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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 10.8.19

10/08/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* House Democrats plan to subpoena Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, "as well as emails and text messages that Sondland held on a personal device and that have been turned over to the State Department, which has yet to release them."

* Keep a close eye on this one: "Lawyers for House Democrats on Tuesday urged a federal judge to release grand jury testimony from former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation as Congress conducts an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump."

* Middle East: "The commander of the American-backed militia in Syria said Tuesday that it would attack Turkish forces if they enter northeastern Syria, while Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, indicated that such an operation was imminent."

* SCOTUS: The Supreme Court appeared to be closely divided after hearing two hours of courtroom arguments Tuesday on one of the most important issues of the term: whether existing federal law forbids job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

* This should be quite a spectacle: "Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Tuesday that he would invite Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, to testify before his committee about corruption in Ukraine."

* On a related note: "Trump personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani said Tuesday that he would not cooperate with House investigators and that he 'can't imagine' that anyone from the Trump administration would appear before a Democratic-led panel investigating the president."

* Quite an operation: "The Trump Organization's two Scottish golf courses lost $14.3 million in 2018, extending a multiyear string of losses that have intensified since Donald Trump took office, according to annual financial reports released this month."

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Trump tries to 'no puppet' his way through an impeachment crisis

10/08/19 03:01PM

On Sunday night, Donald Trump turned his attention to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, publishing a mini-tantrum to Twitter that went largely overlooked. The president's argument, such as it was, centered around the idea that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff committed all kinds of misdeeds, which Pelosi knew about.

Ergo, Trump concluded, both Democratic leaders are equally "guilty" of "High Crimes and Misdemeanors, and even Treason." The Republican added that Pelosi and Schiff "must" be "immediately" impeached.

Even if we put aside the relevant details -- Schiff obviously didn't commit any crimes, members of Congress cannot be impeached under our system of government, etc. -- we're left with an uncomfortable realization: a sitting American president publicly accused the House Speaker of "treason," an unprecedented development in our nation's history, and it quickly became overlooked background noise.

This is our life now.

The day after Trump suggested congressional leaders committed treason and should be impeached -- one of these days, someone ought to buy this guy a civics textbook -- the Republican went after Adam Schiff again at a White House event on Japanese trade. Specifically, the American president offered this memorable assessment of the Intelligence Committee's chairman and his recent paraphrase of Trump during a hearing:

"I think he's having some kind of a breakdown. Because he got up and made a speech that bore no relationship to what the conversation was."

Yes, on the same afternoon in which Donald Trump told the world he has "great and unmatched wisdom," following a series of incidents in which he talked about prosecuting his critics and casually threw around "treason" accusations, believes someone else appears to be "having some kind of a breakdown."

Why? Because the president, lacking in self-awareness, thinks Schiff's comments "bore no relationship" to reality.

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Conflicts of interest hang over Trump's policy toward Turkey

10/08/19 12:53PM

As of this minute, it's not altogether clear what Donald Trump's policy toward Turkey is or when it's likely to change. On the one hand, the Republican impulsively overhauled a key element of his foreign policy in the Middle East because Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recommended it; on the other hand, Trump has threatened to "totally destroy and obliterate" Turkey's economy.

On the one hand, Turkey is vowing to ignore the United States' threats, signaling possible tensions between the countries; on the other hand, Trump will welcome Erdogan to the White House next month. All of this is unfolding, of course, while Trump both abandons and vows to never to abandon Kurdish forces

While the American president struggles to settle on a position, a question hangs over head: what role, if any, do Trump's conflicts of interest have in this mess? A Washington Post analysis noted yesterday that the Republican acknowledged in December 2015 that his Trump Towers project in Istanbul create "a little conflict of interest" for him when it comes to Turkey.

The easy answer, the answer that might have been offered by any prior president, was that Trump would divest of his investments in Turkey before taking office. Instead, Trump offered another murky response, including an assertion that "we should have been able to win easily but we haven't used the right military thought process."

Nor did he divest, of course. Trump Towers Istanbul is still part of the Trump Organization and still generates revenue for Trump himself.

After the 2016 election, Trump chose Michael Flynn to serve as his White House national security adviser, despite Flynn's work as a foreign agent of Turkey during the campaign. (The convicted felon is currently awaiting sentencing.)

A Democratic source reminded this morning that after Inauguration Day, Turkish officials started booking events at Trump-owned properties. One three-day conference at Trump's D.C. hotel was organized, in part, by a group run by Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish businessman close to Turkish President Erdogan who hired Flynn a year earlier.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.8.19

10/08/19 12:00PM

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

* With just a few days remaining before Louisiana's gubernatorial primary, the latest Mason-Dixon poll found incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) leading the pack with 45%, followed by while Eddie Rispone (R) is at 22% and Ralph Abraham (R) is at 17%. In the expected runoff, scheduled November 16, the poll shows Edwards leading Abraham, 53% to 38%.

* With Donald Trump slated to hold a rally in Minneapolis this week, there's apparently a brewing dispute between the president's campaign team and local officials over security costs associated with the event. It's why Trump has spent much of the morning lashing out at Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey via Twitter.

* Speaking of Minnesota, Sen. Amy Klobuchar's Democratic presidential campaign reported a third-quarter fundraising haul of $4.8 million, which isn't great, but which is more than enough to meet the threshold for the party's November primary debate. Klobuchar has not, however, yet met the polling threshold to participate in the event.

* The New York Times had an interesting item the other day on prominent members of the Republican Party's "Never Trump" contingent who've since changed their minds. The article noted Erick Erickson, among others, who vowed, "I will not vote for Donald Trump. Ever," only to recently change direction.

* With Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) stepping down in a couple of months for health reasons, Republicans are lining up to ask Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) to appoint them to the seat. Among the latest is former Rep. Jack Kingston (R), who lost in his Senate bid in 2014, and who last week reminded the governor's office that he's "aggressively defended President Trump at every turn" and "spent 30 years taking on the Democrats' misguided agenda."

* With only four weeks remaining in Kentucky's gubernatorial race, the Democratic Governors Association is running this ad targeting Gov. Matt Bevin (R) for trying to derail the state's Medicaid-expansion program, which is a story we discussed in some detail a few years ago.

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Trump's 'extraordinary preoccupation' with Biden isn't subtle

10/08/19 11:12AM

Donald Trump talks about Joe Biden nearly every day, but late on Friday night, the president published a tweet that was a little different than most.

Shortly before midnight, Trump highlighted an item from the Washington Examiner's Byron York showing Biden's lead in the Democratic race dwindling and questioning whether the former vice president should still be seen as the frontrunner for his party's 2020 nomination. The president found this worthy of mockery.

It was a quick peek into the president's perspective: Trump isn't just peddling bogus corruption allegations against his would-be challenger; the Republican also considers it important to let the public know about Biden's poll advantages relative to his 2020 rivals.

Two weeks ago, Politico reported on Trump's "extraordinary preoccupation" with the Delaware Democrat, which led the president to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to help go after Biden. It led to a follow-up report that probably didn't receive as much attention as it probably deserved.

President Donald Trump's reelection campaign is preparing an avalanche of TV ads targeting Joe Biden in early primary states -- its most aggressive step yet to meddle in the Democratic nomination contest.

Starting this weekend, the reelection effort will air over $1 million in anti-Biden commercials in Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire and Nevada, according to two people familiar with the move. The spots focus on Trump's claim that the former vice president and his son engaged in corruption in Ukraine.

It matters, of course, that Team Trump's attacks are false. But taking a step back, it's the circumstances that struck me as astonishing: I'm not aware of any incumbent president who's ever made a seven-figure ad buy targeting a rival party's candidate several months before the primaries even begin.

The same day as we learned about the $1 million anti-Biden ad campaign, Trump stood on the South Lawn of the White House and urged China and Ukraine to go after the Democratic candidate. A few days later, Trump encouraged Biden to quit the race.

There's no modern parallel for a sitting president appearing so publicly panicked about a possible rival, at least not this early in the election cycle.

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Trump admin blocks key ambassador from testifying to Congress

10/08/19 10:14AM

Gordon Sondland is hardly a household name, but he's a critically important figure in the scandal that's likely to lead to Donald Trump's impeachment -- and as of this morning, his significance is suddenly even more acute.

If Sondland's name sounds familiar, it's probably because of last week's story about the text messages, which showed Sondland, a Republican megadonor whom the president made the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, as directly involved in the scheme to pressure Ukraine to assist with Trump's re-election campaign.

Not surprisingly, Congress has been eager to hear from the ambassador, who was due to arrive on Capitol Hill today for a deposition. As NBC News reported this morning, the Trump administration had other ideas.

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, has been directed by the State Department not to appear Tuesday for a scheduled interview with House committees leading the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. [...]

"Ambassador Sondland had previously agreed to appear voluntarily today, without the need for a subpoena, in order to answer the Committee's questions on an expedited basis," Robert Luskin, Sondland's attorney, said in a statement. "As the sitting U.S. Ambassador to the EU and employee of the State Department, Ambassador Sondland is required to follow the Department's direction," Luskin continued, adding that Sondland "is profoundly disappointed that he will not be able to testify today."

It's worth noting for context that the ambassador is a current employee of the U.S. State Department. According to Sondland's lawyer, he wants to answer questions, but he also can't defy the agency's directive.

The fact that the Trump administration is blocking a key witness from answering questions may not seem especially surprising, but note the timing: the ambassador left Europe, traveled to D.C., and was all set to answer questions today. It wasn't until the morning of Sondland's appearance that the administration balked.

Obstructing the impeachment inquiry likely makes impeachment more likely, which naturally raises the question of what it was Team Trump figured out in the 11th hour.

For his part, Donald Trump went further than I'd expected in taking personal responsibility for today's developments.

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Mitch McConnell

Elaine Chao, Trump's Transportation Sec, faces new ethics questions

10/08/19 09:20AM

Earlier this summer, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao faced accusations that she made special arrangements to benefit projects in Kentucky -- where her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is the senior senator. Politico reported in June that Chao even hired one of her husband's former campaign aides, who soon after took on a unique role in the cabinet agency: he oversaw projects that would benefit Chao's husband's home state ahead of his re-election campaign.

Yesterday, Politico advanced the story in ways that don't do the cabinet secretary any favors.

In her first 14 months as Transportation secretary, Elaine Chao met with officials from Kentucky, which her husband, Mitch McConnell, represents in the Senate, vastly more often than those from any other state.

In all, 25 percent of Chao's scheduled meetings with local officials from any state from January 2017 to March 2018 were with Kentuckians, who make up about only 1.3 percent of the U.S. population. The next closest were Indiana and Georgia, with 6 percent of meetings each, according to Chao's calendar records, the only ones that have been made public.

At least five of Chao's 18 meetings with Kentuckians were requested in emails from McConnell staffers, who alerted Chao's staffers which of the officials were "friends" or "loyal supporters," according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

While the secretary's office denies any wrongdoing, I'm trying to think of an innocent explanation for why officials from her husband's state have received special access that officials from other states have not. Nothing is coming to mind.

Of course, these questions are unrelated to separate reporting alleging that the Republican cabinet secretary held onto stock in a transportation company after Chao was supposed to have divested.

And that matter is unrelated to the House Oversight Committee investigation into Chao's curious habit of taking steps that appear designed to assist her father's family shipping business.

How that's swamp-draining effort working out?

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A military aide holds a medal during the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House on Nov. 20, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Trump's latest curious choice for a Presidential Medal of Freedom

10/08/19 08:44AM

It was nearly a year ago when Donald Trump decided to give the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, to the wife of Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson. A Washington Post analysis noted at the time that Miriam Adelson's medal reflected "a growing pattern: one of Trump awarding a large majority of such medals and even pardons to supporters, to Republicans, and to recipients who fit his political agenda."

The argument was bolstered in June when the president bestowed the same honor upon Republican economist Art Laffer, despite his discredited ideas and record.

Yesterday, the White House announced the newest recipient of the Medal of Freedom: Ed Meese. From the official statement:

Edwin Meese III has long been a thought leader and strong conservative voice on matters of law and policy. As Counselor to President Ronald Reagan, Mr. Meese helped to craft a foreign policy strong enough to end the Cold War and played a pivotal role in securing historic tax cuts.

As Attorney General, he promoted Federalism and the original public understanding of our Constitution. Since leaving public service, Edwin Meese has continued to champion our Nation's founding principles through his extensive work at The Heritage Foundation.

Reading this, one might get the impression that the president is giving the medal to Meese because he's a notable conservative -- which isn't generally the sort of thing that warrants the nation's highest civilian honor.

But for those familiar with Meese's background, there's a bit more to his c.v. that's worth appreciating.

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Why Trump's ridiculous claims about his public support matter

10/08/19 08:00AM

At an event with Japanese officials at the White House yesterday. Donald Trump took a few moments to reflect on his public standing -- which the president believes is amazing.

"[The impeachment process] is a scam. And the people are wise to it. And that's why my polls went up, I think they said, 17 points in the last two or three days. I've never had that one. I've never had that one."

Trump's approach to polling has long been bizarre. It tends to involve the president picking a number he likes out of thin air, pretending it's real, and insisting that everyone accept the made-up number as accurate.

But this latest boast is uniquely ridiculous. A 17-point jump over the course of a few days is practically unheard of -- the spike in George W. Bush's support in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was a rare exception -- and in Trump's case, it plainly does not exist in reality. Trump's support has actually fallen as his latest scandal has intensified.

Yes, it's theoretically possible that the White House has some internal polling that's telling the president what he wants to hear, but if a significant chunk of the American electorate were suddenly shifting in Trump's favor, there'd be some indication of it in independent, public polling. No such evidence exists because the Republican made it up.

Making matters worse, real polls show public support for Trump's impeachment climbing, including a newly released Washington Post-Schar School survey, which found a 58% majority endorsing the impeachment inquiry against the president, while a 49% plurality support removing Trump from office. This is slightly worse than other recent data on the issue and suggests conditions for the president are getting worse, not better.

CNN's Harry Enten explained late last week that support for Trump's impeachment is so high at this early stage that it's "historically unprecedented."

It's against this backdrop that the president believes "they" have said his public support has climbed 17 points "in the last two or three days."

To be sure, Trump has persuaded himself into believing all sorts of nonsense, but there may be a larger significance to this one.

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