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Friday's Mini-Report, 11.22.19

11/22/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The Horowitz probe: "A highly anticipated report by the Justice Department's inspector general is expected to sharply criticize lower-level F.B.I. officials as well as bureau leaders involved in the early stages of the Trump-Russia investigation, but to absolve the top ranks of abusing their powers out of bias against President Trump, according to people briefed on a draft."

* Ukraine: "[I]n Kyiv, the status of the U.S. Embassy is shaky at best with many top officials under attack from Trump and his allies. It has left Ukrainians questioning whether U.S. diplomats can really connect them to the White House and have Trump's ear."

* Seems fair: "Joe Biden's presidential campaign accused Sen. Lindsey Graham of having 'forfeited his conscience' for requesting State Department records concerning the former vice president's efforts to oust a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor in 2016."

* So many flip-flops: "President Donald Trump's White House meeting with vaping lobbyists and anti-tobacco activists erupted in shouting and debate Friday afternoon as the president seemed poised to backpedal on his ban of flavored e-cigarettes."

* The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative: "Attorney General William Barr announced a nationwide plan Friday to address the crisis of missing and slain Native American women as concerns mount over the level of violence they face. Barr announced the plan, known as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative, during a visit with tribal leaders and law enforcement officials on the Flathead Reservation in Montana."

* A case worth watching: "The Supreme Court will take up the Trump administration's bid to end a lawsuit filed by Muslim men who say they were placed on the government's no-fly list because they refused to serve as FBI informants."

* Another case worth watching: "'Protecting Statutory Conscience Rights in Health' is a controversial rule that may be held up in the courts right now but could be appealed by the Trump administration any day. The rule expands who is defined as a health care worker, and could lead to more patients being denied an abortion or other procedure if the worker believes it violates their own religious or moral beliefs."

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Trump targets ambassador in a decidedly Trumpian way

11/22/19 04:33PM

A week ago today, Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, delivered some rather brutal testimony to the congressional impeachment inquiry, further cementing the fact that Donald Trump and his associates hatched a scheme that prioritized the president's interests over the United States'. This morning, the president appeared on Fox News and made his first extended public comments about Yovanovitch,

From the transcript:

"Look, the ambassador, the woman, she wouldn't even put up -- she's an Obama person.... This ambassador that, you know, everybody says is so wonderful, she wouldn't hang my picture in the embassy, OK? She's in charge of the embassy. She wouldn't hang it.

"It took like a year and a half or two years for her to get the picture up. She said bad things about me. She wouldn't defend me. And I have the right to change an ambassador. [...]

"This was an Obama person. Wouldn't -- didn't want to hang my picture in the embassy. It's standard as you put the president of the United States picture in an embassy. This was not an angel, this woman, OK? And there are a lot of things that she did that I didn't like and we will talk about that at some time."

First, Yovanovitch has served diplomatic roles for decades across multiple presidents from both parties. To dismiss her as an "Obama person" is absurd.

Second, Trump is apparently preoccupied with whether embassies feature his picture, which is a little weird, and in this case, wrong. A person connected to Yovanovitch's legal team told NBC News today, "The Embassy in Kyiv‎ hung the official photographs of the president, vice president, and secretary of state as soon as they arrived from Washington, D.C."

By some accounts, those photographs didn't arrive in embassies until nearly a year into his presidency.

Third, the president wants us to believe there are "things" about Yovanovitch that will reach the public "at some time," but this page from the Joe McCarthy playbook is the sort of gambit Trump tries all the time. There's never any follow through, because the "things" never exist outside his overactive imagination.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

Ignoring Fiona Hill's warnings, Trump echoes Russian propaganda

11/22/19 12:58PM

Yesterday, Dr. Fiona Hill, the former top Russia expert on the White House National Security Council, implored Republicans to stop echoing propaganda created by the Kremlin to undermine the United States and help Moscow. "In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interest," she testified."

Hill added, "I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary – and that the Ukraine, not Russia, attacked us in 2016." She went on to take aim at the "fictional narrative" that Kyiv was somehow responsible for the attack, a discredited claim "being perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services."

House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a sycophantic White House ally, tried to push back, insisting that Republicans didn't need the reminder because they had already acknowledged the truth. And yet, one day later, Donald Trump appeared on Fox News' morning program, where he ignored Hill's warnings, contradicted Nunes, and echoed Russian propaganda.

TRUMP: You know, it's very interesting. They have the server, right, from the DNC, Democratic National Committee, you know.

KILMEADE: Who has the server?

TRUMP: The FBI went in and they told them, get out of here, you're not getting -- we're not giving it to you. They gave the server to Crowdstrike, or whatever it's called, which is a country -- which is a company owned by a very wealthy Ukrainian. And I still want to see that server. You know, the FBI has never gotten that server. That's a big part of this whole thing. Why did they give it to a Ukrainian company? Why?

DOOCY: Are you sure they did that? Are you sure they gave it to Ukraine?

TRUMP: Well, that's what the word is. That's what I asked actually in my phone call, as you know.

To the extent that reality still has any meaning, we already know that everything the president said about this conspiracy theory is both wrong and crackpot nonsense. There is no ambiguity: the claim Trump keeps peddling, publicly and to national audiences, is just crazy. Even White House officials have urged the president not to believe it. He doesn't care.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.22.19

11/22/19 12:00PM

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

* Though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has ruled out a U.S. Senate campaign on multiple occasions, Donald Trump told Fox News this morning that the Kansas Republican would run in his home state if he feared a Democratic victory in the race.

* The California Supreme Court ruled unanimously against a recently approved state law requiring presidential candidates to submit their tax returns as a condition for appearing on the ballot. This is, of course, the outcome Trump, who insists on keeping his tax returns secret, wanted to see.

* Though his status is getting a little confusing, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg yesterday filed the FEC paperwork to run as a Democratic candidate for president. Bloomberg's aides, however, soon after said he has not yet decided on whether to launch a campaign.

* Speaking of 11th-hour entrants, former Gov. Deval Patrick's Democratic presidential campaign is reportedly looking past Iowa and New Hampshire, and instead focusing on South Carolina's Feb. 29 primary as the contest that could make him a serious contender.

* On a related note, Patrick was scheduled to speak at Morehouse College in Georgia this week, but the event was canceled when only two people showed up.

* Former President Barack Obama continues to occasionally make public comments about the 2020 race, and at a California event yesterday, he urged Democrats not to impose "purity tests" during the primary.

* In news that some RNC donors theoretically may not care for, the Republican National Committee, headed into a challenging election cycle, apparently spent nearly $95,000 to help make Donald Trump Jr.'s book a bestseller.

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

Republicans prepared to ignore 'mountain' of uncontested evidence

11/22/19 11:18AM

If the domestic political world were playing a game of Clue, the impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump would be at its end point when the player identifies the culprit behind the crime. Each of the relevant players now knows who was responsible for the misdeeds, and the questions about how, when, and why the misdeeds were committed have been answered.

For all intents and purposes, the riddle has been solved. The game is over.

The Associated Press published a rather brutal analysis this morning, highlighting the "mountain of evidence" that is uncontested and "beyond dispute."

Trump explicitly ordered U.S. government officials to work with his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani on matters related to Ukraine, a country deeply dependent on Washington's help to fend off Russian aggression. The Republican president pushed Ukraine to launch investigations into political rivals, leaning on a discredited conspiracy theory his own advisers disputed. And both American and Ukrainian officials feared that Trump froze a much-needed package of military aid until Kyiv announced it was launching those probes.

Those facts were confirmed by a dozen witnesses, mostly staid career government officials who served both Democratic and Republican administrations. They relied on emails, text messages and contemporaneous notes to back up their recollections from the past year.

Stitched together, their hours of televised testimony paint a portrait of an American president willing to leverage his powerful office to push a foreign government for personal political help.

Well, sure, when one puts it that way -- which is to say, accurately -- the controversy sounds pretty bad.

At least, that is, to those looking at the facts objectively. I'll confess, over the course of the public hearings, I found myself thinking on multiple occasions, "Even the most hyper-partisan congressional Republicans won't be able to dismiss these revelations."

Those were, of course, foolish assumptions. Not only is Donald Trump pretending the devastating revelations exonerated him, but Politico reported overnight, "[E]ven as Democrats felt that they had made an ironclad case that Trump had abused the power of his office by pressuring a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 election, they were no closer to persuading even a single House Republican to join them in voting to impeach the president."

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Trio of stories point to Trump possibly profiting from presidency

11/22/19 10:45AM

For those concerned about Donald Trump profiting from his presidency, the latest headlines paint a deeply unsettling picture. For example, Politico ran this report yesterday afternoon:

The Secret Service spent more than a quarter of a million dollars at President Donald Trump's properties over the course of five months in 2017, newly released documents show.

The documents outline Secret Service credit card expenditures for Trump properties and businesses between Jan. 27 and June 9, 2017, and were obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request via the nonprofit watchdog group Property of the People.

The article added, in case it's not obvious, that the taxpayer-funded expenditures "raise new questions about the extent to which Trump is personally profiting from the federal government, which is prohibited by the Constitution's Domestic Emoluments Clause."

And speaking of the Constitution's Domestic Emoluments Clause, the Washington Post yesterday reported on a related new controversy.

When Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin came to Washington in January for two nights -- one of many visits the Republican had made to the nation's capital -- he stayed at President Trump's D.C. hotel. Kentucky taxpayers initially footed the $686 bill, records obtained by The Washington Post show.

Although Kentucky's Republican Party reimbursed the state for Bevin's stay two months later, the transaction may still run afoul of an anti-corruption provision of the Constitution barring the president from receiving any "emoluments," or payments, from the states, legal experts say.

And then, of course, there's arguably the most outrageous example of the Republican's corruption to date: Trump's effort to have a G-7 summit hosted at one of his struggling venues. The Washington Post had this report seven days ago:

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North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un walks to greet Donald Trump at the Military Demarcation Line that divides North and South Korea, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized zone (DMZ) on June 30, 2019.

Trump manages to fail in North and South Korea simultaneously

11/22/19 10:07AM

The rationale behind Donald Trump's antagonistic posture toward our South Korean allies has never been clear, but whatever the reasoning, it's getting worse and creating a more serious diplomatic challenge.

This year, Seoul will pay nearly $1 billion for the presence of more than 28,000 U.S. troops. Trump recently decided he wants $4.7 billion -- a figure that reportedly "came out of thin air" -- despite the advice of Pentagon officials who urged the White House to take a more responsible course.

This week, South Korean officials balked at Trump's demands. As the Washington Post reported, it led an American delegation to walk away from the negotiating table.

The United States broke off talks with South Korea on Tuesday over how to share the cost of the two nations' military alliance, injecting fresh tension into the relationship over Washington's demands that Seoul pay sharply more.

President Trump has demanded South Korea raise fivefold its contribution to cover the cost of stationing 28,500 U.S. troops in the country, asking for nearly $5 billion, officials on both sides said. But that demand has triggered anger from Korean lawmakers and sparked concerns that Trump may decide to reduce the U.S. troop presence in the Korean Peninsula if talks break down.

James DeHart, the top U.S. negotiator, complained that South Korean offers "were not responsive to our request for fair and equitable burden sharing."

Or put another way, the United States is trying to shake down an ally as part of a scheme that resembles a protection racket. Our friends are uncomfortable with our demands, so we decided to stop talking to them until they agreed to pay us billions of dollars.

Oddly enough, while Trump's policy toward South Korea is failing, his policy toward North Korea is failing in similar ways. The New York Times reported this week:

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Workers inspect an area outside a retaining wall around storage tanks where a chemical leaked into the Elk River at Freedom Industries storage facility  in Charleston, West Virginia, Monday, Jan. 13, 2014.

Trump admin to roll back Obama-era chemical safety standards

11/22/19 09:20AM

Donald Trump and his team have long taken an unsettling approach toward chemical safety. In the Republican's first year in office, for example, the president nominated Michael Dourson to lead the Environmental Protection Agency's office of chemical safety, despite the fact that Dourson had spent much of his career not only accepting money from the chemical industry, but also helping chemical companies fight against chemical safety regulations.

The issue clearly has not faded from the administration's radar. The Washington Post reported late yesterday:

The Environmental Protection Agency weakened a rule Thursday governing how companies store dangerous chemicals. [...]

Under the new standards, companies will not have to provide public access to information about what kinds of chemicals are stored on their sites. They also will not have to undertake several measures aimed at preventing accidents, such as analyzing safer technology and procedures, conducting a "root-cause analysis" after a major chemical release or obtaining a third-party audit when an accident has occurred.

According to Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who now leads Trump's EPA, this decision was driven by counter-terrorism concerns. Of course, it's worth noting for context that Trump's first EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, pursued the same change in 2017 for reasons that were unrelated to national security.

Let's also not forget what led to these safety rules in the first place. In 2013, there was a deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, which killed 15 people, injured more than 200 others, and leveled a significant part of a small town.

As longtime readers may recall, the public soon learned that the plant reportedly had no alarms, no automatic shutoff system, and no firewall. (We also learned that lax zoning laws allowed the explosive chemical plant to be built across the street from two schools and a nursing home.)

The Obama administration created new safety rules soon after. The Trump administration intends to roll those rules back.

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Graham ignores Trump scandal, chooses instead to pursue Biden

11/22/19 08:40AM

Two months ago, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters, “If you’re looking for a circumstance where the president of the United States was threatening the Ukraine with cutting off aid unless they investigated his political opponent, you’d be very disappointed. That does not exist.”

As regular readers know, of course, the senator was obviously wrong. The evidence that Donald Trump did exactly that is plain, obvious, and uncontested.

A month later, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman set an important standard in the president’s Ukraine scandal: “If you could show me that, you know, Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call, that would be very disturbing.”

Again, it’s now overwhelmingly clear that Trump was actually engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the July 25 phone call between the American president and Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelenskiy.

It's against this backdrop that the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee has decided to pursue a new line of inquiry -- against Joe Biden. Politico reported late yesterday:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) requested records from the State Department on Thursday related to then-Vice President Joe Biden's efforts to oust a Ukrainian prosecutor in 2016.

The letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo comes as Republicans seek to train scrutiny on Biden's actions in Ukraine amid impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump over his own efforts to pressure Ukraine's government to investigate his would-be rival for the White House.

Graham is seeking records related to phone calls that occurred in February and March 2016 between Biden and Ukraine's then-president, Petro Poroshenko, regarding U.S. demands that the country fire its top prosecutor. The prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was unpopular with Western leaders, who viewed him as corrupt, and Biden was representing official U.S. policy and that of allied governments.

The Washington Post added, "Graham's document request suggests he is seeking to legitimize Trump's accusations that Biden, then vice president, put pressure on Ukraine to fire its lead prosecutor to protect his son, a claim without evidence that has been disputed by officials familiar with the investigation."

In case anyone's forgotten, it's worth emphasizing that Graham told reporters in late September that he had no intention of launching a Biden-related investigation through the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the weeks that followed, as the House impeachment inquiry proceeded, witnesses -- including one called by Republicans to testify -- made it explicitly clear that the conspiracy theories directed at Biden have no basis in reality.

And yet, when confronted with this information, Graham decided to pursue Biden anyway. The South Carolinian's career has had its share of ups and downs, but this appears to be a low point.

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Snow begins to gather on a statue outside the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, Dec. 10, 2013.

On impeachment, Republicans' incompetence does Trump no favors

11/22/19 08:00AM

Donald Trump took a few moments during a White House cabinet meeting this week to reflect on the impeachment proceedings on Capitol Hill. The president who initially said he wasn't watching the hearings apparently tuned in and was impressed with what he saw -- from some of the lawmakers.

"I just got to watch -- and the Republicans are absolutely killing it," Trump said. "They are doing so well."

As this phase of the impeachment process comes to an apparent end, it's worth pausing to appreciate the degree to which the president had this backwards. Indeed, Trump shouldn't be praising his Republican allies; he should be scolding them for their incompetence.

GOP lawmakers, for example, occasionally flaunted their ignorance about basic details they were supposed to have learned.

During the committee's public hearing on Thursday, though, a series of interlocutors from the Republican side demonstrated that they were not particularly familiar with the testimony that had already been given -- or, at least, that they were willing to present that past testimony in a way that changed its significance.

Republicans also pursued lines of inquiry that hurt their own side.

As any lawyer knows, you're not supposed to cross-examine a witness by asking questions you don't know the answer to. But that happened over and over again with Republicans at Thursday's impeachment hearing, and it had predictably ugly consequences for the GOP.

As Rachel noted on the show last night, at one point during yesterday's proceedings, questions from Republican staff attorney Steve Castor proved so damaging for the White House that Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) intervened, cut Cantor off, and redirected the conversation toward safer partisan ground.

Even the witnesses House Republicans specifically called to testify ended up providing information that made matters quite a bit worse for Donald Trump.

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