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Why Republicans are taking aim at a war hero to defend Trump

01/24/20 08:41AM

Fox News' Tucker Carlson and House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) went after Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman on the air last night, with the conservative host questioning his loyalties and the Republican congressman pushing for his ouster from the White House, where Vindman is the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council.

As the Washington Post noted, they weren't alone.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who along with every other senator serves as a juror in the impeachment trial, took to Twitter and impugned the patriotism of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.

Blackburn referred to an allegation that Vindman had badmouthed the United States in a conversation with Russians while serving overseas. "Adam Schiff is hailing Alexander Vindman as an American patriot," Blackburn said. "How patriotic is it to badmouth and ridicule our great nation in front of Russia, America's greatest enemy?"

First, there's very little evidence that Vindman ever badmouthed the United States, and there are plenty of reasons to believe the accusation is made-up. Second, if the far-right Tennessee senator is concerned about officials who have badmouthed the United States in reality, I'd love to introduce Marsha Blackburn to Donald Trump -- who's criticized our country in ways few American leaders ever have.

I'm also struck by Blackburn's style of needlessly toxic politics, once again questioning the patriotism of a decorated U.S. Army combat veteran who earned a Purple Heart. If she doesn't want to thank him for his honorable service, that's her business, but these ugly attempts at smearing him are unbecoming of those in positions of authority.

But as offensive as these GOP antics were, let's not lose sight of why, exactly, some Republicans seem so eager to tarnish the reputation of an American war hero who's done nothing wrong.

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Image: President Trump speaks at swearing in ceremonies for new CIA Director Haspel

Trump scrambles after accidentally sharing Social Security plan

01/24/20 08:00AM

After years in which Donald Trump assured the public that he'd never cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid, the president adopted a different posture this week. Asked by CNBC's Joe Kernen whether "entitlements" would ever end up on his plate, Trump replied, "At some point they will be.... And at the right time, we will take a look at that."

When Kernen followed up, asking about Trump's willingness to "do some of the things that you said you wouldn't do in the past," the Republican added, "We're going to look."

It was the election-year message Democrats were eager to hear. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who's been relentlessly on-message this week, shifted his focus a bit yesterday, telling reporters at the start of a Capitol Hill press conference, "Even as the impeachment trial is underway, Trump is still talking about cutting your Social Security."

This did not go unnoticed at the White House.

On Thursday, the president tried to clean up his own mess.

"Democrats are going to destroy your Social Security," Mr. Trump tweeted shortly before leaving the White House for a campaign-related event in Florida. "I have totally left it alone, as promised, and will save it!"

It's worth unpacking this, because the issue is likely to be one of the dominant focal points of the presidential election.

First, the idea that Democrats -- who created Social Security and have spent the better part of a century championing it -- are "going to destroy" the social-insurance program is plainly ridiculous.

Second, the president may want people to believe he's "totally left it alone," but to the degree that reality matters, his White House budget plans have proposed tens of billions of dollars in cuts to Social Security. Those proposals were ignored by lawmakers, but there's an obvious discrepancy between trying to slash a program and leaving it alone.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 1.23.20

01/23/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Opening arguments continue: "House impeachment managers, led by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), began the second day of their opening arguments against President Trump by focusing on alleged abuse of power, one of the two articles of impeachment approved last month by the House."

* WHO sees an emergency, but not a global health emergency: "Spread of the new coronavirus that originated in China has not yet reached a level that would deem it a global public health emergency, the World Health Organization said on Thursday. The virus has sickened more than 600 people, and 17 have died."

* Water pollution: "The Trump administration on Thursday finalized a rule to strip away environmental protections for streams, wetlands and groundwater, handing a victory to farmers, fossil fuel producers and real estate developers who said Obama-era rules had shackled them with onerous and unnecessary burdens."

* Visa restrictions: "The Trump administration is coming out with new visa restrictions aimed at restricting 'birth tourism,' in which women travel to the U.S. to give birth so their children can have a coveted U.S. passport."

* Carter Page surveillance: "The Justice Department secretly acknowledged last month that it had 'insufficient predication' to continue monitoring a former Trump campaign adviser during the FBI's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to records made public Thursday -- a notable admission likely to fuel continued criticism over how the bureau handled the high-profile case."

* Keep expectations low: "Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday announced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel would travel to the White House next week along with his chief election rival and opposition leader, Benny Gantz, to discuss the 'prospect' of peace in the Middle East."

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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP

Trump's complaints about the impeachment process go off the rails

01/23/20 12:48PM

Donald Trump, unable to present much of a defense of his actions, continues to whine incessantly about the impeachment process, which wouldn't be especially notable were it not for a nagging detail: his complaints are getting a little weird.

Take this morning's tweet, for example.

"The Democrat House would not give us lawyers, or not one witness, but now demand that the Republican Senate produce the witnesses that the House never sought, or even asked for? They had their chance, but pretended to rush. Most unfair & corrupt hearing in Congressional history!"

Let's take each of the claims one at a time.

* "The Democrat House would not give us lawyers." Actually, the House Democratic majority specifically extended multiple invitations to White House attorneys to participate in the impeachment process. Trump's lawyers turned down those invitations and refused to play a role in the House proceedings.

There are some subjective questions in the president's scandal, but this isn't one them. It's not even an obscure detail: the headline in the Washington Post last month read, "White House rejects House Democrats' invitation to participate in impeachment process as Trump focuses on friendly Senate." It really wasn't that long ago; Trump has no excuse for not knowing this.

* "Not one witness." Actually, not only did witnesses requested by Republicans testify, but the Democratic majority also invited White House attorneys to ask questions of witnesses.

* Democrats want the Senate to "produce the witnesses that the House never sought, or even asked for." Actually, at issue are witnesses Democrats did ask for, but the White House blocked their testimony.

* "Most unfair." To date, Trump has not pointed to any specific aspect of the House impeachment proceedings that, in reality, was unfair.

* "Corrupt hearing." To date, Trump has not pointed to any specific aspect of the House impeachment proceedings that, in reality, was corrupt.

Or put another way, Trump's tweet this morning included five claims, each of which are the opposite of the truth.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.23.20

01/23/20 12:00PM

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

* In New Hampshire, a new WBUR poll found Bernie Sanders with a big lead in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, with 29% support. He's followed in the poll by Pete Buttigieg with 17%, Joe Biden with 14%, and Elizabeth Warren with 13%.

* With Russia again targeting our elections, I found this WSJ report interesting: "Nearly a dozen technology companies said they will provide free or reduced-cost cybersecurity services to presidential campaigns, which experts and intelligence officials have warned are ripe targets for intrusion and disinformation."

* We haven't seen too many examples of former Democratic presidential candidates endorsing current contenders, but self-help guru Marianne Williamson has thrown her support behind Andrew Yang.

* Our Revolution, a nonprofit organization created from Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign operation, is facing an FEC complaint from Common Cause, following allegations of accepting improper contributions.

* Michael Bloomberg's presidential campaign has picked up a couple of new endorsements, including support from Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and San Francisco Mayor London Breed (D).

* Gallup found a 79-point gap between Republicans and Democrats on Donald Trump's approval rating. That's the largest ever measured for any sitting president in an election year.

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

Overcoming the challenge of up-is-down, day-is-night politics

01/23/20 11:28AM

There's a video making the rounds online this morning of Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) fielding a question from a reporter about Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal. This was the most notable part of the exchange:

REPORTER: So you're saying that it's okay for a President to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival and withhold foreign aid to coerce him into doing so?

BRAUN: No, I'm not saying that's okay. I'm not saying that's appropriate. I'm saying that it DIDN'T HAPPEN.

For those familiar with the basic elements of the controversy, this seems like a deeply embarrassing incident for the freshman Republican senator. But part of the reason the video is making the rounds is that Braun himself is promoting it. The GOP Hoosier is proud of what he said and how he said it.

And that's unfortunate because Braun's assertions have no basis in reality. We know the president asked foreign leaders to investigate a domestic rival because he did so, on camera, while standing on the south lawn of the White House. We also know Trump withheld foreign aid in order to coerce a foreign leader because there's a mountain of documentary evidence -- not to mention a recent GAO report and a confession from the White House chief of staff -- that definitely proves that it happened.

But there was Mike Braun, a sitting U.S. senator, arguing otherwise. He could try to make the case that Trump's actions do not warrant his removal from office, but the GOP lawmaker prefers gaslighting, pretending that the president did not do what we already know he did.

My point is not to pick on the junior senator from Indiana, since he's hardly alone in his embrace of up-is-down, day-is-night politics.

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Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) speaks with Donald Trump during a Tea Party Patriots rally against the Iran nuclear deal on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 9, 2015. (Photo by Pete Marovich/Bloomberg/Getty)

On Ukraine scandal, GOP tries to revive bogus 'corruption' argument

01/23/20 10:59AM

The basic contours of Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal are straightforward: he delayed military aid to a vulnerable ally because he hoped to extort foreign officials into helping him cheat in his re-election campaign. The president and his allies, however, have periodically flirted with an alternative story: yes, Trump delayed the aid, the story goes, but only because of his deep and abiding concerns about corruption.

The fanciful talking point has fallen in and out of favor in recent months, but it's apparently making a comeback. The president claimed yesterday, in reference to his decision to block congressionally approved aid, "[T]he other thing I wanted to check very carefully -- and it's very important -- is corruption."

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) added on Twitter yesterday afternoon: "A reminder of what this is all about: any president -- any administration -- is justified in investigating corruption." Trump helped promote the missive soon after.

Do we really have to do this again? Hasn't the argument already been discredited enough?

To show that Trump has no genuine concerns about corruption we could shine a light on his efforts to make international bribery easier. We could also note the many instances in which the president has faced credible allegations of corruption since he took office. We could even note how difficult it is to see the president as an anti-corruption crusader given the number of close Trump associates who've recently ended up in prison.

But let's instead focus specifically on the subject at hand, highlighting a point House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) made during yesterday's impeachment trial about why Trump's claim is impossible to take seriously.

"If the president was fighting corruption ... why would he hide it from us?" Schiff said. "Why would he hide it from the Ukrainians? Why would he hide it from the rest of the world? ... Why wouldn't he be proud to tell the Congress of the United States, 'I'm holding up this aid, and I'm holding it up because I'm worried about corruption'?"

"Why wouldn't he? Because of course it wasn't true," Schiff said.

That's a devastatingly good point, but there's no reason to stop there.

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Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-TRUMP

When Trump says something's 'ahead of schedule,' look out

01/23/20 10:03AM

At a White House event a couple of weeks ago, Donald Trump commented on the military aid package to Ukraine -- the one he blocked as part of an illegal extortion scheme -- and used a familiar phrase.

"[B]y the way, in terms of the money, it got there two or three weeks ahead of schedule -- long before it was supposed to be there," the president claimed. "There was absolutely nothing done wrong." He echoed the point again yesterday, telling reporters, in reference to officials in Kyiv, "They got their money long before schedule."

There are a couple of key elements to this that are worth keeping in mind. The first is that Trump's claims are ridiculously untrue. As the New York Times recently explained:

The 2019 federal fiscal year ended on Sept. 30, the date by which all appropriated aid to Ukraine was supposed to be disbursed. But because of the freeze ordered by Mr. Trump, not all of the aid was spent before the deadline.

Congress had appropriated $391 million in military assistance to Ukraine -- $250 million from the Pentagon and $141 million from the State Department -- meant to be spent by the end of September. Though the Pentagon announced its plans to provide the aid in June, White House officials blocked its release in July. It remained frozen until mid-September, when Mr. Trump relented after pressure from lawmakers and administration officials.

The second angle of note is that whenever Trump says something -- anything, really -- is "ahead of schedule," it's a near certainty he's making stuff up.

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Audience members cheer as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump signs autographs at a campaign event, Feb. 21, 2016, in Atlanta, Ga. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)

Poll: GOP voters acknowledge, dismiss Trump's law-breaking

01/23/20 09:20AM

As his Senate impeachment trial continues, Donald Trump would probably like to have the kind of broad public support Bill Clinton had during his impeachment trial, but he clearly does not.

CNN's poll found most Americans want to see Trump removed from office. The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll found a plurality reaching the same conclusion, echoing the latest findings from Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

And then there's the latest report from the Pew Research Center.

As the Senate impeachment trial gets underway, slightly more Americans say that Donald Trump should be removed from office than say he should stay in office, with these views starkly divided along partisan lines.

Roughly half of U.S. adults (51%) say the outcome of the Senate trial should be Trump's removal from office, while 46% say the result should lead to Trump remaining in office.

Making matters slightly worse for the president, the same report found that 63% of Americans believe the Republican either has definitely or probably done illegal things, while 70% believe Trump has definitely or probably done unethical things. All of which suggests the public does not hold their president in the highest regard.

That said, there was one easy-to-miss gem in the Pew Research Center's findings:

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In this Oct. 23, 2015, file photo, Jay Sekulow speaks at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va.

Team Trump flubs quid-pro-argument in embarrassing fashion

01/23/20 08:41AM

There was a curious moment in the first day of Donald Trump's Senate impeachment trial in which one of the president's attorneys, Jay Sekulow, chided House impeachment managers for using a curious phrase.

"'Lawyer lawsuits'?" Sekulow asked incredulously. "'Lawyer lawsuits'? ... The managers are complaining about 'lawyer lawsuits'? The Constitution allows lawyer lawsuits. It's disrespecting the Constitution of the United States to even say that in this chamber -- 'lawyer lawsuits.'"

No one had any idea what he was talking about, but eventually it became clear that one of the House managers referenced "FOIA lawsuits" -- in reference to the Freedom of Information Act -- and Sekulow misunderstood. Nevertheless, the White House, true to form, refused to acknowledge the misstep, and said Sekulow's mistake was actually correct.

It was a reminder that Trump's legal team, led in part by a controversial attorney who leads a televangelist's legal operation, may not fully be up to the task at hand.

Yesterday, the problem grew even more acute.

In an exchange with reporters during the first break, Jay Sekulow, Trump's personal lawyer, rebutted a reference by Schiff to a quid pro quo.

"You've noticed that Adam Schiff today talked about quid pro quo," Sekulow said. "Notice what's not in the articles of impeachment: allegations or accusations of quid pro quo. That's because they didn't exist. So, you know, there's a lot of things to rebut."

White House officials liked the line so much that it used its official Twitter account to promote Sekulow's argument, which was most unfortunate.

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If good arguments fall in the Senate, do they really make a sound?

01/23/20 08:00AM

By any objective standard, the House managers' case against Donald Trump in yesterday's impeachment trial was brutal for the president. A New York Times report described House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff's (D-Calif.) case as "meticulous and scathing."

For anyone committed to a good-faith examination of the facts, the second day of the president's trial left little doubt about Trump's guilt. But hanging over the proceedings was an uncomfortable question: if compelling evidence falls in a GOP-led Senate, and Republicans don't want to consider it, does it really make a sound?

The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin noted that "intentionally ignorant Republicans" in chamber may have been presented yesterday with damaging revelations about their party's president that they hadn't previously heard.

Given how firmly some Republican senators are ensconced in the right-wing news bubble, and how determined they are to avoid hearing facts that undercut their partisan views, it is possible many of them are hearing the facts on which impeachment is based for the first time. Impeachment manager and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) took them through in meticulous detail the scheme President Trump devised to pressure Ukraine to help him smear former vice president Joe Biden.

But while GOP senators may have been confronted with a devastating presentation, the California Democrat wasn't in a position to make Republicans care about the case.

Some literally fell asleep in the middle of the day. Some passed notes to maintain conversations forbidden during presentations. The Associated Press noted that senators, "bored and weary" on the trial's second day, eventually started "openly flouting some basic guidelines in a chamber that prizes decorum."

Perhaps the most brazen was Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who was spotted doing a crossword puzzle during the impeachment trial, prompting Dana Milbank to explain, "Paul and some of his Republican colleagues aren't even pretending to treat the proceedings with dignity."

The problem, of course, is that Republicans are simply indifferent to the presentations because they've already decided to excuse the president's abuses. By some counts, as many as 45 GOP senators -- roughly 85% of the Senate Republican conference -- were prepared to dismiss the charges and forgo the trial altogether.

The result is an awkward dynamic in which impeachment managers are winning and losing at the same time: they're presenting a devastating, air-tight case to jurors, many of whom have made little effort to hide their apathy about the underlying scandal.

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