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Thursday's Mini-Report, 10.31.19

10/31/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* I'm not sure why the right saw Morrison's testimony as good news: "Tim Morrison, the top Russia and Europe adviser on President Trump's National Security Council, on Thursday corroborated the testimony of a senior U.S. diplomat who last week offered House impeachment investigators the most detailed account to date for how Trump tried to use his office to pressure Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, according to people familiar with his deposition."

* The shadow foreign policy: "Two veteran foreign service officers revealed new details to House impeachment investigators on Wednesday about the unconventional efforts by President Donald Trump's associates to influence U.S. policy toward Ukraine, according to copies of their opening statements obtained by POLITICO."

* I could've sworn Trump told us that North Korea no longer did this: "North Korea fired two projectiles toward the Sea of Japan, according to South Korea's military, as the country ratchets up pressure on the U.S. amid stalled nuclear-disarmament talks."

* Remember, Trump put a formal coal lobbyist in charge of the EPA: "The Trump administration is expected to roll back an Obama-era regulation that was to limit the leaching of dangerous heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury from the ash produced by coal-fired power plants, according to two people familiar with the plans."

* It's a nice change of pace when the Senate does some work: "The Senate on Thursday took a first step toward advancing some government funding, passing a bipartisan package of bills that would pay for the operations of major agencies such as Agriculture, Transportation and Interior."

* How pitiful: "Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who has been practically jumping up and down for President Donald Trump's attention lately, filed an ethics complaint on Wednesday against Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA)."

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House advances presidential impeachment process despite zero GOP votes

10/31/19 12:49PM

Donald Trump and his allies spent weeks arguing that the U.S. House had to hold a floor vote to move forward with the presidential impeachment process. As of this morning, that's exactly what's happened.

The House passed a resolution on Thursday approving procedures for its impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, opening a new and public phase of the investigation.

The vote, 232 to 196, was largely along party lines and Republicans objected, alleging that the Democratic inquiry is a farce that has been improperly conducted behind closed doors. House Democrats are now expected to begin holding public hearings in the next few weeks to present testimony against Trump.

Nancy Pelosi presided over the vote -- a rare move for a speaker of the House.

Voting in the majority were 231 House Democrats and the chamber's sole independent (Michigan's Justin Amash). Voting against the resolution were 194 Republicans and two Democrats (Minnesota's Collin Peterson and New Jersey's Jeff Van Drew, both of whom represent "red" districts.)

The full roll call is online here. Note, four members did not vote, and there are currently three vacancies in the chamber.

Not a single GOP member broke ranks, which strikes me as arguably the most striking element of this historic occasion. The New Yorker's Susan Glasser noted this morning that it's "fascinating that of all these dozens of Republican House members, none of them -- not one -- makes the calculation that history will judge them harshly for picking Donald Trump."

They know about the abuses. They know about Trump's quid-pro-quo schemes. They know the sitting president helped hatch a plan that tied military aid for a vulnerable ally to a political scheme intended to hurt his domestic opponents.

But literally every House Republican who voted this morning sided with the White House anyway.

I've been thinking lately about something the Washington Post's Karen Tumulty wrote a few weeks ago, when she considered the possibility that GOP House members would be put in a tough spot in the event of a floor vote like this one. "As evidence of impropriety mounts each day," Tumulty wrote, "and public support for the inquiry grows, do they really want to cast a vote that says, 'Nothing to see here'?"

The answer, we now know, is yes. The House Republican minority really did want to cast that vote. They not only oppose impeachment, they oppose the fact-finding process that might eventually lead to impeachment.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.31.19

10/31/19 12:00PM

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

* In a not-so-subtle rebuke to Facebook, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced yesterday that his social-media platform will no longer accept political ads. The ban will take effect next month.

* On a related note, as ABC's Matthew Dowd noted, it's of interest that the two highest-profile critics of Twitter's decision are the Trump campaign and Russian state television.

* The latest national USA Today/Suffolk poll found Joe Biden leading Elizabeth Warren, 26% to 17%, in the race for the Democratic nomination, which is a smaller advantage for the former vice president than the 20-point lead he enjoyed in the same poll in August. Bernie Sanders was third in the results with 13%, followed by Pete Buttigieg with 10%. No other candidate reached 5%.

* Struggling to break through, Kamala Harris is reportedly "dramatically restructuring" her presidential campaign. Politico reported that the change, made necessary by a campaign that's "hemorrhaging cash," will involve "redeploying staffers to Iowa and laying off dozens of aides at her Baltimore headquarters."

* In Pennsylvania, a Franklin & Marshall poll found Biden leading Warren, 30% to 18%, followed by Sanders at 12% and Buttigieg at 8%.

* Given Pennsylvania's role as a critical battleground state, it's also worth noting that the same poll found 59% of voters in the Keystone State believe it's time for a new president, while only 37% want to see Donald Trump remain in office for another four years.

* In Virginia, which will hold closely watched state-legislative elections next week, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is starting to hit the campaign trail again, which would've been hard to predict earlier this year when a racist photo from an old yearbook came to public light.

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Trump's impeachment is about much more than a phone call

10/31/19 11:00AM

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), reiterating his exceedingly narrow defense of Donald Trump, declared last night that Senate Republicans will never support impeaching the president over "this phone call." This morning, Trump added in his latest all-caps tweet, "Read the transcript!"

At issue, of course, is Trump's July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, during which the Republican urged his counterpart to do him a "favor" by helping go after Trump's domestic political opponents. Though there is no word-for-word transcript, the publicly available call summary is obviously incriminating.

We know that many Republicans said it was a "huge mistake" for the White House to release the call summary. We know that the top expert on Ukraine on the White House National Security Council believed Trump crossed a line during the phone meeting. We know at least one White House official tried to cover up details of the call. We know one of the top Senate Republicans recently conceded that the emerging picture from the impeachment inquiry "is not a good one" for the president.

And we know this scandal is about more than one phone call.

I've lost count of how many times Lindsey Graham has suggested the Trump/Zelensky phone meeting is the sole basis for the impeachment inquiry. It is not. NBC News had a good piece along these lines last week.

[I]n some 65 hours of testimony ... along with public comments from Trump, his aides and allies, a portrait is emerging of a quid pro quo that evolved over time, with the president progressively upping the ante when his demands were not met.

What started as a bid to leverage Zelenskiy's hopes for a White House meeting took on added dimensions....

This is not to downplay the importance of Trump's direct pressure on Zelensky on July 25. That matters. But as recent revelations help make clear, there are a whole lot of related truths that also matter.

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The steps Team Trump will take to avoid 'confusing the president'

10/31/19 10:10AM

Earlier this week, Donald Trump published a tweet suggesting he'd "never even heard of" Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top expert on Ukraine on the White House National Security Council. At first blush, that didn't make any sense: how could the president, who's been deeply engaged on U.S. policy toward Ukraine for months, not know his own top Ukrainian expert?

Yesterday, the answer to that question came into focus, though the answer wasn't altogether satisfying.

After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's inauguration in May, Vindman was eager to brief Donald Trump on the implications of the change in leadership in Kyiv. Politico reported, however, on why that did not happen.

[H]e was instructed "at the last second" not to attend the debriefing, Vindman told lawmakers, because Trump's advisers worried it might confuse the president: Trump believed at the time that Kashyap Patel, a longtime Nunes staffer who joined the White House in February and had no discernible Ukraine experience or expertise, was actually the NSC's top Ukraine expert instead of Vindman.

Vindman testified that he was told this directly by his boss at the time, NSC senior director for European and Russian affairs Fiona Hill.

It's an amazing dynamic, which helps shed new light on just how dysfunctional Trump's West Wing is. If the National Security Council's top Ukrainian expert briefed the president, Trump might have become "confused" -- not by the information Vindman was sharing, but by the fact that the president was under the impression that an entirely different person was the White House's top Ukrainian expert.

That other person, Kashyap Patel, is an acolyte of Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, and according to Vindman, Patel "misrepresented" himself to Trump in order to help guide the White House's policy toward Ukraine.

No wonder the president has "never even heard of" Alexander Vindman. If he'd walked into the Oval Office and introduced himself as Trump's top Ukrainian expert, the president would've wondered what happened to the other guy.

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U.S. President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss transition plans in the White House Oval Office in Washington, Nov. 10, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

By Trump's standards, the economy is 'in deep trouble'

10/31/19 09:20AM

Before Donald Trump took office, he set high expectations for the kind of economic growth Americans should expect to see if he became president.

Indeed, while Candidate Trump was nearly always vague about his policy goals, he was rather specific about the nation's GDP, condemning Barack Obama for failing to reach 3% annual growth, and assuring the electorate that in a Trump administration, growth would be between 4% and 6%.

In one especially memorable online missive, the New York Republican marveled at a quarterly GDP report from the Obama era pointing to 1.9% growth. It was, Trump said at the time, evidence that the economy was "in deep trouble."

Yesterday, the latest quarterly GDP report showed the economy growing at ... wait for it ... 1.9%. It came the same morning that the president assured the public that we currently have "the Greatest Economy in American History!"

All of which leads to an awkward question about how and why Trump sees 1.9% quarterly growth as both alarming and amazing.

Of course, the GDP is only one of several economic metrics that matter, which led the Washington Post to publish an interesting analysis taking a broader view.

There's no telling Trump that the economy is anything but sensational under his stewardship, of course, and there's no telling him that it's doing well for any reason other than his stewardship. Generally speaking, the economy is doing well, though there are ongoing concerns that the economic boom is slowing. But given Trump's habit of comparing his performance to history, we thought it was worth comparing economic metrics under Trump to the second term of the last guy to hold Trump's job: Barack Obama.

I have a hunch the White House won't care for the results of the analysis. Comparing the economy under Obama and Trump at the same points in their presidencies, the Post found that the economy grew faster under Obama, hiring grew faster under Obama, the S&P 500 grew faster under Obama, the unemployment shrunk faster under Obama, and the national debt grew slower under Obama.

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Trump nominee suggests Trump's Ukraine scheme went too far

10/31/19 08:40AM

A few weeks ago, when Donald Trump nominated Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan to serve as the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, the choice was not without controversy. Sullivan has acknowledged, for example, that he could have done more to protect career officials at the State Department from political retaliation.

But interest in Sullivan's perspective grew as the White House's Ukraine scandal intensified and focus shifted to the State Department. This made it all the more notable when he appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday for his confirmation hearing and confirmed, among other things, that former U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch served "admirably and capably" when Team Trump ousted her as part of a political scheme. Similarly, Sullivan testified that Rudy Giuliani helped lead a smear campaign against Yovanovitch.

But there was something else the nominee said yesterday that jumped out at me.

At a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) asked Sullivan broadly whether it was okay to ask foreign governments to investigate domestic political opponents.

"Soliciting investigations into a domestic political opponent -- I don't think that would be in accord with our values," Sullivan said. He added later: "The concept of investigating a political rival ... that would be inconsistent with our values."

Sullivan did not specifically reference Donald Trump by name in this context, but there can be no doubt that the Republican solicited foreign investigations into a domestic political opponent: Trump literally stood on the South Lawn of the White House and did this on camera.

Which means, of course, that Trump's nominee to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Russia believes the president who nominated him -- his current boss -- took steps that are not "in accord" with American values.

All of which leads to two questions.

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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

WH lawyer accused of moving Trump transcript to secret server

10/31/19 08:00AM

One of Donald Trump's least persuasive defenses in the Ukraine scandal is his assertion that his White House team wasn't bothered by his "perfect" July 25 conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. "There were many people listening to the call," the president wrote on Twitter yesterday. "How come they ... found NOTHING wrong with it."

Keep this in mind when reading the Washington Post's overnight report on what transpired at the White House in the immediate aftermath of the call.

Moments after President Trump ended his phone call with Ukraine's president on July 25, an unsettled national security aide rushed to the office of White House lawyer John Eisenberg.

Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine adviser at the White House, had been listening to the call and was disturbed by the pressure Trump had applied to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his political rivals, according to people familiar with Vindman's testimony to lawmakers this week.

Vindman told Eisenberg, the White House's legal adviser on national security issues, that what the president did was wrong, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

According to the Post's reporting, Eisenberg heard Vindman out, took some notes, and proposed moving a rough transcript of the Trump/Zelensky call "moving a transcript of the call to a highly classified server and restricting access to it."

In other words, based on this account, the White House's legal adviser on national security issues heard a witness present him with credible evidence of presidential wrongdoing, and the lawyer's next step was to try to cover it up.

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