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Trump attacks on whistleblower risk promoting future leaks

Trump attacks on whistleblower risk promoting future leaks

09/23/19 09:29PM

Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, talks with Rachel Maddow about his concerns about the future impact of the Donald Trump administration's disregard for the whistleblower process, and why he thinks Congress should see the whistleblower report but not the transcript of Donald Trump's call with the Ukrainian president. watch

Monday's Mini-Report, 9.23.19

09/23/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire is scheduled to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday, at which point "the dam could break" on impeachment.

* Cairo: "Egypt braced for more unrest this week after two nights of protests resulted in hundreds of arrests in the most significant political challenge in years to President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who is facing corruption accusations."

* The done deal isn't done: "The trade agreement President Trump told Congress he had reached with Japan last week is now hung up amid Japanese concerns that Trump will still move to penalize their auto shipments to the United States, according to two people familiar with the negotiations."

* In case you missed this on Friday night: "The United States is deploying military forces to the Middle East after Saturday's drone attacks on major oil sites in Saudi Arabia that the administration of President Donald Trump has blamed on Iran."

* Yet another unflattering NRA story: "The National Rifle Association's board retroactively approved numerous financial arrangements benefiting top officials of the gun-rights group, their relatives or close friends, according to board minutes reviewed by The Wall Street Journal."

* A scary story: "An Army soldier was arrested for allegedly passing on bomb-making instructions to fellow 'radicals' and sought to blow up cell towers and news stations, authorities announced Monday."

* FAIR Act: "The House just passed a groundbreaking bill that would restore legal rights to millions of American workers and consumers. Lawmakers voted 225-186 Friday to pass the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal (FAIR) Act, a far-reaching bill that bans companies from requiring workers and consumers to resolve legal disputes in private arbitration -- a quasi-legal forum with no judge, no jury, and practically no government oversight."

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Trump's comments on Ukrainian aid make matters worse

09/23/19 12:43PM

Just this morning, I wrote an item about Donald Trump too often making comments that undermine his own best interests, effectively admitting wrongdoing when he doesn't have to. Little did I know he'd soon after do it again.

President Donald Trump on Monday defended his conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, calling it a "perfect" discussion, while suggesting he had tied vital military funding for Ukraine to that country's handling of corruption -- which he has alleged Vice President Joe Biden's family was engaged in there.

"We want to make sure that country is honest. It's very important to talk about corruption. If you don't talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?" Trump told reporters when asked what he had spoken about with Ukraine's new president in a July phone call.

"It's very important that, on occasion, you speak to somebody about corruption," he said, moments after telling reporters: "let me just tell you -- let me just tell you. What Biden did was wrong."

Putting aside the fact there's no evidence whatsoever of Biden having done anything wrong, and the fact that the president has an unfortunate record of making all kinds of false allegations against his perceived political foes, this was the first time the public has heard Trump make a connection between his call with the Ukrainian president, U.S. financial/military aid, and Trump's electoral scheme.

The original Republican line was that nothing happened. The second line was that Trump may, in fact, have talked to a foreign government about intervening in an American election. And the brand new line is that Trump, while talking to a foreign government about intervening in an American election, referenced the $250 million the United States committed to Ukraine.

Or to put this in broader strokes, we're witnessing the transition from "the accusation isn't true" to "the accusation is true, but there's nothing actually wrong with misdeed in question."

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.23.19

09/23/19 12:00PM

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

* The latest Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll -- the most closely watched of all Iowa polls -- found Elizabeth Warren taking the lead in the first Democratic nominating contest with 22%, followed by Joe Biden at 20%. Bernie Sanders was third with 11%, followed closely by Pete Buttigieg at 9%. Kamala Harris rounded out the top five with 6% support. (Of the top five candidates, Warren was the only candidate to see her support grow since June.)

* On a related note, it's worth noting that in the same Iowa poll, local Democrats were asked for their first and second choices, which matter a great deal given the way the state's caucus system is structured. When first- and second-choice preferences are combined, Warren's advantage over Biden is even more striking: 42% to 30%. Sanders is further back at 21%, followed by Buttigieg's 18%.

* Staff shake-ups on Bernie Sanders' team continue, with the Vermont senator parting ways with one of his Iowa deputy field directors. Kevin Lata had previously worked on Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign, as well as Hillary Clinton's 2016 team.

* In keeping with the recent trend, the Alaska Republican Party became the latest state GOP to officially cancel its Republican presidential primary, which had been scheduled for April. Several state parties have taken similar steps to protect Donald Trump from possible embarrassment against his primary rivals.

* As the General Motors strike continues, several Democratic presidential candidates have visited picket lines to show support for members of the United Auto Workers.

* With some evidence of Texas becoming more competitive, Republican officials are making it easier for Green Party candidates to qualify for the ballot, with the obvious hope that the move will undermine Democratic support.

* Though it's difficult to know if this is a stunt, Cory Booker's campaign manager wrote in a new memo to staff and supporters that the New Jersey senator's presidential campaign may come to an end without another $1.7 million before the end of the quarter. (The third quarter ends a week from today.)

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On support for Ukraine, extra $140 million draws scrutiny

09/23/19 11:20AM

It didn't cause much of a stir at the time, but the Associated Press ran a report two weeks ago that may be relevant anew. It noted that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced at a conference that the United States had released $250 million in military aid -- with an additional $140 million on top of that sum.

The Trump administration said Thursday [Sept. 12] that it has released $250 million in military aid to Ukraine that had been held up. It didn't mention additional funds.

Zelenskiy's deputy chief of staff Kirill Tymoshenko confirmed to The Associated Press after the president's speech that Ukraine is indeed expecting an extra $140 million from the U.S., but he wouldn't give detail on the source or designation of the funds.

There may very well be nothing to this, but it was a curious series of events. The Trump administration was supposed to give Ukraine $250 million, but that money was on hold when the American president spoke via phone to his Ukrainian counterpart -- a conversation in which Trump reportedly pressed Zelenskiy eight times about investigating Biden.

Soon after learning that the military aid was on hold, the editorial board of the Washington Post published a piece alleging that the Republican was effectively trying to "extort" Ukraine, making the $250 million contingent on Kyiv agreeing to participate in Trump's political scheme.

Soon after, in the face of bipartisan congressional pushback, the Trump administration agreed to release the aid to Ukraine -- though according to the Associated Press, the package was worth $390 million, not $250 million. This, of course, came shortly before House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) exposed the existence of the whistleblower's complaint to the intelligence community's inspector general.

On Meet the Press yesterday, NBC News' Chuck Todd asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin where the extra $140 million came from. From the transcript:

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Trump's effort to target whistleblower becomes far less subtle

09/23/19 10:43AM

The latest scandal to rock Donald Trump's presidency is unfolding quickly, but it began with someone whose identity we do not yet know. A whistleblower brought a complaint to the intelligence community's inspector general, which effectively served as the first in a series of dominoes, with new pieces continuing to fall.

There are laws in place intended to protect whistleblowers from reprisals, and these protections should make obvious sense: we want a system in which honorable patriots, who uncover wrongdoing, are able to follow a legitimate process to hold guilty parties responsible for their actions. If whistleblowers are made to feel afraid, it creates conditions that allow corruption to thrive.

It was against this backdrop that the president started going after the whistleblower directly on Friday, questioning his or her motives, labeling him or her as "highly partisan," and spreading rumors about what he's "heard" in reference to this person, even while Trump insisted he has no idea who the whistleblower is.

Yesterday, during a brief Q&A with reporters, the Republican went just a little further.

Q: Is the White House blocking the Director of National Intelligence from sending the whistleblower complaint to Congress?

TRUMP: No, [acting Director of National intelligence Joseph Maguire] is a great gentleman -- Joe. He's doing a fantastic job. And I know one thing: He's only going to do what's right. But he is doing a fantastic job. And he's only going to do what's right. But just so you understand, the conversation I had with the President of Ukraine was absolutely perfect. And people better find out who these people are that are trying to subvert our country, because here we go again. These are bad people.

During the same Q&A, the president said that it "sounds" to him like the person in question is "not a whistleblower," adding, "[Y]ou can't have people doing this. And you can't have people doing false alarms like this."

There is a process in the United States that tells us how whistleblowers are supposed to be treated. Our sitting president, at the center of an intensifying storm, is ignoring this process, apparently trying to protect himself.

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Then-Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Donald Trump arrive at a news conference held by Trump to endorse Romney for president at the Trump International Hotel & Tower Las Vegas, Feb. 2, 2012. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty)

Just how far will Republicans let Donald Trump go?

09/23/19 10:10AM

To overlook Donald Trump's latest scandal is to let blind partisan loyalty override any sense of judgment and propriety. There are some elements of the controversy that still need to come into focus, but the available evidence already paints an ugly picture -- featuring a president who appeared to have abused his power and pressed a foreign government to intervene on his behalf in an American election. There are related questions about possible extortion.

In Democratic circles, the volume on the impeachment knob is approaching 11, but what about Republicans? It's safe to say they've been quite a bit more reticent.

In fairness, the GOP hasn't been completely silent. On Meet the Press yesterday, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) told NBC News' Chuck Todd, "Look, it is not appropriate for any candidate for federal office, certainly, including a sitting president, to ask for assistance from a foreign country. That's not appropriate." The Pennsylvania Republican added in the next breath, however, "But I don't know that that's what happened here."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), meanwhile, suggested to the New York Times that Trump should explore some kind of disclosure of relevant materials the White House is currently hiding. "I'm hoping the president can share, in an appropriate way, information to deal with the drama around the phone call," Graham said. "I think it would be good for the country if we could deal with it."

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) appears to have gone further than any other Republican.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said in a Sunday tweet if Trump "asked or pressured Ukraine's president to investigate his political rival, either directly or through his personal attorney, it would be troubling in the extreme."

"Critical for the facts to come out," he said.

To be sure, it's notable to see a Senate Republican take such a stance publicly. But Romney's use of the word "if" stood out for me, since the president and Rudy Giuliani have already suggested they did, in fact, push Ukraine's president to provide dirt on one of Trump's political rivals.

What's more, the next question is what Romney -- or any of his GOP brethren -- intends to do about facts that appear to be "troubling in the extreme."

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Trump family business complicates attacks against Biden

09/23/19 09:20AM

The Republican effort to create a scandal surrounding Joe Biden has already been discredited. The allegation is that the former vice president urged Ukraine to fire an inept prosecutor because the official was investigating a company tied to Biden's son. We already know that's not what happened.

The company in question wasn't the actual target of the Ukrainian probe, and the former vice president's efforts received international praise because he helped replace an ineffective prosecutor with a better one -- something Biden wouldn't have done if he were trying to shield corruption from scrutiny.

For that matter, the better prosecutor agreed that the Bidens didn't do anything wrong.

But Republicans are giving this a try anyway, though as this exchange between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and CNN's Jake Tapper helped demonstrate yesterday, Team Trump may want to consider some new talking points.

MNUCHIN: What I do find inappropriate is the fact that Vice President Biden at the time's son did very significant business dealings in Ukraine. I, for one, find that to be concerning. And, to me, that is the issue perhaps that should be further investigated.

TAPPER: I don't understand. So it is OK for Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump Jr. to do business all over the world, it's OK for Ivanka Trump to have copyrights approved all over the world while President Trump is president, but while Vice President Joe Biden was vice president, his son shouldn't have been able to do business dealings?

MNUCHIN: Again, I don't really want to go into more of these details...

Well, no, I suppose not. If I were in Mnuchin's shoes, and I knew Donald Trump was watching, I probably wouldn't want to "go into more of these details," either.

The Treasury secretary's clumsiness notwithstanding, it's going to be difficult for the White House and its allies to work around this one.

Yesterday, the president himself complicated matters just a bit more.

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In this Jan. 31, 1973, file photo, President Richard Nixon speaks at a White House news conference in Washington, D.C. (Photo by AP)

Trump eyes a page from Nixon's Watergate playbook

09/23/19 08:40AM

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) raised an important point yesterday during an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper, noting how easy it would be for Donald Trump and the White House to resolve its ongoing scandal.

Referring to the questions about the American president's alleged pressure on his Ukrainian counterpart, Schiff asked, "[W]hy doesn't the president simply release the transcript of that call? And I don't know whether the whistleblower complaint is on this allegation, but if it is, and even if it isn't, why doesn't the president just say, release the whistleblower complaint?"

Those need not be rhetorical questions. If the Republican were telling the truth -- the call was innocuous, and the whistleblower complaint is laughable -- it'd be easy to put the controversy to rest. Trump could release an unedited version of the transcript and provide Congress with the whistleblower complaint. So far, the president and his team are refusing to do either one.

In fact, Jake Tapper asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin why the administration wouldn't simply provide the relevant lawmakers with the whistleblower complaint filed with the intelligence community's inspector general. "I think would be a terrible precedent," Mnuchin replied.

Since when does following federal law set a "terrible precedent"?

Trump did, however, say something interesting about disclosure yesterday. NBC News reported:

Speaking to reporters later on Sunday in Texas, Trump said he might provide a copy of the transcript to a "respected source," adding "everyone will say" the conversation between him and Ukraine's president was perfectly fine.

I'm skeptical the president will ever follow through, but it was his use of the phrase "respected source" that stood out for me -- because in this case, Trump appears to be borrowing a page directly from Richard Nixon's Watergate playbook.

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Facing scandal, Trump admits more than he should have (again)

09/23/19 08:00AM

On late Friday morning, a reporter asked Donald Trump whether he discussed Joe Biden or his family with the president of Ukraine. "It doesn't matter what I discuss," the Republican replied, giving everyone a pretty strong hint about what transpired in the phone call between him and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

In reality, of course, it matters very much what Trump discusses with foreign leaders. In fact, literally within minutes of the president making the comment, the Wall Street Journal published a report alleging that Trump "repeatedly pressured" Zelensky to investigate Biden's son, urging the Ukrainian leader "about eight times to work with Rudy Giuliani on a probe that could hamper Mr. Trump's potential 2020 opponent."

Yesterday, Trump turned to a familiar page in his playbook, effectively confirming that he did, in fact, talk about Biden with the leader of Ukraine, as was alleged. As the Washington Post noted, the president acknowledged this, out loud and on the record, during a brief Q&A with reporters on the White House's South lawn.

"The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, was largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place, was largely the fact that we don't want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine," Trump told reporters Sunday morning. "And Ukraine, Ukraine's got a lot of problems."

Later in Houston, Trump appeared to backtrack, saying, "I don't even want to mention it, but certainly I'd have the right to" raise Biden's name with Zelensky....

The Republican added yesterday that there was "no quid pro quo" with the Ukrainian leader, and while it's unclear whether or not the assertion is true, it's not exactly the only relevant detail in the scandal. As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) put it yesterday, "The existence of an explicit quid pro quo -- aid for interference -- isn't really the thing. If he demanded a foreign government do his political bidding, that's when he crossed the critical threshold. No need to overthink this."

It's a compelling point. What we know at this point raises the specter of Trump urging a foreign government to look for -- or by some measures, manufacture -- damaging information Republicans could use to win an American election. We need to know whether there was a quid pro quo, but the absence of one wouldn't make the scandal disappear.

But what surprised me over the weekend was Trump's willingness to largely admit what he did.

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