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Team Trump: Presidents can't be impeached for abuses of power

01/20/20 12:35PM

With Donald Trump's impeachment trial poised to begin tomorrow, the U.S. House of Representatives filed a "Trial Memorandum and Statement of Material Facts" with the office of the Secretary of the Senate on Saturday afternoon. The purpose of the document was simple: the Democratic-led House's brief was intended to establish the president's guilt, while reviewing the case the impeachment "managers" will present at trial.

The 111-page document is a persuasive, substantive, well-researched, and thoroughly footnoted indictment against a president who, according to overwhelming and uncontested evidence, abused the powers of his office as part of an unprecedented extortion scheme. It concludes by asking senators to do their duty and bring Trump's presidency to an end.

A few hours later, the White House submitted a short "answer" to the House's allegations. As the New York Times reported:

In a six-page filing formally responding to the House impeachment charges submitted shortly after and filled with partisan barbs against House Democrats, Mr. Trump's lawyers denounced the case as constitutionally and legally invalid, and driven purely by a desire to hurt Mr. Trump in the 2020 election. [...]

The president's lawyers did not deny any of the core facts underlying Democrats' charges, conceding what considerable evidence and testimony in the House has shown: that he withheld $391 million in aid and a White House meeting from Ukraine and asked the country's president to investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son, Hunter Biden.

But they said Mr. Trump broke no laws and was acting entirely appropriately and within his powers when he did so, echoing his repeated protestations of his own innocence. They argued that he was not seeking political advantage, but working to root out corruption in Ukraine.

The entirety of the surprisingly short White House argument is online here (pdf), and I think it's fair to say it is not an impressive document. Paul Waldman joked, "[I]t reads as though it was written by a ninth-grader who saw an episode of Law & Order and learned just enough legal terms to throw them around incorrectly."

But while it's true that most of the missive was familiar palaver, there was one element worth dwelling on.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.20.20

01/20/20 12:00PM

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

* As Democratic presidential hopefuls fight for positioning in Iowa, the editorial board of the Quad City Times endorsed Amy Klobuchar's candidacy over the weekend. Around this time four years ago, the same newspaper endorsed Bernie Sanders.

* Speaking of newspaper endorsements, the editorial board of the New York Times caused a bit of a stir overnight, publishing an editorial endorsing both Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren.

* Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, picked up the backing of Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who has also agreed to serve as the national health policy chair for the Vermont senator's campaign. Sanders now has seven endorsements from sitting U.S. House members.

* With just two weeks remaining before the Iowa caucuses, a Focus on Rural America poll found Joe Biden leading the pack with 24%, followed by Elizabeth Warren at 18%, and Pete Buttigieg at 16 percent. Bernie Sanders was right behind them in the poll with 14%, and Amy Klobuchar also reached double digits, showing 11% support.

* The DNC has unveiled the participation thresholds for the next presidential primary debate, scheduled for Feb. 3 in New Hampshire. To qualify, candidates will need donations from at least 225,000 unique donors, as well two polls with 7% support in early contests or four polls with 5% support in early contests or national surveys. As things stand, each of the six candidates who met in last week's poll have already qualified to be on the stage in the next debate.

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Trump's team is what happens 'when you don't pay your legal bills'

01/20/20 11:30AM

It wasn't until late last week that Donald Trump's legal team expanded in preparation for the Senate's impeachment trial, and as the Center for a New American Security's Carrie Cordero noted, it's not exactly a powerhouse roster.

"Contrary to tone of some coverage, I'm struck by the *lack* of conservative legal star power on Trump's impeachment team," Cordero wrote, adding that there's "no credible constitutional superstar."

George Conway appeared to be thinking along the same lines, arguing in a Washington Post op-ed, "This is what happens when you don't pay your legal bills."

President Trump, whose businesses and now campaign have left a long trail of unpaid bills behind them, has never discriminated when it comes to stiffing people who work for him. That includes lawyers -- which is part of the reason he found the need to make some curious last-minute tweaks to his team, announcing the addition of the legal odd couple of Alan Dershowitz and Kenneth W. Starr.

The president has consistently encountered difficulty in hiring good lawyers to defend him. In 2017, after Robert S. Mueller III became special counsel, Trump couldn't find a high-end law firm that would take him as a client. His reputation for nonpayment preceded him: One major Manhattan firm I know had once been forced to eat bills for millions in bond work it once did for Trump. No doubt other members of the legal community knew of other examples.

Of course, being cheap wasn't the only reason Trump struck out among the nation's legal elite. There was the fact that he would be an erratic client who'd never take reasonable direction -- direction as in shut up and stop tweeting.

There was a point a couple of years ago, as the president's Russia scandal was intensifying, when he needed sound legal representation and bragged that the "top" law firms were eager to take him on as a client. That was very hard to believe: I put together a list in April 2018 of the lawyers who'd turned Trump down, and it wasn't an especially short list.

There's been no comparable reporting of late about specific, high-profile lawyers rejecting the president's overtures ahead of his impeachment trial, but it seems as if Trump has ended up with a group of attorneys he chose because he saw them on television.

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Larry Kudlow

White House eyes backward steps on anti-bribery laws

01/20/20 11:01AM

It's called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), and its purpose is simple: as part of the United States' effort to combat global corruption, federal law prevents American businesses from paying bribes to foreign officials.

Donald Trump has made no effort to hide his contempt for this law.

In fact, NBC News' Richard Engel appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show a couple of years ago and highlighted a 2012 quote from Trump, in which the future president said, in reference to FCPA, "Now, every other country goes into these places, and they do what they have to do. It's a horrible law and it should be changed. I mean, we're like the policeman for the world. It's ridiculous."

The New York Republican didn't forget about his opposition to the law after taking office. A new book from the Washington Post's Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig reports that Trump clashed with then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in early 2017 because the new president wanted to get rid of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. "It's just so unfair that American companies aren't allowed to pay bribes to get business overseas," Trump reportedly said at the time.

The same book added that Trump directed Stephen Miller to draft an executive action to repeal the law. (Executive actions cannot simply repeal federal laws, though the president apparently didn't care.)

Nearly three years later, Team Trump hasn't lost sight of the president's interest in this.

The Trump administration is "looking at" making changes to a decades-old global anti-bribery law, White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow told reporters on Friday.

"We are looking at it, and we have heard some complaints from our companies," Kudlow said, responding to a question about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The law generally prohibits American companies from paying bribes to secure contracts overseas. "I don't want to say anything definitive policy-wise, but we are looking at it," Kudlow added.

It's amazing on its face that Trump and his team are eager to make foreign bribes easier, but it's the larger political context that makes the story all the more extraordinary.

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A twenty dollar bill. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty)

As deficits soar, Trump asks, 'Who the hell cares about the budget?'

01/20/20 10:30AM

Donald Trump delivered remarks at a private dinner with wealthy donors Friday night at Mar-a-Lago, and as the Washington Post reported, the president shared some thoughts about the nation's finances.

To those who criticized his spending and the growing national debt, Trump said: "Who the hell cares about the budget? We're going to have a country."

For most of President Barack Obama's time in office, Republicans seemed to care very much about the budget, making fears around the national debt and deficit their top talking point. They've backed off those concerns under Trump.

The Republican's comments came just four days after the Trump administration reported that the annual budget deficit surpassed $1 trillion in 2019, despite the growing economy, and despite the fact that Trump promised voters he'd produce the opposite results.

Trump has now added $2.6 trillion to the national debt in just three years -- more than Obama added to the debt in his entire second term.

It's against this backdrop that the current president has chosen ... indifference. And though I'm generally loath to agree with Trump, his blunt rhetorical question -- "Who the hell cares about the budget?" -- may have some merit.

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Trump unveils a brand new rationale for risky Soleimani airstrike

01/20/20 10:00AM

It's been 17 days since Donald Trump authorized an airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, which was launched in order to prevent an imminent attack. Well, maybe not imminent. But the president and his team certainly knew of a deadly attack Soleimani was planning.

Except, as regular readers know, maybe "knew" is too strong a word, since the administration didn't know who, what, where, or when the general intended to strike. Except the opposite might also be true, since Trump said Soleimani was targeting an embassy. No, wait, not just any embassy, but the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Hold on, maybe it was four embassies.

After these meandering and contradictory explanations for the airstrike effectively collapsed, the president tried to resolve the problem by declaring it "doesn't really matter" why he launched the military offensive. On Friday night, Trump spoke to donors at Mar-a-Lago, where, according to an audio recording obtained by the Washington Post, the president unveiled a brand-new explanation.

The president said nothing about an "imminent attack." ... Instead, he spoke broadly about Soleimani as "the father of the roadside bomb" responsible for "every young, beautiful man or woman who you see walking around with no legs, no arms." Trump said he heard about two weeks ago that the United States had Soleimani under surveillance and he was "talking about bad stuff." [...]

"He was saying bad things about our country, like we're going to attack, we're going to kill your people. I said, 'Listen, how much of this s**t do we have to listen to, right?' " Trump said to applause from the donor crowd.

Trump proceeded to describe the details of watching the mission unfold from the White House Situation Room -- the story included multiple instances in which people called him "sir" -- making himself the hero of the narrative.

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Image: Hundreds of thousands march down Pennsylvania Avenue during the Women's March in Washington

At the intersection of the National Archives and Trump's presidency

01/20/20 09:30AM

If you've never spent time in Washington, D.C., you may not appreciate how inspiring a trip to the National Archives can be. It's an institution that houses and protects many of the nation's most precious historical treasures, including the original copies of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, both of which are on display to the public in the building's main rotunda.

But the National Archives also routinely creates fascinating historical exhibits, featuring original documents, materials, and photographs, including one recent exhibit on women's suffrage. Promotional materials included photographs from the 2017 Women's March, which was one of the largest and most impressive displays of citizen activism in recent memory.

As the Washington Post reported, this was not without controversy.

The Archives acknowledged in a statement this week that it made multiple alterations to the photo of the 2017 Women's March showcased at the museum, blurring signs held by marchers that were critical of Trump. Words on signs that referenced women's anatomy were also blurred.

In the original version of the 2017 photograph, taken by Getty Images photographer Mario Tama, the street is packed with marchers carrying a variety of signs, with the Capitol in the background. In the Archives version, at least four of those signs are altered.

A placard that proclaims "God Hates Trump" has "Trump" blotted out so that it reads "God Hates." A sign that reads "Trump & GOP -- Hands Off Women" has the word Trump blurred out.

In other words, the National Archives gave historical images a little touch-up, so as to avoid "political controversy," as an Archives spokesperson put it. In the process, the institution created an entirely different political controversy.

It's worth emphasizing that I'm not aware of any evidence of Donald Trump or anyone associated with him pressuring the Archives to alter these photographs. It appears that wasn't necessary: the Archives anticipated pushback from the right and acted pre-emptively.

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Image: Rep. Devin Nunes Briefs Press On House Intelligence Cmte Russia Investigation

In Ukraine scandal, Devin Nunes has some explaining to do

01/20/20 09:00AM

In November, during an impeachment hearing, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, raised a question he seemed to consider important. "Do you think it's appropriate for political parties to run operatives in foreign countries to dig up dirt on their opponents?" the GOP lawmaker asked Fiona Hill and David Holmes.

In context, Nunes was referring to the Steele dossier. What we didn't appreciate at the time, however, was that the California congressman would soon after be accused of doing what he accused others of doing.

Last week, Lev Parnas, a Rudy Giuliani associate involved with executing the Ukraine scheme, told Rachel that he'd met with Nunes and Derek Harvey, a top aide to the congressman who also used to work in the Trump White House. Parnas added that "they were involved in getting all this stuff on Biden."

Late Friday, the story grew a little more serious with the release of additional evidence that Parnas communicated extensively with Nunes' office about aid to Ukraine and outreach to former Ukrainian prosecutors. NBC News reported:

The messages show that Harvey was far more involved than previously known in what appears to be a robust effort by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee to investigate Ukraine-related matters.

The text messages between Harvey and Parnas ... start in February 2019 and continue into May.

Politico's report drew attention to one especially notable text message in which Harvey appeared to "pass along Nunes' contact information two days before the Intelligence Committee's impeachment report indicated that a phone connected to Nunes made contact with a phone connected to Parnas."

It's worth noting for context that Nunes, as recently as last month, said he did not "recall" Parnas' name. The day Parnas sat down with Rachel last week, however, the congressman turned to Fox News to concede he now remembers talking to Parnas after all.

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A Greyhound bus passes a police cruiser as it heads to the terminal, March 31, 2016, in Richmond, Va. (Photo by Steve Helber/AP)

With Virginia on edge over gun rally, Trump says the wrong thing

01/20/20 08:30AM

Virginia voters swung in a decidedly "blue" direction last year, and as a result, Democratic officials will control the levers of power in the commonwealth for the first time in a generation. It opens the door to progressive governance on a variety of fronts, including efforts to prevent gun violence.

Indeed, among the top legislative priorities for Virginia Democrats in the upcoming session is a bill to require background checks on firearm purchases. The possibility of gun reforms has led to a protest in the state capital today, led in part by a group called the Virginia Citizens Defense League, and as NBC News reported, there are growing concerns about possible violence.

As gun rights activists, white nationalists and militia groups prepare to rally at the state Capitol on Monday to protest proposed gun control laws, residents are praying it won't be a repeat of the violent 2017 rally in Charlottesville that ended in a woman's death. [...]

Organizers say thousands of people will be at the Capitol on Monday as the Virginia Citizens Defense League buses people in from across the state, while other rallygoers are expected to travel from out of state.

As the New York Times noted, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) recently declared a state of emergency, which temporarily banned weapons on Capitol grounds, citing credible "threats of violence." That sparked a lawsuit, though the Virginia Supreme Court upheld the temporary ban last week.

Nevertheless, fears of violence persist, and those concerns grew more intense last week when members of a neo-Nazi group, who were reportedly planning to participate in today's event, were arrested by the FBI.

We know that Donald Trump is aware of the situation, largely because he's said exactly the wrong things.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

'Things happen': GOP still can't answer key Trump scandal question

01/20/20 08:00AM

Should an American president be able to solicit foreign interference in U.S. elections with impunity? It's a question that's near the center of Donald Trump's Ukraine scheme. It's a question that's been around for months. And it's a question Republicans still don't know how to answer.

On ABC News' This Week, George Stephanopoulos posed the question to Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who said, "I don't know that has been actually proven. You know, that's all in dispute."

It's really not. We know this for certain in part because the White House released an official call summary of Trump's July 25 conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which the American president pressed his counterpart in Kyiv to "look into" Joe Biden. A week after that call summary was released to the public, Trump stood on the South Lawn of the White House and told reporters on camera, "China should start an investigation into the Bidens." The Republican added soon after, "I would say that President Zelensky, if it were me, I would recommend that they start an investigation into the Bidens."

Reminded of reality, Shelby suggested Trump's rhetoric didn't actually count, because it was "political." It led to this exchange:

STEPHANOPOULOS: So it's OK?

SHELBY: I didn't say it was OK. I said people make them -- people do things. Things happen.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, this is the president of the United States.

SHELBY: Well, still the president of the United States is human. And he's going to make mistakes of judgment and everything else.

The senator added that he doesn't believe Trump's controversy "rises to the standard of an impeachable offense."

It was a little painful to watch the Alabama Republican change direction so frequently, so quickly.

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Friday's Mini-Report, 1.17.20

01/17/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* I wonder if Team Trump waited specifically for Michelle Obama's birthday to make this announcement: "The Trump administration moved on Friday to roll back school nutrition standards championed by Michelle Obama, an effort long sought by food manufacturers and some school districts that have chafed at the cost of Mrs. Obama's prescriptions for fresh fruit and vegetables."

* Pompeo speaks: "Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday he 'never heard' that his top envoy to Ukraine, Ambassador Marie L. Yovanovitch, might have been under surveillance before she was recalled to Washington, accused of being disloyal to President Trump."

* Faithless electors matter: "The Supreme Court agreed Friday to take up an issue that could change a key element of the system America uses to elect its president, with a decision likely in the spring just as the campaign heats up."

* And speaking of SCOTUS: "The Supreme Court said Friday it will take up a the fate of a Trump administration rule, now on hold, that would grant employers an exemption, on religious or moral grounds, from Obamacare's requirement to provide health insurance coverage for birth control."

* Climate lawsuit: "A federal appeals court on Friday threw out a 2015 lawsuit by nearly two dozen young people to force the U.S. government to take more aggressive action on climate change, saying that the children did not have legal standing to bring the landmark case."

* The Labor Department made it official, declaring yesterday that "technology upgrades will allow it to exclusively release high-profile economic data directly to the public, ending the news media's practice of transmitting economic stories the moment data is released."

* Facebook faces political fire again: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi today blasted Facebook for putting profits over the well-being of its users and for cozying up to the Trump administration as it faces antitrust scrutiny from federal regulators, offering a scathing and public rebuke of the social media giant."

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