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White House release of April call summary backfires on Trump

11/18/19 11:20AM

On Friday morning, just as former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch's public hearing, the White House tried to change the conversation a bit. Officials released a call summary Donald Trump had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in April -- three months before the Republican's controversial "I would like you to do us a favor, though" conversation.

By most measures, it was a rather anodyne 16-minute conversation, featuring an exchange of pleasantries. The summary, which was not a word-for-word transcript, showed Zelensky clearly trying to get on the American president's good side, while Trump made note of how impressed he is with his own accomplishments, highlighted his previous ownership of the Miss Universe pageant, and assured Zelensky, "[W]e're with you all the way."

For Republicans, the underlying point seemed to be that Trump, in April, didn't try to extort his counterpart in Kyiv. That's apparently true, though it doesn't negate everything else we know about Trump's extortion scheme. There were related questions about what, exactly, prompted the American leader's change in posture between April and September.

But it wasn't long before observers started taking note of what the call summary didn't say. As Slate noted:

[T]he rough transcript conflicts with how the White House initially described the interaction in April. A readout that the administration provided to reporters mere hours after the call states:

"President Donald J. Trump spoke today with President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskyy to congratulate him on his victory in Ukraine's April 21 election. The President wished him success and called the election an important moment in Ukraine's history, noting the peaceful and democratic manner of the electoral process. President Trump underscored the unwavering support of the United States for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity -- within its internationally recognized borders -- and expressed his commitment to work together with President-elect Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people to implement reforms that strengthen democracy, increase prosperity, and root out corruption."

Nowhere in the summary that the White House released on Friday does Trump bring up corruption, sovereignty, territorial integrity, democratic reforms, or prosperity.

Soon after, the White House blamed the discrepancy on Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, whom Trump World is eager to undermine, though the Washington Post reported that Vindman wasn't responsible for the official readout we now know wasn't true.

Just as importantly, the Post reported that the summary of the call that the White House released in April was drafted before the two leaders spoke, and it reflected what White House officials expected Trump to say.

And that, as it turns out, is a highly relevant detail.

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US President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in sign a trade agreement at a bilateral meeting in New York on September 24, 2018, a day before the start of the General Debate of the 73rd session of the General Assembly.

Trump and South Korea: 'Nothing says I love you like a shakedown'

11/18/19 10:41AM

For reasons the White House has struggled to explain, Donald Trump has spent much of his presidency alienating and insulting our South Korean allies. As regular readers know, this has been going on for a while.

Just a few months into his presidency, Trump lied about dispatching an “armada,” led by an aircraft carrier, towards the peninsula, and South Koreans weren’t pleased. When Trump falsely said the Korean Peninsula “used to be a part of China,” that didn’t go over especially well, either.

In May 2017, Trump made matters vastly worse, condemning the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, known as Korus, and threatening to trash the deal. He then said he wanted to deploy a missile-defense system – Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (Thaad) – in South Korea to help protect against a North Korean attack, but only if South Korea pays for the technology. (Then-White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster quietly let officials in Seoul know they should ignore the American president’s bluster.)

A year and a half ago, Trump said at a fundraiser, in reference to South Korea, "Our allies care about themselves. They don't care about us."

This posture took a more drastic turn late last week, as the Associated Press reported:

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Friday pressed Washington's case that longtime ally South Korea must pay a bigger share of the cost of having U.S. troops on its soil.

"This is a very strong alliance we have, but Korea is a wealthy country and could and should pay more to help offset the cost of defense," Esper told a joint news conference with his South Korean counterpart, Jeong Kyeong-doo.

Esper said that while South Korea has provided "a fair amount of support in the past," it is important to point out that "most of that money stays here in this country -- easily over 90% of that money stays here in Korea, it does not go to the United States."

There are competing accounts on the precise figures, but this year, Seoul will pay nearly $1 billion for the presence of roughly 28,000 U.S. troops. Trump wants to hike that figure to around $4.7 billion -- a figure that CNN's report said "came out of thin air."

The same report added, "The price hike has frustrated Pentagon officials and deeply concerned Republican and Democratic lawmakers, according to military officials and congressional aides. It has angered and unnerved Seoul, where leaders are questioning U.S. commitment to their alliance and wondering whether Trump will pull U.S. forces if they don't pay up."

Vipin Narang, an associate professor at MIT who follows the Korean peninsula, summarizing South Korean uncertainty about the U.S., was quoted saying, "Nothing says I love you like a shakedown."

Though I don't imagine this will make Seoul feel any better, Foreign Policy reported late Friday that South Korea isn't the only one: the Trump administration has reportedly "asked Tokyo to pay roughly four times as much per year to offset the costs of stationing more than 50,000 U.S. troops there."

This is bizarre for a variety of reasons.

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Ignoring warnings, Trump intervenes in cases of accused war criminals

11/18/19 10:00AM

Provocative and dubious pardons have unfortunately become a staple of Donald Trump's presidency, and late Friday, the Republican added to his list.

President Donald Trump has intervened in three high-profile murder cases involving U.S. service members, dismissing charges against a Green Beret accused of killing an Afghan man, pardoning a former Army officer serving 19 years for ordering soldiers to fire on unarmed Afghan men, and promoting a Navy SEAL who was convicted of posing with a dead body but acquitted of more serious charges.

By way of an explanation, the president wrote on Twitter over the weekend, "Our great warfighters must be allowed to fight." Of course, no one has ever suggested that American servicemen and women in uniform should be prohibited from fighting for their country. The question is whether they should also be "allowed" to ignore the code of conduct and commit acts which might be adjudged war crimes.

For military justice experts and some senior Pentagon officials, the proper thing for Trump to have done was nothing. He ignored them.

I can appreciate why the president may think he's showing support for "the troops" by intervening in these cases. Trump tends not to consider any subject in any real depth, so from his limited perspective, to appreciate the service of those who wear the uniform means protecting them when they're accused of serious wrongdoing.

That's largely backwards.

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A stethoscope sits on an examination table in an exam room at a Community Clinic Inc. health center in Takoma Park, Maryland, April 8, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

Once again, Trump faces awkward questions following physical exam

11/18/19 09:20AM

At first blush, the news from the weekend seems routine, anodyne, and uninteresting: Donald Trump had a physical exam over the weekend. As the New York Times reported:

President Trump underwent a two-hour doctor's examination on Saturday at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, which the White House said was part of a routine annual physical and included lab work. [...]

In a statement, Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Trump, 73, was taking advantage of a free weekend to begin portions of his annual physical, and was anticipating a busy schedule in 2020.

The White House insists this was all quite routine and uncontroversial, and under normal circumstances, I imagine most would accept the official line without much thought. In this case, however, there are a few loose threads to the story that are worth pulling on.

For example, presidents, including this one, generally have physical exams once a year. Trump's most recent physical, however, was nine months ago. What's more, Trump's earlier physicals were included on his official presidential schedule, while this one was not.

There's also a normal protocol at Walter Reed for routine presidential exams, and according to a CNN report, that protocol was not followed on Saturday. The report, which has not been independently confirmed by MSNBC or NBC News, added, "Typically, Walter Reed's medical staff would get a general notice about a 'VIP' visit to the medical center ahead of a presidential visit, notifying them of certain closures at the facility. That did not happen this time, indicating the visit was a non-routine visit and scheduled last minute."

For his part, Trump declared on Twitter that he'd begun "phase one" of his yearly physical, which seemed odd given that annual physical exams do not usually entail multiple "phases."

Even if there's nothing to this -- a distinct possibility, to be sure -- it doesn't help matters that every time this president tries to have a physical, something about it seems ... odd.

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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)

On impeachment, three days that Trump would like to forget

11/18/19 08:40AM

Friday's testimony from Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, was quite brutal for the White House, leaving little doubt that Donald Trump and his associates hatched a scheme that prioritized the president's interests over the United States'. Her appearance came on the heels of equally damaging testimony from Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state.

But observers who turned their attention away from the impeachment inquiry after Yovanovitch left the hearing room to a standing ovation missed a 72-hour period that likely brought a feeling of dread to many in the White House. Late Friday, for example, David Holmes further tied Trump to the Ukraine scheme.

David Holmes, a career foreign service officer, told impeachment investigators Friday that he overheard a phone call between President Donald Trump and E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland in which the president asked Sondland if Ukraine would investigate the Bidens, a source with direct knowledge of his closed-door testimony said. [...]

"I heard President Trump then clarify that Ambassador Sondland was in Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland replied, yes, he was in Ukraine, and went on to state that President Zelenskiy 'loves your ass.' I then heard President Trump ask, 'So, he's gonna do the investigation?'" Holmes recounted, according to the statement. "Ambassador Sondland replied, that 'he's gonna do it,' adding that President Zelenskiy will do, 'anything you ask him to.'"

In case this isn't obvious, Holmes appears to have, among other things, directly implicated the president in the scheme for which Trump is likely to be impeached.

Making matters worse was testimony from Mark Sandy, the deputy associate director for national security programs at the White House budget office.

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Election results in Louisiana make matters even worse for Trump

11/18/19 08:00AM

Two weeks ago today, Donald Trump traveled to Kentucky for a campaign rally intended to benefit one man: Gov. Matt Bevin (R). The president told the unpopular governor, on the eve of his re-election bid, "[I]f you lose, they're going to say, 'Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. This was the greatest.'" Trump told local voters, "You can't let that happen to me."

The next day, Bevin lost.

A week later, Trump tried again, making his third recent trip to Louisiana, where he seemed desperate to carry Eddie Rispone (R) across the finish line in this year's gubernatorial election. "You got to give me a big win, please," the president told voters at a campaign rally near Shreveport last Thursday. "Please. OK? OK?"

As it turned out, no, it wasn't OK.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards narrowly won a second term as Louisiana governor, beating Republican challenger Eddie Rispone by 1.4 percentage points and delivering another blow in off-cycle elections to President Donald Trump. [...]

Edwards' victory in a state that Trump carried in 2016 by nearly 20 percentage points highlights the limitations of nationalizing local races. Rispone, a wealthy businessman and longtime Republican donor, tied himself to Trump. He often railed against illegal immigrants on the campaign trail and portrayed Edwards as a "liberal, socialist-leaning governor."

The similarities between Kentucky and Louisiana are hard to miss. A southern red state where Trump won easily? Check. A competitive gubernatorial race? Check. A Republican nominee who went out of his way to be as Trump-like as possible? Check. A campaign in which the president personally invested considerable amounts of time, effort, and political capital? Check.

A Democratic victory? Check. A humiliating outcome for Trump? Double check.

In fact, by some metrics, Trump invested more into Louisiana's gubernatorial race than any other, hosting three rallies in five weeks -- including two events in the final two weeks ahead of the runoff election -- on top of an aggressively high number of tweets, local media appearances, and personally recorded robocalls.

It didn't matter, even in a state the president carried in 2016 by 20 points.

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New witness first to connect Trump directly to Ukraine scheme

New witness first to connect Trump directly to Ukraine scheme

11/15/19 09:45PM

Rep. Jim Himes, member of the House Intelligence Committee, talks with Rachel Maddow about the testimony of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch at a public hearing in the Donald Trump impeachment inquiry, as well as significant new testimony from State Department official David Holmes that connects Donald Trump directly to the Ukraine scheme. watch

Guilty verdict for Stone a lesson to Trump on witness tampering

Guilty verdict for Stone a lesson to Trump on witness tampering

11/15/19 09:27PM

Rachel Maddow points out that on the same day that long time Donald Trump political adviser Roger Stone was convicted of felony charges, including witness tampering, Donald Trump bumbled into his own impeachment proceedings by insulting the witness while she was still on the stand, risking the addition of witness tampering as an article of... watch

Friday's Mini-Report, 11.15.19

11/15/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Standing ovations like these are rare: "Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, received a standing ovation on Friday at the conclusion of her more than five hours of testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. Republicans and Democrats alike had praised Yovanovitch's distinguished service as a diplomat during the inquiry,"

* SCOTUS: "Lawyers for President Trump asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday to put a hold on a subpoena from a House committee seeking eight years of his financial documents."

* Rodney Reed: "The Texas parole board voted unanimously Friday to recommend Gov. Greg Abbott delay the execution of death row inmate Rodney Reed by 120 days -- as the convicted murderer is set to be put to death next Wednesday."

* A case I'll be keeping an eye on: "California and 22 other states sued the Environmental Protection Agency on Friday, asking a federal court to block the Trump administration from stripping the nation's most populous state of its long-standing authority to set its own fuel-efficiency standards on cars and trucks."

* Try not to be surprised: "The Republican National Committee will hold its winter meetings at President Trump's Doral golf course in Florida next year -- awarding another of the party's most lucrative events to the president's private business, a party spokesman said Thursday."

* Quite a story: "The Justice Department inspector general's office told witnesses set to review draft sections of its long-awaited report on the FBI investigation of President Trump's 2016 campaign that they would not be allowed to submit written feedback, but later asserted that was not their intention after a Washington Post report disclosing the unusual restriction."

* The McCabe case: "A federal judge excoriated Justice Department officials Thursday for their handling of potential criminal charges against former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, saying the continued uncertainty over the prosecution was unfair to McCabe and the public."

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All the president's (convicted) men

11/15/19 03:20PM

Following Roger Stone's conviction earlier today, NPR took note of the many criminals in Donald Trump's immediate orbit.

Stone was the second close political adviser of Trump's brought to trial on charges by Mueller's team. The other was Stone's former business partner, Paul Manafort, who was convicted in 2018 in a tax and bank fraud trial in Virginia. Manafort later pleaded guilty to other charges in a related case brought by Mueller in Washington, D.C. He is now in prison.

Six others -- including Trump's former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to charges that arose from the special counsel's probe.

Taken together, it's striking to see what the Washington Post described as "the remarkable universe of criminality" surrounding the sitting president of the United States.

The number of criminals is important, but so too is the degree to which this dynamic conflicts with the message Trump has been eager to trumpet. As regular readers know, the president presents himself as being aggressively "tough on crime," which he frequently tries to incorporate into his agenda. Earlier this year, while making the case for a border wall, the Republican declared, "The Democrats, which I've been saying all along, they don't give a damn about crime. They don't care about crime.... But I care about crime."

Of course, given recent events, it's hardly unreasonable to wonder whether he cares about crime or about surrounding himself with people who've committed crimes?

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