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Monday's Mini-Report, 5.6.19

05/06/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The latest from Capitol Hill: "The House Judiciary Committee will vote Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt after he failed to comply with a subpoena to provide Congress with an unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and the underlying evidence, the panel announced Monday."

* Cease fire: "Israel and militant forces in Gaza agreed to a cease-fire early Monday after a weekend of violence that killed at least 27 people and injured hundreds more on both sides of the border in one of the region's most intense flareups of violence in years."

* Be afraid: "One million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction, with alarming implications for human survival, according to a United Nations report released Monday."

* Predictable: "Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday confirmed that the Trump administration is making contingency plans for U.S. military intervention in Venezuela, but he refused to say whether the administration would seek congressional authorization first."

* Georgia: "The mayor of Hoschton, a nearly all-white community 50 miles northeast of Atlanta, allegedly withheld a job candidate from consideration for city administrator because he was black, an AJC investigation has found."

* Donald Trump does not currently have a communications director, and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney apparently intends to keep it that way.

* Whatever happened to draining the swamp? "Former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly has joined the board of Caliburn International, the parent organization of the company that runs the largest facility housing migrant children in the United States."

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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.

Trump picks the wrong day to say, 'All the crimes are on the other side'

05/06/19 02:15PM

As recently as last year, Michael Cohen was a deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee and a prominent employee of the Trump Organization. As of this afternoon, however, Donald Trump's former lawyer and "fixer" is a federal prison inmate.

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former lawyer and fixer who pleaded guilty last year to an array of white-collar crimes, arrived at a federal prison in upstate New York on Monday to begin serving his three-year sentence Monday.

Cohen gave a brief statement to reporters outside his New York City apartment Monday morning before jumping in a waiting car to travel to the Federal Correctional Institution, Otisville, a large federal prison complex in the Catskills region.

Cohen, of course, was convicted of a variety of crimes, including two counts related to hush-money payments he made to the president's alleged former mistresses.

And with that in mind, it was curious to see Trump declare on Twitter this morning, in an all-caps message, "All the crimes are on the other side."

The president's timing could've been better.

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With Trump's new ICE chief, the 'how' matters as much as the 'why'

05/06/19 12:43PM

About a month ago, Donald Trump withdrew Ron Vitiello's nomination to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), because as the president put it, he decided to go "in a tougher direction."

Even for Trump, this was an impulsive and unexpected move, which "stupefied Homeland Security officials and lawmakers" and left many in the administration "baffled." Asked about Vitiello's ouster, ICE officials initially told reporters "they thought the White House had made a clerical error."

Yesterday, Trump named a new ICE nominee: Mark Morgan, who briefly ran the Border Patrol under President Barack Obama. In this case, I'm just as interested in how he got the nomination as why.

It's not hard to figure out what made Morgan appealing to Trump: he does, after all, support building a giant wall along the U.S./Mexico border. But something in Roll Call's report on his nomination stood out for me.

A former assistant FBI director, Morgan has made appearances on Fox News Channel in recent weeks to discuss both immigration policy and the report of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Morgan told "Fox & Friends" on March 7 that the idea migrants -- including children -- were being held in cages was really a "talking point for the Democrats"

What's more, just four days before the president made the announcement via Twitter, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs -- a Trump confidant -- posted a clip of an interview he'd just done with Mark Morgan in which he insisted no one from the White House had contacted him about the ICE position, but quickly added, "[I]f this president asked me to come up, I'd say yes in a heartbeat.... I know this border; the president's doing the right thing. He's right on this issue. If he asked, I would work for him in a heartbeat."

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.6.19

05/06/19 12:00PM

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

* Late Friday, a federal court struck down Ohio's gerrymandered congressional districts as unconstitutional and ordered Republican officials to submit a new map by June 14. It was a major development, though it may soon be rendered moot by conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court, which is scheduled to soon rule on partisan gerrymandering.

* Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a Democratic presidential contender, this morning unveiled an ambitious plan to address gun violence, including a proposal to create a federal gun licensing program.

* Over the weekend, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) unveiled a sweeping agricultural plan, which, among other things, called for breaking up major agriculture corporations and placing a moratorium on future agri-business mergers.

* Sen. Mike Enzi (R) announced over the weekend that he will retire next year rather than seek a fifth term. He's now the fourth sitting U.S. senator to announce retirement plans ahead of the 2020 cycle, following Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

* Reinforcing suspicions that the White House is concerned about former Vice President Joe Biden's candidacy, current Vice President Mike Pence told CNBC that his predecessor is "advocating a socialist agenda" -- a claim that may come as a surprise to some of Biden's more progressive critics.

* The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal and Gallup polls both show Donald Trump's approval rating reaching 46%. While that may sound underwhelming, the president is currently enjoying some of the strongest support he's seen since taking office.

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Image: John Bolton

John Bolton sends Iran a dubious 'message' with carrier strike group

05/06/19 11:20AM

White House National Security Advisor John Bolton announced late yesterday that the United States "is deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime." As NBC News' report noted, the strike group is not small.

The strike group consists of the Abraham Lincoln, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier; the USS Leyte Gulf, a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser; Carrier Air Wing Seven; and destroyers from Destroyer Squadron Two.

There's no shortage of questions surrounding the announcement. For example, was the Lincoln Carrier Strike Group going to be there anyway? NBC News' report added, "According to the Navy, the strike group left Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, on April 1 on a regularly scheduled deployment."

We similarly don't know what, if anything, this announcement was a response to.

But stepping back, I'm also eager to hear why John Bolton was the one to make this announcement. As a rule, the Pentagon would be responsible for issuing statements about deployments like these.

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File photo taken in November 2017 shows U.S. President Donald Trump (and Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a welcome ceremony in Beijing.

Trump's confusion over China and trade causes new troubles

05/06/19 10:40AM

With trade talks between the United States and China poised to enter a new phase, Donald Trump apparently decided it'd be wise to threaten Beijing with ridiculous new tariffs. Here was the American president's latest salvo, delivered via Twitter yesterday afternoon:

"For 10 months, China has been paying Tariffs to the USA of 25% on 50 Billion Dollars of High Tech, and 10% on 200 Billion Dollars of other goods. These payments are partially responsible for our great economic results.

"The 10% will go up to 25% on Friday. 325 Billions Dollars of additional goods sent to us by China remain untaxed, but will be shortly, at a rate of 25%. The Tariffs paid to the USA have had little impact on product cost, mostly borne by China. The Trade Deal with China continues, but too slowly, as they attempt to renegotiate. No!"

Right off the bat, it's important to note that the Republican appears to still be struggling with the details of his own trade policy. China, for example, isn't paying those tariffs; consumers in the United States are. The idea that non-existent "payments" from Beijing are boosting the American economy is completely bonkers.

Trump added this morning, "The United States has been losing, for many years, 600 to 800 Billion Dollars a year on Trade. With China we lose 500 Billion Dollars."

No, actually, we don't. The American president continues to wildly exaggerate the size of our trade deficit with China, but just as importantly, Trump also doesn't yet grasp the fact that trade deficits are not evidence of money we've "lost."

Trump recently boasted, in reference to trade policy, "I understand that issue better than anybody." He later added, "I know every ingredient. I know every stat. I know it better than anybody knows it."

Oh, how I wish that were true.

But the larger significance of this goes beyond pointing and laughing at the American president's ignorance about one of his signature issues. In this case, Trump's confusion came with real consequences.

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Why Trump is balking at Mueller's congressional testimony

05/06/19 10:00AM

As recently as Friday afternoon, a reporter asked Donald Trump whether Special Counsel Robert Mueller should testify before Congress. "I don't know," the president replied. "That's up to our attorney general."

Two days later, Trump's position changed in dramatic fashion.

President Donald Trump said Sunday that special counsel Robert Mueller should not testify to Congress on his report on Trump and Russia, claiming Democrats only want him to appear because his probe didn't reach the conclusions they wanted.

"Are they looking for a redo because they hated seeing the strong NO COLLUSION conclusion?" Trump tweeted. "There was no crime, except on the other side (incredibly not covered in the Report), and NO OBSTRUCTION. Bob Mueller should not testify. No redos for the Dems!"

I don't know what Trump thinks "redo" means, but much of his missive was gibberish. The president's assertions about the Mueller report's conclusions bear no real resemblance to the special counsel's actual findings.

Indeed, the contradiction at the heart of the Republican's argument was apparently lost on him: if Mueller arrived at a "strong no collusion conclusion," and the special counsel determined that there was "no obstruction," shouldn't Trump be eager to have Mueller say so in sworn testimony for all the world to see?

It apparently never occurred to the president that it might look foolish for him to effectively say, "The person who totally exonerated me should remain silent, indefinitely."

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Image: Kim Jong Un attends launching of ballistic missile Hwasong-12

Even after latest missile test, Trump stands with North Korean leader

05/06/19 09:20AM

As part of a curious foreign policy, Donald Trump has already made a striking number of concessions to North Korea's Kim Jong-un – a rogue dictator the American president says he loves, respects, and trusts. The Republican gave the North Korean leader the bilateral talks he wanted. And the international legitimacy he wanted. And the cessation of military exercises he wanted. And the propaganda opportunities he wanted.

But according to Trump, he hasn't come away empty-handed. For months, the Republican has been quick to argue that he deserves credit for the cessation of North Korean weapons testing.

As regular readers know, that boast collapsed last month, after North Korea claimed to have test-fired a new type of "tactical guided weapon."

Oddly enough, a week later, Trump pretended the weapons test didn't happen, telling reporters, "There's been no tests. There's been no nothing." The rhetoric was wrong at the time, and it's just a little worse now.

North Korea has conducted a "strike drill" for multiple launchers, firing tactical guided weapons into the East Sea in a military drill supervised by leader Kim Jong Un on Saturday, the North's state media reported on Sunday.

The purpose of the drill was to test performance of "large-caliber long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons by defense units," the Korean Central News Agency said.

Photographs released by KCNA showed the tactical guided weapons fired could be a short-range, ground-to-ground ballistic missiles, according to Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Korea's Kyungnam University's Institute of Far Eastern Studies.

According to North Korea, Kim Jong-un, Trump's buddy in Pyongyang, ordered and oversaw the latest weapons test.

Soon after, the American president turned to Twitter to say that the North Korean dictator "knows that I am with him."

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On Venezuela, Trump sides with Putin over his own team

05/06/19 08:40AM

A few months ago, Axios had an interesting report on Donald Trump's perspective on Venezuela, which had been shaped in part on the president's interactions with "the Venezuelan expats who frequent his golf club" in south Florida. As crises in the South American country mounted, this did not inspire confidence in the future of the administration's policy.

Late last week, however, anxieties grew more acute. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the case that Russia had effectively "invaded" Venezuela, and as a consequence, Moscow was exerting undo control over developments in the country. It was a message Pompeo -- the United States' chief diplomat and the man responsible for executing the American president's foreign policy -- had pushed repeatedly in a variety of forums.

Similarly, White House National Security Advisor Michael Bolton thought it was his job to push back against Russian interference in Venezuelan affairs. All of which made this Oval Office exchange between a reporter and Donald Trump on Friday afternoon that much more notable.

Q: Mr. President, you spoke with Vladimir Putin earlier today.

TRUMP: Yes, I did.

Q: What options are you looking at to get humanitarian assistance to Venezuela?

TRUMP: Yeah, I had a very good talk with President Putin -- probably over an hour. And we talked about many things. Venezuela was one of the topics. And he is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela other than he'd like to see something positive happen for Venezuela.

So, on the one hand, Trump has heard from top members of his team -- powerful officials whom the American president personally chose for the posts -- who've left no doubt about Russian involvement in Venezuela. On the other hand, Trump spoke to Putin, who told the Republican he's not involved in Venezuela.

Trump, naturally, simply took the Russian president's word for it.

And what, pray tell, did the American president's team have to say in response?

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U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a press conference after the meeting of U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2

As election threats mount, Trump flaunts weakness toward Putin

05/06/19 08:00AM

Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has had multiple opportunities to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin on Moscow's military intelligence operation targeting American elections. Throughout his presidency, for reasons the White House hasn't even tried to explain, Trump has refused.

The problem is even more acute now. Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report just told the American president, and the rest of the world, "The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion." Soon after, Trump's handpicked FBI director, Christopher Wray, gave sworn congressional testimony in which he described Russian efforts to interfere in American elections as a "significant counterintelligence threat."

It was against this backdrop that Trump had a lengthy phone call with Putin on Friday, creating a new opportunity for the Republican to stick up for his own country, demand accountability, and warn the autocratic leader not to target us again. Would Trump step up?

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the two presidents spoke about the resolution of the Mueller investigation, but when a reporter asked whether Trump broached the subject of Russia's attack, she dodged.

Her boss, however, removed all doubt.

Q: Did you tell [Putin] not to meddle in the next election?

TRUMP: We didn't discuss that. Really, we didn't discuss it.

I especially liked the use of the word "really," as if the Republican was eager to convince everyone that he wasn't peddling a dubious line: Trump "really" didn't bother to tell our attacker not to do it again.

In other words, even after the American president was confronted with definitive evidence that Russia attacked us -- the Trump campaign now accepts this as fact -- he still has no interest in holding the Russian president accountable or demanding that Moscow back off ahead of 2020.

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