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Image: Paul Manafort

Yet another member of Team Trump ends up behind bars

12/17/19 12:36PM

Rick Gates, Donald Trump's former deputy campaign manager, was supposed to be sentenced months ago, but the process was repeatedly delayed as he continued to cooperate with prosecutors in a variety of cases, including testifying during the criminal trials against Paul Manafort and Roger Stone. Gates' willingness to work with the authorities led prosecutors to agree that he should get probation and no prison sentence.

That didn't quite work out for the defendant, though his punishment was hardly severe: Gates was sentenced this morning to three years probation and 45 days in jail.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled that Gates can serve the sentence on weekends and fined him $20,000, in addition to 300 hours of community service. She said Manafort would not have been as successful in his crimes if it were not for Gates. [...]

Gates and Manafort were the first ex-Trump campaign officials to be charged by former special counsel Robert Mueller, accused of evading taxes and violating lobbying laws by concealing millions of dollars they earned representing pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. Gates had pleaded guilty and spent more than 500 hours assisting government lawyers and federal agents.

This news comes just one month after Roger Stone, a former Trump aide and confidant, was also convicted on multiple felony counts. It's part of what the Washington Post recently described as "the remarkable universe of criminality" surrounding the sitting president of the United States.

As we discussed in November, the number of criminals is important, but so too is the degree to which this dynamic conflicts with the message Trump has been eager to trumpet. As regular readers know, the president presents himself as being aggressively “tough on crime” and a champion of "law and order," which he frequently tries to incorporate into his agenda. Earlier this year, while making the case for a border wall, the Republican declared, “The Democrats, which I’ve been saying all along, they don’t give a damn about crime. They don’t care about crime…. But I care about crime.”

Of course, given recent events, it’s hardly unreasonable to wonder whether he cares about crime or about surrounding himself with people who’ve committed crimes?

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.17.19

12/17/19 12:00PM

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

* The labor dispute at Loyola Marymount has been resolved, and barring any last-minute changes, this week's Democratic presidential primary debate in Los Angeles will be held on schedule.

* Facing a newly redrawn map, Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) announced late yesterday that he won't seek re-election next year, joining a long list of House Republicans giving up their seats. Walker, however, left little doubt that he intends to run for the U.S. Senate in 2022, when Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is set to retire.

* In the latest national Quinnipiac poll, released yesterday afternoon, Joe Biden leads the Democratic presidential field with 30% support. Elizabeth Warren is second in the poll with 17%, followed by Bernie Sanders at 16%., and Pete Buttigieg at 9%. The only other candidate above 5% was Michael Bloomberg, whose aggressive spending spree has propelled him to fifth place with 7%.

* The good news for Republicans in the new Suffolk/USA Today poll is that it shows Donald Trump leading each of the top Democratic contenders in hypothetical general election match-ups. The bad news for Republicans is that in order to arrive at these results, the Suffolk/USA Today poll found "an unnamed third-party candidate" receiving double-digit support, which seems difficult to take seriously, given that no such candidate exists.

* Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who will vote against Trump's impeachment, acknowledged yesterday that he's had "overtures by the highest levels of the Republican Party in the last couple weeks" about switching parties, but he declined. This probably has something to do with the fact that Peterson is currently the chair of the House Agriculture Committee -- a post he's long sought -- and abandoning the Dems would mean losing his gavel

* In Texas, where there's a crowded field of Democratic candidates hoping to take on Sen. John Cornyn (R) next year, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has officially thrown its support behind M.J. Hegar (D).

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Two men stand on the plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building as storm clouds fill the sky, June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Trump-district Dem couldn't find any GOP takers on censure

12/17/19 11:20AM

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) was one of the few congressional Democrats who actively searched for an alternative to impeachment. Given his district, it's easy to understand why.

Gottheimer represents New Jersey's 5th congressional district, which was represented by a Republican every year between 1933 to 2017. It's also a district that's supported the Republican presidential ticket in every recent election cycle, including in 2016.

And yet, like so many red-district House Dems, Gottheimer announced this morning that he too feels obligated to follow the evidence and vote for Donald Trump's impeachment. His written statement declaring his intentions, however, added something a little different. It read in part:

"Having considered all of the evidence and its impact on our national security, and given the Administration's efforts to prevent Congress from executing our Constitutionally-mandated oversight responsibilities, I must, for the sake of our country, support the Articles of Impeachment.

"I believe there is nothing more important to our country than our national security and the rule of law. I agree with our Founders that the President cannot -- and must not -- abuse his power. No one is above the law.

"Given the deepening partisan divide of our country, and the all but certain dismissal in the Senate, I would have considered a different course -- including censure -- if it would have resulted in a strong, bipartisan refutation of the President's actions. I worked to find Republican colleagues willing to hold the President accountable. However, not a single one was willing to support censuring the President."

It's that last part that stood out for me: Gottheimer didn't necessarily want to impeach Trump. He knew the president abused the powers of his office, and he knew the rule of law requires some kind of accountability, but he was perfectly open to alternatives.

And so the moderate New Jersey Dem from a red district went looking for GOP allies -- and came up empty.

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Snow begins to gather on a statue outside the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC, Dec.10, 2013.

Congress takes aim at the health care taxes that fund the ACA

12/17/19 10:46AM

As if there weren't enough going on in the nation's capital, there's a looming deadline this week to fund the government. Without passing some kind of spending bill by midnight on Friday, we'd see the latest in a series of government shutdown.

By all appearances, that outcome now appears unlikely, and a massive new spending package is taking shape. But as is always the case with these kinds of bills, members are cutting deals of varying sizes and significance, throwing all sorts of provisions into the broader bill.

Politico reported yesterday, for example, on some significant new changes to health care taxes.

Congress is expected to permanently repeal three major health industry taxes that were supposed to help pay for Obamacare in a final year-end spending agreement, in a big win for the health care industry.

Lawmakers have agreed to ax the Cadillac tax on pricey employer plans, a 2.3 percent tax on medical devices and a health insurance fee, four individuals familiar with the talks confirmed to POLITICO on Monday.

The excise tax on high-cost health plans -- generally known as the "Cadillac tax" -- is one of those unpopular ideas that wonks love because it's based on sound policymaking. It wasn't yet implemented, though, and now it never will be.

How do lawmakers intend to offset the costs of scrapping these taxes, each of which were expected to bring in considerable amounts of revenue? No one has any idea. By all appearances, they'll just add the costs to the deficit.

And while I can appreciate why no one's ever characterized health care tax policy as "click bait," let's not brush past these developments too quickly. During the fight over the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010, many of its critics on the right demanded that every penny of "Obamacare" be fully paid for. Democrats took the challenge seriously, made difficult and politically unpopular trade-offs, and after months of work, embraced a series of measures designed to address systemic costs and not add to the deficit.

Those measures, of course, included policies such as the individual mandate and revenue drives such as the "Cadillac tax" and the medical-device tax. A decade later, those Democratic efforts now appear to have served no purpose: Congress has left the spending in place, but it's also chipped away at the policies designed to pay for the reform law.

Looking ahead, as both parties eye significant health care changes, this approach portends trouble.

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Image: Arizona GOP Senate Candidate Martha McSally Attends Primary Night Event In Tempe

Despite evidence, Arizona's McSally accuses Dems, not Trump, of abuses

12/17/19 10:02AM

For many years, Donald Trump has responded to criticisms with I'm-rubber-and-you're-glue projection: his sins become his opponents' sins. Whatever the president has done wrong becomes the thing he accuses his detractors of doing.

It's sometimes described as Trump's "no puppet" problem because during a 2016 debate, Hillary Clinton accused the Republican of being a "puppet" for his allies in Moscow. The future president, showing all of the sophistication of a slow toddler, responded, "No puppet. No puppet. You're the puppet. No, you're the puppet."

But we're occasionally reminded that Trump isn't the only one who embraces this tactic. The Associated Press reported this week, for example, on appointed Sen. Martha McSally (R) of Arizona, who reflected on the ongoing impeachment proceedings.

McSally, who's one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the U.S. Senate, has repeatedly avoided saying whether she thinks it was wrong for Trump to ask Ukraine's government to investigate his political rival.

But she was much more candid when speaking to a supportive audience in Tucson on Saturday, saying only the Democrats have abused their power.

She said Republicans want to "make sure that we continue to highlight the abuse of power" that Democrats have committed, "which is the only abuse of power that we've seen going on here," apparently referring to the impeachment inquiry.

Exactly. Presented with striking evidence of presidential abuses, the appointed GOP senator believes it's actually Democrats, not Trump, who are guilty of abuses.

The AP report further suggested that McSally appears to be taking a rather partisan approach to the likely Senate impeachment trial, telling her friendly Arizona audience that Republicans are working through the best way to handle a trial "without inadvertently planting our own landmines and walking into a minefield."

"If we want to drag in some people, some other people may get dragged in, and, you know, we don't know how that's going to go," the senator was quoted saying.

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Image: President Trump announces steep tarrifs on imported steel and aluminum

Historians: If Trump's misconduct isn't impeachable, then nothing is

12/17/19 09:20AM

In his latest column, Michael Gerson noted that future historians will be "horrified" by Donald Trump's antics. As it turns out, we may not need to wait: contemporary historians have a problem with the Republican president, too. The Washington Post reported overnight:

A group of more than 700 historians, legal scholars and others published an open letter Monday urging the House of Representatives to impeach President Trump, denouncing his conduct as "a clear and present danger to the Constitution." [...]

In the letter, the scholars criticize Trump's "numerous and flagrant abuses of power" and state that his actions "urgently and justly require his impeachment."

The full document, which is online here, was published by the non-profit advocacy group Protect Democracy. It went on to note, "President Trump's numerous and flagrant abuses of power are precisely what the Framers had in mind as grounds for impeaching and removing a president.... It is our considered judgment that if President Trump's misconduct does not rise to the level of impeachment, then virtually nothing does."

As I type, the document has been endorsed by 752 scholars, including a variety of figures well known to the public, including Ken Burns, Robert Caro, Ron Chernow, Jon Meacham, Sean Wilentz, and Brenda Wineapple.

It also comes on the heels of a related effort from over 750 legal scholars who concluded that Trump is guilty of "impeachable conduct," and who added, "His conduct is precisely the type of threat to our democracy that the Founders feared when they included the remedy of impeachment in the Constitution."

In theory, lawmakers charged with assessing the seriousness of Trump's misconduct should value the judgment of the nation's leading scholars, and this is especially true of those who keep turning to history as a guide.

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A woman points a handgun with a laser sight on a wall display of other guns during the National Rifle Association convention Friday, April 13, 2007, in St. Louis.

For the first time in decades, Dems score a victory on gun policy

12/17/19 08:40AM

The day after the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a longtime opponent of new gun measures, said Congress needs to "take a breath and collect the facts." He added, "We don't just knee-jerk before we even have all the facts and the data."

At first blush, that may have seemed sensible. The trouble, as regular readers may recall, has been that access to facts and data has been severely limited by something called the Dickey Amendment, approved in the 1990s, which effectively made it impossible for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to study gun violence. Democratic efforts to change the policy have, for many years, faced intractable GOP resistance.

As Rachel noted on last night's show, however, this week appears to have brought a breakthrough. The Washington Post reported late yesterday:

Congressional leaders reached a deal to fund research on gun violence for the first time in more than 20 years, a major legislative victory for Democrats, researchers and anti-gun-violence activists.

The deal -- still pending final approval as congressional negotiations continue over a must-pass, end-of-year spending bill -- would send $25 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to study gun violence, with each agency receiving $12.5 million, according to congressional aides.

To be sure, $12.5 million in federally funded research may not sound like a massive investment, but it's a policy breakthrough that's been decades in the making.

Let's back up for a minute and revisit our earlier coverage to better understand how we reached this point.

When Arkansas Republican Jay Dickey first crafted his amendment in 1997, he didn’t explicitly ban research on gun violence. Rather, what his measure said was that no CDC funds could be “used to advocate or promote gun control.”

For CDC researchers, however, that language was far too vague to be useful. After all, if they did a study on gun violence that Congress perceived as “advocacy” for new gun policies, their work could end up being inadvertently illegal. As a result, Dickey’s policy – which he later regretted – had a chilling effect on research, to the public’s detriment.

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Image: A statue of the United States first President, George Washington, is seen under the Capitol dome in Washington

Impeachment on track to pass thanks to Trump-district Democrats

12/17/19 08:00AM

In recent weeks, the impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump have advanced in a fairly methodical way, without significant surprises. But once the finish line came into sight, a basic question came to the fore: would the votes be there to impeach the president or not?

As things stand, the Democratic majority in the House currently has 233 members, but 31 of them represent Republican-friendly districts that Donald Trump won in 2016. For impeachment proponents, this raised the prospect of the arithmetic getting a little complicated: if several Dems representing "red" districts voted against the articles -- fearing a possible voter backlash -- the final tally could be uncomfortably close.

But while we still don't know for certain exactly how many members will vote for impeachment, as an NBC News analysis noted overnight, many of those vulnerable Democrats have spent the past couple of days moving from on-the-fence members to pro-impeachment members.

One by one, House Democrats representing districts won by President Donald Trump in 2016 are dotting the "i" and crossing the "t" of his impeachment. [...]

The wave, which began with committee-level votes from members of the panels investigating the president in previous weeks, ramped up Monday, all but ensuring that he will become the third president impeached by the House.

As of last night, roughly half of the Democrats representing districts Trump carried in 2016 had publicly announced their intentions to support the articles during this week's floor vote.

It's worth noting a couple of things for context. First, according to most headcounts, the articles of impeachment against Trump haven't yet secured a majority -- there are still a few dozen members who've kept their cards close to their vest -- so keep an eye on the overall tallies over the next couple of days.

Second, potentially vulnerable Democrats may be breaking in support of impeachment as the process nears its House endpoint, but the party is not completely unanimous on the issue. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) intends to vote "no," as does freshman Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, who's slated to become a Republican sometime this week.

They may yet get some company from undecided Dems, included undecided members such as Maine's Jared Golden and/or Oklahoma's Kendra Horn.

That said, Republicans and their allies made a concerted effort to intimidate vulnerable House Democrats, hoping to scare them into submission. As of yesterday, those efforts appear to be failing.

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Monday's Mini-Report, 12.16.19

12/16/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Flynn case: "A federal judge on Monday sharply rejected Michael Flynn's argument that he was targeted by politically motivated federal agents -- and set a sentencing date of next month for President Donald Trump's first national security adviser, who has pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents."

* It's a breezy read: "The House Judiciary Committee released its full report on the impeachment of President Donald Trump early Monday, ahead of consideration by the full House as early as Wednesday."

* NAFTA 2.0: "Mexico's top trade negotiator plans to return to Washington on Sunday to express his outrage over language in the U.S. bill to implement the new North American trade agreement, potentially complicating the House's plans to pass the USMCA this week."

* Remember when Trump said this wasn't happening? "North Korea conducted a test at a missile launch site on Friday, the regime said, in a bid to pressure Washington to offer substantial concessions in stalled denuclearization talks."

* For consumers who missed yesterday's ACA enrollment deadline, it's not too late: "The open enrollment period for Obamacare has been extended until December 18 for those who couldn't sign up on Sunday, the original deadline, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced Monday."

* Afghanistan: "The Trump administration intends to announce the drawdown of about 4,000 troops from Afghanistan as early next week, according to three current and former U.S. officials. The withdrawal will leave between 8,000 and 9,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the officials said."

* Occasionally, we see the effects when U.S. leadership disappears: "Global climate talks lurched to an end here Sunday with finger-pointing, accusations of failure and fresh doubts about the world's collective resolve to slow the warming of the planet -- at a moment when scientists say time is running out for people to avert steadily worsening climate disasters."

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The J. Edgar Hoover Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) building stands in Washington, D.C., Aug. 8, 2013. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

Celebrated former FBI, CIA chief sees 'dire threat' from Team Trump

12/16/19 01:03PM

In August 2018, when Donald Trump began using security clearances as a political tool, William Webster joined other former CIA directors in speaking up and condemning the president's tactics. It was a rare instance in which Webster entered the political fray directly.

But as it turns out, his public concerns were not an isolated incident. Webster, the only person to ever lead both the CIA and the FBI, wrote a new op-ed for the New York Times, published today, in which he describes a "dire threat to the rule of law" in the country he loves and expresses concern that "the integrity of the institutions that protect our civil order are, tragically, under assault from too many people whose job it should be to protect them."

The aspersions cast upon [F.B.I. officials] by the president and my longtime friend, Attorney General William P. Barr, are troubling in the extreme. Calling F.B.I. professionals "scum," as the president did, is a slur against people who risk their lives to keep us safe. Mr. Barr's charges of bias within the F.B.I., made without providing any evidence and in direct dispute of the findings of the nonpartisan inspector general, risk inflicting enduring damage on this critically important institution.

The country can ill afford to have a chief law enforcement officer dispute the Justice Department's own independent inspector general's report and claim that an F.B.I. investigation was based on "a completely bogus narrative." In fact, the report conclusively found that the evidence to initiate the Russia investigation was unassailable. There were more than 100 contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russian agents during the 2016 campaign, and Russian efforts to undermine our democracy continue to this day. I'm glad the F.B.I. took the threat seriously. It is important, Mr. Wray said last week, that the inspector general found that "the investigation was opened with appropriate predication and authorization."

Webster went on to reflect on his "profound" disappointment in Rudy Giuliani, whose "activities of late concerning Ukraine have, at a minimum, failed the smell test of propriety."

The op-ed added, "The rule of law is the bedrock of American democracy, the principle that protects every American from the abuse of monarchs, despots and tyrants. Every American should demand that our leaders put the rule of law above politics."

The not-so-subtle point of his op-ed is that Webster seems to believe our current leaders are not putting the rule of law above politics.

I can appreciate why William Webster may not be a household name, but to appreciate the significance of his op-ed, consider his c.v.

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