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Monday's Mini-Report, 11.18.19

11/18/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Pompeo's latest announcement: "The United States on Monday reversed its decades-long position that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal, in the latest step by the Trump administration to solidify Israeli control over areas claimed by Palestinians for a future independent state."

* Today's mass shooting: "A gunman killed two people outside an Oklahoma Walmart store Monday before fatally shooting himself, officials said. A woman and a man were fatally shot in a car in the parking lot of the store in Duncan, about 80 miles south of Oklahoma City, according to the Duncan Police Department. The suspected shooter, who was outside the car, then turned the gun on himself, police said."

* Yesterday's mass shooting: "Four men were killed and six others shot in what police say was likely a targeted shooting Sunday night at a backyard football watch party in Fresno, California, and authorities are investigating a possible link to Asian gang violence."

* An embarrassing international development, Part I: "North Korea on Monday responded to a tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump that hinted at another summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, saying it has no interest in giving Trump further meetings to brag about unless it gets something substantial in return."

* An embarrassing international development, Part II: "In northern Syria, Russian troops have taken command of a U.S. airbase — and without firing any shots.

* Trump's hidden tax returns: "The Supreme Court on Monday put a temporary hold on a House subpoena for President Donald Trump's financial records spanning eight years."

* Speaking of SCOTUS: "Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was back on the bench Monday after missing one day of courtroom arguments last week."

* Raul Rodriguez worked as an immigration officer for Customs and Border Protection for nearly two decades, processing "removals, visa cancellations, asylum cases, [and] anything that had to do with the processing of immigrants into the U.S." Then he discovered that he's undocumented. Now he's facing possible deportation.

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House tells court it's investigating whether Trump lied to Mueller

11/18/19 04:06PM

An ongoing legal process has been unfolding for quite a while in which Congress has sought grand jury materials from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. There's some modern precedent for this: Congress sought and obtained grand jury materials from the Watergate investigation, which helped create what became known as the "roadmap" for lawmakers.

A lower court ruled in lawmakers' favor and instructed the Justice Department to turn over the materials. The appeal of that case is currently pending with a federal appeals court, and as the Associated Press reported, the judges on the panel were presented with an interesting piece of information.

The House of Representatives' top lawyer told a federal appeals court Monday that the House is investigating whether President Donald Trump lied to special counsel Robert Mueller, and the attorney urged the judges to order the release of still-secret material from Mueller's investigation.

Two of the three judges who heard arguments at the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit -- Judith Rogers, a Clinton appointee, and Thomas Griffith, an appointee of George W. Bush -- seemed prepared to order at least some of the material sought by the House to be turned over.

House General Counsel Douglas Letter told the judges that the need for the still-secret material redacted from the Mueller report is "immense" because it will help House members answer the question, "Did the president lie? Was the president not truthful in his responses to the Mueller investigation?" in his written responses to the probe.

As regular readers likely recall, Trump initially said he was eager to sit down for an interview with Mueller and investigators from the special counsel's office, but the president's attorneys were vehemently opposed to the idea, concerned that Trump would be unable to get through the Q&A without perjuring himself.

Instead, the president submitted written responses, though Trump's answers were deemed "inadequate" -- and in some cases, "incomplete or imprecise" -- by Mueller and his team.

According to the U.S. House's lawyer, lawmakers are pulling on that thread, concerned that the president may have lied to federal investigators.

And with an impeachment inquiry underway, that's no small detail.

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AP: Ukraine felt Trump admin pressure (and US officials knew it)

11/18/19 12:43PM

For a while, Donald Trump's allies tried to defend the president's Ukraine scheme by insisting that Ukraine didn't know about the White House withholding military aid. It was, the Republican argued, a key element: in order to prove extortion, the target would need to know it was being extorted.

This argument collapsed weeks ago, though it soon after morphed into a related talking point: Ukraine didn't feel "pressure" from the Trump administration about the White House's political scheme. Indeed, the president tweeted just yesterday that Ukrainian leaders "said that there was no pressure placed on them whatsoever."

As we've discussed, the public pronouncements from Ukrainian leaders should be taken with a grain of salt. We're talking about a vulnerable ally, heavily dependent on the United States, struggling against Russian aggression. At least publicly, Ukraine has every reason to go out of its way to stay in the White House's good graces, and officials in Kyiv know that crossing Trump in the midst of this scandal carry enormous risks -- especially with a Republican-led Senate unlikely to remove the American president from office.

But privately, it's a different story. The Associated Press had this report this morning:

Despite his denials, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was feeling pressure from the Trump Administration to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden before his July phone call with President Donald Trump that has led to impeachment hearings.

In early May, staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, including then-Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, were briefed on a meeting Zelenskiy held in which he sought advice on how to navigate the difficult position he was in, according to two people with knowledge of the briefings.

He was concerned that Trump and associates were pressing him to take action that could affect the 2020 U.S. presidential race, the people said.

To a certain degree, this may seem like common sense. In fact, the Associated Press reported weeks ago that Zelensky huddled with aides in May -- before even taking office -- expressing concern about Trump World political pressure about a Biden investigation.

But what I found especially notable about the AP's newest report is that Trump administration officials knew about the Ukrainian president's concerns.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.18.19

11/18/19 12:00PM

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

* In Iowa, the latest Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll found Pete Buttigieg leading the Democratic field with 25% support, followed by Elizabeth Warren at 16%, and Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden tied at 15% each. The next closest competitor was Amy Klobuchar with 6%. The Iowa caucuses, for those keeping track, are 77 days away.

* Late last week, state lawmakers in North Carolina unveiled a new congressional district map to be used in next year's elections, following state court rulings that struck down the old one. This new version is likely to endanger two incumbent Republican members of Congress, but for Democrats in North Carolina, the map is still too gerrymandered.

* In Nevada, the latest Fox News poll found Biden leading the Democratic field with 24%, followed by Warren and Sanders who were tied for second with 18% each. Buttigieg, in fourth place in the poll, was further back with 8%.

* The same poll showed Biden and Sanders leading Donald Trump in Nevada by seven points in hypothetical match-ups, while Warren led Trump by three points.

* Kamala Harris' presidential campaign was in need of some good news, and over the weekend, she got some, picking up an endorsement from the United Farm Workers.

* As former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg moves closer to a possible presidential campaign, he apologized yesterday for having backed a "stop-and-frisk" policy during his tenure.

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White House release of April call summary backfires on Trump

11/18/19 11:20AM

On Friday morning, just as former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch's public hearing, the White House tried to change the conversation a bit. Officials released a call summary Donald Trump had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in April -- three months before the Republican's controversial "I would like you to do us a favor, though" conversation.

By most measures, it was a rather anodyne 16-minute conversation, featuring an exchange of pleasantries. The summary, which was not a word-for-word transcript, showed Zelensky clearly trying to get on the American president's good side, while Trump made note of how impressed he is with his own accomplishments, highlighted his previous ownership of the Miss Universe pageant, and assured Zelensky, "[W]e're with you all the way."

For Republicans, the underlying point seemed to be that Trump, in April, didn't try to extort his counterpart in Kyiv. That's apparently true, though it doesn't negate everything else we know about Trump's extortion scheme. There were related questions about what, exactly, prompted the American leader's change in posture between April and September.

But it wasn't long before observers started taking note of what the call summary didn't say. As Slate noted:

[T]he rough transcript conflicts with how the White House initially described the interaction in April. A readout that the administration provided to reporters mere hours after the call states:

"President Donald J. Trump spoke today with President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskyy to congratulate him on his victory in Ukraine's April 21 election. The President wished him success and called the election an important moment in Ukraine's history, noting the peaceful and democratic manner of the electoral process. President Trump underscored the unwavering support of the United States for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity -- within its internationally recognized borders -- and expressed his commitment to work together with President-elect Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people to implement reforms that strengthen democracy, increase prosperity, and root out corruption."

Nowhere in the summary that the White House released on Friday does Trump bring up corruption, sovereignty, territorial integrity, democratic reforms, or prosperity.

Soon after, the White House blamed the discrepancy on Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, whom Trump World is eager to undermine, though the Washington Post reported that Vindman wasn't responsible for the official readout we now know wasn't true.

Just as importantly, the Post reported that the summary of the call that the White House released in April was drafted before the two leaders spoke, and it reflected what White House officials expected Trump to say.

And that, as it turns out, is a highly relevant detail.

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US President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in sign a trade agreement at a bilateral meeting in New York on September 24, 2018, a day before the start of the General Debate of the 73rd session of the General Assembly.

Trump and South Korea: 'Nothing says I love you like a shakedown'

11/18/19 10:41AM

For reasons the White House has struggled to explain, Donald Trump has spent much of his presidency alienating and insulting our South Korean allies. As regular readers know, this has been going on for a while.

Just a few months into his presidency, Trump lied about dispatching an “armada,” led by an aircraft carrier, towards the peninsula, and South Koreans weren’t pleased. When Trump falsely said the Korean Peninsula “used to be a part of China,” that didn’t go over especially well, either.

In May 2017, Trump made matters vastly worse, condemning the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, known as Korus, and threatening to trash the deal. He then said he wanted to deploy a missile-defense system – Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (Thaad) – in South Korea to help protect against a North Korean attack, but only if South Korea pays for the technology. (Then-White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster quietly let officials in Seoul know they should ignore the American president’s bluster.)

A year and a half ago, Trump said at a fundraiser, in reference to South Korea, "Our allies care about themselves. They don't care about us."

This posture took a more drastic turn late last week, as the Associated Press reported:

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Friday pressed Washington's case that longtime ally South Korea must pay a bigger share of the cost of having U.S. troops on its soil.

"This is a very strong alliance we have, but Korea is a wealthy country and could and should pay more to help offset the cost of defense," Esper told a joint news conference with his South Korean counterpart, Jeong Kyeong-doo.

Esper said that while South Korea has provided "a fair amount of support in the past," it is important to point out that "most of that money stays here in this country -- easily over 90% of that money stays here in Korea, it does not go to the United States."

There are competing accounts on the precise figures, but this year, Seoul will pay nearly $1 billion for the presence of roughly 28,000 U.S. troops. Trump wants to hike that figure to around $4.7 billion -- a figure that CNN's report said "came out of thin air."

The same report added, "The price hike has frustrated Pentagon officials and deeply concerned Republican and Democratic lawmakers, according to military officials and congressional aides. It has angered and unnerved Seoul, where leaders are questioning U.S. commitment to their alliance and wondering whether Trump will pull U.S. forces if they don't pay up."

Vipin Narang, an associate professor at MIT who follows the Korean peninsula, summarizing South Korean uncertainty about the U.S., was quoted saying, "Nothing says I love you like a shakedown."

Though I don't imagine this will make Seoul feel any better, Foreign Policy reported late Friday that South Korea isn't the only one: the Trump administration has reportedly "asked Tokyo to pay roughly four times as much per year to offset the costs of stationing more than 50,000 U.S. troops there."

This is bizarre for a variety of reasons.

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Ignoring warnings, Trump intervenes in cases of accused war criminals

11/18/19 10:00AM

Provocative and dubious pardons have unfortunately become a staple of Donald Trump's presidency, and late Friday, the Republican added to his list.

President Donald Trump has intervened in three high-profile murder cases involving U.S. service members, dismissing charges against a Green Beret accused of killing an Afghan man, pardoning a former Army officer serving 19 years for ordering soldiers to fire on unarmed Afghan men, and promoting a Navy SEAL who was convicted of posing with a dead body but acquitted of more serious charges.

By way of an explanation, the president wrote on Twitter over the weekend, "Our great warfighters must be allowed to fight." Of course, no one has ever suggested that American servicemen and women in uniform should be prohibited from fighting for their country. The question is whether they should also be "allowed" to ignore the code of conduct and commit acts which might be adjudged war crimes.

For military justice experts and some senior Pentagon officials, the proper thing for Trump to have done was nothing. He ignored them.

I can appreciate why the president may think he's showing support for "the troops" by intervening in these cases. Trump tends not to consider any subject in any real depth, so from his limited perspective, to appreciate the service of those who wear the uniform means protecting them when they're accused of serious wrongdoing.

That's largely backwards.

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A stethoscope sits on an examination table in an exam room at a Community Clinic Inc. health center in Takoma Park, Maryland, April 8, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

Once again, Trump faces awkward questions following physical exam

11/18/19 09:20AM

At first blush, the news from the weekend seems routine, anodyne, and uninteresting: Donald Trump had a physical exam over the weekend. As the New York Times reported:

President Trump underwent a two-hour doctor's examination on Saturday at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, which the White House said was part of a routine annual physical and included lab work. [...]

In a statement, Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Trump, 73, was taking advantage of a free weekend to begin portions of his annual physical, and was anticipating a busy schedule in 2020.

The White House insists this was all quite routine and uncontroversial, and under normal circumstances, I imagine most would accept the official line without much thought. In this case, however, there are a few loose threads to the story that are worth pulling on.

For example, presidents, including this one, generally have physical exams once a year. Trump's most recent physical, however, was nine months ago. What's more, Trump's earlier physicals were included on his official presidential schedule, while this one was not.

There's also a normal protocol at Walter Reed for routine presidential exams, and according to a CNN report, that protocol was not followed on Saturday. The report, which has not been independently confirmed by MSNBC or NBC News, added, "Typically, Walter Reed's medical staff would get a general notice about a 'VIP' visit to the medical center ahead of a presidential visit, notifying them of certain closures at the facility. That did not happen this time, indicating the visit was a non-routine visit and scheduled last minute."

For his part, Trump declared on Twitter that he'd begun "phase one" of his yearly physical, which seemed odd given that annual physical exams do not usually entail multiple "phases."

Even if there's nothing to this -- a distinct possibility, to be sure -- it doesn't help matters that every time this president tries to have a physical, something about it seems ... odd.

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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)

On impeachment, three days that Trump would like to forget

11/18/19 08:40AM

Friday's testimony from Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, was quite brutal for the White House, leaving little doubt that Donald Trump and his associates hatched a scheme that prioritized the president's interests over the United States'. Her appearance came on the heels of equally damaging testimony from Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state.

But observers who turned their attention away from the impeachment inquiry after Yovanovitch left the hearing room to a standing ovation missed a 72-hour period that likely brought a feeling of dread to many in the White House. Late Friday, for example, David Holmes further tied Trump to the Ukraine scheme.

David Holmes, a career foreign service officer, told impeachment investigators Friday that he overheard a phone call between President Donald Trump and E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland in which the president asked Sondland if Ukraine would investigate the Bidens, a source with direct knowledge of his closed-door testimony said. [...]

"I heard President Trump then clarify that Ambassador Sondland was in Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland replied, yes, he was in Ukraine, and went on to state that President Zelenskiy 'loves your ass.' I then heard President Trump ask, 'So, he's gonna do the investigation?'" Holmes recounted, according to the statement. "Ambassador Sondland replied, that 'he's gonna do it,' adding that President Zelenskiy will do, 'anything you ask him to.'"

In case this isn't obvious, Holmes appears to have, among other things, directly implicated the president in the scheme for which Trump is likely to be impeached.

Making matters worse was testimony from Mark Sandy, the deputy associate director for national security programs at the White House budget office.

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