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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 6.17.19

06/17/19 12:00PM

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

* In an unexpected 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court this morning rejected a challenge to a lower court ruling on Virginia's racially gerrymandered legislative districts. The outcome increases the odds of Democrats winning a majority in Richmond this fall.

* The latest national Fox News poll found former Vice President Joe Biden (D) maintaining his position atop the Democratic presidential primary field, leading Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), 32% to 13%. In March, the same poll found Biden leading Sanders by just eight points. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was third in the new results with 9%, followed by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) with 8% each.

* That same poll found each of the top five Democratic contenders leading Donald Trump in hypothetical match-ups, though Biden, who led the president by 10 points, enjoyed the largest advantage.

* The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll was also released over the weekend, and it found just 37% of registered voters are enthusiastic or comfortable about voting for Trump. In contrast, the poll found 52% said they're "very uncomfortable" backing the president.

* In South Carolina, a Post and Courier-Change Research Poll found Biden leading Warren, 37% to 17%, followed by Buttigieg with 11%. Harris and Sanders are tied in this poll for fourth with 9% each.

* Speaking of the Palmetto State, several Democratic contenders appeared at the Black Economic Alliance Presidential Forum in South Carolina on Saturday. The candidates -- Warren, Buttigieg, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) -- spoke at the event, which was specifically focused on economic problems affecting African-American communities.

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St Basil's Cathedral

US officials target Russia's power grid, but leave Trump in the dark: NYT

06/17/19 11:20AM

The New York Times published a striking front-page article over the weekend, reporting that the United States is "stepping up digital incursions into Russia's electric power grid." The piece added that in recent months, officials have described previously unreported "deployment of American computer code inside Russia's grid and other targets."

It's a solid scoop, though U.S. officials didn't appear overly eager to hide their handiwork. The article went on to note, "Officials at the National Security Council also declined to comment but said they had no national security concerns about the details of The New York Times's reporting about the targeting of the Russian grid, perhaps an indication that some of the intrusions were intended to be noticed by the Russians."

Or put another way, U.S. officials were comfortable throwing a brushback pitch at Moscow, letting Russia know what's possible.

But perhaps the most notable part of the Times' reporting came halfway through the article:

Two administration officials said they believed Mr. Trump had not been briefed in any detail about the steps to place "implants" — software code that can be used for surveillance or attack — inside the Russian grid.

Pentagon and intelligence officials described broad hesitation to go into detail with Mr. Trump about operations against Russia for concern over his reaction — and the possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials, as he did in 2017 when he mentioned a sensitive operation in Syria to the Russian foreign minister.

At face value, this is an extraordinary dynamic: Trump administration officials were reluctant to brief their president because they weren't sure they could trust him.

Evidently, those concerns are no longer valid -- if they intended to keep Trump in the dark, they probably wouldn't have told the New York Times about the deployment of these cybertools -- though as Mother Jones' Kevin Drum noted, it's possible these officials hoped the public reporting would make it difficult for the president to reverse course.

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Trump hedges on whether it's possible for him to obstruct justice

06/17/19 10:44AM

The first sign of trouble came in December 2017. As the investigation into the Russia scandal intensified, and credible allegations that Donald Trump obstructed justice came into focus, one of the president’s attorneys argued on the record that Trump “cannot obstruct justice.”

A day later, the same lawyer, John Dowd, added that because the president is the nation’s “chief law enforcement officer,” it’s simply not possible for him to “obstruct himself.”

As regular readers may recall, it was around this time that Trump's lawyers sent a 20-page memo to the special counsel's office, telling Robert Mueller and his team that the president has the authority to, "if he wished, terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon." It's why, in their minds, it's not even possible for the president to have obstructed justice.

In his interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, Donald Trump didn't explicitly endorse the argument, but he came awfully close.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You talk about Article II. So your position is that you can hire or fire anybody, stop or start, in any investigation --

TRUMP: That is the position of a lot of great lawyers. That's the position of some of the most talented lawyers. And you have to have a position like that because you're the president. But without even bringing up Article II, which absolutely gives you every right --

STEPHANOPOULOS: So a president can't obstruct justice?

TRUMP: A president can run the country. And that's what happened, George. I run the country, and I run it well.

In 1977, three years after Americans saw their president resign in disgrace for the first time, Martin Frost sat down with Richard Nixon, who argued, "When the president does it, that means that is not illegal."

It led the ABC News anchor to ask the relevant question, 42 years later: "When the president does it, it's not illegal?"

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APTOPIX Mideast Iran Election

Failure of Trump's Iran policy comes into sharper focus

06/17/19 10:05AM

In late January, Donald Trump seemed quite satisfied with his policy toward Iran. When he became president, the Republican wrote on Twitter, Iran "was making trouble all over the Middle East, and beyond. Since ending the terrible Iran Nuclear Deal, they are MUCH different."

A day later, Trump added that thanks to his agenda, U.S. policy toward Iran was finally in a "good" place.

Even at the time, the president's boast seemed bizarre. Reading this New York Times report this morning, the idea that Trump's policy toward Iran is some kind of success seems ridiculous.

Iran announced plans on Monday to stop complying with the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, which the United States withdrew from last year, leaving the door open to an "unlimited rise" in Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium amid escalating tensions between the two nations.

The announcement by Iran's Atomic Energy Organization was the country's latest signal that it will abandon the pact unless the other signatories to the deal help Iran circumvent punishing United States economic sanctions imposed by President Trump.

Colin Kahl, an Obama administration veteran, responded this morning, "Trump's 'maximum pressure' campaign was supposed to induce Iran to scrap its nuclear program (which was already contained by the 2015 nuclear deal). Instead, Trump's actions have incentivized Iran to restart it, creating a completely unnecessary crisis."

It's difficult to overstate the scope of the White House's failure. For reasons no one has been able to explain, Trump abandoned the international nuclear agreement with Iran -- a policy that the president's own team said was working.

It was the first in a series of dominoes, the latest of which includes the Trump administration directing highly provocative accusations at Iran with very little evidence, and even less credibility on which to lean. Tehran opened the door to an "unlimited rise" in its enriched uranium stockpile soon after.

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A campaign sign for Donald Trump is seen before an event in Lawrenceville, N.J., May 19, 2016. (Photo by John Taggart/Bloomberg/Getty)

Discouraging internal polls become a huge headache for Team Trump

06/17/19 09:20AM

About a week ago, the New York Times reported that Donald Trump had received a briefing on his internal polls, the results of which were "devastating" for the president's operation. Soon after, according to the article, the Republican directed his aides "to deny that his internal polling showed him trailing" former Vice President Joe Biden, despite the fact that the data showed exactly that.

Trump did not handle the Times' reporting well. In fact, he soon after insisted that the internal polling data was "fake," "made up," and that the results in question "don't even exist."

Yeah, about that...

Data from President Donald Trump's first internal reelection campaign poll conducted in March, obtained exclusively by ABC News, showed him losing a matchup by wide margins to former Vice President Joe Biden in key battleground states.

Trump has repeatedly denied that such data exists.

The polling data, revealed for the first time by ABC News, showed a double-digit lead for Biden in Pennsylvania 55-39 and Wisconsin 51-41 and had Biden leading by seven points in Florida. In Texas, a Republican stronghold, the numbers showed the president only leading by two points.

NBC News obtained additional data from the internal polling report, which also painted a bleak picture for the GOP incumbent.

Brad Parscale, Trump's campaign manager, conceded that the polling results -- the ones his boss said were "fake," "made up," and non-existent -- were real, but out of date.

Parscale added that his operation has seen "huge swings in the president's favor" since that internal poll was conducted in March, which seems awfully hard to believe given the overall trajectory of Trump's national standing.

But in case this weren't a big enough fiasco, Team Trump has responded to these developments by shaking up his polling team.

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

Key GOP rep: It'd be 'foolish' to turn down info from foreign source

06/17/19 08:40AM

Donald Trump jolted the political world last week when the president ignored the lessons of the Russia scandal and endorsed foreign intervention in American political campaigns. He scoffed at the idea of contacting the FBI about improper foreign outreach -- "Give me a break," the Republican said, "Life doesn't work that way" -- and rejected the conclusions of his own handpicked FBI director.

Trump added, "If somebody called from a country, Norway, 'We have information on your opponent,' oh I think I'd want to hear it.... It's not an interference. They have information, I think I'd take it."

The comments caused some discomfort among Republicans, who weren't altogether eager to defend their president's indifference to the rule of law and the integrity of his own country's elections system. But as the Salt Lake Tribune reported, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) went in a very different direction.

While Stewart said he wouldn't have said it the way President Donald Trump did to ABC News -- the president said he would take intel from a foreign government and maybe not alert the FBI -- there's good reason to look at the information they may be offering.

"It depends on who it is and the circumstances and how credible it is," Stewart told CNN's Jim Scuitto. "There might be valuable information that comes from one of our allies. If they look at it, and it's credible, I think it would be foolish not to take that information."

Asked about contacting the FBI if offered campaign information from a foreign source, the four-term GOP lawmaker added, "I just think you have to say it depends. Because it truly does depend."

Chris Stewart is a member of the House Intelligence Committee, which suggests he really ought to know better.

Among the problems with this is the simple fact that U.S. law isn't ambiguous on this point.

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During a campaign rally Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reads a statement made by Michelle Fields, on March 29, 2016 in Janesville, Wis. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)

Trump now claims he read the whole Mueller report (but he didn't)

06/17/19 08:00AM

At a White House event last Wednesday, Donald Trump ranted for quite a while about the Mueller report, making a long series of claims, each of which were demonstrably wrong. Purely as a matter of political theatrics, it was almost impressive to see a sitting president lie so much, so quickly, about something of great significance.

Referring to the special counsel's findings, Trump argued, "It said, 'No collusion and no obstruction and no nothing.' And, in fact, it said we actually rebuffed your friends from Russia; that we actually pushed them back -- we rebuffed them." The Republican went on to make similarly false claims about his disclosures, his transparency, and federal investigators.

Listening to the tirade, it became clear that the president had simply decided to replace our reality with an alternative version that better suited his purposes. It served as a reminder that Trump had drawn firm conclusions about the Mueller report despite not having read it.

And yet, the president sat down with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos the same day and insisted he had read the Mueller report.

In context, the anchor, speaking with Trump inside the presidential limousine, asked the Republican about his "pitch to the swing voter on the fence." Trump quickly turned to the Mueller report, his "no collusion" claim, and his perception that voters "are angry about it." Stephanopoulos began to correct him, but said the two could discuss it in more detail later.

But the president pressed on, again insisting that the special counsel's findings concluded "no collusion," and "they didn't find anything having to do with obstruction." The ABC host explained, "They didn't examine collusion. He laid out evidence of obstruction."

This exchange soon followed:

TRUMP: He said no collusion.

STEPHANOPOULOS: He said he didn't look at collusion.

TRUMP: George, the report said no collusion.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you read the report?

TRUMP: Uh, yes I did, and you should read it, too.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I read every word.

TRUMP: Alright, let's go. You should read it, too, George.

At that point, the president decided it was time to leave the car.

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Trump admin confrontation of Iran raises concerns of escalation

Trump admin confrontation of Iran raises concerns of escalation

06/14/19 09:23PM

Ali Velshi looks at the escalation of tensions between the Trump administration and Iran through the lens of the Bush administration’s posture in the run-up to the Iraq war. Hagar Chemali, former spokesperson for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department, joins to share her insights on the dangerous U.S./Iran dynamic. watch

Friday's Mini-Report, 6.14.19

06/14/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* An important ruling: "The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday said the Trump administration cannot deny pregnant undocumented minors in federal custody access to abortion."

* It's only a case of someone repeatedly and flagrantly breaking an ethics law: "President Trump said Friday that he will not fire White House counselor Kellyanne Conway for repeated violations of the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from engaging in political activity in the course of their work."

* Climate crisis: "Ice is melting in unprecedented ways as summer approaches in the Arctic. In recent days, observations have revealed a record-challenging melt event over the Greenland ice sheet, while the extent of ice over the Arctic Ocean has never been this low in mid-June during the age of weather satellites."

* What a fiasco: "Federal tax payments by big businesses are falling much faster than anticipated in the wake of Republicans' tax cuts, providing ammunition to Democrats who are calling for corporate tax increases."

* A million here, a million there: "Ivanka Trump made $4 million from her investment in her father's Washington hotel last year, according to a disclosure released by the White House on Friday. She also made at least $1 million from her line of branded apparel, jewelry and other merchandise, down from at least $5 million in the previous year."

* A step in the right direction: "A small group of House Judiciary Committee members traveled to the Justice Department Thursday afternoon to begin reviewing former special counsel Robert Mueller's underlying evidence, according to multiple Democratic sources."

* There's just no good reason for this: "Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has chosen to relocate two of USDA's research agencies to the Kansas City area, the final step in a process to reshape the department's research wing that has drawn objections from several congressional Democrats."

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Trump puts his handpicked FBI director in an unenviable position

06/14/19 03:24PM

Last fall, NBC News reported that Donald Trump has been known to privately complain about his FBI chief, arguing behind the scenes that Chris Wray was "not protecting his interests." The president's dissatisfaction has become far more overt of late.

A month ago, for example, Trump whined via Twitter that the FBI "has no leadership," a not-so-subtle shot at the man he handpicked to oversee the bureau. Two days later, the president complained that it was "ridiculous" for Wray to balk at the White House's conspiracy theory about the Trump campaign being spied on in 2016.

Reminded this week that Wray has encouraged Americans aware of foreign efforts to intervene in our elections to contact federal law enforcement, Trump declared, "The FBI director is wrong." (The FBI was not, in reality, wrong.)

This was, of course, part of the same interview in which the president personally invited foreign intervention in American elections, saying that if foreign countries have information that might benefit his re-election effort, "I think I'd take it."

Politico reported overnight that with his bizarre comments, Trump "undercut" months of work at the bureau.

[Trump's] comments, according to interviews with nearly a dozen law enforcement veterans, have undone months of work, essentially inviting foreign spies to meddle with 2020 presidential campaigns and demoralizing the agents trying to stop them.

And it has backed Wray into a corner, they added, putting him in a position where he might have to either publicly chastise the president and risk getting fired, or resign in protest.

Jim Baker, the FBI's former general counsel, told Politico, in reference to FBI leaders who saw Trump's interview, "I don't think they should run for the exits right away, but they can't just ignore this one. This is potentially encouraging criminal activity and undermining federal law."

Don't brush past that one too quickly: the former top lawyer at the FBI believes the sitting president may have encouraged others to commit federal crimes.

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