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Thursday's Mini-Report, 12.12.19

12/12/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A long day: "The House Judiciary Committee is holding a public discussion about amendments to the two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump: abuse of power and obstructing Congress. The first meeting on Wednesday night saw a debate among lawmakers before a scheduled vote on Thursday on the two articles before sending it to the House floor. The Thursday session began at 9 a.m."

* I don't think Gaetz is good at this: "Republicans dragged Hunter Biden's name through the mud Thursday at the House Judiciary Committee meeting on two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., recounted Biden's admitted past drug abuse -- which quickly backfired when Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., hinted at the Florida lawmaker's own past substance abuse problems."

* Election Day in the UK: "Millions of voters headed to the polls across the United Kingdom on Thursday for the country's third nationwide general election in less than five years."

* Notable Senate confirmation, Part I: "The Senate on Thursday confirmed Dr. Stephen Hahn to lead the Food and Drug Administration despite concerns about how he will confront the growing problem of underage vaping."

* Notable Senate confirmation, Part II: "The United States has a new ambassador to Russia after the Senate voted Thursday to confirm the No. 2 official at the State Department to the post. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan was confirmed by a 70-22 vote."

* A case worth watching: "A federal judge on Wednesday rejected the Trump administration's attempt to toss out a lawsuit over missing notes documenting President Donald Trump's face-to-face meetings with President Vladimir Putin of Russia."

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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

Despite GOP opposition, Dems pass bill to lower prescription costs

12/12/19 04:21PM

The Republican National Committee published a curious tweet this morning, accusing congressional Democrats of not being "focused on lowering prescription drug prices." It's a popular line of attack from Donald Trump, too, who's repeatedly demanded that the House Democratic majority tackle the issue.

Republicans probably should've picked a different line of attack. House Dems passed a bill on prescription-drug costs in May -- making it easier for generic drugs to enter the market -- and they passed even more ambitious legislation this afternoon. The New York Times reported:

The House, delivering on one of the Democrats' central campaign promises, on Thursday passed ambitious legislation to lower the rising cost of prescription drugs by empowering the federal government to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical manufacturers.

The bill, known as H.R. 3 -- a numerical designation that reflects its position on Democrats' priority list -- would make significant changes to the federal Medicare program, which provides health coverage to older Americans.

The bill passed 230 to 192. Democrats were unanimous in their support for the proposal, while only two Republicans -- Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) -- broke ranks to vote with the majority. The rest of the GOP conference opposed the bill.

Stepping back, I think there are a few angles to this that are worth keeping in mind. First, this is a good bill, made even more progressive after some recent negotiations between the House Democratic leadership and some of the conference's more liberal members. Perhaps most notably, the bill, among other things, empowers Medicare to negotiate directly with the private pharmaceutical industry.

In theory, that's a position Donald Trump should like -- he endorsed the policy a few years ago -- but lobbyists help steer the president in a more conservative direction, and both the White House and Senate Republicans announced their opposition to the bill passed by the House today.

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Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-ELECTIONS-TRUMP

Republicans lose sight of their own impeachment standards

12/12/19 12:55PM

A couple of months ago, Ambassador Bill Taylor, Donald Trump's top diplomat to Ukraine, delivered brutal testimony to Congress. In a 15-page statement delivered to Congress, supported by extensive and contemporaneous notes, Taylor described the president's involvement in an explicit scheme to leverage both military aid and a White House meeting as part of a plan to coerce Ukraine into participating in a domestic political scheme.

Soon after -- seven weeks ago yesterday -- NBC News highlighted a quote that remains memorable.

Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, reacted on Wednesday to the closed-door testimony of top diplomat Bill Taylor, who said Ukraine aid from the U.S. was linked Trump demands for probes of the Bidens:

"The picture coming out of it based on the reporting we've seen is, yeah, I would say is not a good one...."

Thune, the #2 Republican in the Senate leadership, added at the time that he believed Taylor should be prepared to testify publicly, which the ambassador did, confirming -- and even adding to -- the testimony he delivered to the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors.

But it was the senator's understated assessment that's worth appreciating nearly two months later. Thune was confronted with evidence that the president orchestrated this extortion scheme and he felt compelled to concede that the emerging picture was "not a good one" for the president.

In other words, the available information in late October was so incriminating that some in Trump's party found it difficult to ignore -- and that was before Americans saw many hours of public testimony from a variety of witnesses, officials, and experts, who went on to tell a devastating story that was "not a good one" for the man in the Oval Office.

Thune was hardly alone. In the early weeks of the scandal, other White House allies, hoping that the controversy wouldn't advance much further, staked out specific standards. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for example, said, "If you could show me that, you know, Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call, that would be very disturbing." Even on one of the president's favorite Fox News programs, one of the co-hosts told viewers, "If the president said, 'I'll give you the money, but you've got to investigate Joe Biden', that'd be off-the-rails wrong."

That was before they knew how guilty the evidence would make Trump appear.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.12.19

12/12/19 12:00PM

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

* After Republican officials in South Carolina cancelled their 2020 presidential primary, as part of a gambit to save Donald Trump from possible embarrassment, some local voters sued. Yesterday, a judge ruled in the state GOP's favor.

* On a related note, the Hawaii Republican Party is moving forward with plans to scrap its primary, too, joining Alaska, Arizona, Kansas, Nevada, and South Carolina.

* In Texas, the latest CNN poll found Joe Biden far ahead in the Democratic presidential primary with 35%. Further back was Bernie Sanders at 15% and Elizabeth Warren at 13%. No other candidate reached double digits, though Pete Buttigieg was close with 9% support.

* The same poll showed Donald Trump leading each of the top Democratic contenders in Texas in hypothetical general-election match-ups, though Biden was close, trailing the president by only one percentage point in the Lone Star State.

* CNN also polled California Democrats -- both Texas and California will hold presidential primaries on March 3 ("Super Tuesday") -- and found Biden narrowly leading Sanders in the Golden State, 21% to 20%. Warren wasn't far behind with 17%, followed by Buttigieg with 9%.

* Sandra Diaz and Victorina Morales, two undocumented immigrants who used to work for Trump, joined Joe Biden on the campaign trail this week, and spoke to voters in Nevada. "I'm going to tell you who is Mr. Trump," Diaz told the crowd. "How he's a big liar..... He still lies about immigrants. He says we are bad people. And I will stand here and say he lies, because we are good workers and good people."

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GOP confirms another Trump judicial nominee deemed 'not qualified'

12/12/19 10:52AM

Last week, Senate Republicans confirmed to the federal bench Sarah Pitlyk, a 42-year-old conservative lawyer who received a "not qualified" rating from the American Bar Association. The ABA's rationale for the rating explained that Pitlyk, among other things, has never tried a case as lead or co-counsel, examined a witness, taken a deposition, or picked a jury.

She also has a record of fierce opposition to reproductive rights, arguing that fertility treatments and surrogacy have "grave" adverse effects on society. Senate Republicans nevertheless rewarded her with a lifetime appointment to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

Yesterday, as the HuffPost reported, the GOP-led Senate confirmed yet another one of Donald Trump's highly controversial judicial nominees who also received a "not qualified" rating.

Senate Republicans voted Wednesday to make Lawrence VanDyke a lifetime federal judge, despite the American Bar Association rating him "not qualified" because, according to his own colleagues, he is "arrogant, lazy, an ideologue, and lacking in knowledge of the day-today practice including procedural rules." [...]

More than 200 national civil and human rights groups opposed VanDyke, citing his record of attacking LGBTQ rights (he claimed in a 2004 Harvard Law Record article that same-sex families hurt children and that LGBTQ people are deviant) and arguing against women's reproductive rights (as Montana's solicitor general, he submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of Arizona's 20-week abortion ban and asked the justices to reconsider Roe v. Wade).

The final tally on the Senate floor yesterday was 51 to 44. Every Republican in the chamber except Maine's Susan Collins supported VanDyke's confirmation. (If his name seems at all familiar, Rachel did a segment on his rather dramatic confirmation hearing in October.)

For those keeping score, as things stand this morning, the GOP-led Senate has confirmed 172 of Trump's judicial nominees: 120 district court nominees, 50 circuit court nominees, and two Supreme Court nominees. Or put another way, about one in five federal judges was chosen by Donald Trump. Most of these jurists are quite young -- some are in their 30s -- and they'll serve on the federal bench for many decades.

Also note, this has happened in just three years. There's still another year remaining in Trump's term -- and there's a very real possibility he'll get a second term, at which point the judiciary would shift to the far right in ways that would likely remain unchanged for most of the remainder of the 21st century.

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Pentagon watchdog to audit controversial border wall contract

12/12/19 10:05AM

Last week, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) urged the Pentagon's inspector general to investigate the Trump administration's controversial border-wall contract with Fisher Industries. As NBC News reported, it looks like the Democratic congressman's request was persuasive.

The Defense Department's internal watchdog plans to review a recent Army Corps of Engineers decision to award a $400 million contract for border wall construction to a North Dakota company that has been publicly and privately endorsed by members of the Trump administration, including the president himself.

The review of the award to Fisher Sand & Gravel is an audit by the Pentagon's inspector general and comes in response to a request by Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

"In response to your request, we have decided to initiate an audit of the solicitation and award of this contract," Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general, told Thompson in a letter obtained by NBC News. "We are assessing the methodology of that audit and will formally announce the audit soon."

Under the circumstances, this seems like an obvious next step. As we discussed last week, North Dakota-based Fisher Sand and Gravel won a lucrative, $400 million government contract to build 31 miles of border barriers in an Arizona wildlife refuge. The decision followed Donald Trump's personal intervention in the matter, with the president pressing the Army Corps of Engineers to award Fisher the contract.

Trump's lobbying ignored officials' warning that Fisher did not meet the necessary standards for the contract.

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The Republican National Committee headquarters, Sept. 9, 2014. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

45 years later, Republicans borrow a page from Earl Landgrebe

12/12/19 09:22AM

At the height of the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon was running low on friends. When the U.S. House voted to begin impeachment hearings, for example, the vote was 410 to 4. One of the four was an Indiana Republican named Earl Landgrebe.

Months later, as the disgraced president prepared to leave the White House, Landgrebe delivered a line that helped define his political career. "Don't confuse me with the facts," the congressman said the day before Nixon's resignation. "I've got a closed mind. I will not vote for impeachment. I'm going to stick with my president even if he and I have to be taken out of this building and shot."

I can't say with certainty whether contemporary Republicans made a conscious decision to follow Landgrebe's example, but his infamous quote keeps coming to mind for a reason.

In recent weeks, for example, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) has, more than once, echoed Kremlin propaganda and suggested Ukraine may have interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections. When a controversy ensued over his willingness to peddle false disinformation designed to advance Russian interests, the Louisiana Republican declared, "I believe what I believe."

Kennedy didn't literally say, "Don't confuse me with the facts," but it seemed like the subtext.

It's against this backdrop that Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz was on Capitol Hill yesterday, participating in a Senate hearing exploring his report on the investigation into the Russia scandal. Reading Dana Milbank's report on the hearing, it seems several Republicans didn't want to be confused with the facts, either.

"They were on a mission not to protect Trump but to ... protect all of us smelly people from Donald Trump," [Sen. Lindsey Graham] alleged. "That's what this is about." Never mind that the inspectors found no such evidence in more than 1 million documents and more than 100 interviews over 19 months. "Whether you believe it or not, I believe it!" Graham announced.

[Sen. Ted Cruz], too, wasn't about to let the findings get in his way. "You did not find evidence of political bias. That is a judgment that you have and I disagree with that," Cruz told the inspector general.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) topped them all, arguing that the failure to find political bias proved there was political bias. "Is not the lack of evidence that you're talking about itself evidence of bias?" he asked Horowitz.

Milbank added, "Even confronted with 434 pages of unbiased, exhaustively researched findings, they covered their ears and cried 'LA-LA-LA-LA-LA.'"

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Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Dallas Church Choir speaks as he introduces President Donald Trump during the Celebrate Freedom event at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, Saturday, July 1, 2017.

Trump keeps inviting pastor Robert Jeffress to the wrong events

12/12/19 08:40AM

It was eight years ago this week that Donald Trump was outraged that then-President Barack Obama hosted a Hanukkah celebration at the White House two weeks before the start of the holiday. Nevertheless, Trump hosted a Hanukkah celebration at the White House yesterday, two weeks before the start of the holiday.

But as HuffPost noted, the event itself became notable for entirely different reasons.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at tackling anti-Semitism on college campuses on Wednesday -- but one of the speakers at the event has said that Jews are going to hell.

Trump signed the order at a White House Hanukkah reception, with several prominent Jewish Americans in attendance, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.

But the president also called upon evangelical Christian leader Robert Jeffress to speak, claiming he's a "tremendous faith leader."

The Republican's executive order is important in its own right, but it's worth pausing to question the propriety of having Robert Jeffress, of all people, speak at a Hanukkah reception.

Indeed, this comes on the heels of Team Trump's decision to have Jeffress deliver the opening prayer at the opening of a new U.S. embassy in Israel. It led Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) to explain in a tweet, "Robert Jeffress says 'you can't be saved by being a Jew,' and 'Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell.' He's said the same about Islam. Such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States Embassy in Jerusalem."

And he probably shouldn't be speaking at a White House Hanukkah reception, either, but Trump can't seem to help himself.

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The Capitol building at dusk.

For the third time this year, GOP rejects election-security bill

12/12/19 08:00AM

Over the summer, a pair of senators -- one Democrat and one Republican -- partnered on a new election-security proposal called the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER Act). The idea behind Sens. Chris Van Hollen's (D-Md.) and Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) bill was pretty straightforward: if U.S. intelligence agencies were to determine that Russia interfered in another federal election, new sanctions would kick in targeting Russia's finance, defense and energy sectors.

The point, obviously, would be to create a disincentive, letting the Kremlin know in advance that Russia would face significant economic consequences if Moscow once again attacked our democratic institutions.

The bill picked up a bipartisan group of co-sponsors, and it seemed like the sort of proposal that might even have a chance in the Republican-led Senate. At least that was the hope before it was blocked yesterday on the Senate floor. Axios reported:

A Republican senator is blocking bipartisan legislation meant to counter foreign election interference, saying it is more anti-Trump than anti-Russia.

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) objected Tuesday when Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) sought consent to pass the DETER bill, as reported by The Hill.... The stalled legislation comes as U.S. intelligence agencies predict Russia and other foreign countries will attempt to interfere in the 2020 election.

Van Hollen, the lead sponsor, explained, "This has nothing to do with President Trump, this has to do with protecting our elections." Crapo, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, was unmoved.

"The mechanisms in this bill have been designed more to attack the Trump administration and Republicans than to attack the Russians and those who would attack our country and our elections," the Idaho Republican argued.

I'm not altogether sure how Crapo arrived at that conclusion, or why exactly he believes a bipartisan proposal to impose sanctions on Russia would, as a practical matter, effectively represent an "attack" on the Trump administration and Republicans.

What's more, if these circumstances seem familiar, it's because the DETER Act isn't the only election-security measure to be rejected by Senate Republicans.

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Judge allows lawsuit seeking Trump-Putin call records

Judge allows lawsuit seeking Trump-Putin call records

12/11/19 09:21PM

Rachel Maddow reports on a judge allowing a lawsuit by two watchdog groups accusing the White House of violating the Federal Records Act and seeking information on Donald Trump's calls with Vladimir Putin. Maddow notes the exposure of just one secret call record has already led to an impeachment inquiry into Trump. watch

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Launched in 2008, “The Rachel Maddow Show” follows the machinations of policy making in America, from local political activism to international diplomacy. Rachel Maddow looks past the distractions of political theater and stunts and focuses on the legislative proposals and policies that shape American life - as well as the people making and influencing those policies and their ultimate outcome, intended or otherwise.

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