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By Dartunorro Clark

DES MOINES, Iowa — Cory Booker’s voice is shot. Standing on stage before hundreds of potential voters in the state that boasts the pivotal first-in-the-nation caucus, Booker, in a raspy voice that normally booms, is adamant his message of love, hope and unity can win him the Democratic nomination and, ultimately, the presidency.

“They’re going to say, ‘Oh my gosh, more candidates talking about love and hope; oh my God, how are you going to beat Donald Trump with that?’” the New Jersey senator, 49, told the packed venue at his last event in the state following a two-day blitz through five other cities in below-freezing temperatures.

“I want to see that man out of the White House, but I was called to dream bigger than that. … This is a test to see how much we can unite America,” he said.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, speaks at a campaign stop at the Des Moines Social Club in Iowa on Feb. 9, 2019.Scott Olson / Getty Images

It could be a risky message given that a recent Monmouth University poll found Democratic voters prioritizing “electability” over values in 2020. But dozens of potential voters and community leaders who spoke to NBC News as Booker zipped through Mason City, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Marshalltown and Des Moines said they were compelled by his story of turning around a beleaguered urban city as mayor of Newark, his work as a senator and his message of bringing the country together.

Rita Robinson, 63, a member of the Cedar Rapids chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, saw Booker speak for the first time at his stop at the city’s African American museum and made up her mind.

“He is my candidate. He talked to all of us in the room,” she said, noting the crowd was largely white with a few black residents in attendance. “I think they look at Cory and remember when Obama was president — they backed him because they believed in the message.”

Robinson added, “He’s got the vocabulary, the know-how and knows how to throw in a little bit of the hood. … He’s like, ‘I’m different, but I’m not different from you, and I know how to get things done.’”

‘I had to run something’

A question that dogged Booker in his pitch to voters in Iowa is what makes him different from the other Democratic candidates. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Kamala Harris of California have already visited the state, and so far there is not much the contenders disagree on when it comes to hot-button issues like health care, education and climate change.

But at a campaign event in Mason City, Iowa, Booker pushed back on Harris’ idea of doing away with private health insurance to achieve single-payer health care, or Medicare-for-all. He also frequently touted his role in shepherding Trump’s criminal justice reform bill through the Senate last year, even noting how he won over the support of Iowa’s Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley.

Former mayors are rarely candidates for the White House, according to a 2018 study in the journal American Politics Research. But Booker plugged his work in Newark as a microcosm of what he can do at the national level. He claimed to have turned around its schools and improved its local economy.

“I’m friends with these folks,” he said of his Democratic rivals in remarks at a packed brewery in Marshalltown. “I’ve written legislation with these folks. But I want to tell you some things unique about me so you just know: I had to run something. And it wasn’t just something — it was a very challenged city. I had to manage it through the worst economic crisis of our lifetime. I had to stand in the saddle and make difficult, difficult decisions.”

Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, speaks to guests at a campaign event at the First Congressional United Church of Christ in Mason City, Iowa, on Feb. 8, 2019.Scott Olson / Getty Images

Booker, who is vying to be the nation’s second black president, also made overt references to race in his first visit here as a 2020 candidate. African Americans make up a crucial voting bloc of the Democratic party and represent 3.8 percent of Iowa’s total population. Booker’s message of unity was often centered on improving race relations in the country, focusing on issues such as income inequality, voter suppression and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

He also discussed at length his family’s struggle to integrate a white New Jersey suburb in the 1960s, saying real estate agents would not sell them homes until white volunteer lawyers worked together with black housing activists to confront the issue.

“We have to be able to talk about race in America,” Booker told a largely white crowd at the brewery in Marshalltown. “You can’t have reconciliation without truth-telling.”

He added, “Right here in Iowa, people meeting in barns, white folk and black folk, built the greatest infrastructure project this country has ever seen: The Underground Railroad,” referring to the network of white and black Americans who aided slaves through a network of safe houses to free states.

“I think he’s got it, he’s like magic,” said 72-year-old Ruth Cody Brewer, who lives in Forest City and works on the Wing Ding committee, a grassroots fundraising effort for the state Democratic Party, after a campaign event in Mason City. “He energized me today.”

Other voters, however, were not completely sold but noted that Booker stood out among the declared candidates.

“I think it’s time for a reformation. Is he a great reformer like the Kennedys or the Roosevelts? I don’t know,” said Mark Suby, a Mason City resident and retired city parks superintendent. “But he’s certainly on my list.”

‘I’m confident in my toughness’

For Booker, another important issue is trying to win over Trump voters, saying “they feel lost, they feel forgotten, they feel even attacked.”

“I believe strongly they voted wrong, but if we don’t speak to their pain, if we don’t talk with our ideas and our heart and our empathy and our policies that will deal with these issues, we’ll never get those voters back,” he said.

He also spoke at events about his friendships with Republican lawmakers, such as former Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both of Arizona, and reaching across the aisle in the Senate to get legislation passed.

“I’m running not just to beat Republicans, I’m running to unite Americans,” Booker said at an event in Mason City.

He added, “At this time in our country, we don’t need to fight fire with fire.”

Chris Peterson, a 64-year-old farmer who was an Iowa delegate for Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, said Booker is going to “take the torch and have courage,” but “unity is only going to go so far.”

“Don’t compromise the issues away to get Republican support,” he said. “Democrats have caved over the years.”

But Booker, a former college football player, told voters he can take whatever is thrown at him, especially if he’s up against Trump, a self-professed counterpuncher.

“There is nobody in this race tougher than me … ” Booker said. “But we have got to stop in this country thinking that to be tough you have to be mean, to be strong you have to be cruel. That is a lie. The most powerful force in this universe is defiant love. And I will stick by that.”

“If we try to fight Donald Trump on his turf, not only will both of us get muddied, but the country suffers as a result. And so I’m confident in my strength. I’m confident in my toughness.”

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Trump goes to war for power over Congress



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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is trying to show Congress that he’s boss.

The release last week of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible obstruction of justice by Trump has unleashed the president’s fury — as evidenced by a steady stream of angry tweets and threats of retribution against adversaries real and perceived — and his willingness to thumb his front tooth at Congress.

The result is an escalating assertion of the presidency as the dominant branch of government in a war over the balance of power. The battle has implications for the rest of Trump’s first term, his re-election bid and the institutional authorities at the heart of American democracy.

There’s even some thought that Trump is now baiting the House to impeach him.

“I think it’s entirely possible he’s pursuing a briar-patch strategy, like bring your impeachment because you will be punished for it — not by me, but by the voters,” said Michael Caputo, a GOP strategist and former Trump adviser.

Increasingly, constitutional experts say Trump is providing evidence to conclude that there are grounds outside Mueller’s findings that he has crossed the Constitution’s loosely defined “high crimes and misdemeanors” threshold for impeachment.

Most recently, for example, Trump has instructed subordinates to deny Congress access to witnesses and documents that House leaders have demanded for their investigations. The Washington Post reported that the White House plans to block a subpoena for former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify by exercising executive privilege, though Trump told the paper in an interview that he had not “made a final, final decision” to do so.

But some longtime analysts of the Washington power balance say Trump’s latest moves are the most contemptuous in a full-scale effort to stretch the bounds of his office.

“Trump is not inventing executive intransigence out of whole cloth,” said Heidi Kitrosser, author of “Reclaiming Accountability: Transparency, Executive Power, and the U.S. Constitution” and a professor at the University of Minnesota law school. “At the same time, this is not same-old, same-old. He is taking longstanding pathologies in terms of an increasingly imperial executive branch and ratcheting it up many times over.”

In recent months, Trump has declared a national emergency so he could re-appropriate money to build a border wall — a move congressional Democrats and several state attorneys general say is an unconstitutional encroachment on Congress’ spending authority — and his administration has routinely denied lawmakers’ requests for basic information from federal agencies.

It’s not just Congress that has found Trump’s regard for the rule of law wanting; the courts have also weighed in.

In a review of more than five dozen instances in which courts blocked actions by the Trump administration, The Washington Post found a common thread: judges ruling that officials had implemented policies without following the rules.

In his report to Attorney General William Barr, Mueller identified 10 instances in which Trump’s behavior could be viewed as obstruction of justice. While Mueller declined to conclude the president had, in fact, obstructed justice — he said that Justice Department policy precluded him from recommending a prosecution of the president whether or not he believed it was warranted — he also said his report did not exonerate Trump.

Trump’s angry reaction to the release of the redacted Mueller report, his ongoing commentary about witnesses and his demand that the White House fight congressional efforts to interview Mueller’s witnesses has been taken by some critics as fresh evidence that he continues to obstruct justice.

Increasingly, constitutional experts say that Trump’s actions, both within the context of the just-released special counsel report and outside it, represent abuses of office so serious they could rise to the constitutional impeachment standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

“The report’s details add to an existing body of information already in the public domain documenting the president’s violations of his oath, including but not limited to his denigration of the free press, verbal attacks on members of the judiciary, encouragement of law enforcement officers to violate the law, and incessant lying to the American people,” several members of the group Checks and Balances, co-founded by conservative lawyer George Conway, wrote in a statement released Tuesday. “We believe the framers of the Constitution would have viewed the totality of this conduct as evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors.”

In any event, Trump is demonstrating a resistance to the constraints on his office — and a disrespect for the powers of the other “co-equal” branches of his government — that is both familiar in nature and unfamiliar in degree to those who have watched authority ceded to the presidency in recent decades.

“I think this is an extension of a trend that has been occurring over the past several presidencies,” said Mack McLarty, who served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. “President Trump has pushed the limit and that may be putting it diplomatically.”

Kitrosser, the University of Minnesota law school professor, said the response to Trump will be important for the future of the balance of power.

“The big question is, will the Trump administration be a turning point that leads us to address some of these longstanding pathologies, particularly executive imperialism and Congress’ abdication, or whether it is going to lead us to accept ever greater imbalance of power?” she said. “I think we’re at a real turning point and it can go one way or the other.”

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Michael Cohen tries to walk back parts of guilty plea in recorded phone call, report says



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By Tom Winter and Dareh Gregorian

Michel Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, said he was taking full responsibility for all of his actions when he testified before Congress, but he reportedly claimed he was innocent of some of the charges he pleaded guilty to in a private phone conversation with comedian Tom Arnold.

“There is no tax evasion,” Cohen told the “True Lies” actor in a March 25 phone call, according to The Wall Street Journal reported. The paper said Arnold taped the conversation and gave the paper the recording, in which Cohen also denied the bank fraud charges he pleaded guilty to. “It’s a lie,” he said.

Cohen told Arnold he copped a plea with federal prosecutors because “they had me on campaign finance” for covering up hush money payments for two women who claimed they had affairs with his former boss, Donald Trump. Trump has denied he had affairs with the women, former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal and porn star Stormy Daniels.

Cohen — who is supposed to begin serving a three-year prison sentence for his crimes next month — told Arnold in the recording that he’d gotten a raw deal, The Wall Street Journal reported.

“I’m a man all alone, right, and I shouldn’t be alone anymore,” he said in the recording, according to the paper, noting that he cooperated with prosecutors and Congress.

“You would think that you would have folks, you know, stepping up and saying, ‘You know what, this guy’s lost everything. I mean everything.’ My family’s happiness, my law license. I lost my business, everything, my insurance, my bank accounts, all for what? All for what? Because Trump, you know, had an affair with a porn star? That’s really what this is about,” he groused, according to the paper.

Cohen also reportedly told Arnold he took the deal because he was worried his wife could face legal exposure if he didn’t.

Tom Arnold on Megyn Kelly Today on Sept. 25, 2018.Nathan Congleton / NBC

“I love this woman. I am not going to let her get dragged into the mud of this crap. And I never thought the judge was going to throw a three year fricking sentence,” he said, according to the paper.

The judge who sentenced Cohen did cut him slack for his cooperation — federal sentencing guidelines had called for him to get between 4 years and 3 months to 5 years and 3 months.

In their sentencing memorandum, prosecutors said Cohen was pleading guilty because he was guilty.

They noted that Cohen did not inform his accountant of $2.4 million in interests payments made to accounts in his or his wife’s name from 2012-2016 from a loan he made to a taxi operator. Prosecutors say Cohen never provided statements for that and other income to his tax preparer in what they described as an intentional effort to avoid paying income tax.

The bank fraud charge stemmed from a home loan where Cohen had told the bank he had a negative net worth, and then updated his financial statement to say he had a net worth of $17 million after investigators executed search warrants at his home and office.

Cohen lawyer Lanny Davis said Cohen’s statements were in line with what his client had said previously, and touted that the Mueller report had found Cohen to be a “credible” witness.

“Nothing said by Mr. Cohen to Tom Arnold contradicts Mr. Cohen’s previous defense attorney, Guy Petrillo, in his sentencing memorandum to the presiding federal US District Court Judge William H. Pauley III back in December. I would also add the important words used by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and others, in describing Michael Cohen’s cooperation and testimony as “credible” addressing the ‘core’ issues involved in his investigation,” Davis said.

Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani tweeted that the story was a continuation of Cohen’s “many deceptions.”

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Trump campaign won’t commit to staying away from hacked material



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Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.

By Monica Alba

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign is refusing to publicly state that it will not use hacked materials to its advantage — in glaring contrast with the Democratic National Committee and a long list of the party’s 2020 candidates who have pledged not to do so.

The investigation into Russian election meddling by special counsel Robert Mueller found that the Russian government not only interfered in the 2016 race in “sweeping and systematic fashion,” but it also made helping Trump win a priority.

Mueller’s report, made public last week, said that while investigators had found no criminal conspiracy between the campaign and the Russians, the Trump team expected to “benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”

In February, the field of Democratic presidential hopefuls all declared they would not take advantage of illegally obtained information. Most of those campaigns (including Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey; Bernie Sanders of Vermont; Kamala Harris of California; Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro) have confirmed to NBC News that their positions remain unchanged.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke — who hadn’t formally announced in February — have also committed to not using stolen or hacked information.

In February, the Trump campaign chose not to state their position on using such information and, on Wednesday, neither the campaign nor the Republican National Committee responded to repeated requests for comment.

This week, DNC Chairman Tom Perez asked his counterpart at the RNC, Ronna McDaniel, to commit to the same cybersecurity platform heading into 2020.

“As the leaders of our country’s two largest political parties, we have a responsibility to protect the integrity of our democratic process,” he wrote. “That’s why I urge you to join me in condemning the weaponization of stolen private data in our electoral process.”

The White House did not immediately respond to questions about future use of such material, but when asked about denouncing future Russian interference, spokesman Hogan Gidley pointed to the president’s past statements. Trump has not pledged to stay away from using any kind of hacked or stolen data in the coming cycle.

Notably, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani recently maintained that there was “nothing wrong with taking information from Russians.”

Vice President Mike Pence did not directly respond to a question from NBC News Wednesday about whether he regretted the campaign’s use of hacked emails in 2016 and whether he would pledge not to do so again, repeating the administration’s position that the Mueller report found no collusion between the campaign and Russia.

Earlier this week, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner largely dismissed Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election as “buying some Facebook ads to try to sow dissent.”

“Quite frankly, the whole thing’s just a big distraction for the country,” the president’s son-in-law argued. “It’s a terrible thing but I think the investigations and all the speculation that happened for the past two years has had a much harsher impact on democracy than a couple Facebook ads.”

Trump and his 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, quickly offered their praise for and agreement with Kushner’s position on Twitter.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is set to join the race on Thursday, has already pledged not to use hacked material. He is the co-chair of the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, created to combat election interference domestically and overseas.

In February, at the Munich Security Conference, Biden implored other candidates to vow not to “aid and abet” foreign governments seeking to meddle.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has started her own “Cybersecurity Pledge” and pressed her fellow White House hopefuls to join.

“I pledge not to accept stolen or hacked materials from foreign actors, and I urge all other presidential candidates to do the same,” she wrote online. “Join me in calling on the rest of the 2020 field to help defend our elections from foreign interference.”

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