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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 5.21.19

05/21/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Subpoenas: "House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., issued subpoenas on Tuesday to former White House communications director Hope Hicks and to Annie Donaldson, the former chief of staff to ex-White House counsel Don McGahn."

* I can't say I understand what's driving this: "Robert S. Mueller III and House Democrats have been unable to reach an agreement on how much of the special counsel's expected congressional testimony would be public, and how much would take place in private, according to people familiar with the matter."

* A big shake-up in Tennessee politics: "Tennessee's embattled House Speaker Glen Casada announced Tuesday he plans to resign following a vote of no confidence by his Republican caucus amid a scandal over explicit text messages."

* Not helpful: "U.S. fighter jets on Monday intercepted a half-dozen Russian warplanes off the coast of Alaska and kept tabs on the aircraft until they left the region, authorities said Tuesday."

* This story hasn't yet gone away: "Former Ohio State University students who say they were molested by Dr. Richard Strauss pushed back Tuesday against a statement by Rep. Jim Jordan, a former wrestling coach at the school, that he was exonerated by an independent investigation into the scandal."

* I guess the tax breaks for the rich weren't enough: "The Internal Revenue Service audited just 0.59% of individual tax returns last year, marking the seventh consecutive annual decline as the tax agency copes with smaller budgets and fewer workers.... Audits of the highest-income households dropped sharply, to their lowest levels since the IRS began reporting that data in 2008."

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Ben Carson watches as Donald Trump takes the stage during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Oct. 28, 2015, in Boulder, Colo. (Photo by Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Ben Carson flunks multiple tests on the basics of his job

05/21/19 04:42PM

Several years ago, there was an episode of The Simpsons in which Bart was supposed to deliver an oral report on Libya. Bart, of course, hadn’t done his homework and had no idea what to say.

He stood up, cleared his throat, looked at the blank page in front of him, and winged it "The exports in Libya are numerous in amount," he said, holding a blank page. "One thing they export is corn, or as the Indians call it, maize. Another famous Indian was Crazy Horse. In conclusion, Libya is a land of contrast. Thank you."

None of this made any sense, but Bart couldn’t stand up and say, “I have no idea what I’m talking about because I’m unprepared.” He had to say something, so he made up some silliness and got the ordeal over with as quickly as possible.

All of this came to mind watching Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson testify before the House Financial Services Committee this afternoon, fielding congressional questions a HUD secretary should've been able to answer.

The most striking exchange began with Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) asking Carson some questions related to mortgage policy, which is a subject the HUD secretary apparently knows very little about. The question was about the disparity in REO rates:

Porter: Do you know what an REO is?

Carson: [Pause] An Oreo...

Porter: No, not an Oreo. An R-E-O.

Carson: Real estate...

Porter: What's the "O" stand for?

Carson had no idea, so the Democratic congresswoman said, "Real estate owned – that's what happens when a property goes into foreclosure, we call it an REO, and FHA loans have much higher REOs -- that is, they go into foreclosure rather than into loss mitigation or to non-foreclosure alternatives like short sales, than comparable loans" at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

If it seems odd that a member of Congress would have to explain this to the HUD secretary, as if she were teaching a class to an undergraduate class, it was very odd.

But it wasn't an isolated incident. When Porter asked Carson whether he supports adjusting the interest curtailment penalty schedule for FHA loans that are in default, he gave an answer that suggested he had no idea what the question meant.

When Porter asked, "Do you know what the interest-rate curtailment schedule is at FHA and how it's different from the GSEs?" Carter replied, "Explain."

He later complained that substantive questions about housing policy were "in the weeds" -- as if this were a proper excuse for being a cabinet secretary sounding like a student delivering a book report on a book he hadn't read.

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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump turns away from the cameras as he speaks at a town hall event in Appleton, Wis., March 30, 2016. (Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)

Trump responds to 'lock them up' chant in an unsettling way

05/21/19 12:48PM

Toward the end of his campaign rally in Pennsylvania last night, Donald Trump used some ridiculous rhetoric that, alas, has become quite routine.

"They were spying, they were spying on our campaign. I'll tell you what: if that ever happened to the other side, this thing would have been over two years ago and you know it would have been treason, they would have called it treason and that's what it is. It was treason and it should never be allowed to happen to another president again ever. Ever, ever, ever."

At this point, the president started to return to his prepared remarks -- and his usual wrap-up rhetoric -- when his followers interrupted him with a chant. "Lock them up," they said, "Lock them up."

If you watch the clip, note that Trump actually paused, took a couple of steps away from the podium, and reveled for a while, enjoying the chant. The Republican eventually returned to the microphone with some words that were intended to be reassuring.

"Well," Trump told his audience, "we have a great new attorney general who's going to give it a very fair look."

His supporters roared with approval.

The president quickly added, "You have always been loyal to this nation. Now you finally have a president who is loyal to you. It's taken you a long time."

It was all quite creepy. Here was an American president, accusing his perceived enemies of "treason," and comforting his followers -- who want U.S. officials imprisoned -- with promises about the attorney general looking into it. Trump thought nothing of following this up with boasts about how he, unlike his recent predecessors, is "loyal" to Americans.

Those who recoiled in discomfort can take solace in the fact that they weren't alone. Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, suggested that this portion of the far-right rally had "shades of 1937."

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.21.19

05/21/19 12:00PM

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

* It's Election Day in Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district today, where voters will choose a successor to Tom Marino (R-Pa.), who quit just two weeks into the new Congress. Donald Trump said last night the race is "a little bit of a referendum" on him, which is plainly false: Republicans are so overwhelmingly favored to keep the seat, neither party has invested heavily in the race.

* It's also Election Day in Kentucky, where the marque race is the Democratic gubernatorial primary, pitting state House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, state Attorney General Andy Beshear, and former state auditor Adam Edelen. The winner will almost certainly face incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin (R), who'll first have to win a primary race of his own today.

* At a campaign rally in Pennsylvania last night, Trump condemned former Vice President Joe Biden (D) for moving to Delaware with his family when Biden was 11 years old. Yeah, I didn't understand the criticism, either, though Trump seemed quite excited about this line of attack.

* Politico reported overnight that the RNC raised nearly $16 million in April, far more than the DNC's $6.6 million over the same period. As May got underway, the RNC has $34.7 million cash on hand, while the DNC ended April with $7.6 million cash on hand.

* Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) yesterday unveiled her presidential campaign's plan on antitrust oversight and consumer protection.

* Around the same time, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) unveiled his vision on foreign policy and national security.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen in a television cameras view finder during a press conference at the Trump National Golf Club Jupiter on March 8, 2016 in Jupiter, Fla. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

Trump makes clear his expectations for Fox News' campaign coverage

05/21/19 11:27AM

Donald Trump on Sunday raised a few eyebrows by complaining about Fox News, which the president nearly always sees as a key political ally. The president whined on Twitter that the network was going too far "in covering the Dems," referring to the Democratic presidential candidates. Trump added that Fox News executives should instead prioritize "the people who got them there."

As a Washington Post analysis added, it was a remarkable sentiment for a sitting American president to share with the public because it was "an explicit expression of his expectation that Fox News will at least play down coverage of Democratic issues and candidates, if not shut them out entirely."

At a campaign rally in Pennsylvania last night, Trump went a little further.

"What's going on with Fox, by the way? What's going on there? They're putting more Democrats on than you have Republicans. There's something strange going on with Fox, folks. Something very strange.... Somebody is going to have to explain the whole Fox deal to me."

At that point, the president's assembled supporters began booing, apparently registering their disapproval of the network for failing to satisfy Trump's expectations.

The presidential comments were vaguely conspiratorial: Trump believes there must be "something strange" going on with Fox News if it features interviews with Democratic candidates. "What's going on there?" he asked.

To a very real degree, the presidential complaints represented a rather brutal insult. At a public campaign rally, Trump made clear that he sees Fox News, not as a news organization, but as a Republican entity, which exists to advance a Republican cause.

If the network is "putting more Democrats on than you have Republicans," than it should necessarily be seen as proof that Fox News is straying from what Trump sees as its proper mission.

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Justin Amash

Freedom Caucus condemns its own member over impeachment assessment

05/21/19 10:45AM

At face value, Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican congressman from Michigan, recently did something that was wholly unremarkable. The five-term GOP lawmaker read Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report "carefully and completely," and soon after came to some important conclusions. First, the lawmaker determined that Attorney General Barr has "deliberately misrepresented" Mueller's findings.

And second, Amash concluded that Donald Trump "engaged in impeachable conduct."

For his trouble, the Michigan Republican faced some predictably unkind words from the president, but as Politico reported, the response from Amash's ostensible allies on Capitol Hill was more striking.

The House Freedom Caucus on Monday night formally condemned one of its founding members for declaring that President Trump committed impeachable offenses, but stopped short of kicking Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) out of the hard-line conservative group.

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee and a former chairman of the Freedom Caucus, said that every single member in attendance during a weekly caucus meeting was unified in their opposition toward Amash's comments. The group, which took a show of hands, needs the support of 80 percent of its members to take a formal position on an issue.

"It was every single person who totally disagrees with what he says," Jordan said after the meeting.

Amash was not in attendance -- by some accounts, he hasn't participated in a Freedom Caucus gathering in nearly a year -- and his colleagues did not vote on whether to expel him from the far-right group.

All of which raises a related question about the purpose of the House Freedom Caucus.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump and President Sauli Niinisto of Finland joint news conference

Trump contradicts his allies' claims on Iran, security threats

05/21/19 10:00AM

When it comes to U.S. allegations against Iran, we've seen a play in three acts unfold in recent weeks. Act I featured the Trump administration pushing highly provocative claims, which were met with fierce international skepticism, including from U.S. allies.

In fact, when the top British general in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS said there was no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces, the U.S. Central Command went surprisingly far in rebuking our ally's assessment.

Regardless, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefed foreign intelligence officials on Iranian aggression, they were insulted by how weak the pitch was. One NATO official was quoted saying, in reference to Trump administration officials, "Do they think that we are stupid?"

Act II pitted congressional Republicans allied with the White House against congressional Democrats skeptical of the administration's claims. When Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), for example, seemed to lobby for an escalation in tensions, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) explained, "I get the same intel as Cotton. He is greatly exaggerating the situation to spur us to war. Don't fall for it."

Soon after, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he received a briefing from White House National Security Advisor John Bolton and, as far as Graham's concerned, it's "clear" that Iran has "created threat streams against American interests." The senator raised the prospect of "an overwhelming military response." Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) added soon after that Republicans are "twisting" the intelligence.

Act III features Donald Trump contradicting his allies. When a reporter asked the president yesterday afternoon where things stand with Iran, the president replied:

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Trying to keep Trump's finances secret, his lawyers fail miserably

05/21/19 09:20AM

The more Donald Trump and his administration have fought to keep the president's finances hidden, the more congressional investigators have looked for ways to circumvent the barriers. A few weeks ago, this included a subpoena from the House Oversight Committee to Trump's accounting firm, Mazars, to acquire materials on the president's financial history.

The Republican's lawyers sued in the hopes of blocking the subpoena and told a federal judge that Congress lacks the legal authority to scrutinize presidential misdeeds. To the surprise of no one, this effort failed spectacularly.

A federal judge in Washington D.C. on Monday ruled in favor of the House Oversight Committee's bid to obtain President Donald Trump's financial records from his accounting firm.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, who also denied Trump's request to stay his decision pending an appeal, said Congress was acting within its broad authority to investigate, rejecting arguments from Trump's attorneys who said the panel's probe, and subsequent document demands, served no legislative purpose.

"It is simply not fathomable that a Constitution that grants Congress the power to remove a President for reasons including criminal behavior would deny Congress the power to investigate him for unlawful conduct -- past or present -- even without formally opening an impeachment inquiry," Mehta wrote.

The judge added, "Congress plainly views itself as having sweeping authority to investigate illegal conduct of a President, before and after taking office. This court is not prepared to roll back the tide of history."

Trump's lawyers, hired specifically to keep his financial history hidden from public view, asked the judge to issue a stay, leaving the status quo in place while the matter is appealed. Mehta said no. Mazars now has seven days to comply with the ruling.

For his part, the president has already said his legal team will file an appeal anyway, taking the matter to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. (It's chief judge, incidentally, is Merrick Garland). But that's not all Trump said in the wake of yesterday afternoon's ruling.

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Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former personal attorney, is sworn in to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on February 27, 2019.

Did Team Trump direct Michael Cohen to lie to Congress?

05/21/19 08:40AM

The first sign of trouble came a week ago, when the New York Times reported that the House Intelligence Committee is investigating "whether lawyers tied to President Trump and his family helped obstruct the panel’s inquiry into Russian election interference by shaping false testimony." It's the kind of sentence that was worth reading twice.

Especially in the wake of the Mueller report, we've grown accustomed to thinking about Donald Trump's alleged obstruction efforts and the instances in which his actions met the threshold for criminal wrongdoing. But last week's reporting represented a twist: Trump World lawyers themselves may have crossed legal lines.

Late yesterday, the allegations came into sharper focus.

President Donald Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen told lawmakers behind closed doors that Jay Sekulow, one of the president's attorneys, encouraged him to give untrue information to lawmakers about the Trump Tower project in Moscow, according to transcripts released Monday.

Cohen testified to the House Intelligence Committee earlier this year that Sekulow told him to say in 2017 that discussions about the project had ended in January 2016, when, in fact, they had continued for months after that, the transcripts show.

Under the circumstances, even if we took Cohen's version of events at face value, it's at least possible that Sekulow -- a controversial figure in his own right -- didn't know the information was false. That said, this defense would naturally lead to a related question: who was responsible for writing the script Team Trump members were expected to follow?

What's more, as Rachel noted on the show last night, the newly released transcripts showed Cohen also testifying that he was told by Ivanka Trump's lawyer that he should lie specifically about her involvement in the Trump Tower Moscow project.

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Government Shutdown Looms on Capitol Hill

New White House stonewalling intensifies impeachment push

05/21/19 07:59AM

If former White House Counsel Don McGahn honors a congressional subpoena, he'll appear before the House Judiciary Committee today. In theory, the Republican lawyer has some extremely important information to share.

In fact, McGahn is a witness of particular significance: few figures play as important a role in the Mueller report as the former White House counsel. As we've discussed -- and as Donald Trump has acknowledged -- the Republican lawyer spoke with investigators for dozens of hours, and in the redacted version of Mueller's report, the former White House counsel is cited more than 150 times.

In some of the episodes in which Trump allegedly obstructed justice, the claims of suspected criminal misconduct are based heavily on what McGahn told investigators.

Indeed, as the special counsel's findings made clear, the former White House counsel very nearly resigned because the president directed him to "do crazy s**t," including an incident in which, according to McGahn, Trump pressed the lawyer to push the Justice Department to derail the investigation by getting rid of Mueller and creating a false document to cover that up.

McGahn is not, however, expected to show up on Capitol Hill today.

President Donald Trump has directed former White House counsel Don McGahn to defy a congressional subpoena and not testify Tuesday, current White House counsel Pat Cipollone said Monday.

In a letter to House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., Cipollone wrote that the Justice Department "has advised me that Mr. McGahn is absolutely immune from compelled congressional testimony with respect to matters occurring during his service as a senior adviser to the President."

McGahn's lawyer soon after informed the committee that his client would not testify.

The result is a rather extraordinary set of circumstances: the former White House counsel may be in a position to shed light on the president's alleged crimes, but the president has ordered him not to answer any questions, even if that means defying a lawful subpoena.

The next question, of course, is what's likely to happen next.

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