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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 1.28.20

01/28/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* In light of Trump's purported passion for combating corruption abroad, should we assume he'll care about this? "Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was formally indicted in court on Tuesday on corruption charges hours after he withdrew his request for parliamentary immunity from prosecution."

* And speaking of Israel: "President Donald Trump on Tuesday released a long-promised Middle East peace plan that, if implemented, would create a conditional path to statehood for Palestinians while recognizing Israeli sovereignty over a significant portion of the West Bank."

* Opening arguments are now done: "Senate Republicans will meet Tuesday afternoon after President Donald Trump's impeachment trial adjourns -- and the question of whether to call witnesses in the trial is expected to be discussed, four GOP aides told NBC News."

* For those wondering what might happen next, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told reporters this afternoon, in reference to possible John Bolton testimony, "I've said that I think that Mr. Bolton probably has some things that would be helpful for us. We'll figure out how we might be able to learn that."

* Today's earthquake: "A powerful magnitude 7.7 earthquake struck south of Cuba and northwest of Jamaica on Tuesday, the U.S. Geological Survey said. The quake was felt in Miami, and police said some buildings were being evacuated in the city."

* Gallagher targets some of his former SEAL teammates: "Chief Special Operator Edward Gallagher, 40, referred to some members of his former platoon as 'cowards' and highlighted names, photos and -- for those still on active duty -- their duty status and current units, something former SEALs say places those men -- and the Navy's mission -- in jeopardy."

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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP

Ignoring Trump, John Kelly says, 'I believe John Bolton'

01/28/20 02:13PM

Donald Trump briefly addressed former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton's book yesterday, telling reporters that he hasn't seen the manuscript, but adding, in an odd passive voice, "Nothing was ever said to John Bolton."

Soon after, the president was a bit more direct on the subject. Asked for his response to Bolton's allegations, Trump said, "False.... Totally false."

As it turns out, John Kelly, Trump's former White House chief of staff, was far more credulous about Bolton's perspective.

"If John Bolton says that in the book, I believe John Bolton," Kelly said at a lecture series appearance in Sarasota, Fla. Kelly added, "John's an honest guy. He's a man of integrity and great character, so we'll see what happens," according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

The former White House chief of staff said "the majority of Americans would like to hear the whole story," adding, "I think if there are people that could contribute to this, either innocence or guilt ... I think they should be heard."

It's worth noting for context that the retired Marine general, who served alongside the president in the West Wing for a year and a half, had an opportunity to get to know Trump very well -- and in this context, that matters quite a bit.

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U.S. Senators Roy Blunt and Debbie Stabenow speak during a news conference about the Excellence in Mental Health Act, February 7, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Making the case against witnesses, GOP's Blunt says a bit too much

01/28/20 12:45PM

Late last week, as the debate in the Senate simmered over whether to include new witness testimony in Donald Trump's impeachment trial, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) offered a candid assessment.

"Would a witness change the result?" the member of the GOP leadership said. The Missouri Republican added that he doesn't see the need to "stretch this out with no change in outcome."

It's a posture rooted in practicality: it takes 67 senators to vote to convict a president and remove him from office, and if trial witnesses won't bring the Senate to 67 votes, then there's no point in hearing witness testimony.

Yesterday, as the editorial board of the New York Times noted, Blunt echoed the same sentiment in response to reporting on former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton's book, which appears to knock down the central pillar of the White House's defense.

A far more representative attitude in the Republican caucus was expressed by Roy Blunt, of Missouri, who said on Monday, "Unless there's a witness that's going to change the outcome, I can't imagine why we'd want to stretch this out for weeks and months."

With this tautology Senator Blunt gives away the game: All witness testimony to date -- all presented as part of the House impeachment proceedings -- has only strengthened the case against Mr. Trump, but Republicans will not vote to convict him under any circumstances. By definition, then, no witness in the Senate could possibly change the outcome.

Roy Blunt, in trying to sound a pragmatic note, inadvertently insulted Senate Republicans in ways his colleagues should -- but won't -- find rather offensive.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.28.20

01/28/20 12:00PM

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

* Following weeks of speculation, Rep. Doug Collins (R) appears poised to launch a U.S. Senate campaign that will pit him against appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R). Collins, a fierce White House ally, was Donald Trump's original choice for the seat, though Gov. Brian Kemp (R) chose Loeffler.

* Trump will be in New Jersey today, campaigning in support of Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who became a Republican, after promising not to, the week of the president's impeachment.

* Incidentally, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported the other day on a voicemail message the New Jersey congressman left for a constituent on Nov. 30, in which Van Drew said of Trump, "I haven't voted for him, I didn't support him, I will not vote for him." Three weeks later, Van Drew sat in the Oval Office and pledged his "undying support" for the Republican president.

* One of Van Drew's top GOP rivals, David Richter, announced this week that he'll run in New Jersey's 3rd congressional district instead of its 2nd, making things a little easier for the incumbent.

* In California, a new U.C. Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll, conducted for the Los Angeles Times, found Bernie Sanders leading the Democratic primary pack with 26%, followed by Elizabeth Warren at 20%, and Joe Biden at 15%. No other candidate reached double digits in the poll.

* Sanders is also ahead in Utah -- another Super Tuesday state -- according to a Salt Lake Tribune/Suffolk poll, which found the Vermont senator with 27% support. Warren is second in Utah with 14%, followed by Joe Biden at 12%, and Michael Bloomberg at 10%.

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US President Donald Trump is greeted by US senatorial candidate Attorney General Josh Hawley upon arrival at Springfield-Branson National Airport in Springfield, Missouri on September 21, 2018.

GOP's Hawley questions Bolton's status as 'a firsthand witness'

01/28/20 11:23AM

When Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal first started gaining traction as a controversy of historic significance, one of the leading Republican talking points was a single word: "hearsay."

This was especially true after an intelligence community whistleblower filed a formal complaint, prompting the president and his allies to insist that the allegations were not to be taken seriously because the whistleblower had not spoken directly to Trump, relying instead on the accounts of other White House officials.

It was a weak pitch at the time, but it quickly became a moot point as Americans heard from plenty of officials -- Mick Mulvaney, Gordon Sondland, Lev Parnas, et al. -- who'd spoken directly with Trump on multiple occasions and had firsthand information about the president's scandal.

But with former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton poised to take the scandal in an even more serious direction, the question about firsthand witnesses has obviously been answered. Or has it?

The Senate would probably want to hear from a firsthand witness in President Trump's impeachment trial. But Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) isn't sure where you'd find one.

Despite a Sunday report indicating former National Security Adviser John Bolton will say in his book he spoke directly to President Trump about Ukraine, a number of GOP senators still don't want to hear from him in Trump's impeachment trial. Hawley is among those lawmakers, giving new reasoning to his anti-Bolton argument Monday by questioning whether Bolton even was a firsthand witness to Trump's alleged crimes.

CNN's Haley Byrd caught up with the Missouri Republican yesterday and asked why the Senate wouldn't want to hear from a firsthand witness. "Well, I don't know," Hawley said. "Is he a firsthand witness? I'm not sure."

And I'm not sure what the senator isn't sure about.

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Image: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives at Haneda Airport, in Tokyo

Pompeo's State Department boots NPR reporter from trip abroad

01/28/20 10:48AM

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to head abroad later this week, with visits planned for the U.K., Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. The diplomat's schedule may even include a stop in Ukraine, which is a country the Republican recently said Americans don't "care about."

But when Pompeo departs, one prominent American news organization reportedly won't be joining him for his overseas trip. NBC News reported yesterday:

The State Department on Monday removed an NPR reporter from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's upcoming trip abroad after a dayslong spat with a different NPR reporter, who said Pompeo berated her and cursed after an interview.

The State Department Correspondents' Association confirmed the decision to remove NPR correspondent Michele Kelemen from Pompeo's plane on his upcoming trip to Europe and Central Asia, calling the move "retaliation" after Pompeo's public attack on NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.

As best as I can tell, the State Department hasn't offered a public explanation for excluding NPR's Michele Kelemen, which only helped fuel suspicions that the move was designed to be vindictive.

For those who may need a refresher, Mike Pompeo sat down on Friday with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, and as the broadcast made clear, it did not go well for the controversial cabinet secretary. But after the interview, the Kansas Republican made matters worse, throwing an obscenity-laced tirade while upbraiding the journalist who, by all appearances, did nothing wrong.

A day later, Pompeo took this in an even less constructive direction, issuing a strange written statement in which he falsely accused the NPR journalist of lying, while lashing out at what he described as the "unhinged" American media, which he accused of engaging in some kind of conspiracy against the administration.

He could've left it at that, but apparently his department thought it'd be a good idea to escalate matters even more by removing a different NPR journalist from the group of media professionals who'll be traveling with the secretary this week.

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Image: U.S. President Trump holds a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington

Team Trump eyes dubious Iowa road trip for caucus members

01/28/20 10:15AM

There are only a handful of states that shifted from Bush to Obama to Trump, but Iowa is one of them. And as Democratic presidential hopefuls blanket the state, many of the top contenders aren't just hoping to win next week's caucuses, they're also hoping to lay a foundation that will help swing the Hawkeye State in a bluer direction this fall.

It's why Donald Trump's re-election operation is also making early efforts in the state. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday:

For the Feb. 3 caucuses, the Trump campaign is planning an ambitious show of force around the state, with over 80 surrogates expected to campaign at caucus locations. The push will be led by campaign manager Brad Parscale, the president's sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, as well as Eric Trump's wife Lara Trump, who works for the campaign and Donald Trump Jr.'s girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, also a campaign adviser.

The group heading to Iowa includes White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and a number of cabinet members, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. Also attending are members of Congress, among them House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) , Rep. Elise Stefanik, (R., N.Y.) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R., N.C.), as well as Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and governors from surrounding states.

Parscale told the newspaper, "Our Caucus Day operation is just a preview of what is to come."

Time will tell whether the chest-thumping boasts amount to anything, and whether dispatching a small army of Trump surrogates to Iowa -- to do what, I'm not sure -- will make an electoral difference.

What I'm curious about, though, is the legality of the plan -- because I seem to recall a similar effort from the recent past that did not fare well under scrutiny.

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In this image from video, Ken Starr, an attorney for President Donald Trump, walks to the podium to speak during the impeachment trial against Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020.

Facing daunting facts, Trump lawyer pushes 'even if true' defense

01/28/20 09:20AM

By any fair measure, reports on former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton's book have jolted Donald Trump's impeachment trial in ways that were difficult to predict as recently as a few days ago.

At the heart of the president's defense is that he did not connect military aid to a vulnerable ally and investigations into his domestic enemies. Bolton, however, has written a book that says Trump personally told him that he'd withhold military assistance until Ukraine agreed to help go after the Biden family. Or put another way, a prominent far-right Republican is a first-hand witness who can discredit Team Trump's principal defense.

It was against this backdrop that the president's defense attorneys spent their first full day on the Senate floor, making oral arguments during the impeachment trial. By and large, Trump's lawyers ignored the subject that had jolted the political world, though there was one notable exception. NBC News reported:

[Alan] Dershowitz, a frequent defender of the president on cable news, argued Monday night that even if Bolton's allegations against Trump are true, they wouldn't rise to the level of impeachment.

"If a president, any president, were to have done what the Times reported about the content of the Bolton manuscript, that would not constitute an impeachable offense. Let me repeat: nothing in the Bolton revelations, even if true, would rise to the level of an abuse of power or an impeachable offense," Dershowitz said on the Senate floor.

This comes on the heels of Dershowitz arguing in a recent television interview that presidential abuses of power cannot be the basis for impeachments, and presidents caught abusing their power should face no congressional consequences.

In a way, reaching this point was probably inevitable. The initial defense from Trump and his allies was that the president did not do what he was accused of doing. But as the mountain of uncontested documentary evidence grew, and the facts pointed in an incriminating direction, the original line proved untenable. It had to be replaced with a defense that accommodated the truth.

Which, naturally, led to the "even if true" defense -- a line that effectively says that even if Trump is guilty of what he's been accused of, it simply doesn't matter.

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Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst attends a campaign stop at the Amtrak Osceola Train Depot on Nov. 2, 2014 in Osceola, Iowa. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Describing attacks on Biden, Iowa's Ernst 'gave up the game'

01/28/20 08:40AM

One of the most important moments in Rep. Kevin McCarthy's (R-Calif.) political career came in late-September 2015, as the then-House majority leader appeared poised to become Speaker of the House. The California Republican's efforts were derailed, however, when he made the mistake of accidentally telling the truth.

McCarthy appeared on Fox News and acknowledged a fact that everyone knew, but which Republicans weren't supposed to admit out loud: the GOP's taxpayer-financed Benghazi committee was all about the Republicans' "strategy to fight and win" against Hillary Clinton. Or put another way, it was not a sincere effort to investigate an attack that left four Americans dead.

The congressman's bid to become Speaker collapsed soon after.

More than four years later, on the other side of Capitol Hill, senators spent much of their afternoon listening to Donald Trump's lawyers during a Senate impeachment trial, which included lengthy attacks against presidential hopeful Joe Biden. A Washington Post analysis described Team Trump's attacks against the Delaware Democrat as "weak," "sloppy," and "wildly misleading." Pointing to one particular line of attack launched by Pam Bondi, the analysis added that the Florida Republican "shared untrue claims as though they'd never been assessed for veracity at all."

And why, pray tell, would the president's lawyers try to defend their client by going after one of his rivals with bogus smears? One Senate Republican offered a possible explanation.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) says she'll be watching the upcoming Iowa caucus results to see if Democratic voters sour on former Vice President Joe Biden, a 2020 presidential contender, after the arguments presented by President Donald Trump's impeachment defense team on Monday.

"I'm really interested to see how this discussion today informs and influences the Iowa caucus voters. Will they be supporting Vice President Biden at this point?" Ernst, a member of GOP leadership, asked at a press conference Monday.

As former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), an MSNBC political analyst, noted on Twitter soon after, "Umm. I think Joni just gave up the game."

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Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich campaign stop on March 14, 2016, at the MAPS Air Museum in North Canton, Ohio. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

By seeking facts, Romney accused of trying to 'appease the left'

01/28/20 08:00AM

Former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton is not just another witness in Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal. Bolton, a prominent far-right voice for decades, has worked in multiple Republican administrations, and has first-hand information about the president's actions and motivations.

Common sense suggests all senators who are eager to learn the truth about what transpired in this controversy should want to hear from Bolton -- who has volunteered to testify to the Senate as part of the ongoing impeachment proceedings. It's a point one GOP senator, in particular, seemed eager to emphasize yesterday. The Wall Street Journal reported:

At a closed-door GOP lunch before Monday's trial session began, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah spoke forcefully about the need to have former national security adviser John Bolton testify before the Senate, according to people familiar with the matter. [...]

Following the lunch, new Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R., Ga.) took the unusual move of attacking her colleague Mr. Romney by name on Twitter, saying, in part: "Sadly, my colleague [Romney] wants to appease the left by calling witnesses who will slander [Trump] during their 15 minutes of fame. The circus is over. It's time to move on!"

If Loeffler's name is unfamiliar, it's probably because she's Congress' newest member. The Georgia Republican was very recently appointed to her Senate seat, and her career on Capitol Hill has now spanned three weeks.

As of yesterday, Loeffler's most notable contribution during her brief tenure was going after one of her own party's colleagues for having the audacity to seek relevant facts as part of a presidential impeachment trial.

It was her use of the word "appease" that was of particular interest. Loeffler had other options, and she could have argued that Bolton is an unreliable witness with suspect motivations. But instead the appointed senator suggested that Republicans should stop seeking the truth because such pursuits might benefit "the left."

The irony, of course, is that if anyone is engaging in "appeasement" in this unfortunate drama, it's Georgia's junior senator.

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