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The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stands in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

Alleged document destruction sparks investigation at the EPA

11/11/19 01:00PM

Almost immediately after Donald Trump was inaugurated, the "Inhofe Brigade" became an influential center of power in the new administration. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of the nation's preeminent climate deniers, saw a sizable contingent of former aides make the transition from his office to the new Republican president's team -- most notably at the Environmental Protection Agency.

The "brigade" was led in large part by Ryan Jackson, the far-right senator's former chief of staff, who became then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's chief of staff and proceeded to bring his former colleagues in Inhofe's office into the administration.

Pruitt's tenure proved to be a fiasco -- corruption allegations forced his resignation in July 2018 -- but Jackson remained at the EPA, where he's now reportedly facing an investigation worth watching. Politico reported late last week:

The Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general is investigating whether chief of staff Ryan Jackson was involved in destroying internal documents that should have been retained, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The IG's office is asking witnesses whether Jackson has routinely destroyed politically sensitive documents, including schedules and letters from people like lobbyist Richard Smotkin, who helped arrange a trip for then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to Morocco when he was in office, according to one of the sources, a former administration official who told investigators he has seen Jackson do that firsthand.

It's worth noting for context that one of the many controversies that dogged Pruitt during his tenure was the allegation that he maintained a secret calendar that hid events that might make him look bad. That matter was reviewed by the National Archives, which pointed to no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Image: North Korea

Haley points to cabinet secretaries who saw Trump as dangerous

11/11/19 12:30PM

Nikki Haley has caused quite a stir with a claim in her new book, which includes a provocative claim about some of her former colleagues in Donald Trump's cabinet.

Nikki Haley, President Donald Trump's former ambassador to the United Nations, claims in a new book that two of his top advisers tried to "undermine" the president to "save the country."

Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, was asked by "CBS Evening News" about a passage from her new book, "With All Due Respect," in which she claims that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former White House chief of staff John Kelly tried to recruit her into that effort. She says she refused. The Washington Post also reported on the exchange. NBC News has not independently verified the passage.

"Kelly and Tillerson confided in me that when they resisted the president, they weren't being insubordinate, they were trying to save the country," Haley wrote in the book. "Tillerson went on to tell me the reason he resisted the president's decisions was because, if he didn't, people would die."

The former South Carolina governor didn't back down when asked about this on CBS, insisting that the scene she described "absolutely happened." Haley added that what Tillerson and Kelly had in mind was "offensive" and "very dangerous."

In other words, two leading members of the president's cabinet urged Haley to prioritize the nation's interests over Trump's; Haley ignored them; and she apparently now believes this is all worthy of boast.

This has sparked all kinds of political chatter. Maybe, some pundits have suggested, Haley is angling to replace Mike Pence as the president's 2020 running mate. Maybe she's solidifying her position as a Trump acolyte ahead of the 2024 race.

And while those questions are worth kicking around, let's not miss the forest for the trees: according to one of the president's former cabinet-level ambassadors, two of her powerful colleagues believed Trump was so radically incompetent that there needed to be an administrative check on his poor judgment.

Or put another way, we're now learning that two men handpicked by the president for his team saw Trump as dangerous to the United States and its interests. In fact, they were so concerned about Trump's ineptitude that they reached out to at least one of their colleagues, shared their fears, and sought partners in their bid to "resist" the president's misguided orders.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.11.19

11/11/19 12:00PM

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

* After nearly three decades on Capitol Hill, 75-year-old Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) announced this morning that he'll retire at the end of this Congress. King's Long Island district is considered competitive and will likely be a key 2020 congressional battleground.

* The Republican leader of Kentucky's state Senate said the other day that if this week's recanvassing doesn't dramatically change statewide vote totals in the gubernatorial race, current Gov. Matt Bevin (R) should concede defeat.

* On a related note, Bevin hasn't been able to substantiate his allegations of voting "irregularities," but his allies are assisting in the search for "suspicious activity or voter fraud."

* There was one unresolved state House race in Virginia, which Democrat Nancy Guy appears to have won. As a result, the Democratic majority in the House of Delegates will be 55-45.

* On a related note, this summarized recent electoral developments in Virginia nicely: "A GOP candidate hasn't won statewide office in Virginia since 2009. On Tuesday, Democrats gained majorities in both houses of the General Assembly for the first time in a generation; the House of Delegates swung from a 66-34 Republican edge in 2017 to a 55-45 Democratic advantage for next year's session."

* Donald Trump hasn't officially intervened in Alabama's Republican U.S. Senate primary, but it did not go unnoticed that he attended a University of Alabama football game over the weekend with Rep. Bradley Byrnes, one of Jeff Sessions' GOP rivals.

* Following allegations that Tom Steyer's campaign in Iowa offered campaign contributions to local officials in exchange for endorsements, Steyer's Iowa political director, former state House Speaker Pat Murphy, has resigned from the candidate's team.

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Former Trump ambassador: failed crimes aren't impeachable offenses

11/11/19 11:20AM

Imagine a car thief who approached a vehicle in a parking lot, took out his tools, and began trying to unlock the door of his chosen target. At this point, someone else in the parking lot took notice and called the police, who arrived and arrested the thief.

"What are you arresting me for?" the thief asked the officers. "I didn't steal the car. The owner still has the car right now! You're planning to punish me for stealing a car that wasn't stolen? There's no law against not stealing a car."

Keep this hypothetical scenario in mind when considering what former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley told CBS News' Norah O'Donnell in a new interview.

"You're gonna impeach a president for asking for a favor that didn't happen and -- and giving money and it wasn't withheld?" Haley said. "I don't know what you would impeach him on. And look, Norah, impeachment is, like, the death penalty for a public official."

"When you look at the transcript, there's nothing in that transcript that warrants the death penalty for the president," she said, referring to a summary of a call President Trump had in July with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

For now, let's put aside some of the more annoying details of Haley's unfortunate pitch, skipping past the fact that the call summary isn't a transcript; the July 25 call is just one part of a much larger scandal; and there are no meaningful similarities between impeachment and the death penalty.

Let's instead focus on the crux of her argument. As Haley sees it, Trump may have held up congressionally approved military aid to a vulnerable ally, as part of an abusive extortion scheme, but Ukraine ended up getting the money, so ... no harm, no foul, right? Just like the car thief who didn't successfully steal the car, the Republican president didn't permanently deny the ally the support in exchange for manufactured dirt on a domestic opponent.

After a Fox News personality recently made the same pitch, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) described the argument as "totally bananas," and it's worth appreciating why.

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Trump struggles to keep his story straight on impeachment hearings

11/11/19 10:40AM

For weeks, House Republicans ignored the legitimate reasons why so much of the impeachment inquiry was being conducted behind closed doors and pretended to be outraged by the secrecy. For GOP members, "transparency" became the buzzword of choice for a while.

All of which led to some confusion when Donald Trump suggested on Friday morning that the one thing his allies said they wanted -- public hearings -- was something the president said shouldn't happen. From the official White House transcript:

Q: [W]hat do you expect for the public hearings next week?

TRUMP: Well, they shouldn't be having public hearings. This is a hoax. This is just like the Russian witch hunt. This is just a continuation.

A day later, the Republican said those who'd quoted him accurately had "misreported" what he said. In fact, as of Saturday morning, Trump told reporters he no longer cared whether the hearings were public.

It's all a bit confusing, in part because the president and his allies have taken both sides of so many issues.

A month ago, for example, Trump had a very high opinion of Gordon Sondland, a Republican megadonor the president chose to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union. Trump described him as "a really good man" and a "great American."

That changed on Friday, when the president said, "Let me just tell you, I hardly know the gentleman."

What's more, in September, Trump said he didn't want to release a call summary of his phone meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Then he did want to release it, assuming it was exculpatory, when it was actually incriminating. (The president has spent weeks insisting people read the transcript, despite the fact that it's not a transcript, and despite the fact that it makes him appear quite guilty.)

Trump can't even agree with himself on the propriety of providing written answers in federal investigations.

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On impeachment, GOP witness list reads like a cry for help

11/11/19 10:03AM

In September 2013, after lawmakers were told it was time to raise the debt ceiling, the then-Republican majority put together an almost comical wish-list/ransom-note, filled with demands the GOP expected the Obama administration to meet.

Republicans said they would agree to raise the federal debt limit, preventing a global crisis, but only if Democrats delayed implementation of the ACA, approved the Keystone XL pipeline, imposed Medicare means testing, made the Dodd-Frank financial-regulatory-reform law more Wall Street friendly, increased oil drilling, and ended the EPA's efforts to combat the climate crisis.

Ezra Klein wrote at the time that the list showed the Republican-led House was no longer "a sane place." Ezra added, "The House GOP's debt limit bill ... isn't a serious governing document. It's not even a plausible opening bid. It's a cry for help."

Six years later, Republican leaders have some ideas about the witnesses who should testify in the House impeachment inquiry as it advances to its next phase, which includes public hearings that begin this week. But reading the GOP's witness list, it doesn't strike me as a plausible opening bid -- it seems more like a cry for help. The Washington Post reported over the weekend:

House Republicans on Saturday pressed ahead with their efforts to move the impeachment inquiry away from President Trump, calling on Democrats to add witnesses to the probe including former vice president Joe Biden's son and the whistleblower whose initial complaint kicked off the investigation. [...]

The sprawling list of potential witnesses named by Republicans on Saturday ... included Hunter Biden, whose father is a leading Democratic candidate to challenge Trump in 2020; Hunter Biden's business partner Devon Archer; the unnamed whistleblower, who Trump and some of his allies have campaigned to publicly identify; the researcher Nellie Ohr of Fusion GPS, which commissioned a dossier linking Russia and Trump; and Alexandra Chalupa, a Ukrainian American who worked with the Democratic National Committee.

This is not a list compiled by officials who are serious about the inquiry.

Of course, as a procedural matter, House Republicans, from their minority perch, can't simply call whatever witnesses they want. Rather, their wish list was turned over to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who soon after explained that the impeachment probe would not serve "to carry out the same sham investigations into the Bidens or debunked conspiracies about 2016 U.S. election interference" that Trump asked Ukraine to conduct.

Or put another way, the Republicans' requested witness list probably won't be taken too seriously by the House majority. The interesting thing is to consider what happens after the document ends up in the circular file in Schiff's office.

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GOP gives Jordan a plum special assignment in impeachment inquiry

11/11/19 09:20AM

The timing was less than ideal. On Thursday night, NBC News ran a new report on the latest witness to accuse Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) of turning a blind eye to sexual abuse of student athletes during his time as a wrestling coach at Ohio State University. The latest allegations, which the far-right congressman has repeatedly denied, were raised by a referee who filed a lawsuit last week.

Less than a day later, House Republican leaders gave Jordan a plum special assignment as part of the congressional impeachment inquiry.

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of President Donald Trump's most stalwart supporters, will be one of the Republicans grilling witnesses next week when the much-anticipated impeachment hearings get underway.

Jordan was tapped by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Friday to temporarily take the spot of Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., on the Intelligence Committee.

In a press statement announcing the decision, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) explained that Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) -- whom McCarthy praised for his "sense of seriousness" and "thoughtfulness" -- will be temporarily removed from the Intelligence Committee. He'll be replaced by Jordan, a far-right Trump ally whom no one has ever praised for his "sense of seriousness" and "thoughtfulness."

(For those who care about congressional procedures, because the Intelligence panel is a select committee, instead of a standing committee, membership can be changed at party leaders' discretion. The temporary Jordan/Crawford swap didn't have to go through the Steering Committee; McCarthy had the power do this on his own.)

So why bother? By all appearances, the point was to get a hyper-aggressive, attack-dog-style congressman, who's earned a reputation as a relentless Trump cheerleader, on the Intelligence Committee in advance of this week's start of public impeachment hearings.

All of which tells us two rather important things.

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Why the question of Trump's impeachment can't wait for Election Day

11/11/19 08:40AM

About a month ago, at the start of the most recent Democratic presidential primary debate, CNN's Anderson Cooper began the event by posing a familiar question to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.): "You have said that there's already enough evidence for President Trump to be impeached and removed from office. But the question is, with the election only one year away, why shouldn't it be the voters who determine the president's fate?"

In a new interview with CBS News' Norah O'Donnell, former Ambassador Nikki Haley, made a related argument:

"I think the biggest thing that bothers me is the American people should decide this. Why [do] we have a bunch of people in Congress making this decision?"

Those familiar with American Civics 101 probably realize the reason "a bunch of people in Congress" are working on an impeachment inquiry is because that's how the process is supposed to work under the U.S. Constitution. What's more, we have "a bunch of people in Congress" grappling with how to address presidential abuses because "the American people" decided to put the House of Representatives in the hands of a Democratic majority -- made up of members who ran on a platform of holding Trump accountable.

I'm going to assume that Haley, a former top member of Donald Trump's team, knows all of this. I'll also assume that the point she intended to make was about delaying judgment on the president's apparent misconduct until Election Day 2020. Indeed, the former South Carolina governor added on Twitter over the weekend, "This is a decision for the American people."

It's an increasingly popular pitch in GOP circles. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who'll retire from elected office next year, recently argued, "An election, which is just around the corner, is the right way to decide who should be president." Similarly, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, added yesterday, "Let the American people decide this in less than a year."

At face value, this may seem like one of the GOP's less ridiculous arguments. Trump was caught crossing the line, and if voters have a problem with the president's abuses, they can vote for someone new next November. If, on the other hand, voters are unmoved, the electorate can make that clear, too.

There are, however, a couple of serious flaws with this.

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The Capitol building at dusk.

Republicans call Trump scheme 'inappropriate,' but there's a catch

11/11/19 08:00AM

In the wake of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman's devastating recent deposition as part of the House's impeachment inquiry, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said, "I thought it was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign government to investigate a political opponent." The Ohio Republican added, however, "I also do not think it's an impeachable offense."

On ABC News' This Week yesterday, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, used nearly identical phrasing during an interview with Martha Raddatz. From the transcript:

RADDATZ: Congressman, you're again talking about process. The process. I asked you about substance. How do you fend against the substance?

THORNBERRY: Well, as you know -- maybe you know, Martha -- I believe it's inappropriate for a president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival. Now that leads to a question if there's a political rival with a family member who is involved in questionable activity, what do you do? Just let them alone.

But set that aside. I believe it was inappropriate. I do not believe it was impeachable.

The Texan went on to say, in reference to Trump's July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, "[T]here's not anything that the president said in that phone call that's different than he says in public all the time."

I'm not sure it helps Trump when his supporters suggest the president routinely and publicly abuses the powers of his office.

Nevertheless, it's worth emphasizing that represents a subtle shift in posture for Republicans. As we discussed the other day, after the U.S. House formally approved a measure to proceed with the impeachment inquiry, House Republican leaders held a press conference at which a reporter asked, "Will you all go on the record and say the president did nothing inappropriate?"

There were dozens of GOP lawmakers on the stage at the time. They collectively responded, "Yes."

This was, of course, a ridiculous posture -- though the president insisted yesterday it's the one he expects his party to stick to -- but more importantly, it was unsustainable. The evidence of "inappropriate" actions in Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal was, and is, overwhelming. Some Republicans may see value in playing make-believe and pretending the entire controversy is a mirage, but the vast majority of fair-minded observers will know better.

And some GOP officials seem to realize that, prompting lawmakers like Thornberry to adopt an "inappropriate, but not impeachable" posture, which isn't as plainly bonkers as the original party line, though it still doesn't work.

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Witness paints Trump scheme, Russian threat in vivid detail

Witness paints Trump scheme, Russian threat in vivid detail

11/08/19 09:00PM

Rachel Maddow reads highlights from the transcript of the testimony of former senior NSC official Fiona Hill before the House impeachment committees, including details of Donald Trump's Ukraine scheme being implemented and stern admonitions to take the Russian threat seriously and not be distracted by specious conspiracy theories. watch


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