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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 10.16.19

10/16/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Trump's latest tantrum: "Democratic leaders in Congress on Wednesday angrily walked out of a White House meeting with President Donald Trump after he had a 'meltdown,' according to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi."

* Maybe this put Trump on edge: "The House on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to condemn President Donald Trump's withdrawal of American forces from northern Syria. Despite stark divisions over Democrats' Trump impeachment inquiry, Democrats and Republicans banded together and approved a nonbinding resolution by 354-60 vote."

* Rudy's many associates: "David Correia, the fourth defendant in a campaign finance case involving business associates of President Trump's personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, was arrested Wednesday morning at a New York City airport, officials said."

* On the Hill today: Michael McKinley, the former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo until his sudden resignation last week, told House impeachment investigators Wednesday that career diplomats were mistreated during his tenure and that some had their careers derailed for political reasons, according to people familiar with his testimony.

* In related news: "Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor left Kyiv, Ukraine on Wednesday for Washington D.C. after House Democrats requested he appear for a Tuesday deposition in the investigation into President Trump's alleged misconduct involving Ukraine, NBC News has confirmed."

* GM: "The United Auto Workers and General Motors have reached a tentative deal to end the union's four-week strike against the automaker."

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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)

GOP leader pretends Trump didn't say what we heard him say

10/16/19 03:14PM

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) isn't just a random backbench member of Congress. He's the top Republican in the U.S. House, and he'd likely be elevated to the House Speaker's office in the event of a GOP takeover of the chamber.

The California Republican is also a close ally of Donald Trump and the White House, who's helped take the lead in his party for defending the president against the Ukraine scandal.

It's just not going especially well for him.

On CBS' 60 Minutes two weeks ago, McCarthy seemed inexplicably lost when told that Trump told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, "I would like you to do us a favor, though." Last week, the House Minority Leader told Fox News, "You watch what the president said, he's not saying China should investigate." In reality, Trump stood on the White House South Lawn, appeared in front of a significant group of journalists, and literally said, "China should start an investigation into the Bidens."

All of which led to this morning's press briefing with the House Republican leadership.

Q: I hear all of you attacking the impeachment process but none of you defending the president's actions. Do any of you think it was okay for the president to ask more than one foreign nation to investigate his campaign rival?

McCARTHY: The president wasn't investigating a campaign rival. What the president was trying to get to the bottom, just as every American would want to know, why did we go through two years?

The Republican leader went on to describe the Russia scandal as a "hoax," again in defiance of reality, suggesting that Trump's focus has been retrospective, not focused on Biden.

I honestly don't understand what it is that Kevin McCarthy doesn't understand.

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Trump describes his disaster in Syria as 'strategically brilliant'

10/16/19 01:02PM

The stability in northern Syria that the U.S. military helped create and sustain is over. After Donald Trump, ignoring the advice of his foreign policy and national security teams, withdrew American troops, "total chaos" soon followed.

As we discussed yesterday, our Kurdish allies, abandoned by Trump and confronting "bloody carnage," have now allied with Russia and Syria's Assad regime, largely because they needed a reliable ally and could no longer count on the United States. The Kurdish campaign against ISIS, not surprisingly, is effectively over, to the delight of the terrorist network.

The only real beneficiaries of the chaos Trump created are Russia, Syria, Iran, and ISIS.

And yet, despite all of this, the American president was quite explicit this morning and making one thing clear: Trump simply does not care.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday downplayed the escalating tensions in the Middle East in the aftermath of his abrupt withdrawal of American troops from northeastern Syria.

"It's not our border," Trump said speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, referring to Kurdish forces that, until recently, fought side by side with the United States forces as "no angels."

The Republican went on to say his decision was "strategically brilliant." Trump added that American soldiers "are totally safe."

The president also said, in apparent reference to Turkish and Kurdish forces, "There's a lot of sand that they can play with." Trump added that he believes the Kurds deliberately freed some ISIS prisoners in the hopes that he would say, "Oh gee, we gotta get back in there."

As difficult as this was to hear, Trump's extraordinary unscripted comments offered a peek into his rather twisted vision of the world.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.16.19

10/16/19 12:00PM

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

* There was a lively Democratic presidential primary debate in Westerville, Ohio, last night. The next gathering will be in Georgia on Nov. 20.

* Bernie Sanders hasn't picked up many congressional endorsements for his presidential campaign, but he's now picking up two fairly high-profile backers: first-year Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

* Joe Biden's campaign appears to have a rather serious financial problem: as the 2020 race enters the next stage, the former vice president only had about $9 million cash on hand as of two weeks ago. In contrast, Bernie Sanders had $33.7 million in the bank, Elizabeth Warren had $25.7 million, Pete Buttigieg had $23.3 million, and Kamala Harris had $10.5 million.

* With only three weeks remaining in Kentucky's gubernatorial race, the latest Mason-Dixon poll shows incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin (R) tied with state Attorney General Andy Beshear (D), with each garnering 46% support.

* On a related note, Bevin's fate is reportedly of keen interest to the White House, and Team Trump is reportedly "planning an 11th-hour push to stave off an embarrassing defeat" for the far-right governor.

* And speaking of the Bluegrass State, a judge yesterday sided with the Kentucky Democratic Party and ordered State Board of Elections to keep 175,000 purged voters on the state's voter rolls.

* In Maine., the latest survey from Public Policy Polling found Sen. Susan Collins (R) trailing a generic Democrat in next year's U.S. Senate race, 41% to 44%. The incumbent Republican hasn't yet officially declared whether she'll run for another term.

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Trump quietly issues the sixth veto of his presidency

10/16/19 11:21AM

The first veto of Donald Trump's presidency came in mid-March, after Congress balked at the White House's emergency declaration on border-barrier construction. Seven months later, it happened again.

President Trump on Tuesday issued his second veto against legislation seeking to end his national emergency at the southwestern border, rejecting bipartisan objections to his efforts to obtain funds for a border wall.

His move, announced late Tuesday night, was expected and will return the resolution to Congress. It is unlikely to garner the two-thirds majority needed there to override the veto.

In case this isn't obvious, it's worth emphasizing that if Trump were politically confident about his position, and certain that the American mainstream was on his side about redirecting funds in defiance of Congress' wishes, he wouldn't have issued the veto late at night -- during a Democratic presidential primary debate.

Nevertheless, this caught my eye for a couple of reasons. The first is that Trump may yet have to veto this same measure again. As regular readers may recall, under the National Emergencies Act, Congress can vote every six months on the president's emergency declaration. Senate Democratic leaders have already forced the issue onto the floor twice -- under these circumstances, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can't block a vote -- and they'll likely do so again in the spring.

The second area of interest is the rarity of Trump's use of his veto pen. For those keeping score, the list of measures vetoed by the Republican is quite short:

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Many US troops express 'disgust' with Trump's calamitous Syria policy

10/16/19 10:55AM

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Mark Bowden took a closer look at what it's like for U.S. troops to serve under Donald Trump, interviewing "officers up and down the ranks, as well as several present and former civilian Pentagon employees." The results were striking.

"In 20 years of writing about the military, I have never heard officers in high positions express such alarm about a president," the article noted.

This, of course, was before the president ignored his national security team, withdrew U.S. forces from northern Syria, and effectively invited Turkey to launch a brutal offensive against our Kurdish allies. As the Washington Post reported yesterday, Trump's decision isn't sitting well with many U.S. service members.

U.S. veterans have supported Trump in part because of his often-repeated promises to extricate the U.S. military from a generation at war, numerous polls have found. But the calamity on the ground in Syria has wrought angry reactions from service members like few other recent foreign policy decisions.

Troops have reacted viscerally in interviews and on social media despite Defense Department restrictions on them expressing political opinions.

The Post spoke with many troops who "expressed disgust" with the president's decision.

"I can't even look at the atrocities," one Army officer who served in Syria last year said. "The ISIS mission is going to stop, ISIS is going to have a resurgence, and we're going to have to go back in five years and do it all again."

A day earlier, David Ignatius wrote in his latest column about a conversation he'd had with a retired four-star general who described Trump's retreat from Syria as an "unsound, morally indefensible act" and a "disgrace" to America and the soldiers who serve this country.

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Mick Mulvaney

White House scandal puts Mick Mulvaney in the spotlight

10/16/19 10:17AM

Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal is obviously centered around the president's actions and alleged abuses, but as developments unfold, the cast of characters facing scrutiny continues to grow.

Yesterday, for example, State Department official George Kent testified to lawmakers behind closed doors and was reportedly encouraged to "lay low" when he raised concerns about Rudy Giuliani's schemes in Ukraine.

And as notable as this was, Kent's testimony about acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was every bit as interesting.

According to Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who was present for the deposition, Kent testified that Mulvaney oversaw a meeting where he sidelined State Department officials and tapped three political appointees -- Energy Secretary Rick Perry, European Ambassador Gordon Sondland and special envoy Kurt Volker -- to oversee Ukraine policy for the United States.

Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state who worked on Ukraine and five other countries, told congressional investigators that the trio called themselves "the three amigos" and elbowed all the other officials at State out of the way, according to Connolly.

That's no small revelation. If Kent's testimony was accurate, it suggests the acting White House chief of staff deliberately shifted authority of U.S. policy toward Ukraine away from the proper officials.

This comes a day after lawmakers heard from Fiona Hill, the former top adviser in Trump's White House on U.S. policy toward Russia and Ukraine, who reportedly testified that she heard from then-White House national security adviser John Bolton about Mulvaney's role in the scheme.

What's more, NBC News reported last week that the White House's decision to block the release of almost $400 million in aid to Ukraine -- a key element of the scandal -- went through the White House Office of Management and Budget. The report added, "The role of the OMB in handling the aid money has also placed Mick Mulvaney, the director of the OMB and also the president's chief of staff, under growing scrutiny."

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Turkish leader pushes back against Trump admin efforts in Syria

10/16/19 09:20AM

Donald Trump unleashed a fair amount of hell in the Middle East after he withdrew U.S. forces from northern Syria and effectively invited Turkey to launch a brutal offensive against our Kurdish allies. The crisis has bolstered Russia, Iran, Syria's Assad regime, and ISIS, while putting American troops in danger. The Trump administration's foreign policy, as Rachel put it on the show this week, is "collapsing into catastrophe."

But don't worry, the White House has come up with a plan: Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien would fly to Turkey, initiate some kind of diplomatic talks, and work it out.

Or maybe not.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will refuse to meet with Vice President Mike Pence, who is due to travel to Turkey to argue for a ceasefire in the ongoing Syria conflict.

"I'm not going to talk to them. They will be talking to their counterparts. When Trump comes here, I'll be talking," he said in comments made to Sky News, referring to the U.S. delegation.

Erdogan, whose phone call with Trump precipitated the crisis, added that he's heard the talk about a proposed ceasefire, but he doesn't care. "They say 'declare a ceasefire'. We will never declare a ceasefire," the Turkish leader told reporters.

As for the threat of possible U.S. sanctions, Erdogan went on to say, "They are pressuring us to stop the operation. They are announcing sanctions. Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions."

To a very real extent, these are humiliating circumstances for the United States: a high-ranking American delegation is on its way to a NATO ally, only to learn before arriving that our ally's president doesn't see the point in talking to them.

If Erdogan follows through and ignores the delegation, it would be a striking slap in the face and evidence of a total lack of respect for U.S. efforts. [Update: see below.]

But I was also intrigued by the idea that Erdogan would talk to Trump, but not his team.

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Lawyer and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani comments on a lawsuit filed against video game giant Activision outside Los Angeles Superior court in Los Angeles, Calif., on Oct. 16, 2014. (Photo by Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Giuliani's apparent 'shadow foreign policy' gets him into more trouble

10/16/19 08:42AM

Rudy Giuliani's work in Ukraine already appears to be the basis for an ongoing criminal investigation, but the Washington Post had a stunning report overnight alleging that the former mayor also urged Donald Trump to extradite a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania, which happens to be a top priority of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Giuliani, a Trump ally who later became the president's personal attorney, repeatedly argued to Trump that the U.S. government should eject Fethullah Gulen from the country, according to the former officials, who spoke on the condition on anonymity to describe private conversations. [...]

The former New York mayor brought up Gulen so frequently with Trump during visits to the White House [in 2017] that one former official described the subject as Giuliani's "hobby horse." He was so focused on the issue -- "it was all Gulen," recalled a second former official -- that White House aides worried that Giuliani was making the case on behalf of the Turkish government, former officials said.

Some of this may sound familiar, largely because Fethullah Gulen and Team Trump have intersected before. During the 2016 campaign, for example, Michael Flynn wore two hats: he was advising Donald Trump on matters of national security, while at the same time he was on Turkey's payroll.

As part of his job as an agent of a foreign government, Flynn took a keen interest in Gulen -- there were reports of a possible kidnaping scheme -- and Flynn lied to the FBI about the whole affair. The former White House national security adviser is currently awaiting sentencing.

What we didn't know is that Giuliani also took a keen interest in Gulen, raising all kinds of questions about why, exactly, the Republican lawyer made this such a priority.

There are a series of related questions, of course, about Giuliani running what the Washington Post described as "a shadow foreign policy," even before joining the president's legal defense team.

Remember, it's not just his legally dubious work in Ukraine that's of interest: there were related reports last week about Giuliani engaging in sketchy behind-the-scenes work on behalf of Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader whom American prosecutors believe played a key role in a scheme to funnel billions of dollars to Iran, in defiance of U.S. sanctions.

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Republican U.S. vice presidential nominee Mike Pence speaks at a campaign rally, Oct. 22, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Pence (among others) balks at cooperating with impeachment inquiry

10/16/19 08:00AM

Because Vice President Mike Pence has been directly implicated in Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal, several U.S. House leaders sent Pence a request on Oct. 4 seeking documents and communications pertaining to the controversy. Yesterday, lawmakers received a reply.

Vice President Mike Pence's office said Tuesday it will not comply with a request from the House to turn over documents related to President Donald Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

In a letter to the chairmen of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees, Pence counsel Matthew Morgan called the request part of a "self-proclaimed impeachment inquiry," noting that the House of Representatives has not yet taken a vote to open the inquiry and asserting that the request was part of a process that "calls into question your commitment to fundamental fairness and due process rights."

It's the use of the phrase "self-proclaimed" that stands out. As Pence's office sees it, the vice president might consider "working with" Congress on providing information, but only if lawmakers conduct their impeachment inquiry in a matter that meets with the White House's approval -- as if it were up to the executive branch to determine the legitimacy of the legislative branch's procedures.

Alas, it was that kind of day. On the heels of Defense Secretary Mark Esper suggesting the Pentagon would comply with impeachment inquiry oversight requests, the Defense Department changed direction yesterday, telling Congress it would not cooperate "at this time" with a House subpoena.

Around the same time, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) told lawmakers that it, too, would not comply with the recently issued subpoenas.

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