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Trump learned of whistleblower complaint before releasing Ukraine aid

11/27/19 03:37PM

On Aug. 12, a whistleblower filed a formal, written complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community on Donald Trump's Ukraine scheme, roughly five weeks after the administration quietly froze U.S. military aid to the vulnerable ally. Inspector General Michael Atkinson soon after scrutinized the complaint, deemed it credible, and concluded that it involved a matter of "urgent concern."

As a procedural matter, the next step in the process was supposed to be notification of the Intelligence Committee chairs on Capitol Hill. But as it turns out, in this case, someone else was notified about the whistleblower's complaint, too. As the New York Times reported:

President Trump had already been briefed on a whistle-blower's complaint about his dealings with Ukraine when he unfroze military aid for the country in September, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Lawyers from the White House counsel's office told Mr. Trump in late August about the complaint, explaining that they were trying to determine whether they were legally required to give it to Congress, the people said.

The timeline, of course, is of critical importance. Trump ordered the hold on military aid in July, he learned of the complaint against him in August, and he released the promised aid in September. Or put another way, the American president agreed to do the right thing only after becoming aware of the fact he'd been caught doing the wrong thing.

That's no small detail, especially in the context of an impeachment inquiry evaluating the motivations behind the White House scheme. Former federal prosecutor Mimi Rocah explained, "This is what prosecutors call 'consciousness of guilt.' It's very strong evidence that when he froze the money it was for an illicit purpose. Otherwise, why not keep it frozen and explain it was all on the up and up to fight 'corruption?'"

But let's also not overlook the testimony from Ambassador Gordon Sondland from last week.

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By focusing on impeachment polling, Trump picks the wrong fight

11/27/19 12:40PM

Over the last week or so, Donald Trump has focused his attention nearly every day on public-opinion polls related to his impeachment. The president usually responds to discouraging data by insisting pollsters are part of a conspiracy to make him look bad, but this week, the Republican has been reduced to making up imagined polls that he claims show broad opposition to his impeachment.

Trump kept this going during his campaign rally in south Florida last night.

"They're pushing that impeachment witch hunt, and a lot of bad things are happening to them," Trump told rallygoers. "Because you see what's happening with the polls? Everybody said, 'That's really bulls**t.'"

The crowd erupted into a cheer and began chanting "bulls**t," echoing the president.

Putting aside the oddity of hearing a presidential crowd chant a profanity, Trump seems almost desperate for people to believe impeachment is unpopular. Maybe he believes it, maybe he hopes Democrats will change direction if they fear a backlash, or maybe the president thinks he can make a falsehood true by simply asserting it, over and over again.

Whatever the motivation, there are a couple of ways to look at the latest data. According to the latest figures from FiveThirtyEight's tally, public support for impeaching Trump and removing him from office is between 45% and 50%. That's roughly where the numbers have been since early October.

To be sure, it'd be a mistake to look at these results and describe the impeachment effort as wildly popular, but at the same time, the president's frequent assertions that the American public is turning on the idea are plainly wrong.

All of which leads us to the other angle: historical context.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.27.19

11/27/19 12:00PM

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

* The latest national Quinnipiac poll, released late yesterday, found Joe Biden leading the Democrats' 2020 field with 24%, followed by Pete Buttigieg at 16%, Elizabeth Warren at 14%, and Bernie Sanders at 13%. Of particular interest was Warren, who saw a sharp drop in support since last month. The same poll showed no other Dems above 3%.

* Speaking of national 2020 polling, CNN's new poll, released this morning, showed Biden in first with 28%, followed by Sanders at 17%, Warren at 14%, and Buttigieg at 11%. As with the Quinnipiac data, no other presidential hopeful in the Democratic field topped 3%.

* How rough was this year's election for outgoing Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R)? His own lieutenant governor, Jenean Hampton (R), didn't vote for him.

* Google is moving forward with a plan to make it more difficult for advertisers to target specific types of people, and as the AP noted, among those complaining the loudest are Trump's re-election campaign and other Republican election groups.

* The Republican Party of Texas's election strategy for the 2020 elections ended up in Texas Democrats' hands as part of what the Dallas Morning News described as "a bizarre political blunder."

* Mark Penn, who used to advise Bill Clinton, reportedly provided a polling briefing for Donald Trump in the Oval Office last week. Penn's focused was apparently on impeachment and its effects on the Republican's political standing.

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With 'deep state' rhetoric, Trump takes aim at the US military's values

11/27/19 11:20AM

Last week, Donald Trump appeared on Fox News' morning show and complained about "very, very bad people" in his own country's government. "You know, a lot of people say 'deep state,'" the president said. "I don't like to use the word 'deep state.' I just say they're really bad, sick people."

Trump has actually used the phrase many times -- including during the same interview in which he claimed to avoid the phrase. Yesterday, at a campaign rally in south Florida, the president referenced it again.

Mr. Trump also defended his decision this month to absolve three service members of war crimes, arguing that he had "stuck up for three great warriors against the deep state."

It's important to understand the nature and context of comments like these. According to Trump, he intervened in support of accused war criminals because there were nefarious government bureaucrats -- including the Navy secretary whom Trump chose for the post -- who were too committed to military discipline, the rule of law, and the integrity of the Uniform Code of Military Justice system.

Or put another way, the current Commander in Chief believes proponents of his own country's military justice system are members of a "deep state" that he's proud to fight against.

In the American tradition, there have been presidents who've butted heads with U.S. military leaders, but it's tough to think of a parallel for Trump's latest antics.

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Image: FILE PHOTO --  U.S. President Trump and German Chancellor Merkel give a joint news conference in Washington

After failing at other impossible tasks, Kushner gets handed another

11/27/19 10:40AM

Donald Trump tends not to trust many of the officials around him, which leads the president to keep things within the family -- literally. His young and inexperienced son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has an almost comically broad policy portfolio, featuring incredibly complex challenges that even experienced officials -- those who know what they're doing -- would find difficult.

Trump has tasked Kushner with tackling, among other things, foreign policy, trade policy, criminal-justice reform, infrastructure, reimagining the Veterans Administration, tackling the opioid crisis, and striking a Middle East peace agreement.

Part of the problem is that Kushner isn't succeeding and many of his plans have crumbled. The other part of the problem is that the president isn't done adding to his son-in-law's to-do list. The Washington Post reported yesterday:

President Trump has made his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the de facto project manager for constructing his border wall, frustrated with a lack of progress over one of his top priorities as he heads into a tough reelection campaign, according to current and former administration officials.

Kushner convenes biweekly meetings in the West Wing, where he questions an array of government officials about progress on the wall, including updates on contractor data, precisely where it will be built and how funding is being spent.... The president's son-in-law and senior adviser is pressing U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expedite the process of taking over private land needed for the project as the government seeks to meet Trump's goal of erecting 450 miles of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border by the end of 2020.

This may not be quite as difficult as Kushner's failed Middle East peace initiative, but it's close. The administration has just recently begun work on 83 miles of new border barriers.

If Trump's goal of 450 miles of new fencing is going to be met by Election Day, Kushner and his colleagues won't just have to seize private land and redirect funds away from military families, they'll also have to construct about a mile of barriers per day, every day, between now and Nov. 3, 2020.

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Will Trump lawyers boycott next phase of impeachment process?

11/27/19 10:14AM

About a month ago, when the U.S. House approved a resolution that formally established the impeachment process against Donald Trump, lawmakers created a roadmap for lawmakers to follow. Closed-door hearings would lead to public hearings with the House Intelligence Committee. Soon after, the panel would prepare a report for the House Judiciary Committee, which would consider drafting and voting on articles of impeachment.

With this in mind, it raised a few eyebrows yesterday when the Judiciary Committee made an unexpected announcement:

The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday announced it will hold its first public impeachment hearing next week, and invited President Donald Trump and his lawyers "to participate."

"I am hopeful that you and your counsel will opt to participate in the Committee's hearing, consistent with the rules of decorum and with the solemn nature before us," Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said in a letter announcing the hearing.

Nadler said the hearing, which will focus on "Constitutional Grounds for Presidential Impeachment," will take place on Dec. 4.

The announcement signaled an important procedural step -- it suggests, among other things, that the Intelligence Committee probably won't hold additional hearings -- but it was also the moment the White House claimed to be waiting for.

In fact, theoretically, Nadler's announcement opens the door to a unique opportunity for the White House. Donald Trump recently complained that the impeachment process was "a farce," in part because his lawyers haven't been able to make their case. The argument never really made any sense, largely because it was made too early: the president's defense team would be able to make their arguments once a report was prepared and presented to the Judiciary Committee.

And now that the process has reached that stage, the Judiciary Committee has invited Trump's lawyers to participate, make their case, and present a defense.

Except they may not want to.

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Pointing to imagined threat, Trump vows to rescue 'Happy Thanksgiving'

11/27/19 09:20AM

In Donald Trump's mind, he singlehandedly saved the phrase "Merry Christmas." The president has repeated the boast many times, including in June, when he told a religious right audience how "proud" he is of the phrase he pretends to have rescued.

Last night, however, at a rally in south Florida, Trump turned his attention to another upcoming holiday.

He painted a world in which he and the audience united once more in 2020 to fight back against a number of adversaries, including those who wanted to stop saying "Happy Thanksgiving." (It was unclear who those people were and what they wanted to say instead.)

The president did not appear to be kidding. "You know, some people want to change the name 'Thanksgiving,'" Trump told his followers, failing to identify who these "people" are. "They don't want to use the term 'Thanksgiving', and that was true also with Christmas, but now everybody's using 'Christmas' again. Remember, I said that? But now we're going to have to do a little work on Thanksgiving."

He added, "People have different ideas why it shouldn't be called 'Thanksgiving,' but everybody in this room, I know, loves the name 'Thanksgiving' and we're not changing it."

Obviously, this is deeply foolish, even by Trump standards. At least when some on the right got hysterical about "Happy Holidays," conservatives could point to actual examples of people and businesses using the inclusive phrase. There is no comparable effort to change Thanksgiving's name.

Trump just made it up.

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Lawyer and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani at a press conference after appearing in court to call for the dismissal of a lawsuit filed against video game giant Activision in Los Angeles, Calif., Oct. 16, 2014. (Photo by Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Trump's latest line on Giuliani should probably make him nervous

11/27/19 08:40AM

All things considered, the fall season has been a rough time for Rudy Giuliani.

Testimony from the impeachment process puts the former New York City mayor near the center of the Ukraine scandal. His associates are facing criminal trouble. Giuliani himself appears to be under an intensifying criminal investigation. Key figures are prepared to testify against him. There's increased scrutiny of his lobbying efforts on behalf of foreign clients, and the resulting image is deeply unflattering.

It's against this backdrop that Giuliani's most powerful client, Donald Trump, sat down with Bill O'Reilly yesterday. Bloomberg Politics reported:

Donald Trump denied directing Rudy Giuliani to go to Ukraine to look for dirt on his political rivals, in an interview with former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly.

"No, I didn't direct him, but he is a warrior, he is a warrior," Trump told O'Reilly in an interview streamed on the internet on Tuesday.

Asked by O'Reilly what Giuliani was doing in Ukraine, Trump said "you have to ask that to Rudy."

The president added, "Rudy has other clients, other than me."

When the host asked, "You didn't direct him to go [to Ukraine] on your behalf?" Trump replied, "No."

First, this probably wasn't the answer Giuliani was hoping to hear from his client. Second, the president's line is literally unbelievable.

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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)

Why two White House officials resigned over Trump's Ukraine scheme

11/27/19 08:00AM

The leverage part of Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal has already come into sharp focus. The publicly available information makes clear that the president and his team tried to extort a vulnerable ally, withholding military aid unless Ukraine agreed to help Trump's domestic political scheme.

What's less understood is the process through which the Republican and his operation withheld the aid in the first place. With this in mind, the U.S. House yesterday released two more deposition transcripts, including one from Mark Sandy, the deputy associate director for national security programs at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

To put it mildly, Sandy, the first OMB official to testify as part of the congressional impeachment inquiry, gave lawmakers some important insights that we did not previously know.

Mark Sandy, a career staffer in the White House Office of Management and Budget, told impeachment investigators that two budget staffers left the agency after expressing frustrations about the unexplained hold on Ukrainian aid, according to new closed-door transcripts released Tuesday.

Sandy said that one staffer, who worked in OMB's legal office and whose name was undisclosed, told him they were leaving the agency, at least in part, because of their concerns regarding the hold on Ukraine security assistance.

As the scandal has unfolded, there's been considerable debate about the seriousness of the allegations and the degree to which they meet constitutional standards for impeachment. But these latest details lead to different questions: what prompted Trump to put a hold on the congressionally approved military aid and was that legal?

Mark Sandy's testimony sheds light on both lines of inquiry.

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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 11.26.19

11/26/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Mark your calendars for Dec. 4: "The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday announced it will hold its first public impeachment hearing next week, and invited President Donald Trump and his lawyers 'to participate.'"

* A case worth watching: "The House Oversight Committee filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Attorney General Bill Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for blocking its probe into the administration's failed efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, calling their actions a 'brazen obstruction of Congress.'"

* New OMB documents: "The White House Office of Management and Budget made its first official move to withhold military aid to Ukraine on July 25, the same day President Donald Trump spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy by phone, according to a summary of OMB documents produced by the House Budget Committee."

* In related news: "A federal judge on Monday issued a preliminary injunction ordering the Department of Defense and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request for records relating to the Trump administration's freeze on security aid to Ukraine."

* What a strange case: "A Chinese businesswoman was sentenced on Monday to eight months in prison and ordered to be deported for trespassing at President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club in Florida carrying a trove of electronics."

* Hmm: "David Pecker, the head of the company that publishes the National Enquirer, has spoken with prosecutors with the New York district attorney's office as part of its investigation into the Trump Organization's handling of hush money payments to women who alleged affairs with President Donald Trump, sources with knowledge of the meeting tell CNN."

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Pompeo points to a 'duty' to examine a discredited conspiracy theory

11/26/19 12:49PM

In late September, when the White House released a call summary of Donald Trump's phone meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the public learned of the kind of "favors" the Republican sought from his counterpart. Trump didn't just want Kyiv to go after one of his domestic rivals; he also brought a crackpot conspiracy theory.

"This whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike," the call summary quotes Trump saying. "I guess you have one of your wealthy people... The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation."

A week later, as the New York Times reported, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended Trump's request to Zelensky, despite the fact that the Crowdstrike conspiracy theory is both ridiculous and discredited. As the report from early October explained, Pompeo said it was "the 'duty' of the Trump administration to pursue whether efforts to tamper in the United States election were rooted in Ukraine, even though the American intelligence agencies have long concluded Russia was to blame."

Nearly two months later, as The Daily Beast noted, the secretary of State's line hasn't improved.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested in a Tuesday press conference that a conspiracy theory that Ukraine and not Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016 is a legitimate line of inquiry.

Asked if the U.S. and Ukraine should investigate whether "Ukraine and not Russia hacked the DNC," Pompeo, who previously served as CIA director, replied: "Anytime there is information that indicates that any country has messed with American elections, we not only have a right but a duty to make sure we chase that down."

It's worth emphasizing that Pompeo did not explicitly endorse the unhinged conspiracy theory or accuse Ukraine, by name, of any wrongdoing.

But the Kansas Republican's rhetoric seemed to leave open the possibility that the discredited conspiracy theory has merit, enough to warrant official examination. Pompeo could've used this opportunity to make clear that the U.S. government holds Russia responsible for Russia's attack on our elections -- but he didn't.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.26.19

11/26/19 12:00PM

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

* In New Hampshire, the latest Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll showed a very competitive contest featuring four candidates within four points of one another. Bernie Sanders is out in front with 16%, followed by Elizabeth Warren at 14%, Pete Buttigieg at 13%, and Joe Biden at 12%.

* On a related note, the same poll found Tulsi Gabbard, fueled in large part by support from non-Democratic voters, at 6% in New Hampshire, while Andrew Yang was at 4%. The results move both of them closer to qualifying for the party's December primary debate.

* In a significant staffing development, Vanessa Cárdenas, who oversaw outreach to Latino, African-American, and women's groups for Joe Biden's presidential campaign, has stepped down from the former vice president's operation.

* A federal judge in Michigan yesterday rejected a Republican argument and cleared the way for a new redistricting commission to advance. Last fall, Michigan voters easily approved a ballot measure to create the commission as a way to counteract gerrymandering.

* John Gray, the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party, confirmed yesterday that Sen. Tom Cotton (R) will not have a Democratic rival next year. Josh Mahony was supposed to be the party's U.S. Senate candidate, but he withdrew from the race a few hours after the state's filing deadline had passed and has reportedly "ceased communication with party leaders." (Notable footnote from recent history: in 2008, when Democrat Mark Pryor ran for re-election to this same seat, he ran without a Republican opponent.)

* It appears former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's extensive financial support for Republican candidates in recent years hasn't gone unnoticed as he moves forward with his 2020 Democratic presidential campaign.

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