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Monday's Mini-Report, 12.23.19

12/23/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* This could take a while: "Both sides dug in Monday in the impasse over a Senate trial of President Trump, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) chiding House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) for the delay in transmitting articles of impeachment, a position he called 'absurd.'"

* Afghanistan: "A member of the U.S. military was killed in Afghanistan, raising to 20 the number of American military personnel who have died in fighting this year and putting further strain on U.S.-Taliban talks aimed at ending the 18-year war."

* Also in Afghanistan: "Afghan President Ashraf Ghani appears to have narrowly won a second term, according to preliminary results from September's balloting that were announced Sunday, although his main challenger rejected the outcome as illegitimate."

* Saudi Arabia: "A court in Saudi Arabia sentenced five people to death Monday for 'committing and directly participating' in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year."

* Quite a shake-up: "Boeing CEO Dennis A. Muilenburg was fired Monday, a week after the company announced it planned to suspend production of its troubled 737 Max airplanes, which were grounded after two crashes killed 346 people."

* Indian unrest: "Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has defended the government's new citizenship law, despite the major ongoing protests against it.... More than 20 people have died in ten days of clashes sparked by the bill, which critics see as anti-Muslim. Protesters have continued to take to the streets in spite of police bans."

* Caveat emptor: "America's food inspectors are warning that "unsafe" pork is likely making it to consumers under a change in rules for meat inspection. That change is now set to roll out nationwide to plants that process more than 90 percent of the pork Americans eat."

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Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., joined by, from left, Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, and Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., smiles as they unveil the GOP's tax overhaul, Nov. 2, 2017.

Two years later, the Republican tax plan still looks like a failure

12/23/19 02:58PM

Exactly two years ago yesterday, Donald Trump put his signature on his most significant legislative accomplishment, making the Republican Party's massive package of tax breaks law. At the time, the president and his party had high hopes for their creation and made bold promises about its effects.

Those assurances, we now know, were unwise. As regular readers know, none of what Republicans said about their tax cuts came true. The plan isn’t paying for itself; it’s not boosting economic growth; it didn’t fuel private-sector hiring; it didn’t help GOP candidates in the 2018 midterms; and it wasn’t the biggest tax cut of all time.

Meanwhile, progressive critics of the Republican plan said the corporate beneficiaries of the tax breaks would use their windfalls on priorities such as stock buybacks. That, among other Democratic predictions, turned out to be right.

It's against this backdrop that the Washington Post's Catherine Rampell welcomed the GOP plan into its "terrible twos," noting that the toddler's parents seem unconcerned that it is "way behind on nearly all its developmental milestones."

Like most starry-eyed parents, the progenitors of this policy believe it can do no wrong. In fact, they’re keen on giving it a baby sibling soon: Trump’s economic advisers have floated yet more plutocratic tax cuts, with various proposals to slash capital gains and corporate income taxes. Trump’s co-partisans on Capitol Hill say they’re ready to help.

The Trump tax cuts may be failing to deliver on key promises. But on at least one developmental milestone -- the terribleness of those "terrible twos" -- this toddler has proved precocious.

Rampell's point about the tax plan's possible "sibling" is of particular interest, because it was just two weeks ago when acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said another corporate tax break is a top priority for Trump if Americans reward him with a second term.

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Image: Donald Trump

White House eyes new pitch: maybe Trump wasn't actually impeached?

12/23/19 12:50PM

As much of the world probably noticed, the U.S. House voted, with relative ease, to impeach Donald Trump last week. Just one day later, however, Bloomberg News ran a report suggesting that, as far as the White House was concerned, maybe the president wasn't actually impeached.

Lawyers close to President Donald Trump are exploring whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's decision to temporarily withhold articles of impeachment from the Senate could mean that the president hasn't actually been impeached. [...]

The White House legal theory, according to a person familiar with the legal review, is that if Trump has been officially impeached, the Senate should already have jurisdiction. Backers of the theory would argue that the clause of the U.S. Constitution that gives the Senate "the sole Power to try all Impeachments" indicates that the impeachment isn't formalized until the House reported the charges to the upper chamber.

CBS News ran a related report over the weekend, noting, "The White House is considering making the argument that President Trump has not officially been impeached, given that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not transmitted the articles of impeachment to the Senate."

Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor, has made the argument that in order for the president to have been formally impeached, the House must transmit articles of impeachment to the Senate for a trial. It's a bit like saying an NFL team didn't really win the Super Bowl when the clock hit zero at the big game, but rather, when the league gives the team the Lombardi trophy.

There are a variety of reasons to be skeptical of the pitch, not the least of which is the Constitution's language that explicitly says the U.S. House "shall have the sole Power of Impeachment."

But there's a related problem: the Trump administration may not fully believe the controversial argument. Politico reported this morning on some new legal filings from the Justice Department:

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.23.19

12/23/19 12:00PM

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

* Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.) may now be a Republican with Donald Trump's backing, but three conservative Republicans are moving forward with plans to run against him in a GOP primary next year.

* Bolstered by Trump's efforts, the RNC is headed into 2020 with $63 million in the bank. The DNC, in contrast, has $8.3 million.

* According to the Trump campaign, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) called for the president to be hanged. In reality, the campaign removed all context from the Democratic leader's quote, apparently in the hopes of trying to deceive the president's own supporters.

* In remarks to a group of far-right students over the weekend, Trump praised Democratic presidential hopeful Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) for voting "present" on the articles of impeachment against him.

* Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R), the only incumbent Republican governor who lost in 2016, announced late last week that he doesn't intend to run for his old office in 2020, but he will "seriously consider" parlaying his defeat into a U.S. Senate campaign in 2022.

* Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Democratic presidential campaign doesn't yet have any congressional endorsements, but he's picked up some support from current and former mayors: former two-term Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (D) is now backing the New Yorker and will serve as Bloomberg's national political chair.

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House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy prepares to speak to the media after unexpectedly dropping out of consideration to be the next Speaker of the House on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 8, 2015. (Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

With an odd lie about the FBI, the GOP's McCarthy stoops lower

12/23/19 11:24AM

It's been a couple of weeks since Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz issued his report on the origins of the investigation into the Russia scandal, and the IG's findings continue to haunt Republican conspiracy theorists.

Much to the GOP's chagrin, Horowitz found that the FBI's Russia investigation was legitimate, fully justified, and untainted by political bias. As his report makes clear, some of the more ridiculous conspiracy theories -- such as the idea that a nefarious "deep state" was trying to "spy" on Team Trump -- have no basis in reality.

And yet, there was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) appearing on Fox News yesterday, sharing a very different interpretation of the report's findings. In fact, it appears the California Republican hasn't read the Justice Department report at all, preferring instead to make stuff up that he hopes will help Donald Trump.

"Well, if you pause for one moment and you read this I.G. report by Horowitz, here's the FBI, they broke into President Trump -- at the time, candidate Trump's -- campaign, spied on him, and then they covered it up.

"It is a modern-day Watergate. And you've got Democrats who aren't willing to even look into that. That is the area that we should be looking in. It's a modern-day coup, the closest this country's ever came to.

"But the only way you can compare this to is Watergate. They broke into his campaign by bringing people into it. They had been trying to cover it up for the whole time. Now the question rises, just like Watergate, who knew? When did they know it? And how high did this go up?"

As political lies go, this can fairly be described as hopelessly bonkers. McCarthy pointed to a report from the Justice Department's inspector general that simply does not say what he claims it says. He's accusing the FBI of engaging in misconduct that did plainly not occur in reality.

The House minority leader has gone to great lengths to defend the White House during the impeachment crisis, repeatedly appearing on the air and saying truly unfortunate things that should cause him great embarrassment.

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A woman places her vote into the ballot box on March 5, 2016 in Bowling Green, Ky. (Photo by Austin Anthony/Daily News/AP)

Top Trump adviser: 'It's always been Republicans suppressing votes'

12/23/19 10:40AM

It doesn't happen often, but occasionally Republicans slip up and acknowledge their party's commitment to voter-suppression tactics. Last year, for example, then-Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel (R), in unusually candid terms, directly connected a GOP voter-ID law to Republican election victories in 2016.

The Associated Press reported the other day on an even more unguarded confession, this time from a top member of Donald Trump's re-election campaign team.

One of President Donald Trump's top re-election advisers told influential Republicans in swing state Wisconsin that the party has "traditionally" relied on voter suppression to compete in battleground states but will be able to "start playing offense" in 2020 due to relaxed Election Day rules, according to an audio recording of a private event obtained by The Associated Press.

"Traditionally it's always been Republicans suppressing votes in places," Justin Clark, a senior political adviser and senior counsel to Trump's re-election campaign, said at the event. "Let's start protecting our voters. We know where they are. ... Let's start playing offense a little bit. That's what you're going to see in 2020. It's going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program."

Pressed for some kind of explanation, Clark told the AP that his party has been accused of voter-suppression tactics, but he intended to convey that those accusations are "false."

And who knows, maybe that is what he meant. But in context, based on the Associated Press' account and the audio recording of the Republican campaign adviser's comments, there's a far less flattering interpretation of the remarks.

Complicating matters, of course, this report comes against a backdrop in which Republican officials in several states are, in fact, engaged in a new round of voter-suppression tactics.

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Winding Road, Turbines. Courtesy of GE.

Trump tries (and fails) to argue that wind power is 'terrible'

12/23/19 10:00AM

It was earlier this year when Donald Trump told congressional Republicans that unidentified people believe the noise generated by wind turbines "causes cancer." The tragically confused president added that the audience should trust that he knows what he's talking about because, as he put it, "I know a lot about wind. I know a lot about wind."

He does not know a lot about wind.

A month later, Trump insisted that homeowners who use wind power can't watch television when the skies are calm. This isn't how energy policy works, but the president has convinced himself of his own expertise.

Over the weekend, the Republican returned to the subject yet again during remarks to a gathering of far-right students, who heard Trump declare, "You know, I know windmills very much. I've studied it better than anybody." The president then put his vast education on wind power to use, offering his young audience a detailed lesson:

"They're made in China and Germany mostly -- very few made here, almost none. But they're manufactured tremendous -- if you're into this -- tremendous fumes. Gases are spewing into the atmosphere. You know we have a world, right? So the world is tiny compared to the universe. So tremendous, tremendous amount of fumes and everything."

I've read this a few times, trying to make sense of the presidential word salad, and I simply can't figure it out. The references to "fumes" appear to refer to emissions from turbine manufacturing, though by that reasoning, Trump should be concerned about carbon emissions in general. (He's not.)

As a Washington Post analysis explained, "[I]t’s awfully cynical to argue that purported air pollution from manufacturing wind turbines is more problematic than the warming that results from unchecked burning of fossil fuels. Even assuming there are dangerous fumes emitted from making wind turbines, the scale wouldn’t compare to the international emission of carbon dioxide and methane."

He went on to insist that wind turbines create "bird graveyards" -- he's wildly overstating the real-world effects -- before adding:

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Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., joined by attorneys Paul D. Clement, far left, and Rick Esenberg, second from left, announces that he has filed a lawsuit to block the federal government from helping to pay for health care coverage for members of Congress and th

Despite warnings, Johnson falsely connects DNC, Ukraine, '16 elections

12/23/19 09:20AM

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, sat down with ABC News' Martha Raddatz yesterday and conceded that he has "no doubt" that Russia interfered with the U.S. elections in 2016.

Unfortunately, the Wisconsin Republican then added, "But..." From the network transcript:

"Listen, after 2016, we're doing Putin's work for him. Democrats and the media, you know, carrying the water for this false Russia hoax. Look at -- look at the disruption. Look at how distracted we all are based on a completely false narrative of Trump's campaign's collusion with Russia.

"You know there are some real serious questions of what happened during the FBI's investigation into that. There are serious questions about particular -- some actors with the DNC working with people in Ukraine. There are many unanswered questions. They are legitimate questions. I'm trying to get to the bottom of those things so the American public knows."

First, it's important to note from time to time that there was no "false Russia hoax." All of the available evidence, including the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, shows that Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin launched a military intelligence operation targeting U.S. elections for the express purpose of putting Donald Trump in power. Trump's operation welcomed Russia's intervention, communicated repeatedly with Russian operatives during the attack, and then lied about it.

The evidence also shows that Trump, during the investigation into these developments, repeatedly obstructed justice. Johnson really ought to know this. He is, after all, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

Second, assertions about Democrats "working with people in Ukraine" is an extension of the same discredited conspiracy theory that Republicans have been repeatedly warned not to peddle -- because it's part of a Russian disinformation campaign.

In fact, the New York Times reported last month that American intelligence professionals have informed senators and their aides that Russia has engaged in a lengthy campaign "to essentially frame" Ukraine for Russia's 2016 election attack.

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Image: President Trump And President Putin Hold A Joint Press Conference After Summit

For validation, Trump turns to a curious ally: Vladimir Putin

12/23/19 08:40AM

Toward the end of every year, Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a lengthy and wide-ranging press conference with reporters in Moscow, and last week, the authoritarian leader fielded a question about Donald Trump's impeachment.

"I don't think Trump will be voted out of power on made up charges," the Russian president said. "Democrats lost the last election, and now they want to win by other means." Pointing to the Mueller report, Putin added, "It turned out there was no collusion. It could not form the basis for impeachment, and now there is this made-up pressure on Ukraine."

While we've grown accustomed to Trump echoing Putin's rhetoric, this was a striking example of Putin echoing Trump's rhetoric.

I wasn't surprised that the Republican noticed the supportive rhetoric from his Russian benefactor. I was surprised that Trump, seemingly unaware of his own political circumstances, made a point to publicly cite Putin's defense. The Washington Post reported:

Late Friday night, minutes before deplaning in Florida for the holidays, President Trump retweeted a link to an article in which Russian President Vladi­mir Putin defended him against impeachment.

"A total Witch Hunt!" the president tweeted at 10:30 p.m., as he shared a 36-hour-old Associated Press tweet that read: "BREAKING: Russian President Vladimir Putin says U.S. President Donald Trump's impeachment is far-fetched and predicts the U.S. Senate will reject it."

Trump's boasting of Putin's support comes a day after The Washington Post reported that White House advisers feared Trump's belief that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for interfering with the 2016 election was spurred by conversations Trump had with Putin.

It's hard not to wonder what Trump was thinking. After years in which he's been accused of being Putin's puppet, common sense suggests the Republican wouldn't seek public validation from the authoritarian Russian president whose attack on the United States helped put him in power, and whose discredited propaganda Trump continues to peddle to the public.

And yet, here we are.

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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)

Newly released materials shed new light on Trump's Ukraine scheme

12/23/19 08:00AM

When Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) reached out to the Republican leadership last week about calling witnesses at Donald Trump's impeachment trial, the New York Democrat pointed to several individuals who could shed light on the White House's Ukraine extortion scheme. Two names -- former National Security Adviser John Bolton and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney -- generated the most headlines.

But they weren't the only voices Schumer proposed hearing from. Schumer's letter also pointed to Michael Duffey, associate director for national security at the Office of Management and Budget, as someone senators really ought to hear from.

Over the weekend, Duffey's perspective grew quite a bit more important. NBC News reported:

Newly released emails regarding Ukraine defense aid held by the White House show that a request to withhold funds came less than two hours after President Donald Trump's July phone call with the Ukrainian president that has served as the backbone of the impeachment proceedings against him.

The Center for Public Integrity obtained 146 pages of heavily redacted emails through a Freedom of Information Act request and court order.

The released documents are online here.

The timeline of events is striking, and as it turns out, still coming into even sharper focus. On the morning of July 25, according to the White House's own call summary, Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on launching investigations in Kyiv intended to target the Republican's domestic foes. It was on this same call that the Ukrainian leader referenced military support, to which Trump replied, "I would like you to do us a favor, though."

Just 91 minutes after the call ended, Mike Duffey wrote to officials at the OMB and the Pentagon, "Based on guidance I have received and in light of the Administration's plan to review assistance to Ukraine, including the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, please hold off on any additional [Department of Defense] obligations of these funds, pending direction from that process."

Reinforcing concerns about a possible cover-up, Duffey added, "Given the sensitive nature of the request, I appreciate your keeping that information closely held to those who need to know to execute the direction."

In other words, Congress -- which approved the military aid, but wasn't involved in "executing" the direction -- was to be kept in the dark, legal requirements notwithstanding.

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