Quid pro whaddaya know
"So what" has been a go-to defense for Team Trump, so why not run that play again? It was the nub of Rudy Giuliani's alibi for Donald Trump's porn star payoff, and Trump's for why he pursued a Moscow real estate project while running for president, and Giuliani's for whether Trump encouraged former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about that.
On Thursday, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney went to the briefing room podium and affirmed the essential truth of what Trump has assailed as the "FAKE WHISTLEBLOWER REPORT." That defense has been crumbling under the weight of testimony from House impeachment inquiry witnesses who have corroborated and expanded upon the original complaint.
So Mulvaney declared there was nothing wrong with Trump linking military aid to pushing Ukraine's president for a politically motivated investigation of Democrats. "Absolutely appropriate,” he said. Mulvaney said Trump told him he wanted Ukraine to dig into a discredited conspiracy theory that a hacked Democratic National Committee server from 2016 was spirited to Ukraine to hide evidence. "That’s it, that’s why we held up the money,” Mulvaney said. (Go to the 2:15 mark on this video excerpt.)
It's no big deal, argued Mulvaney. “I have news for everybody: get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy." That was his try to put a benign-sounding spin on Trump pressuring a foreign country to investigate domestic political opponents, the bombshell that turbocharged the drive for impeachment.
Mulvaney's performance sent congressional Republicans who have been trying to defend Trump reeling. “He literally said the thing the president and everyone else said did not happen," a GOP congressman speaking on condition of anonymity told The Washington Post.
For Democrats, it's all but case closed. Mulvaney "co-signed the president’s confession,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. The panel's chairman, Adam Schiff, said, “I think Mr. Mulvaney’s acknowledgment means that things have gone from very, very bad to much, much worse.”
Trump's outside legal team appeared startled and shaken by Mulvaney's comments. “The President’s legal counsel was not involved in acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s press briefing,” said Trump personal lawyer Jay Sekulow. Later still, Mulvaney scrambled to try to unsay what he said. “Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo," according to a statement from the acting chief of staff. But during the briefing, when a reporter pointed out he was describing a quid pro quo, Mulvaney doubled down: "We do that all the time with foreign policy."
Justice is swerved
Mulvaney tried to tie Trump's demands on Ukraine and withholding of military aid to an ongoing Justice Department investigation into the origins of the Russian investigation. The response from Justice: Huh?
"If the White House was withholding aid in regards to the cooperation of any investigation at the Department of Justice, that is news to us," a senior Justice Department official told NPR.
There was puzzlement elsewhere in Trumpland. Fox News host Sean Hannity, the presidential confidant who has spent many broadcast hours seeking to sanitize Trump scandals, said on his radio show: “What is Mulvaney even talking about … I just think he's dumb, I really do."
Self-dealing? Get over it
As he announced that Trump's Doral golf resort near Miami has been chosen as the site for next June's G-7 summit of world leaders, Mulvaney said those with suspicious minds need to chill. “There are folks who will never get over the fact that it’s a Trump property, but we’re still going to go there,” Mulvaney said. “It’s not the only place. It’s the best place.”
Mulvaney said Trump himself raised the idea during a brainstorming session on possible sites, saying, “What about Doral?” His reaction: “That’s not the craziest idea I’ve ever heard." He also said Trump won't profit because the resort will be booked “at cost.” But he had no figures about the costs, to be borne by U.S. taxpayers and foreign governments, which will fill rooms at a struggling property during a normally slow summer season when more than half of them are typically vacant.
Trump's decision to directly award himself a contract takes the mingling of his official and private business interests to a new level. Walter Shaub, a former director of the Office of Government Ethics, said on Twitter that it's Trump's “most overt corruption to date.” Rep. Jerry Nadler of Manhattan said, “He is exploiting his office and making official U.S. government decisions for his personal financial gain.”
For the most part, Republicans were quiet. A few were mildly critical. “Probably not the best location,” said Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson. But North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer hailed the choice. “It may seem careless politically, but on the other hand there’s tremendous integrity in his boldness and his transparency,” Cramer said.
Janison: Trump first
It was a day when it might have been nice to hear just a hint from the commander in chief that he acts loyally in the nation's interests, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.
The get-over-it presidency looks like it's trying to get one over on America and the world by corralling next year's G-7 summit for Trump's Doral golf resort. Whether it's in private commerce or partisan shakedowns, Trump clearly keeps his own interests in mind.
On Thursday, Trump-contributor-turned-ambassador Gordon Sondland confirmed during the House impeachment inquiry that Trump delegated U.S. policy on Ukraine to Giuliani. The interests of Giuliani on behalf of Trump and private clients who operate in the region may, of course, differ from those of the State Department on behalf of the country.
Trump's rollover for Turkey is another reminder of how Giuliani and a former member of Trump's inner circle, Michael Flynn, have pushed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's interests. Anyone wishing for Trump's assurances that "America first" doesn't really mean "Me first" will need to wait longer.
Ethnic cleansing? Get over it
Trump hailed a cease-fire agreement for northern Syria worked out with Erdogan by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as “a great day for civilization." He declared, “This is a situation where everybody is happy."
Turkey gets pretty much what it wanted: ridding a zone near its border of Kurdish fighters who fought alongside the U.S. against ISIS. A Turkish official told The Washington Post that his side was surprised and relieved at how easy the negotiations were for their side.
The Kurds get to flee. "They [Turkey] had to have it cleaned out," Trump said — a remark that Obama-era UN Ambassador Samantha Power called an endorsement of "ethnic cleansing."
Florida's Sen. Marco Rubio, who like most Republicans condemned the U.S. abandonment of the Kurds, tweeted that the promised pause in fighting doesn't appear to mean a "change in Erdogan’s goal … He still plans to rid area of Kurds & create 'security zone,' but is giving Kurds an ultimatum: They can leave voluntarily or leave dead."
A senior U.S. military source pointed out to a Fox News reporter that leaving the zone may not be an option for fighters whose families are there.
Elijah Cummings RIP
House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings, who headed one of the impeachment inquiry panels and pressed investigations of Trump policies such as family separations at the border, died Thursday of complications from long-standing health problems. He was 68.
Cummings also led examinations of Trump's government dealings. His loudest clash with Trump came after he attacked the president's “hateful, incendiary comments” that four progressive Democratic congresswomen of color should go back to their “broken and crime-infested countries.” Trump responded by saying Cummings was to blame for a “rodent-infested" district where “no human being would want to live.”
Trump tweeted respectfully on Thursday that "I got to see firsthand the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political leader.” He ordered flags to be flown at half-staff through Friday.
With Cummings' passing, Rep. Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan will become acting Oversight Committee chairwoman. House Democrats are choosing a formal replacement for Cummings at “a later time,” a senior Democratic leadership aide told CQ Roll Call.
Ex-special ops chief: Trump must go
Retired four-star Adm. William McRaven, who headed the U.S. Special Operations Command and oversaw the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, writes in a New York Times op-ed that it is time for another president, "the sooner, the better," because "the fate of our Republic depends upon it."
McRaven said that at two gatherings of military and intelligence veterans last week, "there was an underlying current of frustration, humiliation, anger and fear that … the America that they believed in was under attack, not from without, but from within." They have seen "our leaders stand beside despots and strongmen, preferring their government narrative to our own," and "have seen us abandon our allies and have heard the shouts of betrayal from the battlefield," he wrote.
During a change-of-command ceremony, McRaven said, a "retired four-star general grabbed my arm, shook me and shouted, 'I don’t like the Democrats, but Trump is destroying the Republic!’ ”
What else is happening:
- Energy Secretary Rick Perry, one of the officials Trump directed to work with Giuliani on Ukraine sleuthing, gave notice he is leaving the Cabinet job at the end of the year. "Rick has done a fantastic job," Trump said. " But it was time."
- Mulvaney said climate change won't be on the G-7 agenda next year. If foreign attendees are disappointed, they could take a short field trip into Miami, where pumping systems are needed to keep streets from flooding even on sunny days because of rising sea levels.
- Trump's "Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool!" letter to Erdogan just before the invasion last week was quickly tossed into the trash by the Turkish president, sources told the BBC. (Yesterday's 1600 said incorrectly that the letter was sent after the invasion.)
- A Kremlin spokesman gave Russia's take on Trump's letter. “You don’t often encounter such language in correspondence between heads of state. It’s a highly unusual letter,” Dmitry Peskov said.
- The impeachment threat was very much on Trump's mind at a campaign rally in Dallas Thursday night, when he demanded the unmasking of whistleblower despite federal laws protecting the person's anonymity. "Who is the whistleblower? Who is the whistleblower? We have to know! Is the whistleblower a spy?" he said.
- Trump told the rally it was good to let the Turks attack the Kurds. "Sometimes you have to let them fight like two kids,” he said. “Then you pull them apart."
- Trump on Wednesday belittled former Defense Secretary James Mattis as an “overrated general.” Mattis brushed him off while speaking Thursday night at the annual Al Smith dinner, saying, “I'm honored to be considered that by Donald Trump because he also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress. So I guess I'm the Meryl Streep of generals, and frankly that sounds pretty good to me."