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Turkish leader pushes back against Trump admin efforts in Syria

10/16/19 09:20AM

Donald Trump unleashed a fair amount of hell in the Middle East after he withdrew U.S. forces from northern Syria and effectively invited Turkey to launch a brutal offensive against our Kurdish allies. The crisis has bolstered Russia, Iran, Syria's Assad regime, and ISIS, while putting American troops in danger. The Trump administration's foreign policy, as Rachel put it on the show this week, is "collapsing into catastrophe."

But don't worry, the White House has come up with a plan: Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien would fly to Turkey, initiate some kind of diplomatic talks, and work it out.

Or maybe not.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will refuse to meet with Vice President Mike Pence, who is due to travel to Turkey to argue for a ceasefire in the ongoing Syria conflict.

"I'm not going to talk to them. They will be talking to their counterparts. When Trump comes here, I'll be talking," he said in comments made to Sky News, referring to the U.S. delegation.

Erdogan, whose phone call with Trump precipitated the crisis, added that he's heard the talk about a proposed ceasefire, but he doesn't care. "They say 'declare a ceasefire'. We will never declare a ceasefire," the Turkish leader told reporters.

As for the threat of possible U.S. sanctions, Erdogan went on to say, "They are pressuring us to stop the operation. They are announcing sanctions. Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions."

To a very real extent, these are humiliating circumstances for the United States: a high-ranking American delegation is on its way to a NATO ally, only to learn before arriving that our ally's president doesn't see the point in talking to them.

If Erdogan follows through and ignores the delegation, it would be a striking slap in the face and evidence of a total lack of respect for U.S. efforts. [Update: see below.]

But I was also intrigued by the idea that Erdogan would talk to Trump, but not his team.

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Lawyer and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani comments on a lawsuit filed against video game giant Activision outside Los Angeles Superior court in Los Angeles, Calif., on Oct. 16, 2014. (Photo by Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Giuliani's apparent 'shadow foreign policy' gets him into more trouble

10/16/19 08:42AM

Rudy Giuliani's work in Ukraine already appears to be the basis for an ongoing criminal investigation, but the Washington Post had a stunning report overnight alleging that the former mayor also urged Donald Trump to extradite a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania, which happens to be a top priority of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Giuliani, a Trump ally who later became the president's personal attorney, repeatedly argued to Trump that the U.S. government should eject Fethullah Gulen from the country, according to the former officials, who spoke on the condition on anonymity to describe private conversations. [...]

The former New York mayor brought up Gulen so frequently with Trump during visits to the White House [in 2017] that one former official described the subject as Giuliani's "hobby horse." He was so focused on the issue -- "it was all Gulen," recalled a second former official -- that White House aides worried that Giuliani was making the case on behalf of the Turkish government, former officials said.

Some of this may sound familiar, largely because Fethullah Gulen and Team Trump have intersected before. During the 2016 campaign, for example, Michael Flynn wore two hats: he was advising Donald Trump on matters of national security, while at the same time he was on Turkey's payroll.

As part of his job as an agent of a foreign government, Flynn took a keen interest in Gulen -- there were reports of a possible kidnaping scheme -- and Flynn lied to the FBI about the whole affair. The former White House national security adviser is currently awaiting sentencing.

What we didn't know is that Giuliani also took a keen interest in Gulen, raising all kinds of questions about why, exactly, the Republican lawyer made this such a priority.

There are a series of related questions, of course, about Giuliani running what the Washington Post described as "a shadow foreign policy," even before joining the president's legal defense team.

Remember, it's not just his legally dubious work in Ukraine that's of interest: there were related reports last week about Giuliani engaging in sketchy behind-the-scenes work on behalf of Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader whom American prosecutors believe played a key role in a scheme to funnel billions of dollars to Iran, in defiance of U.S. sanctions.

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Republican U.S. vice presidential nominee Mike Pence speaks at a campaign rally, Oct. 22, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Pence (among others) balks at cooperating with impeachment inquiry

10/16/19 08:00AM

Because Vice President Mike Pence has been directly implicated in Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal, several U.S. House leaders sent Pence a request on Oct. 4 seeking documents and communications pertaining to the controversy. Yesterday, lawmakers received a reply.

Vice President Mike Pence's office said Tuesday it will not comply with a request from the House to turn over documents related to President Donald Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

In a letter to the chairmen of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees, Pence counsel Matthew Morgan called the request part of a "self-proclaimed impeachment inquiry," noting that the House of Representatives has not yet taken a vote to open the inquiry and asserting that the request was part of a process that "calls into question your commitment to fundamental fairness and due process rights."

It's the use of the phrase "self-proclaimed" that stands out. As Pence's office sees it, the vice president might consider "working with" Congress on providing information, but only if lawmakers conduct their impeachment inquiry in a matter that meets with the White House's approval -- as if it were up to the executive branch to determine the legitimacy of the legislative branch's procedures.

Alas, it was that kind of day. On the heels of Defense Secretary Mark Esper suggesting the Pentagon would comply with impeachment inquiry oversight requests, the Defense Department changed direction yesterday, telling Congress it would not cooperate "at this time" with a House subpoena.

Around the same time, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) told lawmakers that it, too, would not comply with the recently issued subpoenas.

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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 10.15.19

10/15/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A dramatically altered landscape: "Analysts said it was clear that Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin were emerging as the winners of the geopolitical puzzle, and the Kurds and the U.S. as the losers. It also looks like ISIS will benefit too and may be able to resurge as stability eludes the region."

* In related news: "The Turkish military incursion into northeast Syria is compounding an already dire humanitarian situation and forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes, according to human rights monitors. According to U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at least 160,000 civilians have been displaced since the Turkish offensive began on Oct. 9."

* Trump has a habit of trying to put out the fires he starts: "President Donald Trump on Monday ordered new sanctions on Turkey amid sustained criticism from Republican lawmakers over his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria to make way for a Turkish operation."

* Impeachment testimony: "George P. Kent, a senior State Department official in charge of Ukraine policy, on Tuesday became the latest high-ranking witness to be questioned behind closed doors by House impeachment investigators, facing questions about his knowledge of the widening Ukraine scandal."

* Rudy Giuliani: "Rudolph W. Giuliani's attorney informed Congress Tuesday that the former mayor will not comply with the House's subpoena as part of its impeachment probe." The former mayor's lawyer added that Giuliani considers the impeachment inquiry "unconstitutional, baseless, and illegitimate."

* This hardly seems unreasonable: "A senior House Democrat has asked the Transportation Department's internal watchdog to investigate whether Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao showed undue favoritism to Kentucky constituents of her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell."

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Testimony in impeachment inquiry makes matters worse for Trump

10/15/19 04:40PM

Late last week Marie Yovanovitch, a 33-year veteran of the U.S. State Department, appeared on Capitol Hill to testify before lawmakers in the impeachment inquiry. And while we don't know exactly what was said during her nine hours of Q&A, we have a pretty good sense of what Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, brought to the table.

After the White House and the State Department tried to block her, Yovanovitch honored a congressional subpoena, and explained to lawmakers that she was removed from her post after a campaign against her was organized by Rudy Giuliani and his suspected criminal associates -- not because Yovanovitch had done a bad job, but rather, by some accounts, because she stood in the way of Giuliani's political scheme.

Indeed, Yovanovitch reportedly testified that Donald Trump was directly and personally involved in her ouster from her ambassadorial post in Kiev, despite having been asked two months earlier to extend her term into 2020.

It was, by all accounts, a dramatic hearing held behind closed doors, which helped set the stage for another round of dramatic testimony yesterday from Fiona Hill, the former top adviser in Trump's White House on U.S. policy toward Russia and Ukraine, who had high praise for Yovanovitch, and who shared with lawmakers some striking details.

Then-national security adviser John Bolton was so disturbed by the efforts to get the Ukrainians to investigate President Donald Trump's political opponents that he called it a "drug deal," former White House official Fiona Hill reportedly told Congress on Monday.

Hill, the former top Europe expert in Trump's White House, testified that Bolton told her over the summer that he wanted no part of the effort, which he said involved acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, a person in the room for Hill's testimony told NBC News.

Bolton also was said to have referred to Rudy Giuliani as a "hand grenade."

It's worth pausing to appreciate a political dynamic in which John Bolton, of all people, may have been the voice of reason.

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Trump's foreign policy reaches the 'collapsing into catastrophe' stage

10/15/19 03:22PM

U.S. military forces in northern Syria helped maintain a degree of stability in the area, though it was fragile and disrupted almost immediately after Donald Trump announced withdrawal of American troops. The Republican president ignored the advice of his foreign policy and national security teams, and he saw no need to consult with anyone -- other than Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who encouraged Trump to make the drastic and dangerous move.

As the White House struggled in recent days to come to terms with the consequences of the president's decision, a senior administration official conceded to the Washington Post on Sunday, "This is total chaos."

It's important to understand the scope and scale of that chaos, because we're not just talking about an inept White House, unsure what to do in response to quickly changing circumstances. We're also dealing with a national security crisis, a diplomatic crisis, and an American foreign policy that, as Rachel put it on the show last night, is "collapsing into catastrophe."

On the ground in Syria, for example, our Kurdish allies, abandoned by Trump and confronting a brutal massacre, have now allied with Russia and Syria's Assad regime, largely because they needed a reliable ally and could no longer count on the United States. The Kurds, of course, were fighting ISIS, but that's no longer the case because Trump effectively cleared the way for Turkey to launch a brutal offensive against the Kurds. ISIS, naturally, is delighted.

American troops, meanwhile, have reportedly been "bracketed" by Turkish artillery fire, which (a) puts those American troops at risk; (b) means an ostensible NATO ally is firing on our military servicemen and women; and (c) potentially leaves those Americans stuck in a highly volatile area, since Turkish forces control the nearby roads. By some accounts, an airlift may be necessary.

The New York Times reported on the speed with which calamitous conditions unfolded.

President Trump's acquiescence to Turkey's move to send troops deep inside Syrian territory has in only one week's time turned into a bloody carnage, forced the abandonment of a successful five-year-long American project to keep the peace on a volatile border, and given an unanticipated victory to four American adversaries: Russia, Iran, the Syrian government and the Islamic State.

Rarely has a presidential decision resulted so immediately in what his own party leaders have described as disastrous consequences for American allies and interests.... [T]his much already is clear: Mr. Trump ignored months of warnings from his advisers about what calamities likely would ensue if he followed his instincts to pull back from Syria and abandon America's longtime allies, the Kurds. He had no Plan B, other than to leave. The only surprise is how swiftly it all collapsed around the president and his depleted, inexperienced foreign policy team.

The same Times article noted that U.S. officials have been "quietly reviewing plans for evacuating roughly 50 tactical nuclear weapons" that we've long stored in Turkey -- which wasn't cause for concern until Turkey started firing artillery rounds at American troops.

Some international crises can be blamed on multiple figures. This one rests almost entirely on Donald Trump's shoulders.

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Prosecutors reportedly take an interest in Rudy Giuliani's finances

10/15/19 12:59PM

There have been quite a few reports over the last several days about a possible criminal investigation into Donald Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, following the incarceration of the president's first personal attorney, Michael Cohen. As Rachel noted on last night's show, the Wall Street Journal's latest reporting on the scrutiny advances our understanding quite a bit.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are examining Rudy Giuliani's business dealings in Ukraine, including his finances, meetings and work for a city mayor there, according to people familiar with the matter.

Investigators also have examined Mr. Giuliani's bank records, according to the people.

Witnesses have been questioned about Mr. Giuliani since at least August by investigators, who also want to know more about Mr. Giuliani's role in an alleged conspiracy involving two of his business associates, the people said.

Those two associates, of course, are Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were taken into federal custody last week, following their alleged effort to funnel illegal Russian campaign contributions, which went to officials whose help they sought in removing Marie Yovanovitch from her post as the U.S. ambassador in Ukraine.

As for why prosecutors may be interested in Giuliani's bank records and business dealings in Ukraine, that's where the story gets a little tricky.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.15.19

10/15/19 12:00PM

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

* The latest national Quinnipiac poll found Elizabeth Warren leading Joe Biden in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, 30% to 27%. Bernie Sanders is third with 11% -- down six points since the last Quinnipiac survey -- while Pete Buttigieg was fourth with 8%. Kamala Harris, who had 4% support in the poll, was the only other candidate above 2%.

* Brad Parscale, Donald Trump's campaign manager, yesterday described the U.S. House's impeachment inquiry as being "a seditious conspiracy to overthrow the people's president." He added that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is "attempting to overthrow our great Republic." Parscale did not appear to be kidding.

* The New York Times published quite a report on the planned voter purge in Ohio's Republican-led state government: "When Ohio released a list of people it planned to strike from its voting rolls, around 40,000 people shouldn't have been on it. The state only found out because of volunteer sleuthing." In all, Ohio intended to purge 235,000 Americans from the state voter rolls, and roughly one-in-five voters on the purge list weren't supposed to be there.

* Presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke has now "clarified" his position on stripping the tax-exempt status of houses of worship that oppose marriage equality: "O'Rourke and his staff have since said that was not his intended position."

* Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's (D) detractors tried to launch a recall campaign against her, but as of yesterday, they failed to collect the necessary number of signatures.

* In Louisiana over the weekend, voters handed Republicans significant state legislative gains, which will likely cause headaches for Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) if he wins a gubernatorial runoff next month.

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Trump appears to forget basic details of the Ukraine scandal timeline

10/15/19 11:20AM

Donald Trump has boasted on multiple occasions that he has "one of the great memories of all time." It's therefore odd when he forgets recent events from his own presidency.

For example, Trump's description of the failure of his health care initiative tends to garble up the timeline of events. The Republican's description of the failure of his immigration initiative has run into the same problem: the president has struggled to keep track of which developments happened at which time.

And now it's happening again with Trump's impeachment scandal. Here, for example, was what the president told Fox News' Jeanine Pirro over the weekend:

"[House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff] made up a conversation. He made a conversation that didn't exist. He never thought in a million years that I was going to release the real conversation. And when it did, the whistleblower turned out to be totally inaccurate."

There's a lot wrong with this, but note how badly Trump has screwed up the timeline of events. He seems to believe the White House released the now infamous call summary after Schiff paraphrased it. It's a key point to Trump's defense, and it gets what actually happened backwards.

In the same Fox News interview, Trump added:

"Even if you listen to the very good conversation that I had [with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky] -- a very, very good, no-pressure, congenial conversation with the new president of Ukraine -- he had some things that were not flattering to say about [former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch]. And that came out of the blue. So, you know, it would be nice to have somebody that he liked, because he's going -- the person will have to deal with the president of Ukraine."

That's not what happened. As the White House's own call summary showed, it was Trump who brought up the ambassador, not Zelensky.

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During a campaign rally Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reads a statement made by Michelle Fields, on March 29, 2016 in Janesville, Wis. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)

Poll denialism makes a comeback as impeachment, 2020 elections loom

10/15/19 10:45AM

Fox News released a national poll last week that was rather brutal for the White House. The data from Donald Trump's favorite network showed, among other things, that 51% of Americans support the president's impeachment and removal from office. The same results pointed to large segments of the population criticizing Trump's "dealings with the Ukrainian president."

Not surprisingly, a variety of news outlets, including the New York Times, took note of the Fox poll. According to Trump, that's a mistake.

President Trump on Monday blasted The New York Times for using in one of its stories last week's Fox News poll that said a majority of respondents wanted his impeachment.

"The Fox Impeachment poll has turned out to be incorrect," he tweeted Monday. "This was announced on Friday. Despite this, the Corrupt New York Times used this poll in one of its stories, no mention of the correction which they knew about full well!"

In reality, there was no correction to "mention." The president appeared to reference this New York Post piece, which argued that the sample in the Fox News poll included too many Democrats.

"Princeton, New Jersey, pollster Braun Research, which conducted the survey, noted 48% of its respondents were Democrats," the New York Post's analysis read. "But the actual breakdown of party affiliation is 31% Democrat, 29% Republican and 38% independent, according to Gallup."

There are two important angles to this. The first is the flaw in the New York Post's analysis, which may make Trump feel better, but which is nevertheless mistaken. The second is the re-emergence of poll denialism.

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