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The White House is seen under dark rain clouds in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty)

White House appears to abandon calls for a full impeachment trial

01/13/20 10:18AM

The week before Thanksgiving, Senate Republicans huddled with a group of leading White House officials -- a contingent that included acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner -- to discuss impeachment strategy. There was no real ambiguity about what Team Trump wanted.

Politico reported soon after, "White House officials and Republican senators agreed the Senate should not immediately dismiss any articles of impeachment against the president." Participants in the meeting, held a few weeks before the formal floor votes in the House, reportedly agreed that it'd be in the president's interest to have "a full trial," of "some length," featuring a "factual affirmative defense on the merits."

Politico's report added that while some congressional Republicans had called on the Senate to "immediately dismiss" any articles of impeachment, the White House saw that as a mistake.

And at a certain level, that position made sense. In a Republican-led Senate, it stood to reason that Donald Trump had no reason to fear a conviction that would bring his presidency to a premature end. A full trial would offer an opportunity for Trump's allies to present their side of the story on the Ukraine scandal, and make the case for his innocence.

Seven weeks later, however, that confidence has been replaced with anxiety, and the White House's desire for a trial has been replaced with a president who's frantically called for the opposite. The New York Times reported:

President Trump on Sunday injected fresh instability into final preparations for the Senate's impeachment trial, suggesting that senators should dismiss the House's charges of high crimes and misdemeanors against him outright rather than dignifying them with a full tribunal.

That unexpected statement, arriving amid a flurry of tweets, not only appeared to put the president at odds with Republican Senate leaders moving toward a full trial but also contradicted Mr. Trump's own words from just hours earlier, when he argued for a trial that would include as witnesses Democratic House leaders who are prosecuting him.

As is always the case, I'd caution against assuming that Trump's tweet represents the White House's, or even his own, new position. He's likely to say or tweet the opposite at any moment, and it's possible the presidential missive was part of a fleeting thought, triggered by something random the Republican saw on television.

But the underlying point is that Trump's confidence and self-assuredness about the impeachment proceedings appear to be gone. Certainty that a trial would be good for the president has given way to uncertainty about how much worse the scandal may get.

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Report further connects Trump's impeachment fears, airstrike

01/13/20 09:20AM

The official White House explanation for the airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani -- or more accurately, explanations -- can no longer be taken seriously. Donald Trump and his team have changed direction several times, in meandering and contradictory ways, to the point that their rhetoric on the subject is literally unbelievable.

But the point of the scrutiny is not to document the latest in an endless stream of presidential lies. It's also not some elaborate "gotcha" exercise. What's important here is coming to terms with why in the world the American president risked a war on Jan. 3, and whether Trump put his political interests above our national security interests with his decision.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that in the wake of the airstrike, the president "told associates he was under pressure to deal with Gen. Soleimani from GOP senators he views as important supporters in his coming impeachment trial in the Senate." Over the weekend, the New York Times reported something similar:

He told some associates that he wanted to preserve the support of Republican hawks in the Senate in the coming impeachment trial, naming Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas as an example, even though they had not spoken about Iran since before Christmas.

This is, of course, exactly the kind of scenario that shouldn't happen. When a Commander in Chief is making a life-and-death decision, which risks not only a war but further destabilizing the Middle East, he shouldn't be thinking about how his directive might help his impeachment trial defense.

Indeed, as we discussed last week, it adds an ironic twist to the circumstances: Trump was impeached in part for putting his political interests above our national security interests. If the latest reporting is correct, it led him to make another decision that put his political interests above our national security interests.

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Stepping on his team's message, Trump contradicts his Iran policy

01/13/20 08:40AM

The Trump administration's Iran policy is known as the "maximum pressure" campaign, and it's predicated on a relatively straightforward idea: the U.S. will impose such severe burdens on Iran that officials in Tehran will have no choice but to come to the table, negotiate, and reach some kind of nuclear agreement with the West.

The Obama administration adopted a nearly identical strategy, and it worked to great effect, culminating in a successful and effective international agreement. Donald Trump killed that policy, vowing to replace it with a better one.

So far, however, the Republican White House appears to be moving backwards, with Iran now accelerating its nuclear program. As the New York Times explained last week, the American president's "gambit has effectively backfired."

Team Trump still doesn't quite see it that way. White House National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien made multiple Sunday-show appearances yesterday, but it was this quote on Fox News that appeared to generate the most attention. From the network transcript:

"Look, I think the maximum pressure campaign is working. It's demonstrable that it's working. The Iranian economy is contracted by at least 10 percent. I mean, we haven't seen that with a modern economy in many, many years. Iran went from producing 3 to 4 million barrels of oil a day down to 150,000 to 400,000 barrels depending on the day. Iran is being choked off and Iran's going to have no other choice but to come to the table."

Hours later, O'Brien's boss stepped all over this line with a tweet. "National Security Adviser suggested today that sanctions & protests have Iran 'choked off', will force them to negotiate," Donald Trump wrote. "Actually, I couldn't care less if they negotiate."

Not to put too fine a point on this, but Trump's tweet is badly at odds with his own policy.

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Even Trump's Pentagon chief won't back him up on airstrike claim

01/13/20 08:00AM

It's been 10 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, 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, did Trump say the U.S. embassy in Baghdad? What he meant to say was that Soleimani might have also been targeting four different embassies. The Republican told Fox News on Friday, "I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies" the Quds Force general was plotting against.

And I can reveal that I believe that the president is making stuff up as he goes along -- and as a rule, those who repeatedly change their stories should probably expect some skepticism.

It reached the point yesterday that Trump's own Defense secretary appeared on CBS News' Face the Nation and put some distance between himself and the president's latest claim.

Esper said the president made no citation of "a specific piece of evidence," adding that Trump was just making clear what he believed to be the case.

"I didn't see one with regard to four embassies," Esper said of a specific piece of evidence leading to Trump's conclusion. "What I'm saying is I shared the president's view ... my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies."

Speaking with CNN's "State of the Union," Esper said intelligence showed "there was an intent to target the U.S. embassy in Baghdad."

Or put another way, the "imminent attack" talking point from nine days ago has been discredited by the same administration that peddled it with enthusiasm. It's been replaced with "an intent" to attack.

Just as important, though, was the Pentagon chief's concession that he "didn't see" intelligence in line with Trump's obviously dubious claims.

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Friday's Mini-Report, 1.10.20

01/10/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Impeachment: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a letter to Democratic lawmakers on Friday that she will consult with them Tuesday as she announced steps to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate."

* Pointless cruelty: "The Texas governor said that his state will reject the resettling of new refugees, making Texas the first state to do so following a Trump administration order granting local governments the authority to do so."

* Looks like they came up with some sanctions after all: "The Trump administration on Friday announced a new round of economic sanctions against Iran in response to the regime’s missile attacks on Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. and coalition forces."

* Trump can't ask Putin to stop doing this? "A Russian naval ship 'aggressively approached' a U.S. Navy destroyer in the North Arabian Sea on Thursday, in a dangerous near-collision, authorities said Friday."

* Not a good look for the troubled company: "Boeing on Thursday released hundreds of emails and communications that appear to show employees criticizing the company’s troubled 737 Max jet, which was grounded after two crashes killed 346 people."

* In case you missed this last night: "The House adopted a war powers resolution Thursday with the aim of limiting President Donald Trump's military actions against Iran. The adoption of the measure on a largely party-line vote of 224-194 came amid heightened tension between the two countries after the United States killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iran retaliated with a ballistic missile attack against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. forces."

* Speaking of the House doing important stuff: "The House on Friday passed legislation to broadly regulate a cancer-linked chemical over objections from the White House that Congress is sidestepping agencies. The bill, which passed 247 to 159, targets a class of chemicals abbreviated as PFAS that have been leaching into the water supply across the country, causing health problems in communities where water has been contaminated."

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Iraq calls on US to make withdrawal plans, Trump admin declines

01/10/20 12:48PM

There are roughly 50,000 American troops in the Middle East -- with several thousand more on the way -- 6,000 of whom are in Iraq. This past weekend, the Iraqi parliament voted unanimously to expel U.S. forces from Iraqi soil, a vote that came in response to the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Evidently, officials in Baghdad weren't just blowing off steam. NBC News reported this morning that Iraq, our ostensible ally, has directly requested that the United States begin the planning process that would end our military presence in the country.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said in a statement Friday that he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a phone call "to send a delegation to Iraq to put a mechanism [in place] for implementing the Iraqi parliament decision to safely withdraw troops from Iraq."

This was, he said, because "Iraq is keen to keep the best relations with its neighbors and friends within the international community, and to protect foreign representations and interests and all those present on Iraqi soil."

As we've discussed, the initial response from the Trump administration to the Iraqi parliament's vote was acquiescence. Earlier this week, officials in Baghdad received a signed letter from Marine Brig. Gen. William Seely, who commands Task Force Iraq, not only declaring the U.S. intention to withdraw, but including specific and detailed information about how it would occur.

In apparent reference to the Iraqi parliament’s vote, the letter said, “We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.”

As is too often the case, the Trump administration struggled to keep its story straight about the letter, before eventually saying the whole thing was an unfortunate “mistake.”

Today, however, the administration had an entirely new message for our allies in Baghdad: We're not leaving. The New York Times reported:

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.10.20

01/10/20 12:00PM

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

* The two latest Fox News polls show former Vice President Joe Biden ahead in two early nominating states, leading the Democratic field in South Carolina with 36% support, well ahead of his closest rivals, and ahead in Nevada with 23%, though Sen. Bernie Sanders is a competitive second with 17%.

* On a related note, Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer's advertising blitz seems to be having an impact: the California billionaire saw double-digit support in both of Fox News' polls, which made him the sixth candidate to qualify for next week's primary debate.

* Speaking of billionaire presidential hopefuls, aides to Michael Bloomberg told NBC News he'll continue to invest in the 2020 election, and help try to defeat Donald Trump, even if the former New York City mayor fails to win the Democratic nomination.

* As Democratic candidates scramble for positioning in California, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garceti (D) has thrown his support behind Biden. California's presidential primary is March 3.

* Speaking of the Golden State, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has decided not to call a special election to fill Rep. Duncan Hunter's (R) upcoming vacancy. A spokesperson for the governor cited the late timing of the disgraced congressman's resignation.

* The Minnesota Supreme Court yesterday cleared the way for the state Republican Party to exclude Trump's primary rivals from the GOP ballot in March. Minnesota will join Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Kansas, Nevada, and South Carolina in limiting Republican primary voters to a single candidate.

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Trump reportedly connected impeachment trial, Soleimani airstrike

01/10/20 11:22AM

There's no shortage of concerns about why, exactly, Donald Trump risked a war by approving an airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. There is, however, one overarching concern: it's hard not to wonder whether the American president, concerned about his impeachment crisis, put his political interests above U.S. national security interests.

Indeed, there would be a degree of irony to the circumstances: Trump was impeached, after all, for executing a Ukraine scheme in which he's accused of prioritizing his domestic electoral considerations over our national security agenda. It would be truly amazing to see him effectively do the same thing during the impeachment process.

It's against this backdrop that the Wall Street Journal had this tidbit in its report on the White House national security team and its response to the Iranian threat:

Mr. Trump, after the strike, told associates he was under pressure to deal with Gen. Soleimani from GOP senators he views as important supporters in his coming impeachment trial in the Senate, associates said.

Some caveats are probably in order. The WSJ added this deep in the article -- the 29th paragraph, to be exact -- and the newspaper didn't treat the revelation as a major scoop. What's more, there are no direct quotes, and the reporting hasn't been independently verified.

But if it's correct, it helps bring the bigger picture into sharper focus.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump

Trump falsely claims credit for lower cancer rates, faces pushback

01/10/20 10:42AM

In 2017, there were no recorded accidental deaths in U.S. commercial passenger jets. Almost immediately after that information reached the public, Donald Trump said he wanted Americans to give him credit for the developments.

It was an early reminder: if something positive happens during Trump's presidency, he will claim responsibility for the good news, regardless of whether it makes sense.

It happened again yesterday, when the Republican published a tweet that read, "U.S. Cancer Death Rate Lowest In Recorded History! A lot of good news coming out of this Administration."

As Trump rhetoric goes, this was not a straight-up lie, though it was a bit bizarre. The data in question came by way of the American Cancer Society, which published a report yesterday showing an encouraging drop in cancer death rates between 2016 and 2017. It was a continuation of a trend that began nearly 30 years ago, thanks to advances in detection and treatment.

It's also a trend Trump had nothing to do with. USA Today reported:

Gary Reedy, chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society and American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, pushed back against Trump's insinuation, stating that "The mortality trends reflected in our current report, including the largest drop in overall cancer mortality ever recorded from 2016 to 2017, reflect prevention, early detection, and treatment advances that occurred in prior years."

He continued that "Since taking office, the president has signed multiple spending bills that have included increases in funding for cancer research at the National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute -- though the impact of those increases are not reflected in the data contained in this report."

USA Today's report added that Trump's proposed White House budgets would have cut billions of dollars in funding to NIH, "a move that would have impacted the National Cancer Institute if Congress had approved it."

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E. Jean Carroll is photographed, Sunday, June 23, 2019, in New York.

Trump lawyers try, fail to make E. Jean Carroll's lawsuit go away

01/10/20 10:00AM

Donald Trump's lawyers recently tried to make E. Jean Carroll's defamation lawsuit go away. As the New York Times reported, those efforts are off to a bad start.

A New York judge has rebuffed President Trump's bid to throw out a lawsuit filed against him by the writer E. Jean Carroll, who accuses him of hurting her career and reputation in denying her claim that he raped her in a Manhattan department store in the 1990s.

In a ruling made public on Thursday, Justice Doris Ling-Cohan of State Supreme Court in Manhattan rejected Mr. Trump's argument in a filing last week that New York's courts lack jurisdiction to hear the case because he was not in New York and did not live in the state when he made the comments that Ms. Carroll says defamed her.

The Times' article added that judge in the case noted that Trump failed to provide anything -- "not even a tweet, much less an affidavit" -- to support his position. The judge also cleared the way for the discovery process to continue.

For those who may need a refresher on the controversy,  Carroll spent years as a prominent writer, media figure, and advice columnist, including having hosted a show on America’s Talking, which later became MSNBC. As regular readers may recall, in June, she also joined a long list of women who’ve accused Trump of sexual misconduct.

Indeed, in a recently published book, Carroll described an alleged encounter in a New York department store in the mid-1990s, which the writer described as a violent sexual assault committed by the future president. Though definitively proving or disproving Caroll’s claim is difficult – there is no security footage to review and no physical evidence to scrutinize – the writer said she confided in two friends shortly after the alleged incident, telling them at the time what she said occurred. Those friends soon after came forward with on-the-record accounts.

The president has denied the claim, arguing, among other things, that his latest accuser is a “liar” who isn’t his “type.” Two months ago, Carroll sued Trump for defamation.

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Pressed for credible airstrike explanation, Team Trump struggles

01/10/20 09:31AM

In the immediate aftermath of last week's U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, touching off a crisis in the region, Donald Trump and his team had a coherent explanation for the military offensive: the mission was necessary, the Republican administration said, to prevent an "imminent" attack.

What's more, according to Team Trump, the president's decision was bolstered by persuasive and actionable U.S. intelligence. At face value, this is a straightforward argument, notwithstanding suspicions about the timing of the airstrike and the White House's non-existent credibility.

A week later, however, that explanation has effectively collapsed into a contradictory, self-defeating mess. The Washington Post noted in an analysis yesterday:

The Trump administration initially said Soleimani was planning "imminent" attacks on Americans and U.S. interests in the Middle East, but it hasn't provided much in the way of elaboration. It has since oscillated between pointing to the imminence of such attacks and suggesting that the strike was retaliatory for what Soleimani had already done. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to say whether the attacks were days or weeks away. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, unambiguously endorsed the idea of imminent attacks, but he also said the intelligence didn't "exactly say who, what, when, where."

And now, in the past 24 hours, it has become even more opaque.

What's more, in the hours that followed the publication of the report, the situation managed to get slightly worse.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo started backing off his earlier rhetoric about an "imminent" attack, and last night, the Kansas Republican complicated matters, conceding during a Fox News interview that the administration officials didn't know when or where Iran might act, effectively negating the "imminent" talking point.

On the intelligence front, the president's national security team sparked bipartisan pushback on Wednesday with congressional briefings that were reportedly hollow and unpersuasive, and Vice President Mike Pence made matters slightly worse yesterday telling NBC News the administration has "compelling" evidence, but they can't share it with Congress.

And then the whole mess started getting weirder.

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Job growth cooled a little as 2019 came to a close

01/10/20 08:47AM

Ahead of this morning's jobs report, most projections pointed to growth in December in the ballpark of 160,000. It looks like we didn't quite reach those expectations.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this morning that the economy added 140,000 jobs last month, while the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 3.5%. The monthly totals were rising in the latter half of the year, but December's tally was the lowest since May., Unfortunately, the revisions from October and November were also revised down a little, subtracting 14,000 jobs from previous reporting.

The overall totals from 2019 will still face one additional revision, but for now, it appears the nation added 2.11 million jobs for the calendar year, which represents a fairly good year, though it's a rather significant drop off from last year's totals, and far short of the more robust gains Americans saw in 2014 and 2015.

As for the political implications, Donald Trump has now been in office for 35 full months -- February 2017 through December 2019 -- and in that time, the economy has created 6.69 million jobs. In the 35 months preceding Trump's presidency -- March 2014 to January 2017 -- the economy created 7.96 million jobs.

As regular readers know, some have asked what would happen if we looked at the same numbers, but assigned the job totals from January 2017 to Trump, even though Obama was president for most of the month. On balance, I think that paints a misleading picture, but it doesn't change the underlying dynamic: if we applied jobs from January 2017 to Trump and compared the last 36 months to the previous 36 months, job totals still slowed from 8.05 million to 6.94 million.

The White House, meanwhile, believes we should actually start the clock for Trump at November 2016 -- the month of the Republican's election -- and apply the jobs created during the final months of the Obama era to the current Republican president. But that still doesn't help: if we compare the last 38 months to the previous 38 months, job totals slowed from 8.42 million to 7.33 million.

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Team Trump's latest Clinton investigation ending with a whimper

01/10/20 08:01AM

As recently as last week, Donald Trump addressed an evangelical audience in Miami, where the president focused his attention on his 2016 rival. "Crooked Hillary, as she is affectionately known, and she is crooked," Trump said. "There's no doubt about that."

As recently as last night, the president headlined a rally in Ohio, where he referenced "Crooked Hillary" three times and told his followers that the former secretary of State should be incarcerated.

Shortly before Trump took the stage, however, the Washington Post published an interesting report on the state of the administration's latest, and perhaps final, anti-Clinton investigation.

A Justice Department inquiry launched more than two years ago to mollify conservatives clamoring for more investigations of Hillary Clinton has effectively ended with no tangible results, and current and former law enforcement officials said they never expected the effort to produce much of anything.

John Huber, the U.S. attorney in Utah, was tapped in November 2017 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to look into concerns raised by President Trump and his allies in Congress that the FBI had not fully pursued cases of possible corruption at the Clinton Foundation and during Clinton's time as secretary of state, when the U.S. government decided not to block the sale of a company called Uranium One.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the investigation is its existence. Trump's attorney general appears to have launched a politically motivated probe into Clinton, after her 2016 defeat, examining discredited conspiracy theories.

In early November 2017, the president published a tweet that read, "Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn't looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems." Soon after, the Justice Department began pursuing anti-Clinton lines of inquiry frequently peddled by Republicans.

In theory, this isn't how federal law enforcement is supposed to work. Nevertheless, in this instance, the Justice Department went after Clinton anyway, and reportedly came up with nothing.

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