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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.25.19

03/25/19 12:00PM

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

* Right on cue, Donald Trump's re-election campaign has launched a new fundraiser based on Attorney General Bill Barr's summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report.

* The latest national Fox News poll shows former Vice President Joe Biden leading the Democrats' presidential field with 31% support, followed by Sen. Bernie Sanders at 23%. Only two other candidates -- Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) -- topped 5% in the poll. They each had 8% support.

* Speaking of polling, the new Emerson survey of Iowa Democrats raised a few eyebrows when it was released yesterday. If found Biden with a narrow lead over Sanders, 25% to 24%, but it also found former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg in third place with 11%. Kamala Harris, with 10%, was the only other candidate to reach double digits.

* Though Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has been a presidential candidate since January, but she held a formal kickoff event in New York City yesterday. Interestingly enough, she delivered her announcement speech outside the Trump International Hotel, and made multiple references to the president in her remarks.

* Kamala Harris announced a new policy proposal over the weekend, vowing to make new federal investments in improving teachers' salaries. Historically, this has been an issue left to state and local governments.

* Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) isn't yet a top-tier contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, but based on the latest Fox News poll, he's apparently qualified to participate in the upcoming debates.

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U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a press conference after the meeting of U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2

Maybe now Trump can acknowledge Russia's election attack?

03/25/19 11:27AM

Nearly a year into his first year as president, Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at an international gathering, and the American leader told reporters that he spoke with Putin about alleged Russian interference in our elections.

Trump said that he had "two or three" brief conversations with Putin mostly centered on the war in Syria, but added that he pressed the Russian leader on Moscow's role in attempting to interfere in the 2016 election.

"He said he didn't meddle," Trump said, answering questions in the press cabin on Air Force One. "I asked him again. You can only ask so many times.... He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election."

The Republican added, in reference to his Russian counterpart, "He did not do what they are saying he did."

Actually, yes, he did.

Even before Trump took office, U.S. intelligence professionals informed him about Russian attacks on American elections. He refused to believe them. As president, U.S. intelligence agencies continued to tell Trump what happened. He wouldn't listen.

In fact, the American president didn't just play the role of skeptic; he publicly repeated Putin's denials, praised their "strength" and "power," and presented the Russian's claims as if they were true.

It's against this backdrop that Trump and his allies are celebrating Special Counsel Robert Mueller's findings -- or more accurately, Attorney General William Barr's summary of Mueller's findings. But I'm curious: does the president agree with everything in Barr's memo?

Because according to the attorney general, Mueller's report leaves no doubt that Russia was responsible for executing an operation against the 2016 elections.

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William Barr testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination to be attorney general of the United States on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 15, 2019.

AG Barr in the spotlight over decision on obstruction allegations

03/25/19 10:47AM

Last summer, in his capacity as a private citizen, William Barr wrote a 20-page memo for the Justice Department, criticizing Special Counsel Robert Mueller for investigating Donald Trump over alleged obstruction of justice. The document was unsolicited -- Barr had very strong opinions on the matter, and simply wanted federal law enforcement officials to be aware of his concerns.

The Republican lawyer was unrestrained in his criticisms at the time, insisting that the line of inquiry was based on a "fatally misconceived" theory. Barr added that the special counsel's efforts were, among other things, "grossly irresponsible" and opened the door to "potentially disastrous implications."

Six months later, Donald Trump tapped Barr as his new attorney general.

It's against this backdrop that Barr received Mueller's report late last week, and according to the attorney general, the special counsel "determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment" on whether the president obstructed justice or not. Mueller instead presented Barr with his findings.

Two days later, it was Barr who decided that the evidence is "not sufficient to establish" that the president crossed the legal line. In other words, Trump's handpicked attorney general, after having already denounced this specific line of inquiry, cleared the president who appointed him of having obstructed justice.

When Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were accused of obstruction of justice, it wasn't their own attorneys general who made the final call about how or whether to proceed.

That's not, however, the only problem. Burr's memo made the case that if there was no "underlying crime related to Russian election interference," then there couldn't have been obstruction. The Washington Post spoke to some legal experts who suggested otherwise.

"I think this is the weakest part of Attorney General Barr's conclusions," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "You do not need to prove an underlying crime to prove obstruction of justice. Martha Stewart is quite aware of this fact."

"For example," added former federal prosecutor David Alan Sklansky, now of Stanford University, "if the President wrongfully tried to block the investigation into Russian interference in the election because he wanted to protect the Russians, or because he didn't want people to know that a foreign government had tried to hack the election in his favor, that would constitute obstruction."

Complicating matters, of course, is the speed with which Barr acted.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen during a press conference at Los Pinos on Aug. 31, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/LatinContent/Getty)

If Trump thinks his legal troubles are over, he's mistaken

03/25/19 10:01AM

There was an unintentionally funny moment on ABC News' "This Week" yesterday, when George Stephanopoulos asked Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) whether he's concerned about Donald Trump's apparent role in a pre-election hush-money scandal. The far-right congressman dodged the question, focusing instead on Michael Cohen's credibility.

The host tried again, reminding Jordan that it was federal prosecutors in New York who concluded that Trump is "Individual One" in the Cohen case, directly implicating the sitting president in a felony. Again, Jordan tried to change the subject.

To his credit, Stephanopoulos tried once more, asking, "So just to be clear, the president's involvement in those hush-money payments doesn't concern you?" At that point, the Ohio congressman said, "The president has had an amazing two years," and proceeded to act as if he hadn't even heard the question.

This was more than just a reminder that Jim Jordan isn't a great surrogate for the White House. It was also a reminder that, no matter what one thinks of Attorney General William Barr's summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's findings, Trump's legal troubles aren't over.

The Washington Post had a good report along these lines on Friday night:

Yet even as one legal cloud lifts with the conclusion of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation, others loom large on the horizon -- creating additional threats to the president's standing as he seeks to shift attention toward his 2020 reelection campaign.

Nearly every organization Trump has run over the past decade remains under investigation by state or federal authorities, and he is mired in a variety of civil litigation, with the center of gravity shifting from Mueller's offices in Southwest Washington to Capitol Hill and state and federal courtrooms in New York, the president's hometown and the headquarters of his company.

To be sure, the investigation into the Russia scandal was probably the most sweeping of the Trump-era probes -- the other presidential scandals, for example, do not have special counsels, and have not led to dozens of indictments -- but to see it as the only meaningful scandal is to take an overly myopic look at the many controversies surrounding Trump and his many enterprises.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Team Trump balks at disclosing written Q&A with Mueller

03/25/19 09:20AM

It's easy to forget, but Donald Trump once boasted that he was "looking forward to" an interview with Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team. It was something the president said he'd "love" to do, and he was "absolutely" prepared to answer questions under oath. Trump added that the interview would happen in roughly "two or three weeks."

That was 14 months ago. That interview never happened.

"In a normal world, it would be very hard for the president of the United States not to submit to an interview in connection with an investigation that touches upon … his conduct and that of people around him," former FBI Director James Comey told Axios last year. "In a normal world, the American people would find that very, very difficult to accept."

Nevertheless, the Mueller probe is now complete. And while the presidential discussion with investigators did not occur, Trump and his lawyers did agree to submit written answers to the special counsel's office.

If Attorney General William Barr's summary is correct, and Mueller's findings are in line with what the White House wanted to see, any chance Trump and his team will disclose the president's written responses? Evidently not.

President Trump's personal lawyer Jay Sekulow told CNN on Monday that he would push hard against the release of the President's written answers to questions that were submitted to special counsel Robert Mueller.

"I would fight very aggressively for that information to not to be released. I think any lawyer would," he said. "Just because as a lawyer you don't waive privileges and you don't waive -- you don't waive investigative detail absent either a court order or an agreement between the parties. And you'd have to weigh a lot of factors there on how that effects other presidencies so I think it's not a simple, just waive your hand and here we release the document. That would be very inappropriate.... That will be a decision for the attorney general makes but I have some strong opinions about that."

Hmm. There's nothing stopping Team Trump from adopting a "we have nothing to hide" posture, but that's not quite what we're hearing amidst the White House celebrations.

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Image: Rep. Devin Nunes Briefs Press On House Intelligence Cmte Russia Investigation

Nunes makes the case for 'burning,' not disclosing, the Mueller report

03/25/19 08:43AM

We now know how William Barr, Donald Trump's handpicked attorney general, decided to summarize Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Russia scandal. Barr received Mueller's report on Friday, and two days later, released a four-page summary that brought a "feeling of euphoria" to the White House.

But as important as the attorney general's memo is, a combination of factors -- its brevity, Barr's credibility, questions raised by the attorney general's specific wording and conclusions -- have only intensified the need to see the special counsel's own document.

Some of the president's allies may not agree. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee and one of the White House's most sycophantic allies, appeared on Fox News yesterday and suggested the document should be set on fire.

"So the Mueller report -- a lot of people, 'Oh what does it say?' We can just burn it up. I mean, it is a partisan document."

This, of course, came several hours before the release of Bill Barr's summary, at which point Trump World abandoned its don't-trust-Mueller talking points, and instead insisted that Barr's assessment of Mueller's findings must be accepted at face value. (It also came three days after Nunes and 419 other members of the U.S. House voted for a resolution calling for the public release of the special counsel's findings.)

Around the same time, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, sat down with Fox News' Chris Wallace, who asked a good question: "Isn't it legitimate to argue that even if there is damaging information to the president that does not rise to the level of an indictment, that it should be turned over to Congress to take a look at?"

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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump turns away from the cameras as he speaks at a town hall event in Appleton, Wis., March 30, 2016. (Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)

Donald Trump, Robert Mueller, and a 'boiling frog' problem

03/25/19 08:00AM

The cruel fable about boiling a frog has been around for centuries, and it's become a useful metaphor. The idea is pretty straightforward: if someone were to throw a live frog into a pot of boiling water, the shock would be immediate and the frog would leap out.

But if the frog is placed in tepid water, and the temperature increased gradually, the frog would slowly acclimate to the hotter temperatures -- until it's too late.

Putting aside whether the fable is true, as Donald Trump and his allies celebrate Attorney General William Barr's summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's findings, the "boiling frog" problem comes to mind for a reason.

Some have suggested in the wake of Barr's memo that the entire Mueller probe was folly and the underlying scandal was a mirage. But to see recent developments that way is to play the role of the frog, adapting over time to rising temperatures. The Washington Post published an analysis several weeks ago that's relevant anew.

Imagine if, instead of Mueller releasing new public indictments as he went along, leveraging criminal charges to obtain more information from the targets of his probe, he instead had kept his information private. Imagine if he and his lawyers had been working in quiet for 20 months, submitting expenses to the Department of Justice and suffering the president's tweeted ferocity.

And then, after all of that, they suddenly produced a dozen indictments and plea deals running into hundreds of pages, detailing former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's illegal and questionable financial dealings, those of his deputy Rick Gates, full details of Russia's alleged efforts to influence social media and to steal electronic information from Democratic targets and detailed a half-dozen people who admitted to lying to federal investigators.

News consumers and the rest of the political world have watched the process surrounding the special counsel investigation play out episodically, day by day, indictment by indictment, court hearing by court hearing.

As Mueller raised the temperature, we acknowledged the developments, adapted to the new conditions, and awaited the next stage in the process. When the scandal intensified a little more, we again acknowledged the developments, adapted once more, and so on.

But imagine if Mueller and his team had said literally nothing for the last two years -- no indictments, no court appearance, just absolute silence -- leaving us to wonder whether anything of note was happening.

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Attorney General Barr submits summary of Robert Mueller's findings

03/24/19 03:43PM

On Friday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller wrapped up his investigation of the Russia scandal, submitting a report to Attorney General William Barr on his findings. Soon after, Barr, who was only confirmed last month, formally notified Congress that he'd received Mueller's report and shared a vague commitment.

"I am reviewing the report and anticipate that I may be in a position to advise you of the special counsel's principal conclusions as soon as this weekend," the attorney general wrote.

All of which brings us to right now. The document -- Barr's summary of the Mueller report, not the special counsel's own findings -- is online here.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) warned us shortly before its release that Barr's document would be "very brief," and he wasn't kidding. After two years of intense scrutiny, the summary is four pages.

As you -- and I, and everyone else -- start digging in, keep in mind that this will advance our understanding of the special counsel's investigation, but it does not constitute full transparency. The attorney general's document helps us know more than we did, but this will not end calls for the release of the entirety of the Mueller report and its supporting documents.

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Katyal: Special Counsel process working as intended so far

Katyal: Special Counsel process working as intended so far

03/22/19 09:55PM

Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor general, who wrote the Department of Justice regulations defining the Office of the Special Counsel, talks with Rachel Maddow about whether the special counsel worked as it was intended, and why it is imperative that Attorney General William Barr make the results of the investigation public. watch