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Thursday's Mini-Report, 1.9.20

01/09/20 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Flight PS752: "U.S. intelligence officials have evidence that suggests the Ukraine International Airlines jetliner that crashed in Iran on Wednesday, killing 176 people, was downed by an Iranian missile by mistake, multiple officials told NBC News. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his nation's intelligence sources also pin blame on Iran for what might be an 'unintentional' missile attack."

* War powers vote: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that the House would send a clear statement to President Donald Trump on Thursday saying that he should not take any further military action against Iran without getting approval from Congress."

* Speaking of dramatic developments on Capitol Hill: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that she will send the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump to the Senate "when I'm ready," rebuffing calls from top Democrats to submit them."

* Oh my: "The surveillance footage taken from outside Jeffrey Epstein's jail cell on the day of his first apparent suicide attempt has been permanently deleted, federal prosecutors said Thursday."

* RBG: "Ruth Bader Ginsburg remains clear of cancer, the Supreme Court justice told CNN this week. 'I'm cancer free. That's good,' she told the outlet in an interview published Wednesday."

* Is Australia's Rupert Murdoch influencing coverage of his country's bushfire crisis? "Critics see a concerted effort to shift blame, protect conservative leaders and divert attention from climate change."

* Bolton testimony: "House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff told CNN on Thursday that his committee has no plans to hear testimony from former national security adviser John Bolton before President Donald Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate, arguing there's 'little to be gained' by going that route at this moment."

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Vice President-elect Mike Pence speaks to reporters at Trump Tower, Nov. 29, 2016 in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Following criticism of Iran briefing, Pence's defense falls short

01/09/20 12:51PM

Top members of Donald Trump's national security and foreign policy team went to Capitol Hill yesterday afternoon to deliver an important briefing. Members of Congress, including some Republicans, had questions about the rationale behind a U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, touching off a crisis in the region, and this was lawmakers' opportunity to get some answers.

The result was a surprising amount of bipartisan criticism, with a variety of lawmakers complaining that the briefing was vague, hollow,  and short -- cut off before many members could even ask questions.

Vice President Mike Pence argued this morning that lawmakers might've been unimpressed because the administration withheld sensitive information, even during classified congressional briefings.

On NBC's "TODAY," Pence told Savannah Guthrie that the administration could not provide Congress with some of the "most compelling" intelligence behind the administration's decision to kill Soleimani because doing so "could compromise" sources and methods.

"Some of that has to do with what's called sources and methods," Pence said. "Some of the most compelling evidence that Qassem Soleimani was preparing an imminent attack against American forces and American personnel also represents some of the most sensitive intelligence that we have -- it could compromise those sources and methods."

In other words, administration officials made closed-door presentations with classified information, but they left out the really sensitive information. That, according to Pence, may help explain the dissatisfaction on Capitol Hill.

I'm not in a position to say whether the vice president is correct or not. It's conceivable that there's highly sensitive intelligence that the administration isn't prepared to share with hundreds of lawmakers. {The standards for the Gang of Eight are different; nothing is too sensitive for these officials.) It's also possible that Team Trump made its best pitch, it fell short, and Pence is pointing to hidden intelligence that doesn't really exist.

Either way, the bottom line remains the same: Pence simply wants people to trust Donald Trump. There's "compelling evidence" to justify the president's dangerous gambit, but no one can see it, and we should just take the White House's word for it.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.9.20

01/09/20 12:00PM

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

* In New Hampshire, a newly released Monmouth poll found Pete Buttigieg leading the Democratic presidential field with 20% support, followed closely by Joe Biden at 19%, Bernie Sanders at 18%, and Elizabeth Warren at 15%. Amy Klobuchar, who had 6%, was in fifth place in the poll, and every other candidate was below 5%.

* On a related note, ahead of next week's Democratic presidential primary debate, the Monmouth results didn't help any candidate get closer to qualifying for the debate. The polling cutoff is tomorrow.

* Buttigieg's Democratic presidential campaign picked up an important endorsement when Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) threw his support behind the mayor and agreed to serve as a national campaign co-chairman. It's Buttigieg's first endorsement from a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

* With Donald Trump's impeachment trial looming, Cory Booker told the Associated Press the Senate proceedings could deal a "big, big blow" to his presidential campaign, especially with time running out ahead of Iowa's Feb. 3 caucuses.

* Facebook announced this morning that it's sticking to its current advertising policies, which allow candidates to lie to the public.

* In Arizona's closely watched U.S. Senate race, Public Policy Polling's latest survey found astronaut Mark Kelly (D) leading appointed Sen. Martha McSally (R), 46% to 42%. If Democrats are going to have any chance of winning a Senate majority, this will be a critical contest.

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during a news briefing at the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017.

Despite Constitution, Sanders fears Congress having war powers

01/09/20 11:25AM

The U.S. House is poised to vote this afternoon on a war powers resolution intended to limit the Trump administration's military actions against Iran. Former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained this morning why she thinks the effort is a mistake.

"You know, I can't think of anything dumber than allowing Congress to take over our foreign policy.... I think the last thing we want to do is push powers into Congress' hands and take them away from the president. [...]

"[T]he last thing I want to do is see them take power away from President Trump and put it into their own hands. I don't think anything could be worse for America than that."

I don't mean to sound picky, but no one's talking about "pushing" war powers "into Congress' hands." That would be unnecessary, since those powers are already in Congress' hands.

Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution isn't exactly subtle on this point. The document explicitly gives the legislative branch the power "to declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water." The Constitution goes on to authorize Congress to "raise and support armies, "provide and maintain a navy," and "make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces."

These are not obscure American concepts. At issue are bedrock principles of our system of government.

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New poll shows woeful international confidence in Trump

01/09/20 11:04AM

There are a handful of strange boasts that Donald Trump repeats incessantly, but one of the president's favorites is the idea that he commands global respect and singlehandedly improved the United States' international standing. As we've discussed before, the Republican has convinced himself that we were a global laughingstock before he took office, and thanks to his awesomeness, he's turned things around.

"You know, this is a new age," he boasted at a White House event last year. "This is a very exciting time. It's very exciting time for our country. Our country is respected again all over the world, they are respecting like we haven't been respected in many, many years, I'll tell you."

Part of the problem with the president's odd boast is that global surveys in 2017 and 2018 showed that Trump had it exactly backwards: his international stature was weak and his presidency damaged the United States' reputation abroad. The other part of the problem is that the problem isn't improving. USA Today reported:

Confidence in President Donald Trump to do the right thing when it comes to world affairs remains broadly negative, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

The Washington-based Pew study, released Wednesday, found that among people it polled in 32 countries, 29% express confidence in Trump. Sixty-four percent say they lack confidence in the White House occupant.

The figures stand in marked contrast to the final years of Barack Obama's presidency, when a median of 64% expressed confidence in Trump's predecessor to direct America's role in the world in a positive manner.

The full report from the Pew Research Center is online here, and it paints a deeply unflattering portrait of Trump's global reputation.

Among the top-line takeaways from the 32-nation survey:

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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump turns away from the cameras as he speaks at a town hall event in Appleton, Wis., March 30, 2016. (Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)

Following threat, Trump adds to his list of awkward bluffs

01/09/20 10:21AM

Three days after Donald Trump approved an airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, there was all kinds of speculation about how officials in Tehran would retaliate. The American president published a tweet with a stern warning to Iran, warning them of dire consequences if the country tried to counter-attack.

"The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment. We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World! If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way...and without hesitation!"

As is often the case, Trump flubbed some of the relevant details -- for example, the United States has spent $2 trillion on defense over three years; it's not something that "just" happened -- but the underlying point was clear: if Iran launched a retaliatory strike, the American president would target Iran.

On Tuesday, Iran launched a dozen ballistic missiles at bases housing U.S. forces. A day later, thankfully, Trump suggested he didn't much care about the retaliatory strike.

For those of us who hoped to see a de-escalation in tensions, this was unambiguously good news. After all, the alternative was a possible war with catastrophic consequences. It's nevertheless notable, however, that Trump made a rather specific threat over the weekend, and as of the president's public remarks yesterday, he doesn't appear to have any intention of following through on that threat.

In fact, Trump instead announced a new round of sanctions against Iran, which according to administration officials, may not actually be implemented.

Again, the steps away from the brink are worthy of relief, especially given the very real possibility of a cycle of deadly violence. But there's also a larger issue of Trump making a habit of making bold threats, on a wide variety of issues, only to retreat soon after.

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Georgia's Collins takes Iran debate in an unusually toxic direction

01/09/20 09:20AM

There's no shortage of reasons to have concerns about Donald Trump's decision to order an airstrike that killed an Iranian general last week. After all, the mission risked sparking a war, while adding increased instability in the Middle East. It also alienated our allies in Iraq, and derailed, at least temporarily, U.S. efforts to combat ISIS.

On the other hand, there's Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, a close White House ally, and a politician who argued on national television last night that Democrats asking questions about last week's mission are "in love with terrorists." The Washington Post reported:

Collins's comments Wednesday night reflected what's become a talking point among Trump supporters in the wake of the U.S. drone attack that killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, blamed for the deaths of more than 600 coalition soldiers in Iraq.

"They are in love with terrorists," Collins said of Democrats on Fox Business Network's "Lou Dobbs Tonight." "We see that they mourn Soleimani more than they mourn our Gold Star families who are the ones who suffered under Soleimani. That's a problem."

To the extent that reality still has any meaning, no Democrats have "mourned" Soleimani's death, and the idea that Collins' domestic rivals "are in love with terrorists" is obviously an ugly slander. The Georgia Republican, who's reportedly gearing up for a possible U.S. Senate campaign, is engaging in the kind of toxic, gutter politics that honorable public servants tend to avoid.

To borrow a line from the late, great Elijah Cummings, we must be better than this.

It's also important to acknowledge how offensive it is in a free society to try to stifle debate and dissent over foreign policy this way. Collins' cheap rhetoric seems intended to intimidate, signaling to Democrats that those who question his leader's risky and dangerous decisions should expect to be labeled as terrorist sympathizers.

It's all the more reason for honest brokers to ignore such nonsense and engage in a spirited debate without fear of small voices and closed minds.

But stepping back, there's also a larger context to consider: has Doug Collins ever heard Donald Trump's thoughts on foreign policy and Gold Star families?

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Trump's newly announced Iranian sanctions may not exist

01/09/20 08:40AM

In the wake of Iran firing ballistic missiles in the direction of American troops this week, Donald Trump, thankfully, suggested yesterday he didn't want to escalate matters with a retaliatory strike of his own. That said, the Republican also seemed eager to respond to Iranian aggression with ... something.

And so, in a White House address yesterday, Trump said, "As we continue to evaluate options in response to Iranian aggression, the United States will immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime. These powerful sanctions will remain until Iran changes its behavior."

I made the case yesterday that no one should necessarily assume that these "additional punishing" sanctions are real. As it turns out, as of this morning, their existence is very much in doubt.

Ordinarily, when an administration is poised to impose economic sanctions on a foreign country, there's some kind of briefing, usually involving the Treasury Department. There was no such briefing yesterday. CNN reported, "[I]t was not immediately clear what shape those sanctions would take. The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment."

The New York Times added this report overnight:

He said instead that he would ratchet up sanctions on Iran, although administration officials said later that they had no specific plan to do so. The administration has already imposed so much economic pressure on Tehran that it was unclear if additional measures would make a meaningful difference.

Oh. So when Trump told the world that the United States is "immediately" imposing "powerful" sanctions, he may have been referring to sanctions that are not, in reality, real.

Making matters slightly worse, there's a degree of familiarity to these circumstances.

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'Insulting' briefing exposes Trump's hollow policy on Iran

01/09/20 08:00AM

It's been a week since a U.S. airstrike killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, touching off a crisis in the region, and there's been no shortage of questions about why, exactly, Donald Trump launched the mission. Yesterday, administration officials went to Capitol Hill to deliver a classified briefing to lawmakers, explaining the justification for the military offensive.

I think it's safe to say it did not go well. Congressional Democrats were amazed by how hollow the presentation was, and to a surprising degree, some of the frustrations were bipartisan.

Lawmakers came away with vastly different interpretations of two classified briefings that top Trump administration officials held Wednesday about the airstrike last week that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, with two Republican senators sharply criticizing the officials.

"It was probably the worst briefing I've seen at least on a military issue in the nine years I've served in the United States Senate," Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said.

The Utah Republican, whom no one has ever accused of being a moderate, added that the administration's presentation was "insulting and demeaning." Lee went on to tell reporters after the briefing that Trump administration officials suggested to lawmakers that debate over the president's policy is itself dangerous and should be avoided to prevent "emboldening" Iran.

That is, of course, an indefensible attitude in a free society and in a political system with checks and balances. But the fact that Team Trump peddled such a line, while failing to make a compelling case for the Soleimani mission, underscores the emptiness of the White House's position.

As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) put it after yesterday afternoon's session, "We did not get information inside that briefing that there was a specific, imminent threat that we were halting by conducting that operation.... I think it is likely because [that information] doesn't exist."

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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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