email exchanges between acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and White House budget officials seeking to provide an explanation for withholding the funds after President Trump had already ordered a hold in mid-July on the nearly $400 million in security assistance, according to the three people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations.

A related New York Times report added that after the White House put a hold on aid to Ukraine, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney asked budget officials "whether there was a legal justification" to do what Team Trump had already done.

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Released documents suggest Mike Pompeo has some explaining to do

11/25/19 08:00AM

An ethics oversight group called American Oversight recently filed a Freedom-of-Information-Act request with the State Department for information related to the firing of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch from her post in Ukraine. The underlying issue is of great importance, especially now: the evidence that's emerged from the impeachment inquiry makes clear that Yovanovitch was ousted in the wake of a smear campaign launched by Rudy Giuliani and far-right media.

The ambassador stood in the way of a political scheme, which led Team Trump to make her a target.

Not surprisingly, the Trump administration balked at cooperating with the FOIA request, which led to a lawsuit that the State Department lost. Late Friday night, the cabinet agency complied with a court order, at which point it became clear why the administration was reluctant to disclose the relevant materials. The New York Times reported: that the documents "further implicate" Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The emails indicate that Mr. Pompeo spoke at least twice by telephone with Mr. Giuliani in March as Mr. Giuliani was urging Ukraine to investigate Mr. Trump's rivals, and trying to oust a respected American ambassador to Ukraine, Marie L. Yovanovitch, who had been promoting anticorruption efforts in the country. Mr. Pompeo ordered Ms. Yovanovitch's removal the next month. One call between Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Pompeo was arranged with guidance from Mr. Trump's personal assistant, the documents suggest.

The documents also show that the State Department sent members of Congress a deliberately misleading reply about Ms. Yovanovitch's departure after they asked about pressure on her.

The information released Friday "reveals a clear paper trail from Rudy Giuliani to the Oval Office to Secretary Pompeo to facilitate Giuliani's smear campaign against a U.S. ambassador," Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, said in a statement.

In recent weeks, Mike Pompeo, who's been tied to the Ukraine scandal in a variety of ways, has faced criticism for failing to properly defend Yovanovitch. These new revelations raise the prospect of something even worse: a hyper-partisan secretary of State facing accusations of working with Giuliani to help advance a smear campaign against one of his own ambassadors.

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