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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 1.21.20

01/21/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The votes on Democratic amendments in the impeachment trial are underway: "The Senate voted on party lines to kill the first Schumer amendment, which would have subpoenaed the White House for documents related to Ukraine."

* Given how Trump responded to Ebola in 2014, I shudder to think what he'll do with this: "Federal health officials confirmed Tuesday that a case of the new coronavirus has been diagnosed in Washington state, just north of Seattle."

* He seems to enjoy threatening traditional U.S. allies: "President Trump said Tuesday that he is serious about imposing tariffs on European automobiles if he can't strike a trade agreement with the European Union. 'They know that I'm going to put tariffs on them if they don't make a deal that's a fair deal,' Mr. Trump said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum."

* An important church-state case: "The Supreme Court takes up the sensitive issue of religion in public life Wednesday, considering whether states violate the Constitution if they prevent religious groups from receiving some state benefits."

* Hmm: "Documents apparently generated by Cambridge Analytica suggest that the political consulting firm had a contractual relationship with Kenneth Braithwaite in the year before he was nominated to be U.S. Ambassador to Norway in 2017. Braithwaite, who President Trump has said will be his nominee for Secretary of the Navy, made no mention of an agreement in his required government disclosure form, and says he never entered one."

* A good look at presidential corruption: "In three years in the White House, Donald Trump has accomplished something no president before him has done: fusing his private business interests with America's highest public office."

* Guantanamo: "James Mitchell will be the first witness to describe the torture of detainees in the secret prisons -- some at his own hands -- in the trial of the men accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks."

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks with reporters reporters after the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Aug. 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

McConnell changes direction (at least a bit) on impeachment trial

01/21/20 03:23PM

When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) unveiled his blueprint for Donald Trump's impeachment trial last night, it landed with a thud.

Under the GOP leader's vision, for example, both sides would present their cases over just two days -- opening the door to late-night proceedings that few Americans would see. McConnell's plan also did not automatically admit evidence collected as part of the House's impeachment inquiry as part of the Senate proceedings.

Senate Democrats howled, pointing to the Republican leadership's approach as evidence of a rigged trial, and a sharp departure from the rules during the Clinton impeachment trial in 1999. This afternoon, to the surprise of many, McConnell shifted his posture.

The last-minute changes -- which were written by hand on the resolution, with other lines crossed out -- were revealed on Tuesday as the organizing resolution for President Donald Trump's Senate trial was being read into the record on the Senate floor. The new version gives both side 24 hours to make their case over three days, instead of the two initially proposed by McConnell on Monday.... The change means the trial days, which start at 1 p.m. ET, will likely now conclude around 9 pm. [...]

McConnell also tweaked another controversial provision that could have barred all the evidence against Trump gathered by the House Democrats' inquiry from being entered into the Senate record.

To be sure, these changes in direction do not entirely resolve the partisan conflict. The revised resolution still offers no guarantees on witness testimony and no assurances that senators will be able to consider new evidence.

But it was an unexpected step all the same -- which naturally raises questions about why McConnell, after weeks of planning, changed his mind.

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With election-year implications, Supreme Court punts on ACA case

01/21/20 12:42PM

There was a real possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court would put the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act on a fast track, setting the stage for a major ruling ahead of this year's presidential election. As NBC News reported this morning, however, the justices punted the case, which is a move with considerable political implications.

Tuesday's brief Supreme Court order does not indicate whether the court intends to hear the case, after the normal time for the opposing sides to submit their legal briefs, or allow it to continue working its way through the lower court appeals.

But even if the justices do decide to take it up, the case would not be heard until the court's next term, which begins in October and any decision would not come until after Election Day on Nov. 3.

For those who may need a refresher, at issue is a lawsuit from state Republican officials -- with the enthusiastic support of the Trump administration -- who are arguing that "Obamacare" must be torn down in its entirety because Congress gutted the ACA's individual mandate in late 2017. By Republicans' reasoning, this provision was so integral to the reform law that the nation's health care system can't function without it.

Their argument, of course, is belied by the fact that the Affordable Care Act appears to be working just fine, even after federal GOP lawmakers effectively scrapped it more than two years ago.

Nevertheless, a Texas judge ruled in Republicans' favor in 2018, insisting that the entire law, its benefits, and its protections must cease to be. The 5th Circuit, in a move that appeared awfully political, recently left the future of the nation's health care system in limbo, sending the case back to the district court, urging the conservative jurist to see if any elements of the law could be salvaged.

The ACA's proponents asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case, and earlier this month, the justices directed the Trump administration and Republican state officials behind the lawsuit to respond.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.21.20

01/21/20 12:00PM

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

* In New Hampshire, which will hold its presidential primary three weeks from today, a new Suffolk/Boston Globe poll shows Bernie Sanders with the narrowest of leads over Joe Biden, 16% to 15%, followed closely by Pete Buttigieg at 12%, and Elizabeth Warren at 10%.

* Hillary Clinton has caused a considerable stir with new criticisms of Bernie Sanders as part of an upcoming Hulu documentary. Referring to the Vermont senator and his relationships on Capitol Hill, the former secretary of State said, "Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done. He was a career politician. It's all just baloney and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it."

* Amid questions about Rep. Devin Nunes' (R-Calif.) role in the Ukraine scandal, the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee made the case yesterday that voters in his district "deserve better."

* With the expectation that Donald Trump and his allies will spread "false accusations" about Joe Biden, the former vice president's campaign yesterday released a memo to journalists, explaining to media professionals why they shouldn't believe or help disseminate untrue information to the public.

* Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) is the only Senate Republican running this year in a state Trump lost, and the endangered incumbent reportedly hasn't held a town hall-meeting with his constituents in two years.

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Image: Donald Trump, Andrzej Duda

Trump's impeachment defense rests on a foundation of falsehoods

01/21/20 10:50AM

Perhaps more so than any other figure in American public life, Donald Trump has earned a reputation for saying things that aren't true. It's a problem that, in a quantifiable sense, is getting worse as his presidency continues.

The Washington Post reported yesterday, for example, on the third anniversary of the Republican's inauguration, that Trump has made "more than 16,200 false or misleading claims" since taking office. The report added, "In 2017, Trump made 1,999 false or misleading claims. In 2018, he added 5,689 more, for a total of 7,688. And in 2019, he made 8,155 suspect claims."

But as the Senate's impeachment trial gets underway, CNN's Daniel Dale narrowed the focus a bit and examined Trump's "compulsive" dishonesty about the scandal that threatens the Republican's presidency.

President Donald Trump is dishonest about a whole lot of things. But he is rarely as comprehensively dishonest as he has been about his dealings with Ukraine and the impeachment process.

From the eruption of the Ukraine controversy in September to the Senate trial that officially began on Thursday, relentless deceit has seemed to be Trump's primary defense strategy in the court of public opinion. He has made false claims about almost every separate component of the story, from his July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, to the whistleblower who complained about the call, to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's own relations with Ukraine.

Dale's report documented 65 specific claims Trump has made about the controversy, each of which were false. That seems like an awful lot of lying -- which continues on a nearly daily basis.

Indeed, it's surprisingly difficult to think of any aspect of Trump's Ukraine scandal in which the American president has managed to make an accurate claim and stick to it as the story continued to unfold.

But there's a larger significance to this, beyond simply marveling at one person's capacity for brazen dishonesty. More important is the degree to which Trump is relying on public deception as part of his response to the political crisis, and the implications of such a strategy.

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Trump finds semi-official impeachment role for far-right GOP reps

01/21/20 10:00AM

As recently as a couple of weeks ago, when it was far from clear who'd serve on Donald Trump's legal defense team during his impeachment trial, the president reportedly "loved the idea" of adding a group of far-right House congressmen to the operation. The plan was to add Republican lawmakers such as Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio), John Ratcliffe (Tex.), and Doug Collins (Ga.) to the legal team, at least in part because of their "bare-knuckles tactics and top-rated TV performances."

As we discussed, Senate GOP leaders went out of their way to discourage Trump from pursuing such a course, and it appears those lobbying efforts were effective: when the president's legal defense team expanded to include the likes of Ken Starr and Alan Dershowitz, no House Republicans were included.

Last night, however, it appears the White House nevertheless found jobs for the lawmakers. Politico reported:

After excluding House Republicans from his defense team, President Donald Trump announced Monday night that eight of them would serve as his personal warriors.

Republican Reps. Doug Collins (Ga.), Mike Johnson (La.), Jim Jordan (Ohio), Debbie Lesko (Ariz.), Mark Meadows (N.C.), John Ratcliffe (Texas), Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) and Lee Zeldin (N.Y.) will "serve as part of his team working to combat this hyper-partisan and baseless impeachment," according to a White House news release Monday.

The official White House announcement, introducing the eight GOP members, was a little odd. For one thing, it insisted that during the House impeachment process, the White House "was prohibited from participating in the proceedings." That's plainly false: Trump and his attorneys were invited to play a role, but they refused. That's not a prohibition on participation; it's the opposite.

For another, while many of the president's most sycophantic congressional allies were part of the new roster, House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) was not included -- and his absence was notable given the intensifying questions about his possible role in the broader Ukraine scandal.

But even putting these relevant angles aside, there was a lingering question for which there was no obvious answer: what exactly are these eight House Republicans going to do? They're now part of Trump's "impeachment team," but what does that mean?

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump waves following a campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio, July 27, 2016. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

National poll: US majority wants to see Trump removed from office

01/21/20 09:20AM

As Donald Trump's impeachment trial gets underway in the Senate, a new CNN poll offers the president and his party very little in the way of encouraging news.

About half of Americans say the Senate should vote to convict President Donald Trump and remove him from office in the upcoming impeachment trial (51%), according to a new CNN poll conducted by SSRS, while 45% say the Senate should vote against conviction and removal.

Nearly seven in 10 (69%) say that upcoming trial should feature testimony from new witnesses who did not testify in the House impeachment inquiry.

Even a plurality of Republican voters agree that the Senate should consider new information from witnesses -- a position the White House and most GOP lawmakers now oppose.

Other results add to the bleak picture for Trump: not only does the CNN poll show that a narrow majority of Americans believe the president should be removed from office, but 57% agree that Trump obstructed the House impeachment inquiry, while 58% believe he abused the powers of his office.

What's more, the picture is getting worse for the president, not better: CNN polls have been asking respondents since June 2018 whether Trump should be impeached and removed from office, and the latest 51% finding is the highest to date.

As we discussed last week, I continue to believe survey results like these represent more than just political trivia.

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Fearing Bolton's testimony, White House scrambles behind the scenes

01/21/20 08:40AM

It's not yet clear who, if anyone, senators will hear witness testimony from in Donald Trump's impeachment trial, but one name keeps coming up for a reason. Former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton has first-hand information about the president's culpability; he's volunteered to testify; and it's obvious he'd present senators with a more complete picture of what transpired in the Ukraine scandal.

All of this, evidently, is causing Trump and his allies quite a bit of anxiety.

Indeed, they're getting a little weird about it. The president tweeted yesterday, "They didn't want John Bolton and others in the House. They were in too much of a rush. Now they want them all in the Senate. Not supposed to be that way!" It was bizarre: House Democrats desperately wanted to hear from Bolton and asked him to testify. As House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff reminded Trump, the president is the one who ordered Bolton to remain silent.

The Washington Post reported that there are related behind-the-scenes efforts underway, driven entirely by Republican fears of possible Bolton testimony.

President Trump's legal defense team and Senate GOP allies are quietly gaming out contingency plans should Democrats win enough votes to force witnesses to testify in the impeachment trial, including an effort to keep former national security adviser John Bolton from the spotlight, according to multiple officials familiar with the discussions. [...]

One option being discussed, according to a senior administration official, would be to move Bolton's testimony to a classified setting because of national security concerns, ensuring that it is not public.

There are two key elements to this that are worth keeping in mind as the process moves forward. First, manufacturing pretextual "national security concerns" because Republicans fear a Republican witness telling the truth is a ridiculous abuse.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, May 17, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

As impeachment process advances, it's not just Trump who's on trial

01/21/20 08:00AM

On Dec. 18, the U.S. House impeached Donald Trump, at which point speculation shifted from the south side of the Capitol to the north side. By constitutional mandate, it would be up to the U.S. Senate to hold an impeachment trial, and the institution's members would have to decide whether to bring Trump's presidency to a premature end.

Two days later, on Dec. 20, former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, which took the form of a letter to the retired lawmaker's former Senate Republican colleagues. Flake wrote, "President Trump is on trial. But in a very real sense, so are you. And so is the political party to which we belong."

The Arizonan was one of many stressing the same point. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told CBS News' Margaret Brennan, "It isn't just the president who's on trial in an impeachment proceeding. The Senate is on trial, and we have a constitutional responsibility." A week later, Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), currently the institution's longest serving member, wrote a New York Times op-ed that added, "[I]t will not just be President Trump on trial. The Senate -- and indeed, truth itself -- will stand trial."

Last week, as the House prepared to send the articles of impeachment to the upper chamber, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) echoed the message: "The Senate is on trial as well as the president."

It's against this backdrop that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has crafted a blueprint for the trial that appears designed to ensure that Donald Trump wins and the Senate loses.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will allot each side a total of 24 hours to present their arguments in President Donald Trump's impeachment trial, but the time must be confined to two working days, according to the text of his organizing resolution, which NBC News obtained Monday.

The proposal also suggests that none of the evidence collected as part of the House's impeachment inquiry will be admitted automatically. Instead, according to the text, the Senate will vote later on whether to admit any documents.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but it appears the fix is in -- or at least it will be, if McConnell's plan is implemented.

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