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How McSally, others in GOP respond to fresh evidence against Trump

01/17/20 10:24AM

In a Capitol Hill hallway yesterday, CNN's Manu Raju asked appointed Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) if she'd consider examining fresh evidence as part of Donald Trump's impeachment trial. As you've probably heard, the Arizona Republican did not handle the question well.

"You're a liberal hack," McSally told a respected congressional journalist. "I'm not talking to you. You're a liberal hack."

Republican politics being what it is in the Trump era, McSally's office registered the domain name almost immediately after the incident. Soon after, the GOP senator asked donors to reward her outburst with campaign contributions. Last night, the Arizonan celebrated the incident on Fox News, as "You're a liberal hack, buddy" t-shirts went on sale online.

It was hardly a moment of pride for those concerned about the toxicity of our struggling political system, but the Washington Post's Greg Sargent took note of the larger context:

Trump's GOP defenders in the Senate continue to pretend that none of [the latest evidence against the president] is incriminating, and that it doesn't oblige them in the least to hear from the most direct witnesses to Trump's motives in freezing that money. Indeed, McSally was snidely brushing off a reporter who dared to ask whether, in light of all this new information, senators have any such obligation.

Quite right. McSally's over-the-top reaction was notable, but let's not lose sight of the question that sparked her outburst: will she and her Senate colleagues consider the whole truth about Trump's Ukraine scandal or not? The appointed senator's response was emblematic of a GOP that realizes the case against their party's president continues to grow stronger, and Republicans are increasingly uncomfortable with the circumstances.

Indeed, this is hardly limited to Martha McSally.

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The one underwhelming thing Trump's trade deals have in common

01/17/20 09:21AM

By most measures, Donald Trump's first meaningful trade agreement came together in September 2018, when the president signed a deal with South Korea alongside Moon Jae-in. "I'm very excited about our new trade agreement," the American president said at the time. "And this is a brand-new agreement. This is not an old one, rewritten. This is a brand-new agreement."

It was not a brand-new agreement. Negotiators tweaked and revised an existing policy, but Trump found that unsatisfying, so he hyped it in ways that defied reason.

A year and a half later, he's doing the same thing with even more enthusiasm.

On China, for example, Trump and his team tried to negotiate a sweeping new trade agreement, failed spectacularly, and settled on a modest "phase one" deal. Formalizing the agreement this week, the Republican declared, "It really just doesn't get any bigger than this."

That wasn't even close to being true. The new deal is vague, incomplete, and according to a variety of experts, "underwhelming." Politico quoted Trump confidants who "privately admit" the president is "hyping" a deal that doesn't do much.

He'll soon do the same thing with NAFTA 2.0, a.k.a. the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). The Washington Post's Catherine Rampell drove the point home nicely:

Trade was supposed to be President Trump's signature issue. He was going to get us the best, biggest, America-First-iest trade deals ever.

We're now two years into his multifront trade wars. They've fractured our international alliances, imposed tens of billions of dollars of new taxes on Americans, resulted in two expensive agricultural bailouts, multiplied farmer bankruptcies and landed the manufacturing sector in a recession.

Today, we're left to ask: Is that all there is?

She concluded that the best one can say about Trump's allegedly "historic" deals is that they won't make his unnecessary trade wars worse, which isn't exactly the basis for an impressive boast.

Heather Hurlburt recently added that Trump's trade breakthroughs are ultimately "a triumph of the trivial."

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John Cornyn, R-Texas, leaves Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's office in the Capitol on Oct. 8, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

Republicans get creative to downplay finding of Trump illegality

01/17/20 08:40AM

According to the Government Accountability Office, a non-partisan watchdog agency that conducts audits and investigations for Congress, the White House broke the law when it withheld military aid to Ukraine as part of Donald Trump's political extortion scheme. "Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law," the GAO found.

As part of its report, the agency emphasized that the executive branch can't block funds appropriated by Congress, even when legitimate policy differences drive the decision. In this sense, even if one is inclined to believe the pretextual White House argument -- Trump has a deep and abiding concern about "corruption" in Kyiv -- the administration's tactic was still illegal.

Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), currently in his 45th year on Capitol Hill, said yesterday in reference to the GAO's findings, "I have never seen such a damning report in my life.... I read it twice.... To have something saying this is such a total disrespect of the law. It's unprecedented."

Republicans didn't quite see it the same way. Indeed, the question wasn't whether Trump's GOP allies would downplay the findings; the question was how they'd dismiss the determination that Trump broke the law. Politico highlighted one of my favorites:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) went further, arguing that GAO got it wrong when the agency concluded the White House violated the Impoundment Control Act by declining to notify Congress of the delay in appropriated funds.

"I think they misunderstand the law. I think presidents withhold money all the time, move money around," Paul said. "I think there's a great deal of latitude to what presidents do. So I think they've misinterpreted the law."

Well, that's certainly one way to look at the scandal. After all, who are you going to trust to do a proper legal analysis of the Impoundment Control Act: the auditors and lawyers at the Government Accountability Office, whose job it is to make these kinds of determinations, or the legal opinions of a self-accredited ophthalmologist turned politician?

All joking aside, the Washington Post noted a slightly more substantive effort from another prominent GOP senator.

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Did Trump flub the facts on troop injuries following Iran strike?

01/17/20 08:00AM

Last week, in retaliation for the U.S. airstrike that killed Gen. Qassim Soleimani, Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi air bases housing U.S. forces. The next morning, Donald Trump delivered a strange speech, littered with unnecessary falsehoods, though the president stressed an important bottom line.

"I'm pleased to inform you, the American people should be extremely grateful and happy no Americans were harmed in last night's attack by the Iranian regime," Trump said near the outset of his remarks. "We suffered no casualties, all of our soldiers are safe, and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases."

As NBC News reported last night, those remarks may not have been altogether accurate.

Several U.S. service members were treated for concussions after Iran launched ballistic missiles earlier this month in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. killing of a top Iranian commander, the Pentagon said Thursday. [...]

In the days after the attack, 11 service members have been transported to two hospitals, in Germany and Kuwait, for follow-up screening, [Capt. Bill Urban, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said in a statement].

The same statement added that while no U.S. service members were killed in the Jan. 8 Iranian attack, "several were treated for concussion symptoms from the blast and are still being assessed."

All of which raises the question of why, exactly, the American president made a point to say "no Americans were harmed" in the Iranian missile strike, given the evidence to the contrary.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 1.16.20

01/16/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* And so it begins: "Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and the nation's senators were sworn in Thursday afternoon for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump."

* Not exactly the Ukrainian investigation Trump was hoping for: "Ukrainian authorities said Thursday they had opened a criminal investigation into whether former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was under surveillance by associates of Rudy Giuliani while in Kyiv last spring."

* Trump sure does seem to have a problem with Puerto Rico: "The Trump administration imposed severe restrictions on Wednesday on billions of dollars in emergency relief to Puerto Rico, including blocking spending on the island's electrical grid and suspending its $15-an-hour minimum wage for federally funded relief work."

* A 5-4 ruling in the state of Washington: "The Washington State Supreme Court has invalidated key portions of a rule imposed by the administration of Gov. Jay Inslee capping greenhouse-gas emissions by fuel distributors, natural-gas companies and other industries."

* A story worth watching: "The FBI, in a change of policy, is committing to inform state officials if local election systems have been breached, federal officials told The Associated Press."

* Virginia: "Fearing a repeat of the deadly march by white nationalists in Charlottesville in 2017, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday declared a state of emergency and temporarily banned people from carrying guns and other weapons on the grounds of the state Capitol, where thousands of gun rights activists are expected to rally next week against stricter gun control laws."

* Republicans haven't given up on their anti-LGBTQ agenda, Part I: "Seven Republican lawmakers in Florida filed anti-LGBTQ bills late Monday, just hours before the deadline to file new bills for the coming legislative session."

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Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee walks to a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, for a meeting with UN Ambassador Susan Rice. Rice continued...

On impeachment, a step forward and a step back from Susan Collins

01/16/20 12:33PM

More than most Senate Republicans, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has been open to hearing witness testimony in Donald Trump's impeachment trial, and yesterday, the Maine Republican said she'd effectively succeeded.

As the New York Times reported, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) will, according to Collins, "include language in the Senate impeachment rules allowing a vote on whether to subpoena witnesses or new documents" during the president's trial. There's some question as to whether or not McConnell would've done this anyway, but Collins said she and some of her colleagues deserve credit.

And while that may have been a constructive step forward, Collins also appeared to take a step back yesterday afternoon.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a potential swing vote in the Senate impeachment trial, on Wednesday questioned why House Democrats have waited until now to release documents from a key witness claiming that President Trump had "knowledge and consent" of efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. [...]

Collins on Wednesday did not appear moved by a note on Ritz-Carlton stationery stating Parnas's chief objective was to ensure "the Biden case will be investigated."

"I wonder why the House did not put that into the record and it's only now being revealed," Collins told reporters when asked if the evidence changes her view on the need to hear from additional witnesses in the forthcoming trial.

The problem with this response, as the senator probably ought to know, is that the House "only now" produced this evidence because the House only recently received it: after Parnas was criminally charged in a campaign-finance case, the Justice Department seized his electronic devices.

When Parnas got his phone back, he received a court's permission to share the information with congressional investigators, which he did. Then, the House shared that same information with the public.

Collins "wonders why" these details are "only now being revealed," but there's no reason to wonder.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.16.20

01/16/20 12:00PM

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

* In a bit of a surprise, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the House Republican Conference chair, announced this morning that she'll run for re-election instead of seeking Wyoming's open U.S. Senate seat.

* Less than a month before New Hampshire's Democratic presidential primary, Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D), one of the state's two U.S. House representatives, is throwing her support behind Pete Buttigieg's campaign.

* In Wisconsin, widely seen as one of the nation's key 2020 battlegrounds, a new Marquette University Law School poll found Joe Biden leading Donald Trump in a hypothetical match-up by four points, while Bernie Sanders leads the incumbent president by one point. Trump, however, had modest leads over Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren.

* CNN released the audio late yesterday of the post-debate exchange between Warren and Sanders immediately after Tuesday night's event in Iowa.

* Missouri's Supreme Court this week issued a 5-2 ruling gutting the state's voter-ID law. As the Kansas City Star reported, "Voters can once again bring non-photo identification -- like a voter ID card, a college ID or a utility bill -- to the polls without having to sign an affidavit stating they don't have 'a form of personal identification approved for voting.'"

* Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) announced yesterday that she's taking a leave of absence from Congress for alcoholism treatment, but she nevertheless intends to run for re-election in November. Kirkpatrick represents Arizona's 2nd congressional district, which is the state's most competitive district, and which tends to lean "red."

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Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 5, 2013.

The problem with Blackburn's call for Dem recusals in Trump trial

01/16/20 11:25AM

As the Senate prepares for the start of Donald Trump's impeachment trial, first-year Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) wants to see some of her colleagues recuse themselves from the proceedings.

Is she thinking about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who publicly vowed to be in "total coordination" with the White House during the trial? No, Blackburn's fine with his participation.

Is she concerned about Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who's already bragged that he won't be "a fair juror," and who this week said he wants the Senate to "end this crap as quickly as possible"? No, Blackburn is fine with Graham's role, too.

Instead, the far-right Tennessean is pushing for the recusals of the Senate's Democratic presidential candidates.

Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, called on the four senators seeking the Democratic nomination for president to recuse themselves from the trial because of "unparalleled political interest" in removing President Trump from office.

The candidates, Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, are all expected to leave the campaign trail and take an oath to hear the case against Mr. Trump.

"To participate in this trial would be a failure of the oath they took to be an 'impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws,'" Ms. Blackburn said in a statement. "Their presidential ambitions prohibit their ability to view this trial through an objective lens."

Blackburn pushed this message on Twitter, and her missive received Donald Trump's personal endorsement, suggesting he, too, wants Bennet, Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren not to participate in the trial.

I have a hunch that's not going to happen, in large part because the argument doesn't make sense.

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The White House is seen under dark rain clouds in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty)

Federal watchdog agency: Trump broke law with Ukraine scheme

01/16/20 10:45AM

As Donald Trump's impeachment scandal has unfolded, one of the principal Republican arguments has focused on whether or not the president committed a criminal offense. This has long been an unfortune line of defense, which is suddenly quite a bit worse.

For one thing, impeachment is not dependent on statutory crimes. For another, there's fresh evidence that Trump's extortion scheme in Ukraine did, in fact, break the law.

The Trump Administration violated the law by withholding military aid to Ukraine, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a decision released Thursday.

"In the summer of 2019, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) withheld from obligation funds appropriated to the Department of Defense (DOD) for security assistance to Ukraine," the ruling said.

"Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law. OMB withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted under the Impoundment Control Act (ICA). The withholding was not a programmatic delay. Therefore, we conclude that OMB violated the ICA."

Between the GAO, OMB, and the ICA, that's a whole lot of relatively obscure three-letter acronyms, so let's take a step back and take stock of the law and this investigation.

In 1974, Congress passed a law to constrain the White House's powers when it came to funding appropriated by lawmakers. The change stemmed from a dispute between Congress and the Nixon administration over the Clean Water Act: lawmakers approved funding for wastewater treatment plants, which the Republican White House didn't want to spend.

Lawmakers responded by reclaiming some of their legal authority related to the "power of the purse."

There are some exceptions under this specific law, called the Impoundment Control Act, but none of them seems to apply to Donald Trump's decision to delay aid to Ukraine, approved by Congress, as part of an extortion scheme to get campaign dirt on a domestic rival -- a scheme the White House's Office of Management and Budget helped implement at the president's direction.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) asked the Government Accountability Office -- a non-partisan watchdog agency that conducts audits and investigations for Congress -- to determine whether the Trump administration did, in fact, break the law.

Today, the GAO responded: yes, that's precisely what happened.

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