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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)

DOJ official won't say if a president can ask for foreign probe of rival

10/22/19 12:53PM

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing this morning on election security and, as the Associated Press reported, the witnesses were asked if they believe it's inappropriate for an American president to ask a foreign government to investigate a domestic rival. The answers were encouraging -- for the most part.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler ... was referencing a July phone call in which President Donald Trump prodded his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden.

Three officials answered that it was not appropriate to ask a foreign leader for a political investigation.

A deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's national security division, Adam Hickey, said he would not comment on the president's activities.

If the published witness list is correct, it means Department of Homeland Security Senior Cybersecurity Advisor Matthew Masterson, FBI Deputy Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Nikki Floris, and U.S. Election Assistance Commission Vice Chair Ben Hovland were all willing to say that an American president should not ask a foreign government to investigate a domestic rival.

But the Justice Department's Adam Hickey, the deputy assistant attorney general in the National Security Division, balked. He could've commented on the underlying principle, without commenting on Donald Trump's actions specifically, but the DOJ official chose not to.

What amazes me about incidents like these is how easy the question should be to answer. Heck, even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) knows how to answer it properly.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.22.19

10/22/19 12:00PM

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

* In a familiar dynamic, Russia has already targeted Democratic presidential candidates, specifically going after Joe Biden, as part of the Kremlin's 2020 efforts. (If you missed Rachel's A block last night, it's well worth your time.)

* Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R) announced this morning he will not seek re-election next year. The move comes on the heels of a controversy surrounding a secret recording in which Bonnen made controversial comments about his party and its members.

* Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is making yet another trip to Kansas this week, reinforcing speculation that the controversial cabinet secretary is eyeing the state's open U.S. Senate race. Pompeo, a central figure in Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal, has publicly ruled out a 2020 candidacy, but his trips to Kansas have led many to believe his claims weren't sincere.

* Trump singled out Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) for support yesterday, insisting during a White House cabinet meeting that the Hawaii Democrat is "not a Russian agent." Of course, given that Gabbard is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, support from Trump may not be especially helpful for her right now.

* Andrew Yang, a Democratic presidential candidate, told the Washington Post yesterday that he will not run as a third-party candidate or an independent in 2020. Yang also suggested he's open to running on a ticket with Joe Biden as the party's vice presidential nominee.

* We don't yet know who'll run for the late Rep. Elijah Cummings' (D-Md.) Baltimore-area U.S. House seat, but Ben Jealous, a former NAACP president and the Democrats' gubernatorial nominee last year, has said he will not be a candidate.

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Militant Islamist fighters parade on military vehicles along the streets of northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. (Photo by Reuters)

With new policy, Trump appears to hand ISIS 'its biggest win' in years

10/22/19 11:20AM

At yesterday's White House cabinet meeting, Donald Trump seemed eager, if not desperate, to characterize himself as the world's fiercest and most effective foe of the ISIS terrorist network.

"I'm the one -- meaning it was me and this administration, working with others, including the Kurds -- that captured all of these people that we're talking about right now," the president said. He added, "I'm the one that did the capturing. I'm the one that knows more about it than you people.... As you know, most of the ISIS fighters that we captured -- 'we.' We. Not Obama. We. We captured them. Me."

To be sure, seeing a grown man grovel for credit like this made for a pitiful display, but that was not the only problem with Trump's pitch.

To the extent that reality still has any meaning, Trump's policy against ISIS largely mirrors Obama's policy against ISIS. The Daily Beast reported a couple of years ago that White House officials  made a deliberate effort to help "brand" the Trump campaign against ISIS as different from its predecessor, although there are no significant differences between Trump's strategy and Obama's.

Complicating matters, as the New York Times reports today, Trump's new policy in northern Syria has effectively ended the offensive against ISIS, to the militants' delight.

Now, analysts say that Mr. Trump's pullout has handed the Islamic State its biggest win in more than four years and greatly improved its prospects. With American forces rushing for the exits, in fact, American officials said last week that they were already losing their ability to collect critical intelligence about the group's operations on the ground.

"There is no question that ISIS is one of the big winners in what is happening in Syria," said Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, a research center in London.

The Times' article added that when news spread of Trump's decision, there was "jubilation" among ISIS supporters, and the White House's policy "has lifted the morale of fighters in affiliates as far away as Libya and Nigeria."

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A man holds a sign directing people to an insurance company where they can sign up for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare in Miami, Fla in 2015. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

Affordable Care Act perseveres, despite Trump's efforts

10/22/19 10:42AM

Last fall, Ezekiel Emanuel, a veteran of the Obama White House, wrote an op-ed alerting the public to "the big secret" about the Affordable Care Act: "It's working just fine." A year later, as the New York Times reports, that assessment is holding up quite well.

Nearly three years into President Trump's aggressive efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act, prices for the most popular type of health insurance plan offered through the health law's federal marketplace will actually drop next year, and the number of insurers offering plans will go up.

Administration officials credited Mr. Trump with the resiliency of the law even as they echoed his contempt for it. [...]

The 4-percent price decline is only the second time that average monthly premiums have dropped year-to-year since the marketplace opened in 2014, and it is a sign that the health law is stabilizing after several years of turmoil caused in part by Mr. Trump.

This news comes on the heels of a recent Washington Post report on the success "Obamacare" has had in saving the lives of many Americans.

As a political matter, however, the idea that Donald Trump, of all people, deserves credit for the ACA's resiliency is demonstrably ridiculous. Circling back to our earlier coverage, the Republican president first declared the death of the Affordable Care Act on March 17, 2017. “I also want people to know that Obamacare is dead,” he said. “It’s a dead health care plan. It’s not even a health care plan…. Obamacare is not an alternative. It’s not there. It’s dead. It’s dead. ” He hadn’t quite been in office for two months.

The Republican proceeded to repeat the claim obsessively for months, telling anyone who’d listen that the health care reform law is “dead.” “Gone.” “Absolutely dead.” “Finished.” A “dead carcass.”

In the months that followed, this White House went to extraordinary lengths to sabotage the health care system, only to fail to kill its target. The ACA is persevering, but that's happening despite Trump, not because of him.

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Image: Donald Trump,Melania Trump

Trump admin won't defend Trump's claim about troops in Saudi Arabia

10/22/19 10:13AM

At a White House cabinet meeting yesterday, Donald Trump boasted, "We're bringing our soldiers back home from the endless wars. We're doing great." In reality, of course, the president isn't actually withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, despite his claims to the contrary, and he's deploying additional U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia.

On the latter, however, Trump has an amazing defense. Saudi Arabian officials, the Republican declared last week, have "agreed to pay for the cost of those troops. They've agreed to pay fully for the cost of everything we're doing over there.... Saudi Arabia is paying for 100 percent of the cost, including the cost of our soldiers. And that negotiation took a very short time -- like, maybe, about 35 seconds."

In other words, there were private negotiations -- which the White House had not previously disclosed -- between the Trump administration and Saudi officials, and as part of those talks, Saudi Arabia agreed to pay "for 100 percent of the costs" of the American troop deployment, "including the cost of our soldiers."

To hear Trump tell it, this will be the first time in American history that U.S. troops have been deployed abroad at literally no cost to taxpayers. It led the Washington Post to wonder what in the world the president was talking about.

White House officials would not explain what Trump meant. So, we checked with the Pentagon for more details on the supposed payment arrangement. Officials at the Defense Department deflected our inquiry. [...]

We checked with the relevant committees in the House and the Senate -- Defense, Foreign Affairs and Appropriations -- and none could report an understanding of the president's claim. The Saudi Embassy did not respond with an explanation, either.

Eventually, the State Department gave the Post a vague statement about "burden-sharing among partners," which shed no light on whether the president's odd claim had any bearing on reality.

All of which suggests the Trump administration wasn't sure how best to explain the president's strange claim.

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Microphones stand at the podium after Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta addressed supporters at the election night rally in N.Y. on Nov. 9, 2016. (Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters)

Anxious Dems ask a familiar question: 'Is there anybody else?'

10/22/19 09:21AM

Ahead of the 2004 presidential election, Democratic voters had a sizable field of White House hopefuls to choose from, but after a few debates, many in the party started asking, "Is there anybody else?" The appetite for a new option led retired Gen. Wesley Clark to jump into the race in September 2003.

Ahead of the 2008 presidential election, Republican voters had a sizable field of White House hopefuls to choose from, but after a few debates, many in the party started asking, "Is there anybody else?" The appetite for a new option led retired Sen. Fred Thompson to jump into the race in September 2007.

Ahead of the 2012 presidential election, Republican voters had another sizable field of White House hopefuls to choose from, but after a few debates, many in the party started asking, "Is there anybody else?" The appetite for a new option led Texas Gov. Rick Perry to jump into the race in August 2011.

And as a New York Times report noted today, "It's that time of the election season for Democrats."

"Since the last debate, just anecdotally, I've had five or six people ask me: 'Is there anybody else?'" said Leah Daughtry, a longtime Democrat who has run two of the party's recent conventions.

With doubts rising about former Vice President Joseph R. Biden's ability to finance a multistate primary campaign, persistent questions about Senator Elizabeth Warren's viability in the general election and skepticism that Mayor Pete Buttigieg, of South Bend, Ind., can broaden his appeal beyond white voters, Democratic leaders are engaging in a familiar rite: fretting about who is in the race and longing for a white knight to enter the contest at the last minute.

The Times' article referenced a variety of possible contenders who could make 11th-hour bids, including former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Attorney General Eric Holder, the latter of whom was described as "considering a last-minute entry."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said he'd been "nudged by friends to reconsider" his decision not to run, while Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who nearly ran, conceded that "the pressure on him to reconsider from labor leaders, Democratic officials and donors has 'become more frequent.'"

I'm not in a position to say with confidence whether any of these prominent Democrats, or someone else entirely, might yet throw their hat into the ring. Usually, "white knight" candidates have already launched by now, but that doesn't preclude the possibility of someone giving this a shot.

That said, given the circumstances, the fact that this appetite apparently exists in some Democratic circles is ... curious.

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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks while meeting with President-elect Donald Trump following a meeting in the Oval Office Nov. 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

Trump remains convinced that other countries wouldn't talk to Obama

10/22/19 08:40AM

Donald Trump's preoccupation with Barack Obama was a little creepier than usual yesterday, with the Republican referencing his Democratic predecessor, by name, 10 times during an hour-long cabinet meeting. As is too often the case, the current president's incessant criticisms of Obama were largely detached from reality.

There was, however, one rant that stood out for me.

"...North Korea is -- I like Kim; he likes me. We get along. I respect him; he respects him. You could end up in a war. President Obama told me that. He said, 'The biggest problem -- I don't know how to solve it.' He told me doesn't know how to solve it.

"I said, 'Did you ever call him?' 'No.' Actually, he tried 11 times. But the man on the other side -- the gentleman on the side did not take his call. Okay? Lack of respect. But he takes my call."

For now, let's put aside how strange it is to see and hear Trump obsess over Obama on a nearly daily basis. Let's also look past the fact that Trump, when describing Obama and Kim Jong-un, describes one of the two men as a "gentleman," and he uses the label to reference the murderous dictator, not the former American president.

Let's instead consider the claim itself. In Trump's mind, Barack Obama reached out to Kim 11 times, but the North Korean leader refused to talk to the American. That's ridiculously wrong, of course -- Trump obviously made up this nonsense out of whole cloth -- but it also reflects Trump's underlying confusion about the basic foreign-policy details: North Korean leaders have sought the attention of American presidents for decades. Kim was eager, if not desperate, to accept Obama's call -- except Obama had the good sense not to reach out directly, because giving the nuclear-armed dictator a sought-after reward in exchange for nothing is unwise.

Only Trump was willing to give up major diplomatic concessions in exchange for nothing from the rogue dictatorship.

But stepping back, Trump's confusion isn't limited to North Korea: he's convinced himself that practically no one abroad would take Obama's call, reality be damned.

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Trump pushes congressional GOP to make his problems go away

10/22/19 08:00AM

For many years, whenever Donald Trump gets in a jam, he looks for fixers to help rescue him. As the Republican faces the prospect of presidential impeachment, Trump's attention is now turning to Capitol Hill, where he expects his partisan allies to do what he cannot: make his crisis go away.

On Sunday night, Trump turned to Twitter to ask, "[W]hen do the Republicans finally fight back?" The president didn't specify what, exactly, he wanted his party to do, though as the New York Times noted, Trump remained focused on this point during an odd White House cabinet meeting yesterday.

Mr. Trump, increasingly embittered by the impeachment inquiry, complained on Monday that Republicans were not defending him aggressively enough.

"Republicans have to get tougher and fight," Mr. Trump said during a rambling, hourlong question-and-answer session with reporters at a cabinet meeting. "We have some that are great fighters, but they have to get tougher and fight, because the Democrats are trying to hurt the Republican Party for the election, which is coming up, where we're doing very well."

As part of the same harangue, Trump added, in reference to his Democratic detractors, "I think they're lousy politicians. But two things they have: They're vicious and they stick together. They don't have Mitt Romney in their midst. They don't have people like that. They stick together. You never see them break off."

For anyone familiar with Democratic politics, the president's description of the party seemed rather bizarre, though Trump's latest complaint about Mitt Romney reflected his ongoing preoccupation with intra-party defections.

It wasn't surprising to see Trump demand greater GOP fealty, but what the president doesn't seem to appreciate is the extent to which he and his White House have made these demands more difficult.

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Trump wields DOJ as Russia, media reprise 2016 roles for 2020

Trump wields DOJ as Russia, media reprise 2016 roles for 2020

10/21/19 09:00PM

Rachel Maddow looks at the curiously quiet treatment of the end of the Hillary Clinton e-mail story that shaped the 2016 election and notes that the media seems no better prepared for Russia's continued online campaigns to help Donald Trump, but for the 2020 election Donald Trump has the power and authority of Attorney General Bill Barr and... watch