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Oil rig pumpjacks, also known as thirsty birds, extract crude from the Wilmington Field oil deposits area near Long Beach, California in this July 30, 2013 file photo.

On Syrian oil, Trump says US 'should be able to take some'

10/28/19 10:37AM

Donald Trump has spent the better part of a month telling the world that the United States is withdrawing from parts of Syria. It's increasingly obvious, however, that the president's claims aren't altogether true. Indeed, Defense Secretary Mark Esper explained on Friday that the Pentagon is dispatching armored vehicles and combat troops into Syria in order to protect oil fields.

The Washington Post had a fascinating behind-the-scenes report on this, noting that Trump administration officials came to realize that the president wouldn't be swayed by focusing on how his decision would affect other countries, because Trump didn't care if U.S. adversaries grew stronger as a result of his agenda. What the Republican did care about, however, was oil -- so that's what officials emphasized to steer him away from the complete withdrawal he had in mind.

One official described the process of changing Trump's mind with an oil-centric pitch: "This is like feeding a baby its medicine in yogurt or applesauce." (The baby, in this analogy, is the Commander in Chief of the world's most dominant military.)

That said, the officials who assumed the president would be swayed by arguments related to oil were correct. Consider Trump's comments yesterday while announcing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's demise.

"[W]e are leaving soldiers to secure the oil. And we may have to fight for the oil. It's okay. Maybe somebody else wants the oil, in which case they have a hell of a fight. But there's massive amounts of oil.

"And we're securing it for a couple of reasons. Number one, it stops ISIS, because ISIS got tremendous wealth from that oil. We have taken it. It's secured. Number two -- and again, somebody else may claim it, but either we'll negotiate a deal with whoever is claiming it, if we think it's fair, or we will militarily stop them very quickly."

Reflecting on the Syrian oil's value, Trump went on to say that the United States "should be able to take some," adding, "[W]hat I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly."

In context, "it" appeared to refer to extracting oil.

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Baghdadi mission reportedly succeeded 'in spite of' Trump's actions

10/28/19 09:25AM

The successful U.S. mission targeting Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of ISIS, relied heavily on strong alliances and trust in U.S. intelligence agencies. It created a degree of irony to the circumstances: Donald Trump has made little effort to hide his disdain for strong alliances and trusting U.S. intelligence agencies.

But digging a little deeper, a more serious contradiction emerges. The New York Times spoke to intelligence, military, and counterterrorism officials yesterday who emphasized that U.S. forces were "zeroing in on" on the ISIS leader when the American president ordered the withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria. The Times explained that Trump's policy shift changed the nature of the operation, and not for the better.

... Mr. Trump's abrupt withdrawal order three weeks ago disrupted the meticulous planning underway and forced Pentagon officials to speed up the plan for the risky night raid before their ability to control troops, spies and reconnaissance aircraft disappeared with the pullout, the officials said.

Mr. al-Baghdadi's death in the raid on Saturday, they said, occurred largely in spite of, and not because of, Mr. Trump's actions.

This reporting has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News.

The same article noted that it was the Kurds who "provided more intelligence for the raid than any single country," adding that the Kurds "continued to provide information to the C.I.A. on Mr. al-Baghdadi's location even after Mr. Trump's decision to withdraw the American troops left the Syrian Kurds to confront a Turkish offensive alone."

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After decrying leaks, Trump shares sensitive details on Baghdadi raid

10/28/19 08:45AM

In his remarks yesterday announcing the demise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of ISIS, Donald Trump thanked Russia before expressing his gratitude toward anyone else. "Russia treated us great," the American president declared.

He added that he notified Russia in advance that the U.S. was "going over an area where they had a lot of firepower" but not about the purpose of the raid. "We spoke to the Russians. We told them we're coming in. They said, 'Thank you for telling us.' They were very good," Trump said, adding, "They did not know the mission but they knew we were going over an area where they had a lot of firepower."

Key Democratic congressional leaders, however, were deliberately kept out of the loop.

President Donald Trump said he did not give many congressional leaders advance notice of the raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Saturday because he was afraid of "leaks," he told reporters at a Sunday news conference. [...]

Trump said the members of Congress he informed ahead of the raid were North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, both Republicans. Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is on what is known as the "Gang of Eight" for intelligence-related matters: Senate and House leaders from both parties and the chairman and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

Trump said only "very few people" were made aware of the raid, naming top officials in his administration and later Burr and Graham.

Trump kept Lindsey Graham informed -- the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman is not a member of the Gang of Eight, and there was no procedural reason to brief him in advance of highly sensitive intelligence -- but he kept House leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff in the dark.

It's worth emphasizing that this isn't just a question of discourtesy. In our system of government, a president is not supposed to share intelligence secrets exclusively with members of one party.

By way of an explanation, the president, asked if he'd informed the House Speaker, said, "No, I didn't. I didn't do -- I didn't do that. I wanted to make sure this kept secret. I don't want to have men lost -- and women. I don't want to have people lost."

Trump added, "Washington leaks like I've never seen before. There's nothing -- there's no country in the world that leaks like we do. And Washington is a leaking machine. And I told my people we will not notify them until the -- our great people are out."

There are a few glaring problems with this.

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Trump delivers al-Baghdadi news in a decidedly Trumpian way

10/28/19 08:00AM

One of the best moments of Donald Trump's presidency also could've been one of the easiest. All the president had to do was read a straightforward statement -- which the White House had 12 hours to prepare -- announcing the demise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of ISIS.

The development was unambiguously good news, a boost for U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, and cause for congratulations for all involved. It was also an opportunity for Trump to act like a president, if only for a few minutes, with remarks that could've helped define his term.

But as is too often the case, Trump lacked the wherewithal to restrain his worst instincts. During a rambling 48-minute appearance, the Republican used a tone one might expect on a playground; he needlessly shared sensitive operational details; he made multiple canine references for reasons that were not at all clear; he took the time to praise a far-right media network; he made self-aggrandizing claims for no reason; and Trump lied rather brazenly about his own record.

Consider this head-shaking moment, in which the president referred to ISIS leaders:

"You know, these people are very smart. They're not into the use of cellphones anymore. They're not -- they're very technically brilliant. You know, they use the Internet better than almost anybody in the world, perhaps other than Donald Trump. But they use the Internet incredibly well.

"And what they've done with the Internet, through recruiting and everything -- and that's why he died like a dog, he died like a coward."

You could almost see the wheels turning in Trump's mind, as he started to marvel at how impressed he was with himself, before realizing that he should at least try to stick to the topic at hand.

After insisting that al-Baghdadi's death is more significant that Osama bin Laden's -- a dubious assertion, to be sure -- viewers were treated to this Trump ridiculous gem:

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Friday's Mini-Report, 10.25.19

10/25/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A major win for congressional Dems: "A federal court judge on Friday ordered the Department of Justice to turn over grand jury material referenced in redacted portions of special counsel Robert Mueller's report to the House Judiciary Committee. Beryl Howell, the chief judge for the Washington, D.C. district court, ordered DOJ to turn over the materials by Wednesday, Oct. 30."

* A related angle to the court victory: "The House is legally engaged in an impeachment inquiry, a federal judge ruled on Friday, delivering a major victory to House Democrats and undercutting arguments by President Trump and Republicans that the investigation is a sham."

* Did you hear the one about Rudy Giuliani leaving a three-minute voicemail after butt-dialing an NBC News reporter? "Giuliani can be heard discussing overseas dealings and lamenting the need for cash, though it's difficult to discern the full context of the conversation."

* This is an angle to the Giuliani controversy worth watching closely: "The criminal division of the Justice Department in Washington has taken an interest in the former New York mayor.... A move to bring department headquarters -- 'Main Justice' as its widely known — deeper into the Giuliani probe is causing heartburn at SDNY, which is widely known for its autonomy and reputation as the 'Sovereign District of New York.'"

* Betsy DeVos: "A federal judge has held Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in contempt of court for violating an order to stop collecting loans from thousands of former for-profit college students. U.S. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim issued the ruling Thursday in San Francisco. She also fined the Education Department $100,000."

* This should cause some unease in the West Wing: "Former national security adviser John Bolton's lawyers have been in contact with officials on the committees leading the impeachment inquiry, a person close to Bolton has confirmed to NBC News."

* Didn't Trump just promise to bring the troops home? "The White House is considering options for leaving about 500 U.S. troops in northeast Syria and for sending dozens of battle tanks and other equipment to protect them, officials said Thursday, the latest in an array of scenarios following President Trump's decision this month to remove all troops there."

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Despite Trump's promises, deficit soars in 2019

10/25/19 04:20PM

In June 2018, Larry Kudlow, the director of the Trump White House's National Economic Council, expressed his delight with the nation's fiscal landscape. Federal revenues, he insisted, are "rolling in," while the budget deficit "is coming down."

It wasn't coming down at the time, and it's certainly not coming down now. In the fiscal year that just wrapped up, as the Washington Post reported, the deficit hit $984 billion.

The U.S. government's budget deficit ballooned to nearly $1 trillion in 2019, the Treasury Department announced Friday, as America's fiscal imbalance widened for a fourth consecutive year despite a sustained run of economic growth. The deficit grew $205 billion, or 26 percent, in the past year.

The country's worsening fiscal picture runs in sharp contrast to President Trump's campaign promise to eliminate the federal debt within eight years. The deficit is up nearly 50 percent in the Trump era. Since taking office, Trump has endorsed big spending increases and steered most Republicans to abandon the deficit obsession they held during the Obama administration.

The trend is likely to continue: the deficit will almost certainly top $1 trillion in 2020.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, these aren’t exactly the fiscal results Donald Trump promised the electorate before his election. As regular readers may recall, in February 2016, the future president appeared on Fox News and assured viewers that, if he were president, he could start paying off the national debt “so easily.” The Republican argued at the time that it would simply be a matter of looking at the country as “a profit-making corporation” instead of “a losing corporation.”

A month later, in March 2016, Trump declared at a debate that he could cut trillions of dollars in spending by eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse.” Asked for a specific example, he said, “We’re cutting Common Core.” (Common Core is an education curriculum. It costs the federal government almost nothing.)

A month after that, in April 2016, Trump declared that he was confident that he could “get rid of” the entire multi-trillion-dollar debt “fairly quickly.” Pressed to be more specific, the future president replied, “Well, I would say over a period of eight years.”

By July 2016, he boasted that once his economic agenda was in place, “we’ll start paying off that debt like water.”

As Catherine Rampell recently explained, “Federal deficits have widened immensely under Trump’s leadership. This is striking not only because he promised fiscal responsibility – at one time even pledging to eliminate the national debt within eight years – but also because it’s a historical anomaly…. Trump’s own policies are to blame for this aberration.”

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In this Dec. 5, 2017 file photo, Summer Zervos leaves Manhattan Supreme Court at the conclusion of a hearing in New York.

New details emerge in defamation lawsuit against Trump

10/25/19 12:49PM

Shortly before the 2016 presidential election, Americans heard a recording in which Donald Trump was heard bragging about committing sexual assaults. The Republican said, among other things, that he kisses women he considers attractive – “I don’t even wait,” Trump claimed at the time – which he said he can get away with because of his public profile.

“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump said on the recording. “You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the p—y.”

After Trump denied having done what he bragged about doing, more than a few women came forward to accuse the Republican of sexual misconduct – one of whom, Summer Zervos, is currently suing the president for defamation, after Trump insisted each of his accusers were liars.

Trump and his lawyers have spent months trying to make the case go away, insisting that a sitting president is immune to civil suits in state courts. As regular readers know, their efforts have come up short and the case is ongoing.

The Washington Post reported overnight on the latest revelations from the case.

Excerpts of President Trump's private calendar from a dozen years ago made public on Thursday appear to show Trump was at a Beverly Hills hotel around the same time a former "Apprentice" contestant alleges he assaulted her there.

Email exchanges from 2007 also released Thursday show that the woman, Summer Zervos, had sought a lunch meeting with Trump in New York around the time she claims he kissed her inappropriately in that city.

The calendar records and email correspondence came to light in court filings related to Zervos's ongoing defamation lawsuit against Trump in New York State Court.

Trump has denied any wrongdoing, insisting he never met Zervos at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The president's lawyer in this case, Marc Kasowitz, told the Associated Press yesterday that Zervos's claims are "entirely meritless and not corroborated by any documents."

Nevertheless, the latest details emerged as part of the discovery process in this case, and that process is ongoing. That's of interest for reasons that relate directly to the defamation suit, of course, but there may be related implications.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.25.19

10/25/19 12:00PM

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

* Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) ended his struggling presidential campaign yesterday, shrinking the Democratic 2020 field to 18 candidates -- which is still the largest ever.

* Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), facing a tough primary challenge in her home district, announced overnight that she's giving up her U.S. House seat to focus exclusively on her long-shot presidential campaign. This has fueled speculation about a possible third-party bid, but it's worth noting that Gabbard, a former DNC official, signed the party's loyalty pledge, just like every other 2020 contender.

* Speaking of the DNC, Democratic officials announced some new details about December's presidential primary debate, currently scheduled for Dec. 19 in Los Angeles. To participate, candidates will need at least 4% support in four qualifying polls, or 6% support in two early-state polls. Candidates will also need at least 200,00 unique donors, with a minimum of 800 unique donors per state in at least 20 states.

* As of this weekend, the Iowa presidential caucuses are 100 days away. Buckle up.

* For months, Joe Biden's campaign suggested it did not want or expect support from an independent super PAC. Yesterday, the former vice president's operation, facing a financial shortfall, softened that position quite a bit.

* With just 11 days remaining in Mississippi's gubernatorial race a Mason-Dixon poll found Tate Reeves (R) with a narrow advantage over Jim Hood (D), 46% to 43%. (It's worth noting for context that Mississippi has an electoral-college-style model that makes it awfully difficult for a Democrat to win.)

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Still struggling, Pompeo calls a good question 'insane'

10/25/19 11:20AM

On the one hand, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, up to his neck in Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal, seems unusually eager to maintain a high media profile. On the other hand, he doesn't seem to know what to say or do when confronted with good questions from media professionals.

Two weeks ago, Pompeo appeared hopelessly lost when WSMV's Nancy Amon was far better prepared for an interview than he was. Soon after, the cabinet secretary's interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos was every bit as cringe-worthy. Reflecting on Pompeo's on-air comments, MSNBC's Nicole Wallace told viewers, "That was the worst appearance by an executive branch official I've ever seen in my career."

Alas, practice isn't making perfect. Yesterday, Pompeo made his third trip of the year to Kansas -- where he doesn't want to be seen as a possible Republican U.S. Senate candidate -- and sat down with KMUV in Wichita.

QUESTION: So the President's press secretary has described some current and former members of your department, the State Department, as "unelected radical bureaucrats." I know Vice President Mike Pence in an interview recently said an awful lot of the swamp has been caught up in the State Department bureaucracy. Do you agree with these descriptions of the State Department and employees in the department?

POMPEO: I've said repeatedly this a talented, diverse workforce capably delivering on America's mission set. I hope we get a chance, Stephen, sometime to talk a little bit about what I came on today. You seem fixated on this storyline about this inquiry. You seem incredibly fixated on that. I came here to Kansas today to talk about things that really matter, the things that when I walk around and I talk to people they care deeply about here in Kansas.

Note, this was the secretary of State's opportunity to defend his own cabinet agency against ugly and misguided attacks, but after a brief, perfunctory comment, Pompeo -- the nation's chief diplomat, whose sole professional focus is on American foreign policy -- said he only wanted to talk about the issues he hears while walking around Kansas.

It's as if the Republican is thinking more about his next job than his current one.

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The one reason Lindsey Graham's impeachment stunt may actually matter

10/25/19 10:20AM

Yesterday was not the finest day in the career of South Carolina's senior U.S. senator.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Thursday introduced a resolution backed by more than 40 GOP senators excoriating House Democrats' impeachment inquiry, accusing Democrats of violating due process for interviewing key witnesses behind closed doors.

Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced the five-page resolution that includes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as a co-sponsor on Thursday afternoon.

Reflecting on Graham's antics, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank asked, "Could he be any more shameful?" I'm tempted to answer in the negative, but the Senate Judiciary Committee's chairman keeps finding new ways to embarrass himself.

At this point, it's tempting to write a point-by-point takedown of everything Graham said during his unfortunate press conference yesterday afternoon. I'm inclined to write a long, tiresome piece explaining in excruciating detail that there's nothing scandalous about the House's impeachment inquiry; Graham is surely aware of that; he's contradicting his own stated principles; Graham's rhetoric about due process doesn't make any sense at all; and he appears unusually pitiful doing the bidding of a president who recently felt the need to remind Graham that he's his "boss."

But for now, let's put those relevant considerations aside and consider a more practical detail: the number of co-sponsors on Graham's pointless resolution.

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Is the House GOP failing to do real work in the impeachment inquiry?

10/25/19 09:20AM

To hear House Republicans tell it, Democratic leaders are holding a secret and partisan impeachment inquiry that excludes GOP lawmakers from the process. They know that's ridiculous: as USA Today noted yesterday, 47 Republican members on the relevant committees leading the investigation "have access to the closed-door depositions."

In fact, many of the members who barged into a secure congressional hearing room this week, disrupting the process as a press stunt, were fully permitted to be there. They didn't need to storm the gates; they already had an invitation. It was a pointless made-for-the-cameras circus.

But on the show last night, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, raised a related point I hadn't heard before.

MALONEY: It's not enough that [dozens of House Republicans on the relevant committees] have every right to be there for every deposition, that their lawyers get equal time, that their members get equal time. And, of course, the funny part is, is very few of them have taken advantage of that because apparently they don't want to do the actual work.

MADDOW: Republican members haven't been sitting in on the depositions even when they're allowed to?

MALONEY: Very few.

Hmm. Is that so.

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