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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump finds more 'anonymous validators' to tell him how right he is

12/03/19 11:20AM

In the UK for a NATO summit, Donald Trump spoke with reporters this morning, where he was proud to point to unnamed scholars who -- wouldn't you know it -- recently told the president how right he is about impeachment.

"All you have to do is read the transcripts, you'll see there was absolutely nothing done wrong. I had legal scholars looking at the transcripts the other day and they said, 'These are absolutely perfect, Trump is right when he uses the word.' ... Those calls that we made -- two of them -- were absolutely perfect calls."

At this point, we could once again explain that the transcripts aren't transcripts. And that the call summary of Trump's July 25 phone meeting was quite incriminating. And that the president's Ukraine scandal is far broader than a couple of conversations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. And that it's weird Trump doesn't seem to understand the nature of the controversy threatening his presidency.

But in this case, what I found especially entertaining was Trump pointing to alleged conversations he had "the other day" with "legal scholars" who not only told him how impressed they were with the transcripts that aren't transcripts, but who also endorsed the president's use of the word "perfect."

And who, pray tell, are these scholars? Well, Trump didn't say. They are, to borrow a phrase, his latest "anonymous validators."

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Prince Andrew becomes the latest person Trump pretends not to know

12/03/19 10:44AM

The Jeffrey Epstein scandal involves alleged wrongdoing on the part of others, including the UK's Prince Andrew. In fact, Virginia Roberts Giuffre has testified that she, as a teenager, had sex with the prince at Epstein's direction in 2001.

The scandal has forced Andrew to retreat from public life. This morning, Donald Trump commented on the controversy, telling reporters, "I don't know Prince Andrew, but it's a tough story; it's a very tough story." The American president, in London for a NATO summit, added, "I don't know him, no."

As the New York Times reported, there's a fair amount of evidence to the contrary.

During his state visit to Britain in June, Mr. Trump toured Westminster Abbey in London with the prince, and they were photographed laughing together.

There are also photographs of the two men together closer to the time and the social circles that Ms. Giuffre has spoken about.

Mr. Trump and his then-girlfriend, Melania Knauss -- who is now the first lady -- were seen with the prince at least twice in 2000: once at the opening of Hudson Hotel in New York and, more intimately, at Mr. Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

While the Republican's latest denial is very difficult to take seriously, it is also quite predictable -- because if there's one thing Donald Trump can be counted on to do, it's pretending not to know his associates when they get into trouble.

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The Republican National Committee headquarters, Sept. 9, 2014. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Some Republicans struggle to understand their own conspiracy theory

12/03/19 10:00AM

Ordinarily, when a television news program invites a member of Congress on to discuss public affairs, the host asks the questions and the lawmaker tries to answer them. On CNN last night, that dynamic was reversed a bit, as Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas) started asking questions, which host Chris Cuomo seemed eager to answer.

At issue was the Republican Party's ongoing support for a Russian-backed conspiracy theory that Ukraine was responsible for the attack on U.S. elections in 2016. In context, this exchange followed Cuomo's explanation that GOP officials keep echoing a Kremlin disinformation message intended to undermine U.S. interests.

WEBER: Chris, was CrowdStrike involved in the DCCC hacking?

CUOMO: Yes.

WEBER: Is CrowdStrike in part owned by a Ukrainian?

CUOMO: No.

WEBER: Really?

CUOMO: Yes.

WEBER: That's not the information that we have.

CUOMO: You have bad information.

It's a problem that Republicans are peddling crackpot conspiracy theories. It's a problem that Republicans are echoing a message concocted by the Kremlin to help Russia and hurt us.

But in a case like this, what I find especially amazing is that a GOP member of Congress, after having many months to familiarize himself with his own party's talking points, went on national television and made clear that he doesn't yet understand the basic details of his own crackpot conspiracy theory.

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With border wall contract, Trump faces corruption concerns

12/03/19 09:20AM

Those looking for evidence of a shady "swamp" in the nation's capital should look no further than Donald Trump intervening in the government contracting process, so that a company he likes will build border barriers across an Arizona wildlife refuge. The Washington Post reported overnight:

North Dakota-based Fisher Sand and Gravel won the contract to build in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Yuma County, Ariz., the Defense Department said, with a target completion date of Dec. 30, 2020.

Trump has repeatedly pushed for Fisher to get a wall-building contract, urging officials with the Army Corps of Engineers to pick the firm -- only to be told that Fisher's bids did not meet standards. Trump's entreaties on behalf of the company have concerned some officials who are unaccustomed to a president getting personally involved in the intricacies of government contracting.

The government contract to build 31 miles of barriers is worth $400 million.

The first signs of trouble emerged in May, when Trump "personally and repeatedly" started lobbying U.S. officials, including the head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to award government contracts to Fisher Industries. The Washington Post reported at the time that the presidential lobbying efforts "alarmed" military commanders and officials at the Department of Homeland Security.

That, of course, was the proper response to the circumstances.

As we discussed in the spring, the fact that Fisher's CEO, Tommy Fisher, is a Republican donor seems like an obvious issue. In fact, the chief executive and his wife were generous supporters of Sen. Kevin Cramer's (R-N.D.) campaign, and the GOP senator welcomed Fisher as his guest at Trump's State of the Union speech earlier this year.

But in this case, that's only part of the problem. The latest reporting suggests Trump didn't support Fischer because of campaign contributions; rather, the president intervened because he saw Fisher on Fox News.

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As a defense against impeachment, Trump clings to NATO

12/03/19 08:40AM

Donald Trump's hostility toward NATO has been an unsettling staple of his presidency. While American support for the alliance has been bipartisan for much of the last century, the Republican has broken new ground, publicly questioning the value of NATO, condemning NATO as “obsolete,” and by some accounts, threatening to withdraw from the alliance altogether.

But now that Trump is facing the prospect of impeachment, he and his team have decided they actually love NATO -- so much that they expect Congress to delay the impeachment process out of deference for this week's NATO summit in the U.K. As TPM reported:

White House counsel Pat Cipollone noted in his letter informing House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (R-NY) that Trump wouldn't attend the hearing this week that Democrats appeared to have purposely scheduled while Trump is out of town for the NATO summit in London. While the hearing is set for Wednesday when Trump is still gone, the invitation was extended just as earnestly to Trump's lawyers as it was to the President himself.

But Trump parroted that talking points while speaking to reporters before his departure Monday, calling the NATO summit -- an agreement he routinely derides as irrelevant -- "one of the most important journeys that we make as president."

Trump suggested to reporters that it's outrageous for Congress to advance the process at "the exact time" he will be abroad for a NATO gathering. The president added on Twitter that it's "not nice" for Democrats to "purposely schedule" a hearing during the summit.

Predictably, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to Fox News' morning show to echo the new talking points, as if they had merit.

They don't.

For one thing, there is no inherent conflict. The affairs of state continue, even when a president is abroad, and there's nothing stopping White House officials from participating in impeachment proceedings, regardless of a president's physical location.

Congressional Republicans proceeded with the impeachment process in 1998, even as Bill Clinton attended international meetings, so there's already a precedent to follow.

What's more, the idea that House Democrats deliberately scheduled hearings to coincide with NATO discussions is plainly foolish. Dems are moving quickly because of the calendar, not because of Trump's travel plans.

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Barr prepared to side with Trump's theories over Justice Dept probe

12/03/19 08:00AM

Republicans have been eagerly anticipating a document generally known as the Horowitz Report. At issue is an independent review launched by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz into the FBI's decision to open an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections -- and for Donald Trump and his allies, this review offers exciting possibilities.

Maybe, the president and his cohorts have said, Horowitz will turn up evidence of a vast conspiracy, launched by the FBI's "deep state," to undermine Trump. Or maybe there will be proof of widespread wrongdoing from FBI leaders such as James Comey. Or maybe the evidence will point to the bureau "spying" on Team Trump.

The president has spent much of his tenure insisting the FBI is a corrupt institution, filled with his enemies, and Michael Horowitz has been in a position to finally bring the truth to light.

At least, that was the idea.

In reality, early reporting on the Horowitz Report suggest it will discredit the theories Trump and his followers have peddled so eagerly. We learned two weeks ago, for example, that the inspector general's probe found no evidence of political bias tainting the Russia probe. A week later, there was a related report noting that Horowitz will also knock down Trump's claims about FBI spying.

As Rachel noted on the show last night, however, the Washington Post reports that Attorney General Bill Barr has already begun telling associates that he disagrees with at least some of the inspector general's core findings: that the FBI "had enough information in July 2016 to justify launching an investigation into members of the Trump campaign."

[T]he prospect of the nation's top law enforcement official suggesting the FBI may have wrongly opened an investigation into a presidential campaign, even after the inspector general announces the agency was justified in doing so, will probably generate more partisan battles over how the Justice Department and the FBI operate.

Yeah, that seems like a safe bet.

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Monday's Mini-Report, 12.2.19

12/02/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The weekend's mass shooting: "New Orleans police said 10 people were shot early Sunday in the city's famed French Quarter. Two of the victims were in critical condition, police said. Police had initially said 11 were injured, but later revised it down to 10."

* Still waiting for the explanation for this one: "The Trump administration has quietly released more than $100 million in military assistance to Lebanon after months of unexplained delay that led some lawmakers to compare it to the aid for Ukraine at the center of the impeachment inquiry."

* Unrest in Iraq: "Iraq's embattled prime minister said Friday he would submit his resignation following weeks of deadly anti-government protests, making him the second Mideast leader forced to step down after demonstrations in recent weeks."

* Unrest in Iran: "Iran is experiencing its deadliest political unrest since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago, with at least 180 people killed -- and possibly hundreds more -- as angry protests have been smothered in a government crackdown of unbridled force."

* Didn't Trump assure us these missile launches weren't happening? "North Korea fired two unidentified projectiles toward the waters off its east coast, according to South Korea's military, in another weapons test aimed at increasing pressure on the U.S. to provide sanctions relief amid stalled denuclearization talks."

* SCOTUS: "The Supreme Court seemed unlikely Monday to be heading for a major ruling on Second Amendment rights after hearing courtroom arguments in a dispute over a New York City gun restriction -- a law no longer on the books."

* There's more than one reason Sondland is a highly controversial figure: "Three women have accused Gordon D. Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, of making unwanted sexual advances toward them years before his recent turn as a star witness at the impeachment proceedings against President Trump, according to a news report."

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Image: A statue of the United States first President, George Washington, is seen under the Capitol dome in Washington

There's nothing illegitimate about a 'partisan' impeachment process

12/02/19 12:48PM

Fox News' Chris Wallace interviewed Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) yesterday about Donald Trump's possible impeachment, and when the discussion turned to public opinion and recent polling, the host reminded the congressman of a relevant detail:

"It's clear that there is none of the bipartisan support that Speaker Pelosi said for months was essential to impeachment."

Donald Trump, evidently, was pleased with Wallace's observation.

Last week, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) made a related point during a CNN interview:

"[T]he reason I'm offended by what's going on in the House, this will be the first partisan impeachment in the history of our country."

If the word "partisan" is going to be at the heart of the debate in the coming weeks, it's worth pausing to appreciate its meaning and relevance.

Wallace's observation, for example, was rooted in truth: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a longtime skeptic of pursuing Trump's impeachment, initially argued that bipartisanship was a prerequisite to drawing articles. It's also true that polling shows roughly 1 in 10 Republican voters support the ongoing impeachment process, and that's clearly a low number.

Pelosi shifted her position, however, when evidence emerged that Trump extorted a vulnerable U.S. ally, hoping to pressure a foreign government into helping him cheat in the 2020 election. Or put another way, the House Speaker revisited her impeachment standards, at least as they relate to public-opinion polling, when Trump's brazen abuses of power left her little choice.

But Kennedy's point is the more problematic one. As the Louisiana Republican sees it, the House's impeachment inquiry isn't just "partisan," it's "the first partisan impeachment in the history of our country."

First, as a matter of history, this is difficult to take seriously. As historian Kevin Kruse recently explained, "Only two presidents have actually been impeached by the House, and both times it unfolded in an overwhelmingly partisan process."

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.2.19

12/02/19 12:00PM

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

* Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, the only 2020 Democratic candidate to have won a statewide election in a red state, ended his presidential campaign this morning. His departure means that former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is the only current or former governor in the race.

* Speaking of presidential hopefuls exiting the stage, former Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania ended his Democratic campaign yesterday. As things stand, the party's 2020 field now stands at 16 candidates.

* The Associated Press reported over the holiday weekend that a super PAC formed to support Sen. Cory Booker's (D-N.J.) presidential campaign is shutting down. The report added, "The group's founder, San Francisco lawyer Steve Phillips, indicated in a news release Wednesday that Dream United had struggled to raise money."

* Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) presidential campaign picked up a new congressional supporter over the weekend with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) endorsing the senator.

* Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose Democratic presidential bid has struggled badly to earn support from minority communities, worshiped yesterday at North Carolina's Greenleaf Christian Church, which is pastored by the Rev. William J. Barber II.

* The New York Times took a deep dive over the holiday weekend into some of the internal problems plaguing Sen. Kamala Harris' (D-Calif.) presidential campaign. The article quoted Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), one of Harris' top congressional backers, calling on the senator to fire her campaign manager, Juan Rodriguez.

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Why Trump's position on Afghanistan suddenly seems incoherent

12/02/19 10:51AM

For months, the basic contours of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban in Afghanistan were in place: American troops would withdraw, and in exchange, the Taliban would provide counterterrorism assurances. (Afghanistan's government was excluded from the process.)

In September, however, Donald Trump abandoned the talks -- for reasons he struggled to explain -- after his plan to bring Taliban leaders to Camp David around the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks turned into a political fiasco.

On Thanksgiving, the president made a surprise trip to Afghanistan and announced that the negotiations he ended were now back on. And while that was certainly a major development, Trump added a strange twist, demanding a cease-fire that hadn't been part of the Trump administration's position.  As the New York Times reported, this had the effect of confusing practically everyone:

Despite a sense of relief at the prospect of resuming talks to end the 18-year conflict, Western diplomats and Taliban leaders were scrambling to figure out whether Mr. Trump had suddenly moved the goal posts for negotiations.

They were particularly confused by his remarks, made during an unannounced Thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan, that the United States was once again meeting with the Taliban to discuss a deal, but that "we're saying it has to be a cease-fire."

Demanding a cease-fire would amount to a big shift in the American position and require a significant new concession from the Taliban -- one that the Americans have little leverage to extract.

After a bilateral meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Trump declared, "The Taliban wants to make a deal. And we're meeting with them, and we're saying it has to be a ceasefire. They didn't want to do a ceasefire, but now they do want to do a ceasefire, I believe. And it will probably work out that way. And we'll see what happens. But we've made tremendous progress."

No one had any idea what he was talking about, and the idea that the Taliban "wants to do a ceasefire" appears to have been made up entirely.

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Ukrainian president slams Trump decision to delay military aid

12/02/19 10:11AM

Donald Trump this morning turned to Twitter to announce what the president described as "breaking news." According to the Republican's missive, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky "has just again announced that President Trump has done nothing wrong with respect to Ukraine and our interactions or calls."

The American added, "If the Radical Left Democrats were sane, which they are not, it would be case over!"

I was all set to explain, once again, that Zelensky's assessments of Trump's misdeeds aren't altogether relevant to the impeachment inquiry. After all, it's not as if the Ukrainian leader is in a position to publicly condemn Trump as guilty -- especially with a Republican-led Senate unlikely to remove the American president from office.

But then I read Zelensky's interview with a group of international journalists, including a reporter from Time magazine, and it quickly became obvious that the Ukrainian president did not say what Trump claimed he said.

Q: When did you first sense that there was a connection between Trump's decision to block military aid to Ukraine this summer and the two investigations that Trump and his allies were asking for? Can you clarify this issue of the quid pro quo?

ZELENSKY: Look, I never talked to the President from the position of a quid pro quo. That's not my thing. … I don't want us to look like beggars. But you have to understand. We're at war. If you're our strategic partner, then you can't go blocking anything for us. I think that's just about fairness. It's not about a quid pro quo. It just goes without saying.

Far from exonerating Trump, that sounded like the Ukrainian president was criticizing Trump for withholding U.S. military aid for our vulnerable ally.

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