The Hill's Morning Report — Trump maintains his innocence amid mounting controversies

Welcome to The Hill’s Morning Report and TGIF! Our newsletter gets you up to speed on the most important developments in politics and policy, plus trends to watch, co-created by Jonathan Easley and Alexis Simendinger. (CLICK HERE to subscribe!) On Twitter, find us at @joneasley and @asimendinger

Hill.TV’s “Rising” program, starting at 8 a.m., features retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. operations in Afghanistan, and Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellTrump reignites criticism of McCain months after senator's death Swalwell jokes about 'bad decisions' after bleached-hair yearbook photo resurfaces Dem lawmakers unveil Journalist Protection Act amid Trump attacks on media MORE (D-Calif.), who says he believes Trump can be indicted as a sitting president. http://thehill.com/hilltv 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpDem lawmaker says Electoral College was 'conceived' as way to perpetuate slavery Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals to visit White House on Monday Transportation Dept requests formal audit of Boeing 737 Max certification MORE is taking charge of his own legal defense as threats mount and former allies cooperate in secrecy with federal prosecutors. 

Over Twitter and in interviews on Fox News, the president is laying the groundwork for a defense he might one day make to prosecutors investigating his campaign.

On Thursday, the president made the case that election year payments made by his former attorney Michael Cohen to bury stories about alleged affairs do not constitute campaign finance violations.

 

  

 

 

 

 

“I never directed [Cohen] to do anything wrong…Whatever he did, he did on his own. …What he did was all unrelated to me except for the two campaign finance charges that are not criminal and shouldn't have been on there. They put that on to embarrass me." — Trump 

Read Trump’s full Fox News interview HERE.

While special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s probe has received the bulk of the attention for the past year, prosecutors at the Southern District of New York, where the Trump Organization is based, have become increasingly aggressive in investigating the president’s campaign. 

Late Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the federal prosecutors in Manhattan launched an investigation into whether Trump’s inaugural committee misspent some of the record $107 million in donations it raised, including allegations the committee traded access for money. The New York Times is reporting that investigators are also scrutinizing foreign donations to a pro-Trump super PAC.

“That doesn’t have anything to do with the president or first lady.” — White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders

The news comes a day after Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison for a range of financial crimes and one felony campaign finance violation. Some of those crimes were discovered by Mueller but passed off to the Southern District of New York for prosecution.

Cohen will be making the rounds for media interviews before he reports to prison in March. This morning he’ll be interviewed by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “Good Morning America.

 

Cohen has admitted to making an election year payment to adult-film star Stormy Daniels to stay quiet about an affair she says she had with the president years ago. He also has admitted to paying the company that owns the National Enquirer for the rights to a story from Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model who also claims to have had an affair with Trump.

Cohen says Trump ordered him to make the payments, which prosecutors have argued were an effort to influence the 2016 election and therefore amount to campaign finance violations.

The president has denied the affairs and initially denied knowing about the payments.

Now, he’s publicly making the case that the payments were not illegal because they were private transactions meant to shield him from embarrassing allegations, not to influence the election. And he’s putting the blame for the payments squarely on Cohen, even as Cohen has testified that Trump directed him to write the checks.

There are two other wild cards here. Trump’s friend David Pecker, the chairman of American Media Inc., which owns the National Enquirer, has an immunity deal with prosecutors investigating the McDougal payment. The payments came from the Trump Organization, and Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg is also cooperating with prosecutors under the protection of an immunity deal.

Multiple media outlets are reporting that Trump was in the room when Cohen and Pecker negotiated the McDougal payment.

The debate raging in Washington is whether the Manhattan prosecutors would be able to convince a jury that the payments are tantamount to campaign finance violations and whether a sitting president can be indicted. 

“I think the Justice Department needs to re-examine that OLC opinion, Office of Legal Counsel opinion, that you cannot indict a sitting president under circumstances in which the failure to do so may mean that person escapes justice. If it were the case that it was now or never ... that if you wait until after the president leaves office they can no longer be brought to justice, that ought to create certainly an exception to that OLC rule.” — Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDems request probe into spa owner suspected of trying to sell access to Trump Dems fear Trump is looking at presidential pardons The Hill's Morning Report — Trump readies first veto after latest clash with Senate GOP MORE (D-Calif.), likely the next chairman of the House Intelligence Committee

Schiff just days ago said Trump faces the “real prospect of jail time” after he leaves office (CBS News).

The OLC memo is HERE.

 

Perspectives and Analysis 

The Hill: Intel panel expects to refer more cases of suspected lying to Mueller.

The Washington Post: Mueller’s treatment of cooperating witnesses suggests end of Russia probe may be near.

Andrew Napolitano: Payments may doom Trump’s presidency.

Hans A. von Spakovsky: Neither Trump nor Cohen violated campaign finance laws.

Renato Mariotti: Did Trump just move a step closer to unindicted co-conspirator?

James Freeman: News outlets had a different view of campaign finance law when the law was applied to others.

 

LEADING THE DAY

SHUTDOWN: We’re eight days away from a partial government shutdown and lawmakers are no closer to a spending agreement. 

The Hill: Trump leaves GOP in turmoil with shutdown looming.

Trump is demanding any spending package include $5 billion for a border wall. Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerGOP rep to introduce constitutional amendment to limit Supreme Court seats to 9 Why we need to build gateway now Campaign to draft Democratic challenger to McConnell starts raising funds MORE (D-N.Y.) says Democrats won’t budge from their offer of $1.3 billion (The Hill).

In a Thursday tweet, Trump called Democrats “absolute hypocrites” for supporting border fencing in the past.

“Let’s not do a shutdown, Democrats - do what’s right for the American people!” — Trump

Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyFive takeaways from Trump's budget Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Trump unveils 2020 budget | Calls for cuts to NIH | Proposes user fees on e-cigs | Azar heads to Capitol to defend blueprint | Key drug price bill gets hearing this week Trump's emergency declaration looms over Pentagon funding fight MORE (R-Ala.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, has floated several possibilities aimed at bridging the impasse (The Hill).

But if an agreement is reached, it will come just days or hours before the shutdown.

House lawmakers have already gone home for the weekend. The next votes aren’t scheduled until Wednesday, although members have been told to be on call in case that changes.

Senate GOP Whip John CornynJohn CornynGOP rep to introduce constitutional amendment to limit Supreme Court seats to 9 Court-packing becomes new litmus test on left Cornyn shrugs off Trump criticism of 'SNL' MORE (R-Texas) summed up the state of play in an interview with The Hill.

 

 

House Republicans don’t have the votes to pass a spending bill with $5 billion for Trump’s wall. If they had the votes, they would have passed a bill this week. 

Advantage: Democrats, at least for now.

Remember: In the last shutdown battle earlier this year, Senate Democrats blocked a House-passed funding bill. That’s a big part of the reason they got the blame and subsequently backed down.

Bloomberg News has a rundown of what will happen if the relevant federal agencies shut down at midnight on Dec. 21.

About 400,000 employees would work without pay and another 350,000 would be furloughed. The Department of Homeland Security would be among the agencies impacted, meaning pay would be delayed for border agents and Secret Service agents protecting Trump, who is expected to be vacationing at Mar-a-Lago.

IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES

CONGRESS: Lawmakers’ challenges to Trump continued Thursday beyond investigations and a potential shutdown. Senators voted to end U.S. support for the Saudi-backed war in Yemen, despite energetic lobbying in the Capitol against the measure by the secretary of state and defense secretary (The Hill).

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoState Department blocks reporters from Pompeo briefing with faith-based media: report The Hill's Morning Report - Dems contemplate big election and court reforms Pompeo jokes he'll be secretary of State until Trump 'tweets me out of office' MORE and Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisMattis returning to Stanford months after Pentagon resignation US-backed fighters capture ISIS militants suspected of killing American troops Nielsen warns US 'not prepared' for foreign cyberattacks MORE also tried without success to persuade senators to oppose a measure that names Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “responsible” for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (The Hill).

 

 

The Senate approved the joint resolution by voice vote after it attracted the initial support of retiring retiring Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump keeps tight grip on GOP Brexit and exit: A transatlantic comparison Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger MORE (R-Tenn.), Kentucky’s Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP rep to introduce constitutional amendment to limit Supreme Court seats to 9 The Hill's Morning Report - Dems contemplate big election and court reforms Court-packing becomes new litmus test on left MORE, the majority leader, and other Republicans (Bloomberg). 

Reuters: The Senate twice defied the president on Thursday.

 

 

McConnell this week reluctantly sided with White House wishes to bring a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill to the floor. Senators are bracing for a fight as the majority leader tries to squeeze the measure into the year-end agenda. 

Despite Trump’s endorsement of the bill, Senate conservatives are working to defeat it and are drafting amendments that could force their colleagues through a series of tough votes (The Hill).

In the House, lawmakers sent a bill to Trump’s desk that overhauls Congress’s sexual harassment policies (The Hill).

The term limit proposals presented this week by Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiHistory teaches that Nancy Pelosi is right about impeachment The politics and practicalities of impeachment The Hill's Morning Report - Dems contemplate big election and court reforms MORE, the California Democrat who is expected to be Speaker in January, expose a generational divide in her caucus (The Hill).

Pelosi anticipates fierce resistance from the White House and Trump’s lawyers if (or when) Democratic overseers demand the president’s tax returns, backed by subpoena power (The Hill).

House – guns: What to watch next year as Democrats take up bills to address gun violence and try to detour around roadblocks in the GOP-controlled Senate (The Hill).

***

WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF WATCH: The president is expected to meet with his former campaign deputy David Bossie and Bossie’s co-author Corey LewandowskiCorey R. LewandowskiCNN's Chris Cuomo knocks 'state TV' Fox News T-Mobile says it increased Trump hotel spending after Sprint merger announcement The 81 names targeted in Democrats' expansive Trump probe MORE, a former Trump campaign manager, for lunch at the White House (The Washington Post). The get-together was planned before the president announced that John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, his chief of staff, will leave the job by Jan. 2. Bossie’s name has appeared on lists of potential picks. Trump said on Thursday he’s interviewed a handful of candidates.

Trump met with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie Thursday evening and considers him a candidate for the chief’s job (Axios). Christie, once a competitor with Trump for the GOP presidential nomination, was also in charge of an early version of Trump’s transition planning in 2016 before being removed from that role. Christie later called the transition “brutally unprofessional” (The Guardian and author Michael Lewis in “The Fifth Risk”).

Some Trump advisers are promoting son-in-law Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerA question of privilege: How Trump could still gut the Mueller report Ex-White House ethics chief compares Ivanka, Kushner security clearances to college admissions scandal Nadler: Half of Trump probe targets likely to comply with document requests MORE, a senior adviser to the president, to lead the West Wing staff (Reuters), but that choice is seen as unlikely.

The Associated Press: Trump’s search for new chief of staff has reality TV feel.

And in the Christmas spirit, the president welcomed former White House chief of staff Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusMulvaney poised to become permanent White House chief of staff: report DNC decision to shut out Fox News hurts Democratic candidates and Americans The five Trump communications directors who have come and gone MORE to a Thursday evening party at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Priebus and Kelly made merry on the state floor.

 

 

 

OPINION

Assad’s regime killed an American — and no one seems to care, by Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post. Layla Shweikani, a U.S. citizen with Syrian roots, was tortured and executed.

‘His dirty deeds’: Michael Cohen said Trump led him into darkness. The courts brought him into the light, by The New York Times editorial board.

The Morning Report is created by journalists Jonathan Easley jeasley@thehill.com & Alexis Simendinger asimendinger@thehill.com. Suggestions? Tips? We want to hear from you! Share The Hill’s reporting and newsletters, and encourage others to SUBSCRIBE!

WHERE AND WHEN

The Senate adjourned until 3 p.m. Monday, when senators are to resume consideration of the House version of the criminal justice reform bill.

The House is out until Dec. 19, when voting will begin at 6:30 p.m.

The president and first lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump steps up attacks on McCain White House announces spring garden tour dates Trump heard sermon on calling out hate speech at St. Patrick's day church service MORE will host two evening Christmas receptions at the White House. 

Treasury Department Assistant Secretary David Kautter speaks at noon during a luncheon hosted by the Institute on Current Issues in International Taxation. Location: J.W. Marriott Hotel, Washington.

Secretaries Pompeo and Mattis meet with the U.S.-Canada 2+2 ministerial participants at the Department of State at 11 a.m. Pompeo holds a joint press conference at 1:10 p.m. with Mattis, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland and Canadian Minister of Defense Harjit Sajjan. Pompeo delivers remarks and administers the oath of office at 2 p.m. to the 150th Foreign Service specialist class. He meets with Slovenian Foreign Minister Miro Cerar at the department at 3 p.m.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivers remarks at 10 a.m. at the National Archives naturalization ceremony marking Bill of Rights Day.

 

ELSEWHERE

> Airlines: Racist, homophobic and ageist abuse by passengers as well as sexual harassers and “inappropriate touching” are an increasing problem for commercial airlines (Bloomberg).

> Human trafficking: Lost girls of Indonesia are among 61,000 dead and missing migrants in Asia and around the globe (The Associated Press). A recent AP investigation documented more than 60,000 dead or missing migrants worldwide.

> The arts: Actress Sondra Locke, 74, and singer Nancy Wilson, 81, are among entertainers who died this year. Locke, an Academy Award-nominated actor and director, was best known for her co-starring roles with Clint Eastwood. Her death in November was first reported on Thursday (The Associated Press). Wilson was an iconic, Grammy-winning song stylist and torch singer who retired from touring seven years ago (The Associated Press).

THE CLOSER

And finally … Kudos to the winners of this week’s Morning Report Quiz — about White House chiefs of staff. No shortage of readers are savvy about West Wing senior presidential advisers through the decades. Our salutes this morning go to Rob Couhig, Chris Weston, John van Santen, David Straney, William Chittam, Dennis Cherry, Sandy Sycafoose, Joel Brill, Steven Nemerovski, B.J. Ford, Milt Mungo, Rosemarie Soriano, Larry Charles, Chloe Coniaris and Noel St. Pre.

They knew that the youngest White House chief of staff to date was Dick Cheney, who served former President Gerald R. Ford and earned high praise in that challenging role at age 34.

Former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWhatever happened to nuclear abolition? On The Money: Trump presses GM, union to start talks over closed plant | Trump renews call to cut arts, PBS funding | Alan Krueger, former Obama economic adviser, dies at 58 | Americans expected to bet .5B on March Madness Obama reminisces about visit to Ireland on St. Patrick's Day: 'It'll always be O'Bama' MORE relied on five chiefs of staff during his two terms, topping presidential tallies.

James A. Baker III was former President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff at the time of an assassination attempt in 1981, when the president and three others were shot and wounded.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, in Sarasota, Fla., former President George W. Bush was reading to elementary school students when Andrew Card, his chief of staff, leaned in to whisper, “America is under attack.”