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Trump's curious defense for deploying more troops to Saudi Arabia

10/14/19 11:20AM

In the face of widespread condemnations and evidence of horrific failure, Donald Trump has tried to defend his new policy in Syria by stressing a specific principle: the president is desperate to bring U.S. troops home. "The same people who got us into the Middle East mess are the people who most want to stay there!" the Republican wrote on Twitter this morning.

It was against this backdrop, however, that the Trump administration announced on Friday afternoon that it's sending 2,800 more American troops to Saudi Arabia.

During a brief Q&A with reporters, the president faced the obvious question: "Mr. President, why are you sending more troops to Saudi Arabia when you just said it's a mistake to be in the Middle East?" After acknowledging that he is, in fact, deploying more American troops to Saudi Arabia, Trump explained his thinking on the matter:

"The relationship has been very good. And they buy hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of merchandise from us, not only military equipment. In military equipment, about $110 billion. It's millions of jobs.

"Now, with that being said, we are sending troops and other things to the Middle East to help Saudi Arabia. But are you ready? Saudi Arabia, at my request, has agreed to pay us for everything we're doing. That's a first. But Saudi Arabia -- and other countries, too, now -- but Saudi Arabia has agreed to pay us for everything we're doing to help them. And we appreciate that."

For the record, Trump has been exaggerating -- at times, hilariously -- the scope and scale of arms deals with Riyadh for quite a while. His rhetoric on the subject is literally unbelievable.

But in this case, that's not the most interesting part. Did the president mean to say that we're sending thousands of troops to the Middle East because Saudi Arabia "has agreed to pay us"?

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As the scandal intensifies, Team Trump turns to Jedi mind tricks

10/14/19 10:44AM

As Donald Trump's impeachment becomes even more likely, the president and his allies have been even more eager than usual to concoct an alternate reality they expect the public to take seriously. In this version of reality, adjacent to our own, the intelligence community's whistleblower has been completely discredited.

That's plainly false, of course, as the White House and its cohorts know, though the truth has been deemed secondary. It's why Trump is also throwing around all kinds of related nonsense about Joe Biden, Adam Schiff, and what the president sees as Russia's purported innocence in its 2016 attack on our elections.

Trump and his team seem to realize a reality-based approach wouldn't work, and the result is an avalanche of claims that crumble under scrutiny.

But perhaps no claim is more important than Team Trump's assertions about Trump's July phone meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Consider this exchange between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and The Tennessean's Joel Ebert on Friday:

Q: Two days ago, Wednesday, PBS did an interview with you, and you said the phone call was "wholly appropriate" in your mind. Why do you think it's appropriate for the President of the United States to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political opponent?

POMPEO: Well, that's not what he did.

Q: What did he do, in your mind?

POMPEO: He was having a conversation with the new president of Ukraine to talk about our relationship broadly and how we were going to move forward together.... I think the only ones who think Zelensky was pressured are a handful of folks in the media and a bunch of folks on Capitol Hill, the Democratic Party, who are trying to take down this President.

A couple of days earlier, a reporter asked Vice President Mike Pence, "The president himself has said he wants a foreign country to investigate his rival. Is that okay with you?" Pence replied, "I don't believe that's the case."

Trump, meanwhile, has spent a ridiculous amount of time describing his call with Zelensky as "perfect" and completely uncontroversial.

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Trump explains his indifference to recent defeats in court

10/14/19 10:02AM

On a variety of fronts, the federal judiciary has been a nagging thorn in Donald Trump's side. The president's Census scheme, for example, was blocked in the courts. So was his family-separation policy. And his DACA scheme.

And it's not just his policy agenda that's suffered. The Republican's emoluments controversy persists in the courts, as does his struggling effort to hide his tax returns indefinitely.

On Friday afternoon, Trump suffered a series of embarrassing legal setbacks, including defeats in cases related to his border barriers and his so-called "public charge" rule, among other things But what struck me as notable was the president's response when a reporter asked him on Friday afternoon about the court losses, some of which he said he hadn't yet heard about. Trump expressed confidence that his positions would ultimately prevail and explained why:

"I've had a great track record. And right now, within a couple of weeks, we will have 160 judges. And within a couple of months, we'll have 182 federal judges. And we are breaking records like nobody has ever seen in that regard, as you know."

In other words, as Trump sees it, his recent court defeats are merely temporary. Soon, even more of his judges will be on the bench, at which point the courts will rule in his favor and give him what he wants.

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More GOP senators struggle with basic Trump scandal questions

10/14/19 09:20AM

CBS News' Margaret Brennan asked Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) yesterday whether it's appropriate for Donald Trump to urge foreign countries to go after one of his domestic rivals. "Look, of course not," the Texas Republican replied. "Elections in the U.S. should be decided by Americans and it's not the business of foreign countries, any foreign countries, to be interfering in our elections."

Cruz added, "Listen, foreign countries should stay out of American elections. That's true for Russia. That's true for Ukraine. That's true for China. That's true for all of them. It should be the American people deciding elections."

This, of course, was the correct answer. It's also the one some of his Republican colleagues -- most notably Iowa's Joni Ernst and Colorado's Cory Gardner -- refused to offer, afraid to take a stand on principle.

But as it turns out, they aren't the only ones struggling. After some unhelpful exchanges, CNN's Jake Tapper yesterday asked Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), "Are you really not capable of answering a question about whether or not it's acceptable for a president to ask a foreign rival to investigate his political rivals, to ask a foreign nation to investigate his political rivals without bringing up Hunter Biden?" Cramer wouldn't respond directly.

But even more striking was an exchange late last week between Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Boise State Public Radio about the White House scandal.

"I'm not going there. If you want to have an interview with me about the business center, please do so," Risch said, before turning and walking away.

"Don't do that again," he said.

So, at a public event, a journalist isn't supposed to ask the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about an ongoing scandal involving U.S. foreign policy? Is that the point we've reached?

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Ambassador poised to undercut Trump's defense in Ukraine scandal

10/14/19 08:40AM

Recently disclosed text messages put Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal in a new and unflattering light, bringing the nature of the quid pro quo into sharp focus. One message showed Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, asking U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, "Are we now saying that security assistance and [a White House] meeting are conditioned on investigations?"

In a subsequent message, Taylor added, "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."

Nearly five hours after that text was sent, Sondland -- a Republican megadonor with no experience in diplomacy or foreign policy -- replied, "Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo's of any kind."

It was a difficult message to accept at face value, since common sense suggests it was written as a cover story. But for the White House, Sondland's text effectively negates the controversy. As the story goes, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, tackling policy in Ukraine for reasons unknown, exonerated his boss with his online message.

Except, it's not quite that simple, as Sondland is poised to tell lawmakers when he appears on Capitol Hill this week.

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland will testify to Congress [on Thursday] that he did not know why United States military assistance to Ukraine was held up nor who ordered it, according to a person with knowledge of Sondland's testimony before the House next week.

Sondland will say that he "relied on the president's assurances in good faith and passed these along" when he texted Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor that there was no quid pro quo with Ukraine, the person said. President Donald Trump has urged Ukraine to investigate the son of political rival Joe Biden.

To put this in some rough chronological order, Bill Taylor, a career official, effectively told Sondland, "This sure seems wrong." At that point, Sondland talked to Trump, and the president effectively said, "I'm not doing anything wrong," which Sondland then texted back to Taylor.

The trouble, we now know, is that Sondland was simply taking Trump's word for it -- and given the president's capacity for staggering dishonesty, and everything we now know about this scandal, that was probably unwise.

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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)

Facing possible criminal probe, Giuliani does himself no favors

10/14/19 08:00AM

Over the last several days, CNN, Bloomberg News, and ABC News have each run reports on Rudy Giuliani facing possible criminal scrutiny for his role in Donald Trump's Ukraine scheme, and over the weekend, the New York Times advanced the story a bit more.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating whether President Trump's personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani broke lobbying laws in his dealings in Ukraine, according to two people familiar with the inquiry.

The investigators are examining Mr. Giuliani's efforts to undermine the American ambassador to Ukraine, Marie L. Yovanovitch, one of the people said. She was recalled in the spring as part of Mr. Trump's broader campaign to pressure Ukraine into helping his political prospects.

All of this, of course, comes on the heels of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two highly controversial Giuliani associates, being taken into federal custody last week, following their alleged illegal campaign contributions, which went to officials whose help they sought in removing Yovanovitch from her post as the U.S. ambassador.

Giuliani has already acknowledged working with Parnas and Fruman on the scheme to target Yovanovitch, but he told the Times it wasn't illegal: the president's lawyer argued that he was acting on Trump's behalf "when he collected the information on Ms. Yovanovitch and the others and relayed it to the American government and the news media."

He added in an interview with Foreign Policy on Friday, in reference to the American ambassador he targeted, "There was no secret campaign against her. It was an open campaign against her."

These are curious things for the former mayor to admit on the record.

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Friday's Mini-Report, 10.11.19

10/11/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Major testimony: "Marie Yovanovitch, the ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told House impeachment investigators Friday that President Donald Trump had personally pressured the State Department to remove her, even though a top department official assured her that she had 'done nothing wrong.'"

* A relevant angle: "In a closed-door deposition that could further fuel calls for Mr. Trump's impeachment, Ms. Yovanovitch delivered a scathing indictment of his administration's conduct of foreign policy. She warned that private influence and personal gain have usurped diplomats' judgment, threatening to undermine the nation's interests and drive talented professionals out of public service."

* I'd recommend holding off on taking this seriously until there are additional details: "President Donald Trump said Friday that the U.S. and China had reached a 'substantial phase one deal' on trade that will eliminate a tariff hike that had been planned for next week."

* On a related note, Trump told reporters today that Hong Kong "will take care of itself."

* Key immigration ruling, Part I: "A federal judge ruled Friday that President Donald Trump violated federal law when he used his declaration of a national emergency to get millions for building a wall on the southern border."

* Key immigration ruling, Part II: "Federal judges in New York and California on Friday ordered a nationwide block in cases challenging a Trump administration policy that would make it far easier for the government to deny legal status to immigrants who use or are deemed likely to use public assistance. The rule was set to go into effect next week.

* Isn't Trump supposed to be eager to bring troops home from the Middle East? "The Trump administration said Friday it is sending 2,800 more troops, fighter jets and missile defense weaponry to Saudi Arabia to help bolster the kingdom's defenses after a September attack on its oil facilities."

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After court defeat, Trump is running out of options on his tax returns

10/11/19 12:37PM

As of this morning, we're one step closer to seeing Donald Trump's hidden tax returns.

A federal appeals court ruled Friday that President Donald Trump's accounting firm must turn over financial records requested by a House committee, a legal blow to the administration's efforts to block congressional investigations of his finances.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee sent a subpoena to Mazars USA, in April asking for documents related to Trump's accounts going back to January 2009. His lawyers sued to block the subpoena, arguing that Congress had no legitimate legislative purpose for getting the materials.

But in a 2-1 ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said the committee "possesses authority under both the House rules and the Constitution to issue the subpoena, and Mazars must comply."

Because there are multiple ongoing lawsuits surrounding the president's hidden tax returns, it's easy to get confused about the various cases. Earlier this week, for example, a federal judge ruled that a New York district attorney's office, which is investigating Trump's hush-money scandal, has the legal right to access eight years' worth of personal and business tax returns from the president.

As Rachel noted on the show, Trump's legal team argued in that case that a sitting American president cannot be investigated by anyone for any reason, no matter how serious the underlying accusation. The judge disagreed, ruled in prosecutors' favor, and the case went to the 2nd Circuit on appeal.

Today's ruling is an entirely different case, related to a congressional effort to subpoena Trump's accounting firm. The president's lawyers, hired specifically to help keep his tax returns hidden, sued to block enforcement of the subpoena, arguing that Congress lacks the legal authority to scrutinize alleged presidential misdeeds.

A lower court rejected Team Trump's argument. Today, an appeals reached the same conclusion. A copy of full ruling is online here.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.11.19

10/11/19 12:00PM

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

* Louisiana will hold its first round of balloting tomorrow in its gubernatorial race, and Donald Trump will visit the state tonight to rally the Republican troops. Incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) is expected to outpace his GOP rivals, and if Edwards tops the 50% threshold tomorrow, there will be no second round of voting next month.

* Speaking of presidential travel, Trump was in Minneapolis last night for an unusually long campaign rally, at which he attacked all kinds of foes, targeting Joe Biden with particular zeal.

* Former Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) was planning a comeback next year, but now that he appears to be "Congressman-1" in the indictment of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman -- Rudy Giuliani's associates who were arrested this week -- the Texan's political future is again in doubt.

* On a related note, many of the Republicans who received contributions from Parnas and Fruman are scrambling to either give the money back or donate it to charity.

* While most national Democratic presidential primary polls show Joe Biden's lead over Elizabeth Warren disappearing, Fox News' latest national poll shows the former vice president leading the Massachusetts senator, 32% to 22%. Bernie Sanders is third in the poll with 17%. (Also of interest, Beto O'Rourke reached 3% in the Fox poll, which moves him a little closer to qualifying for the party's November primary debate.)

* As for the general election, Fox's poll found Biden and Warren leading Trump by 10 points each, while Sanders leads the president in a hypothetical match-up by nine points.

* Forty-five years ago, Rep. Larry Hogan Sr. (R-Md.) was the first Republican on the House Judiciary Committee to vote to impeach Richard Nixon. Yesterday, his son, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. (R), announced his support for Congress' impeachment inquiry into Trump.

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In Ukraine, is the quid suddenly meeting the quo?

10/11/19 11:20AM

Donald Trump is likely to be impeached, at least in part because of a scheme the White House hatched to get Ukraine to go after one of the president's domestic rivals. As the scandal has unfolded, an obvious quid pro quo has come into focus: Ukraine needed military aid; Trump wanted something he could use to defeat Joe Biden; and the Republican hoped to trade one for the other.

Recently disclosed text messages showed Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, asking U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, "Are we now saying that security assistance and [a White House] meeting are conditioned on investigations?" In a subsequent message, Taylor added, "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."

But while Americans continue to learn new details about the scandal, let's not overlook what's happening at the same time in Kiev. The Wall Street Journal reported late last week:

Ukraine's prosecutor general's office said Friday it is reviewing past investigations into the owner of a gas company linked to former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's son, raising the possibility of restarting probes amid pressure from President Trump.

For the past several months, the Trump White House has pushed the authorities in Kyiv to investigate Burisma Group, a big gas-production company, and the role there of Hunter Biden, who served on its board, along with actions of Mr. Biden when he was overseeing U.S. policy toward Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported yesterday:

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says his country will "happily" investigate whether Ukrainians interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections.

Zelenskiy told reporters Thursday that "we can't say yes or no" as to whether there was any interference without an investigation. He said it's in Ukraine's interest to determine what happened.

The Ukrainian president also insisted yesterday that Trump didn't try to "blackmail" him.

Or put another way, Ukraine now appears to be saying and doing what Donald Trump wanted Ukraine to say and do.

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