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Thursday's Mini-Report, 5.9.19

05/09/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* North Korea: "The U.S. has seized a North Korean freighter that was caught shipping coal in violation of U.N. sanctions, the Justice Department revealed Thursday.... Federal prosecutors said the seizure marks the first time the U.S. has taken possession of a North Korean ship for violating international sanctions."

* He laughs so infrequently: "At his rally in Panama City, Florida Wednesday night, President Donald Trump was riffing on immigration when an audience member interjected with a suggestion on how to stem the tide of migrants crossing the border. 'Shoot them,' he said. Trump paused his remarks, chuckling along with the crowd."

* Speaking of Florida: "Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law Wednesday a bill that will allow school districts in Florida to arm teachers."

* Seems fair: "Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter for Donald Trump's bestselling book, The Art of the Deal, tweeted that he would be fine if the book was 'taken out of print' or 'recategorized as fiction' after the New York Times detailed Trump's $1.2 billion in business losses from 1985 to 1994."

* "Sorcery" is one of those words we just don't hear much in the 21st century: "A Republican Texas state lawmaker responded to a top vaccine scientist's tweets about vaccination exemptions by accusing him of 'sorcery' on Tuesday."

* Convenient timing: "A settlement in a seven-year legal battle between the House and the Justice Department over records related to a gun-running investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious was publicly announced Wednesday just as similar clashes continue to intensify between the House and Trump administration."

* Trump really likes Bolsonaro: "President Donald Trump said he will grant special military status to Brazil, making it a 'major non-NATO ally' in a move to boost cooperation."

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Secretary of State John Kerry signs the certification to the U.S. government that  IAEA certified Iran's compliance in their report, requesting the lifting of the nuclear-related sanctions, Vienna, Jan. 16, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The problem with Trump accusing John Kerry of a crime

05/09/19 04:05PM

Among the most serious areas of concern surrounding Donald Trump's presidency is the eagerness with which he wants to use the levers of power to target his perceived enemies. Max Boot noted in a column last week, "While conferring legal immunity upon himself, Trump is eager to weaponize the legal system against his opponents. The Mueller report documents three separate occasions when Trump demanded a Justice Department investigation of Hillary Clinton."

But as critically important as it is -- to the rule of law, to the integrity of our system -- when a sitting president presses behind-the-scenes for his perceived enemies to be prosecuted, it also matters when he does the same thing in public.

President Donald Trump said on Thursday that John Kerry "should be prosecuted" for allegedly violating the Logan Act through his conversations with Iran, escalating a feud between his administration and the former secretary of State.

"John Kerry violated the Logan Act," Trump said during a White House press availability. "He's talking to Iran and has had many meetings and many phone calls and he's telling them what to do. That is total violation of the Logan Act."

A Kerry spokesperson told Politico in response, "[Trump's] wrong about the facts, wrong about the law, and sadly he's been wrong about how to use diplomacy to keep America safe. Secretary Kerry helped negotiate a nuclear agreement that worked to solve an intractable problem. The world supported it then and supports it still. We'd hope the president would focus on solving foreign policy problems for America instead of attacking his predecessors for theater."

If all of this seems familiar, it's not your imagination. In September 2018, the president used Twitter to accuse Kerry of holding "illegal meetings with the very hostile Iranian Regime." Two weeks ago, Trump peddled a similar line, also in a tweet. Today, the Republican made the pitch from a White House podium.

The repetition doesn't make the attack any better.

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Mick Mulvaney

After Trump Jr. subpoena, White House laments 'bad form'

05/09/19 12:47PM

The Senate Intelligence Committee raised a few eyebrows yesterday when it issued a subpoena to Donald Trump Jr. Apparently, lawmakers have some questions about his previous testimony, which may have been misleading, regarding the Trump Organization's proposed Moscow tower project negotiated during the 2016 campaign.

To put it mildly, many in the GOP weren't pleased to see a Republican-led committee in a Republican-led chamber issue a subpoena to the son of a Republican president. But as the Washington Post noted, someone in the West Wing was especially displeased.

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney on Wednesday criticized Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee for not informing him that President Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. would be subpoenaed by the panel as part of its ongoing probe into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.

In an interview with CBS News, Mulvaney said it was "bad form" for the Republican-led committee to subpoena Trump Jr. without giving him advance notice.

Specifically, the president's acting chief suggested he expected some kind of special treatment. "I have no difficulty with bipartisanship, but to subpoena the president of the United States' son and not at least get a heads-up, I thought was -- let's say -- bad form," Mulvaney said.

I suppose the obvious joke here is to mock the Trump White House's newfound interest in norms, decorum, and the importance of senators protecting people's feelings.

And while that's certainly notable, I also think there's a larger concern here about the White House's understanding of how Donald Trump Jr. fits into the president's political operation.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.9.19

05/09/19 12:00PM

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

* Apparently trying to get a rise out of critics, Donald Trump said at a Florida campaign rally last night that he could remain in office for "10 or 14" years.

* As Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signals interest in a possible primary challenge to Trump, the latest statewide poll in Maryland found the governor trailing the president by a two-to-one margin among Republican voters in Hogan's own home state.

* With Sen. Mike Enzi (R) retiring in Wyoming, Senate Republican leaders are urging Rep. Liz Cheney (R) to run for Enzi's seat. House Republicans, meanwhile, are lobbying Cheney to remain in the lower chamber, where she's currently the #3 member of the GOP leadership.

* Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) may not be leading the fundraising race among 2020 presidential hopefuls, but has raised more than her rivals in communities of color.

* Speaking of Harris, the Californian apparently won't have the support of her Golden State colleague: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) reiterated her support for Joe Biden's presidential campaign this week, though she added that she "loves" and "appreciates" Harris.

* Remember former CIA operative Valerie Plame, whose identity was leaked by the Bush/Cheney White House? She announced this morning that she's running for Congress in New Mexico's 3rd district, which is currently held by Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D), who's now running for the U.S. Senate.

* Would former Attorney General Jeff Sessions seek a political comeback? The former Republican senator said yesterday he hasn't ruled out a race against Sen. Doug Jones (D) in Alabama next year. Jones currently holds the seat Sessions held before joining Trump's cabinet.

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History mandates presidential candidates release tax returns, but not how many

Trump's lawyers: demanding his tax returns is 'unconstitutional'

05/09/19 11:20AM

We've known for weeks that Donald Trump hired a legal team specifically to help keep the president's personal finances secret. We've also known for a while that these attorneys have made a series of desperate attempts to meet their client's needs.

But what's still coming into focus is how strange their arguments are. Yesterday, as the Washington Post reported, Trump's lawyers asked a federal judge to block a congressional subpoena that went to the president's accounting firm, condemning the directive as unconstitutional.

In a 24-page filing, Trump's legal team asked the D.C. court to block a committee subpoena to Trump's accounting firm, Mazars USA, saying the panel's demand "lacks a legitimate legislative purpose." Even if there were one, Trump's lawyers argued, the newly elected Democratic-led House overstepped its authority by passing a campaign finance and ethics bill as its first legislation in January that would require, among other things, the president and the vice president to make public 10 years of tax returns.

"H.R. 1 and any similar proposal to regulate the President's finances would be unconstitutional. Congress cannot interfere with the Executive's execution of his duties, or add qualifications for President," wrote Trump's attorneys, led by William S. Consovoy of Arlington, Va.

This is really quite weird. It's one thing for Team Trump to go after subpoenas and congressional directives, but in this case, the president's lawyers have told a federal judge about their objections to a legislative proposal that hasn't even passed Congress.

Why? It's probably because Trump's legal team is targeting an existing federal law, which has been on the books for nearly a century, that says the Treasury Department "shall furnish" the tax materials in response to a formal request from one of a handful of congressional lawmakers.

If that law is unconstitutional, then the Trump administration can continue to ignore it, comfortable that Congress "cannot interfere with the Executive's execution of his duties, or add qualifications for President."

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Image: Donald Trump, Neil Gorsuch, Anthony Kennedy

After stating his goals for Iran, Trump's policy makes even less sense

05/09/19 10:48AM

Despite making a series of unnecessary concessions, Donald Trump's policy toward North Korea appears to be unraveling. The rogue nuclear state launched two rounds of missiles overnight -- despite Trump's boast that he brought an end to North Korea's weapons testing -- and yesterday, the Pentagon said it's suspended talks with Pyongyang about recovering the remains of U.S. service members killed during the Korean war.

And yet, the last we heard from the White House, the American president reiterated that the North Korean dictator knows that Trump is "with him."

But as strange as it is to see the Republican embrace a nuclear-armed dictator who keeps firing missiles into the sea, Trump's policy toward North Korea is clear and coherent compared to his posture toward Iran. Here was the American president last night at a rally in northern Florida:

"I hope to be able at some point -- maybe it won't happen, possibly won't -- to sit down and work out a fair deal [with Iran]. We're not looking to hurt anybody.

"We want a fair deal. We just don't want them to have nuclear weapons. It's all we want."

That might be more persuasive if it weren't for the fact that Trump already had what he said he wants. There was an international nuclear agreement in place with Iran, which according to the president's own team, was working exactly as intended -- right up until Trump abandoned the policy one year ago this week for reasons that he's never fully explained.

If "all" the administration wants is for Iran not to have nuclear weapons, all Trump had to do was allow the policy to keep working effectively. He did the opposite, which has led Iran to start backing away from its commitments under the deal.

The result is a dynamic in which the Republican is embracing a rogue nuclear state firing missiles, while thumbing his nose at a country that was complying with an international agreement the United States negotiated.

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Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks to the media on June 3, 2016 in Doral, Fla. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

Rubio's old principle: an AG held in contempt 'should resign'

05/09/19 10:00AM

The House Judiciary Committee voted yesterday to hold Attorney General Bill Barr in contempt, and soon, the whole Democratic-led House will likely approve the same measure.

According to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), that's a strong indication that the attorney general should resign -- at least according to the standards the Florida Republican laid out seven years ago.

Video unearthed Wednesday by an activist group shows U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio making the case for Attorney General Eric Holder to resign after he was found in contempt of Congress in 2012.

"No one can be above the law, not even the Attorney General," Rubio says in the clip. He added: "I think an attorney general held in contempt of Congress is someone who should resign." [...]

The clip was released by Republicans for the Rule of Law, a group created by "life-long Republicans dedicated to defending the institutions of our republic," according to the organization's website.

At one point in the video, Rubio emphasizes the institutional significance of congressional oversight of the executive branch, concluding that it's "outrageous that any attorney general, Republican or Democrat, refused to comply with Congress' constitutional right to hold them accountable and the Justice Department accountable."

The senator quickly added, "I would say that if this was a Republican."

Is that so.

Rubio went on to complain about the administration's use of executive privilege, which led him to believe "there's something in those documents that they don't want us to know about. There's something in there they don't want the public to be aware of. And I think that's wrong."

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Image: John Bolton

Trump starts to realize that John Bolton still agrees with John Bolton

05/09/19 09:20AM

Donald Trump's policy toward Venezuela hasn't gone according to plan, and according to the Washington Post's latest reporting, the president knows exactly who deserves the blame.

President Trump is questioning his administration's aggressive strategy in Venezuela following the failure of a U.S.-backed effort to oust President Nicolás Maduro, complaining he was misled about how easy it would be to replace the socialist strongman with a young opposition figure, according to administration officials and White House advisers.

The president's dissatisfaction has crystallized around national security adviser John Bolton and what Trump has groused is an interventionist stance at odds with his view that the United States should stay out of foreign quagmires.

The Post's report added that Trump has said in recent days that Bolton wants to get him "into a war."

The word "duh" keeps coming to mind.

On the surface, it's easy to see why the president might feel frustrated. He sought national security advice from the White House national security adviser. That powerful aide encouraged Trump to follow a direction that, the president now seems to realize, wasn't altogether wise.

But who's fault is that? Is it just now dawning on Trump that John Bolton still agrees with everything John Bolton has believed for decades?

The president reportedly suspects his national security adviser wants to get him "into a war," which is obviously the case because he's John Bolton.

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U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham talks to a reporter as he arrives at Capitol Hill in Washington U.S. on May 10, 2016. (Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Dems remind Graham of questions he should want answers to

05/09/19 08:40AM

In theory, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has a responsibility to take the Mueller report and its findings seriously. Lately, however, the Republican senator and Donald Trump ally has gone to almost comical lengths to say he doesn't care.

In fact, Graham has abandoned all subtlety on the matter, repeatedly saying, "I don't care" during a recent interview when asked about evidence of Donald Trump possibly having committed obstruction of justice. He soon after chaired a hearing with Attorney General Bill Barr, at which the GOP senator "played pretty fast and loose with the facts."

Graham also recently concluded, "I'm all good, I'm done with the Mueller report" -- referring to a document he admitted to not having read.

To hear Graham tell it, there are no more questions to ask. There are no new facts to learn. There are no more witnesses worth hearing from. Everything that responsible officials need to know is now known.

Yesterday, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent him a letter, pointing to 60 questions that still deserve answers -- which Special Counsel Robert Mueller is in a unique position to provide.

The questions span Russia's election interference, WikiLeaks's publication of hacked Democratic National Committee emails, communication between Trump campaign officials and Russians, obstruction of justice, business ties to Russia, President Trump's degree of cooperation with Mueller's investigation and Trump's interactions with former White House counsel Don McGahn.

Democrats want to know — absent the Justice Department's longstanding Office of Legal Counsel opinion that a sitting president can't be indicted — if Mueller would have reached a decision on obstruction of justice, and if or how the OLC opinion guided the Russia probe.

The Democrats' letter to Graham is online here. As Rachel noted on the show last might, it's an impressive list of questions, which in theory should spur the Judiciary Committee chairman to invite Mueller to provide testimony.

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Image: Republican National Convention: Day One

Republican-led Senate panel subpoenas Donald Trump Jr.

05/09/19 08:00AM

When Donald Trump Jr. testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2017, he fielded questions about the Moscow tower project the Trump Organization pursued during the campaign. It was a project, we later learned, that his father lied to the public about.

Regardless, the president's eldest son testified at the time that he was only "peripherally aware" of the proposal. That may not have been true. In fact, Michael Cohen told the same committee that he briefed Trump Jr. repeatedly about the project before the deal fell through.

And with this in mind, lawmakers would like to hear from Trump Jr. again -- and they don't want him to see this as optional.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr. to answer questions about his contention that he had only limited knowledge of a project to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, a source with direct knowledge told NBC News.

The committee, led by Republicans, is nearing completion of its investigation into Russian election interference -- a probe that is expected to result in a series of written reports.

There have been plenty of subpoenas and confrontations of late, but it's worth pausing to appreciate what makes this development so unusual.

For one thing, as NBC News' report noted, this is the first known congressional subpoena of a member of the president's immediate family. (Trump Jr., like his father, refused to volunteer to answer Special Counsel Robert Mueller's questions.)

For another, the subpoena sets up another potential clash between Team Trump and Congress. Trump Jr. was reportedly "exasperated" by the committee's move, and as Rachel noted on the show last night, appears likely to fight the subpoena.

But perhaps most striking is the partisan dynamic, which in this case, is wholly unfamiliar.

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