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E.g., 10/20/2019

Pressed on scandal, Pence struggles with straightforward question

10/10/19 11:20AM

Vice President Mike Pence probably hoped to keep his distance from Donald Trump's intensifying Ukraine scandal, but those efforts aren't going especially well. The Washington Post reported last week that the president "repeatedly involved" the Indiana Republican "in efforts to exert pressure on the leader of Ukraine."

As regular readers know, the timeline of events paints an exceedingly unflattering picture, featuring a vice president making an unpersuasive case that he was ignorant about Trump's scheme, despite having ample access to the relevant information.

It was against this backdrop that Pence was in Iowa yesterday, where NBC News' Vaughn Hillyard asked the vice president whether he was aware the Trump administration was delaying aid to Ukraine, at least in part to get Ukraine to go after Joe Biden. Pence said several words, none of which answered the question.

So, Hillyard asked again, and Pence evaded again. In all, the video of the event showed the NBC News reporter asking the vice president four times. It wasn't a trick question. A "yes" or a "no" would've sufficed.

But Pence wasn't prepared to answer directly, instead saying he personally didn't discuss the Bidens with Ukrainian President Vlodomyr Zelensky. Perhaps not, but Pence did talk to the Ukrainian leader about Trump's "corruption" concerns, which Zelensky would understand as a reference to Trump's desire for a Biden-related investigation.

New York's Jon Chait added, in reference to Pence's evasive answers to Vaughn Hillyard's question:

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Image: U.S. President Trump celebrates with Republican House members after healthcare bill vote at the White House in Washington

As impeachment looms, White House fears cracks in the GOP wall

10/10/19 10:44AM

Donald Trump has long been obsessed with maintaining a united partisan front, confident in the belief that he can withstand any crisis just so long as Republicans rally behind him. And yet, whether he understands the consequences of his actions or not, the president has a curious habit of testing the limits of his allies' loyalties.

Congressional Republicans, for example, thought Trump had made a "huge mistake" releasing an incriminating call summary two weeks ago, but the president ignored them. GOP lawmakers were broadly disgusted when Trump -- apparently on a whim -- changed his policy toward Syria and abandoned our Kurdish allies without giving so much as a heads-up to his ostensible allies on Capitol Hill.

Congressional Republicans were blindsided again when the White House blocked Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, from appearing on Capitol Hill, which came on the heels of the president putting GOP lawmakers in an awkward position by calling for Sen. Mitt Romney's (R-Utah) impeachment -- something that isn't even possible in our system of government.

All of which is to say, at a time when Trump desperately needs unyielding Republican support, the president has taken a series of needlessly provocative steps that have angered and alienated the GOP officials whose backing he needs.

The Washington Post reported overnight, "There is an acknowledgment inside some quarters of the West Wing that Trump cannot ignore the skittishness of Republicans."

In the coming weeks, White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney is planning to help Trump begin a quiet charm offensive with congressional Republicans, hosting private dinners and meetings, gatherings at Camp David and other ways of expressing appreciation for their support, according to three Trump advisers who were not authorized to speak publicly.

CNN, meanwhile, reported that the president has been "lighting up the phone lines of his allies on Capitol Hill," including multiple calls per day to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), "to whom he's stressed the importance of Republican unity."

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Image: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Holds Her Weekly Press Conference At The Capitol

It's time to rethink old assumptions about Pelosi's public standing

10/10/19 10:00AM

In recent years, the conventional wisdom in Republican circles has been that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's public standing is so poor, it's effectively toxic. According to a recent book from Cliff Sims, a former aide in Donald Trump's White House, the president told then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) a couple of years ago, in reference to Pelosi, "Have you seen her? She's a disaster. Every time she opens her mouth another Republican gets elected."

The comment helped crystallize the GOP's assumptions on the California Democrat, though the latest national Fox News poll, released late yesterday, suggests those assumptions are due for an overhaul.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's personal favorability rating is under water by 6 points (42 percent favorable vs. 48 percent unfavorable). Still, that's a new high, and gives her the highest favorable rating of Capitol Hill leadership tested in the poll.

Obviously, no one with a 42% favorability rating should be described as broadly popular with the American electorate. That said, according to Fox News' results, Pelosi's favorability is roughly in line with Donald Trump's -- in fact, her unfavorable rating is quite a bit better than the president's -- and the House Speaker has stronger public support than Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

As regular readers know, less than a year ago, after House Republicans suffered through their worst midterm cycle since the immediate aftermath of Watergate, there was a fair amount of anxiety about Democrats elevating Pelosi back to the Speaker's office -- not because she'd failed to earn it, but because some in the party believed she was too unpopular.

It was certainly the image GOP officials have spent years cultivating, condemning the villainous "San Francisco liberal," and trying desperately to tie Democratic candidates to Pelosi, occasionally in races that are unrelated to the U.S. House.

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A Fox News reporter works from the Bernie Sanders rally in Iowa City, Ia., Jan. 30, 2016. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC)

New impeachment lawyer moves from Fox News to Team Trump

10/10/19 09:21AM

As expected, Donald Trump's personal legal team added a new member yesterday, with former Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) agreeing to help the president as the impeachment process advances. NBC News' report on the announcement highlighted what the South Carolina Republican has been up to lately.

After retiring from Congress at the beginning of the year, Gowdy became a contributor on Fox News, where he has blasted the impeachment inquiry. [...]

In a sign that he'd be joining Team Trump, Fox News issued a statement earlier Wednesday saying he'd "been terminated and is no longer a contributor."

Media Matters added yesterday, "Since The Wall Street Journal reported on September 20 that the whistleblower complaint involved Trump pressuring Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, leading to the inquiry announced on September 24, Gowdy has gone on Fox to slam Democrats for 'mishandling this investigation,' make dishonest comparisons between Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and former President Barack Obama, lend credibility to a conspiracy theory pushed by the president, and single out some of Trump's favorite targets for attack."

What we didn't fully appreciate was the degree to which Gowdy's appearances effectively served as an audition.

Regardless, if the former congressman's transition from Fox News to Team Trump seems familiar, it's because we've seen it before -- many, many times.

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Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) speaks to guests at the Iowa Freedom Summit on Jan. 24, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)

Iowa's Ernst struggles with question at the heart of Trump scandal

10/10/19 08:40AM

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) published a tweet last week summarizing Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal with a straightforward question. "It comes down to this," the California Democrat wrote. "We've cut through the denials. The deflections. The nonsense. Donald Trump believes he can pressure a foreign nation to help him politically. It's his 'right.' Every Republican in Congress has to decide: Is he right?"

As bottom-line questions go, this seems quite fair. Obviously, the broader scandal is multifaceted, with a series of players and detailed developments, but the core of the story is simple: the American president used his office to pressure foreign governments, not to advance our interests, but to advance his. Trump fears a domestic rival, so he encouraged foreign officials to go after him.

The Republican defended himself by insisting he has an "absolute right" to engage in this conduct. The question -- by some measures, the only question -- is whether his party agrees with this assessment.

It's also a question many in the GOP don't know how to answer. Take Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), for example, who was repeatedly pressed by a CNN reporter this week to say whether it's appropriate or not for a president to solicit campaign assistance from a foreign power. Iowa Starting Line reported yesterday on the exchange:

Ernst's first response to the reporter's question was: "I think we are going to have to go back, just as I said last week, we'll have to wait. All that information is going to have to go to Senate Intelligence." [...]

The reporter clarified she wanted to know whether asking a foreign power for help investigating an opponent was appropriate. "We again, we don't have the facts in front of us," Ernst said. "And what we see pushed out through the media, we don't know what is accurate at this point."

The reporter interjected that she "didn't ask if it was accurate -- I'm asking you if it's appropriate for a president to ask a foreign power to investigate his domestic political rival. Yes or no?"

Ernst replied: "I don't know if we have that information in front of us, and I'll just stick with what I said all along ... "

Ernst's refusal to answer the question made for a cringe-worthy display. The fact that she kept saying she didn't have information on the subject made matters worse, given the fact that Trump stood on the South Lawn of the White House and literally called for foreign governments to target Joe Biden.

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Image: FILES-US-POLITICS-DIPLOMACY-INTELLIGENCE

Tillerson story creates Trump's latest possible impeachable offense

10/10/19 08:00AM

About a year ago, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared at a forum and was asked why he and Donald Trump struggled to see eye to eye. The nation's former chief diplomat talked a bit about the differences in their styles before noting, almost in passing, that the president had asked him to do things that "violate the law."

It was, of course, a startling moment, though the former cabinet secretary didn't go into additional details about the kind of illegalities Trump wanted him to commit. As Rachel noted on the show last night, however, Bloomberg News appears to have uncovered an amazing instance.

President Donald Trump pressed then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help persuade the Justice Department to drop a criminal case against an Iranian-Turkish gold trader who was a client of Rudy Giuliani, according to three people familiar with the 2017 meeting in the Oval Office.

Tillerson refused, arguing it would constitute interference in an ongoing investigation of the trader, Reza Zarrab, according to the people. They said other participants in the Oval Office were shocked by the request.

Tillerson immediately repeated his objections to then-Chief of Staff John Kelly in a hallway conversation just outside the Oval Office, emphasizing that the request would be illegal.

As much of the country has no doubt noticed, we're in the midst of a presidential impeachment inquiry, which is evaluating Trump's possible high crimes and misdemeanors. With this in mind, it's worth emphasizing that if the president urged his secretary of State to interfere with the Justice Department, derailing the prosecution of one of Giuliani's clients -- a client who faced serious criminal charges -- that would almost certainly constitute an impeachable offense.

Which is to say, another impeachable offense.

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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 10.9.19

10/09/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The offensive Trump allowed to happen: "Turkey launched airstrikes in northeastern Syria on Wednesday, Kurdish militia leaders and eyewitnesses said, prompting panic among civilians in the region and despair among the fighters who have been crucial U.S. allies in the war on the Islamic State militant group."

* Germany: "Two people were shot to death and several were injured Wednesday after gunfire erupted at a synagogue and a nearby kebab shop in the city of Halle in eastern Germany, in violence that was livestreamed by the gunman and posted online. The shooting occurred on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur."

* The point, apparently, is to prevent power lines from sparking wildfires: "The Pacific Gas and Electric Company said that early Wednesday it began implementing the first phase of a 'public safety power shutoff,' expected to affect 513,000 customers in northern California, and that at noon (3 p.m. ET) a second phase affecting around 234,000 customers would begin."

* A story we've been following: "Democrats pursuing an impeachment inquiry of President Trump want to take a fresh look at whether the sale of anti-tank missiles to Kyiv last year was in any way connected to Ukraine's decision to halt investigations into Trump's campaign chairman."

* I'm eager to see additional reporting on this: "President Donald Trump directed Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and two top State Department officials to deal with his private attorney Rudy Giuliani when the Ukrainian President sought to meet Trump, in a clear circumvention of official channels, according to two sources familiar with the conversation."

* Cohen keeps generating headlines: "Michael Cohen, the former attorney and fixer for President Donald Trump, is expected to be brought back to New York for a meeting with state prosecutors where he's expected to tell them everything he knows, a law enforcement official tells CNN."

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Image: Lindsey Graham; Donald Trump

Lindsey Graham insists impeachment might 'destroy the nation'

10/09/19 02:25PM

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has reason to feel frustrated. The Republican senator has gone out of his way to maintain a sycophantic alliance with Donald Trump, hoping that it would offer him an opportunity to help guide the president's foreign policy. That plan failed: Trump not only ignored Graham's pleas for U.S. policy toward Syria, the White House didn't even bother to tell the South Carolinian what was going on.

At the same time, Graham is also apparently frustrated that he can't stop the impeachment of the president who doesn't much seem to care about his loyalty.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Wednesday said that he is sending a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) warning that Senate Republicans won't impeach President Trump over his call with Ukraine.

Graham, in an appearance on Fox News's "Fox & Friends," said that he was going to ask other Senate Republicans to sign a letter to Pelosi saying that they "do not believe the transcript of the phone call between the president and the Ukraine is an impeachable offense."

"They're about to destroy the nation for no good reason," Graham said. "And I want Nancy Pelosi to know that Republican senators are not going to impeach this president based on this transcript, so she can stop now before she destroys the country."

It's a curious approach to the issue. Graham seems to believe, for example, that he and other Senate Republicans will side with Trump no matter the results of the impeachment inquiry, so there's no point in the U.S. House pursuing the matter. The South Carolinian is the second GOP leader this week, following Mitch McConnell, to effectively rule out the possibility of Republicans holding their president accountable.

The Senate trial isn't close to beginning, but some in the majority party apparently want to make it clear that the fix is in.

Of course, the House impeachment is not dependent on a specific Senate outcome. In 1998, for example, Graham helped lead the impeachment charge against Bill Clinton, knowing at the time that there was no realistic chance of the Senate removing the Democratic president from office. Graham did it anyway, indifferent to the process' effects or likelihood of success.

But it was the "destroy the nation" line that struck me as especially important.

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Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-ELECTIONS-TRUMP

Those who mistake an American president for a king

10/09/19 12:50PM

One of the common threads tying together many of Donald Trump's disparate scandals is an unsettling idea touted by his lawyers and defenders: the president must be freed from the burdens of accountability.

Follow the law as it relates to disclosing tax returns? No, Team Trump says, because a president can't be investigated. Follow legal precedent related to grand jury testimony during impeachment proceedings? No, Team Trump says, because the president operates above the law. Cooperate with a congressional impeachment inquiry? No, Team Trump says, because a president can pick and choose which legal processes he deems legitimate.

With this in mind, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone wrote a ridiculous letter to congressional leaders yesterday, effectively making the case that the president considers the ongoing impeachment proceedings "unconstitutional" and has therefore decided to defy lawmakers' efforts to hold him accountable. Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, told Roll Call that Cipollone's letter is "borderline hysterical," adding, "Cipollone would rip up the Constitution and make impeachment subject to presidential consent."

Shaub, now a senior adviser at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), went on to say, in reference to the White House counsel's bizarre argument, "Its underlining assumption, that the executive must consent to an impeachment inquiry, mistakes Trump for a king."

Neal Katyal, the former acting U.S. solicitor general, drew a similar conclusion, noting on Twitter that Cipollone is "saying in effect" that the American president is "a king."

New York's Adam K. Raymond noted a related argument that unfolded on Fox News soon after.

On Tuesday's episode of Fox News' The Ingraham Angle, Joseph diGenova did what Giuliani hasn't. The lawyer and ardent Trump fan appeared on the show right next to Giuliani, when he called the impeachment proceedings against Trump "regicide."

"What you're seeing is regicide," said diGenova.... "This is regicide by another name, fake impeachment."

If that name sounds familiar, it's because last year Trump decided to hire Joe diGenova, a far-right conspiracy theorist and frequent Fox News guest, to help defend him from the investigation into the Russia scandal. They parted ways seven days later.

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