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Monday's Mini-Report, 6.12.17

06/12/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Afghanistan: "Three U.S. soldiers were killed and one other was wounded Saturday in eastern Afghanistan when an Afghan soldier opened fire on them, U.S. officials confirmed to NBC News. The shooter -- identified as a member of the Afghan National Army's Commando Forces -- was killed in return fire, officials added."

* 9th Circuit: "A trio of federal appellate judges in San Francisco on Monday ruled against President Donald Trump's second try at imposing a so-called 'travel ban' that would restrict refugees and people from six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S."

* Russia: "A wave of antigovernment demonstrations rolled across Russia on Monday as thousands of people gathered in scores of cities to protest corruption and political stagnation despite vigorous attempts by the authorities to thwart or ban the rallies. The police detained the architect of the national protests, the Kremlin critic Aleksei A. Navalny, as he emerged from his apartment building to attend a rally that he had forced into the center of Moscow."

* Somalia: "The United States military said on Sunday that it had carried out a drone strike in southern Somalia against the Shabab, the Qaeda-linked insurgent group — apparently the first such strike since President Trump relaxed targeting rules for counterterrorism operations in that country in March."

* There probably aren't any tapes: "The U.S. Secret Service has no audio copies or transcripts of any tapes recorded within President Donald Trump's White House, the agency said on Monday. The agency's response to a freedom of information request submitted by The Wall Street Journal doesn't exclude the possibility that recordings could have been created by another entity."

* Should be interesting: "Bowing to pressure from Democrats, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has agreed to testify in public Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has scheduled a hearing for 2:30 p.m."

* Trump's outside counsel, Marc Kasowitz, has begun giving legal advice to White House officials who aren't his client. That's not good.

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Image: Trump Hosts Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi At The White House

Trump's first full cabinet meeting was surprisingly creepy

06/12/17 03:34PM

Presidential cabinet meetings are, as a rule, dull. We generally see a president offer some brief remarks for the cameras, while his cabinet members watch on. Soon after, a president may answer a question or two from reporters, at which point the press is ushered out, the doors close, and the meeting begins in earnest.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, hosted his first full cabinet meeting this morning, and it wasn't like anything we've ever seen, at least in the United States. The Washington Post reported:

President Trump on Monday used his first full-fledged Cabinet meeting to try to make a case that, despite the Russian investigation and other distractions, his administration is racking up accomplishments at a record clip.

"Never has there been a president, with few exceptions -- case of FDR, he had a major depression to handle -- who has passed more legislation and who has done more things than what we've done," Trump, referring to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, said during the meeting at the White House.

It seems entirely plausible to me that Trump has no idea what "legislation" means, and when he signs executive orders and glorified press releases, he thinks he's breaking major new policy ground.

But if you watch the C-SPAN video from the cabinet room, note that after the president's odd praise for himself, Trump went around the room, offering each member of his cabinet an opportunity to talk about how much they like him and are proud to serve in his administration. With few exceptions, that's precisely what they did.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, whose job is reportedly in jeopardy, went so far as to declare, with arms raised, "We thank you for the opportunity and blessing to serve your agenda."

As cabinet members went around the room, singing the president's praises, Trump simply nodded in agreement, basking in his underlings' adulation.

Cabinet meetings have been periodically televised since Eisenhower, but no one has ever seen one quite as creepy as Trump's display this morning.

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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

Trump's legal team features some unexpected members

06/12/17 01:00PM

Donald Trump realized recently that his Russia scandal had reached the point at which outside legal representation was necessary. Finding a lawyer, however, turned out to be easier said than done: Yahoo News recently reported that the White House reached out to several major firms in D.C., and "at least four" said no.

As we discussed last week, that left the president with Marc Kasowitz, a civil litigator with no background in constitutional cases, who represented the president in a variety of lawsuits, including the fraud allegations surrounding Trump University. Kasowitz has already given indications that he may not be the best person for the job.

But there are others on the president's legal team. Indeed, far-right attorney Jay Sekulow appeared on ABC News yesterday to defend Trump's legal position. And if you're wondering, "Who's Jay Sekulow?" I'm glad you asked.

Let's take a brief stroll down memory lane. After his failed Republican presidential bid in 1988, radical TV preacher Pat Robertson parlayed his donor list into a potent political force. The religious right movement was growing into one of the dominant factions in GOP politics, and Robertson took full advantage of his notoriety -- cultivating a mini-empire featuring an activist organization (the Christian Coalition), a college (Regent University), an annual political gathering (the Christian Coalition's "Road to Victory" conference), and a broadcast presence (the Christian Broadcasting Network).

But Robertson also wanted a legal group intended to serve as a right-wing rival to the ACLU, so he created the ACLJ -- the American Center for Law and Justice -- to advance the religious right's agenda in the courts.

Jay Sekulow was the chief counsel for the radical televangelist's legal group. Now he has a leadership role on Donald Trump's legal team.

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Image: FILE PHOTO: Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, attends a news conference in New York

Watching Comey, fired U.S. attorney experiences 'deja vu'

06/12/17 12:33PM

In the Obama administration, Preet Bharara was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, which made him one of the most important and highest profile federal prosecutors in the United States, tackling case on matters ranging from terrorism to Wall Street to government corruption.

After the 2016 election, Bharara wanted to stay at his post, and both Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the same commitment: the New York prosecutor could stay right where he was.

In March, however, Trump fired Bharara and 45 other federal prosecutors without explanation. Bharara, in his first television interview since his dismissal, sat down yesterday with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos and reflected on his experiences with Trump, starting with his reactions to Trump calling him while the Republican was still president-elect.

BHARARA: When I've been reading the stories of how the president has been contacting Jim Comey over time, felt a little bit like deja vu. And I'm not the FBI director, but I was the chief federal law enforcement officer in Manhattan with jurisdiction over a lot of things including, you know, business interests and other things in New York.

The number of times that President Obama called me in seven-and-a-half years was zero. The number of times I would have been expected to be called by the president of the United States would be zero because there has to be some kind of arm's length relationship given the jurisdiction that various people had.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What did he say?

BHARARA: So he called me in December, ostensibly just to shoot the breeze and asked me how I was doing and wanted to make sure I was OK. It was similar to what Jim Comey testified to with respect to a call he got when he was getting on the helicopter. I didn't say anything at the time to him. It was a little bit uncomfortable, but he was not the president, he was only the president-elect. He called me again two days before the inauguration, again seemingly to check in and shoot the breeze and then he called me a third time when he -- after he became president and I refused to return the call.

The former U.S. attorney went on to note that Trump, through his outreach, appeared to be "trying to cultivate some kind of relationship" with the federal prosecutor.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 6.12.17

06/12/17 12:00PM

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

* A few weeks after he assaulted a reporter, Rep.-elect Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.) plans to plead guilty in court today. Note, immediately after the incident, Gianforte's team told reporters it was the journalist who initiated the physical confrontation. Evidently, that was a lie that literally added insult to injury.

* Donald Trump hosted a fundraiser at his private club in New Jersey over the weekend in support of Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), who almost single-handedly rescued the House Republicans' far-right health care legislation. MacArthur has faced a local backlash, in part because the GOP plan would take a severe toll on New Jersey.

* Though for decades the press has been permitted to attend presidential fundraisers, Trump's event for MacArthur was closed to the media and no transcript of the president's remarks was made available.

* In a bit of a surprise, Rep. Jared Polis (D) is giving up his U.S. House seat and launching a gubernatorial campaign in Colorado. He joins a crowded Democratic primary, which also includes his congressional colleague, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D).

* Virginia's gubernatorial primaries are tomorrow, and the final poll from Hampton University Center for Public Policy shows former Rep. Tom Perriello (D) and former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie (R) leading their respective contests.

* Voters in Puerto Rico voted overwhelmingly in support of U.S. statehood over the weekend. It was, however, a non-binding vote, and the Republican-led Congress is likely to ignore the results.

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Image: White House news conference with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Director Gary Cohn

A debt-ceiling deadline adds a wrinkle to a challenging landscape

06/12/17 11:30AM

The national political landscape isn't exactly tranquil right now. The White House is facing crisis conditions; the president's political operation is facing a counter-espionage investigation; the president himself may be facing obstruction-of-justice allegations; U.S. allies are giving up on American leadership in ways without modern precedent; and Congress' agenda is in peril.

It's against this backdrop that policymakers have to prepare to raise the debt ceiling.

Technically, the nation reached its limit in March, but at that point, the Treasury Department's "extraordinary measures" kicked in, giving Congress a little breathing room. Nevertheless, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin urged lawmakers more than three months ago to raise the debt ceiling "at the first opportunity."

Congress has so far ignored the appeal, prompting Mnuchin to announce on Friday that he has "plans and backup plans for funding the government" into at least September if Congress does not raise the debt ceiling before its August recess. The Washington Post reported:

Asked at the news conference what sort of powers or backup plans he has if the debt ceiling isn't raised, Mnuchin said with a smile, "Treasury secretary superpowers." He didn't respond to questions about whether this included plans to sell off U.S. assets, such as the gold reserve.

"We will be fine, okay, if they don't do it beforehand," Mnuchin said, "but I would emphasize that I think the sooner they do it, the less uncertainty there is in the market, and it is important to send a clear signal to the market that, again, this is not an issue."

Mnuchin's intended audience was almost certainly investors and global markets. "Don't worry," Donald Trump's Treasury secretary seemed to be saying. "Everything's fine. The paperwork will be taken care of. There's certainly no reason for anyone to start ringing any alarms."

The truth, however, isn't quite so straightforward.

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Trump faces constitutional questions over foreign payments

06/12/17 11:01AM

The moment he took the oath of office as president, Donald Trump was already facing a serious legal dispute. The Constitution, which the Republican had just sworn to uphold, prevents U.S. officials from receiving payments from foreign governments -- it's generally known as the "Emoluments Clause" -- but Trump, who refused to divest from his private-sector enterprises, continues to profit from businesses who receive payments from foreign governments.

There's already some pending litigation challenging Trump's current practices, but the Washington Post reports that the legal dispute will add a new dimension today.

Attorneys general for the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland say they will sue President Trump on Monday, alleging that he has violated anti-corruption clauses in the Constitution by accepting millions in payments and benefits from foreign governments since moving into the White House.

The lawsuit, the first of its kind brought by government entities, centers on the fact that Trump chose to retain ownership of his company when he became president.... But D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) and Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) say Trump has broken many promises to keep separate his public duties and private business interests.

The lawsuit, the report added, alleges that Trump's continued ownership of a global business empire has rendered the president "deeply enmeshed with a legion of foreign and domestic government actors" and has undermined the integrity of the U.S. political system.

The problem isn't theoretical: we learned last week, for example, that Saudi Arabia spent roughly $270,000 at Trump's Washington hotel during one of the country's recent lobbying campaigns.

Before the president's inauguration, Trump vowed that his business would monitor receipts and make sure the president didn't profit from foreign governments. A few weeks ago, NBC News reported that the Trump Organization decided not to keep that promise, determining that it'd be too difficult.

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Image: Donald Trump

Trump creates uncertainty by contradicting his Secretary of State

06/12/17 10:30AM

Last week, a new diplomatic challenge emerged on the international stage, which carried with it sweeping consequences. In an unexpected development, five Middle Eastern countries -- Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen -- broke off ties with Qatar, hoping to isolate the country politically and economically. The countries said they were isolating Qatar over its alleged support for terrorism.

For the United States, the complexities required a delicate touch. After all, countries on both sides of the dispute are our allies, and we have 10,000 American military personnel stationed in the country that's found itself isolated.

The U.S. State Department offered to be a neutral arbiter, helping to possibly negotiate a resolution, which Donald Trump soon after made impossible by denouncing Qatar and endorsing Saudi Arabia's move.

MSNBC later reported that Trump, according to White House sources, "may not have known" about the American troops based in Qatar when he took sides in the dispute.

Late last week, it happened again. The Washington Post reported:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on a Saudi Arabia-led bloc of Arab nations Friday to immediately ease their blockade of Qatar and urged all involved in the week-long Persian Gulf dispute to quickly resolve their differences, remarks that President Trump seemed to undercut less than an hour later.

Trump began a Rose Garden news conference with the visiting president of Romania by saying that the Saudi-led action against Qatar was "hard but necessary." He said he had been consulted in advance by nations that "spoke to me about confronting Qatar," a country he said historically has been a "funder of terrorism at a very high level."

Tillerson, who's been ignored by the White House before, even as the Secretary of State tries to develop greater credibility on the international stage, had invested considerable energy in trying to persuade Saudi Arabia and its allies to relax their blockade. He then looked pretty foolish less than an hour later when his boss sent the opposite signal at a White House press conference.

It was the second time in a week that Tillerson tried to deescalate the Middle East crisis while Trump took public steps to escalate it.

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Image: Donald Trump

A 'track record for lying' likely to pose fresh challenges for Trump

06/12/17 10:00AM

On Friday afternoon, Donald Trump hosted a relatively brief press conference with Romania's Klaus Iohannis, and the two presidents were asked if they discussed the visa waiver program for Romania. Trump quickly responded, "We didn't discuss it. We didn't discuss it."

A couple of seconds later, Iohannis, who has his own domestic politics to consider, said the opposite, telling reporters that they did discuss it: Iohannis brought up the issue during his White House meeting, Trump's denial moments earlier notwithstanding.

In other words, the American president wasn't telling the truth -- which, when it comes to Donald J. Trump, is a familiar problem.

All of this came to mind yesterday, when former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, in his first television interview since being fired without explanation by the president, sat down with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, who asked for Bharara's prosecutorial perspective: when it comes to the competing version of events between Trump and former FBI Director James Comey, "what gets this beyond a 'he said/he said' case?" Bharara replied:

"[Y]ou have this in court all the time. And look at the surrounding circumstances and the indicia of truthfulness and those things include contemporaneous statements to other people. They include the track record of the witness. They include whether or not one of the 'hes' in the 'he said/he said' has a track record for lying or not both on the air and in legal proceedings like depositions, and I believe there is such a track record with respect to one of the parties."

The former federal prosecutor didn't come right out and say, "The president has earned a reputation for brazen lying," but I think the point was nevertheless quite clear.

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Image: James Comey Testifies At Senate Hearing On Russian Interference In US Election

Ratings for Comey hearing reflect broader civic awakening

06/12/17 09:30AM

Donald Trump takes great pride in generating large television audiences, which is why he has yet another reason to be angry with James Comey right now. The New York Times reported:

It was the testimony of a once-obscure former law enforcement official. Before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. At 10 in the morning. On a workday. Not your usual ratings gold.

No matter. Roughly 19.5 million Americans tuned in on Thursday to watch James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, unspool the tale of his awkward, unsettling and, at times, ethically questionable encounters with President Trump.

That is about the same number of people who watched Game 2 of this week's N.B.A. finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Note, that 19.5 million figure is a low estimate. It doesn't account for people who watched on PBS or C-SPAN, those who attended viewing parties, or those who tuned in online.

And given the fact that the hearing was at 10 a.m. (ET) on a weekday -- a time when millions of Americans were already at work -- it's likely that the online audience was considerable.

All of this certainly reflects an enormous public appetite for information related to the president's Russia scandal, but I also believe this is emblematic of a broader civic awakening that's quite encouraging.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump faces 'put up or shut up' moment over possible secret tapes

06/12/17 09:00AM

Donald Trump didn't just accuse James Comey of lying to the public; the president also argued his new nemesis lied to Congress while under oath. That's no small charge: when a sitting president effectively says the former director of the FBI committed perjury, it requires some follow-up.

More specifically, it requires that president to back up those allegations in some meaningful way. In this case, that means Trump could deliver his own sworn testimony, which the president has said he's prepared to do. On CBS News' "Face the Nation" yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, "I would like to invite the president to testify before the Senate. I think we could work out a way it could be dignified, public, with questions, with [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell."

Trump could also, meanwhile, turn over White House recordings of the president's conversations -- if they exist. Asked about the possibility of such tapes, Trump told reporters on Friday, "Well, I'll tell you about that maybe sometime in the very near future." What that means is anybody's guess. (A day earlier, a White House spokesperson, asked if such recordings have been made, replied, "I have no idea.")

Congress is starting to take the possibility of such tapes quite seriously. Politico reported:

Leaders of the House Intelligence Committee are asking the White House to produce any tapes that might exist of President Donald Trump's conversations with ousted FBI director James Comey.

Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the lawmakers leading the investigation, asked White House counsel Don McGahn on Friday to confirm whether any tapes exist, and if so, to produce them for the committee by June 23.

They aren't alone.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, May 17, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Senate Republicans inch closer to far-right health care overhaul

06/12/17 08:30AM

About a week ago, health care advocates had reason to feel optimism. Senate Republicans publicly conceded that their efforts to craft their own health care blueprint weren't going especially well.

Asked if there will be a Senate-passed version of the GOP health care plan by the end of the year, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) conceded, "I don't think there will be. I just don't think we can put it together among ourselves." Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) added that he believed it's "unlikely" a Republican bill would pass.

But while those comments offered hope to health care proponents, as the week progressed, the winds began to shift direction. Vox's report on Friday afternoon is consistent with everything I've heard about the state of the debate.

Behind closed doors, the Senate is drawing closer to passing a health care bill that looks a lot like the widely disliked version that cleared the House.

Any agreement currently on the table would almost certainly result in millions fewer Americans having health coverage, including low-income workers on Medicaid. It could roll back some Obamacare protections for people with pre-existing health conditions.

This is a big story with a lot of moving parts, so it'll probably be easier to go through this in a Q&A.

I feel like I haven't heard much about health care lately.

That's because you haven't, and part of that is by design. Certainly, Donald Trump's Russia scandal is dominating the headlines, and for good reason, but Senate Republicans have created a "working group" that's writing their bill in secret, entirely behind closed doors. They've been quite effective in keeping details out of the public eye, knowing that the more Americans learned of their ideas, the more controversial their plan would become.

Is there a Senate GOP bill?

Not yet, but by all accounts, the Senate's legislation is coming together, and it's a safe bet they'll have a final version fairly soon.

Assuming there's legislation, is it true GOP leaders will simply skip over committee hearings and bring the secret bill directly to the floor for a vote?

Yes. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last week invoked Rule XIV, which allows him to expedite the legislative process and bypass every relevant committee. This is, of course, the opposite of how Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010.

But if they skip past committee hearings, how will anyone have a chance to scrutinize the bill?

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Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump is greeted by his family after the third and final debate with Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in Las Vegas, Nev., Oct. 19, 2016. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Reuters)

Trump's Comey claims contradicted by president's own son

06/12/17 08:00AM

At a White House press conference last month, a reporter asked Donald Trump, "Did you at any time urge former FBI Director James Comey in any way, shape, or form to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn?" Trump replied, "No. No. Next question."

Comey, we now know, testified under oath that the president did talk to the then-FBI director about the Flynn case, encouraged him to back off the former White House National Security Advisor, and in the process, added weight to the allegations that the president may have obstructed justice.

By all accounts, there were two people in the Oval Office at the time, creating a "he said, he said" dynamic -- at least at first blush. We obviously have Comey's version of events, bolstered by a contemporaneous memo he prepared at the time. He also shared the details of his interactions with the president with FBI leaders at the time.

But about Trump's denials? According to one of the president's adult sons, who helps run Trump's business and who plays a prominent role in promoting Trump's political interests, Comey's version of events may be the accurate one. The Washington Post reported over the weekend:

Soon after former FBI director James B. Comey testified that President Trump told him that he "hoped" the FBI would drop its investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, the president's personal lawyer flatly denied that accusation and said Trump "never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone."

But Donald Trump Jr. -- the president's eldest son -- seemed to confirm Comey's version of events in a Saturday interview on Fox News as he tried to emphasize the fact that his father did not directly order Comey to stop investigating Flynn.

Trump Jr. specifically said on the air, "When he tells you to do something, guess what? There's no ambiguity in it, there's no, 'Hey, I'm hoping. You and I are friends: Hey, I hope this happens, but you've got to do your job.' That's what he told Comey."

It is?

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