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Witness paints Trump scheme, Russian threat in vivid detail

Witness paints Trump scheme, Russian threat in vivid detail

11/08/19 09:00PM

Rachel Maddow reads highlights from the transcript of the testimony of former senior NSC official Fiona Hill before the House impeachment committees, including details of Donald Trump's Ukraine scheme being implemented and stern admonitions to take the Russian threat seriously and not be distracted by specious conspiracy theories. watch

Friday's Mini-Report, 11.8.19

11/08/19 05:29PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Vindman: "Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, told House impeachment investigators 'there was no doubt' what President Donald Trump was demanding during his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy."

* Bolton: "Former national security adviser John Bolton was 'personally involved in many of the events, meetings and conversations' at the heart of the House impeachment inquiry 'as well as many relevant meetings and conversations that have not yet been discussed' publicly, his lawyer revealed Friday."

* Stone trial: "Steve Bannon, who served as chief executive of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, told jurors Friday he saw Roger Stone as 'an access point' to WikiLeaks, which later released hacked emails damaging to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign."

* Trade: "President Trump on Friday said he had not yet agreed to roll back any of the tariffs he had imposed on China and that, if a deal is reached, he would not eliminate all of the levies he's placed on $360 billion worth of goods."

* Mulvaney: "Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney will skip a scheduled deposition Friday before the House committees leading the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, despite receiving a subpoena for his attendance, a senior administration official told NBC News."

* She's right, but I'm pretty sure her father disagrees: "Ivanka Trump on Friday echoed her father's view that the House impeachment investigation is an attempt to overturn the 2016 election. But, in an interview with The Associated Press, she parted ways with President Donald Trump by calling the identity of the impeachment whistleblower 'not particularly relevant.'"

* Just what the White House needs: infighting: "Two of Donald Trump's most senior aides, Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, are clashing over who should direct the president's response to the House impeachment inquiry."

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House GOP eyes new gambit to shield Trump: Find fall guys

11/08/19 02:46PM

After the U.S. House formally approved a measure to proceed with the impeachment inquiry, House Republican leaders held a press conference at which a reporter asked, "Will you all go on the record and say the president did nothing inappropriate?"

There were dozens of GOP lawmakers on the stage at the time. They collectively responded, "Yes."

This was, of course, a ridiculous posture, but more importantly, it was unsustainable. The evidence of "inappropriate" actions in Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal was, and is, overwhelming. Some Republicans may see value in playing make-believe and pretending the entire controversy is a mirage, but the vast majority of fair-minded observers will know better.

And that realization has led GOP officials to start exploring alternatives. Some in the party have been willing to acknowledge the abuses, but they insist they don't rise to an impeachable level. Others in the party are intent on trying to undermine the witnesses who've testified as part of the impeachment inquiry. A few have suggested just letting voters resolve the questions in the 2020 elections.

But as the Washington Post reported overnight, some congressional Republicans are prepared to acknowledge there was wrongdoing while pinning the mess on some fall guys.

House Republicans' latest plan to shield President Trump from impeachment is to focus on at least three deputies -- U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, Trump's lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, and possibly acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney -- who they say could have acted on their own to influence Ukraine policy.

All three occupy a special place in the Ukraine narrative as the people in most direct contact with Trump. As Republicans argue that most of the testimony against Trump is based on faulty secondhand information, they are sowing doubts about whether Sondland, Giuliani and Mulvaney were actually representing the president or freelancing to pursue their own agendas. The GOP is effectively offering up the three to be fall guys.

I will gladly concede that this is marginally better than pretending there was literally no wrongdoing of any kind -- a position House GOP lawmakers were willing to take as recently as last week.

But the idea that Republicans can protect Trump by throwing Sondland, Giuliani, and Mulvaney under the bus still isn't going to work.

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Trump pretends to 'hardly know' the ambassador he recently praised

11/08/19 12:36PM

Exactly one month ago this morning, Donald Trump had a very high opinion of Gordon Sondland, a Republican megadonor the president chose to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union. Trump described him as "a really good man" and a "great American."

And yet, despite the president's self-proclaimed great memory, he had a different recollection of Sondland during a brief Q&A with reporters this morning:

QUESTION: Gordon Sondland said at the beginning of September he presumed there was a quid pro quo. Then there was a telephone call to you on the September 9th. Had he ever talked to you prior to that telephone call?

TRUMP: Let me just tell you, I hardly know the gentleman. But this is the man who said there was no quid pro quo, and he still says that.... Everybody that's testified, even the ones that are Trump haters, they've all been fine. They don't have anything.

For now, let's put aside how spectacularly wrong the president is about the depositions in the impeachment inquiry, which even some Republicans have conceded paint a rather brutal picture for the White House. Let's instead focus on Trump's perspective as it relates to Sondland.

We know the president spoke to the ambassador over the phone. We know the president praised Sondland on Twitter. We even know that the Republican donor, who reportedly gave $1 million to the president's inaugural committee, is one of "a small cadre of ambassadors who enjoy direct and frequent access to Trump."

We also know, of course, that Sondland is a key figure in the impeachment inquiry who revised his congressional testimony this week to alert lawmakers to the fact that there was, in fact, a quid pro quo.

I can understand why Trump suddenly wants to pretend he "hardly knows the gentleman," but it's far too late for that.

This is, however, part of an amazing pattern for the president, who routinely pretends to forget his associates at the first sign of trouble.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.8.19

11/08/19 12:00PM

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

* The Lexington Herald-Leader reported yesterday, "A growing number of Republican lawmakers are urging Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a fellow Republican, to either provide evidence of the voting 'irregularities' he has alleged or concede Tuesday's election to Gov.-elect Andy Beshear, who defeated him by 5,189 votes."

* Last night, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions formally kicked off his U.S. Senate campaign, hoping to reclaim his old seat. The Alabama Republican, ridiculed, condemned, and fired by Donald Trump, took care in his announcement video to express his support for the president.

* On a related note, while Sessions joins a crowded GOP primary field, Alabama's senior U.S. senator, Republican Richard Shelby, quickly threw his support behind his former colleague.

* For his part, Trump told reporters this morning that he doesn't plan to actively campaign against Sessions, though the president added, "I'll see how it all goes. We'll see what happens."

* Montana Gov. Steve Bullock's (D) presidential campaign has launched its first television ad in Iowa, prominently featuring state Attorney General Tom Miller, a Bullock backer and the highest-ranking Dem in Iowa's state government.

* After getting an implicit green light from the former vice president, a newly formed super PAC supporting Joe Biden's presidential campaign has "kicked into gear."

* In Seattle this week, it appears that's effort to overhaul the local city council came up short.

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The Republican National Committee headquarters, Sept. 9, 2014. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

When Republicans' hostility toward democracy gets overt

11/08/19 11:16AM

Donald Trump has spent much of his presidency promoting a map of the United States featuring Republican areas in red and Democratic areas in blue. The point, of course, is for people to see the image, notice the prevalence of scarlet, and assume that Trump's GOP is dominant.

A closer look, however, makes clear that the image is fundamentally misleading: because Democratic voters are often concentrated in urban areas -- which take up far fewer square miles than a state like Wyoming, for example -- Trump's preferred map makes it seem as if land is more important than people. To take democracy seriously one must discount such nonsense.

And yet, it remains a prevalent posture in contemporary Republican politics. After Gov.-elect Andy Beshear (D) narrowly won in Kentucky this week, Kelli Ward, the chair of the Arizona Republican Party, published a tweet featuring images of the Bluegrass State that were similar to Trump's national map, with much of Beshear's support concentrated in smaller geographic areas with larger populations.

For Ward, this pointed to a problem in need of a solution -- such as a state-based electoral college. It didn't take long for the Arizona Republic's Laurie Roberts to note the problem.

Republicans, take heart. Arizona state GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward has a truly genius idea for the party's next move in light of this week's election losses in three states.

While some Republicans are warning that the results in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky should serve as a wake-up call, Ward has a different vision for how to stop the bleeding.

It's simple, really: just cut back on democracy.

Quite right. As the chair of the Arizona GOP sees it, if a Democrat wins an election, the proper response is to explore ways to dilute the electoral power of areas where there are more voters. That way, Republican candidates can win -- whether voters like it or not.

A CNN analysis noted in response, "The problem with Ward's argument is, well, it's dumb. Very dumb."

That's more than fair under the circumstances. But it's arguably incomplete, because the idea that American voters shouldn't decide the outcome of American elections is as pernicious as it is foolhardy.

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Jim Jordan accused of turning a blind eye in Ohio State controversy

11/08/19 10:09AM

For over a year, Ohio State University has confronted a controversy surrounding the late Dr. Richard Strauss, a former physician for student athletes from the mid-1970s to late 1990s, who's been accused of molesting students during his tenure. Independent investigators ultimately concluded that the doctor sexually abused 177 male students.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), perhaps best known for helping create the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, was a coach at the university during part of Strauss' tenure, and as we've discussed, he's been accused of turning a blind eye to the doctor's abuses.

It's against this backdrop that NBC News ran a new report last night, advancing the story further.

A professional referee says in a lawsuit filed Thursday that disgraced doctor Richard Strauss masturbated in front of him in a shower after a wrestling match at Ohio State University, and he reported the encounter directly to Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who was then the assistant coach.

"Yeah, that's Strauss," Jordan and then-head coach Russ Hellickson replied, according to the lawsuit, when the referee, identified in court papers as John Doe 42, told them about the incident. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Ohio, implies that Jordan's response to the incident, which the referee said happened in 1994, was essentially a shrug.

John Doe 42 is the second person to say he told Jordan directly about either being approached or molested by Strauss.

"It was common knowledge what Strauss was doing so the attitude was it is what it is," the referee told NBC News. "I wish Jim, and Russ, too, would stand up and do the right thing and admit they knew what Strauss was doing, because everybody knew what he was doing to the wrestlers. What was a shock to me is that Strauss tried to do that to me. He was breaking new ground by going after a ref."

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Trump's Pentagon contradicts Trump on keeping Syrian oil

11/08/19 09:20AM

Donald Trump, indifferent to the consequences of his decision, recently announced a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, and spent weeks assuring Americans his radical shift was "strategically brilliant."

It wasn't. Not only did conditions on the ground quickly turn catastrophic, but the Republican president isn't really withdrawing. As the New York Times noted last week, "[T]he total number of United States forces in Syria is expected to be about 900 -- close to the 1,000 troops on the ground when Mr. Trump ordered the withdrawal of American forces from the country."

Trump has defended his foreign policy reversal -- actually, the latest in a series of foreign policy reversals -- by saying he intends to keep troops on the ground to get Syrian oil. Indeed, last week, he boasted that the United States has "taken" Syrian oil and are prepared to "militarily stop" those who try to claim it.

Reflecting on the Syrian oil's value, Trump went on to say that the United States "should be able to take some," adding, "[W]hat I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly." (In context, "it" appeared to refer to extracting oil.)

It's a tough dynamic to defend -- it's illegal for a country to send troops into another country to take its natural resources -- but the president continues to echo his message, boasting at recent campaign rallies about "keeping" Syrian oil.

Trump's rhetoric, however, is wholly at odds with Trump administration's policy. As Vox reported yesterday:

On Thursday, the Pentagon's top spokesperson told reporters in no uncertain terms that the US would not be keeping any of the revenue from those oil fields.

"The revenue from this is not going to the US. This is going to the SDF," Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said, using an acronym for the Kurdish-led, US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces.

I checked with others in the government to ensure that was actually the policy. Turns out that it is. "The SDF is the sole beneficiary of the sale of the oil from the facilities they control," a senior administration official told me.

All of which raises some awkward questions.

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Just when it seemed the Dems' 2020 field was starting to shrink...

11/08/19 08:45AM

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg considered a presidential campaign in 2008. And 2012. And then again in 2016.

In each instance, things didn't quite work out for the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat, and six months ago, Bloomberg conceded that he wouldn't be a candidate in the 2020 election cycle, either. "I believe I would defeat Donald Trump in a general election," he wrote in column announcing his decision not to run. "But I am clear-eyed about the difficulty of winning the Democratic nomination in such a crowded field."

Evidently, the former mayor now sees a different landscape through those clear eyes.

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is positioning himself to enter the Democratic presidential primary, a longtime Bloomberg adviser confirmed to NBC News Thursday, though he has not yet made a final decision.

"Yes and yes," Kevin Sheekey wrote in an email responding to the questions about whether Bloomberg, 77, a billionaire businessman, was preparing to run and collecting signatures in Alabama, moves first reported by The New York Times on Thursday afternoon.

The Alabama angle may seem unexpected -- it's a ruby-red state that is unlikely to play a major role in the election -- but it's the state with the earliest filing deadline. In fact, that deadline is today, which is why, as the New York Times' report put it, Bloomberg is "expected to file paperwork this week designating himself as a candidate in at least one state." (The filing deadline in New Hampshire is a week from today, and by any fair measure, it's of greater electoral importance.)

According to the former mayor's spokesperson, Howard Wolfson, Bloomberg's principal concern is that the current field of Democratic presidential hopefuls isn't strong enough to defeat Donald Trump, which apparently led Bloomberg to reconsider his decision.

Complicating matters, he's not alone: the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson noted late yesterday that he spoke to a reliable source who told him former Attorney General Eric Holder "has been consulting strategists" about also possibly jumping into the 2020 presidential race."

So, let's take stock.

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Trump to pay millions in case over fraudulent charitable foundation

11/08/19 08:00AM

As a presidential candidate in 2016, Donald Trump took great pride in boasting to the public that he doesn't settle lawsuits. "I don't settle cases," the Republican bragged during a primary debate in March 2016. "I don't do it because that's why I don't get sued very often, because I don't settle, unlike a lot of other people."

Indeed, in June 2018, when the president's fraudulent charitable foundation was taken to court, Trump made a specific vow via Twitter: "I won't settle this case!"

Yesterday, he settled the case, agreeing to a $2 million judgment for improperly using the now-defunct Trump Foundation.

The order appears to bring to an end the New York attorney general's lawsuit against the president and three of his oldest children over the now-shuttered foundation, which the attorney general said had engaged in repeated wrongdoing.

"Our petition detailed a shocking pattern of illegality involving the Trump Foundation — including unlawful coordination with the Trump presidential campaign, repeated and willful self-dealing, and much more," then-Attorney General Barbara Underwood alleged in a statement late last year.

The Washington Post had a report on the developments, which added, "In a statement signed by Trump's attorney, the president admitted to poor oversight of the charity."

And while I'm sure the president isn't pleased with the $2 million judgment, this case could've been much worse for Trump. We are, after all, talking about an entity that was supposed to be a charitable foundation, which Trump repeatedly misused for his own interests.

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