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Thursday's Mini-Report, 12.26.19

12/26/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Afghanistan: "An American Special Forces soldier was killed in Afghanistan on Monday, according to military officials, bringing to 20 the number of troops who have died during combat operations this year. The soldier's death is a grim reminder that more Americans have died fighting the Taliban and other insurgent groups in 2019 than in any other year since 2014."

* India's elections: "Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party has lost a key state legislature election, a setback for the party as it faces massive anti-government protests against a contentious new citizenship law."

* A story worth watching: "The president of Belarus warned Russia on Tuesday against a forced merger of the two ex-Soviet neighbors, saying such a move by Moscow could trigger a war."

* Not surprising: "Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he isn't running for Senate next year.... But that hasn't prevented a barely concealed competition from breaking out within the administration over who might replace him as the nation's top diplomat. President Trump has fueled the fire by sounding out lawmakers and officials as he considers his options."

* I'll look forward to hearing more about this: "Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper is weighing proposals for a major reduction -- or even a complete pullout -- of American forces from West Africa as the first phase of reviewing global deployments that could reshuffle thousands of troops around the world, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations."

* Expect others to seek equal treatment: "The $1.4 trillion spending bill passed by Congress last week quietly achieves what a parade of select committees and coordinating councils could not: rescue a dying pension fund that is the lifeblood of nearly 100,000 retired coal miners."

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Image: Donald Trump

Trump eyes possible pardons for Stone, Flynn, 'other people'

12/26/19 12:40PM

During a brief Q&A with reporters yesterday Donald Trump was asked whether he planned to pardon Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative who was recently convicted on seven criminal counts, including making false statements to federal investigators, obstruction, and witness tampering. The president answered that Stone wasn't involved in his campaign "in any way," except for the time in which he worked for Trump's campaign.

But that's not all Trump said.

"I think it's very tough what they did to Roger Stone, compared to what they do to other people on their side. I think it's very tough. I think it's a very tough situation that they did something like that. [...]

"I've known Roger over the years. He's a nice guy. A lot of people like him. And he got very -- he got hit very hard, as did [former White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn] and as did a lot of other people. They got hit very, very hard. And now they're finding out it was all a big hoax. They're finding out it was a horrible thing. It was -- we were spied on -- my campaign was spied on."

Trump continued to ramble for a while, insisting that Stone's prosecution was "very unfair," and the case against Flynn, in which he pleaded guilty, was also "very unfair."

As if that weren't quite enough, though the president wasn't specific as to whom he was referring, Trump added, "And now we found out they're a bunch of dirty cops.... These were dirty people. These were bad people. These were evil people."

To an unsettling degree, nearly everything the Republican said was gibberish. There's no evidence of prosecutorial wrongdoing, for example, in the Stone or Flynn cases. There's no evidence of the FBI "spying on" his campaign operation -- and a recent report from the Justice Department's inspector general drew the opposite conclusion.

There's no evidence of "dirty cops" at the FBI, and there's no evidence that "it" -- the president didn't exactly say what "it" referred to -- was "all a big hoax."

But as a practical matter, Trump's willingness to create a bizarre alternative reality is probably less important than what he intends to do with the conclusions drawn by way of this bizarre alternative reality.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.26.19

12/26/19 12:00PM

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

* As if there weren't enough concerns about elections in Georgia, the Washington Post reported this week on election security experts raising concerns about the state's new voting machines, which they believe "remain vulnerable to potential intrusions or malfunctions."

* Though there was some question as to whether Donald Trump would support Sen. Susan Collins' re-election bid, the president offered his support for the Maine Republican via Twitter this week.

* Joe Biden's presidential campaign picked up an endorsement this week from Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.), who also chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' political arm. The former vice president now has 23 endorsements from U.S. House Democrats, roughly double the totals from Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, who have 11 each.

* Michael Bloomberg's presidential campaign distanced itself from a vendor over the holiday break after learning that it used prison labor to make phone calls on behalf of the former New York mayor.

* Former Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), running to replace resigning Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), picked up endorsements the other day from six California Republican lawmakers. There are currently only seven Republicans in the state's delegation, but that includes Hunter, who should be stepping down any day now, which means Issa now has the backing of the entire GOP delegation from the Golden State.

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File photo taken in November 2017 shows U.S. President Donald Trump (and Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a welcome ceremony in Beijing.

As Trump alienates, China invests in diplomacy, global outreach

12/26/19 11:20AM

Over the summer, Donald Trump boasted to supporters, "We are so respected, you have no idea. How our nation has gone so far up in the eyes and the minds of the rest of the world." As recently as two weeks ago, after leaders of U.S. allies mocked the American president in an unguarded moment, Trump added, "This country is so respected. And we were not respected four years ago. We were laughed at."

This was, of course, the opposite of the truth. Since Trump took office, international support and respect for the United States has taken a sharp turn for the worse. Global confidence in our leadership was high during Barack Obama's presidency, but it collapsed in 2017.

What's more, the more international audiences see Trump and come to terms with his "America First" vision, the more our allies and partners grow alienated from the United States. The Associated Press reported the other day on China's increased investment in diplomacy, as Beijing hopes to exploit the opportunity the Republican White House created.

Now the Chinese even have the world's biggest diplomatic arsenal to draw from. China's diplomatic network -- including embassies, consulates and other posts -- has overtaken that of the United States, according to the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank. Beijing has 276 diplomatic posts worldwide, topping Washington's declining deployment by three posts, the institute found.

China's growing diplomatic presence comes as Beijing is trying to expand its international footprint in places like resource-rich Africa or the strategic South China Sea, and to compete economically with Western countries, including with its much-ballyhooed Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to expand Chinese economic clout in places like Africa and Asia.

This isn't a dynamic in which China is scrambling to keep up with the United States; it's actually one in which China is making gains while the United States, under Trump's leadership, is deliberately retreating. In practical terms, the Trump administration is shrinking its diplomatic footprint while abandoning international agreements, condemning international institutions, and rejecting the very idea of a rules-based world order.

If Beijing had written a script for the U.S. to follow, it'd look an awful lot like this one.

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Pastors from the Las Vegas area pray with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a visit to the International Church of Las Vegas, and International Christian Academy on Oct. 5, 2016, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

'Civil war' among evangelicals is the last thing Trump needs

12/26/19 10:45AM

Christianity Today, one of the nation's leading evangelical publications, published a striking editorial last week, condemning Donald Trump's actions in the Ukraine scandal as "profoundly immoral" and the president himself as "morally lost and confused." It added, "The reason many are not shocked about this is that this president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration."

It wasn't long before the Republican returned fire, not by defending his actions or his principles, but by insisting he's delivered on the evangelical community's political goals -- which in Trump's mind, entitles him to support from evangelical publications.

But stepping back, the president wasn't just bothered by a critical editorial; he also seemed concerned about a division among politically active Christian evangelicals, whose support he sees as a core element of his Republican base. As he heads into a re-election year, Trump expects this voting bloc to march in lock step behind him, and the Christianity Today's editorial represented dissension the president apparently sees as dangerous.

It was against this backdrop that a rival publication, the Christian Post, published a rebuttal, accusing Christianity Today of, among other things, adopting an "elitist posture." As the New York Times reported, this led a Christian Post editor, Napp Nazworth, to resign in protest.

In an interview on Tuesday evening, Mr. Nazworth said he wanted the publication's politics section "to be an open space for both sides." He said the site had worked to include voices that praised and criticized the president, and he objected to labeling the column as an editorial representing the site's opinion.

"There was an impasse. We couldn't find a compromise," he said. "I said, 'If this is what you represent, you're announcing that The Christian Post is joining Team Trump.'"

The Post, it's worth noting for context, did run an opinion piece from a contributor this past weekend, arguing that the Senate should convict Trump and remove him from office, because the U.S. Constitution "is more important than abortion."

It's all part of what the Daily Beast described as "a spiraling evangelical Christian civil war" over Trump, his misdeeds, and the proper response from the faith community.

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Former U.S. president Bill Clinton speaks during a "Get Out The Vote Clinton Family Event" for democratic presidential candidate  Hillary Clinton at Manchester Community College on Feb. 8, 2016 in Manchester, N.H. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Republicans see Clinton's impeachment through rose-colored glasses

12/26/19 10:03AM

If the point of the headline on Karl Rove' latest Wall Street Journal column was to get attention, the editors succeeded. It read, "Clinton's Impeachment Was Dignified."

Those of us who remember the details of the impeachment saga surrounding Bill Clinton, and read Ken Starr's report, can probably think of a variety of adjectives. "Dignified" isn't one of them.

A week earlier, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), one of the House impeachment managers who encouraged the Senate to remove Clinton from office 20 years, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times and emphasized an even less defensible point.

Earlier this Congress, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, and Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, set forth criteria for undertaking an impeachment. They said that the evidence would have to be overwhelming and compelling, and, importantly, it would have to be bipartisan.

Looking back at the Clinton impeachment, I'm convinced we satisfied each of these. Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel, conducted a very lengthy and nonpartisan investigation.... Mr. Starr testified before our committee that the president might have committed impeachable offenses.

Sensenbrenner's underlying point was that contemporary House Democrats failed because they didn't convince House Republicans of Donald Trump's guilt. It's a difficult argument to take seriously, since for GOP lawmakers, nothing short of a signed presidential confession would've made a difference.

But the Wisconsin congressman assertion that Ken Starr oversaw a "non-partisan" probe, like Rove's insistence that the investigation into Clinton was "dignified," suggests Republicans don't remember the events of the late 1990s nearly as well as they should.

It's part of a phenomenon Robert Schlesinger once labeled "Clinton Nostalgia Syndrome," which generally involves Republicans, who made every effort to destroy Clinton at the time, praising the former Democratic president, and encouraging contemporary Dems to follow Clinton's lead.

But the effort now appears to be spreading, with Republicans also holding out their own impeachment crusade against Clinton as a model worthy of emulation.

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Image: TOPSHOT-GERMANY-G20-SUMMIT

Trump struggles when asked about Ukraine messages from Putin

12/26/19 09:20AM

For nearly three years, Donald Trump has ignored his own country's intelligence community and believed that Ukraine intervened in the U.S. elections in 2016 in the hopes of undermining his candidacy. One of the underlying questions is why the Republican believes the bogus conspiracy theory.

A Washington Post report last week shed new light on the issue, explaining that Trump's embrace of the falsehood appears to have come directly from Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Post quoted one former senior White House official who said Trump was quite explicit on this point, saying he knew Ukraine was the real culprit, U.S. intelligence be damned, because "Putin told me."

As we've discussed, Trump not only believed Putin, he also acted on that belief, pressing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to pursue, among other things, a crackpot conspiracy theory about Ukraine's role in American election interference.

It was against this backdrop that a reporter broached the subject yesterday morning, after Trump's Christmas video teleconference with U.S. troops deployed abroad.

Q: Sir, what did President Putin say to you that convinced you that the Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election?

TRUMP: What did he say to me?

Q: Yes.

TRUMP: About what?

Q: What did President Putin say to you when you met?

TRUMP: You're putting words in somebody's mouth. Who are you referring to? Me? I never said anything about it. I never said a thing about it. All right, any other questions?

While it was easy to enjoy the exchange's Abbott-and-Costello-like qualities, it was equally easy to notice this seemed like a subject Trump was reluctant to talk about.

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Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin speaks during the Indiana Republican Party Spring Dinner, April 21, 2016, in Indianapolis. (Photo by Darron Cummings/AP)

FBI reportedly interested in Bevin's scandalous pardons in Kentucky

12/26/19 08:40AM

After narrowly losing his re-election bid last month, Kentucky's then-governor, Republican Matt Bevin, turned his attention to criminal-justice issues, issuing hundreds of controversial pardons and commutations, benefiting a wide range of convicted criminals, including murderers and a man convicted of raping a child.

A local prosecutor called Bevin's actions "an absolute atrocity of justice," which put Kentucky residents "in danger."

But prosecutors weren't the only ones alarmed by the former governor's intervention in so many cases. It appears the FBI has also decided to take a closer look at Bevin's actions. The Courier Journal in Louisville reported this week:

The FBI is asking questions about the pardons Matt Bevin issued during his last weeks as Kentucky governor, The Courier Journal has learned.

State Rep. Chris Harris, D-Forest Hills, told reporters that a criminal investigator contacted him last week and asked what he knew about Bevin's pardons.... Two sources with knowledge of the inquiry told The Courier Journal on Monday that an FBI agent had spoken with Harris.

Bevin did not comment when asked about the FBI's reported interest. The Kentucky Republican last week, however, tried to defend some of his more scandalous decisions, saying he commuted the sentence of a man convicted of raping a young girl  in part because the girl's hymen was "intact." (In a study published in June in Reproductive Health journal, the authors wrote, "An examination of the hymen is not an accurate or reliable test of a previous history of sexual activity, including sexual assault. Clinicians tasked with performing forensic sexual assault examinations should avoid descriptions such as 'intact hymen' or 'broken hymen' in all cases.")

As for which case -- or cases -- might be of interest to the FBI, it's difficult to say without more information, though one pardon stood out as an example of possible corruption. NBC News reported:

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Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Key GOP senator 'disturbed' by McConnell's impeachment plan

12/26/19 08:00AM

Had Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) simply announced how he intended to vote in Donald Trump's impeachment trial, it would've been problematic. After all, the trial hasn't even begun yet, and senators are going to have to "solemnly swear" to do "impartial justice" before the proceedings get underway.

But McConnell went considerably further two weeks ago, meeting in private with top White House officials, and then declaring on Fox News that he'd be in "total coordination" with Team Trump as the process advances. The Senate GOP leader added that "everything" he does during the proceedings will be coordinated with the White House, assuring Fox News' audience that there will be "no difference between the president's position and our position as to how to handle this."

It wasn't long before congressional Democrats cried foul, suggesting McConnell's comments were so far over the line that he should consider recusing himself from the process. But as it turns out, Dems weren't the only ones who thought the Kentucky Republican pushed the envelope too far.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Tuesday she was "disturbed" that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would engage in "total coordination" with the White House regarding the upcoming Senate trial of President Donald Trump.

In an interview with Anchorage's local NBC affiliate KTUU broadcast Tuesday, Murkowski — who earlier in the year refused to defend Trump from the Democrats' impeachment inquiry — said McConnell's comments "has further confused" the impeachment process.

While arguing that there should be some distance between the White House and the Senate on the impeachment proceedings, Murkowski said, in reference to McConnell's comments, "[I]n fairness, when I heard that I was disturbed.... To me it means that we have to take that step back from being hand in glove with the defense, and so I heard what leader McConnell had said, I happened to think that that has further confused the process."

The president has repeatedly insisted in recent weeks that his party stands completely unified on impeachment. Murkowski's concerns -- and her willingness to express them publicly -- suggest Trump's boast may not be altogether true.

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Tourists visit the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City, December 5, 2013.

Happy Holidays, 2019

12/24/19 08:35AM

It's likely to be pretty quiet here at MaddowBlog today and tomorrow, so readers should expect a light-to-nonexistent posting schedule. That said, we have a special episode of The Rachel Maddow Show on tap for this evening, and I'll be around if there's breaking news of historic significance.

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