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The Capitol building at dusk.

'Game changer' report jolts debate over Senate impeachment trial

01/02/20 08:00AM

The recent impeachment of Donald Trump ushered in a new phase of the president's scandal, but it did not mark the end of revelations about what transpired when the administration took steps to extort a vulnerable ally for domestic political gain. The New York Times published a report earlier this week that jolted the broader debate, highlighting new details about concerns within the White House regarding Trump's directive to withhold military aid to Ukraine.

Opposition to the order from his top national security advisers was more intense than previously known. In late August, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper joined Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser at the time, for a previously undisclosed Oval Office meeting with the president where they tried but failed to convince him that releasing the aid was in interests of the United States.

By late summer, top lawyers at the Office of Management and Budget who had spoken to lawyers at the White House and the Justice Department in the weeks beforehand, were developing an argument -- not previously divulged publicly -- that Mr. Trump's role as commander in chief would simply allow him to override Congress on the issue.

And [acting White House Chief of Staff Mick] Mulvaney is shown to have been deeply involved as a key conduit for transmitting Mr. Trump's demands for the freeze across the administration.

These are no small details. The Times' report, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, paints an exceedingly damning portrait of a White House operation that began hatching Trump's Ukraine scheme as early as June, with Mulvaney emailing an aide, Robert Blair, asking "whether we can hold [military aid] back" from Ukraine, despite congressional approval.

In the months that followed, top members of Team Trump directly urged the president to follow a more responsible course, only to find Trump ignoring their pleas. It led some in the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to make absurd assertions about the sweeping powers of presidential whims.

The article specifically referenced a pointed email from Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon's top budget official, to Michael Duffey, a political appointee at OMB who was directly involved in executing Trump's scheme. "You can't be serious," McCusker wrote on Sept. 10, after learning of Trump's plan. "I am speechless."

There's no shortage of relevant angles to the Times' report, but there's one overarching element that poses new challenges for Republicans: the revelations come against a backdrop in which lawmakers are debating whether to include key witnesses in the Senate's impeachment trial.

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The New Year's Eve 2014 Celebration in Times Square on Dec. 31, 2013 in New York, N.Y.

Happy New Year from TRMS

12/30/19 08:00AM

It's probably going to be pretty quiet here at MaddowBlog for the next few days, and readers should expect a light-to-nonexistent posting schedule. That said, I'll be around in case major news breaks.

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Friday's Mini-Report, 12.27.19

12/27/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Sgt. 1st Class Michael Goble: "A U.S. Special Forces soldier who died in Afghanistan this week was seizing a Taliban weapons cache when he was killed, the U.S. military said Friday."

* North Carolina: "Republican attempts to require photo identification to vote in North Carolina are being thwarted again by judges hearing arguments that the mandate is tainted by bias that would deter black and Latino residents."

* Trump draws attention to the alleged whistleblower's name: "President Trump isn't done with his crusade to expose the identity of the whistleblower whose complaint detailing the Ukraine pressure campaign sparked the impeachment inquiry. On Thursday night, the President retweeted an article from the Washington Examiner that names the person that Trump's allies allege to be the whistleblower."

* A brutal report on accused war criminal Navy SEAL Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher: "Video interviews and documents leaked to The New York Times reveal how Navy SEALs turned against their own platoon leader with allegations that he killed for the sake of killing."

* This unfolded faster than expected: "The Food and Drug Administration officially raised the age to buy tobacco in the U.S. from 18 to 21, fulfilling a key portion of the federal spending package that President Trump signed into law last week."

* Congress doesn't necessarily need Trump on this: "In a rare show of bipartisan unity, Republicans and Democrats are planning to try to force President Trump to take a more active stand on human rights in China, preparing veto-proof legislation that would punish top Chinese officials for detaining more than one million Muslims in internment camps."

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Image: Devin Nunes, Eric Swalwell, Jim Himes

On Twitter, Trump routinely does what he's accused Schiff of doing

12/27/19 12:43PM

Over the summer, Donald Trump published a tweet that appeared to quote House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) saying, "House Republicans support the President on Tariffs with Mexico all the way, & that makes any measure the President takes on the Border totally Veto proof. Why wouldn't you as Republicans support him when that will allow our President to make a better deal."

The quote struck me as interesting, so I went looking for it, eager to get a sense of the context. There was, however, a problem: McCarthy didn't use the words the president attributed to him. The House GOP leader used some related rhetoric during a Fox News interview, but Trump chose to simply add words and phrases he liked, and then presented them to the public as if McCarthy's quote were accurate. It wasn't.

Alas, it wasn't an isolated incident. The New York Times reported the other day that the president, who doesn't seem to fully appreciate how quotation marks work, often misquotes his allies.

Mr. Trump has made a habit of injecting his own words into the comments of people he sees on television and then publishing them as direct quotes on Twitter, where he has more than 67 million followers. In some instances, he simply omits a part of the quote he doesn't like. [...]

Not all of Mr. Trump's misrepresentations come from watching TV. Sometimes he attributes something to a private conversation that may not have ever occurred.

People rarely contradict the president's misleading quotes, in part because they fear Trump and his machine, and in part because he'd probably respond with additional misleading quotes.

At face value, this may seem underwhelming. The president's record of brazen dishonesty, making up conversations, and unfamiliarity with American grammar are well documented, and the bogus quotes he publishes are a fairly small part of a larger phenomenon.

But something Trump argued last week, in reference to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), put the issue in a different light.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.27.19

12/27/19 12:00PM

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

* It's a figure so comically large that it's almost hard to believe, but a CNN reporter noted that Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg have combined to spend over $200 million thus far in television advertising for their Democratic presidential campaigns. There's never been anything like this in the history of American presidential primaries.

* Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick's Democratic presidential campaign has been slow to get off the ground, and this week, it received some discouraging news: Patrick has failed to qualify to appear on Michigan's March 10 primary ballot.

* Though Republican voters in several states will not be able to vote for one of Donald Trump's presidential primary rivals, that won't be the case in North Carolina: the state Board of Elections has agreed that former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and former Rep. Joe Walsh have met the qualifications to appear on the Republican ballot.

* Corey Lewandowski, the first of three people who helped run Donald Trump's 2016 campaign operation, said in a radio interview last week that he's increasingly likely to run against incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) in New Hampshire next year.

* Speaking of former members of Team Trump eyeing electoral opportunities, former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders conceded to CNN the other day that she's "very seriously" considering a gubernatorial campaign in Arkansas.

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This Jan. 17, 2017, file photo shows General Electric light bulbs on display at a store, in Wilmington, Mass.

Team Trump's rhetoric about light bulbs gets even dimmer

12/27/19 10:50AM

At a campaign rally last week, Donald Trump used some familiar rhetoric in reference to light bulbs. "We're even bringing back the old light bulb," the president told supporters in Michigan. "You heard about that, right? The old light bulb, which is better. I say, why do I always look so orange? You know why, because of the new light, they're terrible. You look terrible."

Of course, by that reasoning, wouldn't everyone look orange under energy-efficient light bulbs, and not just the guy making unfortunate makeup choices?

Regardless, over the weekend, the White House used its official Twitter feed to pitch a related message:

If you like your lightbulbs, you can keep your lightbulbs! The Obama Admin tried to limit Americans to buying more-expensive LED bulbs for their homes -- but thanks to President @realDonaldTrump, go ahead and decorate your house with whatever lights you want.

Oh, good. Team Trump has shifted its attention from toilets to light bulbs.

There are a couple of angles to this that are worth keeping in mind, especially as the president keeps pushing this line as if he's done something worthwhile. First, Trump's light bulb decision represents a major step backwards for U.S. energy policy. The Washington Post reported that this one misguided change, according to consumer research, will "boost energy costs by $14 billion a year and generate 38 million tons of carbon dioxide annually."

A report in The Hill added that the administration's new rule "will increase U.S. electricity use by 80 billion kilowatt hours over the course of a year, roughly the amount of electricity needed to power all households in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, according to an analysis by the Appliance Standards Awareness Project."

This isn't something Trump should be proud of; it's something he should find embarrassing.

Second, while the White House seems eager to blame (credit?) the Obama administration for taking steps to improve U.S. energy efficiency, the policy Trump is undoing pre-dates the Obama era.

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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump turns away from the cameras as he speaks at a town hall event in Appleton, Wis., March 30, 2016. (Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)

Former GOP rep: Trump is 'intellectually and psychologically unfit'

12/27/19 10:16AM

It's always helpful when Republican members of Congress leave Capitol Hill and begin speaking their minds without fear of political consequences. Take this New York Times report from earlier in the week, for example.

By the summer of 2017, Dave Trott, a two-term Republican congressman, was worried enough about President Trump's erratic behavior and his flailing attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act that he criticized the president in a closed-door meeting with fellow G.O.P. lawmakers.

The response was instantaneous -- but had nothing to do with the substance of Mr. Trott's concerns. "Dave, you need to know somebody has already told the White House what you said," he recalled a colleague telling him.

Note the context: Trott expressed criticisms of Donald Trump in private. He was nevertheless warned to watch his step because the president's supporters, on the lookout, were likely to report the congressman's transgressions. Republicans were expected to show loyalty to Trump at all times, even behind closed doors. A healthy political environment it was not.

It wasn't long before Trott announced his retirement. In the 2018 midterm elections, he was replaced by a Democrat in a GOP-friendly district.

The former congressman has not, however, forgotten about the lessons he learned and his impressions of those in positions of authority. "Trump is emotionally, intellectually and psychologically unfit for office," Trott told the Times, "and I'm sure a lot of Republicans feel the same way."

In a letter to the editor in the print edition of The Atlantic, the Michigan Republican added that he considers the president "unfit for office." Trott went on to tell the Detroit News he "probably would have" voted to impeach Trump, and as things stand, he's also considering voting Democratic in the 2020 presidential election.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks from the chamber as Republicans pushed legislation toward Senate approval to defund Planned Parenthood and the ACA, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 3, 2015. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

To win over voters, McConnell discovers his love of federal largess

12/27/19 09:20AM

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is not exactly the nation's most popular politician. After more than a third of a century representing Kentucky on Capitol Hill, the Republican lawmaker has one of the lowest approval ratings of any senator among his own constituents.

And with that in mind, as the Senate's GOP leader gets ready to run for the seventh time, McConnell has focused on an important priority: bring home the bacon. The Hill reported this week on McConnell "delivering more than $1 billion worth of federal spending and tax breaks to his Kentucky constituents."

[McConnell] flexed his political muscle to secure $914.2 million in direct spending for Kentucky in the two year-end omnibus spending bills. The windfall will likely boost his political standing at home in the face of a well-financed Democratic opponent and his perennially low approval ratings.

McConnell touted his spending and tax-relief accomplishments at a press conference in Louisville.... Noting that he's the only top congressional leader who isn't from California or New York, McConnell emphasized he was one of four people in the room making final decisions about specifics on the year-end spending and tax deals.

The Senate Republican argued at the press conference, "I saw a commercial from my likely opponent indicating that I was all that was wrong with Washington. So I have a question for her here as we go into the new year: In what way would Kentucky have been better off without any of these items that I put in the year-end spending bill?"

I don't doubt that many voters in the Bluegrass State will find this persuasive. It's not even especially offensive: members of Congress have worked on steering federal benefits to their constituents for as long as we've had members of Congress.

But it's worth pausing to appreciate the line McConnell and his party have tried to take on the issue in recent years, and the degree to which that line is at odds with the Kentucky Republican's latest boasts.

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Donald Trump

Trump fails to make a case against the House impeachment process

12/27/19 08:40AM

In Republican circles, it's taken as a given that House of Representatives' impeachment process against Donald Trump was outrageously unfair. Identifying what, specifically, was so unfair about it, however, has proven to be more difficult.

As we recently discussed, the original GOP line was that the House impeachment process was unfair because there'd been no formal vote on the House floor to authorize the inquiry. After the House did, in fact, hold such a vote, Republicans shifted their focus, complaining that the process was unfair because there were no public impeachment committee hearings.

After the House did, in fact, hold extensive public impeachment committee hearings, Republicans shifted again, insisting that the process is unfair because Donald Trump and his team were not given an opportunity to present a defense. After House Democrats invited the president and his White House attorneys to participate in the impeachment inquiry, Team Trump refused to accept the offer.

And at that point, the president and his party said the impeachment process was unfair because ... well, just because.

Trump has occasionally tried to come up with some talking points, though the nature of his complaint came into focus yesterday when the president published a tweet quoting a conservative pundit he saw on Fox News:

"Look, the House is supposed to do all of this work on witnesses and documents BEFORE they send the articles over to the Senate, not to call in new witnesses, go through new documents - that work is supposed to be done in the House." @KatiePavlich @foxandfriends

This appears to be in reference to Democratic efforts to have senators hear testimony from key witnesses, including former National Security Adviser John Bolton and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. The trouble is, the House tried to hear their testimony, but the president refused to let them cooperate.

The result is an exceedingly awkward pitch: Trump's argument against the House impeachment process is based in part on the fact that House lawmakers didn't talk to the witnesses Trump wouldn't let them talk to.

The president may find this persuasive, but there's no reason anyone else should.

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A tractor plows a field on February 25, 2014 in Firebaugh, California.

Farmers' reality disproves rosy rhetoric from Team Trump

12/27/19 08:00AM

Last week, the White House's Peter Navarro, one of the principal architects of Donald Trump's trade war, appeared on CNN and boasted, "Farmers are doing great." The host noted the many struggling farmers who'd "take issue with that statement," especially in light of the sharp increase in farm bankruptcies.

But the president's aide was undeterred, pointing to assorted trade deals the White House has tackled. "They're happy," Navarro concluded, in reference to American farmers.

The reality, which Team Trump has been reluctant to acknowledge, is that farmers are not "doing great." In fact, if they were, it wouldn't have been necessary for the president to approve multiple bailouts for the industry -- the price tags for which are already more than double the size of the 2009 auto-industry rescue.

And yet, the pain persists. The Washington Post ran a profile piece yesterday of a family in central New York that's struggling mightily to get by.

When Anne and her husband, Andy, took over his parents' 305-acre dairy farm in 2013, they made a good living. But years of falling milk prices, complicated by President Trump's trade wars, have left the couple nearly $200,000 in debt.

Farmers around the country are struggling to pay for basics like groceries and electricity as farm bankruptcies rise and farm debt hits a record high. Calls from farmers in financial crisis to state mediators have soared by 57 percent since 2015.

"We're supposed to be feeding the world, and we can't even put food on our own table," Anne said.

The featured family recently found it necessary to turn to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, to get by. (The Trump administration recently announced plans to limit access to food assistance, cutting off nearly 700,000 of the nation's poorest people.)

The family's story is a familiar one. Brian Thalmann, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, recently challenged Trump's assertion that farmers are doing "great" again.

"We are not starting to do great again," Thalmann told Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in August. "We are starting to go down very quickly."

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