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Image: NATO Summit In Brussels - Day Two

Why Trump and Pompeo are going after John Kerry so aggressively

09/17/18 10:00AM

Throughout Barack Obama's presidency, Republican efforts to undermine U.S. foreign policy were extraordinary, and by some measures, unprecedented. In one especially glaring instance, 47 Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), wrote a letter to Iranian leaders, telling officials not to trust the United States. The goal wasn't subtle: GOP lawmakers hoped to sabotage their own country's diplomacy in the middle of delicate international nuclear talks.

In an odd twist, Republicans are now accusing John Kerry of doing something similar.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has unloaded on his Obama-era predecessor John Kerry for "actively undermining" U.S. policy on Iran by meeting several times recently with the Iranian foreign minister.

In unusually blunt and caustic language, Pompeo said Friday that Kerry's meetings with Mohammad Javad Zarif -- who was his main interlocutor in the Iran nuclear deal negotiations -- were "unseemly and unprecedented" and "beyond inappropriate."

President Donald Trump had late Thursday accused Kerry of holding "illegal meetings with the very hostile Iranian Regime, which can only serve to undercut our great work to the detriment of the American people."

The current secretary of state added in a tweet over the weekend, "What [John Kerry] has done by engaging with Iran's regime, the world's top state sponsor of terror, is unseemly, unprecedented, and inconsistent with U.S. foreign policy. The deal failed. Let it go."

This is all quite foolish. For one thing, the international nuclear agreement with Iran was working exactly as intended, right up until Donald Trump rejected the policy for reasons the White House has struggled to explain in a coherent way. (Pompeo has long given every indication that he doesn't know what he's talking about on the subject, arguing last month that the Iran deal "failed to restrain Iran's nuclear progress." The truth is the exact opposite.)

For another, it's not exactly unusual, much less "illegal," for former U.S. diplomats to maintain relationships with the foreign counterparts. On the contrary, it's been the American norm for generations.

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Image: Senate Judiciary Committee

Trump's problem with Mueller: the special counsel is 'batting a thousand'

09/17/18 09:20AM

Yesterday morning, Donald Trump published a familiar tweet, summarizing his fury over Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. "The illegal Mueller Witch Hunt continues in search of a crime," the president wrote. "There was never Collusion with Russia, except by the Clinton campaign, so the 17 Angry Democrats are looking at anything they can find. Very unfair and BAD for the country. ALSO, not allowed under the LAW!"

It was the "in search of a crime" phrase that stood out for me as amusing. Whether Trump has noticed this or not, Mueller has already secured convictions and/or guilty pleas in cases against several members of the president's inner circle -- suggesting the special counsel's "search" is actually going quite well.

In fact, we have a pretty good idea as to why Trump is throwing this tantrum: the special counsel keeps racking up victories. Following Paul Manafort's decision to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors, Rachel said something on the show that stood out for me:

"This is the eighth person convicted or pleading guilty in Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the election. Robert Mueller is now batting a thousand in terms of convictions and guilty pleas from everybody who he has pursued in court.

"He's also now batting a thousand in terms of securing cooperation from every single American who has been charged in this case -- including the president's national security adviser, the president's deputy campaign chair, and now the president's campaign chairman who himself has decades' worth of links to the former Soviet Union and whose business partner is believed by the FBI to be himself linked to Russian intelligence agencies."

When Paul Manafort struck a deal it was a breakthrough -- and not just because Manafort oversaw Donald Trump's political operation in 2016, and not just because Manafort is in a position to help the special counsel get to the truth.

Rather, when the special counsel flipped Manafort -- by some measures, "nabbing his white whale" -- he also sent a powerful reminder to everyone involved in the scandal that Mueller is on a winning streak that's likely to continue.

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U.S. President Donald Trump holds an Oval Office meeting on hurricane preparations as FEMA Administrator Brock Long points to the potential track of Hurricane Florence on a graphic at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 11, 2018.

Why FEMA's chief is defending Trump on his Puerto Rico conspiracy theory

09/17/18 08:41AM

As Donald Trump and his team prepared to deal with Hurricane Florence and its effects, the president thought it'd be a good idea to announce his rejection of the official death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria. As the Republican explained it, the official estimate from independent researchers is the result of a conspiracy, launched by "the Democrats" to make him look "as bad as possible."

The more the president faced pushback, the more he balked at reality. As the controversy grew, Trump insisted -- over and over and over and over and over again -- that his conspiracy theory deserved to be taken seriously.

But the story got even stranger yesterday when his FEMA chief offered a tacit defense of the nonsensical claims.

FEMA Administrator Brock Long Sunday questioned the relevance of independent studies tying thousands of deaths to the aftermath of last September's hurricane in Puerto Rico, echoing President Donald Trump's criticism of those findings as Florence continues to batter the Carolinas.

Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Long defended the president for his response to Hurricane Maria last year and argued that findings from multiple academic studies were "all over the place."

Long told Chuck Todd, "I don't know why the studies were done," adding that he believes Trump "is being taken out of context." (He's not and the context doesn't help.)

For some reason, the FEMA chief went on to say in the same interview, "You know the other thing that goes on, there's all kinds of studies on this that we take a look at. Spousal abuse goes through the roof. You can't blame spousal abuse, you know, after a disaster on anybody."

It's worth taking a moment to consider why in the world Long would say these things.

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Image: Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearing

The case for delaying vote on Kavanaugh gets a lot more obvious

09/17/18 08:00AM

Last week, the debate over Judge Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination took an unexpected turn. While much of the discussion has focused on the conservative jurist's ideology, apparent falsehoods under oath, and questionable finances, the newest hurdle related to his personal behavior.

At issue was a letter Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) referred to the FBI from an unnamed woman, who pointed to an alleged incident from Kavanaugh's high-school years. The judge "categorically and unequivocally" denied the allegations.

That said, the nature of the claims took a more serious turn yesterday when the accuser went on the record with the Washington Post. We now know that Christine Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University who teaches in a consortium with Stanford University, wrote the letter about the alleged sexual assault.

Speaking publicly for the first time, Ford said that one summer in the early 1980s, Kavanaugh and a friend -- both "stumbling drunk," Ford alleges -- corralled her into a bedroom during a gathering of teenagers at a house in Montgomery County.

While his friend watched, she said, Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed on her back and groped her over her clothes, grinding his body against hers and clumsily attempting to pull off her one-piece bathing suit and the clothing she wore over it. When she tried to scream, she said, he put his hand over her mouth.

"I thought he might inadvertently kill me," said Ford, now a 51-year-old research psychologist in northern California. "He was trying to attack me and remove my clothing."

The Post's article, which I'd strongly recommend taking the time to read in its entirety, went on to note how Ford was able to escape the alleged incident, which she later described to a therapist during couples therapy with her husband in 2012. Her husband recalled his wife using Kavanaugh's name when describing her alleged attacker.

These details from six years ago stand out for a reason: Ford didn't make these claims in response to Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination.

The article added, "Ford took a polygraph test administered by a former FBI agent in early August. The results, which Katz provided to The Post, concluded that Ford was being truthful when she said a statement summarizing her allegations was accurate."

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Friday's Mini-Report, 9.14.18

09/14/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The latest from North Carolina: "At least four people were killed Friday after Hurricane Florence crashed ashore on North Carolina's coast, ripping apart roofs with extreme winds, threatening massive storm surges and requiring dozens of water rescues."

* Supreme Court fight: "Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Friday denied allegations made by a woman who reportedly said that he had held her down at a party when they were in high school in the 1980s and tried to force himself on her."

* On a related note, Senate Republicans announced today that the Judiciary Committee vote on Kavanaugh's nomination will not be delayed and they don't expect the accusations to affect his likely confirmation.

* Trade: "President Donald Trump is urging his administration to move ahead with slapping tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods, according to a person familiar with the plans. The timing of an announcement remains unclear. Trump met with top aides earlier this week on the tariff issue and directed aides to proceed with plan."

* Good move: "The Violence Against Women Act, which was set to expire Sept. 30, will be extended through Dec. 7 under a stopgap spending bill released Thursday."

* I have a strong hunch he's wrong: "Three days after the Trump administration evicted the Palestine Liberation Organization from its offices in Washington, Jared Kushner defended the latest in a string of punitive actions against the Palestinians and insisted that none of them had diminished the chances of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians."

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Image: FBI Investigates Trump's attorney Michael Cohen

Has Michael Cohen been talking to Robert Mueller, too?

09/14/18 04:28PM

In a federal courtroom this afternoon, Paul Manafort, who led Donald Trump's political operation two years ago, pleaded guilty to a variety of felonies, including crimes committed during the president's 2016 campaign. But just as importantly, Manafort reached an agreement with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team, and agreed to cooperate with its probe. As a consequence, Trump's former campaign chair will turn over documents and offer to testify in future proceedings.

And while that's not the kind of news the president wants to hear, it's not the only revelation of note. In Vanity Fair this afternoon, Emily Jane Fox reports that Michael Cohen is talking to Mueller, too.

In the wake of Manafort's plea deal, sources confirm that it is now common knowledge among Cohen's inner circle that Trump's former lawyer has been in contact with the special counsel's office. [...]

In recent weeks, it has also become common knowledge among close friends of Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney, that Cohen is talking to the Mueller team, according to people familiar with the situation.

There's a lot about this that we don't know, and it's worth emphasizing that Vanity Fair's reporting has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News.

That said, whether, and to what degree, Cohen might cooperate with the special counsel's investigation has been a major point of interest in recent weeks. Trump's former "fixer" pleaded guilty to a variety of crimes last month, and directly implicated the president in some of his misdeeds, but there was no publicly available information to suggest Cohen had become a cooperating witness.

The day after his guilty plea, however, Cohen's lawyer told Rachel on the air that the president's former personal attorney stood ready to provide information "on certain subjects that should be of interest to the special counsel."

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Trump promotes a key message: 'Avoid spreading false information'

09/14/18 01:37PM

As Hurricane Florence reached the east coast this morning, Donald Trump published a series of tweets -- and thankfully, none of them were overtly ridiculous. In fact, the president hadn't written almost any of them.

In a rare display of common sense, nearly every tweet Trump shared with his followers this morning was hurricane-related information created by state and federal agencies. There was one message from FEMA, however, that stood out:

"We have created a rumor control page for Hurricane #Florence that will be updated regularly. During disasters, it's critical to avoid spreading false information. Always check with official sources before sharing."

The tweet directed people to this FEMA website, devoted exclusively to addressing dubious claims that the public may have confronted via social media.

What's wrong with that? On the surface, nothing. But just below the surface, it's hard not to notice the irony of this president reminding the public that "it's critical to avoid spreading false information."

After all, Donald Trump is ... how do I put this gently ... Donald Trump.

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Image: FILE PHOTO: Manafort arrives for arraignment on charges of witness tampering, at U.S. District Court in Washington

Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chair, makes a deal with prosecutors

09/14/18 12:31PM

A few weeks ago, a jury in Virginia convicted Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, on eight felony counts involving bank and tax fraud. It was a brutal outcome, but it wasn't the end of Manafort's legal troubles.

Because the jury was deadlocked on 10 counts, the president's former campaign aide faced the prospect of a retrial on those charges. Making matters quite a bit worse, Manafort was also facing a second trial on several related charges, in a case that was poised to begin in Washington, D.C.

This morning, the defendant and his attorneys dramatically changed direction.

Paul Manafort, formerly President Donald Trump's campaign chairman, pleaded guilty on Friday to two counts and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors.

Prosecutor Andrew Weissman called Manafort's plea deal a cooperation agreement during an 11 a.m. hearing at the federal courthouse in Washington.

A charging document filed Friday in the District of Columbia accuses Manafort, 69, of participating in a conspiracy against the United States -- involving money laundering, tax fraud, failing to file Foreign Bank Account Reports, violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and lying and misrepresenting to the Department of Justice.

The charging document is available in its entirety here.

In separate press statements, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani both said Manafort's guilty plea has "nothing to do with" the president. It's worth appreciating the fact, however, that based on what we now know, Manafort was committing a variety of felonies when Trump hired him to lead his political operation.

Initially, many observers noted that Manafort could reach an agreement with prosecutors in which he agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence, without becoming a cooperating witness. In other words, it was entirely possible that he'd strike a deal, go to jail, but not share information with Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team.

But that made it all the more interesting this morning when prosecutors described Manafort's deal as a cooperation agreement.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.14.18

09/14/18 12:00PM

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

* In the wake of several national polls showing Democrats with double-digit leads over Republicans on the generic congressional ballot, we have one more: CNN's latest survey shows Dems up by 10 on the generic ballot, 52% to 42%, among likely voters.

* Of all the results from New York's primaries yesterday, this is the one that stood out for me: "Years of anger at a group of Democratic state senators who had collaborated with Republicans boiled over on Thursday, as primary voters ousted nearly all of them in favor of challengers who had called them traitors and sham progressives."

* In related news, Democratic turnout yesterday was very high, and by some accounts, easily set a record for a midterm cycle. For vulnerable Republican incumbents in the Empire State, this isn't good news.

* Now that the primary season is over, what's the key takeaway? NBC News had a compelling piece on the most important trend: "[O]ne of the unmistakable conclusions from the last six months of intraparty races was the number of women running for office -- and winning."

* Did Matt Rosendale, the Republican Senate candidate in Montana, get an improper heads-up from the NRA about the group's intervention in his race? It sure looks like it.

* Less than a week after re-entering the electoral arena, Barack Obama campaigned in Ohio last night, stumping for gubernatorial hopeful Richard Cordray. Among other things, the former president decried "demagogues who promise simple fixes to complicated problems."

* In New York's competitive 19th congressional district, the latest Monmouth University poll shows Antonio Delgado (D) with a narrow lead over incumbent Rep. John Faso (R), 45% to 43%.

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A person man uses a laptop. (Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa/AP)

Top cyber-security officials keep leaving the FBI at a critical time

09/14/18 11:20AM

At first blush, the departure of a largely unknown FBI official may seem unimportant, but there's a context to this report that's worth appreciating.

Another cybersecurity expert at the FBI is headed for the private sector.

Trent Teyema, the FBI's section chief for cyber readiness and chief operating officer of the bureau's Cyber Division, has been named senior vice president and chief technology officer for the government-focused wing of Parsons Corporation.

Parsons Corporation confirmed the news in a press statement yesterday, announcing that Teyema is poised to join the company as a senior executive.

Why should you care? Because as we discussed earlier in the summer, as the midterm elections draw closer, and the threat of foreign cyber-attacks grows greater, the FBI appears to be losing much of its leadership in this area.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Scott Smith, who ran the FBI cyber division, parted ways with the bureau in July, following his deputy, Howard Marshall, out the door. Their supervisor, David Resch, is also stepping down.

They’re joined by Carl Ghattas, executive assistant director of the FBI’s national security branch, who’s also leaving, following Jeffrey Tricoli, “a senior FBI cyber agent who oversaw a Bureau task force addressing Russian attempts to meddle in U.S. elections,” out the door.

According to Politico, Tricoli was replaced by someone who “knows absolutely nothing about cyber.”

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