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Monday's Mini-Report, 1.13.20

01/13/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* In case you missed this from late Friday night: "Iran has admitted it unintentionally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane hours after launching ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops, blaming 'human error' for the 'great tragedy' that killed all 176 people aboard."

* A case I've been following: "Federal prosecutors in New York on Monday asked a judge to sentence former Rep. Christopher Collins, R-N.Y., to the maximum of nearly five years in prison for his role in an insider trading scheme."

* Playing hardball with an ostensible ally: "The Trump administration warned Iraq this week that it risks losing access to a critical government bank account if Baghdad kicks out American forces following the U.S. airstrike that killed a top Iranian general, according to Iraqi officials."

* I remember 2016, when then-candidate Trump spent months taking the opposite stance: "The Trump administration formally removed China's designation as a currency manipulator on Monday, offering a major concession to the Chinese government as senior officials arrived in Washington to sign a trade agreement with President Trump."

* Noted without comment: "Allies of President Trump are pursuing an effort to acquire right-leaning news channel One America News Network, according to people familiar with the matter, in a bid to shake up a conservative media market that has been dominated by Fox News."

* He makes so many false claims: "Trump says most asylum seekers don't show up for their court hearings. A new study says 99% do."

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Who's left in the White House to limit Trump when he's 'spun up'?

01/13/20 12:54PM

In September 2018, the New York Times published a striking anonymous op-ed written by "a senior official in the Trump administration," which characterized Donald Trump as an ignorant and erratic leader, unfit for leadership, whose decisions needed to be contained and curtailed by those around him.

But, the author suggested, the public need not panic, because there were guardrails in place. There were, the op-ed added, "many" officials in the Trump administration who were "working diligently" to hamper "his worst inclinations."

As questions continue to swirl around why the president authorized an airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani -- and why the president and his team can't keep their stories straight -- there's a related question about whether there are still "many" officials in the Trump administration who are "working diligently" to hamper "his worst inclinations."

The Washington Post reported overnight on the White House national security team and its reluctance to "curb" Trump's decisions, and the article highlighted a dynamic that existed when former Gen. John Kelly served as Trump's chief of staff.

Kelly ... regularly told military officials that he wanted to talk to Trump before they actually carried out one of his orders and sometimes told them to hold off. For example, when Trump ordered the United States to leave NATO, or U.S. troops to leave the Middle East in late 2017, senior intelligence and military officials were brought in to change his mind.

"He'd get spun up, and if you bought some time, you could get him calmed down, and then explain to him what his decision might do," said a former senior administration official.

I think I know where Kelly was going with this. He was describing a governing dynamic in which an amateur president would throw a tantrum, bark orders, and cause some confusion among those whose job it is to follow a president's directives. In his capacity as White House chief of staff, Kelly -- who has an incentive to make himself look as good as possible -- made it sound as if he played the role of cooling saucer, letting U.S. military officials know that Trump's orders weren't actual orders when he'd "get spun up."

But Kelly's description isn't altogether reassuring.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.13.20

01/13/20 12:00PM

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

* Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), plagued by sub-par fundraising and unable to qualify for this week's primary debate, ended his presidential campaign this morning. The Democrats' 2020 field is now down to 12 competitors, which by historical standards, is still huge, though the number of former candidates is now larger than the number of current candidates.

* Three weeks before Iowa's presidential caucuses, the latest Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll found Bernie Sanders leading the Democratic field with 20%, followed by Elizabeth Warren at 17%, and Pete Buttigieg with 16%. Joe Biden is a close fourth with 15%.

* Speaking of good news for the Vermont independent, a New Hampshire branch of the Service Employees International Union has decided to endorse Sanders' presidential campaign. The national SEIU remains neutral.

* And speaking of early-nominating-state endorsements, Buttigieg picked up an important new congressional supporter this morning when Iowa Rep. Dave Loebsack (D) threw his backing behind the former mayor.

* Biden also picked up a congressional endorsement this morning when freshman Rep. Colin Allred backed the former vice president. The Texas Democrat is the 10th African-American member of Congress to announce support for Biden, who now has 26 U.S. House endorsements, more than double his next closest rival.

* Biden also picked up support late last week from Jon Henes, who served as the national finance chair of Kamala Harris' presidential campaign, and who's now "opening his extensive donor network" to the Delaware Democrat.

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A family practice provider uses a stethoscope to examine a patient in an exam room. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

At the intersection of Trump's health care lie and his ACA case

01/13/20 11:06AM

For proponents of the Affordable Care Act, the last couple of months have been quite encouraging, at least as far as the substance of health care is concerned. Totals from the recent open-enrollment period, for example, were solid and in line with expectations, while the latest industry data pointed to stable health care markets, Republican sabotage efforts notwithstanding.

It was against this backdrop that Utah's Medicaid expansion program got underway on Jan. 1, while policymakers in Kansas reached a bipartisan compromise to bring Medicaid expansion to the Sunflower State. Others may soon follow: Phil Cox, a former head of the Republican Governors Association and a well-known figure in D.C. circles, was quoted saying two weeks ago, "The battle has been fought and lost on Medicaid expansion."

There is, however, just one dark cloud hanging over the ACA's head. A Republican lawsuit, backed by the Trump administration, is trying to destroy "Obamacare" in its entirety, and a Texas judge has already ruled in the GOP's favor. The 5th Circuit, in a move that appeared awfully political, recently left the future of the nation's health care system in limbo, almost certainly until after the election.

The legal process may, however, move more quickly. The ACA's proponents asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case, and a week ago today, the justices directed the Trump administration and Republican state officials behind the lawsuit to respond. As NBC News' Pete Williams explained, "Such a highly abbreviated timeline – the rules normally allow a month for filing a response – gives the court the option to take up the case during its current term, which would mean a ruling on a contentious issue this spring, just as the presidential campaign heats up."

On Friday, the administration filed a brief, effectively telling the high court to cool its heels. The Washington Post reported:

The Trump administration and a coalition of conservative states that have been challenging the Affordable Care Act said Friday that there is no reason for the Supreme Court to rush a ruling on the issue this term. [...]

President Trump's solicitor general, Noel Francisco, replied that the [5th Circuit's] decision simply preserved the status quo until a lower court looked more closely at which parts of the law should survive. It would be premature to intervene now, he said.

The full filing is online here (pdf).

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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)

White House appears to abandon calls for a full impeachment trial

01/13/20 10:18AM

The week before Thanksgiving, Senate Republicans huddled with a group of leading White House officials -- a contingent that included acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner -- to discuss impeachment strategy. There was no real ambiguity about what Team Trump wanted.

Politico reported soon after, "White House officials and Republican senators agreed the Senate should not immediately dismiss any articles of impeachment against the president." Participants in the meeting, held a few weeks before the formal floor votes in the House, reportedly agreed that it'd be in the president's interest to have "a full trial," of "some length," featuring a "factual affirmative defense on the merits."

Politico's report added that while some congressional Republicans had called on the Senate to "immediately dismiss" any articles of impeachment, the White House saw that as a mistake.

And at a certain level, that position made sense. In a Republican-led Senate, it stood to reason that Donald Trump had no reason to fear a conviction that would bring his presidency to a premature end. A full trial would offer an opportunity for Trump's allies to present their side of the story on the Ukraine scandal, and make the case for his innocence.

Seven weeks later, however, that confidence has been replaced with anxiety, and the White House's desire for a trial has been replaced with a president who's frantically called for the opposite. The New York Times reported:

President Trump on Sunday injected fresh instability into final preparations for the Senate's impeachment trial, suggesting that senators should dismiss the House's charges of high crimes and misdemeanors against him outright rather than dignifying them with a full tribunal.

That unexpected statement, arriving amid a flurry of tweets, not only appeared to put the president at odds with Republican Senate leaders moving toward a full trial but also contradicted Mr. Trump's own words from just hours earlier, when he argued for a trial that would include as witnesses Democratic House leaders who are prosecuting him.

As is always the case, I'd caution against assuming that Trump's tweet represents the White House's, or even his own, new position. He's likely to say or tweet the opposite at any moment, and it's possible the presidential missive was part of a fleeting thought, triggered by something random the Republican saw on television.

But the underlying point is that Trump's confidence and self-assuredness about the impeachment proceedings appear to be gone. Certainty that a trial would be good for the president has given way to uncertainty about how much worse the scandal may get.

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Report further connects Trump's impeachment fears, airstrike

01/13/20 09:20AM

The official White House explanation for the airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani -- or more accurately, explanations -- can no longer be taken seriously. Donald Trump and his team have changed direction several times, in meandering and contradictory ways, to the point that their rhetoric on the subject is literally unbelievable.

But the point of the scrutiny is not to document the latest in an endless stream of presidential lies. It's also not some elaborate "gotcha" exercise. What's important here is coming to terms with why in the world the American president risked a war on Jan. 3, and whether Trump put his political interests above our national security interests with his decision.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that in the wake of the airstrike, the president "told associates he was under pressure to deal with Gen. Soleimani from GOP senators he views as important supporters in his coming impeachment trial in the Senate." Over the weekend, the New York Times reported something similar:

He told some associates that he wanted to preserve the support of Republican hawks in the Senate in the coming impeachment trial, naming Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas as an example, even though they had not spoken about Iran since before Christmas.

This is, of course, exactly the kind of scenario that shouldn't happen. When a Commander in Chief is making a life-and-death decision, which risks not only a war but further destabilizing the Middle East, he shouldn't be thinking about how his directive might help his impeachment trial defense.

Indeed, as we discussed last week, it adds an ironic twist to the circumstances: Trump was impeached in part for putting his political interests above our national security interests. If the latest reporting is correct, it led him to make another decision that put his political interests above our national security interests.

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Stepping on his team's message, Trump contradicts his Iran policy

01/13/20 08:40AM

The Trump administration's Iran policy is known as the "maximum pressure" campaign, and it's predicated on a relatively straightforward idea: the U.S. will impose such severe burdens on Iran that officials in Tehran will have no choice but to come to the table, negotiate, and reach some kind of nuclear agreement with the West.

The Obama administration adopted a nearly identical strategy, and it worked to great effect, culminating in a successful and effective international agreement. Donald Trump killed that policy, vowing to replace it with a better one.

So far, however, the Republican White House appears to be moving backwards, with Iran now accelerating its nuclear program. As the New York Times explained last week, the American president's "gambit has effectively backfired."

Team Trump still doesn't quite see it that way. White House National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien made multiple Sunday-show appearances yesterday, but it was this quote on Fox News that appeared to generate the most attention. From the network transcript:

"Look, I think the maximum pressure campaign is working. It's demonstrable that it's working. The Iranian economy is contracted by at least 10 percent. I mean, we haven't seen that with a modern economy in many, many years. Iran went from producing 3 to 4 million barrels of oil a day down to 150,000 to 400,000 barrels depending on the day. Iran is being choked off and Iran's going to have no other choice but to come to the table."

Hours later, O'Brien's boss stepped all over this line with a tweet. "National Security Adviser suggested today that sanctions & protests have Iran 'choked off', will force them to negotiate," Donald Trump wrote. "Actually, I couldn't care less if they negotiate."

Not to put too fine a point on this, but Trump's tweet is badly at odds with his own policy.

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Even Trump's Pentagon chief won't back him up on airstrike claim

01/13/20 08:00AM

It's been 10 days since Donald Trump authorized an airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, which was launched in order to prevent an imminent attack. Well, maybe not imminent. But the president and his team certainly knew of a deadly attack Soleimani was planning.

Except, maybe "knew" is too strong a word, since the administration didn't know who, what, where, or when the general intended to strike. Except the opposite might also be true, since Trump said Soleimani was targeting an embassy. No, wait, not just any embassy, but the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Hold on, did Trump say the U.S. embassy in Baghdad? What he meant to say was that Soleimani might have also been targeting four different embassies. The Republican told Fox News on Friday, "I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies" the Quds Force general was plotting against.

And I can reveal that I believe that the president is making stuff up as he goes along -- and as a rule, those who repeatedly change their stories should probably expect some skepticism.

It reached the point yesterday that Trump's own Defense secretary appeared on CBS News' Face the Nation and put some distance between himself and the president's latest claim.

Esper said the president made no citation of "a specific piece of evidence," adding that Trump was just making clear what he believed to be the case.

"I didn't see one with regard to four embassies," Esper said of a specific piece of evidence leading to Trump's conclusion. "What I'm saying is I shared the president's view ... my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies."

Speaking with CNN's "State of the Union," Esper said intelligence showed "there was an intent to target the U.S. embassy in Baghdad."

Or put another way, the "imminent attack" talking point from nine days ago has been discredited by the same administration that peddled it with enthusiasm. It's been replaced with "an intent" to attack.

Just as important, though, was the Pentagon chief's concession that he "didn't see" intelligence in line with Trump's obviously dubious claims.

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Friday's Mini-Report, 1.10.20

01/10/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Impeachment: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a letter to Democratic lawmakers on Friday that she will consult with them Tuesday as she announced steps to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate."

* Pointless cruelty: "The Texas governor said that his state will reject the resettling of new refugees, making Texas the first state to do so following a Trump administration order granting local governments the authority to do so."

* Looks like they came up with some sanctions after all: "The Trump administration on Friday announced a new round of economic sanctions against Iran in response to the regime’s missile attacks on Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. and coalition forces."

* Trump can't ask Putin to stop doing this? "A Russian naval ship 'aggressively approached' a U.S. Navy destroyer in the North Arabian Sea on Thursday, in a dangerous near-collision, authorities said Friday."

* Not a good look for the troubled company: "Boeing on Thursday released hundreds of emails and communications that appear to show employees criticizing the company’s troubled 737 Max jet, which was grounded after two crashes killed 346 people."

* In case you missed this last night: "The House adopted a war powers resolution Thursday with the aim of limiting President Donald Trump's military actions against Iran. The adoption of the measure on a largely party-line vote of 224-194 came amid heightened tension between the two countries after the United States killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iran retaliated with a ballistic missile attack against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. forces."

* Speaking of the House doing important stuff: "The House on Friday passed legislation to broadly regulate a cancer-linked chemical over objections from the White House that Congress is sidestepping agencies. The bill, which passed 247 to 159, targets a class of chemicals abbreviated as PFAS that have been leaching into the water supply across the country, causing health problems in communities where water has been contaminated."

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Iraq calls on US to make withdrawal plans, Trump admin declines

01/10/20 12:48PM

There are roughly 50,000 American troops in the Middle East -- with several thousand more on the way -- 6,000 of whom are in Iraq. This past weekend, the Iraqi parliament voted unanimously to expel U.S. forces from Iraqi soil, a vote that came in response to the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Evidently, officials in Baghdad weren't just blowing off steam. NBC News reported this morning that Iraq, our ostensible ally, has directly requested that the United States begin the planning process that would end our military presence in the country.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said in a statement Friday that he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a phone call "to send a delegation to Iraq to put a mechanism [in place] for implementing the Iraqi parliament decision to safely withdraw troops from Iraq."

This was, he said, because "Iraq is keen to keep the best relations with its neighbors and friends within the international community, and to protect foreign representations and interests and all those present on Iraqi soil."

As we've discussed, the initial response from the Trump administration to the Iraqi parliament's vote was acquiescence. Earlier this week, officials in Baghdad received a signed letter from Marine Brig. Gen. William Seely, who commands Task Force Iraq, not only declaring the U.S. intention to withdraw, but including specific and detailed information about how it would occur.

In apparent reference to the Iraqi parliament’s vote, the letter said, “We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.”

As is too often the case, the Trump administration struggled to keep its story straight about the letter, before eventually saying the whole thing was an unfortunate “mistake.”

Today, however, the administration had an entirely new message for our allies in Baghdad: We're not leaving. The New York Times reported:

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