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By Chuck Todd and Carrie Dann
WASHINGTON — It’s a strange, upside-down world when much of official Washington is hoping for the president to make a sweeping, legally questionable constitutional power play to get out of a political jam. But that’s where we are on Day 21 of the partial government shutdown, now tied for the longest such funding lapse in modern political history.
With 800,000 federal workers slated to miss a paycheck today, there are no meetings scheduled for negotiations. Efforts for grand bargain legislation have been abandoned. We’re just… stuck. And there’s a grudging acceptance from many lawmakers that the best way out of the impasse is for the president to declare a national emergency and attempt to take unilateral action to construct a border wall while also opening the federal government.
The short-term politics make sense for Trump: The move would surely be caught up in a lengthy court challenge, which would give Trump a new foil and show his base his willingness to fight.
But in the long-term, what does it say about the health of our democracy that lawmakers are hoping to fix a political problem with an executive power grab with major constitutional consequences? Trump’s skeptics are putting a lot of faith in the courts to be a guardrail, but isn’t this the definition of a slippery slope? And of course, it goes without saying that Republicans would be howling at even a hint of a move like this from a Democratic president.
There’s a sense of ominousness about the whole thing, as we certainly took away from Lindsey Graham’s written statement yesterday.
“It is time for President Trump to use emergency powers to fund the construction of a border wall/barrier,” he wrote. “I hope it works.”
If Trump doesn’t declare an emergency, this may be the last day McConnell can sit on the sidelines
Until now, Mitch McConnell has been mostly absent from the shutdown debate. But if Trump declines to declare an emergency and the shutdown drags into next week, McConnell may finally be dragged off the sidelines. Yes, Trump has said he will oppose any legislation to open the government that doesn’t include wall funding, and McConnell is in no mood to be burned like he was when the Senate unanimously passed a short-term funding measure that the White House rejected last month. But nearly a month into the crisis, McConnell may finally have to do something to move the ball if the White House won’t.
And while McConnell may face the most acute pressure, Democrats aren’t off the hook here, either. They think they’re winning this fight now — and they may be — but it’s hard for anyone to look like a winner the longer this mess goes on.
Shutdown costs are mounting
Meanwhile, here’s the latest on the consequences of the shutdown today:
- At Day 21, we are now tied for the longest shutdown in modern political history. The previous 21-day shutdown stretched from December 16, 1995- to January 6, 1996.
- 800,000 federal workers are set to miss their first paycheck today, including about 420,000 who are working without pay
- Aviation industry workers are warning of “eroding” safety, including delays in aircraft inspections
- HUD funds have been frozen for low-income senior citizens, with staff scrambling to fund affordable housing contracts that have expired during the shutdown
- Federal cleanups at Superfund sites have been suspended.
- ICE could run out of money to pay contractors
- Some farmers in Trump Country are losing patience with the shutdown
Michael Cohen to testify publicly before House Oversight Committee
Back during the 2018 campaign, when we talked about the potential consequences of Democrats taking back the House, this is what we were talking about. Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen has agreed to testify publicly before the House Oversight Committee on February 7, before he goes to prison, per NBC’s Rebecca Shabad.
The public testimony — which will include questions about Trump’s personal life and business deals — is sure to be blockbuster TV (although limitations on questioning mean that Cohen likely won’t be able to address the Russia investigation.)
But there are risks for Democrats here, too. Cohen is far from the most credible witness, and it’s easy to imagine a situation where the whole spectacle goes off the rails. If it does, it could be an inauspicious start to Democrats’ new investigative role.
Fact checking Trump’s “write out a check” claim
At the White House yesterday, Trump said this of his wall promise: “When during the campaign, I would say Mexico’s going to pay for it. Obviously, I never said this, and I never meant they’re gonna write out a check, I said they’re gonna pay for it.”
But back when his campaign was being pressed for details on how Trump would compel Mexico to pay for a wall, the campaign released a memo to the Washington Post in March 2016 outlining how he’d threaten to cut off the flow of money from Mexican nationals working in the U.S. sending money back home. The document also suggested moves like cancelling visas and enacting new tariffs to pressure the Mexican government into paying.
“It’s an easy decision for Mexico,” the memo read. “Make a one-time payment of $5-10 billion to ensure that $24 billion continues to flow into their country year after year.”
And finally: Tarrant County GOP official survives recall vote over his Muslim faith
Here’s a story we’ve been watching out of Texas. “Shahid Shafi will retain his role as vice-chairman of the Tarrant County Republican Party despite a push from a small faction of precinct chairs to remove him from his post because he’s Muslim,” writes the Texas Tribune.
“The formal motion to oust him failed in a 49-139 vote, said county party spokesman Mike Snyder. Those who were in favor of Shafi’s removal said he’s unequipped to be vice-chairman because he doesn’t represent all Tarrant County Republicans due to his religion. They’ve also said Islamic ideologies run counter to the U.S. Constitution — an assertion many Texas GOP officials have called bigoted and Shafi himself has vehemently denied.”
Reps of 22 foreign governments have spent money at Trump properties
WASHINGTON — Representatives of at least 22 foreign governments appear to have spent money at Trump Organization properties, an NBC News review has found, hinting at a significant foreign cash flow to the American president that critics say violates the U.S. Constitution.
The extent and amount of foreign spending at Trump’s hotels, golf clubs and restaurants is not known, because the Trump Organization is a private company and declines to disclose that information. Trump promised to donate any profits from foreign governments, and the Trump Organization has sent $343,000 to the U.S. Treasury for 2017 and 2018. The company did not release underlying numbers to support that figure.
Amid two lawsuits accusing Trump of accepting illegal foreign payments, NBC News sought to compile the most comprehensive possible list of foreign spending at Trump properties based on information in the public record. In June 2018, a report by the watchdog group Public Citizen came up with 10 foreign governments that had spent money at Trump venues. More information has since become public.
A spokeswoman for the Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment by NBC News.
Donald Trump is the first president in modern history to retain ownership of a business empire while in office. He says the company is being run by his sons, but he continues to derive income from the various businesses, including his hotel in Washington, his federal financial disclosure forms show. But Trump has refused to release his tax returns, which would present a fuller picture of his business dealings.
Some experts have long argued that foreign payments to Trump’s companies are illegal under the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits a president from accepting gifts or “emoluments” from foreign states lest they influence policy. Two lawsuits — one by the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia, the other by Democratic members of Congress — allege that Trump is violating the Emoluments Clause. Trump argues that the ban on emoluments doesn’t cover regular business payments.
The clause has not previously been the subject of lawsuits, so there are no judicial rulings interpreting what the founders meant when the Constitution was written and ratified more than 230 years ago.
In the Federalist Papers No. 73, published in 1788, one of the Constitution’s authors, Alexander Hamilton, wrote that the emoluments ban would insure that foreign governments “can neither weaken (the president’s) fortitude by operating on his necessities, nor corrupt his integrity by appealing to his avarice.”
Trump-owned properties — including his D.C. hotel and his Mar-a-Lago golf club — have been the frequent recipients of foreign money.
According to news accounts and other public records:
- At least nine foreign governments were involved in hosting events at a Trump property: Afghanistan, Cyprus, Ireland, Japan, Philippines, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Turkey
- At least nine foreign governments rented or purchased property in buildings or communities owned by Trump businesses: Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, China, Malaysia, Slovakia, Thailand, India and the European Union.
- Representatives of at least five foreign governments — Georgia, Nigeria, Malaysia, Romania and Saudi Arabia — have stayed at a Trump property.
- Foreign governments have improved infrastructure in a way that benefited Trump properties in Indonesia and Panama.
- At least eight foreign governments or their representatives attended parties or gatherings at Trump properties: Brazil, Dominica, Georgia, Nigeria, Russia, Turkey, Malaysia and Qatar
An event at the Trump International Hotel in Washington last May exemplifies the risk of a conflict of interest, or the risk of an appearance of such a conflict.
A delegation from the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus hosted a “Justice for Cyprus” conference at the hotel. The group opposes Turkish influence in a breakaway region of Cyprus once occupied by the Turkish military.
The purpose of the gathering, as first reported by journalist Zach Everson, was described in a report in the Cyprus News Agency, which gets funding from the government. The group was examining “ways of exerting influence on US President Donald Trump with a view to avert the Islamization of the Turkish-occupied part of Cyprus,” the report said.
In February, the investigative reporting site ProPublica observed that Nigerian presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar and his entourage were staying at the Trump Hotel in Washington, despite Abubakar reportedly having been barred from the U.S. for his alleged involvement in corruption while he was Nigeria’s vice president.
And last week, The Washington Post reported that a wealthy Iraqi sheikh who was trying to influence the Trump administration spent 26 nights in a suite at the hotel at an estimated cost of tens of thousands of dollars.
In a court ruling last year denying Trump’s motion to dismiss an emoluments lawsuit, a federal judge in Washington, Peter Messitte, raised the seminal question: When “a President maintains a premier hotel property that generates millions of dollars a year in profits, how likely is it that he will not be swayed, whether consciously or subconsciously, in any and all of his dealings with foreign or domestic governments that might choose to spend large sums of money at that hotel property?”
Trump has appealed the ruling, arguing he should be immune from such claims. A panel of appeals court judges heard arguments in March.
As Biden and Trump battle in the trenches, Buttigieg attacks from higher ground
WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden prepared for the equivalent of high-profile trench warfare on the political battlefield of Iowa on Tuesday, a third 2020 candidate found the high-ground vantage point he needed to strike both of them at the same time.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who hopes to defeat Biden and almost two dozen other Democrats for his party’s nomination and then oust Trump from the Oval Office, delivered a wide-ranging foreign policy and national security speech with a simple point: the United States would be hopelessly stuck in the past with either the president or the former vice president at the helm.
He didn’t have to name his targets, neither of whom served in the military, to hit them.
“Faced with this moment of great challenge and possibility, it’s not enough just to say we won’t conduct foreign policy by tweet,” Buttigieg said at Indiana University in Bloomington. “Nor would it be honest to promise that we can restore an old order that cannot, in any case, meet the realities of a new moment. Democrats can no more turn the clock back to the 1990s than Republicans can return us to the 1950s.”
Biden, who began his service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1975, was the top Democrat on the panel for the latter part of the 1990s, later serving as its chairman.
What it amounted to Tuesday was a little bit more of a triptych than the split-screen imagery hoped for by Biden and Trump, another data point in a trend of Democratic candidates starting to paint the two front-runners in the similar — fading — hues of yesterday’s news.
Trump and Biden, who spent parts of the day exchanging insults, are treating each other as the main combatants in the fight for the presidency.
Trump has no real competition for re-nomination, and Biden, despite a couple of missteps and slippage in recent polls, remains the leader of the pack for the Democratic nod. He has steadfastly avoided criticizing his Democratic rivals, preferring to run a campaign focused on the idea that Trump is the only obstacle in his path to the presidency.
Early excerpts of remarks Biden planned to deliver Tuesday night in Davenport, Iowa, were a full-on assault on Trump’s presidency, his character and his competence.
“America’s farmers have been crushed by his tariff war with China,” Biden was expected to say. “No one knows that better than Iowa. He thinks he’s being tough. Well, it’s easy to be tough when someone else is feeling the pain. … How many sleepless nights do you think Trump has had over what he’s doing to America’s farmers?”
In addition to trade, Biden planned to go after Trump on climate change, income inequality, his response to the fatal clash between white nationalists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, and policy at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“This isn’t who we are,” Biden will say, according to the excerpts released by his campaign. “We hold these truths self-evident — that all men — and all women — are created equal. It’s the American creed. But Trump sneers at it. He thinks it makes us weak. He has no idea it’s what makes us strong.”
Before departing for Iowa, Trump called Biden a “loser” and said he didn’t think much of the former vice president’s brainpower, verve or chances of winning the Democratic nomination.
“I’d rather run against, I think, Biden than anybody,” Trump said. “I think he is the weakest mentally. I like running against people that are weak mentally. I think Joe is the weakest up here. The other ones have much more energy.”
He also said of Biden that “it looks like his friends from the left are going to overtake him pretty soon.”
With many Democratic voters viewing Biden as their best shot to tackle Trump, fellow Democrats have been somewhat reluctant to risk a backlash by taking shots at the former vice president. Despite a contentious 2008 Democratic primary leading to a party victory in that year’s general election, the experience of losing in 2016 after a rough primary fight has made many Democratic voters wary of negativity in their own ranks.
But in recent days, after a long honeymoon period for Biden in which his poll numbers soared following his April launch, his Democratic rivals are starting to become more comfortable making the case that his brand of politics — more centrist and less disruptive than much of the field — isn’t the right solution for the party or the country.
Enter Buttigieg on Tuesday.
His critique of modern foreign policy included a call to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force in Afghanistan that underpins the continued U.S. presence in that country and was used by President Barack Obama’s administration — the one in which Biden served as vice president — as well as a vow to pull funding from Israel if it expands into Palestinian areas.
“If Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu makes good on his promise to annex West Bank settlements, he should know that a President Buttigieg would take steps to ensure that American taxpayers won’t help foot the bill,” he said.
Trump has applauded Israeli settlements and recognized Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights region, while Biden, who much earlier in his career reportedly talked about cutting U.S. aid to Israel over expansion, did not repeat that threat when he condemned Israel’s announcement of new settlements while he was visiting the country in Obama’s first term.
Buttigieg is hardly alone in wanting to repeal the 2001 AUMF and replace it with something much more limited. All of the senators seeking the Democratic nomination voted in 2017 against killing an amendment by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would have repealed both that authorization and the one that covered the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and given lawmakers six months to draft a replacement.
But as often happens in the midst of a presidential campaign, the calendar, the moment in time and a candidate’s message conspired to create an opportunity.
In this case, it was the mayor of a small Midwestern town taking advantage of a slugfest between two titans with top-level foreign policy experience to try to make his vision for national security seem bigger — “to master change rather than be made small and fearful by it.”
Bernie Sanders has upped his game, but does it matter?
WASHINGTON — Both can be true: Bernie Sanders is running a better campaign than he did four years ago, and he’s in worse shape to win the Democratic nomination than in 2016.
The better campaign: Sanders has more aggressively worked on his shortcomings with African-American and Latino Democrats.
And today he delivers a speech on why democratic socialism is the only way to defeat to oligarchy and authoritarianism (more on that below).
But here’s how he’s in worse shape: He’s one of some 20-plus Democrats running instead of Hillary Clinton’s main competition.
He and Elizabeth Warren are competing on much of the same turf (see Data Download below).
The 2018 midterms proved that Democrats can win tough races without democratic socialism — look at Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona, or Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan or Abigail Spanberger in Virginia.
And maybe most important of all, the Democratic memories about 2016 – the fights with the DNC, the chaos at the Philly convention, the dispute over superdelegates — make it harder to win over a party that wants to move on from that last presidential campaign.
“Loser” vs. “Childishness”: Trump and Biden brawl in Iowa
Trump vs. Biden in Iowa yesterday pretty much played out as expected.
Before departing for the Hawkeye State, Trump called Biden a “loser” and someone who never won “more than 1 percent except Obama took him off the trash heap.”
More: “Now, I have to tell you, he’s a different guy. He looks different than he used to, he acts different than he used to, he’s even slower than he used to be.”
And when Trump got to Iowa: “Sleepy Joe. He was someplace in Iowa today, and he said my name so many times that people couldn’t stand it anymore.”
Meanwhile, here was Biden on Trump: “By the way, I was pleased to know that his alliance with Kim Jong Un where he and Kim Jong Un thought that maybe I shouldn’t be president.”
Also: “Whoa. You know, he doesn’t do any of the right things. Instead he gets up in the middle of the night while he is at Normandy and tweets an attack on Bette Midler? The mayor of London because he’s Muslim. The Speaker of the House who is there with him at Normandy. Stunning display of childishness and the whole world watched.”
Buttigieg makes his case
As Trump and Biden traded verbal punches yesterday, Pete Buttigieg took on both men — directly regarding Trump, indirectly regarding Biden — in his foreign policy speech at Indiana University.
“Faced with this moment of great challenge and possibility, it’s not enough just to say we won’t conduct foreign policy by tweet,” Buttigieg said, per NBC’s Jonathan Allen.
“Nor would it be honest to promise that we can restore an old order that cannot, in any case, meet the realities of a new moment. Democrats can no more turn the clock back to the 1990s than Republicans can return us to the 1950s.”
As Allen reminds us, Biden served as ranking member and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 1990s and early 2000s.
2020 Vision: FDR = democratic socialist?
At 2:00 pm ET, Bernie Sanders will give a speech from DC on democratic socialism – and how it’s the only way to defeat oligarchy and authoritarianism.
Sanders ties Franklin Roosevelt to democratic socialism, according to excerpts of his prepared remarks.
“It is the path that I call democratic socialism. Over eighty years ago Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped create a government that made huge progress in protecting the needs of working families,” Sanders is expected to say, per NBC’s Shaquille Brewster.
“Today in the second decade of the 21st century we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion. This is the unfinished business of the Democratic Party and the vision we must accomplish.”
Historians, however, point out that FDR was a capitalist, though he believed capitalism needed to be saved after the Great Depression.
FDR also was criticized from the left — hello, Huey Long — for the New Deal not going far enough.
And as the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin reminds us, Roosevelt had a socialist opponent in 1932 and 1936: Norman Thomas.
On the campaign trail today
Joe Biden remains in Iowa, traveling to Eldridge and Clinton before hitting a fundraiser in Chicago… Bernie Sanders delivers his address on democratic socialism in DC… Jay Inslee stumps in New Hampshire… Beto O’Rourke appears on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert… And Eric Swalwell discusses gun violence in Las Vegas.
Data Download: The number of the day is … 29 percent
That’s the share of support that both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are pulling from Democratic primary voters who describe themselves as “very liberal” in the latest Quinnipiac University poll.
That’s compared with 16 percent of very liberal Democrats who say they support Joe Biden and 12 percent who support Pete Buttigieg.
It’s been apparent that Warren and Sanders are battling over voters in the same progressive lane, but the fact that they’ve got exactly the same share of support in the progressive wing of the party hammers home that neither has a lock on them yet.
Sanders does lead Warren and the rest of the Democratic pack among voters under 50, pulling about 32 percent support, compared with 18 percent for Biden and 16 percent for Warren.
Tweet of the day
The Lid: The times … they are a-changin’
Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we took a look at new polling that shows how Americans’ views of gender and transgender rights are evolving (fast.)
ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss
Trump may be having second thoughts about his proposed choice of Patrick Shanahan as the next Defense Secretary.
Representatives of 22 different foreign governments have spent money at Trump properties, according to a new NBC News review.
What’s going on with the protests in Hong Kong?
Donald Trump Jr. will be interviewed behind closed doors by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
And Jon Stewart is in the news for his criticism of no-show lawmakers at a 9/11 victims fund hearing.
Trump agenda: What’s going on?
Trump has been boasting about a new deal with Mexico. The New York Times lays out what we know and don’t know about what’s going on.
AG William Barr says he’ll tell the president to assert executive privilege for documents in the Census fight if the House holds him in contempt.
POLITICO profiles new White House counsel Pat Cipollone.
The Washington Post asks: What does Trump really think about what he calls “the I-word.”
2020: Beto’s new plan
Beto O’Rourke is proposing a new plan to protect LGBTQ rights.
Kamala Harris says her DOJ would have “no choice” but to pursue obstruction charges against Trump.
Pete Buttigieg says he’s work for repeal of the post-9/11 war powers resolution.
Democratic candidates are joining striking fast-food workers this week.
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