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Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, talks with reporters after a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on June 26, 2018.

GOP's Trump defenses tacitly acknowledge presidential wrongdoing

10/07/19 09:20AM

About a week ago, House Minority Leader appeared on CBS' 60 Minutes with the intention of defending Donald Trump. CBS News' Scott Pelley presented the Republican leader with basic factual information: Trump told the Ukrainian president, in the context of military aid, "I would like you to do us a favor, though."

McCarthy was incredulous and accused the journalist of adding a word to the quote. Pelley explained that he was simply reading the text from the official White House call summary. The GOP leader asked, in reference to Trump, "He said, 'I'd like you to do a favor, though'"? The interviewer replied, "Yes, it's in the White House transcript."

It was a humiliating exchange for McCarthy, who apparently hadn't read the document he was there to defend, but it was also a tacit acknowledgement of wrongdoing: the Republican congressman seemed to suggest that if Trump has said, "I would like you to do us a favor, though," it'd be an inherently problematic thing for a president to have said.

A few days later, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), one of the president's most sycophantic supporters, told the Washington Examiner, "If a president just randomly was parachuting his personal attorney down into countries where he thought he could get some dirt on political opponents ... that might be questionable. That's not what this is."

Actually, that was a decent summary of what Trump did with Rudy Giuliani, dispatching him to Ukraine to dig up dirt the Republican president could use.

All of which leads us to yesterday's Sunday shows, where viewers heard Trump supporters make the case that the president was kidding when he publicly urged China to go after Joe Biden. Consider this exchange between ABC News' George Stephanopoulos and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio):

STEPHANOPOULOS: Threshold question=: Do you think it's appropriate for President Trump to ask China and Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden?

JORDAN: George, you really think he was serious about thinking that China's going to investigate the Biden family? ... I don't think anyone in America really believes -- except people maybe in the press and some Democrats in Congress really believe -- that the president of the United States thinks China is going to investigate.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) made similar comments around the same time. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also pushed the humor-related talking point on Friday.

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Image: Energy Secretary Rick Perry Delivers Remarks At Energy Policy Summit In DC

Why Trump can't blame Rick Perry for his latest scandal

10/07/19 08:40AM

When Donald Trump is in a jam, he instinctively looks for a few things. First, the president looks for allies who'll defend him without regard for his culpability. Second, he looks for fixers who'll help make the problem go away.

And third, he looks for a fall guy.

President Donald Trump told House Republicans Friday that he was urged by Energy Secretary Rick Perry to make the midsummer phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that is now at the center of House Democrats' impeachment inquiry, two sources familiar with the matter told NBC News.

Trump suggested it was a call he didn't even want to make, the sources said.

According to Axios' report, the president told GOP lawmakers, "Not a lot of people know this but, I didn't even want to make the call. The only reason I made the call was because Rick asked me to." Another source said Trump added, in reference to Perry, "[M]ore of this will be coming out in the next few days."

At a certain level, this is pretty amusing: Trump believes his call with Zelensky was perfect, appropriate, innocent, above board in every way, and should definitely be blamed on his Energy secretary.

But that's just the start of the problem. It's likely that Perry was among the administration officials who encouraged the president to reach out to his Ukrainian counterpart, but there's nothing to suggest the Texas Republican told Trump to use the phone meeting to coerce Zelensky into helping Trump's re-election campaign.

Even if Perry wrote the script for Trump -- a bizarre idea, to be sure -- it's not as if the president can credibly argue, "I only committed impeachable acts because my subordinate recommended it."

But given everything we know, even that's overly generous. We know from the call summary released by the White House that Perry's name did not come up during the Trump/Zelensky discussion, and the American president made no effort to bring up energy-related issues. Trump's effort to leverage campaign aid from Ukraine wasn't Perry's idea; it was Trump's.

But I was also interested in the idea that more information related to Perry and the scandal will be "coming out in the next few days." Is that so.

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Trump's whistleblower strategy backfires, new accuser comes forward

10/07/19 08:00AM

After an intelligence community whistleblower exposed Donald Trump's latest scandal, the president adopted a strategy featuring two main elements, one of which was less subtle than the other.

The overt part of Trump's plan was to tear down the whistleblower's credibility and discredit his or her complaint. The president seemed to convince himself that if he simply repeated the line that the complaint had been debunked, then at least some of the public might accept his bogus assertion as fact and the larger scandal would unravel.

This approach failed. The whistleblower's complaint has stood up quite well to scrutiny. In fact, when a reporter asked the president late last week if he could point to something specific in the whistleblower's complaint that was inaccurate, Trump hemmed and hawed for a while, but he couldn't answer the question directly.

But just below the surface, there was another apparent element of the strategy: Trump no doubt realized that others within the administration were aware of his wrongdoing, and he likely hoped that an aggressive and public campaign against one whistleblower might discourage others from coming forward.

If this was part of the president's plan, it failed, too.

A second whistleblower has come forward with information about President Donald Trump's call with the president of Ukraine, according to attorneys representing that whistleblower and the intelligence official whose earlier complaint set off a series of events that led to an impeachment inquiry.

The second whistleblower "has first-hand knowledge" of the events, according to the first whistleblower's attorney, Mark Zaid. The original whistleblower did not listen directly to Trump's call, but talked to people who had.

NBC News' report added that the second whistleblower "is not filing a separate formal complaint," evidently because it's unnecessary. Nevertheless, this person is "still entitled to legal protections for cooperating with the inspector general."

For his part, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is vowing to expose the whistleblowers, forcing them to testify publicly, if the U.S. House impeaches Trump, as now appears likely.

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Friday's Mini-Report, 10.4.19

10/04/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* CIA: "Weeks before the whistleblower's complaint became public, the CIA's top lawyer made what she considered to be a criminal referral to the Justice Department about the whistleblower's allegations that President Donald Trump abused his office in pressuring the Ukrainian president, U.S. officials familiar with the matter tell NBC News."

* Pence: "House committees conducting an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump want Vice President Mike Pence to turn over any documents he might have about the president's attempts to get Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and the 2016 U.S. election."

* New Ukrainian developments: "Ukraine's prosecutor general's office said Friday it is reviewing past investigations into the owner of a gas company linked to former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's son, raising the possibility of restarting probes amid pressure from President Trump."

* The other whistleblower: "The Treasury Department's acting inspector general has opened an investigation into whether the Trump administration acted improperly during its ongoing fight with House Democrats over releasing President Trump's tax returns."

* SCOTUS: "The Supreme Court said Friday that it will decide the fate of a Louisiana law that women's groups said would leave only a single doctor to perform abortions in the entire state."

* Maybe Marco Rubio should take note: "Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, slammed President Donald Trump for urging Ukraine and China to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, calling the appeals 'appalling.'"

* An important new report from NYU: "Every president over the past two decades has, to some degree, undermined research and injected politics into science, the report said. But, it concluded, 'Now, we are at a crisis point, with almost weekly violations of previously respected safeguards.' The report calls for stringent new standards to enshrine scientific independence."

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Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) participate in a debate sponsored by Fox News at the Fox Theatre on March 3, 2016 in Detroit, Mich. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Rubio does himself no favors with weak defense of Trump scandal

10/04/19 04:33PM

When Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal first broke two weeks ago, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) responded with lazy partisanship, telling Fox News the real controversy was Joe Biden getting a Ukrainian prosecutor fired to protect his son.

Even those who've come to expect very little from Rubio were struck by the pitiful response. As the Florida Republican must know, the former vice president -- representing the bipartisan position of the United States and much of the Western world -- targeted an inept prosecutor who wasn't pursuing a company Biden's son was associated with. Rubio's reflexive effort to defend Trump by smearing Biden didn't even make sense.

This week, however, the GOP senator was handed a great opportunity to redeem himself. Rubio has earned a reputation as a fierce China critic, so when his party's president publicly sought Beijing's assistance in targeting a domestic opponent yesterday, it offered the Floridian the chance to do the right thing, put country over party, and rebuke Donald Trump's obvious abuse.

Alas, as the Miami Herald reported, the senator chose a different path.

[W]hen President Donald Trump on Thursday publicly called on China to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential 2020 rival, Rubio said Trump's words were a ruse.

"I don't know if that's a real request or him just needling the press knowing that you guys are going to get outraged by it," Rubio told reporters at an economic opportunity event in the Florida Keys on Friday. "He's pretty good at getting everybody fired up and he's been doing that for a while and the media responded right on task." [...]

"I don't think that's a real request. I think he did it to gig you guys [reporters]," Rubio said. "I think he did it to provoke you to ask me and others and get outraged by it. He plays it like a violin and everybody falls right in, that's not a real request."

As Republican talking points go, this comes up from time to time as a way of shrugging off assorted Trump abuses. Last year, for example, when the White House went after the security clearances of former intelligence officials who've criticized the president, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters, "I think he's trolling people, honestly."

In that example, Ryan may have had a point; Trump didn't actually follow through. In the effort to compel foreign officials to help the president's re-election campaign, however, Rubio, in a rather literal sense, doesn't appear to know what he's talking about.

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Accused of corruption, Trump claims to be on an anti-corruption crusade

10/04/19 12:54PM

By any fair measure, Donald Trump has been at the center of so many corruption scandals, he's generally seen as among the most corrupt presidents in American history. It's therefore a bit ironic to hear the Republican make a spirited case that his efforts to coerce foreign governments to help his re-election campaign are really just an extension of a sincere anti-corruption crusade.

It's clear Trump has settled on this as his principal talking point, as evidenced by this morning's tweet.

"As President I have an obligation to end CORRUPTION, even if that means requesting the help of a foreign country or countries. It is done all the time. This has NOTHING to do with politics or a political campaign against the Bidens. This does have to do with their corruption!"

During a brief Q&A with reporters this morning, the Republican stuck to the phrasing with almost comical repetition, as if he'd been led to believe the words are a magical elixir that will make his scandals go away.

The pitch is so fanciful, it's almost insulting. Americans are genuinely supposed to believe that Trump and his GOP cohorts, indifferent to Joe Biden's work in Ukraine for several years, suddenly decided the former vice president is guilty of serious wrongdoing, evidence be damned. Trump and his allies came to this realization quite suddenly, and it occurred to them -- coincidentally, of course -- right around the time polls showed Biden leading the president in national polling by double digits.

The Republican, according to the White House's preferred narrative, isn't concerned at all with Biden's 2020 bid. Heaven forbid. Trump, his own corruption notwithstanding, simply feels an obligation to root out corruption wherever he finds it. By this reasoning, our beleaguered president is actually something akin to a hero, putting electoral considerations aside in a quest for good government around the globe.

If members of Team Trump believe such a laughable story is going to derail the impeachment process, they're likely to be disappointed.

In fact, the house of cards seemed to collapse quite suddenly this morning, when a White House reporter had the good sense to ask a question the president didn't see coming.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.4.19

10/04/19 12:00PM

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

* Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders remains hospitalized, but according to his wife, the Vermont senator will not need any additional medical procedures and he expects to participate in the Democratic primary debate scheduled for Oct. 15.

* Elizabeth Warren's presidential campaign raised $24.6 million in the third quarter, which is a very impressive haul, and puts her second only to Bernie Sanders' $25.3 million quarter. [Update: I added this item after originally publishing the round-up.]

* Reinforcing impressions that Donald Trump's 2020 campaign sees Joe Biden as a threat, the president's operation is launching a $1 million ad buy in early primary states, airing a new attack ad peddling a discredited conspiracy theory involving the former vice president and Ukraine.

* Speaking of Biden, the Democratic campaign announced yesterday that it raised $12.5 million in the third quarter. It's an underwhelming haul, which is roughly half the money Sanders raised over the same three-month period.

* For his part, Biden is moving forward with a $6 million ad buy in the first four states holding 2020 nominating contests.

* At an official White House event in Florida yesterday, Trump discussed 2020 campaign strategy, went after Elizabeth Warren with his "Pocahontas" slur, and labeled Joe Biden "Sleepy Joe." It served as a reminder that the president obviously has no qualms about blurring the lines of propriety ahead of 2020.

* In an increasingly common dynamic in the GOP, former Rep. Pete Sessions (R) is launching a comeback bid in a new congressional district. Sessions lost last year in Texas' 32nd district -- an area he'd represented for more than two decades -- so he's now moving to Texas' 17th district, which will be home to an open-seat contest next year.

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A pharmacy employee dumps pills into a pill counting machine as she fills a prescription while working at a pharmacy in New York

Trump (falsely) links pharmaceutical industry to impeachment process

10/04/19 11:20AM

Donald Trump was in Florida yesterday, holding an official White House event that seemed an awful lot like a campaign rally, where the president seemed to implicate the pharmaceutical industry in the scandal that's likely to lead to his impeachment.

After boasting that he and his team are "taking on the pharmaceutical companies," Trump added:

"You think that's easy? It's not easy. It's not easy. They come at you from all different sides. I wouldn't be surprised if the hoax didn't come a little bit from some of the people that we're taking on. They're very powerful. They spend a lot of money -- spend, I think, more money than any other group in the world actually, in terms of lobbying and lobbying abilities.

"And I wouldn't be surprised if some of the nonsense that we all have to go through, but that I go through -- wouldn't be surprised if it was from these -- some of these industries like pharmaceuticals that we take on."

This struck me as amazing for three reasons, so let's take a minute to unpack the multilayered nonsense.

First, Donald Trump isn't taking on the pharmaceutical industry. On the contrary, he tapped someone who oversaw a drug company's lobbying efforts to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, which came after he backed off his 2016 campaign promises related to drug pricing. The Republican occasionally likes to pretend he's a progressive crusader, but it's absurd.

Trump also tapped Joe Grogan, a former drug industry lobbyist, to help shape the administration's drug-pricing plan. The president later promoted the former lobbyist to lead the White House's Domestic Policy Council.

Second, the scandal that's likely to lead to his impeachment obviously isn't a "hoax." Trump has effectively already confessed. It's also why there's no reason to think nefarious corporate giants are trying to pull strings behind the scenes: there's simply no need.

Asked for a response to the president's nonsense, a spokesperson for PhRMA said yesterday, "Not to be so frank, but that is a ridiculous question."

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Historians: 'Nothing really surprises us anymore, until now'

10/04/19 10:41AM

Nicholas Burns is not someone easily mistaken for a hardball political operative. On the contrary, he's a career diplomat, who's worked for Democratic and Republican administrations, including serving as an ambassador under Bill Clinton and an undersecretary of State under George W. Bush.

With this in mind, it was notable to see Burns express public disgust yesterday after Donald Trump publicly urged China to go after Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 presidential campaign (and during delicate trade negotiations between the United States and China).

"This is a first in American history dating to 1789," Burns wrote on Twitter. "An American President has asked our strongest adversary, a communist dictatorship, to investigate his major opponent. Let that sink in. It is corruption -- morally and legally wrong."

The criticism was itself notable, though I was especially interested in his historical reference. The word "unprecedented" is probably used a bit too often, and some political observers fail to fully appreciate just how frequently history rhymes. But in this case, Burns' take wasn't hyperbolic: these circumstances are unique.

CNN published a piece this week from four historians -- Texas A&M's Elizabeth A. Cobbs, Arizona State's Kyle Longley, Colorado School of Mines' Kenneth Osgood, and the University of Texas at Austin's Jeremi Suri -- who agreed they've "never seen anything like" this Trump scandal.

In our numerous books on presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama, we have examined how American leaders conduct US foreign policy -- the good, bad, and ugly. Nothing really surprises us anymore.

Until now.

Trump's documentary record differs dramatically from his predecessors. A worrisome thread runs through each conversation. Trump appears laser-focused on his own fortunes to the exclusion of the national security of the United States. Unfortunately, this is part of a larger and startling pattern of Trump promoting his personal agenda ahead of the nation's interests.

It's worth emphasizing for context that the historians' piece was published on Wednesday -- the day before Trump stood on the White House's South Lawn and publicly urged two foreign governments to go after one of his domestic political rivals.

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