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Image: Trump speaks during an event in the East Room of the White House

Republican state AGs make a curious case against Trump's impeachment

01/24/20 10:48AM

Congress didn't solicit the advice of state attorneys general in Donald Trump's impeachment trial, but 21 Republican state AGs decided to weigh in anyway, offering lawmakers some unsolicited guidance. The conservative Washington Times reported:

The Republican attorneys general of 21 states authored a scathing rebuke of the impeachment trial, urging senators to reject Democrats' charges against President Trump.

In a 13-page letter to the U.S. Senate, the attorneys general assert House Democrats' impeachment of Mr. Trump is nothing more than a political ploy that could destroy the Constitution's separation of powers provision.

The entirety of the letter is online here, and some of it's familiar. The GOP officials find the articles of impeachment unpersuasive; they believe the effort is at odds with "the Framers' design"; they're convinced Democrats are solely motivated by politics; and they believe impeachment should only be used in "exceedingly rare circumstances," which do not include Trump's illegal extortion scheme.

In a curious twist, they also somehow arrived at the idea that the president's corrupt motives mean he's being punished for "a political thought crime." That's a new one.

Adam Piper, executive director of the Republican Attorney General Association, added in a statement that Republicans "are committed to keeping America great," which is apparently why 21 of the nation's 26 GOP state AGs signed their name to the document.

After learning of the effort by way of Fox News coverage, the president seemed quite impressed with the effort, publishing a few tweets on the subject, one of which included a whole lot of all-caps words, suggesting Trump was quite worked up about the segments he saw. (Whether he read the entire multi-page, footnoted letter is unclear, though I think we can probably take an educated guess.)

Which was unfortunate, since the letter included one important flaw.

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A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)

Dems pounce in court after Trump lawyers contradict Trump's DOJ

01/24/20 10:04AM

On the opening day of Donald Trump's impeachment trial this week, Jay Sekulow, one of the president's controversial personal attorneys, insisted that it should be up to the courts to mediate disputes between the executive and legislative branches. That came as something of a surprise to many listening: the Trump administration has spent months making the opposite argument.

Not surprisingly, it didn't take long for congressional Democrats and their attorneys to take advantage of the contradiction. Politico reported yesterday:

House Democrats on Thursday night flagged to a federal appeals court panel comments made earlier this week by President Donald Trump's lawyers during the Senate impeachment trial in hopes it can spur a win in a pending case that could open a spigot of new information in their bid to remove the president.

The two-page letter from the House's top lawyer brings to the attention of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit remarks made by Trump's personal attorney Jay Sekulow on the Senate floor questioning why Democrats hadn't tried to secure testimony in court from a key former White House aide -- rather than push ahead with impeachment.

The underlying case involves Don McGahn, the former White House counsel who was, for all intents and purposes, one of the star witnesses in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Russia scandal. As we've discussed, the Republican lawyer spoke with investigators for dozens of hours, and in the redacted version of Mueller's report, the former White House counsel is cited more than 150 times.

In some of the episodes in which Trump allegedly obstructed justice, the claims of suspected criminal misconduct are based heavily on what McGahn told investigators.

Indeed, as the former special counsel's findings made clear, the former White House counsel very nearly resigned because the president directed him to "do crazy s**t," including an incident in which, according to McGahn, Trump pressed the lawyer to push the Justice Department to derail the investigation by getting rid of Mueller and creating a false document to cover that up.

Naturally, lawmakers were eager to hear more, so they subpoenaed McGahn. The White House, true to form, directed McGahn to ignore that subpoena.

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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)

Team Trump balked at cooperating with watchdog probe of Ukraine scheme

01/24/20 09:20AM

After the public learned about Donald Trump's scheme to withhold approved military aid to a vulnerable ally, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) asked the Government Accountability Office -- a non-partisan watchdog agency that conducts audits and investigations for Congress -- to determine whether the administration had broken the law. Last week, the GAO determined that president's scheme was, in fact, illegal.

And while that's important for any number of reasons -- not the least of which is the damage this has done to Republican talking points -- we're still learning more about the investigation itself. CNN had this report early this morning:

The White House refused to provide documents to a non-partisan congressional watchdog investigating President Donald Trump's decision to withhold US security aid to Ukraine, according to documents released by Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland on Thursday.

Included in the release is a December 20 letter from the White House responding to an inquiry from the Government Accountability Office by citing a previous legal memo from the Office of Management and Budget defending the military aid freeze.

When the GAO investigators sought "factual information and legal views" about why the White House withheld the Ukraine aid, presidential aide Brian Miller said there would be no such cooperation.

"The White House does not plan to respond separately to your letters," he wrote.

On Twitter, Van Hollen characterized this as further evidence of a "cover-up," adding, "As seen in these documents, OMB provided incomplete responses and the White House flat out refused."

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Why Republicans are taking aim at a war hero to defend Trump

01/24/20 08:41AM

Fox News' Tucker Carlson and House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) went after Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman on the air last night, with the conservative host questioning his loyalties and the Republican congressman pushing for his ouster from the White House, where Vindman is the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council.

As the Washington Post noted, they weren't alone.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who along with every other senator serves as a juror in the impeachment trial, took to Twitter and impugned the patriotism of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.

Blackburn referred to an allegation that Vindman had badmouthed the United States in a conversation with Russians while serving overseas. "Adam Schiff is hailing Alexander Vindman as an American patriot," Blackburn said. "How patriotic is it to badmouth and ridicule our great nation in front of Russia, America's greatest enemy?"

First, there's very little evidence that Vindman ever badmouthed the United States, and there are plenty of reasons to believe the accusation is made-up. Second, if the far-right Tennessee senator is concerned about officials who have badmouthed the United States in reality, I'd love to introduce Marsha Blackburn to Donald Trump -- who's criticized our country in ways few American leaders ever have.

I'm also struck by Blackburn's style of needlessly toxic politics, once again questioning the patriotism of a decorated U.S. Army combat veteran who earned a Purple Heart. If she doesn't want to thank him for his honorable service, that's her business, but these ugly attempts at smearing him are unbecoming of those in positions of authority.

But as offensive as these GOP antics were, let's not lose sight of why, exactly, some Republicans seem so eager to tarnish the reputation of an American war hero who's done nothing wrong.

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Image: President Trump speaks at swearing in ceremonies for new CIA Director Haspel

Trump scrambles after accidentally sharing Social Security plan

01/24/20 08:00AM

After years in which Donald Trump assured the public that he'd never cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid, the president adopted a different posture this week. Asked by CNBC's Joe Kernen whether "entitlements" would ever end up on his plate, Trump replied, "At some point they will be.... And at the right time, we will take a look at that."

When Kernen followed up, asking about Trump's willingness to "do some of the things that you said you wouldn't do in the past," the Republican added, "We're going to look."

It was the election-year message Democrats were eager to hear. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who's been relentlessly on-message this week, shifted his focus a bit yesterday, telling reporters at the start of a Capitol Hill press conference, "Even as the impeachment trial is underway, Trump is still talking about cutting your Social Security."

This did not go unnoticed at the White House.

On Thursday, the president tried to clean up his own mess.

"Democrats are going to destroy your Social Security," Mr. Trump tweeted shortly before leaving the White House for a campaign-related event in Florida. "I have totally left it alone, as promised, and will save it!"

It's worth unpacking this, because the issue is likely to be one of the dominant focal points of the presidential election.

First, the idea that Democrats -- who created Social Security and have spent the better part of a century championing it -- are "going to destroy" the social-insurance program is plainly ridiculous.

Second, the president may want people to believe he's "totally left it alone," but to the degree that reality matters, his White House budget plans have proposed tens of billions of dollars in cuts to Social Security. Those proposals were ignored by lawmakers, but there's an obvious discrepancy between trying to slash a program and leaving it alone.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 1.23.20

01/23/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Opening arguments continue: "House impeachment managers, led by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), began the second day of their opening arguments against President Trump by focusing on alleged abuse of power, one of the two articles of impeachment approved last month by the House."

* WHO sees an emergency, but not a global health emergency: "Spread of the new coronavirus that originated in China has not yet reached a level that would deem it a global public health emergency, the World Health Organization said on Thursday. The virus has sickened more than 600 people, and 17 have died."

* Water pollution: "The Trump administration on Thursday finalized a rule to strip away environmental protections for streams, wetlands and groundwater, handing a victory to farmers, fossil fuel producers and real estate developers who said Obama-era rules had shackled them with onerous and unnecessary burdens."

* Visa restrictions: "The Trump administration is coming out with new visa restrictions aimed at restricting 'birth tourism,' in which women travel to the U.S. to give birth so their children can have a coveted U.S. passport."

* Carter Page surveillance: "The Justice Department secretly acknowledged last month that it had 'insufficient predication' to continue monitoring a former Trump campaign adviser during the FBI's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to records made public Thursday -- a notable admission likely to fuel continued criticism over how the bureau handled the high-profile case."

* Keep expectations low: "Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday announced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel would travel to the White House next week along with his chief election rival and opposition leader, Benny Gantz, to discuss the 'prospect' of peace in the Middle East."

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Trump's complaints about the impeachment process go off the rails

01/23/20 12:48PM

Donald Trump, unable to present much of a defense of his actions, continues to whine incessantly about the impeachment process, which wouldn't be especially notable were it not for a nagging detail: his complaints are getting a little weird.

Take this morning's tweet, for example.

"The Democrat House would not give us lawyers, or not one witness, but now demand that the Republican Senate produce the witnesses that the House never sought, or even asked for? They had their chance, but pretended to rush. Most unfair & corrupt hearing in Congressional history!"

Let's take each of the claims one at a time.

* "The Democrat House would not give us lawyers." Actually, the House Democratic majority specifically extended multiple invitations to White House attorneys to participate in the impeachment process. Trump's lawyers turned down those invitations and refused to play a role in the House proceedings.

There are some subjective questions in the president's scandal, but this isn't one them. It's not even an obscure detail: the headline in the Washington Post last month read, "White House rejects House Democrats' invitation to participate in impeachment process as Trump focuses on friendly Senate." It really wasn't that long ago; Trump has no excuse for not knowing this.

* "Not one witness." Actually, not only did witnesses requested by Republicans testify, but the Democratic majority also invited White House attorneys to ask questions of witnesses.

* Democrats want the Senate to "produce the witnesses that the House never sought, or even asked for." Actually, at issue are witnesses Democrats did ask for, but the White House blocked their testimony.

* "Most unfair." To date, Trump has not pointed to any specific aspect of the House impeachment proceedings that, in reality, was unfair.

* "Corrupt hearing." To date, Trump has not pointed to any specific aspect of the House impeachment proceedings that, in reality, was corrupt.

Or put another way, Trump's tweet this morning included five claims, each of which are the opposite of the truth.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.23.20

01/23/20 12:00PM

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

* In New Hampshire, a new WBUR poll found Bernie Sanders with a big lead in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, with 29% support. He's followed in the poll by Pete Buttigieg with 17%, Joe Biden with 14%, and Elizabeth Warren with 13%.

* With Russia again targeting our elections, I found this WSJ report interesting: "Nearly a dozen technology companies said they will provide free or reduced-cost cybersecurity services to presidential campaigns, which experts and intelligence officials have warned are ripe targets for intrusion and disinformation."

* We haven't seen too many examples of former Democratic presidential candidates endorsing current contenders, but self-help guru Marianne Williamson has thrown her support behind Andrew Yang.

* Our Revolution, a nonprofit organization created from Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign operation, is facing an FEC complaint from Common Cause, following allegations of accepting improper contributions.

* Michael Bloomberg's presidential campaign has picked up a couple of new endorsements, including support from Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and San Francisco Mayor London Breed (D).

* Gallup found a 79-point gap between Republicans and Democrats on Donald Trump's approval rating. That's the largest ever measured for any sitting president in an election year.

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Snow begins to gather on a statue outside the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, Dec. 10, 2013.

Overcoming the challenge of up-is-down, day-is-night politics

01/23/20 11:28AM

There's a video making the rounds online this morning of Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) fielding a question from a reporter about Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal. This was the most notable part of the exchange:

REPORTER: So you're saying that it's okay for a President to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival and withhold foreign aid to coerce him into doing so?

BRAUN: No, I'm not saying that's okay. I'm not saying that's appropriate. I'm saying that it DIDN'T HAPPEN.

For those familiar with the basic elements of the controversy, this seems like a deeply embarrassing incident for the freshman Republican senator. But part of the reason the video is making the rounds is that Braun himself is promoting it. The GOP Hoosier is proud of what he said and how he said it.

And that's unfortunate because Braun's assertions have no basis in reality. We know the president asked foreign leaders to investigate a domestic rival because he did so, on camera, while standing on the south lawn of the White House. We also know Trump withheld foreign aid in order to coerce a foreign leader because there's a mountain of documentary evidence -- not to mention a recent GAO report and a confession from the White House chief of staff -- that definitely proves that it happened.

But there was Mike Braun, a sitting U.S. senator, arguing otherwise. He could try to make the case that Trump's actions do not warrant his removal from office, but the GOP lawmaker prefers gaslighting, pretending that the president did not do what we already know he did.

My point is not to pick on the junior senator from Indiana, since he's hardly alone in his embrace of up-is-down, day-is-night politics.

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Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) speaks with Donald Trump during a Tea Party Patriots rally against the Iran nuclear deal on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 9, 2015. (Photo by Pete Marovich/Bloomberg/Getty)

On Ukraine scandal, GOP tries to revive bogus 'corruption' argument

01/23/20 10:59AM

The basic contours of Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal are straightforward: he delayed military aid to a vulnerable ally because he hoped to extort foreign officials into helping him cheat in his re-election campaign. The president and his allies, however, have periodically flirted with an alternative story: yes, Trump delayed the aid, the story goes, but only because of his deep and abiding concerns about corruption.

The fanciful talking point has fallen in and out of favor in recent months, but it's apparently making a comeback. The president claimed yesterday, in reference to his decision to block congressionally approved aid, "[T]he other thing I wanted to check very carefully -- and it's very important -- is corruption."

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) added on Twitter yesterday afternoon: "A reminder of what this is all about: any president -- any administration -- is justified in investigating corruption." Trump helped promote the missive soon after.

Do we really have to do this again? Hasn't the argument already been discredited enough?

To show that Trump has no genuine concerns about corruption we could shine a light on his efforts to make international bribery easier. We could also note the many instances in which the president has faced credible allegations of corruption since he took office. We could even note how difficult it is to see the president as an anti-corruption crusader given the number of close Trump associates who've recently ended up in prison.

But let's instead focus specifically on the subject at hand, highlighting a point House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) made during yesterday's impeachment trial about why Trump's claim is impossible to take seriously.

"If the president was fighting corruption ... why would he hide it from us?" Schiff said. "Why would he hide it from the Ukrainians? Why would he hide it from the rest of the world? ... Why wouldn't he be proud to tell the Congress of the United States, 'I'm holding up this aid, and I'm holding it up because I'm worried about corruption'?"

"Why wouldn't he? Because of course it wasn't true," Schiff said.

That's a devastatingly good point, but there's no reason to stop there.

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When Trump says something's 'ahead of schedule,' look out

01/23/20 10:03AM

At a White House event a couple of weeks ago, Donald Trump commented on the military aid package to Ukraine -- the one he blocked as part of an illegal extortion scheme -- and used a familiar phrase.

"[B]y the way, in terms of the money, it got there two or three weeks ahead of schedule -- long before it was supposed to be there," the president claimed. "There was absolutely nothing done wrong." He echoed the point again yesterday, telling reporters, in reference to officials in Kyiv, "They got their money long before schedule."

There are a couple of key elements to this that are worth keeping in mind. The first is that Trump's claims are ridiculously untrue. As the New York Times recently explained:

The 2019 federal fiscal year ended on Sept. 30, the date by which all appropriated aid to Ukraine was supposed to be disbursed. But because of the freeze ordered by Mr. Trump, not all of the aid was spent before the deadline.

Congress had appropriated $391 million in military assistance to Ukraine -- $250 million from the Pentagon and $141 million from the State Department -- meant to be spent by the end of September. Though the Pentagon announced its plans to provide the aid in June, White House officials blocked its release in July. It remained frozen until mid-September, when Mr. Trump relented after pressure from lawmakers and administration officials.

The second angle of note is that whenever Trump says something -- anything, really -- is "ahead of schedule," it's a near certainty he's making stuff up.

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