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

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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 SwalwellHouse Intelligence enjoys breakthrough with Justice Department Hillicon Valley: Assange hit with 17 more charges | Facebook removes record 2.2B fake profiles | Senate passes anti-robocall bill | Senators offer bill to help companies remove Huawei equipment On The Money: Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump | Trump to offer B aid package for farmers | House votes to boost retirement savings | Study says new tariffs to double costs for consumers MORE (D-Calif.), who says he believes Trump can be indicted as a sitting president. http://thehill.com/hilltv 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpPapadopoulos on AG's new powers: 'Trump is now on the offense' Pelosi uses Trump to her advantage Mike Pence delivers West Point commencement address 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 (Bob) Swan MuellerThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump orders more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions Trump: Democrats just want Mueller to testify for a 'do-over' Graham: Mueller investigation a 'political rectal exam' 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 SchiffFive takeaways from Barr's new powers in 'spying' probe Trump declassification move unnerves Democrats Trump appeals order siding with House Democrats bank subpoenas 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 SchumerNo agreement on budget caps in sight ahead of Memorial Day recess Ex-White House photographer roasts Trump: 'This is what a cover up looked like' under Obama Pelosi: Trump 'is engaged in a cover-up' 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 ShelbyOn The Money: Conservative blocks disaster relief bill | Trade high on agenda as Trump heads to Japan | Boeing reportedly faces SEC probe over 737 Max | Study finds CEO pay rising twice as fast as worker pay Conservative blocks House passage of disaster relief bill The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan 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 CornynTrump goes scorched earth against impeachment talk The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Bipartisan House bill calls for strategy to protect 5G networks from foreign threats 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 PompeoVenezuelan government, opposition to meet in Norway for talks O'Rourke: Trump 'provoking' war with Iran by sending troops to Middle East Trump aide: North Korean missile tests violated UN resolutions MORE and Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump defense pick expected to face tense confirmation Trump's nastiest break-ups: A look at the president's most fiery feuds Shanahan orders new restrictions on sharing of military operations with Congress: report 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 CorkerJeff Daniels blasts 'cowardice' of Senate Republicans against Trump Corker: 'I just don't' see path to challenge Trump in 2020 Ex-GOP Sen. Corker: Trump primary would be 'good thing for our country' MORE (R-Tenn.), Kentucky’s Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump orders more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions What if 2020 election is disputed? Immigration bills move forward amid political upheaval 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 PelosiPelosi uses Trump to her advantage Fake Pelosi video sparks fears for campaigns Trump goes scorched earth against impeachment talk 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).

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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. LewandowskiMichael Caputo eyes congressional bid Clinton lawyer: Mueller's failure to draw conclusion on obstruction a 'massive dereliction' of duty Mueller's facts vs Trump's spin 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 KushnerNational commission needed to monitor and combat anti-Semitism Trump pushing for GOP donor's company to get border wall contract: report Trump family members will join state visit to UK 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 PriebusNadler subpoenas Hope Hicks and McGahn's former aide for testimony Mueller didn't want Comey memos released out of fear Trump, others would change stories Forget the spin: Five unrefuted Mueller Report revelations 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 TrumpEarthquake shakes parts of Tokyo before Trump arrival Trump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit Trump to meet with Prince Harry during UK visit 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 ObamaIt's Joe Biden's 2020 presidential nomination to lose Assange hit with 17 new charges, including Espionage Act violations Progressive commentator says Obama was delusional thinking he could work with Republicans 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.”