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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 1.22.20

01/22/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* He did exactly that: "Rep. Adam Schiff opened the arguments in President Donald Trump's impeachment trial on Wednesday by telling the Senate that House Democrats will present an 'overwhelming and damning' picture of Trump's alleged misconduct with regard to Ukraine."

* Litigation worth watching: "The District of Columbia filed suit against President Donald Trump's inaugural committee and the Trump Organization on Wednesday, charging they misused non-profit funds to enrich the president's family business."

* China: "The death toll from a new flu-like coronavirus in China rose to 17 from 9 on Wednesday, Chinese state media reported. Some 544 people have been infected across the country, according to state-run CGTN."

* SCOTUS: "The Supreme Court seemed prepared Wednesday to rule that states violate the U.S. Constitution if they prevent religious schools from receiving some state benefits."

* What a story: "Two U.N. experts have called for an investigation into an accusation that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the world's richest man, had his phoned hacked after receiving a WhatsApp message from Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman."

* The difference between "FOIA lawsuits" and "lawyer lawsuits" is real: "President Trump's impeachment managers made little secret Tuesday that they'd rather put House Democrats on trial than Trump. They repeatedly alleged mistreatment of Trump in his impeachment rather than dwelling upon the evidence against him. But in one instance, one of them badly overreached."

* Guantanamo: "On the witness stand was James E. Mitchell, a psychologist and architect of the Bush-era interrogation program that had inflicted torture on prisoners held in secret C.I.A. prisons after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks."

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In reversal, Trump puts post-2020 entitlement cuts on the table

01/22/20 04:20PM

"I'm not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I'm not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid," Donald Trump declared in 2015. "Every other Republican's going to cut, and even if they wouldn't, they don't know what to do because they don't know where the money is. I do. I do."

As regular readers may recall, this became a staple of his entire national candidacy: no matter what, Americans could count on him to champion these social-insurance programs. Ahead of the 2016 race, Trump wanted everyone to know that entitlement cuts, as far as he's concerned, are off the table.

Now, however, he's saying something different. Consider the exchange when CNBC's Joe Kernen sat down with the president this morning and broached the subject.

KERNEN: Entitlements ever be on your plate?

TRUMP: At some point they will be.... And at the right time, we will take a look at that.

At that point, the president shifted his focus a bit, exaggerating the recent economic growth -- GDP growth, in reality, is both short of his projections and slower than parts of Obama's second term -- seemingly as a way to suggest this would make cuts easier.

Kernen followed up, asking about Medicare and Trump's willingness to "do some of the things that you said you wouldn't do in the past."

The president replied, "We're going to look."

This is obviously the sort of thing that raises any number of questions -- the details matter -- and there are no available answers.

But at its core, there's a basic truth that's unavoidable: ahead of the 2016 cycle, Trump insisted he wouldn't cut any of these social-insurance programs, and ahead of the 2020 cycle, his position is fundamentally different.

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Trump's curious trial boast: 'We have all the material'

01/22/20 12:48PM

Addressing reporters this morning from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Donald Trump expressed delight over the state of his impeachment trial. Explaining why he was so pleased, the president said, "Honestly, we have all the material. They don't have the material."

It didn't take long before Democrats pounced. Here, for example, was Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) -- a House impeachment manager and a former police chief -- responding to Trump's off-the-cuff comment:

"The second article of impeachment was for obstruction of Congress: covering up witnesses and documents from the American people. This morning the President not only confessed to it, he bragged about it."

Harvard Law School's Lawrence Tribe was thinking along the same lines, concluding that the president was effectively "confessing" to "stonewalling" Congress. Tribe encouraged Trump to "try reading" the second article of impeachment.

I actually heard the quote a little differently. In context, it seems to me that the president wasn't referring to documents the White House has withheld from investigators -- though that's certainly an important problem and a radical departure from how the Clinton White House operated during its impeachment crisis -- but rather, he seemed to be referring to the general strength of his side's argument.

In other words, just as I might argue that Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock are the best stand-up comedians because they have "the material" their contemporaries lack, I think Trump was trying to say his lawyers are doing well in the impeachment trial because they have "the material" their opponents lack. It's not about secret documents, per se; it's about having the facts on one's side.

The trouble, of course, is that even if that was the point the Republican hoped to convey, he's completely wrong about that, too.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.22.20

01/22/20 12:00PM

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

* A new national CNN poll found Bernie Sanders jumping out in front of the pack in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, leading Joe Biden, 27% to 24%. Elizabeth Warren is third with 14%, followed by Pete Buttigieg at 11%. Most voters, however, said they may yet change their minds.

* The same poll found Donald Trump trailing each of the top Democratic contenders in hypothetical match-ups, though Biden and Mike Bloomberg did the best, with both candidates leading the incumbent president by nine points.

* A new national Monmouth poll, however, paints a different picture: it found Biden in the lead with 30%, followed by Sanders at 23%. Monmouth found Warren in third with 14%, followed by Bloomberg at 9%, and Buttigieg at 6%.

* The former vice president also got some good news yesterday when he picked up endorsements from four Congressional Black Caucus members, three of whom had previously supported Sens. Kamala Harris or Cory Booker.

* The months-long conflict between the DCCC and the Congressional Progressive Caucus over "blacklisting" consultants who work with primary challengers has apparently been resolved.

* Bloomberg's presidential campaign launched a new ad campaign this week focused specifically on Trump's impeachment. As the AP noted, "The ad will run in 27 states, including states represented by vulnerable Republican senators, and be Bloomberg's only ad on television in the next few days."

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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP-PENCE

Pence is 'grappling with unknowns' during Trump's impeachment trial

01/22/20 11:20AM

During Bill Clinton's impeachment ordeal, the Democratic president's vice president, was able to play an important role. Al Gore, untouched by the scandal that threatened Clinton's presidency, was free to be a surrogate, a defender, and a cheerleader for his partner in the Oval Office.

More than two decades later, it's not quite that simple for the current vice president, since Mike Pence has been implicated in Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal. Politico had a good report on this yesterday, noting that the Indiana Republican's future will also be shaped by the president's ongoing saga.

Though the outcome of Trump's trial has appeared preordained for weeks -- conviction and removal from office would require an unrealistic 20 Republican defections-- potential witnesses and new evidence released by House Democrats last Tuesday could entangle the vice president in a mess he has deliberately tried to sidestep as he considers a White House bid of his own in 2024.

But despite his best efforts, Pence keeps getting pulled into the scandal at the heart of impeachment -- that the president withheld financial aid as leverage to pressure Ukraine to announce politically advantageous probes. Pence met with Ukraine's president in Trump's place during the period the aid was being withheld, Trump has suggested reporters press Pence about his communications with the Ukrainian leader and several figures have accused Pence of knowing about the scheme, which the vice president denies.

The report added that Pence is "grappling with other unknowns," including uncertainty about whether former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton might testify in such a way that further implicated the vice president in Trump's scheme.

Politico quoted a source close to Pence who said, "If there came a point where Mike was seriously forced to weigh his own career against his loyalty to Trump, that would be one hell of a twist."

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Trump claims on troop injuries following Iran strike get a bit worse

01/22/20 10:40AM

Two weeks ago, in retaliation for the U.S. airstrike that killed Gen. Qassim Soleimani, Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi air bases housing U.S. forces. As we've discussed, the next morning, Donald Trump delivered a strange speech, littered with unnecessary falsehoods, though the president stressed an important bottom line.

"I'm pleased to inform you, the American people should be extremely grateful and happy no Americans were harmed in last night's attack by the Iranian regime," Trump said near the outset of his remarks. "We suffered no casualties, all of our soldiers are safe, and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases."

It now appears the presidential rhetoric wasn't altogether true. NBC News reported last week that 11 service members were transported to two hospitals for treatment for concussions following the strike. The Washington Post added overnight:

More U.S. service members have been transported out of Iraq for medical treatment and evaluations following Iran's missile attack on military facilities there, the Pentagon said Tuesday, nearly two weeks after President Trump and defense officials initially said no one was hurt.

The Pentagon said Friday that 11 service members required medical treatment outside Iraq. U.S. military officials declined to say Tuesday how many more are receiving care but said "additional" personnel had been sent to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

The officials left open the possibility that the number could increase in coming days.

So, why did Trump boast that "no Americans were harmed" if, in reality, some Americans were harmed? Apparently because the president has his own definition of "harm."

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In this Oct. 23, 2015, file photo, Jay Sekulow speaks at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va.

During trial, Sekulow flubs the point of the Ukraine scandal

01/22/20 10:00AM

During the first day of Donald Trump's Senate impeachment trial, his legal defense team didn't make much of an effort to defend the president's alleged misconduct. And when his lawyers did try to delve into the details of the Republican's Ukraine scandal, it didn't go especially well.

Consider this argument from Jay Sekulow during yesterday's proceedings. The transcript comes by way of Congressional Quarterly:

"This president has been concerned about how aid is being put forward, so there have been pauses on foreign aid in a variety of contexts. In September of 2019, the administration announced that it was withholding over $100 million in aid to Afghanistan over concerns about government corruption. In August of 2019, President Trump announced that the administration were in talks to substantially increase South Korea's share of the expense of U.S. military support for South Korea.

"In June, President Trump paused over $550 million in foreign aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala because those countries were not fairly sharing the burdens of preventing mass migration to the United States.

"It's not the only administration. As I said, President Obama withheld hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to Egypt."

This comes up from time to time, so it's probably worth pausing to set the record straight.

There are, in reality, instances in which U.S. administrations have paused foreign aid packages. There have also been examples of U.S. administrations taking steps to leverage aid in pursuit of specific foreign policy goals. As a rule, these practices haven't been especially controversial.

But whether Sekulow understands this or not, Trump's Ukraine scandal is fundamentally and qualitatively different.

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Image: Devin Nunes, Eric Swalwell, Jim Himes

Schiff: Intel agencies withheld docs 'on the instructions of others'

01/22/20 09:20AM

In our system of government, congressional oversight of the intelligence community is critically important -- and not optional. Intelligence agencies and professionals have a responsibility to cooperate with lawmakers on the intelligence committees and make available materials they request.

At least, that's the way it's supposed to work. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told ABC News over the weekend that the National Security Agency has begun "withholding" information, including materials that may be directly relevant to Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal.

"That is deeply concerning," the Democratic leader said. "And there are signs that the CIA may be on the same tragic course. We are counting on the intelligence community not only to speak truth to power, but to resist pressure from the administration to withhold information from Congress because the administration fears that they incriminate them."

Yesterday, in a CBS News interview, he went a little further.

"We have requested intelligence, relevant intelligence, concerning Ukraine as a part of our oversight responsibility," Schiff said when asked what evidence his committee is requesting. "The intelligence agencies -- some of them have stopped cooperating. And it's our understanding they're doing this on the instructions of others, or with the advice of others."

Schiff said information about Ukraine's reaction to the pressure campaign by Trump allies in 2019 "would be very pertinent" and should be handed over to investigators.

The Intelligence Committee chairman added, "If there was more evidence that bears on that question and it's being withheld by the intelligence community at the urging of the president, that is a corruption of the intelligence community."

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Even some Trump-friendly lawyers balk at his abuse-of-power pitch

01/22/20 08:40AM

On the eve of Donald Trump's Senate impeachment trial, the president's legal defense team began peddling a new and provocative claim: presidential abuses of power are not impeachable offenses. They made this argument in writing, and even took the pitch to the public in television interviews.

Alan Dershowitz, a member of the president's legal defense team, told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos on Sunday that the House vote "was to impeach on abuse of power, which is not within the constitutional criteria for impeachment."

It was new legal ground. As far as Trump's lawyers are concerned, presidents who are caught abusing their powers cannot face congressional accountability, unless they commit statutory crimes. In the case of the Ukraine scandal, the Republican's legal team believes Trump's guilt, for all intents and purposes, is irrelevant -- because even if every allegation is true, Congress lacks the authority to punish abuses of power.

After Team Trump made the pitch, the New York Times reported on the legal consensus among scholars who believe the president's lawyers have it backwards. The article quoted University of Missouri law professor Frank O. Bowman, the author of a recent book on the topic, who told the Times the argument is "constitutional nonsense."

But it's not just scholars who've reached this conclusion. As recently as two years ago, Attorney General Bill Barr, before joining the administration, said the same thing in a memo for the Justice Department and the president's attorneys.

Mr. Trump should not talk to investigators about his actions as president, even under a subpoena, Mr. Barr wrote in his 19-page memo, which became public during his confirmation. Mr. Barr based his advice on a sweeping theory of executive power under which obstruction of justice laws do not apply to presidents, even if they misuse their authority over the Justice Department to block investigations into themselves or their associates for corrupt reasons.

But Mr. Barr tempered his theory with a reassurance. Even without the possibility of criminal penalties, he wrote, a check is in place on presidents who abuse their discretionary power to control the executive branch of government -- impeachment.

Complicating matters, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley -- the Republicans' witness during the House impeachment proceedings -- wrote a Washington Post op-ed also rejecting Team Trump's radical assertion.

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