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Report: Second source heard Trump/Sondland call on 'investigations'

11/14/19 12:48PM

One of the most striking revelations that emerged from yesterday's impeachment hearing was new information presented by William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine. As we discussed, Taylor described a July 26 call -- the day after Donald Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for Biden-related assistance -- between Trump and Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland. The phone conversation followed a meeting between U.S. officials at a top aide to the new Ukrainian leader.

Trump was heard asking Sondland on the call about "the investigations." In response to questioning, Taylor added that this was in reference to investigations into the Bidens, and that Sondland told Trump that the Ukrainians "were ready to move forward."

After that call, the ambassador purportedly said that Trump "cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for."

The Associated Press reported a short while ago that more than one person heard the Trump/Sondland cellphone call.

A second U.S. embassy staffer in Kyiv overheard a key cellphone call between President Donald Trump and his ambassador to the European Union discussing the need for Ukrainian officials to pursue "investigations," The Associated Press has learned. [...]

The second diplomatic staffer also at the table was Suriya Jayanti, a foreign service officer based in Kyiv. A person briefed on what Jayanti overheard spoke to AP on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter currently under investigation.

So now there are two witnesses: David Holmes, the State Department official who serves as counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, heard the Trump/Sondland call, and he's scheduled to testify in closed session tomorrow as part of the impeachment inquiry. If the Associated Press report is correct, Suriya Jayanti, a foreign service officer based in Kyiv, can corroborate Holmes' account.

It's an important revelation, not just because of obvious security concerns, but because of the degree to which this appears to link the American president directly to the scandal.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.14.19

11/14/19 12:00PM

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

* Louisiana's gubernatorial runoff election is just a couple of days away, and with Republicans concerned that incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) has the edge, the RNC is throwing another $1 million into the race.

* Yesterday was the cutoff for polls that would help candidates qualify for next week's Democratic presidential primary debate. Ten candidates have made the cut, but former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who participated in the earlier debates, fell short.

* In Pennsylvania, the latest Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll found Donald Trump trailing each of the top Democratic candidates in head-to-head match-ups. Joe Biden, a Pennsylvania native, did the best, leading the president in the Keystone State by a 52%-43% margin.

* A year ago, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy (D) came up short in Mississippi's U.S. Senate special election, but he did better than any Democratic candidate in the state since 1988. Espy announced yesterday that he'll try again next year, taking on incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R).

* Speaking of Mississippi, Secretary of State-elect Michael Watson (R) endorsed reforming Mississippi's current model for electing governors, which requires candidates to win both the statewide popular vote and a majority of the state's legislative districts. "I'm definitely supportive of moving away from the current system," Watson told the Clarion Ledger this week.

* To no one's surprise, Republican Jon Huntsman is moving forward with plans to run for governor in Utah, hoping to reclaim the office he previously held. More recently, Huntsman served in ambassadorial posts in the Trump administration (in Russia) and the Obama administration (in China).

* Apparently lacking any sense of shame, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, hoping to reclaim his old U.S. Senate seat in Alabama, is launching a new television ad highlighting his 2016 endorsement of Donald Trump. In the same ad, Sessions puts on a red "Make America Great Again" cap.

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Turkey's Erdogan reportedly tries to sway senators with 'propaganda'

11/14/19 11:20AM

Donald Trump hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House yesterday, but added to the schedule was something unexpected: five Republican senators -- Ted Cruz (Texas), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Jim Risch (Idaho), and Rick Scott (Fla.) -- were invited to sit down with Erdogan, too.

Axios reported that the discussion got a little weird.

An Oval Office meeting yesterday with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a dark turn when Erdogan pulled out his iPad and made the group watch a propaganda video that depicted Kurds as terrorists, according to three sources familiar with the meeting. [...]

Erdogan apparently thought he could sway these senators by forcing them to watch a clunky propaganda film.... Erdogan's video "was unpersuasive," according to a source who was in the room.

The reporting has not been independently confirmed by MSNBC or NBC News, though CNN had a related report, quoting a source who described the Turkish president's video as "surreal" and "straight propaganda."

It all sounds quite bizarre, though I'm still wondering why Erdogan was rewarded with this White House visit in the first place.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

Latest example of Trump's security breaches is described as 'insane'

11/14/19 10:40AM

Donald Trump has mishandled sensitive information with such frequency that I was able to put together a top-10 list a couple of weeks ago. I didn't expect the collection to grow quite so quickly, but yesterday's impeachment hearing offered another striking example of the phenomenon.

William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, told lawmakers about a July telephone call between the president and Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland -- a table in a Ukrainian restaurant -- in which Trump sought information on Ukraine helping target the president's domestic political opponents. It was a significant development, further linking Trump to the broader scandal.

But as the Washington Post noted, there was a related problem:

"The security ramifications are insane -- using an open cellphone to communicate with the president of the United States," said Larry Pfeiffer, a former senior director of the White House Situation Room and a former chief of staff to the CIA director. "In a country that is so wired with Russian intelligence, you can almost take it to the bank that the Russians were listening in on the call." [...]

Russia already has shown its ability to monitor U.S. diplomats' calls in Kyiv, and the Kremlin has no hesitation in leaking them when it suits its interests.

The Post also spoke to a former senior U.S. intelligence official who explained that calling a president from a cellphone violates protocols set up to protect senior administration officials' communications. "It's indicative of a lack of concern for operational security," he said.

Michael McFaul, the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, added that the "whole world was listening in" to the Trump/Sondland conversation because it was held on a cellphone.

Of course, given the legal and political implications, if other countries did hear the call, it meant other countries learned about the American president's scheme to extort Ukraine, creating possible blackmail opportunities against the White House.

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Syrian government soldier stands next to a well at Jazel oil field, after retaking the area from Islamic State fighters on March 9, 2015. Recent US-led coalition air strikes have frequently targeted oil facilities run by IS. (Photo by STR/AFP/Getty)

Has no one told Trump we're not 'keeping the oil' in Syria?

11/14/19 10:00AM

On Tuesday, Donald Trump spoke at the Economic Club of New York and fielded a question about his plan to address some of the recent economic headwinds. The president gave a long, rambling answer, which veered off in a variety of directions, including some commentary on his national security policy in the Middle East.

"We kept the oil," the Republican said, referring to Syrian oil fields. "You know, we kept the oil."

Yesterday, sitting in the Oval Office alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump echoed the line.

"We're keeping the oil. We have the oil. The oil is secure. We left troops behind, only for the oil.... But again, we're keeping the oil."

To be sure, the American president certainly seems to believe this. As regular readers know, Trump boasted two weeks ago that the United States has “taken” Syrian oil and he's prepared to “militarily stop” those who try to claim it.

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.)

It’s a tough dynamic to defend – it’s illegal for a country to send troops into another country to take its natural resources – but the president continues to echo his message, boasting at recent campaign rallies about “keeping” Syrian oil.

The trouble is, he's plainly wrong.

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Barr differs with Trump line on controversial presidential request

11/14/19 09:20AM

The Washington Post published a provocative scoop last week, reporting that Donald Trump wanted Attorney General Bill Barr to hold a news conference, telling the public that the president's Ukrainian extortion scheme did not break any laws. Barr, the article said, "declined to do so." (The New York Times soon after ran its own version of the same story.)

The Post's report went on to note that Trump didn't just move on after Barr demurred: the president mentioned it to others, saying he wished the attorney general would publicly exonerate him.

A few days later, Trump told reporters, "Listen. I never asked him for a press conference. It's fake news by the Washington Post, which is a fake newspaper. It's fake. It's made up. And if I ask Bill Barr to have a press conference, I think he'd do it. But I never asked him to have a press conference."

One reporter reminded, the president, "Bill Barr and the DOJ are not denying that you asked him to have a press conference." Trump replied, "Well, they're not saying anything."

Yesterday, that changed. The Washington Post reported:

Attorney General William P. Barr said Wednesday that he did not remember President Trump ever asking him to hold a news conference declaring the commander in chief broke no laws in a controversial phone call with the leader of Ukraine, but he acknowledged discussions with the White House on how his department would communicate to the media about the matter.

At an event in Memphis about a Justice Department crackdown on gun violence, a reporter inquired, "Mr. Attorney General, did the president ask you to publicly defend him regarding the Ukrainian call, and if so, why did you not want to do that?"

"If you're talking about press reports that he asked me to have a news conference, the fact is, I don't remember any such request," Barr said.

The gap between Trump's rhetoric and Barr's is notable and potentially important.

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Deval Patrick

Deval Patrick joins 2020 field, faces daunting challenges

11/14/19 08:40AM

About a year ago, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) said he'd received encouragement to run for president in 2020, but he wasn't prepared to subject his loved ones to "the cruelty of our elections process." It came on the heels of related comments the former governor made to David Axelrod.

"It's hard to see how you even get noticed in such a big, broad field without being shrill, sensational or a celebrity -- and I'm none of those things and I'm never going to be any of those things," Patrick said in a podcast interview.

That was then; this is now.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick announced Thursday that he will run for the Democratic nomination for president.

His decision to enter the primary comes against the backdrop of the realities of the political calendar -- the filing deadline in all-important New Hampshire is Friday -- as well as continued consternation from some Democrats about whether the current field presents viable options to beat President Donald Trump in 2020.

The former two-term governor of Massachusetts will reportedly travel to New Hampshire this morning, where he'll file for the nation's first presidential primary in person.

For those keeping score, Patrick pushes the Democrats' 2020 field back up to 18 members -- it was starting to shrink a bit from historic highs -- though he and Montana's Steve Bullock are the only current or former governors in the race. (Washington's Jay Inslee and Colorado's John Hickenlooper also ran, but ended their campaigns months ago.)

What's more, the field may yet grow larger: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is inching closer to a national bid -- he's already filed for a couple of primaries -- and former Attorney General Eric Holder is reportedly still weighing his 2020 options.

In terms of the calendar in a historical context, MSNBC's Steve Kornacki added yesterday that Patrick is entering the race at the latest date of any presidential candidate since Pat Buchanan entered the 1992 Republican race on Dec. 10, 1991, though he did not win any primaries or caucuses. Gary Hart re-entered the 1988 Democratic race on Dec. 15, 1987, though he didn't win any contests, either.

All of which serves as a reminder of the serious hurdles Patrick is facing.

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History mandates presidential candidates release tax returns, but not how many

Trying to hide his tax returns, Trump loses yet again in court

11/14/19 08:00AM

Donald Trump and his lawyers keep asking courts to help keep the president's tax returns hidden. The courts keep saying no.

A federal appeals court on Wednesday let stand a ruling allowing lawmakers to subpoena President Donald Trump's accountants for years of his financial records. A lawyer for the president promised to appeal to the Supreme Court.

On an 8-3 vote, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit declined to grant a hearing before the full court, upholding a ruling last month by a three-judge panel of the court to allow the subpoena.

Because there are multiple ongoing fights over Trump's hidden tax materials, it can get a little confusing to keep track of the cases. Last week, for example, a different appeals court ruled against the president's lawyers, who tried to block a subpoena from New York prosecutors who are seeking Trump's tax returns as part of an investigation into the Republican's hush-money scandal.

Yesterday's ruling, meanwhile, relates to the U.S. House subpoena of Trump's accounting firm, Mazars USA, for the same documents. The president's lawyers already lost this case at both the district and appellate court levels, but Team Trump asked the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to scrap that decision and rehear the case. In an 8-3 ruling, the appellate bench rejected the request.

To date, Trump's lawyers have lost every case related to keeping the president's returns hidden from scrutiny.

Jay Sekulow, one of the president's private attorneys, said in a statement yesterday that Trump's team will appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court -- which, naturally, is where things will get even more interesting.

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