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Friday's Mini-Report, 10.4.19

10/04/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* CIA: "Weeks before the whistleblower's complaint became public, the CIA's top lawyer made what she considered to be a criminal referral to the Justice Department about the whistleblower's allegations that President Donald Trump abused his office in pressuring the Ukrainian president, U.S. officials familiar with the matter tell NBC News."

* Pence: "House committees conducting an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump want Vice President Mike Pence to turn over any documents he might have about the president's attempts to get Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and the 2016 U.S. election."

* New Ukrainian developments: "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."

* The other whistleblower: "The Treasury Department's acting inspector general has opened an investigation into whether the Trump administration acted improperly during its ongoing fight with House Democrats over releasing President Trump's tax returns."

* SCOTUS: "The Supreme Court said Friday that it will decide the fate of a Louisiana law that women's groups said would leave only a single doctor to perform abortions in the entire state."

* Maybe Marco Rubio should take note: "Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, slammed President Donald Trump for urging Ukraine and China to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, calling the appeals 'appalling.'"

* An important new report from NYU: "Every president over the past two decades has, to some degree, undermined research and injected politics into science, the report said. But, it concluded, 'Now, we are at a crisis point, with almost weekly violations of previously respected safeguards.' The report calls for stringent new standards to enshrine scientific independence."

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Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) participate in a debate sponsored by Fox News at the Fox Theatre on March 3, 2016 in Detroit, Mich. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Rubio does himself no favors with weak defense of Trump scandal

10/04/19 04:33PM

When Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal first broke two weeks ago, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) responded with lazy partisanship, telling Fox News the real controversy was Joe Biden getting a Ukrainian prosecutor fired to protect his son.

Even those who've come to expect very little from Rubio were struck by the pitiful response. As the Florida Republican must know, the former vice president -- representing the bipartisan position of the United States and much of the Western world -- targeted an inept prosecutor who wasn't pursuing a company Biden's son was associated with. Rubio's reflexive effort to defend Trump by smearing Biden didn't even make sense.

This week, however, the GOP senator was handed a great opportunity to redeem himself. Rubio has earned a reputation as a fierce China critic, so when his party's president publicly sought Beijing's assistance in targeting a domestic opponent yesterday, it offered the Floridian the chance to do the right thing, put country over party, and rebuke Donald Trump's obvious abuse.

Alas, as the Miami Herald reported, the senator chose a different path.

[W]hen President Donald Trump on Thursday publicly called on China to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential 2020 rival, Rubio said Trump's words were a ruse.

"I don't know if that's a real request or him just needling the press knowing that you guys are going to get outraged by it," Rubio told reporters at an economic opportunity event in the Florida Keys on Friday. "He's pretty good at getting everybody fired up and he's been doing that for a while and the media responded right on task." [...]

"I don't think that's a real request. I think he did it to gig you guys [reporters]," Rubio said. "I think he did it to provoke you to ask me and others and get outraged by it. He plays it like a violin and everybody falls right in, that's not a real request."

As Republican talking points go, this comes up from time to time as a way of shrugging off assorted Trump abuses. Last year, for example, when the White House went after the security clearances of former intelligence officials who've criticized the president, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters, "I think he's trolling people, honestly."

In that example, Ryan may have had a point; Trump didn't actually follow through. In the effort to compel foreign officials to help the president's re-election campaign, however, Rubio, in a rather literal sense, doesn't appear to know what he's talking about.

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Accused of corruption, Trump claims to be on an anti-corruption crusade

10/04/19 12:54PM

By any fair measure, Donald Trump has been at the center of so many corruption scandals, he's generally seen as among the most corrupt presidents in American history. It's therefore a bit ironic to hear the Republican make a spirited case that his efforts to coerce foreign governments to help his re-election campaign are really just an extension of a sincere anti-corruption crusade.

It's clear Trump has settled on this as his principal talking point, as evidenced by this morning's tweet.

"As President I have an obligation to end CORRUPTION, even if that means requesting the help of a foreign country or countries. It is done all the time. This has NOTHING to do with politics or a political campaign against the Bidens. This does have to do with their corruption!"

During a brief Q&A with reporters this morning, the Republican stuck to the phrasing with almost comical repetition, as if he'd been led to believe the words are a magical elixir that will make his scandals go away.

The pitch is so fanciful, it's almost insulting. Americans are genuinely supposed to believe that Trump and his GOP cohorts, indifferent to Joe Biden's work in Ukraine for several years, suddenly decided the former vice president is guilty of serious wrongdoing, evidence be damned. Trump and his allies came to this realization quite suddenly, and it occurred to them -- coincidentally, of course -- right around the time polls showed Biden leading the president in national polling by double digits.

The Republican, according to the White House's preferred narrative, isn't concerned at all with Biden's 2020 bid. Heaven forbid. Trump, his own corruption notwithstanding, simply feels an obligation to root out corruption wherever he finds it. By this reasoning, our beleaguered president is actually something akin to a hero, putting electoral considerations aside in a quest for good government around the globe.

If members of Team Trump believe such a laughable story is going to derail the impeachment process, they're likely to be disappointed.

In fact, the house of cards seemed to collapse quite suddenly this morning, when a White House reporter had the good sense to ask a question the president didn't see coming.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.4.19

10/04/19 12:00PM

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

* Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders remains hospitalized, but according to his wife, the Vermont senator will not need any additional medical procedures and he expects to participate in the Democratic primary debate scheduled for Oct. 15.

* Elizabeth Warren's presidential campaign raised $24.6 million in the third quarter, which is a very impressive haul, and puts her second only to Bernie Sanders' $25.3 million quarter. [Update: I added this item after originally publishing the round-up.]

* Reinforcing impressions that Donald Trump's 2020 campaign sees Joe Biden as a threat, the president's operation is launching a $1 million ad buy in early primary states, airing a new attack ad peddling a discredited conspiracy theory involving the former vice president and Ukraine.

* Speaking of Biden, the Democratic campaign announced yesterday that it raised $12.5 million in the third quarter. It's an underwhelming haul, which is roughly half the money Sanders raised over the same three-month period.

* For his part, Biden is moving forward with a $6 million ad buy in the first four states holding 2020 nominating contests.

* At an official White House event in Florida yesterday, Trump discussed 2020 campaign strategy, went after Elizabeth Warren with his "Pocahontas" slur, and labeled Joe Biden "Sleepy Joe." It served as a reminder that the president obviously has no qualms about blurring the lines of propriety ahead of 2020.

* In an increasingly common dynamic in the GOP, former Rep. Pete Sessions (R) is launching a comeback bid in a new congressional district. Sessions lost last year in Texas' 32nd district -- an area he'd represented for more than two decades -- so he's now moving to Texas' 17th district, which will be home to an open-seat contest next year.

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A pharmacy employee dumps pills into a pill counting machine as she fills a prescription while working at a pharmacy in New York

Trump (falsely) links pharmaceutical industry to impeachment process

10/04/19 11:20AM

Donald Trump was in Florida yesterday, holding an official White House event that seemed an awful lot like a campaign rally, where the president seemed to implicate the pharmaceutical industry in the scandal that's likely to lead to his impeachment.

After boasting that he and his team are "taking on the pharmaceutical companies," Trump added:

"You think that's easy? It's not easy. It's not easy. They come at you from all different sides. I wouldn't be surprised if the hoax didn't come a little bit from some of the people that we're taking on. They're very powerful. They spend a lot of money -- spend, I think, more money than any other group in the world actually, in terms of lobbying and lobbying abilities.

"And I wouldn't be surprised if some of the nonsense that we all have to go through, but that I go through -- wouldn't be surprised if it was from these -- some of these industries like pharmaceuticals that we take on."

This struck me as amazing for three reasons, so let's take a minute to unpack the multilayered nonsense.

First, Donald Trump isn't taking on the pharmaceutical industry. On the contrary, he tapped someone who oversaw a drug company's lobbying efforts to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, which came after he backed off his 2016 campaign promises related to drug pricing. The Republican occasionally likes to pretend he's a progressive crusader, but it's absurd.

Trump also tapped Joe Grogan, a former drug industry lobbyist, to help shape the administration's drug-pricing plan. The president later promoted the former lobbyist to lead the White House's Domestic Policy Council.

Second, the scandal that's likely to lead to his impeachment obviously isn't a "hoax." Trump has effectively already confessed. It's also why there's no reason to think nefarious corporate giants are trying to pull strings behind the scenes: there's simply no need.

Asked for a response to the president's nonsense, a spokesperson for PhRMA said yesterday, "Not to be so frank, but that is a ridiculous question."

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Historians: 'Nothing really surprises us anymore, until now'

10/04/19 10:41AM

Nicholas Burns is not someone easily mistaken for a hardball political operative. On the contrary, he's a career diplomat, who's worked for Democratic and Republican administrations, including serving as an ambassador under Bill Clinton and an undersecretary of State under George W. Bush.

With this in mind, it was notable to see Burns express public disgust yesterday after Donald Trump publicly urged China to go after Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 presidential campaign (and during delicate trade negotiations between the United States and China).

"This is a first in American history dating to 1789," Burns wrote on Twitter. "An American President has asked our strongest adversary, a communist dictatorship, to investigate his major opponent. Let that sink in. It is corruption -- morally and legally wrong."

The criticism was itself notable, though I was especially interested in his historical reference. The word "unprecedented" is probably used a bit too often, and some political observers fail to fully appreciate just how frequently history rhymes. But in this case, Burns' take wasn't hyperbolic: these circumstances are unique.

CNN published a piece this week from four historians -- Texas A&M's Elizabeth A. Cobbs, Arizona State's Kyle Longley, Colorado School of Mines' Kenneth Osgood, and the University of Texas at Austin's Jeremi Suri -- who agreed they've "never seen anything like" this Trump scandal.

In our numerous books on presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama, we have examined how American leaders conduct US foreign policy -- the good, bad, and ugly. Nothing really surprises us anymore.

Until now.

Trump's documentary record differs dramatically from his predecessors. A worrisome thread runs through each conversation. Trump appears laser-focused on his own fortunes to the exclusion of the national security of the United States. Unfortunately, this is part of a larger and startling pattern of Trump promoting his personal agenda ahead of the nation's interests.

It's worth emphasizing for context that the historians' piece was published on Wednesday -- the day before Trump stood on the White House's South Lawn and publicly urged two foreign governments to go after one of his domestic political rivals.

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Left with limited options, VP Mike Pence leans into scandal

10/04/19 10:05AM

If Vice President Mike Pence hoped to keep his distance from Donald Trump's intensifying scandal, this week's developments were unforgiving. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday night that the president "repeatedly involved" the Indiana Republican "in efforts to exert pressure on the leader of Ukraine."

As we discussed, the timeline of events paints an exceedingly unflattering picture, featuring a vice president making an unpersuasive case that he was ignorant about Trump's scheme, despite having ample access to the relevant information.

Yesterday, Pence was in Arizona, where he seemed eager to lean into the scandal, rather than distance himself from it, apparently because he no longer has much of a choice.

"I think the American people have a right to know if the Vice President of the United States or his family profited from this position as Vice President during the last administration. [...]

I mean, the simple fact is that, you know, when you hold the second highest office in the land, it comes with unique responsibilities -- not just to be above impropriety, but to be above the appearance of impropriety. And clearly, in this case, there are legitimate questions that ought to be asked. And we're going to continue to ask them since the American people have a right to know whether or not the Vice President of the United States or his family profited from his position."

Pence made the comments just a month after his trip to Ireland, where he had meetings in Dublin, but stayed several hours away at a Trump-owned property on the other side of the country. The American president "suggested" Pence stay at the Republican's hotel, indirectly helping Trump profit from the vice president's trip.

There is, meanwhile, no evidence whatsoever of wrongdoing on Joe Biden's part.

Echoing Trump, Pence added yesterday, "The president made it very clear that he believes our other nations around the world should look into" Biden-related allegations.

Or put another way, Pence has replaced his obliviousness posture with a more definitive embrace of Trump's impeachable scheme.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. to the chamber to vote at the Capitol in Washington, Feb. 10, 2016. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

As scandal revelations mount, Republicans face a test of principles

10/04/19 09:21AM

Nearly two weeks ago, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) appeared on Meet the Press and NBC News' Chuck Todd asked the Republican senator about Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal. At the time, the details of the controversy were still taking shape, so Toomey seemed comfortable hedging a bit on the totality of the circumstances:

"Look, it is not appropriate for any candidate for federal office, certainly, including a sitting president, to ask for assistance from a foreign country. That's not appropriate.

"But I don't know that that's what happened here."

Even at the time, this was a difficult posture to take seriously, but there was a small degree of plausibility to the Pennsylvanian's position. As of 12 days ago, when Toomey made these comments, it was hard to say with absolute certainty that Trump pressed a foreign country for campaign assistance.

That plausibility has since evaporated. We now know that's exactly "what happened here." The president went so far as to seek foreign assistance on camera yesterday from the South Lawn of the White House.

Which, naturally, leads us back to Pat Toomey, who left himself little wiggle room, telling a national television audience he wasn't comfortable with a president pressing foreign countries for campaign help. Is the GOP senator still uncomfortable now that Trump has effectively confessed? And if so, what exactly is Toomey prepared to do about it?

This isn't limited to the Pennsylvanian, of course. The day before Toomey's interview, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) published a tweet that read, "If the President asked or pressured Ukraine's president to investigate his political rival, either directly or through his personal attorney, it would be troubling in the extreme."

Well, we can now remove the word "if" from the equation. What we don't know is what Romney is prepared to do now that it's painfully obvious that Trump did something the Utahan considers "troubling in the extreme."

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Job growth falls short of expectations again, totals slip under Trump

10/04/19 08:40AM

Ahead of this morning's jobs report, most projections pointed to growth in September of 147,000 jobs. It looks like those expectations were a bit too rosy.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this morning that the economy added 136,000 jobs last month, while the unemployment rate dipped to 3.5%. Fortunately, the revisions from July and August were revised up, adding 45,000 from previous reporting.

As for the political implications, Donald Trump has now been in office for 32 full months -- February 2017 through September 2019 -- and in that time, the economy has created 6.03 million jobs. In the 32 months preceding Trump's presidency -- June 2014 to January 2017 -- the economy created 7.16 million jobs.

I recently heard from some readers who asked what would happen if we looked at the same numbers, but assigned the job totals from January 2017 to Trump, even though Obama was president for most of the month. On balance, I think that paints a misleading picture, but it doesn't change the underlying dynamic: if we applied jobs from January 2017 to Trump and compared the last 33 months to the previous 33 months, job totals still slowed from 7.46 million to 6.28 million.

The White House, meanwhile, believes we should actually start the clock for Trump at November 2016 -- the month of the Republican's election -- and apply the jobs created during the final months of the Obama era to the current Republican president. But that still doesn't help: if we compare the last 35 months to the previous 35 months, job totals slowed from 7.74 million to 6.66 million.

Trump continues to tell the world that he's overseeing the strongest domestic job growth in American history, which is plainly false. What's more, the White House has not yet offered an explanation for why job growth has slowed since Trump took office.

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Quid pro quo: Newly released texts take Trump scandal to a new level

10/04/19 08:00AM

There's a striking simplicity to the scandal that will almost certainly lead to Donald Trump's impeachment: he used his office to try to coerce a foreign government into helping his re-election campaign. The evidence is unambiguous. More information continues to come to light, but few fair-minded observers believe the president's guilt is in doubt.

There's been no explicit need for Trump's detractors to prove that his scheme included a quid pro quo -- the United States would trade something of value to a foreign country in exchange for its participation in the Republican's gambit -- since Trump's effort was itself scandalous.

But as of this morning, the quid pro quo has nevertheless been established, thanks to a series of text messages that were released overnight. NBC News reported this morning:

Text messages given to Congress show U.S. ambassadors working to persuade Ukraine to publicly commit to investigating President Donald Trump's political opponents and explicitly linking the inquiry to whether Ukraine's president would be granted an official White House visit.

The two ambassadors, both Trump picks, went so far as to draft language for what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy should say, the texts indicate. The messages, released Thursday by House Democrats conducting an impeachment inquiry, show the ambassadors coordinating with both Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and a top Zelenskiy aide.

One text shows Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, asking, "Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?" Apparently reluctant to acknowledge criminal wrongdoing in print, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland replied, "Call me."

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

Just as astonishing was a message Kurt Volker, the former special U.S. envoy to Ukraine, sent to a Zelenskiy adviser shortly before the now-infamous Trump/Zelenskiy phone call. The message was clear about the White House's political expectations, and how a presidential meeting was contingent on the Ukrainian president's cooperation with the larger scheme.

"Heard from White House," Volker wrote, "assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / 'get to the bottom of what happened' in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington."

The House Foreign Affairs Committee published the texts online here (pdf).

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Pence strains credulity with 'obliviousness' defense

Pence strains credulity with 'obliviousness' defense

10/03/19 09:35PM

Greg Miller, national security reporter for the Washington Post, talks with Nicolle Wallace about Mike Pence's argument that he had no idea about the subtext of the message he was delivering to Ukrainian President Zelensky, and the growing amount of reporting on the opportunities Pence had to be better informed, as well as his... watch

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