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Monday's Mini-Report, 12.16.19

12/16/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Flynn case: "A federal judge on Monday sharply rejected Michael Flynn's argument that he was targeted by politically motivated federal agents -- and set a sentencing date of next month for President Donald Trump's first national security adviser, who has pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents."

* It's a breezy read: "The House Judiciary Committee released its full report on the impeachment of President Donald Trump early Monday, ahead of consideration by the full House as early as Wednesday."

* NAFTA 2.0: "Mexico's top trade negotiator plans to return to Washington on Sunday to express his outrage over language in the U.S. bill to implement the new North American trade agreement, potentially complicating the House's plans to pass the USMCA this week."

* Remember when Trump said this wasn't happening? "North Korea conducted a test at a missile launch site on Friday, the regime said, in a bid to pressure Washington to offer substantial concessions in stalled denuclearization talks."

* For consumers who missed yesterday's ACA enrollment deadline, it's not too late: "The open enrollment period for Obamacare has been extended until December 18 for those who couldn't sign up on Sunday, the original deadline, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced Monday."

* Afghanistan: "The Trump administration intends to announce the drawdown of about 4,000 troops from Afghanistan as early next week, according to three current and former U.S. officials. The withdrawal will leave between 8,000 and 9,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the officials said."

* Occasionally, we see the effects when U.S. leadership disappears: "Global climate talks lurched to an end here Sunday with finger-pointing, accusations of failure and fresh doubts about the world's collective resolve to slow the warming of the planet -- at a moment when scientists say time is running out for people to avert steadily worsening climate disasters."

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The J. Edgar Hoover Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) building stands in Washington, D.C., Aug. 8, 2013. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

Celebrated former FBI, CIA chief sees 'dire threat' from Team Trump

12/16/19 01:03PM

In August 2018, when Donald Trump began using security clearances as a political tool, William Webster joined other former CIA directors in speaking up and condemning the president's tactics. It was a rare instance in which Webster entered the political fray directly.

But as it turns out, his public concerns were not an isolated incident. Webster, the only person to ever lead both the CIA and the FBI, wrote a new op-ed for the New York Times, published today, in which he describes a "dire threat to the rule of law" in the country he loves and expresses concern that "the integrity of the institutions that protect our civil order are, tragically, under assault from too many people whose job it should be to protect them."

The aspersions cast upon [F.B.I. officials] by the president and my longtime friend, Attorney General William P. Barr, are troubling in the extreme. Calling F.B.I. professionals "scum," as the president did, is a slur against people who risk their lives to keep us safe. Mr. Barr's charges of bias within the F.B.I., made without providing any evidence and in direct dispute of the findings of the nonpartisan inspector general, risk inflicting enduring damage on this critically important institution.

The country can ill afford to have a chief law enforcement officer dispute the Justice Department's own independent inspector general's report and claim that an F.B.I. investigation was based on "a completely bogus narrative." In fact, the report conclusively found that the evidence to initiate the Russia investigation was unassailable. There were more than 100 contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russian agents during the 2016 campaign, and Russian efforts to undermine our democracy continue to this day. I'm glad the F.B.I. took the threat seriously. It is important, Mr. Wray said last week, that the inspector general found that "the investigation was opened with appropriate predication and authorization."

Webster went on to reflect on his "profound" disappointment in Rudy Giuliani, whose "activities of late concerning Ukraine have, at a minimum, failed the smell test of propriety."

The op-ed added, "The rule of law is the bedrock of American democracy, the principle that protects every American from the abuse of monarchs, despots and tyrants. Every American should demand that our leaders put the rule of law above politics."

The not-so-subtle point of his op-ed is that Webster seems to believe our current leaders are not putting the rule of law above politics.

I can appreciate why William Webster may not be a household name, but to appreciate the significance of his op-ed, consider his c.v.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.16.19

12/16/19 12:00PM

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

* The latest national Fox News poll found Joe Biden leading the Democratic presidential field with 30% support, followed by Bernie Sanders with 20%. Elizabeth Warren is third with 13%, followed by Pete Buttigieg at 7%. No other candidate toped 5% in the results.

* The same poll found each of the top Democratic contenders leading Donald Trump in hypothetical general election match-ups, though Biden's seven-point advantage was the largest.

* A new NPR/PBSNewsHour/Marist poll, however, found the former vice president with a much smaller lead in the race for his party's nomination: the results found Biden leading Sanders by just two points, 24% to 22%. Warren was third with 17%, followed by Buttigieg at 13%. No other candidate topped 5%.

* Wisconsin already appears to be a difficult state for Democrats in 2020, and on Friday their task became even more difficult when a state judge "ordered that the registration of up to 234,000 voters be tossed out because they may have moved."

* The next Democratic presidential primary debate is scheduled for this week in Los Angeles, but a labor dispute at Loyola Marymount University is threatening to derail the event.

* Speaking of debates, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who didn't make the cut for this week's event, is pressing the Democratic National Committee to ease the standards for the debates scheduled for January and February. The top eight candidates signed onto Booker's effort late last week, encouraging the DNC to use "either a polling or fund-raising threshold, but not both."

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Graham in 1998: 'Don't decide the case before the case's end'

12/16/19 11:20AM

In 1998, then-Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was an impeachment manager against Bill Clinton, urging senators to remove the Democratic president from office. The South Carolina Republican adopted standards at the time that he seems eager to abandon now.

Over the weekend, arguably the most striking example to date emerged.

On Saturday, a clip of Graham during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton made the rounds on social media, showing the then-representative make an appeal to his colleagues not to rush through the process or make a judgment before it's over.

"I have a duty far greater than just getting to the next election," Graham said then. "Members of the Senate have said, 'I understand everything there is about this case, and I won't vote to impeach the president.' Please allow the facts to do the talking.... Don't decide the case before the case's end."

Of course, Graham is now the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, explicitly stating ahead of a Republican president's impeachment trial, "I am trying to give a pretty clear signal I have made up my mind. I'm not trying to pretend to be a fair juror here."

A cynic might think the GOP lawmaker adopts contradictory standards based on whether the president is a member of his political party.

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Fla. Attorney General Pam Bondi makes introductory remarks for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, before Trump arrives at a campaign event in Tampa, Fla. on March 14, 2016. (Photo by Gerald Herbert/AP)

Bondi condemns House impeachment 'trial' that didn't exist

12/16/19 10:41AM

Two months ago, Donald Trump's operation announced that former Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) would leave his post at Fox News and instead help represent the president in the impeachment process. As regular readers know, this didn't work out well: the New York Times reported that the day after the announcement, "the arrangement fell apart."

The "botched" rollout, the article added, left Trump and his advisers back at "square one, searching for a different lawyer."

Gowdy is now back at Fox News, where his apparent successor on Team Trump, former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi appeared yesterday to make her case to Chris Wallace that the White House should help control the Senate's impeachment trial.

WALLACE: Now, Democrats note that before an impeachment trial all senators have to raise their right hand and take an oath to do "impartial justice." How impartial can it be when McConnell says that he, quote, "is taking his cues from the White House." [...]

BONDI: So, we weren't given a fair trial in the House at all. Now it goes to the Senate, and these senators -- the president deserves to be heard.... We wouldn't be doing our job if we weren't working hand in hand with the Senate to clear the president of this charade, this sham that started with Adam Schiff, your next guest, and we're not going to let it continue in the U.S. Senate because we will have fair proceedings.

There's no reason for Bondi, who arrived at Team Trump following some unfortunate controversies, to argue that the president and his lawyers "weren't given a fair trial in the House" because there was no trial in the House. That's not how the process works.

What's more, note that Bondi argued that the president "deserves to be heard," which would be a more compelling point if Team Trump hadn't turned down invitations to be heard during the House's impeachment proceedings.

But also note the degree to which Bondi uses the word "we" as if Team Trump (the defendant) and Senate Republicans (the jurors) should effectively be seen as two sides of the same coin in the impeachment proceedings. This, as she put it, is the key to creating a "fair" process.

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Sen. Chuck Schumer and members of the Democratic caucus file out of a strategy session at the Capitol in Washington on Nov. 18, 2014. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Schumer wants evidentiary trial, testimony from Bolton, Mulvaney

12/16/19 10:00AM

Republican officials appear largely united on the end result of the presidential impeachment process: GOP officials will ignore Donald Trump's misdeeds and shield him from accountability. There are some intra-party divisions, however, on how best to go from the starting line to the finish line.

The first group of Republicans, which includes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), wants an expedited process. The president's impeachment trial, under their approach, would barely go through the motions before asking members to vote up or down on the articles. The point would be to get the whole thing over with as quickly as procedurally possible.

The rival GOP contingent, which includes the president, sees value in using the impeachment trial to put on a show. This Republican faction believes that a longer process, with more witnesses and arguments, could pay political dividends for the party.

As that GOP conversation unfolds, Democrats are not exactly neutral observers. NBC News reported overnight:

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer proposed calling former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney as witnesses at an impeachment trial for President Donald Trump in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Sunday.

The offer is intended as a signal that Democrats are seeking an evidentiary trial, not intending to simply rely on the House investigation.

Schumer, D-N.Y., proposed that the Senate subpoena four people who are close to the president or are expected to know about the delay of about $400 million in military aid to Ukraine: Mulvaney; Bolton; Robert Blair, senior adviser to Mulvaney; and Michael Duffey, associate director for national security at the Office of Management and Budget.

The Senate Democratic leader's full letter, which is a little over two pages, is online here (pdf). Schumer's opening pitch calls for setting aside 24 hours for each side to present opening arguments and rebuttals, and an additional 16 hours for senators from each party to ask questions. Witnesses would be subject to four hours of testimony and examinations, followed by an additional 24 hours of deliberations ahead of final votes.

In addition to subpoenaing witnesses, the New York Democrat also envisions a process in which the Senate issues subpoenas for "a specific, limited list of documents that will shed additional light on the administration's decision making regarding the delay in security assistance funding to Ukraine and its requests for certain investigations to be announced by the government of Ukraine."

Schumer's letter notes, "These provisions are modeled directly on the language of the two resolutions that set forth the 1999 trial rules." Left unsaid is the fact that Mitch McConnell, like every other Republican in the chamber at the time, voted for those rules 20 years ago.

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

After siding with Trump on impeachment, NJ rep poised to join GOP

12/16/19 09:20AM

Over the summer, as Donald Trump's scandals mounted, one House Republican, Michigan's Justin Amash, said he'd seen enough. Declaring himself "frightened" of what GOP politics had become, the four-term congressman left the GOP.

A half-year later, it appears one House Democrat is poised to make the opposite journey.

A Democratic congressman from a swing district in southern New Jersey -- who has been outspoken in his opposition to President Donald Trump's impeachment -- is likely to leave the party, sources told NBC News on Saturday.

Two Democratic leadership sources said they expect Rep. Jeff Van Drew to change his registration to Republican in the wake of his stance against the House Democratic-led efforts to impeach Trump.

It was just five weeks ago when the newspaper in Atlantic City reported that the New Jersey congressman held an event with his constituents and assured them he'd "been a Democrat all his life and will remain one." Evidently, Van Drew is prepared to break that recent commitment.

Van Drew represents the Garden State's 2nd congressional district -- the state's southern most district, just east of Delaware -- after winning his first congressional race just last year. The seat had been held by Frank LoBiondo, a longtime Republican congressman, and Democratic leaders saw Van Drew, who was a conservative Democrat in New Jersey's state legislature, as the ideal candidate to win the GOP-friendly district. On Election Day 2018, it worked.

Throughout 2019, the freshman generally voted with his party, but Van Drew wouldn't budge when it came to Trump's impeachment. He sided with Republicans when the House voted to authorize the impeachment inquiry, and last week, Van Drew positioned himself as the first House Democrat to announce his intentions to vote against both articles of impeachment.

This, not surprisingly, cost Van Drew considerable support from national and state Democratic leaders, and he was likely to face a primary rival in 2020. As his party took steps to abandon him, the rookie congressman began taking steps to abandon his party. (The whole dynamic is a bit like those who break up with romantic partners in order to preempt getting dumped.)

But if Van Drew expects a party switch to help advance his career, he's almost certainly doing the wrong thing by joining Trump's GOP.

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Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) emerges from a closed-door weekly policy meeting with Senate Republicans, at the U.S. Capitol, May 10, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Rand Paul helps capture the GOP's troubles in defending Trump

12/16/19 08:40AM

Donald Trump's impeachment trial hasn't even begun yet, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made up his mind. So has Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). It's against this backdrop that CNN's Jake Tapper asked Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) yesterday, "[A]re you still keeping an open mind about this, or have you already decided you will acquit the president?"

Paul didn't answer directly, though he predicted that every GOP senator will side with Trump -- while unironically condemning the impeachment proceedings as "a very partisan exercise," that the senator believes will ultimately "dumb down" the country.

It led to this striking exchange:

PAUL: The president ... didn't call up the president of Ukraine and say, "Investigate my rival."

TAPPER: He said, "Investigate Joe Biden."

PAUL: He said, "Investigate a certain person." ... He does not call up and say, "Investigate my rival." He says, "Investigate a person." [...]

TAPPER: And Joe Biden is his rival.

We've seen plenty of bad arguments from Donald Trump's allies, each of whom have been desperate to excuse his abuses and corruption, but this might actually be the least persuasive to date.

One of the core elements of the broader scandal is the simple fact that the American president pressured foreign countries to go after a domestic political rival, effectively taking steps to cheat ahead of his 2020 re-election campaign. For Rand Paul, the fact that Trump referred to a Democratic rival, but didn't literally use the word "rival," is somehow significant.

It's not.

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On impeachment, Lindsey Graham won't 'pretend to be a fair juror'

12/16/19 08:00AM

Late last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) faced immediate blowback after promising Fox News' audience that he would remain in "total coordination" with the White House as the impeachment process against Donald Trump advances. In apparent reference to the GOP leadership in the Senate, McConnell added, "There will be no difference between the president's position and our position as to how to handle this, to the extent that we can."

In other words, the Senate's top Republican, who'll soon serve as a juror, intends to partner with the defendant and rig the trial to benefit the accused.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) saw the controversy that ensued after McConnell's comments, but it didn't stop the South Carolinian from being even more explicit about ensuring that the fix is in before the trial even gets underway.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Saturday that he's made up his mind that President Trump should be acquitted, dismissed the notion that he has to be a "fair juror" and said he doesn't see the need for a formal trial in the Senate.

Graham, a staunch defender of the president, made the comments overseas during an interview with CNN International at the Doha Forum in Qatar.

The Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee specifically said, "I am trying to give a pretty clear signal I have made up my mind. I'm not trying to pretend to be a fair juror here."

On CBS's Face the Nation, Graham, who's grown quite incurious about basic details of recent White House scandals, added, "I don't need any witnesses."

Senate rules require members to take a specific oath before an impeachment trial gets underway: "I solemnly swear (or affirm) that in all things appertaining to the trial of ____, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help me God."

By their own admission, Graham and McConnell intend to take the oath, solemnly swear, and then ignore their duties. The chairman of the Judiciary Committee can't even bother to keep up appearances, refusing to "pretend to be a fair juror."

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Friday's Mini-Report, 12.13.19

12/13/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Expect a ruling in this case by June 2020: "The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Friday to hear President Donald Trump's appeal of lower court orders, now on hold, that require his banks and accountants to turn over financial records to the House and local prosecutors in New York."

* We haven't yet seen the details: "The United States and China have reached an agreement on phase one of the trade deal, Chinese officials said Friday. President Donald Trump confirmed the news in a tweet shortly afterward."

* The day after in the UK: "British Prime Minister Boris Johnson went to Buckingham Palace to meet Queen Elizabeth II so she could formally invite him to form a new government Friday following his Conservative Party's resounding election victory."

* The Justice Department "has released several internal legal opinions that could help bolster President Trump's claim of executive privilege in barring Congress from interviewing witnesses and collecting documents from the executive branch."

* The off-again, on-again Taliban talks are off-again, at least for now: "The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan said Thursday he was outraged by a Taliban attack near Bagram Airfield this week, and 'we're taking a brief pause,' apparently in reference to peace talks that had recently resumed with the militant group."

* A closely-watched emoluments case: "A federal appeals court in Virginia heard arguments Thursday about whether to revive a lawsuit accusing President Trump of violating the Constitution by profiting from his hotel near the White House, in a spirited session that indicated sharp divisions among the judges over the legal consequences of the president's conduct."

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Image: President Trump attends Republican policy luncheon at the US Capitol

House Dem makes case: McConnell should recuse in impeachment trial

12/13/19 04:36PM

Last night, as the impeachment process against Donald Trump inched forward, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) met in private with White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland. It was the sort of behind-closed-doors chat that raised concerns about Senate GOP leader's neutrality in the process.

Soon after, however, McConnell removed all doubt: the Kentucky Republican sat down with Fox News' Sean Hannity and vowed to remain in "total coordination" with the White House as the impeachment process advances. In apparent reference to the GOP leadership in the Senate, McConnell added, "There will be no difference between the president's position and our position as to how to handle this, to the extent that we can."

This isn't even close to how the process is supposed to work. As we discussed this morning, there are qualitative differences between an actual trial in an American courtroom and a presidential impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate, but in a broad sense, senators do serve as jurors. McConnell -- who'll effectively be the jury foreman -- isn't supposed to be in "total coordination" with the defendant's legal team.

It led one House Democrat -- who serves on both the Judiciary and Intelligence committees -- to make a provocative suggestion: if McConnell won't be able to serve as an impartial juror, maybe he shouldn't serve as a juror at all.

Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) on Friday called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to recuse himself from the Senate impeachment trial, citing the GOP leader's remarks the previous night about coordinating with the White House. [...]

"No court in the country would allow a member of the jury to also serve as the accused's defense attorney. The moment Senator McConnell takes the oath of impartiality required by the Constitution, he will be in violation of that oath," she said in a statement.

As the report in The Hill added, the Florida Democrat noted that Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution reads, "The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation."

And what does that oath entail? I'm glad you asked.

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Arizona Republican in denial about core impeachment detail

12/13/19 12:57PM

Since Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal first came to public light a few months ago, Republicans have confronted a question that's simple but difficult to answer: should an American president press a foreign country to go after a domestic political rival?

A few too many GOP lawmakers -- most notably Iowa's Joni Ernst and Colorado's Cory Gardner -- struggled mightily with the question early on, refusing to say much of anything. Others soon realized this was unsustainable, conceded that presidents should not seek foreign campaign assistance, and looked for other ways to excuse Trump's misdeeds.

This morning, however, CNN's Manu Raju spoke to Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) about this foundational element of the overall scandal, and according to what the Capitol Hill reporter posted to Twitter, the exchange didn't go especially well.

Q: Why is it ever ok for an American president to ask a foreign power to investigate a political rival? Why do you think that's ok?

Lesko: "He didn't. He didn't do that"

Manu: He did ask Zelensky

Lesko: "He did not do that."

It's really not a trick question. Either it's acceptable for presidents to ask foreign governments to go after domestic political rivals or it's not. In this case, Trump's allies can try to argue that it is acceptable behavior; they can make the case that it doesn't rise to the level of an impeachable offense; or they can agree with impeachment proponents and vote for the pending articles.

What GOP members -- especially those on the Judiciary Committee, on which Debbie Lesko currently serves -- shouldn't do is pretend up is down and reality has no meaning.

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