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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 10.29.19

10/29/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The vote on this is expected Thursday and passage is very likely: "House Democrats released on Tuesday text of the resolution that will detail their procedures as they move forward with the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump."

* California: "Los Angeles firefighters continued their battle against a stubborn mountainside blaze Tuesday, with their eyes on the clock because of a forecast for high winds that could make their task far more difficult."

* The massive protests had the intended effect: "Lebanon's embattled prime minister says he is handing in his resignation to the president after he hit a 'dead end' amid nationwide anti-government protests."

* Refugees: "The United States is on track to not admit any refugees in October, after already canceling around 500 flights this month, CNN has learned. A pause on admissions that was expected to lift on Tuesday will now extend into November, leaving those who expected to resettle in the US in limbo. It also means additional travel will need to be canceled and re-booked at the expense of federal taxpayers."

* Remember, Trump assured us the "phase one" agreement was already done: "The United States and China are continuing to work on an interim trade agreement, but it may not be completed in time for the U.S. and Chinese leaders to sign it in Chile next month, a U.S. administration official said on Tuesday."

* A British mess gets a little messier: "Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, in the boldest gamble of his high-wire political career, won backing on Tuesday to hold a general election on Dec. 12, throwing back to the British people the bedeviling issue of how, or even if, their country should leave the European Union."

* Speaking of messes: "Breaking with some of their biggest rivals, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler and Toyota said Monday they were intervening on the side of the Trump administration in an escalating battle with California over fuel economy standards for automobiles."

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A view of the state capitol on March 6, 2015 in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)

Federal judge blocks Alabama's near-total abortion ban

10/29/19 12:42PM

In recent years, we've seen plenty of states take on radical anti-abortion legislation, but as regular readers know, the policy adopted by Alabama in May was unusually radical. Today, it was also blocked by a federal judge -- a month before it was scheduled to take effect.

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked Alabama's near-total abortion ban that would have made it illegal for a doctor to perform or attempt an abortion during any stage of pregnancy. [...]

The near-total abortion ban bill was designed to challenge more than 40 years of federal abortion protections under Roe v. Wade.

The law, which would have called for a sentence of 10 years to life in prison for the abortion provider with no exceptions for rape or incest, was the strictest of several anti-abortion measures enacted this year.

One of the things that makes Alabama's measure extraordinary is its radical simplicity: it simply bans all abortions, at every stage of pregnancy. Women who can prove that a pregnancy puts their lives at risk can get an abortion, but no one else will be legally eligible.

As Rachel noted on the show in the spring, "Rape victims and incest victims -- even juveniles -- as of this bill just passed by the Alabama legislature tonight, they will be forced to give birth against their will, along with any other woman in the state who ends up pregnant by any other means."

Pretty much everyone involved in the fight expected today's outcome for the simple reason that Roe v. Wade is still the existing legal precedent. That said, after Donald Trump and Senate Republicans put Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on the U.S. Supreme Court, and the balance of power shifted even further to the right, conservative lawmakers, including those in Alabama, believed it was time to start pushing the legal envelope.

Indeed, one of the Alabama lawmakers who helped sponsor the state's radical law told NBC News several months ago, "This bill's purpose is to hopefully get to the Supreme Court."

Of course, the strategy is not without risk.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.29.19

10/29/19 12:00PM

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

* A panel of state judges in North Carolina yesterday ruled that the state cannot use its gerrymandered congressional map in the 2020 elections. As NBC News' report noted, the panel stopped short of ordering the legislature to draw new maps but said disruptions could be avoided "should the General Assembly, on its own initiative, act immediately and with all due haste to enact new congressional districts."

* With just 18 days remaining before Louisiana's competitive gubernatorial race, a JMC Analytics and Polling survey found incumbent Gov. Jon Bel Edwards (D) narrowly leading Eddie Rispone (R), 48% to 46%.

* The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported yesterday that state officials in Georgia are planning another "purge" of the voter rolls: "About 330,000 voter registrations in Georgia could soon be canceled because registrants haven't participated in elections for several years."

* Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, announced yesterday that he'll retire at the end of this Congress.

* In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has scheduled the special election to fill the late Rep. Elijah Cummings' (D) vacancy. There will be a primary on Feb. 4, and a general election on April 28. This is a district that Hillary Clinton won by 53 points, so a competitive contest is not expected.

* Speaking of special elections, Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) resigned from Congress over the weekend, creating another House vacancy. Hill is the third member to resign this year, following the departures of Pennsylvania's Tom Marino and Wisconsin's Sean Duffy.

* Tom Steyer, a Democratic presidential candidate making his first bid for elected office, has already spent nearly $30 million in advertising. As NBC News noted yesterday, "Steyer's spending over the airwaves is seven times greater than the second-biggest advertiser in the presidential race (President Trump's re-election campaign) and 15 times greater than his nearest Democratic rival (Pete Buttigieg)."

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Right takes aim at key White House witness, decorated combat vet

10/29/19 11:07AM

Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman appears to have Donald Trump and his allies a little rattled, which makes a degree of sense under the circumstances. Vindman is the top Ukraine expert on the White House National Security Council, and according to his opening statement, he'll testify to the congressional impeachment inquiry today about his concerns over Trump's political scheme with Ukraine.

As we discussed earlier, Vindman is a White House official with direct, first-hand information about what transpired -- he was on the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky -- and his testimony appears likely to corroborate the testimony of other key witnesses.

Just as importantly, Vindman, who immigrated to the United States as a small child, is a witness with tough-to-dismiss credibility: the lieutenant colonel is a decorated U.S. Army combat veteran who served in Iraq, where he was injured by an IED blast in the line of duty. He was awarded a Purple Heart.

This morning, Donald Trump nevertheless denounced Vindman as a "Never Trumper witness," suggesting without evidence that the lieutenant colonel has suspect political motivations. As New York's Jon Chait added, several prominent voices in conservative media have targeted him in even uglier ways.

"Here we have a U.S. national-security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House apparently against the president's interest," [Fox News' Laura Ingraham said] on her nightly show. "Isn't that kind of an interesting angle on this story?" former Bush-administration lawyer John Yoo replied. "Some people might call that espionage." (Alan Dershowitz, the third member of the colloquy, smiled along.)

This morning on cable news, the smear campaign continued. "It seems very clear that he is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense," said former congressman Sean Duffy on CNN. "I don't know that he's concerned about American policy ... We all have an affinity to our homeland where we came from ... he has an affinity for the Ukraine." Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade added, "We also know he was born in the Soviet Union, emigrated with his family. Young. He tends to feel simpatico with the Ukraine."

My point is not that decorated American combat veterans are always right or that their conclusions must never be challenged. That's not how a responsible public discourse works in a free society.

It is nauseating, however, for Trump's allies to publicly question Vindman's loyalties because he's an American immigrant who has the audacity to tell the truth about what he saw and heard at the White House.

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Pence cagey in response to straightforward Ukraine scandal question

10/29/19 10:25AM

On Sunday morning, much of the country's attention was focused on Donald Trump's announcement on the demise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and for good reason. When a military raid leads to the death of ISIS's founder and leader, it's a major development of international significance.

But also on Sunday morning, Vice President Mike Pence sat down with CBS News' Margaret Brennan, who asked on Face the Nation about the Trump administration's ongoing Ukraine scandal. The host noted, for example, that at least four U.S. officials have now testified under oath about their knowledge of a proposed deal with Ukraine about a Biden-related investigation. Brennan asked, "Are they all lying?"

Pence replied, "Well, I can only tell you what I know. And what I know is that the transcript of [Trump's] call with President Zelensky shows that there was no quid pro quo."

It was a problematic response for a few reasons. The "transcript," for example, was really more of a call summary, and it may not fully reflect a word-for-word record of what was said. What's more, the summary is actually quite incriminating -- which is why the White House's allies believe it was a "huge mistake" for Trump to release it -- a fact that's made worse by additional details that have since come to light.

But of even greater interest was Pence's assertion that he's only prepared to say what he personally knows. In other words, the vice president wasn't prepared to endorse the White House's talking points in their entirety, so much as he was willing to speak to his own narrow vantage point.

This became a problematic posture when the host asked, over and over again, whether Pence was aware of the larger scheme Team Trump was trying to execute with Ukraine. This was the final Brennan effort to get a straight answer from the vice president:

BRENNAN: I haven't gotten a clear answer from you on that though, sir. I do have to leave the interview there. But are you saying that you did not ever hear of such a deal? Is that what I understand you are describing?

PENCE: I'm telling you that all of my interactions with [Trump], all of my conversations with President Zelensky, were entirely focused on issues of importance to the American people, ending corruption, enlisting more European support and supporting Ukraine in a way that would restore its territorial integrity and stand by Ukraine for its sovereignty.

Pence was given multiple opportunities to say there was no proposed quid-pro-quo deal with Ukraine. He simply wasn't willing to make the assertion.

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The Willis Tower (C), formerly known as the Sears Tower, dominates the southern end of the downtown skyline in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)

Trump keeps finding American cities to denounce

10/29/19 09:26AM

Last month, Donald Trump blasted Los Angeles and San Francisco as once-great cities that have been "devastated" by "the left-wing agenda." In July, Baltimore was the president's target. Atlanta and Philadelphia have also been on the receiving end of the Republican's scorn.

Yesterday, it was apparently Chicago's turn. The Associated Press reported:

Visiting Chicago for the first time as president, Donald Trump disparaged the city Monday as a haven for criminals that is "embarrassing to us as a nation." The city's top cop sat out Trump's speech to protest the president's immigration policies and frequently divisive rhetoric.

According to the official transcript, the president told the International Association of Chiefs of Police Annual Conference, "All over the world, they're talking about Chicago. Afghanistan is a safe place by comparison. It's true."

If pressed, I imagine Trump could tell us all about the imagined conversations he's had with people from around the globe, many of whom marveled at Chicago's crime rate. The stories would no doubt feature a lot of people who repeatedly used the word "sir" and were crying during their conversations with the president.

But putting that aside, what amazes is just how frequently the American president takes aim at communities in his own country.

There's a strain of conservative thought that insists that the left is made up of snobs who think they're superior -- culturally, intellectually -- to people who live outside of metropolitan areas. I've long found the complaints unpersuasive, but I've lost count of how many far-right events I've covered in which speakers have told audiences, "These liberals think they're better than you."

It's against this backdrop that the Republican president has spent a fair amount of time denouncing urban areas -- places with large minority populations and home to many immigrants -- with scorn and contempt. As Trump put it yesterday, he considers major American cities like Chicago to be "embarrassing" to the country.

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Trump continues to mishandle sensitive national security information

10/29/19 08:50AM

When Donald Trump announced the demise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of ISIS, the president made a variety of comments -- about the mission, about his background, about his record, etc. -- that were plainly false. NBC News' Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee reported last night, however, that many of the other details "were either highly classified or tactically sensitive, and their disclosure by the president made intelligence and military officials cringe, according to current and former U.S. officials."

The overarching concern about Trump's disclosures on the al-Baghdadi raid, officials said, is that he gave America's enemies details that could make intelligence gathering and similar military operations more difficult and more dangerous to pull off. [...]

Other information Trump discussed provided America's enemies with tactical details on how the military carries out a raid like the one on al-Baghdadi, officials said, including the robot, the helicopter flight patterns and how U.S. forces entered the compound.

There was, of course, a degree of irony to the circumstances: while the president was casually throwing around highly sensitive information, to the consternation of national security professionals, he was also complaining about "leaks" and others' inability to show discretion with classified materials.

But stepping back, the broader issue isn't just the carelessness Trump showed on Sunday morning; it's also the frequency with which he's mishandled sensitive national security information.

In fact, it's reached the point at which I came up with a Top 10 list.

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The White House is seen under dark rain clouds in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty)

Brutal scandal testimony to come from inside the White House

10/29/19 08:00AM

As damaging evidence against Donald Trump in the Ukraine scandal continues to mount, the president continues to insist he had an innocuous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy in July. To hear the Republican tell it, the conversation was "perfect."

For the first time, Congress will hear today from a highly credible witness from inside the White House who has a very different perspective. NBC News reported overnight:

A U.S. Army official and White House national security official plans to tell members of Congress conducting an impeachment inquiry that he was on the phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukraine's leader in which Trump asked for an investigation into the Bidens, and that he raised concerns about it.

Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, who is the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, considered the request so damaging to American national security that he reported it to a superior, according to his opening statement obtained by NBC News.

Vindman will be the first White House official to testify in the impeachment inquiry. He'll also be the first witness to have listened in on the infamous July 25 Trump-Zelensky call.

"I was concerned by the call. I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government's support of Ukraine," Vindman is expected to say in his opening statement.

The National Security Council expert was so concerned that Trump's scheme would "undermine U.S. national security" that he reported his concerns to his superiors -- twice. After a July 10 meeting, Vindman took his objections to the National Security Council's lead attorney, John Eisenberg, after hearing U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland reference a quid-pro-quo scheme. Vindman then spoke up again after the July 25 call between the two presidents.

And why is this testimony so important? A few reasons, actually.

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