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U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a press conference after the meeting of U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2

Trump went to 'extraordinary lengths' to conceal Putin chat details

01/14/19 08:40AM

Ahead of his July 2018 summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump insisted that the meeting be limited to a one-on-one discussion, with no other U.S. officials, even members of the Trump cabinet, participating. The White House never exactly explained why, but the assumption throughout the government was that the American leader would brief U.S. officials on the details of the meeting afterwards.

That didn't happen. White House officials, military leaders, and even Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats all conceded in the days following the summit that they didn't fully know what transpired behind closed doors.

It wasn't an isolated incident. The Washington Post  reported over the weekend that the Republican has "gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations" with the Russian autocrat who attacked our elections in 2016 in order to put Trump in power.

[Trump has established a pattern] of shielding his communications with Putin from public scrutiny and preventing even high-ranking officials in his own administration from fully knowing what he has told one of the United States' main adversaries.

As a result, U.S. officials said there is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump's face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years. Such a gap would be unusual in any presidency, let alone one that Russia sought to install through what U.S. intelligence agencies have described as an unprecedented campaign of election interference. [...]

Former U.S. officials said that Trump's behavior is at odds with the known practices of previous presidents, who have relied on senior aides to witness meetings and take comprehensive notes then shared with other officials and departments.

In one instance, according to the Post's reporting, Trump "took possession" of his own interpreter's notes after a conversation with Putin.

The publication of the report represented a one-two punch of sorts: over the course of 24 hours, the New York Times reported on the FBI's investigation into whether Trump was working on behalf of Russia against American interests, while the Washington Post reported that Trump hid details of his conversations with the Russian president.

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Asked whether he's worked for Russia, Trump doesn't answer directly

01/14/19 08:00AM

In late October 2016, about a week before Election Day, Kellyanne Conway thought she'd come up with a line that would help Donald Trump's candidacy. Targeting Hillary Clinton, Conway told Fox News, "If you're under your second FBI investigation in the same year, then you do have a ... corruption and an ethics problem."

In hindsight, that might not have been the ideal standard for Conway to have set.

Throughout much of his presidency, Trump has repeatedly responded to the Russia scandal with the same four-word phrase: "I'm not under investigation." We've known for quite a while that the assertion was wrong: Trump is the subject of an ongoing counter-espionage probe, which has explored, among other things, whether the president obstructed justice.

What we didn't know until Friday night, however, was that the FBI had another line of inquiry that pre-dated Special Counsel Robert Mueller's efforts.

In the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president's behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests, according to former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation.

The inquiry carried explosive implications. Counterintelligence investigators had to consider whether the president's own actions constituted a possible threat to national security. Agents also sought to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow's influence.

According to the Times' reporting, which hasn't been independently confirmed by MSNBC or NBC News, officials at the bureau had long been concerned about Trump's Russian ties, but it was the circumstances surrounding Comey's ouster -- which the president admitted to NBC News' Lester Holt was related to Trump's concerns about the Russia investigation -- that "helped prompt the counterintelligence aspect of the inquiry."

The historic nature of this is quite breathtaking. Throughout much of the Cold War, the FBI launched plenty of investigations into Americans thought to be possibly working on behalf of a foreign adversary.

None of them was a sitting president of the United States.

For those inclined to support Trump and give him the benefit of the doubt, I suppose the obvious response to revelations like these is to argue that the president only appeared to be a Russian asset when the FBI opened its inquiry. That's not, however, the White House's argument.

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Friday's Mini-Report, 1.11.19

01/11/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* This isn't the sort of record anyone should be proud to break: "The House broke for the weekend Friday, all but ensuring that the partial government shutdown would become the longest in U.S. history, while President Trump continued his efforts to sway public opinion on the need for a U.S.-Mexico border wall."

* In case the administration's position wasn't muddled enough already: "The U.S.-led military coalition in Syria has begun the process of withdrawing troops from Syria, a U.S. military official said Friday, declining to comment on specific timetables or movements."

* A little follow up following Rachel's RBG segment from last night: "Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will return to work and needs no further medical treatment, the court said Friday."

* Isn't it a little late for this? "Rep. Steve King spoke on the House floor Friday to address what he referred to as 'heartburn that seems to be churning across the media and America today' after the New York Times quoted him questioning how labels like 'white nationalists' and 'white supremacists' became offensive."

* At least a dozen Ukrainian political and business figures attended Donald Trump's inauguration in 2017, which "prompted interest from the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, as he investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election, and has spawned a number of related inquiries by federal prosecutors."

* A case of interest: "Six families of victims killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School won a legal victory Friday in their fight against controversial radio and internet personality Alex Jones. A judge in Connecticut has granted the families' discovery requests, allowing them access to, among other things, InfoWars' internal marketing and financial documents."

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President Donald Trump talks with reporters as he reviews border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego.

During border visit, Trump gets border apprehensions backwards

01/11/19 12:57PM

When Donald Trump talks about record-setting developments, it's probably a good idea to be skeptical. He argued this week, for example, that the number of jobs created in December was "record setting," It wasn't. In fact, December wasn't even the best month for jobs in 2018, much less all of American history.

But this is how the president likes to see the world: good news isn't just good, it's the best of all time, even when that's absurd. Over the summer, for example, the Republican boasted of "record" enrollments in association health plans, despite the fact that the plans hadn't yet gone on sale. Trump has similarly bragged several times that he set a "record" by increasing defense spending, even though the record doesn't belong to him.

Occasionally, the president talks about setting records without explaining what they are. In August, Trump told Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, "We've already broken every record in the book." As Daniel Dale noted, the Republican did not specify "which records or which book."

Yesterday, Trump traveled to southern Texas, where he highlighted another non-existent record set by Customs and Border Patrol officials. "They have done a fantastic job," the president said. "Never so many apprehensions, ever, in our history."

That's not just wrong; it's backwards.

In fact, apprehensions at the southern border are at historic lows. Border Patrol agents caught just under 400,000 people trying to illegally cross the border in 2017, and just over 300,000 in 2016. Yet from 1983 to 2006, border apprehensions topped one million 19 times, with the agency setting a record in 2000 with 1,643,679 apprehensions, according to Customs and Border Patrol data.

And while it's problematic when Trump peddles claims that aren't true, in this case, the issue is made more serious by how the president intends to respond to his confusion.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.11.19

01/11/19 12:00PM

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

* After his initial attempt at an apology fell short, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) again yesterday expressed his regret in response to women who endured sexual harassment while working for his 2016 presidential campaign.

* In Texas, the Tarrant County Republican Party considered removing Shahid Shafi, a trauma surgeon and Southlake City Council member, as the local GOP's vice chairman because he's Muslim. Yesterday, local Republican officials decided to let him keep his post.

* In 2020 news, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) will reportedly make a trip to Iowa next weekend. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is preparing a similar trip.

* On a related note, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has scheduled a few events in New Hampshire, where he'll be in a couple of weeks.

* Virginia's Corey Stewart, a controversial failed candidate for governor and U.S. Senate, announced this week that he's leaving politics "for the foreseeable future."

* The latest Public Policy Polling survey in North Carolina found Donald Trump trailing Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in hypothetical 2020 presidential match-ups, and the Republican tied Elizabeth Warren.

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Trump claims 'professional' expertise when it comes to technology

01/11/19 11:20AM

Three weeks ago today, ahead of the government shutdown deadline, Donald Trump acknowledged technological advancements along the U.S./Mexico border, though the president dismissed them as insufficient. We should take his word for it, Trump argued at the time, because as he put it, "I know tech better than anyone."

Twelve days later, during his first-ever remarks in the White House press briefing room, the president noted proponents of using drones at the border. Again, Trump said they wouldn't make a significant difference. "I think nobody knows much more about technology, this kind of technology certainly, than I do," he said.

Yesterday, Trump inflated his expertise to a new level. The president isn't just a technological expert; he has "professional" skills in the area.

"The only [way] you're going to have border security -- there's only [one] way. You can have all the technology in the world. I'm a professional at technology. But if you don't have a steel barrier or a wall of some kind -- strong, powerful -- you're going to have human trafficking; you're going to have drugs pouring across the border; you're going to have MS-13 and the gangs coming in."

You and I might look at Donald J. Trump and see a television personality, an amateur politician, an amateur conspiracy theorist, and an overleveraged businessman who managed to lose money running a casino, but that's because our focus is too narrow.

We've evidently failed to see that Trump -- a man confused by Google News results -- is actually someone so proficient with technology that he's reached a "professional" level.

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Lawyer and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani at a press conference after appearing in court to call for the dismissal of a lawsuit filed against video game giant Activision in Los Angeles, Calif., Oct. 16, 2014. (Photo by Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Giuliani wants to 'correct' Mueller's report before its release

01/11/19 10:45AM

We don't know whether or when Special Counsel Robert Mueller will prepare a report on his findings in the Russia scandal. It's often assumed that Mueller and his team will issue such a document, at least to top officials in the Justice Department, but that's never been officially confirmed.

Inside Donald Trump's legal defense team, however, the president's attorneys are apparently working from the assumption that the special counsel's office will prepare a report. And as of last night, members of Team Trump don't just want to read the document; they want to edit it.

Rudy Giuliani says President Trump's legal team should be allowed to "correct" special counsel Robert Mueller's final report before Congress or the American people get the chance to read it.

The claim, made in a telephone interview with The Hill on Thursday evening, goes further than the president's legal advisers have ever gone before in arguing they have a right to review the conclusions of Mueller's probe, which is now in its 20th month.

"As a matter of fairness, they should show it to you -- so we can correct it if they're wrong," said the former New York City mayor, who is a member of Trump's personal legal team. "They're not God, after all. They could be wrong."

So, in Giuliani's vision of how the process should work, Mueller and his team would prepare a final report, which may implicate Trump in serious wrongdoing. Before that report is circulated, however, the president's lawyers would have an opportunity to give the document some touch-ups.

This would be done, Trump's lawyer said, as "a matter of fairness."

Giuliani's argument is obviously quite foolish and wholly at odds with how any system of justice is supposed to work. (Name another target of a criminal investigation who'd get the chance to "correct" an investigative report on their suspected misconduct before its release.) But let's also not forget that this is at odds with Team Trump's original plan.

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Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks at the Hudson Institute May 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

If today's 'national emergency' is at the border, what about tomorrow's?

01/11/19 10:00AM

A week ago, Donald Trump for the first time publicly raised the prospect of building a wall through a "national emergency" declaration. The idea, which the president is apparently prepared to pursue, involves Trump granting himself emergency powers, borrowing the "power of the purse" the Constitution gives to Congress, and spending taxpayer money in defiance of lawmakers' wishes.

I suggested at the time that Republicans may want to consider the implications of such a gambit. What happens, for example, when a Democratic president declares a national health care emergency and begins pursuing a Medicare-for-All system?

Some on the right have raised related questions. Erick Erickson, a prominent voice in conservative media, wrote on Twitter yesterday, "When the next Democratic president declares a national emergency over gun violence and takes executive actions to curtail gun purchases, you can thank the people urging Donald Trump to do the same with regards to the border."

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) raised the same concern on CNBC yesterday, though he pointed to a different issue.

The Florida Republican contended that Trump was elected on the promise of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and the president has to "keep that promise." But "we have to be careful about endorsing broad uses of executive power," he added. "I'm not prepared to endorse that right now."

Such a declaration would set a precedent, Rubio said. "If today, the national emergency is border security ... tomorrow the national emergency might be climate change."

There are some statutory limits about emergency powers to consider, but broadly speaking, these conservatives are right to be concerned. Once the door is open, and presidents start pursuing their ambitions in defiance of Congress, it isn't just Republicans who'll walk through that opening.

In fact, Rubio's example is of particular interest -- since the climate crisis, unlike the need for a giant border wall, is real.

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President Donald Trump talks with reporters after reviewing border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego.

Trump points to border concerns that a wall wouldn't (and couldn't) fix

01/11/19 09:20AM

Donald Trump traveled to McAllen, Texas, yesterday for a photo-op near the U.S./Mexico border, and as part of the public-relations display, the president examined photographs of tunnels criminals dug to smuggle guns and drugs across the border.

Time magazine picked up on the obvious point that the White House may have missed: "Neither border patrol agents nor President Trump explained how a border wall would help stop the flow of drugs through tunnels."

The same presentation featured money seized from a suspected criminal who had overstayed a visa. How would a wall address this? It wouldn't.

As the New York Times  reported, there was a lot of this dynamic to go around.

[Trump] surrounded himself with border agents, victims of horrible crimes, a display of methamphetamine and heroin, an AK-47 and an AR-15 rifle, and a trash bag stuffed with $362,062 in cash that had been confiscated by law enforcement officials.

In his view, it all added up to a single word, "crisis," with a lone solution, building a wall -- a point he emphasized in a discussion with the crime victims, law enforcement officers and McAllen residents. [...]

But there was another reality. The display of drugs, weapons and cash was mainly the product of law enforcement actions stopping criminals at international bridges, where most drugs are smuggled, and conventional ports of entry.

A giant border wall, of course, would not close international bridges or conventional ports of entry.

Similarly, Fox News last night aired Trump's latest interview with Sean Hannity, in which the president complained about the perceived dangers of Central American asylum-seekers. But again, seeking asylum is legal and this is largely unrelated to a possible wall.

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