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Monday's Mini-Report, 2.18.19

02/18/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Expect a whole lot of litigation: "California and a dozen other states are filing a lawsuit challenging Donald Trump's national emergency declaration, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Monday."

* Heather Nauert was not a good choice anyway: "President Trump's pick to serve as ambassador to the United Nations withdrew from consideration on Saturday, citing family concerns.... Ms. Nauert dropped from the running because she had a nanny who was in the United States legally but did not have the proper work visa, according to people familiar with the process."

* Donald Trump boasted on Friday, "We have a lot of great announcements having to do with Syria and our success with the eradication of the caliphate. And that will be announced over the next 24 hours." That was nearly 80 hours ago; there's been no announcement.

* In case you missed this on Friday: "Prosecutors said for the first time that they have evidence of Roger Stone communicating with WikiLeaks, according to a new court filing from special counsel prosecutors."

* Does this seem right to you? "Amazon, the e-commerce giant helmed by the world's richest man, paid no federal taxes on profit of $11.2 billion last year, according to an analysis of the company's corporate filings by the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), a progressive think tank."

* Whitaker isn't leaving: "Former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker will remain at the Justice Department despite William Barr's being sworn in to lead the department. Whitaker, who served as chief of staff to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions until President Donald Trump tapped him for the acting role in November, is now a senior counselor in the associate attorney general's office, a department spokesperson said Friday."

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Did two Trump attorneys lie in the hush-money scandal?

02/18/19 04:50PM

At a certain level, it may seem as if Donald Trump's hush-money scandal has already run its course. Michael Cohen, who helped orchestrate the pre-election payoffs, is going to prison. The president, meanwhile, is an unindicted co-conspirator, who won't face charges in the controversy, at least not anytime soon.

But it's not quite that simple. Those hush-money scandals also involve the Trump campaign, which is still under investigation. It also involves American Media Inc. (AMI), the National Enquirer's publisher, which continues to face some difficult questions. As if that weren't enough, the same controversy involves Trump's private-sector business, since as Rachel noted on the show last week, the Trump Organization appears to be the entity through which some of those illegal campaign funds were effectively laundered.

And then late on Friday, a new reason emerged to take the hush-money scandal seriously. Politico reported:

House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings said on Friday that his panel received new documents showing that two attorneys for President Donald Trump may have lied to government ethics officials about Trump fixer Michael Cohen's payments to women alleging affairs with the president ahead of the 2016 election.

"It now appears that President Trump's other attorneys -- at the White House and in private practice -- may have provided false information about these payments to federal officials," Cummings (D-Md.) wrote in a letter to White House Counsel Pat Cipollone.

Cummings named Sheri Dillon and Stefan Passantino as the two attorneys who might have made false statements to the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), citing documents the committee obtained from the office.

The story gets a little complicated, but the underlying questions are relatively simple: did Trump's lawyers make false statement to federal investigators about money the president owed Cohen?

If they did make false statements, was that illegal?

And what role, if any, did the president have in directing and/or coordinating with those who may have made false statements?

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Image: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with President Donald Trump

The war with North Korea that Trump thinks he prevented (but didn't)

02/18/19 12:46PM

On Friday, a reporter asked Donald Trump about the prospects for denuclearization on the Korean peninsula. The president's answer meandered a bit -- a common occurrence -- but at the heart of his answer was Trump's insistence that he deserves credit for averting a war.

"When I came into office, I met right there, in the Oval Office, with President Obama. And I sat in those beautiful chairs and we talked. It was supposed to be 15 minutes. As you know, it ended up being many times longer than that.

"And I said, 'What's the biggest problem?' He said, 'By far, North Korea.' And I don't want to speak for him, but I believe he would have gone to war with North Korea. I think he was ready to go to war. In fact, he told me he was so close to starting a big war with North Korea. And where are we now?"

It was, by Daniel Dale's count, the 25th time the Republican told some version of this story. The core elements of the tale tend to be roughly the same: Obama told Trump that the United States was on the brink of a war, and Trump, thanks to how awesome his awesomeness is, was able to avert the deadly conflict.

And while it's difficult to say with certainty exactly what was said between Obama and Trump two-and-a-half years ago, it's very easy to dismiss what the Republican has repeatedly claimed.

Obama's top national security aides have emphatically denied Trump's version of events, explaining that Obama identified a longstanding security threat, which is a far cry from saying the two countries were "ready to go to war."

A New York Times analysis added, "The notion that Mr. Obama, who famously equivocated about a single missile strike against non-nuclear Syria to punish it for using chemical weapons against its own civilians, would have started a full-fledged war with North Korea seems hard to imagine, to say the least. But this presumption has become part of Mr. Trump's narrative in patting himself on the back for reaching out to North Korea to make peace."

So what's driving Trump to lie about this? There are a few angles to this to keep in mind.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.18.19

02/18/19 12:00PM

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

* This is the week in which North Carolina's State Board of Elections will consider evidence of alleged misconduct in last fall's election the 9th congressional district. The declaration of a new vote is a distinct possibility.

* On ABC News yesterday, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), one of Donald Trump's loyal far-right allies, said the president's emergency declaration was in part about fulfilling a "campaign promise." I'm pretty sure that's not a line endorsed by the White House or its lawyers.

* Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) hasn't made his 2020 plans official, but he's reportedly recorded a campaign video in which he says he's launching another presidential campaign.

* It's not clear whether Democratic officials can talk former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) into running for the Senate again next year, but a Public Policy Polling survey shows incumbent Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) leading O'Rourke by just two points, 47% to 45%, in a hypothetical match-up.

* The gubernatorial race in Mississippi, one of only three states to hold statewide elections this year, just got even more interesting: Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (R), generally seen as the likely GOP nominee, is now poised to face retired state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr., the son of a former governor, in a Republican primary.

* Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said he's prepared to walk away from a possible independent presidential campaign, but only if Democrats nominate someone who meets his vague definition of "centrist."

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A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)

Targeting federal law enforcement, Trump turns things up a notch

02/18/19 11:20AM

Apropos of nothing, Donald Trump published a tweet yesterday about Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team of federal investigators.

"These guys, the investigators, ought to be in jail. What they have done, working with the Obama intelligence agencies, is simply unprecedented. This is one of the greatest political hoaxes ever perpetrated on the people of this Country, and Mueller is a coverup." Rush Limbaugh

For the record, I have no idea if Limbaugh actually said this. The president occasionally misquotes people -- even his allies -- to advance his own purposes, and it would probably be a mistake to assume this reflects the far-right radio host's exact words.

What matters, however, is the underlying sentiment that Trump was eager to endorse: the president believes federal law enforcement officials, examining a foreign adversary's attack on our elections, aren't just part of some elaborate, partisan conspiracy, he apparently also believes they "ought to be in jail."

That strikes me as a notable rhetorical escalation for the embattled president.

Trump went on to reiterate his belief that the special counsel's investigation is "illegal," before publishing a couple of additional missives about former FBI Deputy Director and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein targeting him with "a very illegal act," which the president believes may be "treasonous."

Given the context, I'm assuming Trump is referring to the alleged 2017 conversation about the 25th Amendment.

Regardless of the context, let's not forget that, as of right now, Rod Rosenstein remains one of the nation's top law enforcement officials. He's also, evidently, someone Trump considers a criminal.

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Image: Senior White House Advisor Stephen Miller waits to go on the air in the White House Briefing Room in Washington

White House struggles to defend unprecedented Trump declaration

02/18/19 10:40AM

When Donald Trump arrived at the White House's Rose Garden on Friday morning, the public already knew he would declare a national emergency at the border and grant himself the power to redirect funds in defiance of Congress' wishes. It just took him a while to get there.

The president meandered for a long while, referencing a variety of other issues that were on his mind, before eventually getting to the point.

"So I'm going to be signing a national emergency. And it's been signed many times before. It's been signed by other presidents from 1977 or so. It gave the presidents the power.

"There's rarely been a problem. They sign it; nobody cares. I guess they weren't very exciting. But nobody cares. They sign it for far less important things, in some cases, in many cases. We're talking about an invasion of our country with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs."

Looking past Trump's unintentionally amusing use of "so..." -- he seemed to treat the emergency declaration as an afterthought -- his underlying point was that previous presidents relied on similar powers without incident, so there's no reason to make a fuss about his latest gambit. It's all perfectly in line with the law and modern precedent.

Except that's wrong. As multiple fact-checkers were quick to note, other presidents have made use of the National Emergencies Act, but no American chief executive has ever used the law to circumvent Congress and redirect federal funds in defiance of lawmakers' wishes.

All of which led to an interesting exchange between Fox News' Chris Wallace and Stephen Miller, one of Trump's far-right White House aides.

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Image: Former Deputy Director of the FBI McCabe fired by Attorney General Sessions

Former FBI deputy director: Trump listened to Putin on North Korea

02/18/19 10:02AM

CBS's "60 Minutes" aired its interview with former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe last night, and as expected, he covered quite a bit of interesting ground, including shedding light on the 2017 conversation about Donald Trump and the 25th Amendment.

It was also of great interest to hear McCabe tell CBS's Scott Pelley that he wrote contemporaneous memos about his conversations with the president -- and those materials are now "in the custody of the special counsel's team."

But perhaps the most memorable element of the interview came when McCabe described what transpired after an FBI official briefed him on a meeting with Trump

MCCABE: The president -- launched into -- several unrelated diatribes. One of those was commenting on the recent missile launches by the government of North Korea. And, essentially, the president said he did not believe that the North Koreans had the capability to hit us here with ballistic missiles in the United States. And he did not believe that because President Putin had told him they did not. President Putin had told him that the North Koreans don't actually have those missiles.

PELLEY: And U.S. intelligence was telling the president what?

MCCABE: Intelligence officials in the briefing responded that that was not consistent with any of the intelligence our government possesses, to which the president replied, "I don't care. I believe Putin."

In fairness, it's worth emphasizing that McCabe apparently didn't hear this directly from the president, but rather, was told about Trump's comments from an FBI official who'd just briefed the president.

That said, McCabe's version of events is easy to believe in large part because it's consistent with other information we already know to be true. It was last summer, for example, that Trump scrapped U.S. military exercises with our South Korean allies -- for the first time in 70 years -- because Putin suggested it to the Republican.

We also know Trump has little use for the findings of his own country's intelligence agencies, so it stands to reason he must rely on information from someone else.

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Image: Lindsey Graham; Donald Trump

Lindsey Graham prioritizes border wall over military construction

02/18/19 09:20AM

Several congressional Republicans have made no secret of the fact that they're not pleased with Donald Trump's border wall emergency declaration. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), however, a Trump critic turned Trump cheerleader, has touted the president's gambit as a great move.

Like the rest of us, the senator doesn't yet know for sure exactly which funds the administration intends to divert for the project, but at this point, the South Carolinian may not care. Consider this exchange on "Face the Nation" yesterday between CBS News' Margaret Brennan and Graham:

MARGARET BRENNAN: The president just declared a national emergency in regard to getting the funds for his border wall. In terms of getting those funds though through this emergency action and there's about $3.6 billion of it that could come from military construction efforts, including construction of a middle school in Kentucky, housing for military families, improvements for bases like Camp Pendleton and Hanscom Air Force Base. Aren't you concerned that some of these projects that were part of legislation that you helped approve and Congress are now going to possibly be cut out?

SEN. GRAHAM: Well the president will have to make a decision where to get the money. Let's just say for a moment that he took some money out of the military construction budget. I would say it's better for the middle school kids in Kentucky to have a secure border. We'll get them the school they need. But right now we've got a national emergency on our hands.

We obviously don't have a national emergency on our hands. Graham's ally in the Oval Office effectively admitted as much on Friday, declaring publicly that he didn't really "need" to issue an emergency declaration, but he did so anyway in the interests of convenience and expediency.

Putting that aside for the moment, however, Trump is reportedly prepared to take $3.6 billion from the military construction budget in order to fund a wildly unnecessary border barrier. If this means some children of servicemen and women stationed at Fort Campbell don't have a school to go to, that's a price Lindsey Graham is willing to pay.

So to recap, Trump promised Mexico would pay for the wall. Then he said the wall would pay for the wall. The Republican president has now shifted his posture again, concluding that the American military will pay for the wall.

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Republican U.S. vice presidential nominee Mike Pence speaks at a campaign rally, Oct. 22, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Pence forced to confront 'deafening' silence from US allies

02/18/19 08:41AM

Vice President Mike Pence was in Germany over the weekend, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, one of the Western world's leading gatherings for international affairs. The Indiana Republican began his remarks by telling attendees that he was there on behalf of a "champion of freedom and of a strong national defense."

Pence quickly added, "I bring greetings from the 45th president of the United States of America, President Donald Trump."

He then paused for applause. In fact, the prepared text explicitly included an "applause" note. But the American vice president's comments were met with a lengthy and awkward silence.

"I was there," Sen Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) wrote via Twitter. "The silence was deafening."

Later, in the same remarks, Pence declared with conviction, "The time has come from our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and join us as we bring the economic and diplomatic pressure necessary to give the Iranian people, the region, and the world the peace, security, and freedom they deserve."

He again paused to allow the audience -- made up of many U.S. allies -- to offer some kind of approval. Again, the Republican heard silence.

It's not that attendees to the conference were unusually reticent. Consider, for example, the leader who spoke immediately before Pence. The New York Times reported:

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany delivered a strong rejoinder on Saturday to American demands that European allies pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and gave a spirited defense of multilateral institutions in a world increasingly marked by great-power rivalry.

In an uncharacteristically passionate speech, Ms. Merkel said the nuclear deal was the best way of influencing Iranian behavior on a range of non-nuclear issues, from missile development to terrorism.

Without mentioning President Trump or the United States by name in what may be her last speech to this major security conference, Ms. Merkel criticized other unilateral moves, such as Mr. Trump's decision to pull American troops out of Syria, a suggestion that he would withdraw quickly from Afghanistan and his decision to suspend the Intermediate Range Missile Treaty with Russia, which directly affects European security.

Merkel received a standing ovation. (Ivanka Trump, who attended the event for reasons I can't explain, remained seated.)

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump points at supporters after speaking at rally at the Verizon Wireless Center in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 8, 2016. (Photo by Justin Lane/EPA)

Trump eyes 'retribution' against comedy shows that hurt his feelings

02/18/19 08:00AM

When Donald Trump speaks to audiences, he's accustomed to warm receptions from adoring followers. When the president looks out at an audience and sees forlorn faces, he takes it very personally.

After his State of the Union address last year, for example, Trump traveled to Ohio, ostensibly to talk about Republican tax cuts. He spent a fair amount of time, however, complaining about Democratic lawmakers failing to applaud his speech to his satisfaction. "Can we call that treason?" he asked the crowd at his rally. "Why not? I mean, they certainly didn't seem to love our country very much."

This year, after congressional Dems again failed to cheer to him, the president was again preoccupied with the perceived slight: Trump released a video on Friday night showing Democrats responding to his latest State of the Union address with looks of dissatisfaction. (The Republican ended up releasing it twice, since members of REM balked at his use of their song.)

Common sense suggests a confident and mature president wouldn't go out of his way to appear this petty, but Trump has an odd habit of looking small while trying to make himself appear big. Indeed, he made matters quite a bit worse two days later, complaining bitterly about NBC's "Saturday Night Live" for having the audacity to mock him.

"Nothing funny about tired Saturday Night Live on Fake News NBC! Question is, how do the Networks get away with these total Republican hit jobs without retribution? Likewise for many other shows? Very unfair and should be looked into. This is the real Collusion!"

If this sounds at all familiar, it's because Trump has published similar tweets before. During his presidential transition period, he lashed out at "SNL," condemning it as "biased," and suggesting he and his team should be given "equal time." Last year, the Republican did it again, blasting the comedy show as a "spin machine," and suggesting that the broadcasts may not be "legal."

It wasn't until yesterday, however, that Trump raised the specter of responding to the satirical show with "retribution."

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