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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks with reporters reporters after the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Aug. 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

McConnell to ignore facts, declare 'case closed' on Trump scandals

05/07/19 11:00AM

About a month ago, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, running with one of Attorney General Bill Barr's misleading memos, declared the end of Donald Trump's troubles. Referring to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's findings, the president's chief spokesperson said, "We consider this to be case closed."

That was more than two weeks before anyone had seen the redacted version of the Mueller report.

Now, the most powerful member of Trump's party on Capitol Hill intends to echo the White House's dubious conclusion.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will lay out his case to move on from investigations into President Trump and his 2016 campaign, calling the matter "case closed" even as Democrats intensify their probes into Trump's conduct.

McConnell (R-Ky.), who faces reelection next year, argues that Democrats are continuing to relitigate an election result that is now more than two years old, and plans to make a detailed argument in a floor speech Tuesday morning to declare the matter finished and instead focus on legislation.

I see. So in 2016, when McConnell was given an opportunity to counter Russian efforts to intervene in our elections in order to put Trump in power, the Kentucky Republican balked. In 2019, as Americans come to terms with the results of an investigation into Russia's election attack -- and the steps his party's president took to obstruct, mislead, and derail that investigation -- McConnell would appreciate it if we all just stop asking so many darned questions.

One of the core problems with the Senate majority leader's reported posture is that the case is anything but closed. The special counsel's office documented several instances, for example, in which the president's conduct met the statutory threshold for criminal obstruction, but Mueller left it to others to decide how best to address the allegations going forward.

That's not a "closed" case; it's the opposite. McConnell may be indifferent to Trump allegedly crossing legal lines, but the rule of law is not dependent on the senator's interest.

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The problem with Pence serving as Trump's policy 'decoder'

05/07/19 10:00AM

The New York Times ran an interesting piece today on Vice President Mike Pence and the specific role he often plays in Donald Trump's White House: that of presidential "decoder."

More than halfway into Mr. Trump's term, he and Mr. Pence have developed what aides describe as a rhythm, in which the president lays out the broad contours of policy and then hands off to the vice president to make the granular sales pitch. [...]

In a White House with a revolving door of top officials and a president who is often focused on his own message, it is often left to Mr. Pence -- who has ties to the traditional conservative movement -- to try to clarify the administration's approach on key issues.

At face value, this probably makes a fair amount of sense. Every administration works a little differently, but in this White House, it stands to reason that Trump, who neither knows nor cares about governing, would play the role of "big picture" president. In this model, he wants to lay out a vision in broad strokes, while asking Pence to fill in the gaps.

Despite his limitations, the vice president is a former member of the congressional leadership and a former governor of a fairly large state. It'd be an exaggeration to say Pence excels in governing, but compared to Trump, he's practically a wonk.

My concern is not with the model, but rather, the application of the model -- because even if the president delegates some power to Pence to "make the granular sales pitch" and/or "clarify the administration's approach," we've all learned that the vice president often has no idea when or whether Trump will step on his efforts.

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Prosecutors: Trump would've been charged if he weren't president

05/07/19 09:20AM

When Donald Trump reflects on the Mueller report and its findings, he sees "total exoneration." When former federal prosecutors look at the same document, they see ... something else.

President Donald Trump would have been indicted for obstruction of justice in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation if he did not hold the nation's highest office, more than 500 former federal prosecutors argued in an open letter published on Medium on Monday.

The ex-prosecutors -- who have served under both Republican and Democratic administrations dating back to President Dwight D. Eisenhower -- said Attorney General William Barr's decision not to charge Trump with obstruction "runs counter to logic and our experience."

The letter added, "Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice."

The joint letter went on to note, "We emphasize that these are not matters of close professional judgment." It was a line that stood out for me for a reason: according to these former prosecutors, the evidence that Trump would've been prosecuted is obvious. It's not even a close call.

They added, in reference to the Justice Department policy preventing prosecution of a sitting president, "We believe strongly that, but for the OLC memo, the overwhelming weight of professional judgment would come down in favor of prosecution for the conduct outlined in the Mueller Report."

When this joint letter was first released, it was signed by more than 300 veterans of the Justice Department. The total then topped 400. Then 500. Then 600. As of this very moment, there are 634 former federal prosecutors who've signed on to the document -- and there's every reason to believe that number will grow as today progresses. [Update: As of 4:30 p.m. eastern, the list of signatories is up to 711, which is roughly double the total when the document was first released.]

Neal Katyal, the former acting solicitor general, told MSNBC's Ari Melber yesterday, "I've never seen anything quite like it.... [I]f this were anyone else but a sitting president, this person would be labeled a felon and staring down the barrel of a federal indictment."

All of which tells us a few things.

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Trump seems to believe he's entitled to extra time as president

05/07/19 08:40AM

As Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's former lawyer and fixer, settles in for his first full day as an inmate in a federal prison, it's easy to remember what the Republican lawyer told Congress during his sworn testimony in February about the president and his re-election bid.

"Given my experience working for Mr. Trump," Cohen said, "I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power."

He's not the only one who's concerned. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) conceded to the New York Times that she too worries what might happen next year if Trump loses and decides to challenge the legitimacy of a Democratic victory. "We have to inoculate against that," she told the Times, "we have to be prepared for that."

It's easy to see concerns like these as far-fetched, though the president himself, who's never shown any interest in protecting democratic institutions or the legitimacy of the rule of law, isn't exactly going out of his way to inspire confidence. Politico noted over the weekend:

President Donald Trump on Sunday floated the idea of extending his constitutionally limited time in office, complaining online that two years of his first White House term were "stollen" as a result of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

"I now support reparations -- Trump should have 2 yrs added to his 1st term as pay back for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup," Jerry Falwell Jr., a conservative religious leader and Trump ally, tweeted in a message reposted by the president.

Trump echoed Falwell's sentiment in a pair of tweets an hour later, writing online: "Despite the tremendous success that I have had as President, including perhaps the greatest ECONOMY and most successful first two years of any President in history, they have stollen two years of my (our) Presidency (Collusion Delusion) that we will never be able to get back."

Part of the oddity with this is the underlying assertion that the investigation into Trump's conduct was somehow a dud and the allegations against him have been discredited. Reality tells a very different story: there was no attempted "coup"; the investigation wasn't "corrupt"; and the scrutiny of the president's behavior led to revelations of alleged criminal misconduct.

Even if Trump had been fully exonerated, he wouldn't be entitled to extra time in office, but any fair analysis of what we've learned paints an unflattering portrait of a president indifferent to legal lines.

But at the heart of Trump's tweets is something darker than just routine lies.

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Image: White House news conference with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Director Gary Cohn

Treasury secretary ignores law, keeps Trump's tax returns hidden

05/07/19 08:00AM

In recent years, the debate over Donald Trump's secret tax returns has been fought out largely in the realm of norms, traditions, and expectations. The president was the first major-party candidate of the post-Watergate era to hide these materials from the public -- despite assurances that he wouldn't -- and the political controversy has led to a series of questions about propriety.

At least, that was the original dispute. The fight has quickly evolved into a more serious clash about the Trump administration's willingness to ignore federal laws it doesn't like.

About a month ago, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) initiated a process that was supposed to be straightforward: exercising his authority under the law, Neal formally told the Treasury Department that he's demanding access to Trump's tax returns. The Democratic chairman set a deadline, telling the IRS to make the materials available by April 10.

It was more of a directive than a request. Existing federal law, which has been on the books for nearly a century, says the Treasury "shall furnish" the tax materials in response to a formal request from one of a handful of congressional lawmakers, including the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin ignored the original deadline, but said he'd personally oversee a review of whether the administration should comply with the law. Evidently, that review process is over, at least as far as the administration is concerned.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Monday rejected House Democrats' request for President Donald Trump's tax returns, failing for the third time to meet a congressional deadline to turn over the documents. [...]

The Treasury secretary told House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., in a letter that his committee's request for the president's tax returns "lacks a legitimate legislative purpose."

Of course, the statute doesn't say the administration can ignore the law if officials disapprove of Congress' oversight motivations.

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Monday's Mini-Report, 5.6.19

05/06/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* The latest from Capitol Hill: "The House Judiciary Committee will vote Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt after he failed to comply with a subpoena to provide Congress with an unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and the underlying evidence, the panel announced Monday."

* Cease fire: "Israel and militant forces in Gaza agreed to a cease-fire early Monday after a weekend of violence that killed at least 27 people and injured hundreds more on both sides of the border in one of the region's most intense flareups of violence in years."

* Be afraid: "One million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction, with alarming implications for human survival, according to a United Nations report released Monday."

* Predictable: "Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday confirmed that the Trump administration is making contingency plans for U.S. military intervention in Venezuela, but he refused to say whether the administration would seek congressional authorization first."

* Georgia: "The mayor of Hoschton, a nearly all-white community 50 miles northeast of Atlanta, allegedly withheld a job candidate from consideration for city administrator because he was black, an AJC investigation has found."

* Donald Trump does not currently have a communications director, and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney apparently intends to keep it that way.

* Whatever happened to draining the swamp? "Former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly has joined the board of Caliburn International, the parent organization of the company that runs the largest facility housing migrant children in the United States."

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Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former personal attorney, is sworn in to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on February 27, 2019.

Trump picks the wrong day to say, 'All the crimes are on the other side'

05/06/19 02:15PM

As recently as last year, Michael Cohen was a deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee and a prominent employee of the Trump Organization. As of this afternoon, however, Donald Trump's former lawyer and "fixer" is a federal prison inmate.

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former lawyer and fixer who pleaded guilty last year to an array of white-collar crimes, arrived at a federal prison in upstate New York on Monday to begin serving his three-year sentence Monday.

Cohen gave a brief statement to reporters outside his New York City apartment Monday morning before jumping in a waiting car to travel to the Federal Correctional Institution, Otisville, a large federal prison complex in the Catskills region.

Cohen, of course, was convicted of a variety of crimes, including two counts related to hush-money payments he made to the president's alleged former mistresses.

And with that in mind, it was curious to see Trump declare on Twitter this morning, in an all-caps message, "All the crimes are on the other side."

The president's timing could've been better.

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With Trump's new ICE chief, the 'how' matters as much as the 'why'

05/06/19 12:43PM

About a month ago, Donald Trump withdrew Ron Vitiello's nomination to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), because as the president put it, he decided to go "in a tougher direction."

Even for Trump, this was an impulsive and unexpected move, which "stupefied Homeland Security officials and lawmakers" and left many in the administration "baffled." Asked about Vitiello's ouster, ICE officials initially told reporters "they thought the White House had made a clerical error."

Yesterday, Trump named a new ICE nominee: Mark Morgan, who briefly ran the Border Patrol under President Barack Obama. In this case, I'm just as interested in how he got the nomination as why.

It's not hard to figure out what made Morgan appealing to Trump: he does, after all, support building a giant wall along the U.S./Mexico border. But something in Roll Call's report on his nomination stood out for me.

A former assistant FBI director, Morgan has made appearances on Fox News Channel in recent weeks to discuss both immigration policy and the report of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Morgan told "Fox & Friends" on March 7 that the idea migrants -- including children -- were being held in cages was really a "talking point for the Democrats"

What's more, just four days before the president made the announcement via Twitter, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs -- a Trump confidant -- posted a clip of an interview he'd just done with Mark Morgan in which he insisted no one from the White House had contacted him about the ICE position, but quickly added, "[I]f this president asked me to come up, I'd say yes in a heartbeat.... I know this border; the president's doing the right thing. He's right on this issue. If he asked, I would work for him in a heartbeat."

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.6.19

05/06/19 12:00PM

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

* Late Friday, a federal court struck down Ohio's gerrymandered congressional districts as unconstitutional and ordered Republican officials to submit a new map by June 14. It was a major development, though it may soon be rendered moot by conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court, which is scheduled to soon rule on partisan gerrymandering.

* Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a Democratic presidential contender, this morning unveiled an ambitious plan to address gun violence, including a proposal to create a federal gun licensing program.

* Over the weekend, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) unveiled a sweeping agricultural plan, which, among other things, called for breaking up major agriculture corporations and placing a moratorium on future agri-business mergers.

* Sen. Mike Enzi (R) announced over the weekend that he will retire next year rather than seek a fifth term. He's now the fourth sitting U.S. senator to announce retirement plans ahead of the 2020 cycle, following Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

* Reinforcing suspicions that the White House is concerned about former Vice President Joe Biden's candidacy, current Vice President Mike Pence told CNBC that his predecessor is "advocating a socialist agenda" -- a claim that may come as a surprise to some of Biden's more progressive critics.

* The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal and Gallup polls both show Donald Trump's approval rating reaching 46%. While that may sound underwhelming, the president is currently enjoying some of the strongest support he's seen since taking office.

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