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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)

Emails point to 'clear direction' from Trump in Ukraine scheme

01/03/20 08:40AM

A couple of weeks ago, the Center for Public Integrity obtained 146 pages of heavily redacted emails from the Trump administration through a Freedom of Information Act request and court order, and the revelations helped move the ball forward on better understanding Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal.

The materials showed, for example, that it was Mike Duffey, a political appointee who used to lead the Wisconsin Republican Party, who directed officials at the Pentagon and the White House budget office to "hold off" on dispersing aid, due to "guidance" he'd received.

And while those revelations were damaging, the released documents included extensive redactions. It's against this backdrop that Just Security, a national security website affiliated with the New York University School of Law, reported yesterday on some unredacted copies of relevant emails.

"Clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold."

This is what Michael Duffey, associate director of national security programs at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), told Elaine McCusker, the acting Pentagon comptroller, in an Aug. 30 email, which has only been made available in redacted form until now. It is one of many documents the Trump administration is trying to keep from the public, despite congressional oversight efforts and court orders in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation.

The whole report is worth reading in detail. It paints a portrait of a president who wasn't just willing to ignore his team's advice, but also the Pentagon's concerns about legal limits. Just as importantly, Just Security's brutal report points to Trump's direct role in freezing the congressionally approved military aid.

It's worth emphasizing that neither MSNBC nor NBC News has independently verified Just Security's reporting, and the networks haven't viewed the emails or verified their authenticity.

That said, if the reporting is accurate, it's devastating for the White House's defense. What's more, the apparent revelations caused a considerable stir among Democratic leaders yesterday afternoon.

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With airstrike, Trump gambles on dangerous new Iran posture

01/03/20 08:00AM

Tensions between the United States and Iran were already rising. Donald Trump yesterday decided to take the situation in a dangerous new direction by targeting and killing Qassim Suleimani, a commander of Iran's military forces in the Middle East.

The United States killed a high-profile commander of Iran's secretive Quds Force, the Defense Department said late Thursday. [...]

Another man, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, said to be the deputy of the militias known as the Popular Mobilization Units and a close adviser to Suleimani, was also killed in the airstrike near Baghdad's airport, according to Iraqi television reports.

Soon after the Pentagon declared what had happened, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear that the administration acted without congressional approval or consultation.

What's less clear is whether the American president, who's repeatedly struggled to keep up with the basics of international affairs, and who didn't know what the Quds Force was during his candidacy, has any kind of plan or strategy for what comes next.

And what comes next is likely to be severe. Iran is already vowing to seek revenge, with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promising "harsh retaliation."

Writing for New York magazine, Heather Hurlburt added, "The Pentagon said that this attack was intended to deter future assaults. Many experts believe it will have the opposite effect," with increased instability inside Iraq and escalating violence throughout the region.

And then, of course, there are concerns about Trump himself.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 1.2.20

01/02/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Conditions in Baghdad: "Iraqi protesters withdrew from the perimeter of the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on the second day of demonstrations against deadly U.S. airstrikes last weekend, U.S. officials said."

* A deadly nightmare in Australia: "A weeklong state of emergency has been called in the Australian state of New South Wales as deadly wildfires continue to ravage communities, forcing thousands from their homes."

* Hmm: "On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suddenly cancelled his trip to Ukraine that was scheduled for Friday."

* A ruling of note from earlier this week: "A judge on Monday dismissed a high-profile lawsuit by a former national security aide to President Trump who had asked a court to clarify whether he should obey a subpoena from Congress to testify in the impeachment inquiry, or defy it on the White House's instructions."

* Let's hope for the best: "Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., an icon of the civil rights movement, will undergo treatment for stage 4 pancreatic cancer, his office said Sunday. He learned of the diagnosis this month, after what Lewis, 79, described as a 'routine medical visit and subsequent tests.'"

* A big step from Gov. JB Pritzker (D): "Illinois' governor granted more than 11,000 pardons for low-level marijuana convictions on Tuesday, describing the step as a first wave of thousands of such expungements anticipated under the state's new marijuana legalization law."

* It's quite an operation: "Nearly a year after the Trump Organization pledged to root out undocumented workers at its properties, supervisors at the Trump Winery on Monday summoned at least seven employees and fired them because of their lack of legal immigration status, according to two of the dismissed workers."

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The bronze 'Charging Bull' sculpture that symbolizes Wall Street is photographed Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2006, in the financial district of New York.

The nagging detail undermining Trump's stock market boasts

01/02/20 01:05PM

In early November, Donald Trump published an exceedingly Trumpian tweet, declaring, "Stock Markets (all three) hit another ALL TIME & HISTORIC HIGH yesterday! You are sooo lucky to have me as your President (just kidding!)."

A month later, a reporter told Donald Trump that the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down more than 400 points for the day, and the losses were fueled in large part by his rhetoric about trade with China. "[I]f the stock market goes up or down -- I don't watch the stock market," he replied.

By any fair measure, it was one of his more laughable lies. In the weeks that followed, the president tweeted over and over again about the major indexes' closings, his intense interest in the stock market, and his insistence that he's "far outpacing" his presidential predecessors.

To be sure, investors have reason to be pleased with recent returns, but if Trump is eager to draw comparisons, he may not like where they lead. A CNBC report from last week noted, for example, "Trump's third year is above average, but not the best of any past president. In 2013, former President Barack Obama's stock market returned more than 32%, as the economy bounced back from the Great Recession."

A Washington Post analysis added:

While the stock market has performed well under Trump, it is not an unprecedented performance. Trump's stock market returns still lag behind Obama and Clinton at this point in their first terms.

The Dow Jones industrial average has gained about 45 percent since Trump was sworn in nearly three years ago. The Dow was up about 53 percent at this point in Obama's presidency and a whopping 57 percent in Clinton's early years in office.

Part of the problem with Trump's boasts is that he often sees the market as a real-time political barometer tied directly to developments in D.C. If the major indexes are on an upswing, the president sees it as proof of his genius. If they're declining, he insists his political opponents are to blame for the downturn.

The result is routine incoherence.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.2.20

01/02/20 12:00PM

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

* Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, the only Latino candidate seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, ended his campaign this morning. There are still 14 candidates vying for the party's nod.

* The end of the calendar year marked the end of the candidates' fourth-quarter fundraising push, and Donald Trump's re-election campaign raised $46 million in the last three months of 2019. Aides said the haul -- the best of the year -- was fueled by a Republican backlash to impeachment, but Barack Obama raised a comparable amount in the fourth quarter of 2011.

* Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also unveiled his quarterly fundraising, and it was extremely impressive: the Vermont senator raised $34.5 million, which is a significant increase over his third-quarter haul and the best quarter any Democratic candidate has seen all year.

* Two other 2020 Democratic candidates have announced their fourth-quarter fundraising tallies: former Mayor Pete Buttigieg raised an impressive $24.7 million, while Andrew Yang took in $16.5 million. (Expect candidates with unimpressive figures to release them late tomorrow.)

* Just a few months after a heart attack, Bernie Sanders' campaign this week released medical information from three physicians who agreed that the senator is "more than fit enough" for the presidency. A Washington Post report noted that the Sanders campaign had vowed to "release the candidate's health records by the end of the year. The letters are not raw medical data, but they contain specific information about his health."

* Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa) became the first Democratic member of Iowa's congressional delegation to endorse a presidential candidate, this morning throwing her support behind Joe Biden. The former vice president now has 24 endorsements from current U.S. House members, which is more than double his next closest competitors. (Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker have 11 each.)

* Corey Lewandowski, one of Trump's former campaign managers, announced on New Year's Eve that he would not run for the U.S. Senate in New Hampshire. The news disappointed Democrats, who saw him as a candidate likely to lose to incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D).

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Beakers are seen in a science laboratory. (Photo by Eliseo Miciu/Gallery Stock)

Even Trump's handpicked scientists balk at his approach to science

01/02/20 11:20AM

It wasn't long after Donald Trump and his team took office that they looked for ways to make things easier for polluters. Among the first steps was overhauling the EPA's Scientific Advisory Board: many scholars with academic backgrounds were out, scientists with industry ties were in.

In an unexpected twist, however, despite Team Trump moving the EPA's Scientific Advisory Board to the right, it's still not on board with the White House's agenda. The New York Times reported this week:

A top panel of government-appointed scientists, many of them hand-selected by the Trump administration, said on Tuesday that three of President Trump's most far-reaching and scrutinized proposals to weaken major environmental regulations are at odds with established science.

Draft letters posted online Tuesday by the Environmental Protection Agency's Scientific Advisory Board, which is responsible for evaluating the scientific integrity of the agency's regulations, took aim at the Trump administration's rewrite of an Obama-era regulation of waterways, an Obama-era effort to curb planet-warming vehicle tailpipe emissions and a plan to limit scientific data that can be used to draft health regulations.

A Washington Post report added, "While previous administrations have occasionally pushed back at findings from scientific advisers, or ignored them altogether, friction between the group and the EPA has escalated under Trump -- even though nearly two-thirds of its 44 members were appointed by him."

The practical implications of this are real, to the extent that the courts may take note of the advisory board's ignored guidance. Patrick Parenteau, a Vermont Law School professor, said, "The courts basically say if you're going to ignore the advice of your own experts you have to have really good reasons for that. And not just policy reasons but reasons that go to the merits of what the critiques are saying."

But the implications for the role of scientists in governmental decision making is just as significant -- and far more alarming.

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Spotlight returns to Trump's intense interest in playing golf

01/02/20 10:40AM

On Christmas Eve, Donald Trump set aside about a half-hour for a video teleconference with military servicemembers, during which the president fielded an easy question: how would he spend his holiday? After plugging Mar-a-Lago -- the private club he still owns and profits from -- Trump insisted, "I really, pretty much work -- that's what I like to do is work."

Soon after, the president went golfing. It was, by any fair measure, a rather normal day for him.

On Tuesday, Trump closed out the year with a visit to his Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach for the 12th time during his Florida vacation.

According to CNN's tally, he has spent at least 252 days at a Trump golf club and 333 days at a Trump property as President.

This year alone, he spent at least 86 days at a golf club, despite a late start due to the government shutdown. The golf excursions have included the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia; his Bedminister, New Jersey, golf club; Trump National Doral outside Miami; and Trump International Doonbeg in Ireland.

As a rule, I don't much care how any president spends his downtime. It's one of the world's most difficult jobs, and if a president wants to unwind on the links, so be it.

But with Trump, it's not quite that simple. For example, one of Trump's most common complaints about Barack Obama's tenure was the frequency with which the Democrat played golf. The Trump Twitter Archive shows the Republican whining about his predecessor’s golfing over and over and over and over and over again. The implication seemed to be that Americans should perceive Obama as lazy and easily distracted.

It led Candidate Trump to assure voters he'd govern far differently. At an event in New Hampshire in Feb. 2016, while again complaining about Obama golfing, Trump declared that if he were in office, "I'd want to stay in the White House and work my ass off." It's a vow he repeated several times.

Instead, Trump golfs more than Obama at comparable points in their terms.

But in the larger context, the hypocrisy is the least of the troubles. Complicating matters is the fact that Trump is playing at his own courses, creating a dynamic in which taxpayers end up subsidizing properties the president owns and profits from.

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