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Weekend Review: Flynn, taxes, sexual harassment
Recapping a busy weekend in American politics...
Flynn guilty plea: Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the 2016 election reached a new milestone on Friday, as Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to one felony count of lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak while he was a senior official on President Donald Trump's transition team.
In striking a plea deal with Mueller's team, Flynn announced an "agreement to cooperate with the Special Counsel's Office," a decision he said was "made in the best interests of my family of and our country."
Flynn admitted to lying about conversations with Kislyak about rolling back Obama Administration decisions, including sanctions on Russia, that he had during the transition. When Flynn was fired as President Trump's top national security aide in February after 24 days in the post, the White House said that Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other Administration officials about his Russian overtures; however, Mueller's prosecutors said on Friday that senior Trump transition officials consulted with Flynn before his conversations with Kislyak.
The court documents outlining Flynn's guilty plea refer to a "senior transition" official who discussed with Flynn how he would broach the topic of sanctions during his call with the Russian ambassador. Multiple news outlets have identified her as K.T. McFarland, who later became Deputy National Security Advisor at the beginning of the Trump Administration and is currently awaiting Senate confirmation as Ambassador to Singapore.
The documents also say Flynn was directed by a "very senior transition official" to contact Russian officials and other foreign governments after the election about a UN resolution on Israeli settlements. Multiple news outlets have identified that official as Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who now serves as a formal Senior Advisor to the President in the White House.
Flynn is now the fourth person ex-Trump aide to be charged in the Mueller investigation, following former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, his deputy Rick Gates, and former Trump foreign policy aide George Papadopoulos, and the second to plead guilty, after Papadopoulos. He is the closest member of Trump's inner circle to be charged, and his cooperation with Mueller's team (which reportedly came as a surprise to the White House) could have disastrous consequences for Kushner and other members of the Trump campaign and Administration.
President Trump raised eyebrows on Saturday when he tweeted, "I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI," although he has not previously indicated that he had been aware that his top national security aide had lied to agents. Trump's personal lawyer John Dowd claimed over the weekend that he crafted that tweet, not the President, although it was posted on the President's personal account. Dowd dismissed commentary that the tweet strengthened the case (reportedly being built by Mueller and by congressional investigations) that Trump obstructed justice in the firing of FBI director James Comey. According to Comey, Trump dismissed him after requesting an end to the FBI's investigation into Flynn, despite being apparently aware that Flynn had lied.
"The tweet did not admit obstruction," Dowd told Axios. "That is an ignorant and arrogant assertion." Dowd went even further, adding: the "President cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer under [the Constitution's Article II] and has every right to express his view of any case."
Dowd also told the Washington Post late Sunday that Trump did, in fact, know in January that Flynn had likely provided FBI agents with the same false account of his call with Kislyak that he had given to Vice President Pence.
In other tweets over the weekend, President Trump continued his criticism of the Russia investigation and media reporting on the issue. Trump again called the probe "the greatest Witch Hunt in U.S. political history" this morning, after going after the FBI on Sunday due to reports that Special Counsel Robert Mueller removed a top FBI agent over anti-Trump texts. The agency's "reputation is in Tatters," Trump tweeted, while also referring to a "double standard" in criticizing the decision in the Hillary Clinton email investigation. "No justice!" he said, directing his anger at his own Justice Department.
Trump also seized on "the False and Dishonest reporting" of ABC's Brian Ross, who was suspended this weekend after incorrectly reporting that Trump had directed Flynn to open contact with Russia as a candidate.
Tax reform: President Trump and congressional Republicans scored a key victory in the wee hours of Saturday morning as the U.S. Senate passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. tax code. The $1.5 trillion tax bill passed 51-49, with opposition from all 48 Democrats as well as Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN). After a flurry of new amendments and agreements, Corker was the only GOP holdout remaining.
The Senate tax plan would temporarily cut taxes for families and individuals; most prominently, it would sharply lower the corporate tax rate, from 35 percent to 20 percent, starting in 2019. The legislation also makes a number of other changes to the tax code, as well as enacting GOP priorities in other policy realms, such as repealing Obamacare's individual mandate and greenlighting drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska.
"The most recent review of the bill by the Joint Committee on Taxation, Congress’s nonpartisan tax analysts, found that only 44 percent of taxpayers would see their burden reduced by more than $500 in 2019 but that high earners would fare much better than the poor under the bill," the Washington Post reported.
The House also passed separate tax reform legislation in mid-November; the two bills must now be reconciled in a conference committee. As President Trump described the process in St. Charles last week, both pieces of legislation go "into this beautiful...pot, and we mix it up, and we stir it up and bring all the best things out." Congressional Republicans say the final product will be on the President's desk by Christmas; many differences between the Senate and House bills still have to be resolved, as detailed by the Wall Street Journal.
Sexual harassment allegations: A growing number of top politicians face accusations of sexual harassment... here's the latest:
Kihuen: A former campaign aide told BuzzFeed that Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-NV) "repeatedly harassed and made sexual advances toward her during his 2016 congressional campaign," sparking calls for the freshman lawmaker to resign after less than a year in office. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) released a statement on Saturday calling for Kihuen to resign, joined by a number of House Democrats including Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Ben Ray Luján (D-NM).
Kihuen responded to the allegation in a statement: "The staff member in question was a valued member of my team. I sincerely apologize for anything that I may have said or done that made her feel uncomfortable. I take this matter seriously as it is not indicative of who I am.”
Farenthold: After new questions have been raised about the office in light of recent allegations, Congress' Office of Compliance released details on Friday about six settlements paid with taxpayer dollars on workplace issues since 2013. Among those settlements was one sexual harassment case, an $84,000 settlement in a lawsuit against Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) by his former communications director. She accused Farenthold of making sexually-charged comments to her and creating a hostile workplace.
Farenthold refused to confirm or deny the details of the settlement.
Conyers: Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the longest-serving sitting member of the House, has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women. Pelosi, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), and other lawmakers have been vocal in urging his resignation; a decision is expected in the coming days, according to his attorney.
Moore: President Trump openly endorsed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore for the first time since the ex-judge was accused by several women of sexual harassing or assaulting them when they were teenagers. "Democrats['] refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts is why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama," Trump tweeted this morning. "We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A., Judges[,] 2nd Amendment and more. No to [Democratic nominee Doug] Jones, a Pelosi/Schumer Puppet!"
In a tweet minutes later, the President added that Jones "would hurt our great Republican Agenda of low taxes, tough on crime, strong on military and borders...& so much more." The unequivocal presidential endorsement of Moore came after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Sunday seemed to scale back his previous insistence that Moore should exit the race, saying on ABC's "This Week" that he was "going to let the people of Alabama make the call."
Two new polls released over the weekend show different results in the December 12 special election: a Washington Post survey found Jones leading by 3 percentage points, 50% to 47%, while a CBS News/YouGov poll recorded Moore displaying a 6-point lead, 49% to 43%.
Week Ahead: Shutdown deadline
"Funding for federal agencies is set to run out on Friday, but lawmakers don't really think there will be a shutdown — at least not yet. Still, a pile-up of contentious policy fights coupled with frequent distractions as Trump's frustration grows with the Russia investigation has many Republicans anxious about the next few weeks."
"House GOP leaders have proposed a two-week 'continuing resolution' to keep the government open until Dec. 22, arguing they need the funding extension to make progress in bipartisan talks to boost both defense and non-defense spending. They expect they’ll need a second two-week funding bill in late December to get past the holidays, though the odds of a shutdown would drastically increase during that time if a budget deal isn’t close."
"Right now, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is short of the GOP votes he needs to pass a CR, though top Republicans believe they will get there by week's end. But Senate Democrats, who can block any funding bill, could be key to keeping the government open."
"Both House and Senate Democrats are demanding that Trump, Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reach an agreement to protect hundreds of thousands of young undocumented people known as Dreamers who will lose work permits and deportation protections starting early next year unless an Obama-era program that gave them some security is revived in some form. So far, Trump and Republican leaders don’t want to tie a legislative fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to a budget deal. This deadlock raises the possibility of a potential shutdown, although the likelihood is low that it happens on Friday, according to multiple House and Senate sources."
"Billy Bush: Yes, Donald Trump, You Said That"
Trending this morning... An op-ed in today's New York Times by Billy Bush, the former "Access Hollywood" host who lost his job after the infamous tape of Trump on the show surfaced in the days before the 2016 election. In light of recent reports that Trump has shed doubt in multiple conversations (including one with a U.S. senator) on whether the voice on the tape was his, Bush writes: "He said it... Of course he said it."
Bush called Trump's reported comments on the tape "revisionist history," saying it "hit a raw nerve in me" and that he "can only imagine how it has reopened the wounds of the women who came forward with their stores about him." Bush also detailed two of the allegations by women against Trump, adding that he believed them.
The President's Schedule
President Trump travels to Salt Lake City, Utah today. During the visit, he will meet with Mormon leaders and speak at the Utah State Capitol. In his remarks, Trump is expected to announce plans to reduce the size of Utah's 1.3 million acre Bear Easts National Monument by 85 percent and cut the state's 1.9 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by 50%. The former was created by Barack Obama in 2016, the latter by Bill Clinton in 1996.
All times Eastern